A densely nostalgic photographic record of the everyday on the fringes of a Central European country at the threshold of its new European Union future.
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My family and I escaped from Czechoslovakia, a “socialist republic” still under a totalitarian Communist regime, in the summer of 1989. I was twelve at the time.
We spent our first year in “the Free West” unsettled, in transition, in immigrant internment camps in the neighbouring Austria—first in the legendary Fluchtlingslater Traiskirchen refugee camp (now the “Bundesbetreuungsstelle für Asylwerber“), not too unlike the family of “the dentist from Bratislava heading for a career in America” that figured in the cast of characters in the 600-plus page his novel Konec velkých prázdnin (End of the Summer Holidays, published first in German in 1990, Czech edition by Paseka, 1996) by the Czech and Austrian dramatist, novelist, poet, screenplay writer and translator Pavel Kohout, that the author, with his screenwriter wife, Jelena Mašínová, adapted into a popular television series, directed by Miloslav Luther, and then in tiny villages in Upper Austria—while waiting breathlessly for one of the western countries accepting refugees to “accept us”.
During this time, on the colder side of the Iron Curtain, the “Revolutions of 1989” that led to the Fall of Communism in Europe started to unfold: the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was advancing towards a peaceful dissolution into a Slovak and a Czech republic; the leviathan Union of Soviet Socialist Republics gradually heaved towards disintegration as many of its republics declared independence; a wide spectrum of countries of the Central and Eastern European Soviet Bloc “East” were establishing trajectories towards new, westernized political identities; and, in southeastern Europe, historically the “powder keg of Europe”, the previously thriving Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, long a seething thorn in the foot of both the Soviet Bloc and the Western Allies for its role as an inconvenient beacon of the non-aligned movement and progressive “eastern” socialism, was in the process of disintegrating violently through a series of Yugoslav Civil Wars.
The West, sensing an opportunity to “send strong message” to the region, and the world—to clearly deliberate that the mythical Communist dragon had been slayed, the European “socialist East” historical experiment had failed, and the only remaining option was the only remaining option, that is, American-style capitalism—pounced upon this opportunity by officially “supporting democracy” and flooding the media with “western content”… and, unofficially, by letting the Yugoslav Civil Wars, especially the brutal, but visually stunning 😦 urban Siege of Sarajevo, fester, while meticulously televising the implosion in the manner of a strategic, theatrically elaborate public relations event seemingly designed to finish off any stubborn remaining positive ideal-typical symbols or utopia-ideas of the post-WWII European “East”—that is, to proverbially “throw out the baby (and the washbasin, the soap, the bath towels, and bathroom) with the bathwater” in a concerted effort to purge the region of any residues of collective and individual memory of any positive ideal-typical symbols or cultural constructs even remotely associated to the proverbial “baby in the bathwater”.
On a microcosmic level, my western media starved parents, fed on agricultural level Communist state propaganda, were eventually seduced by the glossy New World utopia myths of the immigration machinery of Canada, and settled on its emerald West Coast. There, insulated from the rest of the non-North-American world by the deep filters, strong biases, and ingrained insularity of the Anglophone mainstream media (still relying heavily on and valiantly showing its allegiance to cheap American cultural imports)—and with the Internet still in its non-public infancy—I was caught completely unaware of the Revolutions of 1989 and their aftereffects.
As such, I did not find out until much later that the country I was born and lived in, much like the school I went to and the street I grew up on (in Bratislava), and many of the places in the then-Slovak Socialist Republic that were part my childhood memories, had literally been erased from the map of the world—and that I, too, like many of my brothers and sisters, had become a “Slav without a country”.
Then, on a visit “back home” in the dying years of the 20th century, I learned of more dramatic changes—the potential ascension of the new Slovak Republic into the European Union—approaching: even though, as my eastern Slovak grandfather always asserted that “they were always, and still are, in Europe”, it seemed that the time to sweep away, throw out, and bury everything old and grey relating to the previous regime and to fully enter the new, more dynamic Europe had come.
I sensed that a certain “something historic” was approaching, so I vowed to return and be a part of it, and return I eventually did:
In the fall of 2002, shortly after graduating from university, I packed all my belongings and gear into a single backpack, bought a one-way flight ticket to Paris, and then a one-way night train ticket to Vienna, and made my way to Bratislava, the capital of the new Slovak Republic, to live and work, for a year, in the city I was born in and grew up in, and, in my off hours, travel through the country at its historical threshold—the eve of the Slovak referendum of 2003 on the entry into the European Union, which resulted in a collective “Yes” vote that paved the way to Slovakia joining the European Union on 1 May 2004—and visually document the supposedly anachronistic cultural constructs and ideal-typical symbols of its former Soviet Bloc identity, and the fundamental elements of its rich identity that I feared might soon be erased and relegated to the drawers of the filing cabinet of History.