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Communist retro-chic: East-bloc icons win new status

Spurred by nostalgia and the sameness of globalization, Communist-era goods make a comeback in Eastern Europe.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2008

Flashback: Old advertising posters at Budapest's House of Terror Museum.

Colin Woodard

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Komarno, Slovakia

At the Art Café, an enclosed gazebolike structure in the middle of a central square here, the multigenerational clientele lounges around talking and reading the papers. It's a scene that could be anywhere on the European continent, apart from one detail.

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They're all drinking half-liter glasses of Kofola, a soft drink invented in the '60s to serve as Communist Czechoslovakia's substitute for Coke and Pepsi.

Nineteen years after the collapse of Communism, Kofola is in the midst of a renaissance. Far from being pushed aside by its Western competitors, it's outcompeting them. The not-so-sweet brown beverage is the top-selling soft drink in Slovakia, No. 2 in the Czech Republic.

"In the 1990s, Coke kicked in, in full force, but they never defeated Kofola," says Pavol Szalai, a 20-something magazine editor who prefers the old Communist brand. "It's very popular, especially in the countryside, because it's 'our' drink."

It's not an isolated phenomenon. In recent years, many of the countries of the old East bloc have discovered a newfound fondness for the brands, bands, and programs of the Communist period. Many homegrown products are challenging their Western rivals, a few decades later than the region's Communist apparatchiks hoped they would. Socialist-era rock bands and television shows have found a new fan base, while young professionals flock to restaurants and nightclubs modeled on the drab cafeterias and workers' hangouts of the '70s and early '80s.

"After 1989, the market opened and people wanted to try everything from the West," says Robert Parnica of the Open Society Archives, in Budapest. "Now people say, 'Why should I wear the uniforms of these multinational companies? Where are those things that were ours?' "

The phenomenon, which started in eastern Germany in the late 1990s and has since spread to Hungary, Poland, and the former Czechoslovakia, is often referred to by the German term Ostalgie, or "nostalgia for the East."

And while there are many East Europeans who pine for the economic security of the old system, scholars who study Ostalgie say it doesn't represent a desire to return to police states and one-party rule.

"It's a mixture of pop culture and social critique, a sort of language people use to express their disadvantages compared with the West," says Andreas Ludwig, director of the Documentation Center of Everyday Life in the German Democratic Republic in Eisenhüttenstadt, whose collection includes washing machines, baby carriages, and plastic living room sets from the former East Germany. "It's not about the past – it's very now."

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