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.
Cars were some of those goods that were difficult to obtain and difficult to maintain, even when you had the money – so we never had one. We did not exactly need one either, because public transport was in those times sufficient. It was not market driven and thus was not dependent on population density.
However cars were still useful and partly they became a status symbol so many people in our little town never understood why my parents did not get one. One of my mother’s colleagues was visiting us one day and she snooped around in our garden shed looking for the car she was convinced we have stashed and hidden away there. She just did not understand that my parents did not use their positions to enrich themselves and get the much coveted goods of the time.
What was fairly typical of the cars was their distribution in any given land. Someone interested in cars could probably travel in hibernation between the various lands of the eastern bloc and then recognize which country they arrived at by looking out of the window at the nearest parking lot.
In Czechoslovak Socialist Republic the far most predominant cars were Skodas, at the time of my life mainly Skoda 120 and towards the end of the regime occasional Skoda Favorit. There were zero cars from the western part of Europe and a very limited amount of cars from other countries in the Soviet power sphere. Father of one of my classmates had a very coveted Lada VAZ-2101 “Žiguli” which was admired for its sturdiness and strength as well as for being essentially very rare piece. He only could afford it – and get his hands on it – because he was middle ranking military officer of the border patrol.
The parking spaces in CZ were mostly empty and usually there was some mix of different cars despite the prevalence of Skodas. I was not used to seeing many cars all at once, or a parking space really full.
So when I was visiting East Germany for a summer camp at about eleven or twelve years age, I had an entirely new experience at that time, one that was very strong to an impressionable little child.
Rows and rows of cars stretching for hundreds of meters on each side of the street. Parking lots so cramped it was difficult to squeeze between the cars. Different colors, but all the cars were essentially identical, leading to strange uniformity. All were Trabants.
Trabants were known in CZ, and they were much derided. They were the cheapo cars for those who could not afford a “proper” car. Having a Trabant was seen as a sign of under achievement, barely better than having no car at all. There were – and still are – many derogative terms for the car, like “angry vacuum cleaner”, or “bakeliťák”.
This added a discordant note to the experience. Seeing that eastern Germans had apparently more cars than we gave me a sense of awe, seeing that the cars are of lower quality gave me a sense of superiority. However the strongest of all the memories is the sense of a complete lack of choice and of a mind-numbing uniformity wherever you go. It was my first experience of an outward demonstration of the fact that we are actually expected to blend into crowds. And that everything in the system – all the overt legal and covert economic pressures – is designed to quash individuality and make us into a uniform mass.
I did not form this opinion so clearly at that time of course, but this was the start of that realization.