GI Joe

Communism to an American Kid

As much as Croatia feels like home now, it’s funny when I think back to how I must have imagined life in Croatia (err… Yugoslavia) when I was a kid. You all were the bad guys, the poor suffering souls, the Others. And now, you’re family and friends.


Growing up in the mid-1980s, communism and Star Wars were intricately link in my mind. I feel as if I was born into a world consumed by both phenomena, the Marxist-Leninist workers’ paradise and the galactic space opera. Luke Skywalker, the Soviet Union and the Cold War were just always there.(Reagan’s Strategic Missile Defense Initiative was even given the nickname: Star Wars). Star Wars was front and center, while the global politics at the time were somewhere in the background, on the periphery of my consciousness, tied in the gordian conversation of grownups, on the evening news, and even in some of our Saturday morning cartoons.

Now I find myself not only living in a former socialist country, once part of the Eastern Bloc (and yes, I know not a Warsaw Pact member), but also intimately involved with people who grew up, worked and lived under socialism. To put this in the right context, this is like watching G.I. Joe and then marrying into a family and making friends with people that lived in that town Cobra built.

But since so many of my readers lived under communism and didn’t watch the G.I. Joe cartoon, I’m not even sure if many of you will get the reference (it could also be because you’re not geeks). Maybe it would be better to compare it to meeting people that actually lived in Darth Vader’s Galactic Empire.  

When I was five years old my father said something about communism and I asked him what it was. He told me, and this is entirely true: that under communism you don’t have to pay for anything.

Yet, he made this sound like it was somehow a bad thing. And do you know what I imagined? Literally, I imagined being able to go into a store and take all of the Star Wars toys without paying for them. Communism. sounded. awesome. 

Later, my ideas of life under communism devolved into a colorless world. Where everyone wore grey smocks and stood in long lines for the most basic things. I think some of this came from a seeing a few scenes from the film 1984 and equating the film with communism.  By far the most influential piece was an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks where the pop-singing trio travel to West Berlin. The cartoon depicted the division of Berlin via a separated brother and sister, as well as the oppression of the Stasi. At the end the Chipmunk’s song brings down the Berlin Wall (take that David Hasselhoff!).

And that’s pretty much how I saw it all until I first began coming to Croatia in 2007. All of my prejudices came crashing down when I was looking at a family photo album and saw how stylish people were back in the 1980s. They were still more stylish than Oklahomans! Under socialism! Where were the smocks? There was color! 

I certainly don’t understand socialism or communism in the same way as the people that lived under it, but I also see it with more nuance than I would have had I never moved to Croatia. I’m interested to know what everyone thought about America when they grew up watching Dynasty, listening to Michael Jackson, and getting packages from family in Pittsburgh.