Everyday Life in Eastern Europe


Vending Machine

Explaining the causes of an event as large, complicated, and significant as the revolutions of 1989 and the end of Communist single-party rule and the Cold War is no small task. Historians generally point to three sets of causes: 1) President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program and the expensive intensification of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union; 2) the demand for genuinely democratic government institutions and citizen rights among Eastern Europeans; and 3) strong, widespread popular dissatisfaction with everyday life in the east bloc. When reading the documents in this module, ask yourself if everyday life can be a cause of massive political change and, if so, how?

The Nature of Everyday Life in Communist Eastern Europe

Everyday life is made up of daily and weekly routines and experiences. In all societies the availability, affordability, and quality of life-sustaining material goods (i.e., food, water, housing, and clean air) are important determinants of everyday life and the values ensuing from it. In well-off societies, less-necessary consumer items (for example: entertainment events, weekend getaways, televisions and other electronics, and fashionable clothes) are also parts of everyday life. In poorer societies, these consumer goods can be rare to non-existent, thereby leading them at times to be perceived as exotic or adventurous and much desired breaks from the everyday. Before the 20th century, everyday life often included work routines for adults and young people alike; since the end of the First World War, the routines of school increasingly filled the everyday lives of children and teenagers.

For ordinary people living in Communist Eastern Europe during the Cold War era, a great part of everyday life consisted of searching and waiting for basic material goods, including food. Stories of people—especially working women with families—standing hours per day in long lines to purchase meat and potatoes abound, as do tales about chronic shortages of personal hygiene and health items, including toilet paper, feminine products, and medicine. Children and teenagers often saw little of their parents, who were away from home each day for long stretches of time as they worked and shopped for basic necessities.

The youngsters spent their days in school, where they routinely were given lessons punctuated with Marxist-Leninist ideology and praise of the Soviet Union. They sometimes returned home to retired grandparents and sometimes to no one. The wealthier ones could turn on radio or television broadcasts. Most programming was official and state-censored, and reinforced Communist-party views, although occasionally a western, capitalist broadcast with forbidden and often attractive images and music could be received.

The food-shopping lines alone made everyday life very challenging for most Eastern Europeans, but they were not the only difficulty routinely experienced. Few people could afford the limited numbers of available cars, so most eastern Europeans traveled to and from school and day-jobs on crowded public transportation. A common sight to which they awoke each morning and retired each evening was a small apartment in a massive prefabricated, high-rise apartment complex, where sometimes more than one family shared two or three small rooms. Many, but not all, had reliable plumbing and electricity.

For many members of the older generation, who recalled hard times before and during World War II, this housing, despite its limits, was evidence of Communist progress and benevolence. Coal was the main source of heating in the winter and of power for industrial plants, a fact that resulted in extreme air pollution blanketing Eastern Europeans through their everyday lives and water pollution so toxic that drinking from the kitchen tap could be deadly.

Opportunities to break from the challenges of everyday life in eastern Europe did exist, although they were not abundant and were generally under the control of the ruling Communist Party. Communist leaders knew well that their populations desired improved everyday lives and opportunities to enjoy breaks from routines through access to the consumer goods and entertainment commonly available to western Europeans and Americans. They established special stores, restaurants, vacations, and medical facilities. By and large, though, only party members—who made up a minority of the population—had access to these exotic places, just like by and large only their children had access to university educations and the perks they brought.

Non-party members (that is, the majority of the population) could in some instances shop at the special stores, purveying much-prized French cognac, Marlboro cigarettes, Levis jeans, and electronics, thereby making escape from the routines of everyday life sometimes possible for non-elites. However, non-party members had to pay using very expensive western or special currencies, and few could afford to routinely do so. Often times, Eastern Europeans—especially married men with families—worked two or three jobs, in order to gain the income necessary for coveted consumer items.

Sometimes, chances for escape from the everyday life of ordinary people functioned to promote obedience to the Communist Party. Sometimes, they promoted resentment towards party elites and underscored a hypocritical discrepancy between Marxist-Leninist rhetoric about the end of class differences and the actual privileges of a "new class" of party apparatchiks (professional party functionaries). This resentment grew stronger during the 1970s and 80s, when Communist leaders increasingly tried to use promises of consumer goods as a way of purchasing legitimacy—consumer goods that they could not deliver to hardworking men and women and their families due to the nature of Communist command economies.

The Communist Command Economy

In a command economy, the state decides what goods will be produced, in what quantity and by what deadline; it decides which factories will produce specific goods, prices of finished goods, and wages earned for production. Stated differently, this is a dirigiste, or state-controlled, economy that is the opposite of a free-market economy run according to laissez-faire, or "hands-off" principles. Sometimes it is also called a planned economy due to state-created and directed plans for production. In Eastern European countries, following the Soviet model, a succession of five-year plans dictated production priorities from the top down.

It is arguable whether command economies can be successful, although in the context of Cold War Eastern Europe they gravely failed. Most five-year plans emphasized heavy-industrial production at the expense of consumer goods. Limited available resources were dedicated to the manufacture of tractors, trucks, and tanks, while everyday-life consumer goods like household furnishings and appliances, clothing and shoes, hygiene products, and personal automobiles were low priorities. So few consumer goods were produced that often the economies of Eastern Europe are called shortage economies.

Those consumer goods produced were generally of a very low quality. Further, some, especially clothing and shoes, were unappealing to consumers due to the nature of Communist "socialist-realist" aesthetics, which aimed to create a mass of Communist men and women uniform in appearance and values, rather than individuals who marked their uniqueness through fashion, lifestyle, and other opportunities for freedom of expression. Of course, party members could escape this homogenizing aesthetic due to their privileged access to special stores, a fact that alienated many ordinary eastern Europeans from their governments.

The Documents in this Module

What follows are documents chosen to illustrate the nature the everyday life in Cold War Eastern Europe on the eve of the 1989 revolutions. All of the documents come from Czechoslovakia, and they are a mix of government-approved reports and civil-society commentaries. While the situation in Czechoslovakia was not identical to all east bloc countries, the experiences of everyday life share enough similarities to justify the focus on one country. Further, through a single-country focus, there is more promise for the development of in-depth, multifaceted picture of everyday life in Eastern Europe. Anyone interested in learning about other individual countries is invited to examine works listed in the bibliography.

All documents also come from 1988 and the first ten months of 1989. During period, Czechoslovak and other Eastern European Communist leaders were grappling with the meaning of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) for their local situations. These policies not only led Communist leaders to examine more critically everyday life in their countries; they also encouraged and increasingly allowed ordinary men and women to openly express their views on Communist management. These changes contributed to expectations for substantive improvement in everyday life, especially concerning better opportunities to access and afford consumer goods and non-dirigiste entertainment.

In addition to illustrating the nature of everyday life in Eastern Europe, the following documents are also useful for understanding ways in which ordinary people and the government understood the power of everyday life. Its power—both as a site of control and a site of resistance—needs to be considered for a strong understanding of the role that everyday life played in the making of the history of 1989.

Cathleen Giustino
Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama