(originally written in 2013)
On an autumn morning in Macedonia, I hitched a ride with a man named Raiko.
I was standing at the side of a road waiting for the local bus. The road ran adjacent to the coast of Lake Orhid – a large freshwater lake (about 30 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide) – situated in the south-west of the country.
The the bus was late, so I stuck my thumb out. After a few cars had passed by, an old, beaten-up bomb appeared, slowed down and pulled over.
Did I really want to get into that?
I knew what the road was like.
A considerable section of it traversed a mountain range. In some places, the mountains receded into the hinterland, in others, they came up to the edge of the lake. The road was sealed but it was not wide. It was full of rises and dips and jack-knife bends.
The car that pulled over didn’t look like a safe bet. It was like a rectangular metal canister on wheels and one very much the worse for wear. The paint job, once red, was badly faded and it was now a sort of grey-pink. The wheels had no hub caps. At a glance, my guess was that this car hailed from the communist era and like the others I had seen, was well past its use-by date.
Nevertheless, the bus was late, very late, and I was sick of standing around. So I grabbed my rucksack and head in the direction of the car.
A thick-set, middle-aged man wearing gold, wire frame glasses and with receding grey hair got out and approached me. He was casually, but well dressed: dark brown trousers, open necked light blue shirt.
He had a pleasant, round face and he smiled when he talked, which I liked, which put me at my ease. One could see at a glance that this was a middle-class professional of some sort.
He introduced himself.
We shook hands.
He grasped the handle of the back door and began playing with it, clicking it back and forth delicately, almost as if he was ratcheting the dial on a safe; the door opened and he told me to put my rucksack on the back seat.
I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to put it.
On the back seat was a lap top, a pile of folders, each one crammed with papers, and a loose collection of books. The books were arrayed over the seat and also, on the floor. It was a mess. He told me to just dump my rucksack anywhere and I did.
He played with the door handle again, the door didn’t close properly whereupon he gave it a fair shove – and it seemed to click into place.
Then he started up the car. A plume of blue exhaust shot out behind us.
As we puttered up a steep and winding road, we made small talk.
For the previous week, I’d been staying at the Lubitjiana camping ground. It was like no other camping ground I had ever seen.
It was beautifully situated next to a soaring range of heavily wooded mountains and fronted on to a long bay lapped by the clear waters of the lake.
For many years, until 1990, the camping ground had been a part of the communist system. It had been maintained and administered by a small army of cleaners, cooks, waiters, musicians, gardeners, technicians and bureaucrats – all employed by the government. It was used every summer by thousands of people who arrived in buses and were billeted in small caravans.
Communism collapsed and the Lubitjiana camping ground was abandoned. It fell into disrepair; the trees and bushes grew wild, the lamps lining the roads and pathways no longer worked; most of the large ablution blocks were boarded up. Spread around the camping ground, between tall poplars, were the small, white caravans once used by the socialist holiday makers. Maybe there were a hundred of them, even more. They were in regimented rows and most of them were unused and in disrepair. A few of them, still in one piece, were rented out. It was one of these which I stayed in. It was very small.
Every morning and late in the afternoon, I went swimming in the lake. The water was clear, deep and warm. The trees on the heavily wooded slopes of the mountains were changing colour. The days were fine and warm but not too hot. On the weekend, a lot of people turned up in modern cars and tents; middle class visitors from the town of Orhid situated at the north end of the lake.
During the week, the place was silent, except for the sounds of wind and birds.
About 50 meters away from my caravan was a large single level, hexagonal building with glass sides and two large sheltered patios. Through the glass sides could be seen high stacks of chairs, tables, bench tops, ovens, stoves, old paintings and taped up cardboard boxes. Once, it had been the focal point of the camp; a place where the socialist holiday makers met, talked, danced, ate, drank and listened to live music groups. The parents didn’t have to worry about the kids because they were looked after and entertained by yet another small army of people employed specifically for that task.
From our westernised, individualistic perspective, it is hard to appreciate how someone might enjoy a holiday spent in the company of hundreds of other people and one which was so organised. It is also hard to understand how a family stayed in one of the caravans which for even for a single person seemed like a bit like a shoe-box.
I knew in broad outlines about how a socialist camping ground like this had functioned, but during my stay at Lubitjiana, I continually asked myself about the human side of it, how people had experienced their holiday. A very different cultural mentality must have been involved than in the case of modern package tourism with its emphasis on luxury and consumption. (see the blog ‘Frogs’ – https://serioustravelblog.com/2014/11/29/frogs/)
Every time I walked past the rows of little caravans, the closed up ablution blocks and, the abandoned dining area and hall, I felt the presence of ghosts from the past; heard the sounds of hundreds of people in a place which was now as quiet as a tomb and as lonely as a desert. The thought occurred to me more than once that I would have liked to have met someone who had been to this camping ground during the communist era and could share his or her reminiscences with me. Such a person, however, would have had to have had a good command of English as well as being middle-aged, an almost impossible combination in Macedonia where it was only the younger generations living in the big cities who spoke fluent English.
And the younger generations were of no use to me in that respect because they had never experienced the communist era.
Raiko was a lecturer in Mathematics at the university in Orhid.
His English was good. He and his wife had spent time in the U.S. I got used to his accent and after a while liked it. He spoke in a way which was direct, honest: as if he was bearing his heart.
In short, Raiko was the kind of person I had wanted to meet. He spoke English and had grown up during the communist era.
I really couldn’t believe my luck.
It was almost as if my wishes had caused him to materialise before me – albeit in a car which was a long way removed from anything I could wish on anyone, especially me.
For a while, we made small talk.
Raiko and his wife had two children, a son and a daughter.
His wife ran a restaurant in the main tourist mall near the old centre of Orhid. I knew that mall well. During my stay there I had avoided it like the plague because it was always crowded with throngs of tourists (mainly Serbians, Poles and Dutch). Raiko joked that I would have much preferred to have got a lift with her; she drove a Mercedes four-wheel drive.
‘Well’, I said…’now that you mention it…’
During our conversation, I told him about my staying at the Lubitjiana camping ground. Then I went on the offensive, so to speak: I asked him if he had ever stayed there during the communist era.
‘Lubijtiana?’ He answered, ‘no, I never went there….’
There was a short silence. My inquiry, it seemed, was not leading anywhere.
Then he started talking:
‘My family (mother, father, three children) went to communist holiday camps alright, every summer, but never in Macedonia. We usually went somewhere on the coast in Croatia. One time we went to a place in the mountains in Slovenia. When you live somewhere all the time, you like to go someplace else during your vacation. So we never went to Lubitjiana and, you know, the holiday makers who went there usually came from some other part of Yugoslavia …Serbs, Croats, Slovenians……although actually, in those days no one thought of themselves as Serbs, Croats or Slovenians or anything like that, no one paid much attention to religion either. It didn’t matter if you were Orthodox, Catholic or Moslem. We were all Yugoslavs. So when you went to a holiday camp you met people from all over the country, you made new friends; you wrote letters to them afterwards. We always looked forward to the holidays and going away, I have only good memories of those times. Everyone had a right to four weeks in a holiday camp every year, it didn’t matter what your job was or how much you earned…architects and doctors mixed with factory workers and their children mixed with each other too …’
I wanted to dwell on the subject of the communist camping grounds a bit longer, but Raiko was moving ahead, quickly, this whilst the Zastava crept around the corners of the mountain road at a snail’s pace, leaving billowing clouds of exhaust behind it.
‘Communism wasn’t as a bad as so many people in Western Europe think. The ordinary working people were much better off than they are today and they were much happier. They had free health care, education, child minding facilities and aged care homes. They worked 5 days a week. Today they are working harder and earning peanuts, that is if they happen to have a job and many people don’t. People in Western Europe talk about democracy and freedom, but they never talk about capitalism. Capitalism is a good system for the small minority of the rich and the well off – but it’s a disaster for the majority of ordinary people. ‘There’s a song on Macedonian radio called ‘We didn’t know what we had until it was gone’ and it’s very popular’.
‘I grew up in Orhid, in a very small flat along with my sisters and parents. We had to share a toilet and bathroom with another family…. incredible to think of such a place today ….there was no luxury then, not like today, but we didn’t know any other kind of life and in comparison with what we had before that, it was much better…We lived for different reasons. We didn’t have a TV until I was a teenager. We had no idea what was happening in the outside world. I knew I had to work hard to find a place for myself in society and I worked very hard. When I got home, I was surrounded by other people and not just from my family. We talked and our conversations were …how shall I say it? They were more ‘spiritual’ than today. We lived for each other. We didn’t talk about money and luxuries because there weren’t any. We went to church and I was raised as a Christian. There was a strong feeling of solidarity. Our lives had a structure. Today there is no structure. We have gone from one extreme to another. You can have too much so-called freedom in the same way you can have too much dictatorship. Freedom…. when it means that everyone can do as they like, when there’s no discipline, no order, no unity or belief….no respect….that’s extreme also and I don’t like it.’
He smiled and laughed.
‘Every system is based on propaganda. The way they talk today, it’s like there is no propaganda – as if everything, you hear and read today is the truth. Our system was full of propaganda. When I was a boy, Lenin was a hero but after 1990, he wasn’t a hero anymore. Today if I look at CNN or the BBC, all I see is a different kind of propaganda…but its still propaganda.’
The idea that there had been a good side to communism was hard for me to accept.
Long ago, I had concluded that western liberal democracy, with all its obvious shortcomings, was the best system in the world or perhaps better said it’s least oppressive. I’d passed through a youthful phase of being a Marxist and become disillusioned with it. Travels through former communist regimes (China, Indochina, and Eastern Europe) had only reinforced my views. I associated communism with tyranny and mass murder. In addition to this, I had read up a fair bit about the communist economic system in Eastern Europe. And the story there was blunt: it had collapsed because it defied every law of basic economics. Central planning had operated on the basis of Marx’s famous dictum: ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.’ The only problem with this utopian slogan was that human beings didn’t fit into the equation. They needed incentives, motivation, in order to work and produce. Self- interest was the motor of a successful economy. Of course, there could be a mix of government and capitalism, of central planning and the free market. But the communist regimes never tried it. Ideology dominated over common sense. The result was an economic disaster. A bureaucratised, collectivised, top down system could not produce enough and could never produce it well, be it manufactured goods or food.
Here is a passage I found in an official statement published in 1972 by the then communist government of Czechoslovakia. It concerns the reorganisation of the agricultural sector, which like collectivist agricultural systems everywhere in the communist world proved to be chronically mismanaged, ecologically destructive, and massively unproductive. This statement could have been issued by any communist government in the communist world:
‘The organisation framework has seen the introduction of new measures and regulations. Farm operations are carried out in common, under the direction of an administrative body accountable to the general assembly, composed of all the members of the collective farm. Groups of workers are organised into brigades for the performance of specialized tasks. The farm management includes a chairman, a director, a management council, brigade leaders and trained technicians specialized in various aspects of farm operation.
Inter-cooperative councils are charged with responsibility for improving collective farm management by initiating and coordinating cooperation on various levels among neighbouring farms for better use of their physical and human resources. Collective farms are subordinated to the National Union of Agricultural Production Cooperatives and also subject to the direction of the Ministry of Agriculture…..’
It is truly remarkable that no one seems to have understood that this kind of government-run system with its endless levels of bureaucracy and ‘consultative councils’ was a recipe for disaster. At the time when such destructive policies were being made, no one in the communist world seems to have understood that the only way to increase agricultural production was to allow independent producers with ownership rights to produce for a market place – a market place where consumers were free to choose what they bought. Probably some people did grasp that fact but were not in hurry to vent their opinions when this could result in them being imprisoned.
And agriculture was only one part of the disaster which was communism. As far as producing consumer products went, communist central planning was so hopeless it was almost laughable if it hadn’t have been so tragic. From shoes to washing machines, from cars to cameras, bad quality was the norm. Whatever product one bought, it soon had to be fixed afterwards. Mind you, there was one positive spin-off: poor quality consumer goods kept an entire class of backyard fixers and repairers in a job.
The one area where a communist command economy was conspicuously successful was in producing weapons. In the one size-fits-all department, communism booked its most impressive results.
I could go on about the failings of communism. It would serve as a testimony to the disillusionment of an apostate, someone who was once a sympathiser but had lost his belief.
Sitting in his beaten-up old car with Raiko however, I was careful to keep my views to myself.
There was more than politeness involved.
Despite my strong aversion to communism, I knew that history, indeed Life, could be complex. If age and knowledge had rendered me immune to the siren call of ideologies, then so too it had made me very much aware of how multi-facetted the world was. There was no such thing as an omnipresent ‘truth’. Above all, I knew that how people experienced their lives wasn’t dependent on how much they owned or consumed, how much they earned or how much they had. In other words, I had no reason to doubt what Raiko had told me about his experience of communism. And I also knew that western capitalism had its dark sides, such as inequality and rampant commercialism. No system was even close to perfect.
Besides all this, however, there was another reason I refrained from expressing any criticism of communism.
I was curious about Raiko
His nostalgia for the old system was something I’d encountered many times before whilst travelling in Eastern Europe. For millions of people, the collapse of communism was a disaster. It spelt a new era of declining living standards, gross inequality and corruption. Of course in any process of historical change, even one which benefited the great majority of people in the long term, there would always be losers. The losers in the case of the collapse of communism were mainly the lower classes, the people with a poor education and low skill levels who could not adapt to the new system.
What was striking in the case of Raiko, however, was that by any standards applicable, he was not working class or lower class. On the contrary, he and his wife were successful middle class. Yet here he was condemning the very system from which he and his wife and kids had done so well from.
It was a mystery.
I wanted to delve into this further.
We drove around hair pin bends in that beaten up old car and at times, I worried.
Then we hit a short, straight stretch in the road, where Raiko pulled over at a small shop.
It was when got out of the car and I took a closer look at it, that all my curiosity about this man named Raiko found a focal point:
What was he doing, a middle class man with a good job and a decent income, married to a successful business woman, driving around in this wreck – this absolute epitome of all the failings of communism?
Other blogs concerning travels in former communist nations:
Albania, ‘The Conversation’:
and Romania, ‘Walking Romania’: