Stories form countries which are no more

In 1989 Poland bordered three countries. Just a few years later none of them existed. During this memorable autumn Milan Kundera’s dream was being fulfilled: that the countries from our part of Europe return from the East, where they wrongly found themselves, to where they should be – if not in the West then at least in the Centre. Countries liberated from unwanted (?) relationships appeared on the map. We know how different these separations were, in what circumstances Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the GDR or the USSR became a history. Common sense suggested that it had to be so, for these countries had been wrongly structured but still…we spent quite a chunk of our lives with them and in them!
And today? Does the time elapsed help in a sober judgement or does it colour memories with nostalgia?

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      Jacek Purchla

      In 1989 Poland bordered three countries. Just a few years later, however, none of them existed. During this memorable autumn, Milan Kundera’s dream was fulfilled: that the countries from our part of Europe return from the East, where they had wrongly found themselves, to where they should be – if not in the West, then at least, in the Centre.

      Countries liberated from unwanted (?) relationships appeared on the map. Back then, Drago Jančar commented: “Exhausting talks are already going on, predatory spouses are already moving their property to a safe place, newspapers calculate on every page who contributed how much to the marriage, how much the parties gained, who will pay and how much to the other party before leaving.” We know how different these separations were, and in what circumstances Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the GDR, and the USSR became history. Common sense suggested that it had to be so, for these countries were wrongly structured from the start, Jančar argued, but still – and here the writer became somewhat hesitant – we spent quite a chunk of our lives with them and in them! Jančar went even further and confessed: “It’s a bit unpleasant when I think about the time I might find myself exclusively among my beloved Slovenes,” which must have sounded a bit provocative back then.

      And today? Does the time elapsed help us to have a sober judgement? Or does it colour our memories with nostalgia?

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      Worth a look

  • Stories form countries which are no more
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      Scale models and relays
      Ivan Čolović

      Ritual giving to Tito should be understood as only one part of the exchange of gifts between the nation and its leader, and the second, ritualised, part constitutes the offering of Tito to the nation. The latter, top‑down, part of the offering is at the beginning of the exchange, since it relates to the miraculous appearance of Tito and his historic role in the struggle which “gave” Tito to the nation of Yugoslavia.
      The receiving, carrying and handing over of batons can be described as a form of symbolic contact communication. It connected – although today we would say: “it formed a network of” – all those who had the opportunity to take a baton into their hand and pass it on, and also those who only came to see and greet the relay teams. In a similar way, also through symbolic touch, the baton linked all the towns, paths, mountains, rivers and horizons, through, along and over which, the relay teams ran, swam, sailed by boat and flew by plane. Care was taken to choose a route along which the batons “would visit” all the important points in the symbolic geography of the Tito regime

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      Heart and Yugoslavia
      Miljenko Jergović

      The story of the heart is the only authentic human history. All others are histories of civilisations, nations, tribes and their ideas: in them you won’t find real friends, family, forgotten faces from television screens, dead Czech tourists, the somewhat aged terns from the Makarska Riviera, and the people from Mostar whose speech sounds as if they were ridiculing the whole world.

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      A rung from St. Jacob’s ladder
      Drago Jančar

      Dictators everywhere in the world live their prolonged lives, with their charisma and human traits fascinating the crowds even after their death. When Fidel Castro passes away, he will certainly still be loved, even though Cuban prisons are full of political prisoners.
      Each spring, worshippers of Tito, in both Triglav and Vardar, make frenetic preparations for May 25th, the day of his birthday, which used to be celebrated with much pomp and stadium rituals. International journalists commenting on these events in the countries of the former Yugoslavia almost always add an obligatory point to their texts and programmes: the cult of Tito. And their interlocutors pay tribute in front of monuments of Tito, stroll on his streets and squares and show the cameras his statuettes and communist kitsch of all kind; they take pictures in front of his portraits with so much enthusiasm that they could be the subject of envy of other less ambitious adorers, like those who worship Antoni Padewski.

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      The Balkans’ battle with space
      Simona Škrabec

      The Balkans is an uncomfortable reality because what happened on that peninsula could happen in many other corners of Europe: we all know this, but we refuse to acknowledge it. This is why we feel reassured by repeating that the situation in the Balkans is so peculiar that it is incomprehensible to outsiders, because the Balkan people are sort of barbarians with ancestral reciprocal hatreds that explain their bloody wars. These arguments, however, are nothing but false.
      The essay was written for the publication containing materials from the 1st Forum of Central European Heritage issued by the International Cultural Centre (English version). More information at

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      A nation without people. The GDR in the history of Germany
      Stefan Wolle

      The people of the GDR did not have a name, and despite many attempts in the East and West, there has been no success in finding the right name for them, even with the perspective of time. And just like in the Austro‑Hungarian Empire, the problem was not only of a political nature.

      In 1949 the Russian zone of occupation was transformed into a state which no one, outside the Communist Bloc, wanted to recognise. Against all difficulties, this state lasted for 40 years and behind its wired border the almost idyllic living conditions for its citizens were created. It seemed that the world has forgotten about this small state which spread from Cape Arkona to the Fichtel Mountains. Then, the life of this country was brutally shaken by history. Wiped off the world map, it became a territory of unfulfilled social and political dreams. A utopia feeding on the past. A utopia, however, which has no power to strike back at the sad failure which it experienced in the real world.

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      The lost city of West Berlin. Landmarks of an intermediary city construct
      Detlef Kurth

      I was born in a lost city; a fragile city, a poor city, a half city, surrounded by a wall, but still open to fly away. A city without real citizenship, without any status, without real economy. A city occupied by three armies, in a hidden war with the troops in the other half of the city. Created as an artificial construct after a terrible war, which started in this capital, and vanished after a peaceful revolution: I was born in the city of West Berlin, and since 1990 I have been homeless.

      More than 20 years after this revolution, Berlin is the capital of a new re‑born Germany in the middle of a new Europe, but the wounds and rudiments of the lost city are still visible and sensitive. And although everybody knows that Soviet Union disappeared, and with it the German Democratic Republic (GDR), most people don’t realize, that in 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) also disappeared, as well as West Berlin, a special artifact in between. Something new has grown up which is still looking for its position in Europe.

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      An Ostalgic state of mind
      Monika Rydiger

      The heritage of the GDR was not erased from memory by German reunification. Nostalgia for the GDR is how the Ossis attempt to salvage their identity and their sense of self‑worth, but also a way of settling accounts and parting with the past. This wistful reminiscence of communism is not unique to the GDR; it is visible in all the former Eastern Bloc countries.
      This was undoubtedly the inspiration for the curators of the 2011 exhibition, Ostalgia, at New York’s New Museum, which comprised works by more than 50 artists, from both the former Eastern Bloc countries and other regions, but referencing that reality observed from a western perspective.

  • Stories from countries which are no more
  • Stories form countries which are no more
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      Utopian nautics of Nicolas Grospierre
      Szymon Piotr Kubiak

      Today the tanks decorating the housing estates of the Soviet Empire bring to mind a cemetery or dumping ground of civilisation rather than modern panoplies, symbols of victory, as they were intended. The resorts are deserted. The swimming pools are dry.

  • Interviev
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      The past is not a foreign country.
      Magda Vášáryová

      Magda Vášáryová talks to Agata
      Wąsowska-Pawlik and Łukasz Galusek

      When we analyse the case of Czechoslovakia, it turns out that in the long-term this model is probably not viable. I ask myself the question, what will now happen to us? Will European ideas prove equally weak in the future? Even if people have a better, more prosperous life, even if our modernising effort starts to produce results, will the average inhabitant of our part of the continent still vote for democracy?

  • European Capitals of Culture
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      Life after life? Ruhr, Katowice, Lille, Łódź
      Joanna Sanetra-Szeliga

      Some cities and regions boast castles, cathedrals and squares. However, in post‑industrial areas, mine shafts, steel mill smokestacks (chimneys), gas meters and slag heaps dominate. Traces of the industrial past can often be erased using a lot of resources and time. Perhaps you can try to re‑use them?
      In the case of Zollverein, the situation was difficult, and discussions about the future of the town between the Office for Historic Monuments (Denkmalbehörden), wishing to preserve the site and its buildings as a legacy for future generations, and Ruhrkohle AG, the owner, which planned to demolish the existing buildings and make use of the land for new investments, lasted several years. As a result, the Grundstücksfond Ruhr (Ruhr Property Fund), established by the state authorities, bought Shaft 12 (the symbol of Zollverein – described as the largest, most modern and most efficient coal mine shaft in the world in its day). The decision of the Minister of the State of North Rhine‑Westphalia for Urban Development, Christoph Zöpel, to include Zollverein on the Heritage List in 1986 marked the opening of a new chapter in the history of Essen and its surroundings.

  • Ideas in Practice
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      The Boros Bunker – a treasure trove of the present
      Katarzyna Jagodzińska

      The Berlin skyline is a medley of history and contemporaneity. Postmodernist architecture patches up wartime and post‑war wounds, whose scars are evident in the still bare swathes of land between the eastern and western parts of the city, the bullet holes in historic buildings, and the damaged outline of the Reichstag building, restored to grandeur with Norman Foster’s glass dome, the symbol of a new beginning.
      But it is not only such historic ruins and sites razed to the ground during the last century that are in need of a new beginning. Something similar is also urgently required by buildings that only entered the urban landscape during the war, as elements of its wartime infrastructure.

  • Reflections, Impressions, Opinions
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      Involuntary documentarians
      Wojciech Wilczyk

      Max Kirnberger
      Lublin 1940. Photographs of the Ghetto
      The concept of the album: Tomasz Pietrasiewicz
      “Grodzka Gate – Teatr NN” Centre, Lublin 2009

      Stefan Kiełsznia. Ulica Nowa 3. Street Photographs
      of the Jewish Quarter of Lublin in the 1930s
      Edited by: Ulrike Grossarth
      Spector Books, Leipzig 2011

      I heard about the release of Stefan Kiełsznia’s album, in which there are photographs of streets of the “Jewish Town” in Lublin taken before the war, accidentally from a photography blog. While looking for previews and reviews of this publication, I also came across information about an earlier book with photographs by Max Kirnberger, a soldier of the Wehrmacht, who took photographs in the same area as Kiełsznia in 1940. Both authors had previously been known to me: their photographs – of course to a lesser extent – had been reproduced or were available on the internet, and I was convinced that a book(s) devoted to their work would become a publishing sensation. Nothing of the sort happened, however…

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      The sacred and profane in the avant‑garde. On two exhibitions of Russian art in Rome and Berlin
      Szymon Piotr Kubiak

      Avanguardie russe. Malevič, Kandinskij,
      Chagall, Rodčenko, Tatlin e gli altri
      (Russian avant‑garde. Malevič, Kandinskij,
      Chagall, Rodčenko, Tatlin and others)
      5 April – 2 September 2012
      Museo dell’Ara Pacis, Rome

      Baumeister der Revolution. Sowjetische Kunst
      und Architektur 1915–1935
      (Building the Revolution. Soviet Art and
      Architecture 1915–1935)
      5 April – 9 July 2012
      Martin‑Gropius‑Bau, Berlin

      The viewer might be deeply affected by the sight of a room in the Narkomfin Communal House (designed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis) whose creators had put Le Corbusier’s theoretical postulates into practice nearly two decades before the renowned architect did so himself. Today, its furnishings seem to have come from the most horrible nightmares of every pre‑war purist, demonstrating how avant‑garde aesthetics have been squandered and showing the grinding poverty in the post‑communist country.

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      Ways of exercising the imagination
      Magdalena Bystrzak

      Vladimír Macura
      "Šťastný věk a jiné studie o socialistické kultuře"
      (The Age of Happiness and other studies
      on socialist culture)
      Academia, Prague 2008

      We have become accustomed to an ambiguous interpretation of communist times. On the one hand, we look back nostalgically and on the other hand we calculate the damage done by long‑term isolation on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. Without entering into a discussion about whether or not the two positions are mutually exclusive, we must state that both ways of remembering the past are characterised by a significant emotional charge and, consequently, a lack of rational distance from recent everyday life. So the question is: what do we gain by abandoning this typical (dual) perspective? What method can we choose to prevent us from descending into banality when describing well‑known matters? Vladimír Macura, as he himself notes in the introduction to his book, decides on a “semiotic essay” and in this way, at least, partially dispels the above doubts.

  • By Myself
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      A double take on Ivan Meštrović
      Maciej Czerwiński, Łukasz Galusek

      Chiselling a nation
      Maciej Czerwiński
      Yugoslavia has collapsed bloodily twice, with its first disintegration occurring in 1941 and the second one 50 years later. Today, when we try to take a realistic look at the multinational country of southern Slavs, we may form the hasty and inadequate impression that it was a relic of a multiethnic state society, or that it was created by some cynical politicians, thirsty for the blood of innocent victims. However, we couldn’t be more wrong: Yugoslavia, although intended as a modern state, was originated by romantic dreamers and idealists, convinced that their new country, as a common home, would be peacefully inhabited by Croats, Serbs and other southern Slavs.(...) Since the break‑up of Marshal Tito’s country of “brotherhood and unity” and the eventual demise of the ideology of the southern Slavic community, Meštrović’s legacy has aroused controversy. Some Croats charge him with the responsibility of putting their country in “the prison of nations” (this expression refers to Yugoslavia). The Serbs, in turn, perceive him to be an advocate of anti‑Serbian clerical nationalism. Both opinions are certainly unfair, but the desire to settle accounts with the past using simplistic methods, tends to be heartless, and callously demands indicating the culprit.