Book Review: Café Europa: Life after Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic

An emigree’s social critique

When Mao Tse-Tung was asked what the consequences of the French Revolution had been, he replied that it was too early to tell. Mao may have been right; the consequences of historical regimes are hard to anticipate, even if you have lived through them, and difficult to measure even long after change has occurred. Nevertheless, this is the task the writer Slavenka Drakulic sets for herself in Café Europa: Life after Communism.

Through her vivid and amusing social critique, the Croatian gives a good overview of why countries in transition continue to have problems coming to terms with democracy and the economic ideals of the market. In the collection of short essays, Drakulic undertakes a task of a precise and detailed look into certain aspects of post-communist Eastern European societies, in order to draw a portrait of the whole.

The notion of a ‘collective society,’ for example, that developed during communism, meant that citizens of countries like Croatia were part of a larger collective sense of public responsibility rather than the sense of individual responsibility. This ideal of collective responsibility can still be perceived today, years after the fall of communism and the democratic revolutions have had their effect.

It can be seen in every feature of Eastern European societies: from the poor social health-care system (think of bad teeth), to the crumbling buildings or public toilets that are a mess because no one in particular is responsible for them.

Restructuring the societies of Eastern Europe between two such fundamentally opposite systems of governance, life, and economy, will take time in nations where not only regimes and economies, but also attitudes need to be restructured.

This is, for example why people in Croatia are still reluctant to invest. As Drakulic explains, the communist regime under Tito always gave them enough to live on in a kind of eternal present, and their future, while uncertain, was not their concern. Communism meant the end of history, because everyone had enough to live on at the time, but not enough to invest in the future. The future became unknown and unable to be known.

Café Europa was written in 1996, and many things have changed since; some of the Eastern European Countries have already joined the EU, and many of them are in the mature stages of the transition process. However, the book is still a worthy read, because it helps to explain why the East is still so different from the West. In her droll way, Drakulic illustrates how a different past still divides Eastern and Western Europe, how communism still has an influence on people’s thinking. It also helps explain why, in spite of political proclamations, East Europeans are “going to be second-class citizens for a long time to come.”

Although the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Drakulic claims that an invisible wall was still dividing Europe in 1996. Easterners still had an idealized picture of the rich West, and Westerners still perceived Eastern Europe as a suburb of the EU, whose internal struggles and wars for a long time did not evoke the need for their action.

“The European countries had trouble regarding the Balkans as a part of Europe,” Drakulic wrote. “At the beginning of the (Balkan) war, for a long time the European states behaved as if it was a problem of semantics.”

Today, East and West are still divided, and the previous ‘collective mentality’ can still be sensed in problems like corruption on all levels of Croatian society. Nevertheless, things have changed, and with globalization Western goods and values are overflowing Eastern European countries. However, it will still take a long time to completely overcome the challenges of “life after communism.”

It is still too early to say how deeply embedded the collective mentality is, and how long it will take to indoctrinate Eastern societies into Western capitalist values. It is still too early to say how long we Eastern Europeans will live a “life after communism,” rather than a life planted firmly in the market economics of the West.


Café Europa: A Life after Communism

Abacus (1996)

ISBN-10: 0349107297

ISBN-13: 978-0349107295


Slavenka Drakulic is currently writing on a follow-up, which will investigate what has changed in the sites of Café Europa in the last decade.  

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