Panel Discussion “Grown-Up Children from State Socialist Regimes”
Friday, September 25, 2015 – 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm
Conducted by Jacqueline Loss, with Anya von Bremzen, Ana M. Dopico, Elzbieta Matynia, Virag Molnar, José M. Prieto, Abel Sierra Madero
Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Auditorium (Room N101), Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 66 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10003.
Friday, September 25, 2015. Cultural critic Jacqueline Loss hosts a conversation with food writer Anya von Bremzen, cultural critic Ana María Dopico, sociologists Elzbieta Matynia and Virag Molnar, writer José Manuel Prieto, and historian Abel Sierra Madero. The panel “Grown-Up Children from State Socialist Regimes” is organized as part of the exhibition Pioneros: Building Cuba’s Socialist Childhood (Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries, Parsons School of Design/The New School, September 17 – October 1). For an hour and a half, the panelists talk about their childhood experiences and how they perceive their lives back in the days in which they were called on to build a “luminous,” communist future or, as in the case of Dopico’s exile experience, a communism-free one.
Loss asks 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 U.S. at ten, talks of the fundamental nostalgia that accompanies any reflection on the past childhood. This nostalgia, she explains, takes the form of ostalgia in the post-socialist world —that is, nostalgia for the Ost (east) and things and experiences associated with it.
Sierra Madero directs our attention to the overall politicization of childhood, to the state’s intervention in the private sphere—an intrusion he identifies as being captured in the phrase “Somos felices aqui” (we are happy here). Like this saying, there were many others in his native Cuba, he suggests, through which authorities manipulated the affective sphere as a means to instill in the youth patriotic and nationalist values, converting happiness into a moral obligation. Sierra Madero also talks of children marginalizing other children who practiced a religion. In particular, he tells the story of a schoolmate, a Jehovah Witness, who was bullied, with the teachers’ consent, for his religious belief. He says this was one of the first glimpses he had of the real, unfair nature of the state socialist society. Sierra Madero also talks of children participating in actos de repudio (repudiation acts) against people that solicited authorization to leave the country. He speaks of children learning to conceal their opinions if they differed from those officially promoted by the regime and of the state apparatus of indoctrination and double standards that ended up robbing children’s innocence, initiating them in a world of falsehood and hypocrisy.
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 Molnar mentions having watched German or Austrian channels due to the proximity of her Hungarian city to the western border. Children did not notice the real dimensions and impact of the socialist experiment, she also emphasizes. Her own childhood was “normal,” she says, as children’s notions of what is normal and what is not depend on their reality. Despite having grew up in a “new socialist town,” she explains, surrounded by mass, prefabricated housing projects, she felt it as normal, unaware as she was of other realities, architectures, and spaces. She never thought, she adds, on how uncommon the material environment in which she grew up actually was.
Prieto makes the observation that, as the result of the state socialist policies and permanent intervention in the private sphere, childhood was extended in state socialist societies well into adulthood. “Everybody is a child” in these societies, he affirms. He also refers to the contradiction between the emergence of a new generation of youth, educated under new values, and the capitalist behaviors of adults, inherited from the past, which he had many opportunities to experience in his native Cuba.
Dopico, who went to Miami with her parents at the age of three, talks of her infancy, characterized, she says, by a mix of feelings derived from her parents’ exile. On the one hand, she explains, she experienced a feeling of relief for having escaped Cuba and the “communist” regime. On the other hand, she developed a certain anxiety associated with her awareness of having been “saved” from “something.” This ambivalence was also a consequence of the fact that many of the behaviors and values she learned were molded in relation to Cuba’s scarcity. Growing up in Miami was, Dopico sums up, an experience that inversely mirrored the real and imagined experiences of growing up in “communist” Cuba.
Loss asks, then, whether or not, and how, the exhibit Pioneros affected panelists emotionally. To Sierra Madero, it did so by putting him face to face with long-forbidden rituals of the Cuban school system, like the way in which the date was written on the chalkboard (two lines in the top right corner, one with the actual date, and a second with the new names the state gave to each year), mandatorily reproduced in every classroom all over the country. Von Bremzen, on the contrary, does not immediately identify with the objects exhibited, which looked too Western to her. She does not find many commonalities between the material culture of her childhood in the Soviet Union and the objects exhibited in the show.
Molnar and Matynia, however, go on to discuss several correspondences. Matynia mentions the pioneer uniforms, similar all over the Soviet 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 for him the scarcity and poverty that characterized the state socialist material culture, from which not even objects associated with childhood escaped. For Molnar, the exhibition also shows the efforts of the state socialist regimes to portray and construct a socialist normalcy. For Dopico, it shows part of the “other” world from which her parents had tried to protect her. She remembers her childhood as one partially built as a mirroring image of that 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 did not have it and craved 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 an unspoiled-by-communism Cuban child should be.
Addressing panelists for the third time, Loss wonders how the panelists conceived of the world and the foreign realm as children, and notes the program of pen pals for children in Cuba to be in touch with children from other parts of the socialist bloc. She 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. Loss acknowledges that “foreign” might be, for some participants, not really the rest of the socialist world but the capitalist one, reframing her question as just an invitation to talk about what they knew about the rest of the world and about socialist solidarity in particular.
Prieto confesses that, in spite of 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 how as a young adult on route to the USSR he managed to overcome the terror that 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 as a way 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 the different countries of the Bloc were sent, not only as a reward for their achievements but also to be educated under the same set of behaviors and values.
Molnar 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, for instance, 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 support the USSR provided to Cuba at the expense, they liked to think, of their own wellbeing. Being told that things had to be exported to Cuba in exchange for sugar, she and her friends had wished to send the sugar back to Cuba in order to have enough wheat to make their own bread, and imagined themselves saying to Cubans “take back your sugar and return our wheat.”
Dopico defines her Miamian childhood as quite isolated. Her parents took care not to expose her to things associated with the Cuban regime, even though they were very fond of the 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.
Loss addresses, then, individual questions to panelists, asking Anya von Bremzen: As you may know, one of the most influential writers of his generation, Antonio José Ponte, published a book in 1997, toward the end of the Special Period in Cuba, called Comidas profundas. Here, the writer 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 talk about 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 changed your ideas about the foreign?
Von Bremzen sustains that having nostalgia for a regime that was basically negative is a very cynical feeling, yet also 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 learned to divide a single piece of chewing gum into several small parts that she then sold 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 the hand. They stand on a median in Havana, next to the Malecón.” Several paragraphs later, it becomes 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? In your announcement for today’s talk, you spoke about reciting poems, especially José Martí’s La edad de oro, in Little Havana. Was that a good enough compensation? How did that feel and how was that explained to you or not?
Dopico shows a photography book her parents had brought to her when she was taking ballet classes as a child. It was all about Alicia Alonso, the famous Cuban ballerina, well known by Cubans since the 1950s. Some pages had been cut out, and Dopico grew up intrigued by what could have been there, only to discover later 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 especially acute if you happened to lean, like Dopico’s mother did, to the left. Criticizing national politics was OK to her mother, yet identifying with Cuba’s position was an anathema, even if sometimes it could have been difficult to tell the difference, making her feel there was a schism between private and public life in the Miami of her childhood.
To Elzbieta Matynia: Taking into account 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 it and hardly affect the present day? What is the value in remembering for the transition?
Matynia expounds upon what a natural process it is for people not wanting to depart with things that are part of their lives, and how people are generally aware of the difficulties to re-learn how to use things. She discusses the emergence of nostalgia for the socialist past within the former Soviet Bloc countries, suggesting its inevitability and its at the same time contradictions and healing potential.
To Virag Molnar: Would you be able to extend your analyses 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 exist 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?
In continuation with Matynia’s comment, Molnar defines ostalgia as a coping strategy, a tactic that post-socialist citizens imagine 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 the contact with a human body or the pleasure of consumption. Back in 1996, in the story “Never Before Have You Seen Red” and in an essay you published around that year, you comment 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 twenty 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 in order to understand the present of Cuba?
Prieto says that the fact that his characters are guided by a search for pleasure actually originates in a sensorial hunger that developed during his infancy. At that time, he says, Western goods became something close to fetishes to him, recalling the awe he felt when he saw for the first time all the things available in a capitalist city.
To Abel Sierra Madero: In your work, you’ve reflected upon the gap between the Soviet past and the contemporary thinking about it. I believe that you are suggesting that one of the dangers in doing so is that we might be unable to recognize the ways in which some aspects of that 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?
No time was left for him to respond, as two members of the public also asked about the strategies through which nostalgia is managed in the present and the representation of class differences in socialism. Afterwards, mics were turned off and everybody enjoyed Cuban sandwiches, Russian chocolates, and Californian wine.