Living Legends Products Create Market for Communist Nostalgia in Eastern Europe

Fifteen years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall, people in the former Eastern Bloc countries are still embracing products and goods first created in the communist era. Ever heard of the Junak, Poland's own Harley Davidson? Or how about Cockta Cola? You may soon if the wave of Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the East, continues to get trendier.

By and Marion Kraske


An actor portraying former Yugoslav dicatator Josip Brow Tito greets visitors on the country's latest tourist attraction, the Blue Train, part of a wave of nostalgia for communist times.
AP

An actor portraying former Yugoslav dicatator Josip Brow Tito greets visitors on the country's latest tourist attraction, the Blue Train, part of a wave of nostalgia for communist times.

After a forced absence of nearly 25 years, former Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito's famous Blue Train recently went back in service. The freshly renovated passenger train is once again making its way on the rails between Belgrade and the resort town of Vrnjacka Banja, about 200 kilometers south of the Serbian capital.

The lavish train car, with its stately ambience, once transported Yugoslavia's former leader and party chief across 600,000 kilometers of European rail track. On board train, he received distinguished guests from Libya's Moammar Ghadhafi to Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

Today, 72-year-old Sima Babic is riding Old Blue -- she's one of many willing to pay a premium to relive a piece of Yugoslavia's glory days. "I wanted to remember the good old days," she says. In some parts of the former Eastern Bloc, people would rather look ahead than back, but the former Yugoslavia has been marred by so many bloody wars during the past 15 years that it's easy to see what attracts people to the Blue Train. "We used to have it so good," she adds.

Babic is far from alone in her time travels. All across Eastern Europe, a wave of nostalgia for old products and TV shows from the communist times is rolling in. Drinks, candy, clothing, laundry detergents and even sitcoms or dramas from the days of socialism have re-emerged and are striking a chord with consumers.

Take Hungary, for example. There, trendsetters are eschewing Adidas or Puma shoes for Tisza tennis shoes. The shoe-maker once produced models that were sold across the entire Eastern Bloc. Now they've been redesigned and re-introduced to the market. Demand is high, especially among hipsters.

In Poland, Ludwik brand laundry detergent, a main brand under communism, again fills grocery store shelves. But there's also demand for other legacy items from the era of Socialism, says Ana Kowalska, owner of the Warsaw shop Third Hand, which specializes in vintage products. Kowalska says customers are particularly fond of the Tiger vacuum cleaner.

Polish Harleys and Slovenian Coke

Fellow countryman Dariusz Rudnicki, in turn, says he is pleased with the steady growth of his Junak motorcycles: "Our sales are increasing by 20 percent each year," he says, beaming with pride.

The socialists first developed the clunky motorcycle during the 1950s and people quickly adopted it as a homegrown version of a Harley-Davidson. Today, only a few thousand are produced each year, but the legend continues. "Most of the people who buy a Junak heard from their grandfathers when they were young that they're great machines," says Rudnicki, who bought the trademark a few years back. These days the motorcycle is produced in the Far East by the Korean company Hyosung.

When he created Cockta cola, Slovenia's Emerik Zelinka's sole job was to outdo Coca-Cola.

When he created Cockta cola, Slovenia's Emerik Zelinka's sole job was to outdo Coca-Cola.

Eastern colas are also celebrating a resurgence in popularity. Back when he first created his cola in 1952, Slovenia's Emerik Zelinka wouldn't have dreamed that his creations would survive Socialism and make a comeback in popularity years later in a capitalist world. Back then, he tirelessly mixed ingredients for Yugoslav beverage maker Slovenijavino -- varying them, mixing them, testing them and discarding the combinations that didn't work. He was specially hired by his boss, who had become addicted to Coca-Cola during a trip to Italy. As the drink of choice of the capitalist Americans, the Eastern Bloc's public enemy No. 1, that just wouldn't do. He hired Zelinka to produce a drink similar to the American pop. Those being Cold War times, the only condition was that he had to outdo the Americans.

In the end, he found just the right mix using 11 different herbs, caramel, orange aroma with a dash of rose hip and lemon. Thus, the sweet, brown brew was born and became the party drink of an entire generation of people in the multiethnic country. The old Yugoslavia disappeared long ago -- Slovenia is even a part of the European Union now -- but you can still find Cockta. The only thing that's changed is the price -- what used to be available for eight dinars (a few cents) now costs about €1.25.

Slovenian marketing expert Rosana Turk says she sees something that unites all generations in the wave of Ostalgie for cola drinks in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. "The older people drink it because it reminds them of their youth," she says. "And young people just want to be hip." But it has been the younger population -- those who either don't remember Tito or were born after his death in 1989 -- who have helped fuel the resurgence of the retro product's popularity.

Must-see TV

Films and television shows from the communist era are also trendy again. In the Czech Republic, the streets empty out during the evening when "The Woman Behind the Sales Counter" is broadcast. The show stars actress Jirina Svorcova as a saleswoman with a heart of gold and Socialist disposition. Her work and services in the name of the communist cause in the Czech Republic and Slovakia even landed her a seat in the Prague politburo in the 1970s.

In Poland, the 1960s series "Four Tank Drivers and a Dog," has re-aired six times since 2001. Millions of nostalgic Poles continue to watch as the Polish infantrymen battle alongside the Red Army in their T-27 tank "Rudy," and make their way towards Berlin. The handsome Jan is in charge. He's in love with the Russian medic Marusia, his dog Szarik barks at Germans and, at the end of the series, the four heroes hang the Polish flag on the Brandenburg Gate.

When asked why, 15 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, people in these transition countries are still fond of socialist symbols, Polish sociologist Pavel Spievak offers a simple answer: "They're looking back to the straightforwardness of life back then." Apparently, history has also been kind to some former hardliners: Most Polish believe, for example, that Former Communist Party General-Secretary Edward Gierek did more than anybody else for the country after World War II, including the Pope or Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. And one in five Czechs now say they long for communist times again.

But Spievak isn't losing any sleep over these numbers, which he believes are an expression of protest over the social uncertainty that has come with the fall of communism. He notes that in the Czech Republic, even the successor to the country's Communist party wouldn't dare to tap into such sentiment for the sake of political gain. The calculus is simple: The majority of Eastern Europeans -- be they in the Baltic states, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Slovenia -- continue to indicate in poll after poll that they believe their lives have improved markedly since 1989.

"Nobody really wants the old system back," Spievak says.

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