Panel Grown-up Children

Panel: “Grown-Up Children from State Socialist Regimes”

Moderator: Jacqueline Loss (Literary Critic)

Panelists: Anya von Bremzen (Food Writer), Ana María Dopico (Literary Critic), Elzbieta Matynia (Sociologist), Virag Molnar (Sociologist), José Manuel Prieto (Writer), Abel Sierra Madero (Historian)

Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Auditorium (Room N101), Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 66 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10003.

Event Summary:

Literary critic Jacqueline Loss moderated a thought-provoking conversation with a panel of professionals. The panel, titled “Grown-Up Children from State Socialist Regimes,” offered attendees a unique perspective on the experiences and memories of individuals who grew up in state socialist regimes or were influenced by their inherited memories.

Image courtesy of Yesenia Fernández Selier

Image courtesy of Yesenia Fernández Selier

Loss: What it was like to grow up in a state socialist regime, or, in the case of those who emigrated with their families quite young, their inherited memories?

Von Bremzen, who was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the US when she was ten, talks of the fundamental nostalgia that accompanies any reflection on one’s past childhood. She explains that this nostalgia takes the form of ostalgia in the post-socialist world— nostalgia for the Ost (east) and the things and experiences associated with it.

Sierra Madero refers to the overall politicization of childhood, to the state’s intervention in the private sphere—an intrusion he says is well represented in the slogan “Somos felices aqui” (we are happy here), which manipulated a child’s affects to instill patriotic values, turning happiness into a moral obligation. Sierra Madero also talks of children bullying others with religious beliefs, mentioning a schoolmate who was a Jehovah Witness and was bullied for his religious practice with the teachers’ consent. He says that this was one of the first glimpses he had of the unfair nature of state socialist society.

Sierra Madero also talks of children participating in actos de repudio (repudiation acts) against people who asked for a permit to leave the country; of children concealing opinions that were differed from the official narrative promoted by the regime; and of how the state apparatus of indoctrination robbed children’s innocence, initiating them in a world of falsehood and double standards.

Matynia recalls the moment when she realized that her parents were listening to a forbidden Western radio station in her native Poland. They told her not mention it at school or anywhere else, fearing the consequences, and Molnár mentions having watched German or Austrian channels due to the proximity of her Hungarian city to the western border. The children did not notice the real dimensions and impact of the socialist experiment. Her own childhood was “normal,” she says, children’s notions of what is normal and what is not dependent on their reality. Despite having grown up in a “new socialist town,” she explains, surrounded by mass prefabricated housing projects, that she felt it as normal, unaware of other realities, architectural styles, and spaces. She never thought, she adds, about how uncommon the material environment in which she grew up was.

Prieto notes that, because of state socialist policies and the government’s permanent intervention in the private sphere, in state socialist societies, childhood has extended well into adulthood. “Everybody is a child” in these societies, he says. He also refers to the contradiction between the youth, educated under new values, and their parents, who identify with the capitalist behaviors of the past, as he experienced in his native Cuba.

Dopico, whose parents took her to Miami at the age of three, talks of her infancy, which she describes as being characterized by a mix of feelings due to her parents’ exile condition. On the one hand, she explains that she experienced a feeling of relief for escaping Cuba and the “communist” regime. On the other hand, she developed anxiety associated with her awareness of having been “saved” from “something,” which she could not completely understand. She associates her ambivalent feelings with many of the behaviors and values she learned to have been shaped under the influence of Cuba’s scarcity. Growing up in Miami was, Dopico says, an experience that inversely mirrored the real and imagined experience of growing up in “communist” Cuba.

Loss asks about the emotional impact of the exhibition.

To Sierra Madero, it did so by putting him face-to-face with long-forgotten rituals of the Cuban school system, such as the way in which the date was written on the blackboard (two lines in the top right corner, one for the date, and the other for the name the government gave to the year), a format reproduced in each classroom in the country.

Von Bremzen, on the contrary, does not directly identify with the objects exhibited, which had a Western appearance to her. She did not find many commonalities between the material culture of her childhood in the Soviet Union and the objects exhibited in the show.

Molnár and Matynia discuss some similarities. Matynia mentions the school uniforms, which looked the same all over the Bloc, adding that, even though there was a similar pattern in the way childhood was constructed by state socialist regimes, there were also differences among the Soviet Bloc countries.

Prieto notes how the exhibition highlighted the scarcity and poverty that characterized the state socialist material culture, of which even the objects associated with childhood were a testament.

For Molnár, the exhibition also shows the efforts of state socialist regimes to portray and construct a socialist normalcy.

For Dopico, it shows part of the “other” world from which her parents tried to protect her. She remembers her childhood as partially built as a mirroring image of her cousins, who lived in Cuba. She recalls being always compared with her cousins in Cuba, being told anytime she did not want to eat or wear something, that her cousins in Cuba could not have it and were craving for it. These comparisons, Dopico says, made her feel morally obliged to eat/use/enjoy the things her parents gave her and to attempt to be “perfect,” as any Cuban child unspoiled by communism should be.

Loss asks how panelists conceived of the world and the foreign realm as children. She mentions that in Cuba children were encouraged to become pen pals with children from other countries of the Bloc and asks if any of them “happened to have had pen pals, and how that—along with other forms of informal and formal education—may have shaped the prism through which they viewed or currently view what was/is foreign.” Noting that for some panelists “foreign” might mean not really the rest of the socialist world but the capitalist one, Loss invites the panelists to talk about “what they knew about the rest of the world and about socialist solidarity in particular.”

Prieto says that, despite his parents’ middle-class status, he grew up with a feeling of “fear” of the West, being “afraid” of the allure of Western things, and that, as a young adult, when he travelled to the USSR, he had to overcome that terror, which overwhelmed him on a stopover in a Western European city.

Matynia reflects on the efforts and resources that state socialist regimes put into place to standardize childhood all over the Soviet Bloc, to represent the unity of goals and interests of the socialist community of nations. As an example, she mentions Crimea, an elitist vacationing hub where the most exemplary children from different countries of the Bloc were awarded vacations. According to her, this was a form of not only reward for their academic achievements but also education, which instilled in them the same set of behaviors and values.

Molnár adds that variations and differences determined by the geography and culture of the countries of the Bloc also affected the daily lives of children. She mentions that Hungarians knew of their privileged access to two passports: a red one to travel to the countries of the Bloc, and a “regular,” more expensive one, to travel to the West.

Von Bremzen mentions Cuba’s exoticism, also recalling that her circle of friends grew tired of the USSR providing economic assistance to Cuba at the expense of the USSR’s wellbeing. As they believed that scarce goods were exported to Cuba in exchange for sugar, she and her friends wished to send the sugar back to Cuba to have enough wheat to make their own bread. They imagined themselves saying to Cubans “take back your sugar and return our wheat.”

Dopico defines her Miamian childhood as being isolated. Her parents took care not to expose her to things associated with the Cuban regime, even though they were very fond of Cuban culture in general, which they transmitted to her. She says that she grew up knowing that it would be a betrayal to her parents and the Cuban American community to be interested in things associated with the Cuban regime.

In the last part of the panel, Loss asks the participants individual questions.

To Anya von Bremzen: As you may know, one of the most influential writers of this generation, Antonio José Ponte, published a book in 1997 toward the end of the Special Period in Cuba, called Comidas profundas. On it, Ponte reflects upon personal memories and literary references to food in a moment of general scarcity and hunger. You have used the term ‘poisoned madeleine’ in your work to convey the idiosyncrasies of food in a state socialist regime. Could you discuss this term and how growing up in a socialist regime evokes a particular form of nostalgia? Can you also refer to how your initial contact with the American presentation of food has changed your ideas about the foreign?

For Von Bremzen, having nostalgia for a regime that was basically negative is a cynical feeling, yet something you cannot avoid all the time. She talks of penuries and the tactics she and her friends developed to escape them, describing how she became a black marketer at a very young age, when she split a piece of chewing gum into several small parts to sell at school.

To Ana Dopico: I have read and reread a recent stunning piece you wrote entitled “Cuban Pictures and Political Love,” where you reflect upon “a toddler, dressed in an Asturian costume, holding a doll in an identical dress, and a slender young woman who holds her tightly by hand. They stand on a median in Havana, next to the Malecón.” Several paragraphs later become clear that the young girl was you. You make very evident that your family remained connected to Cuba through personal correspondence and news—so, as a child or adolescent, did you ever feel as if you missed out? Today, you talked about reciting poems, especially José Martí’s La edad de oro, in Little Havana. Was it good enough compensation? How did that feel, and how was it explained to you?

Dopico shows a photo book her parents gave her when she was taking ballet classes. It was about Alicia Alonso, a famous Cuban ballerina. Some pages had been ripped out, and Dopico grew up wanting to know what could have been there, only to eventually discover that they contained pictures of Alonso with Fidel Castro. This “distillation” of the Cuban culture effected by the exile experience, she says, made Cuban–American children grow up under the feeling that they were part of a “stolen generation,” that something had been stolen from them. This was particularly strong if individuals happened to lean toward the left, like Dopico’s mother. Criticizing US national politics was OK to her mother, yet identifying with Cuba’s position was an anathema, even if it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference, and that made her feel a schism of sorts between private and public life in the Miami of her childhood.

To Elzbieta Matynia: Considering your work on post-communist transitions to democracy, to what extent does the memorialization of the material and cultural aspects of the socialist past have any bearing on the actual transition and life in post-communist societies? Do you feel that these recollections rapidly fade into the past with the last generation who lived there and hardly affected the present day? What is the value of remembering?

Matynia explains that people do not want to depart from things that have been part of their lives, and are generally aware of how difficult it is to learn how to use things. She discusses the emergence of nostalgia for the socialist past within former Soviet Bloc countries, suggesting its inevitability as well as its contradictions and healing potential.

To Virag Molnár: Would you be able to extend your analysis on the relationship between architecture and state politics in postwar Central Europe and how architecture was mobilized within socialist modernization to the world of industrial design and domestic space? In Cuba, there are many prejudices regarding Soviet products, while it is also acknowledged that, while they may have looked aesthetically drab back then, they endured the test of time. From your experience and/or research, how was industrial design and domestic space also part of that mobilization toward modernization?

Following Matynia’s comment, Molnar defined ostalgia as a coping strategy, a tactic of post-socialist citizens to ease the troubles of present life.

To José M. Prieto: Your fiction is deeply immersed in the intersections of distinct notions and contact with pleasure—from the sensuality of a word and its intertextuality to contact with a human body or the pleasure of consumption. In 1996, in the story “Nunca antes habías visto el rojo” and in an essay you published around that year, you commented on what frivolity meant for the Soviets and how the Soviet empire in fact collapsed in your eyes out of people’s longing for the frivolity of the West. Almost 20 years later, how do you approach the representation of frivolity within this exhibition and in what ways do you see it as an important category to continue reflecting upon to understand the present of Cuba?

Prieto states that the fact that his characters are guided by a search for pleasure originates in a sensorial hunger that developed during his infancy. At that time, he says, Western goods became something close to fetishes, recalling the awe he felt when he saw for the first time all the things that were available in Cuba’s capitalist city.

To Abel Sierra Madero: In your work, you have reflected upon the gap between the Soviet past and contemporary thinking about it. To my understanding, you suggest that one of the dangers in doing so is that we might be unable to recognize the ways in which some aspects of the past are indeed part and parcel of some of the most repressive mechanisms of control in the Cuban society of the present. Could you talk to us about the tensions between memorialization and critique?

There was no time left for him to respond. Two members of the public asked about the strategies through which nostalgia is managed in the present and the representation of class differences in socialism.

Then, the mics were turned off, and everybody enjoyed Cuban sandwiches, Russian chocolates, and Californian wine.