Now the whole series has finished, ending up in the former GDR (East Germany), I can’t help feeling what a wasted opportunity this project turned out to be.
It seemed to mainly consist of Pallin visiting wacky people, or those who were taking the opportunity of the ‘free market’ to rip off those daft enough, such as BBC license payers, to fall for their scams.
Think of just some of the people and places Pallin visited just in the last few episodes: a Russian woman in the Baltic states who ran a clinic in which she used leeches to cleanse the blood, an avant garde theater company in former Czechoslovakia where Pallin was invited to put on a grotesque mask and make an utter fool of himself, another clinic where he was rubbed with what looked like stones, then we see him lying in a plastic bag next to the Czech ‘Miss World’. Not to mention the flat in east Berlin where he joins Germans doing weird exercises and laughing like imbeciles. Most of the clinics he visited, and ‘treatments’ he sampled, must have been very expensive, and probably totally useless.
Oh, and he attended an aristocrats’ ball, with the said Miss World, in Prague. What a very sad postscript to Socialism in Eastern and Central Europe – the aristocratic filth cleared out by the Communists flaunting their outdated snobbery and moral decay in the heart of Europe. I found the spectacle absolutely disgusting, and Pallin was part of it all.
Think what he could have done with such a series: researched the effects of the overthrow of the imperfect, distorted Socialism (which ruled most of the Soviet Union for over 70 years, and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe for over 40 years) on the ordinary people of those countries.
Compared their hopes and dreams of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, to the reality 18 years on. Interviewed people in depth about these hopes and dreams, and whether they had come true.Â Instead we just got the odd comment thrown in, and not censored from the final cut – such as the Albanian who said Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime was preferable to the modern Albania if only because Hoxha kept the capital Tirana free of cars and traffic. In the former Soviet Union there was the guide who said many people hankered for the security and hopes of the old USSR. In the final program, in East Germany, a young man only 3 when the Wall fell so he could not remember the German Democratic Republic, told Pallin that his parents said ‘not everything about the GDR was bad’. Yet Pallin made no attempt to draw all this disquiet together and analyze it. Was Socialism really a total failure? Was it as tyrannical as some made out? Had there been no progress since the days of Joseph Stalin? And above all, had the return to capitalism and the free market fulfilled the dreams of those who soÂ rashly tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989?
Pallin allowed people to make broad, sweeping statements which were simply not true, and implied even more. For instance, in Poland someone he interviewed said they were now free to go to church and practise their religion. Religion was never persecuted in the People’s Republic of Poland. I crossed the country in 1966 in a train en route to the Soviet Union, and it was one of the most religious countries I’d ever visited. Nuns and priests filled the train, churches and religious symbols were everywhere I looked outside the train windows. Even many United Workers’ Party (Communist Party) members regularly went to church. Poland was always a deeply religious, Roman Catholic country right thru the Socialist era. In fact, it was the installation of the Polish Pope John Paul II, from Krakow, which inspired Solidarity and eventually led to the crumbling of the Soviet Union and its Socialist ‘satellite’ states in Eastern and Central Europe. If religion was suppressed in the Polish People’s Republic, as it undoubtedly was in Hoxha’s Albania, then how was a Polish Pope ever installed in the Vatican?
Pallin also gave the impression that the Iron Curtain remained intact thruout the Socialist era, with no way to the WestÂ apart from risky escape across walls, fences and minefields. In fact visits to the West were relatively easy from a number of Socialist states, including of course Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Even East Germans could visit the West once they reached pensionable age. Soviet citizens also went on organized visits to the West, and in London were taken to see the sights of the city like the Tower of London and, of course, Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery.
But what would have also been interesting would have beenÂ some in-depth investigation into what happened after the collapse of Socialism in these countries.Â Little mention was made of the pyramid share schemes in Albania and some other former Socialist countries. People were promised that under capitalism they could get rich quick, and lost their life savings in these criminal scams. Even when there weren’t such scams, people’s life savings quickly dwindled as the cost of living, no longer subsidized by Socialism, soared.
Rents and prices went sky-high, but wages remained compatible with the old subsidized Socialist economy. The whole of Eastern and Central Europe joined the under-developed world as aÂ pool of cheap labor to be exploited by Western multi-nationals. At the same time unemployment, completely unknown under Socialism, became widespread in many Eastern and Central European countries.
Pallin could have investigated how people coped with all this job insecurity, on the rise of fascist skinhead gangs inÂ eastern Germany as a result of all this poverty and instability, on the collapse of theÂ generous Socialist pension and holiday schemes. But Pallin investigated none of this. Nor did he inquire why so many of the former ruling elite (former Communist politicians and Socialist era bureaucrats, diplomats, etc.) were still in power in so many of these countries.Â Â
Those East Berliners who helped to tear down the Wall in 1989 dreamed of going to the West, of owning the flashy cars and consumer luxuries they saw daily advertised on West Berlin and West German TV. It would have been most illuminating to interview them, and the people of the Soviet Union and the rest of Eastern/Central Europe, and see how these dreams matched up to reality. Yes, they had more freedom – in theory. But without jobs or money, could they afford all these Western luxury goods? Could they afford to visit the West? And those that could afford to do so – was there not something seriously wrong when they had to find high paid jobs in Britain and Western Europe because the wages back in their supposedly ‘liberated’ homelands were so low?
It seems to me Pallin went on a self-indulgent jaunt thru the former Socialist countries, sampling the dubious delights of wacky quacks and eccentrics in their expensive clinics and avant garde studios, without bothering to find out if Socialism really was a total failure, and if the capitalist free market had really delivered all that the people of these countries hoped for.
I can give him the answer to the question he rarely bothered to ask: no, Socialism was NOTÂ a total failure. It was distorted by a corrupt ruling clique, many of which are still in power in those countries. In some, such as in Russia, criminal elements have taken over large sectors of the economy.
Which leads us to the final part of the question, and the answer is again no: the capitalist free enterprise system has not delivered all that was promised. Far from it. The people of these former Socialist countries have lost all the security the pre-1989 system offered them for life, such as full employment, guaranteed pensions, good health, education, public transport, etc. In exchange they can now travel to the West, if they can afford it. Many are forced to do so, in order to earn a living wage, and to send some of it back to people back home. Unless they do this, few can afford to buy the luxury Western goods they longed for.
They can now say and vote for who they like in many of these countries, but still the corrupt ruling elite of the old Socialist era clings on to power in many of these countries. They have wormed their way into most, if not all, of the so-called ‘democratic’ political parties which took over from the Communists.
Pallin never, of course, asked the very obvious question: he interviewed an environmentalist activist from the days of the GDR. Even this environmentalist had to admit that the old GDR had excellent laws on protecting the environment, but did not always enforce them. So this environmentalist got himself into trouble with the Stasi, the former East German secret police, in his campaigns to stop GDR rivers, lakes, etc. being polluted by illegal outflows from GDR factories. Pallin never even bothered to ask this activist, and others like him, why they didn’t join the Socialist Unity Party (Communist Party) of the GDR and work from the inside to try to insure the GDR’s environmental laws were enforced.
It seems to me that Pallin sought out the negative, anti-Socialist forces who were always out to destroy the whole Socialist system, and never sought out the progressive forces who were trying, from the inside, to improve it.