Behind the Iron Curtain part 14 – Greyness

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

Coincidentally my mother mentioned to me that she overheard some talk about people who emigrated from here before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and this year was the first time they visited since then. Allegedly they were speechless when they saw the town.

I find it totally believable, because independently from this I was just thinking about the same – how much the country has changed, visibly, for the better since then. Because if there is one overwhelming association that I have with the “good old times” as some people insist calling them, it is an overwhelming sense of dullness, and not because we mostly have black and white photographs and movies from that era.

Today people are used to simply go and buy things they need. Want to plant flowers in your front yard? Well, you can buy them! Want to paint house bright yellow? Well, buy the paint! That was not always the case. I have already mentioned the scarcity of even some basic goods. And those that were available, were often (not always) of questionable quality, because high quality goods were exported to the west so the regime can actually make some money to run itself.

So most buildings were grey on the outside, no matter whether public or private. Not that it was always intended to be grey – privately people did sometimes at least whitewash the walls, and public buildings occasionally had some not very bright pigmentation in the plaster. But no matter what one did, in a few years time it has turned grey-ish due to the ever-present air pollution and dust. So many people, and most of public projects, did not bother and the favourite finish for facades became so-called brizolit, cheap, durable, low-maintenance and, above all, dull and grey.

Private house owners did what they could at least with the gardens – sometimes. It took real dedication for years to build, for example, rock garden, like one of my aunts had. But even the flowers could not fight against dirt and their bright colours did not last for more than a few days at best. And getting new varieties or replacing dead plants required connections, because, you guessed it, you could not simply go and buy a rhododendron to plant whenever the fancy took you, even if you had the money.

So only houses of those really well-off, well connected, those unscrupulous and those extremely dedicated looked somewhat-fancy at least some of the time.

However as a child I did not know anything else, so I thought this is how it is supposed to be. This is normal. It was only much later, shortly after the Iron Curtain fell, when I had an opportunity to cross the border to Germany and visit the town where I now work. The contrast was incredible. Every garden neatly kept, mostly with at least some decorative shrubbery and a patch of flowers. Facades also well maintained, brightly painted, with whites white, greens green and reds red. Even the macadam streets looked cleaner and it is hard for a road to look clean.

The Iron curtain has really managed only to make the whole country look poor and rather mediocre at its best. The black and white photographs are sometimes actualy an improvement over the real thing.


  1. rq says

    This is what I remember most from visits in 1990 and 1993: concrete and grey. By 2000, colours were normalized, and now, the difference is like night and day.

  2. voyager says

    I wonder how older residents dealt with a loss of colour and a shift to dilapidation under the communists? Must have been depressing.
    When we were in Russia it was easy to identify Soviet era buildings. They were just as you described. Grey, basic and looking run down.

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