The lighter side of life behind the Iron Curtain: The Communists are hard at play

December 17 1960

The lighter side of life behind the Iron Curtain: The Communists are hard at play

December 17 1960

By Marika Robert

IT IS A COMMON DELUSION in the West to think of the people behind the Iron Curtain as overworked slaves. When I revisited my former home this fall, after twelve years, I thought I would find my friends tired and worn out, using their limited spare time for listening to the Voice of America and dreaming about the West. The last thing I expected was to meet people who, when given the choice between living here or under the Communists, preferred the latter because they couldn't stand the “workmindedness" of North Americans.

In the crowded Astoria nightclub on Budapest’s Kossuth Cajos street last September I met two couples who had escaped from Hungary during the uprising in 1956. After two years in Canada they returned home. They call the day of their return the happiest in their life.

“We just couldn't get used to it.” said one of the wives. “It was so drab: just work and work and work. Everyone was always working. We had good jobs and we made nice money but after all, you know, life isn’t only work.”

During the two weeks I spent in Czechoslovakia and Hungary I became convinced that even though work is being put on a pedestal there, it has few worshippers. A Communist is not supposed to work for money; he works for the glory of it. As far as I can judge by the people I met it is not customary to take the chance of getting an ulcer or a nervous breakdown just for glory. Since good work does not mean material advantages, and no one can be fired for doing a bad job, the people behind the Iron Curtain work less and play more than they do in North America.

Twelve years ago, when I left, the trend in Budapest and Prague was to close down the places of entertainment and replace them with halls where members of trade unions or other organizations could meet to discuss the ideology of the Party and possibly have some organized recreation. These meetings haven’t yet been abolished — but neither have the nightclubs. Every totalitarian regime likes to see its citizens organized in different groups. It makes them attend meetings where they can be indoctrinated with propaganda and where they can feel important and believe — usually falsely — that they have the right to make decisions. It may be that the young people who have been organized into groups from their earliest age find this game enjoyable, but the older ones usually consider it an unnecessary bore.

Moreover, meetings aren't as frequent as they used to be and since Central European people have little interest in do-it-yourself enterprises they have plenty of time left for going out. So there are more nightclubs, restaurants and cafes in Prague and Budapest than there have ever been before and they are all packed.

How do people get the money for it? The answer is that entertainment is cheap while everything else is expensive. No one is trying to save money, partly because there isn’t enough of it to make it worth while and partly because in most Central Europeans the desire to own things has died out; they have seen how easy it is to lose them. Whatever they earn they spend. There are countless opportunities to do so.

Dancing and eating out are not expensive, although by the time you leave the local you will usually have spent twice as much as the amount on your bill. There is someone in every corner waiting to be tipped. At the time of my departure the Communists were working hard to convince everyone concerned that a “self-confident worker” does not accept a tip. But the let’s-wipe-out-tipping movement proved to be an absolute failure. On the first day in Budapest after washing my hands in a ladies’ room I found I had no Hungarian money on me.

“I’ll bring it to you in a minute,” I said to the woman in charge.

“You better hurry,” grumbled the self-confident worker, “I have to leave at two o’clock.”

I really believe that there is no place in the world where one has to tip as much as in Hungary. The minute you enter a public place someone will strip you of your coat. If it's very cold inside you may buy your coat back from him. To get into any house after dark (including the one where you live) you must tip the janitor. You must then give a second tip to his son or father or whoever operates the elevator. If you insist, you may operate it yourself but you still must tip.

Sitting around the café and espressos used to be considered a bourgeois habit. It isn't any more. Today just about everyone sits in cafés, goes to five o'clock teas and dines in garden restaurants with gypsy music. You can go to the once-exclusive places that were frequented by the upper classes only; you will still find the impoverished upper classes but you will also find old women from the country in their many-skirted peasant dresses with scarves on their heads gossiping over an espresso or a Peach Melba. To appreciate this change you have to understand that not so long ago peasants in Hungary simply didn’t eat Peach Melba in elegant places. They w'ere born on a farm, and they worked on that farm from dawn to dusk; they slept on top of the stove or on the floor, eighteen in a room, and died on the same farm without ever seeing a town, or a movie, or the inside of a car, or often even electric light.

Today they don’t even have to come to the city to have some entertainment. There are “culture halls” in every village where dances are held and where actors and musicians from Budapest entertain the village folk. It is organized fun but whether the peasants appreciate it or not (and many don’t) it is certainly more than they had before. Since most of them wouldn’t know how to behave at a concert or a five o’clock tea, compulsory etiquette classes are held for them.

Most people behind the Iron Curtain are very poor. They have no cars, no motorboats, no cottages and no recreation rooms with hi-fi sets where they can entertain their friends. Since they haven't enough money to throw a party and their homes are small and usually badly furnished, entertainment is done in public places where everyone pays his own bill. Chivalry has not quite died out: Hungarian men still kiss the hands of the girls and write poems to them, but they no longer insist on paying for their coffee and cake. This is one of the big changes in the life of women behind the Curtain; the other change is having to work. And this in turn has opened new vistas for flirting which, I was told, is still the favorite pastime of most people regardless of age, marital status and ideological convictions.

The Puritan trend of communism isn’t really felt. Divorces are easy and frequent. If both parties wish it they can regain their freedom in six months.

It has never been a problem for members of opposite sexes to meet either in Prague or Budapest. It still isn’t. There are dozens of cafés and espressos in the afternoon and evening dancing. It is perfectly all right for a girl to go there alone or with another girl, order a coffee or a lemonade and dance with the boys, who will usually ask her the minute she sits down at a table. Even though the orchestras play American hits almost exclusively, rock ’n' roll is not in fashion. There is the odd cha-cha and mambo. which very few people can dance; most of the dancers make tango or fox-trot steps no matter what the music plays.

But the favorite pastime of people behind the Iron Curtain is the theatre. Everyone loves the theatre and everyone goes to the theatre. This is not a Communist achievement but it is greatly encouraged by the present régime. Nearly every organization, every plant, every school has its own amateur theatre guild. While in Budapest I read about the successful performance of a play by Molière produced, directed and played by the inmates of a mental hospital. No matter how small a town may be it will have at least one professional theatre. The capitals have dozens of them and they are fully booked every night. There’s more Shakespeare and Molière being done in Budapest than there is in London or Paris. I saw a performance of Antony and Cleopatra in Hungarian. It lasted for nearly five hours because the Hungarians don't cut any of Shakespeare's lines. There was not one dull moment in it: it was superb.

There is no getting away from it: whether they want it or not, people behind the Iron Curtain are constantly being imbued with culture. Half the audience at Antony and Cleopatra were laborers and peasants. Some of them were probably forced to come. They might have preferred to go to a ball game or have a beer with their friends. But since they had to buy the tickets (a certain number of theatre tickets are distributed for a bargain rate at working places) they came; and once they came it is possible that they enjoyed themselves and if they enjoyed themselves they may come again. It is one way of educating people and one way is better than none. It seems to work: When I left the theatre I saw little groups of laborers standing on the sidewalk discussing particular scenes with great interest.

Besides classics, the Communist theatres play contemporary Russian and satellite plays, and works of Western playwrights in which they can find a useful message.

The message can be positive or negative. It can be a rebellious play like Death of a Salesman or Inherit the Wind (currently playing in both capitals) but it is just as good if it is a "decadent” play. Tennessee Williams, for instance, with his recurring message that everyone in America is a psychopath, seems to be one of the favorites of the Communists.

A number of theatres specialize in light satire. Primarily they ridicule the North Americans. I saw a play in Budapest about a Chicago heiress who refused to marry her fiancé because he kept falling asleep every time he saw her. Fortunately the mother of the heiress, a murder-story addict, managed to find a gangster for her daughter and for a while everyone seemed to be happy; then came tragedy. It turned out that the gangster was really a poet, which would have been bad enough, but to make it worse two other gangsters forced everybody on the stage at gunpoint to listen to his poems. It was really quite funny.

However, most of the digs at the West are cruder than that, especially in Czechoslovakia, which tries to outdo the anti-Americanism of Moscow.

While they have to ridicule the West the Hungarians are also allowed to laugh at themselves. To be sure, they are not allowed to criticize the régime, but they may make fun of the problems of everyday life — the shortage in certain goods, the existence of too much bureaucracy, or the unsuccessful labors of the government to wipe out "Sir” and "Madame” and the traditional Hungarian greeting. "I kiss your hand.”

The most common jokes revolve around theft. Everyone behind the Curtain steals. The butcher puts his finger on the scale when he weighs the meat; if you buy three metres of some material you are lucky if you get two and three quarters: the miners stuff their pockets with coal; nurses take home absorbent cotton, druggists alcohol; factory workers smuggle out from the plant everything from tools to half-made products. Theft is so common that the thieves aren’t tried any more in public courts. They are punished at their working place by losing their Christmas bonus or other privileges. On the stage, of course, all this is exaggerated and a worker will be shown presenting his wife with a locomotive for her birthday.

Actors are the most privileged citizens in a Communist country. They earn about twenty times as much money as the average citizen. For this, however, they have to work quite hard. Many theatres alternate two or three plays a week, possibly with the same actors. It is also customary for an actor to appear in more than one theatre the same night. There are no bad actors or not-so-good actors. Everyone who is allowed in the limelight is good even if he delivers only one sentence.

If they don’t go to the theatre or some other entertainment place, people read. They do it in cafés, public parks, swimming pools; occasionally at home. They read mostly novels. This I could fully appreciate after one look into the Communist newspapers—they are unreadable. Fortunately they are very slim, but then how much propaganda, hatred of the West and statistical figures can one give to people daily?

Both newspapers and magazines lack any controversy or individuality. Whether it concerns politics, literature, sports or movies, what the Westerners do is bad while everything behind the Iron Curtain is good. One Communist, it seems, is not allowed to criticize another. If a swimmer comes in sixth in an international competition, the papers will say: “The best performance was undoubtedly our So-and-so’s. His style was superb, his technique breathtaking. Had he been just a little bit faster he would have won the first prize.”

The strongest criticism I read was of a television show: "It was a wonderful, daring, delightful performance, which might have been even better if the camerawork hadn't been so fast and jumpy. But it was great, anyway, although it is hard to believe that one could shoot at a person from a distance of two metres and miss him. But this is irrelevant. It was well written, well directed. ...”

Contemporary literature isn't much better. Everything — even a fairytale — has to be soaked in propaganda. However, the people are so used to this that they say it no longer bothers them. The writers belong to the privileged classes, too. They don't earn as much as the actors but they are given wonderful castles with huge parks where they can live and work undisturbed. Poetry is very much encouraged. Poets don't work for insurance companies or hardware stores; they write poetry. It pays quite well and nearly everyone reads it.

Next to criticizing the régime the greatest sin behind the Iron Curtain, I think, is to read a murder story. Luckily no one can be tempted, since murder stories are non-existent. To make its citizens read classics, instead, the Hungarian state has employed a cunning scheme. Before the Communists took over, thrillers used to be published in uniform yellow covers. They were called yellow books and were read widely, especially by the non-intellectuals. The yellow books still exist and look from the outside exactly as before, but behind the familiar cover a well-known classic is hiding. The Communists appear to figure that since the name Balzac or Dickens doesn’t mean much to the average yellow-book fan he won’t be discouraged by it.

The biggest complaint of people in Communist countries is that they can't travel. Everyone feels badly about this, even the most enthusiastic Reds, including those who have never traveled before and probably never would have. It must be hard for a Communist to understand why he is not allowed to visit a Western country where everything is so bad if in his own home everything is as good as he is made to believe. But then Communists must have a distorted logic and this probably helps them to understand why they aren’t even allowed to travel freely in the satellite countries.

If a Czechoslovak wants to go to Hungary he has to have a very special reason for this, a reason at least as important as the death of a relative. For such an occasion he might get a passport. ( Passports are valid only for one trip and no citizen can have more than one passport a year.) He also has to have a letter of guarantee proving that someone across the border is willing to take care of his expenses. Fake letters can be obtained in Hungary for a slight charge. To cover the expenses people smuggle violin strings and sweatsuits, both of which are cheaper in Czechoslovakia. Until last year the hottest thing was imitation fur pile — it didn't exist in Hungary — but seeing the great interest in it the state decided to deal directly with the Czechoslovak factory, which is willing to supply it for a better price than the smugglers did.

If a Czechoslovak has no dying aunts and still wants to travel he can take a guided tour and visit any country behind the Curtain without having to go through the passport routine. But a fortnight in Romania costs 5,000 crowns, for which the average Czechoslovak would have to work three to four months. There are no more tours to Yugoslavia — the Dalmatian coast, which used to be the Communists’ favorite vacationland. is off limits. This works both ways. Referring to Hungary or Czechoslovakia, the Yugoslavs say "behind the Iron Curtain.” They are allowed to travel to the West if someone there pays for their expenses but "behind the Iron Curtain” they regard as prohibited territory.

But while border crossing is difficult, vacationing at home is easy. The vacation cult is one of the favorite hobbies of the Communist régime, which is immensely proud of the fact that it offers its workers facilities that used to be available only to the rich. The summer resorts are nationalized and the most luxurious hotels are operated by the trade unions and reserved for organized tours. Most of the vacationing is organized. Instead of getting in touch with a hotel of his choice the citizen of a Communist country gets in touch with the person who is in charge of vacation affairs at his working place. From this person he will get a slip that entitles him to two weeks’ vacation in a summer resort. He cannot choose the place but he can be sure that he will be assigned to a good hotel, get plenty of food and adequate service and pay very little for it. And he will get even more for his money than the rich people used to, as several of my friends can verify. For instance he will get constant organized entertainment. At seven in the morning a loudspeaker will wake him (there is one in every room), wish him good morning, supply him with a little music and a little propaganda and tell him about the joyful activities in which he is expected to participate. From then on, until ten at night, he will never be left alone.

Many factories, offices and organizations have their own hotels and lodges. There are no loudspeakers there. Since most of the summer resorts in Czechoslovakia and Hungary arc at the same time health resorts, a certain number of hotels are reserved for sick people who are assigned there by the National Health Service. The sick don’t have to pay at all. It is not always necessary to suffer from some ailment to get such a reservation. Like everything else in that part of the world, it depends on good connections.

Although it is less glamorous and more expensive, some people prefer to have a private vacation, especially married couples who, if the husband and wife work at different places, are unlikely to be assigned to the same hotel at the same time. Hotels that take in private customers are scarce but it is usually possible to rent a room from a family that lives in or close to a summer resort.

The staff that caters to the tourists is well trained and politeness is a party-prescribed must, but even so vacationing in Communist countries can be very annoying. The elimination of private enterprise reduces everyone to a small cog in the machine. The cogs do exactly as much as they have to, and do it the way they were taught. If anything extraordinary happens there is no one with either the will or the authority to do something about it. If your train is late (trains so often are, I found out), and you miss your connection, if they sell you a ticket on a flight that does not exist, if there is a mix-up in room reservations, you become a ping-pong ball in the hands of extremely polite shoulder-shruggers who will all assure you that this matter does not come under their jurisdiction.

Another nuisance is that though everything is carefully planned — and over-organized—there is often little co-ordination between the planning and the actual need. If the state decides that the number of buses on route A should be doubled then the number will be doubled regardless of the fact that no one wants to travel on route A, while on route B the people are standing on each other’s toes. Sometimes one almost gets the feeling that all this is done on purpose, to show the individual that his wishes and comfort are unimportant as long as it can be proved that the state has built twelve hotels and nine and a half swimming pools and the number of workers assigned for recreation has risen 26.3 percent in five years.

Whether they are on holiday or at home, most people behind the Iron Curtain look shabby. The state does not approve of this. Since Stalin’s death communism has encouraged elegance. Wherever you look you will see posters of fashion shows. In certain places, I was told, the theatre programs carry big advertisements persuading the men to wear narrower pants. "We want our women beautiful and well dressed,” is the new slogan in Hungary. A few of them are. My friend, for instance, to whom 1 had been sending my old clothes, was so elegant that I suggested that she should send her worn dresses to me.

A great part of the population is clothed, fed and supplied with all luxuries from television sets to nail polish by Western friends and relatives. There are special stores in every town (they are called Tuzex in Czechoslovakia and Ikka in Hungary) where Western and export products can be bought if someone in the West pays for them. In hard currency. It works like this; The Western relative pays a certain amount of money into a Tuzex agency in his own town. For this the Czechoslovak will receive a slip that entitles him to buy in a Tuzex store. Some prefer to sell their slips on the black market, which is unlawful but tolerated. Everything that means more dollars for the state is tolerated. Should a Czechoslovak citizen be found to have foreign currency he will be arrested immediately. Should he, however, manage to smuggle the dollars into one of the Tuzex stores no questions will be asked and he will be welcome to buy with them whatever he wants.

One cannot draw a comparison between the conditions behind the Iron Curtain and those in North America and credit or blame the Communists for the difference. There are not nearly as many cars or refrigerators there as here; but there never have been. On the other hand people there do go out more, they have more fun, more activities, more theatres and more and much nicer public swimming pools; but they always did have. It is true that some of them cannot have today all the refined forms of fun they used to, but it is just as true that many who did not have any fun before have lots of it today. Communism makes its people into liars, thieves and brainwashed automatons, but at the same time it does give to many advantages they did not have before. It does give them a certain kind of security and thus the time for play, it does give them culture, it does give them cheap recreation and, whatever form of amusement there may be, it is available to everyone.

"No régime,” said a friend of mine in Hungary, "can be so bad that it should not have a few good sides too; and no régime can be so good that it can afford to close its eyes before that.”