“COMMUNISM IS the death of the soul. It is the organisation of total conformity - in short, of tyranny - and it is committed to making tyranny universal.” So said American politician Adlai E Stevenson. It is the Western view of Communism, but not necessarily the view of everyone who experienced life in a Communist country.
Croatian actress and writer Ines Wurth, who grew up in Communist Yugoslavia, has a much less black and white, and a far more nuanced view and experience of Communism than Stevenson. It’s a view she will present through humour and song in her one woman show I Miss Communism in the Town Hall studio this Monday and Tuesday at 8.30pm.
Ines was born in Zagreb, now the capital of the Republic of Croatia, but back then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The country was united under Communism and the rule of Marsal Josip Broz Tito, who was prime minister from 1945 to 1953 and President from 1953 until his death in 1980.
Around the time of the collapse of Communism in 1989, Ines left her native Croatia to live and work in Los Angeles, where she is based to this day. Ines initially revelled in the freedom she found in the nation that was Communism’s most implacable foe. As the years passed, she started to feel that perhaps the freedoms of the West were not as great as she had been led to believe, nor was the West as pure as it liked to think itself.
“I was living in the most capitalist country in the world and I realised it had a lot of problems,” Ines tells me during our Thursday morning interview. “The show’s theme is what freedom means, whether it’s living under a communist or capitalist government, or whether it’s personal freedom or spiritual freedom, and there are stories in the show about each of these views.”
One day in 2002, Ines was reflecting on this when she suddenly declared to her boyfriend, the actor/writer/director Mark Soper: “I miss Communism!”
“When I came up with the title and said it to my boyfriend he burst!” says Ines. “He was eating ice-cream and it came out through his nose. In America, Communism is such a huge taboo. It’s almost unacceptable, but when I perform the show there people are intrigued by the title and when they come to the show they love it.”
Despite his initial reaction, Soper helped Ines write I Miss Communism and since its debut in 2005, it has been praised by critics, adored by audiences throughout Europe and North America, received the Edinburgh Fringe Report Award in 2007, and a nomination for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award 2005.
I Miss Communism features Ines playing 15 different characters - including herself, her mother, and grandmother - and telling the story of a family, individuals, a people, and a society, and how it was affected, shaped, damaged, and moulded by communist rule.
“The show deals with personal experiences related to the family. It’s a universal show,” says Ines. “It is one hour and 15 minutes. It’s very complex and there are various angles to the theme of freedom. It moves fast and there are four dance numbers. There is heavy stuff but mostly it’s very lively and there is an ironic/sarcastic side.”
Life under Communism
The show seeks to give a humorous insight into life in a socialist republic, and to make audiences aware that there were some good things about Communism, things worth being nostalgic for.
For those who live in the West, the idea that anyone could be nostalgic for Communism is extremely puzzling. Think Communism, and we think of one party rule, secret police forces, persecution and suppression of political opponents, torture prisons, and grey buildings, in short, countries where the only colour was that seen on propaganda posters.
“I don’t think anything is black and white,” says Ines. “Everything has positives and negatives. There is truth in what you have said about communist rule but it was not as extreme as that. Living under Marsal Tito was the mildest form of Communism in the world at the time.”
Communism in Yugoslavia was different because it was not part of the Soviet Bloc. Tito was a hero in Yugoslavia for having led the resistance against the Nazis in WWII and for liberating his country - largely without help from the Soviet Union. This enabled Tito to demand greater freedom for Yugoslavia, while East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, etc, all became little other than satellite sates of the USSR.
Stalin greatly resented this and relations broke down between the two countries. For a time Yugoslavia feared a Russian attack, but in the end the estrangement was to Yugoslavia’s benefit.
Tito enjoyed a popularity no other Communist in Eastern Europe ever achieved. Yugoslavs had greater freedom to travel. Its trade links to the west gave it a relatively healthy economy (by Eastern Bloc standards ), all of which resulted in Yugoslavs enjoying the highest standard of living in any European communist state.
“If there was resistance to political authority - it was a police state after all - there would be trouble but it was also a country where there was no crime,” says Ines. “That was a huge advantage for a kid growing up. You could run around all over town. You had that freedom. Today people are so paranoid about children being harmed, violence, and criminal break-ins, whereas under Communism there was nothing like that. It was only those who opposed the political system who paid a big price. If you didn’t obey the government you could be imprisoned for life, but in terms of personal safety, Yugoslavia was a very safe country to live in.
“We only had two TV stations and one cartoon that was only on for five minutes a day. It was the only cartoon we had but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Too much TV ruins kids. They get more creative when they don’t have all those distractions.”
Yet in the early years of Communist Yugoslavia, there was terrible persecution, including the murder of many members of the Christian and Islamic clergy. Ines does not shy away from this darker side of life in Tito’s Yugoslavia as the suppression of religion directly affected her mother.
“For my mother is wasn’t pretty as she didn’t believe in Communism,” says Ines. “Because of that she was watched by the police and we had our phone tapped. There was no sense of any religion. You couldn’t go to church and couldn’t say anything against Tito. If you did you would end up in gaol. You had a fear of what you said and that was instilled into us. You just didn’t say anything against the government.”
Despite all, when Tito died in 1980 he remained a hugely popular figure. However there was no one similar in reputation or charisma to succeed him, and within 10 years the ethnic tensions Communism had kept at bay would boil over into the horrific war which ultimately destroyed the country in the 1990s.
Before the Balkan War, Communism collapsed throughout Eastern Europe from 1989. Ines’ recollection of that time explains why she could have written a show like I Miss Communism.
“When Communism fell we experienced excitement and fear,” she says. “Any change is fear. You can moan about things you live under but when there is a change in a different direction you ask ‘Will it be better or worse?’. We said ‘Thank God’ and ‘Oh God! What will happen next?’”
For tickets contact the Town Hall Theatre on 091 - 569777.