In Slovakia, there is a platonic but toxic longing for the past
A recent study by the M.R. Štefánik Conservative Institute showed once again that nostalgia for the former regime is still present in Slovak society. Up to 43% of the population (aged 15 and older) think that life was better in Slovakia before 1989 than today.
The opposing perspective – that nowadays life is better – enjoyed the support of about a third of the public while the remaining quarter or so gave more ambivalent answers. These are worrying numbers; however, seventeen years ago, the Institute of Public Affairs asked a similar set of questions, and at that time, the percentage of Slovaks nostalgic for socialism was significantly higher: 61%.
Generally, fewer people are feeling nostalgic
Not surprisingly, the degree of nostalgia tends to increase among the older demographic. Currently, in the age group 65+, seven out of ten inhabitants of Slovakia recall having a better life three decades ago, but comparing this to the Institute of Public Affairs study from around the turn of the millennium it has gone down from 85%. In the case of older people, nostalgia is compounded by memories of optimism when “milk cost two crowns and everybody had a job” (more precisely: s/he was employed), but of course they were younger, healthier and had a full life ahead of them.
For the most part, pro-socialist sentiments are being maintained, which means that among those who were 35-44 years old in the 2001 study – and so were the last to have considerable experience with socialism as adults – the proportion of those nostalgic has not changed. In 2001, it was 63%; today we are in the 55-64 age group and the numbers are almost identical.
Naturally, for those who never had the experience, nostalgia is diminished if not vanishing. Nevertheless, while the younger generation obviously doesn’t have an over-abundance of the sentiment, they are not immune – 18% of those aged 18-24 think life was better before the transition to democracy. The question remains whether even this relatively small percentage of young Slovaks hold these views due to a generational transfer of positive narratives (“borrowed memories”) or if they are the beginning of a new generation of admirers of authoritarian socialism; though perhaps their attitudes are more a rejection of the current state of affairs which they do not view as advantageous, and from these feelings they see the potential of the previous regimes’ policies.
To be succinct: the retreating trend for socialist nostalgia is overall promising, but it is moving at a sluggish tempo.
What is the preference of life for socialism?
The Conservative Institute has further explored that it is above all myths and memorial idealisations about social security and greater solidarity in interpersonal relations which harms socialist resentment.
The first type of these instances is directly linked to a clear preference for a strong nurturing state, which is basically still present today. It also manifests through the increased incidence of left-wing attitudes in economic matters, even among those who claim to be right-wingers and who choose the parties that call themselves “right-wing”. This inclination of the Slovak public will last for a long time.
The second type is of a more general nature and concerns the “socialist livelihood” (a concept that anthropologist Juraj Buzalka works with) or the everyday life under socialism. It is a memory of the all-round interpersonal relationships, the feeling of solidarity, and the informal networks through which people were able to compensate for the weakness of the economy. In addition, this normalisation also offered people a sense of social self-confidence when they knew how to go about doing something, where to go or where to turn for help. After the regime change, many supporters of the socialist movement and method felt they were victims and losers of the transformation. Surely, many are right, but many also enjoy the feeling of urgency.
Is there a need to worry?
Socialist nostalgia has no direct political impact. It is rather a platonic emotion. Surely none of the approximately 40% of nostalgists would have chosen a party that would really want to return to the old system.
On the other hand, the political mobilization of this “socialist nostalgia” – the feeling of a “lost paradise” – is a straightforward political approach and is commonly used by populists. Ex-prime minister Robert Fico excelled in this art, and his most striking illustration was his 2012 electoral slogan: “People deserve certainty!”
There is a lot to unpack in those three words. It refers to the expectations of security, and also more importantly, it brings out a merited entitlement. More broadly, it generally is addressing “the people”, in other words, “decent people” and meaning – “people like you”.
Fixing a part of the public to a strong caretaker state has the political support of the voters who are their grateful “users”. (With nostalgia, the Smer-SD side is intensively working on the symbolic plane, as other annual meetings are taking place with MDIs using all standardization props.) But the populist mobilization of nostalgia for the past also includes the geopolitical flirtation with Putin’s Russia and the questioning of the western foreign policy direction; harassment of non-governmental organizations; questioning the right of citizens and civil society to speak in public affairs and others. The memories are fading, but the memory of the memory remains and graciously blossoms with a well-targeted, populist appeal.
It is no coincidence that a number of opinions, values and roots undermining liberal democracy occur in clusters and may pose a certain danger to openness, personal responsibility, the spirit of capitalism, cultural tolerance and the respect for human rights. That is why the demystification of socialism is important.
We should not rely only on the gradual departure of nostalgia. Shared collective memories can be sources of positive recollections, even for a time when the personal experiences of many do not support this sentiment. In other words, yes, we should be concerned because the deliberate nourishment and political abuse of nostalgia for the former regime – or even just some of its “attractive” elements – are common components used to promote populism across the ideological spectrum and globe, making this nostalgic resentment alarming and toxic.
Olga Gyarfasova is associate professor and director of the Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Comenius University in Bratislava.