Remembering Communism: Private and Public Recollections of Lived Experiences in Southeast Europe

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Records of the debates, discussions and consultation processes with workers which led to such decisions are largely absent in the archives. It is these discussions that provide a more nuanced impression of factory dynamics and account for different interest groups, perspectives and motivations. One way to mitigate the elite centred bias is to focus on the factory organizational units where actual production took place.

BOALs from within the same factory were at times in antagonistic relations as a consequence of their diverse interests relating to the production process. Indeed, mapping out the differing interests and claims between BOALS can help illuminate the divisions and competing concerns within one factory as well as how these relate to the wider community, indeed right up to the level of the state. In addition to the factory-related documents, alternative and complementary sources include local municipal party and trade union records. With large enterprises at the centre of economic and political life in communities such documents can inform upon the relation between the enterprise and broader community.

Similar to factory archives, such documentation can be unpredictable and incomplete.

Remembering Communism: Private and Public Recollections of Lived Experience in Southeast Europe

The patchy holdings of factory archives and local authorities can thus be further verified, contextualized and contrasted with oral history accounts, print media and factory periodicals. The reflexive nature of Yugoslav socialism was reflected in a fairly lively press and although certain themes and registers of reporting were discouraged or expressly forbidden, print media remains a fruitful site for historical research of the socialist era factory.

Press reports contain a wealth of empirical data including caustic editorials, human interest stories and reports on how the ordinary wo man viewed and were affected by various phenomena inside and beyond the factory perimeter. Yugoslav social sector workplaces published various documents to inform workers about their place of employment.

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Many of the workplace periodicals emerging in this period referred explicitly to the Law on Associated Labour, Article of which stated that basic organisations of associated labour BOALs were obliged to provide regular, timely, truthful content to workers in an accessible manner. While one might expect these periodicals to exclusively represent management and craven party views they do nevertheless inform upon the concerns of workers and provide a range of viewpoints and critique, not only in and between the often unruly BOALs but also the wider community and state.

The article was censored with a black marker. As well as including various procedural and administrative content from management and technocratic bodies workplace periodicals often reported on discussions and controversies inside the company and provided space for workers to contribute through writing texts as well as contributing jokes, aphorisms and cartoons. We conceive of these less formal contributions as a space where the articulation of worker dissatisfaction and frustration was particularly pronounced.

Being mindful of the particular ideological and market constraints placed on the editorial boards of print media, a careful analysis can nonetheless inform upon some of the contentious issues of concern to workers. One can observe the interaction or convergence of institutionalized and informal practices in the workplace. Through wry humour, aphorisms and cartoons, one can detect a multiplicity of ambiguous sometimes even openly antagonistic attitudes towards management and technocratic elites as well as towards fellow workers and dominant practices of work and non-work.

Such visual critique often went far beyond the bounds of what would be appropriate for the textual content. Yet, in the workplaces we have explored, the cartoons and informal content do not appear to have caused major controversy. Just as one might consider cartoons as a means of asserting the agency of the weak, we should also not discount the possibility that cartoons and informal content in workplaces represented a form of depoliticization by identifying topical issues and providing a valve for their articulation in a way which was unthreatening to those wielding social power.

They took their lead from a popular repertoire of ideas and representations already in public circulation. Nevertheless, the cartoons in question were clearly of a political nature and demonstrated politicized content. The issues broached like housing difficulties, worker discontent and conflict in the workplace were all seen as political controversies bound up in the interlocking social, economic and political crises of the s.

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The semi-public discussions taking place in workplaces across Yugoslavia through public meetings and workplace periodicals addressed not only issues of concern for the particular enterprise but for society as a whole and this is reflected in the cartoons which demonstrate a broader social commitment. A certain amount of open discussion, criticism [ kritika i samokritika ] and even open verbal conflict was seen as desirable, provided it was in the spirit of Yugoslav socialism. Because dynamics like the dichotomy between blue and white-collar workers resonated according to official ideology, playing with such divisions could be tolerated, indeed encouraged amongst various actors.

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According to the accompanying article the cartoon prompted a review of flat distribution processes in Kolubara. In addition to a more reflexive ideological matrix, it is also possible that the Yugoslav authorities simply regarded images like cartoons as less threatening than printed text. The level of critique and cynicism displayed is arguably far more brazen than anything in the accompanying texts which usually frame issues in a moralistic socialist language register.

Typewriters had to be registered with the police annually, a process she likens to gun control regulations. At the same time, the authorities not only tolerated photography but even endorsed amateur photography as a pastime and cameras did not have to be registered. Many of the most potent themes and representations found in cartoons and other informal content are mirrored in oral history research about the factory.

There are notable similarities between the attitudes expressed by working class oral history narrators and the informal content of workplace periodicals and sometimes notable gaps and silences amongst both. By the same token however, certain sensitive issues like ethno-nationalism and sexuality are skirted over despite other sources suggesting these were also very topical issues. Yugoslav sociological and historical enquiry has tended towards quantitative and empiricist forms.

The researcher might productively engage in a project that employs oral history as the primary method and source indeed a plethora of studies relying on oral accounts of labour and everyday life may serve as inspiration for such an approach. Furthermore, oral history is particularly well poised to gain insight about individuals and groups who tend to be marginalized from the historical record. In factory case studies in socialist contexts like Yugoslavia, marginalized groups might include low-wage workers in production and out of it , in particular female workers.

Oral history can offer insight into phenomena which were not considered relevant or appropriate and thus are absent or marginal in print media and in the archives for example issues like sexuality, childcare, the gendered division of labour and ethnonational divisions. They recalled sexual harassment by managers and the trials of single parenthood in the self-managing workplace.

As a cleaner and courier, she was encouraged to join the party in her workplace to bolster the numbers of rank and file workers. By , however, Mirjana was extremely embittered by management who she believed were defrauding the collective and lying to the workers. Furthermore, she considered that her role as a party member was more of a burden than a privilege.

As I was in the Party I was supposed to be a good example to other workers, not allowed to make any mistake. Because of [going for] a coffee for example, I faced a disciplinary procedure, because I drank a coffee!

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You drink coffee as well during the working hours! I knew this because I brought them the coffee. Membership in the League of Communists could expose a worker to increased scrutiny but still not necessarily guarantee meaningful privileges. As a working-class woman, Mirjana felt that she could not access the privilege of membership like her senior colleagues sitting down for a coffee spontaneously at work but at the same time membership inhibited her partaking in the same activities as her working-class colleagues who were not party members and so did not have to act as model workers.

Of course, a number of disadvantages and pitfalls are evident in oral history research of the socialist factory. One significant difficulty is access to oral history narrators in large urban settings. Many factories closed more than two decades ago and substantial demographic transformations have occurred throughout former Yugoslavia rendering it difficult to make contact with potential narrators. The oral history approach thus demands that the researcher has ethnographic competence, sufficient time and a social network through which to make contact with potential narrators.

When engaging in oral history research a further challenge is the spectre of postcommunist nostalgia. We noticed this in Priboj whereby individuals regularly made outlandish claims regarding the prosperity of the municipality within socialist Yugoslavia which we knew to be untrue.


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Such a phenomenon is probably widespread across postsocialist eastern Europe. There are two approaches we have used to counteract such exaggerations. The first is to triangulate oral accounts with other sources.


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Newspapers, workplace publications and archival documents can help contextualize, correct and counteract the excesses of nostalgia and the unreliability of memory more generally. A second approach is the particular strategy of conducting oral history. This article has argued that the socialist era factory and its surrounding community of workers, former workers and their families remains an insightful location for research, not only in terms of labour history, but regarding the rise and fall of socialism in broader terms and particularly in relation to working-class subjectivities.

By focusing on the industrial plants and working-class communities, one can gain a better insight into the heterogeneous ways that macro-level processes and events were experienced at the micro-level. Despite advances in the exploration of labour in state socialism, the micro-level remains understudied, particularly in the Balkans where the study of labour has paled in comparison to its more sophisticated treatment in central and eastern Europe.

We have sought to convey the complexity of the Yugoslav working class, the object of great veneration during the existence of state socialism which today remains curiously undertheorized in scholarly literature treating late Yugoslav socialism and state dissolution. We have also called for avoiding essentialized and homogenized representations of the working class although acknowledging that the official ideology of the party-state did have and probably still has an impact on the ways the working class perceived itself and the modes in which individual workers engaged with other social actors.

Through our experiences of conducting fieldwork in the form of factory case studies in a post- Yugoslav context, we have outlined some considerations with regard to approaching the sources. In a fragmented setting like the former Yugoslav states and their postsocialist neighbours, researchers need to be flexible in terms of access to sources and their analysis. In certain communities surrounding former factories, the absence of printed and archival sources demands an engagement with oral history methodology. In other locations, particularly larger towns and cities, an oral history approach is more challenging but accessing documents is perhaps more feasible.

In any case, the researcher is likely to rely on a mix of methods. There are clearly specificities to Yugoslavia which are unique in the socialist world and the limits to which our observations can be generalized for other socialist states in central and eastern Europe needs to be acknowledged.

Nevertheless, certain dynamics of the Yugoslav factory and society — such as the fragmentation of the working class, high fluctuation of the workforce, the informal economy, low work discipline, bureaucratization and parochialism — remain common to Warsaw Pact members and we believe that there are sufficient commonalties to facilitate some guarded generalisations.

A productive next step would be to further compare and contrast the Yugoslav factory with industry in other socialist contexts to test some of these observations. Rory Archer et al. We thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive and insightful comments. On the relationship between the state and self-management practice see Upchurch et al. See Katzenstein. Prout, Market Socialism in Yugoslavia , 50—8. Rural origins were deemed partly responsible for high turnover of the labour force as farmers left factories to work in agriculture during harvest season.

Another potentially fruitful archival source might include the data-sets and other field data used by sociologists of labour working in Yugoslavia during the s and s we are grateful to Reviewer 1 for stressing this. Smaller research projects were commissioned by local factory authorities for internal use and are sometimes are found in the factory archives. An article from March covered female workers in FAP Priboj noting their advancement in the factory over the last decades but also acknowledging the physical challenges of working on the shop floor.

As evidenced in discussions with colleagues at a workskop The history of labour in Yugoslav late socialism Pula, 2 October In Belgrade social sector enterprises periodicals were regularly published. While 3 were published on a weekly basis and 19 twice monthly, the majority — 80 periodicals — were published monthly. In larger firms special teams of editors and journalists were employed. Archer, Housing, social inequalities and discontent , 97— Archer et al. Interview with Mirjana and Gordana, Belgrade, April Kideckel, Getting by in Postsocialist Romania , 17—8.

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