This text was written in 1999 for the
Born on a farm in Iowa/USA and now living in Berlin/Germany, I have witnessed two major historical phenomena of the late twentieth century: the destruction of the American family farm and the rebirth of post-Wall Eastern Europe. The former reflects an on-going industrialization and capitalization of the world economy which has marked the twentieth century; the latter is a reverberation of a failed masive social experiment: the building of Soviet-style communism. Both have been exceptionally disruptive to the lives of those affected; both have entailed much suffering as well as opportunity; the lingering effects of both will be with us for generations.
My family had farmed the North American soil since 1630. During the last years of my youth, however, U.S. economic and political policies meant the death of a 355-year-long family tradition. Crisis brewed in the 1960s and '70s when the U.S. government encouraged farmers to "plow from ditch to ditch", to remove fences and unused buildings - in short, to boost production to the limit. This gospel of "feed the world" was proclaimed from on high: my parents once attended a banquet at the Clear Lake (Iowa) Surf Ballroom [where Buddy Holly performed before his plane crashed in a nearby cornfield after his last concert] to hear Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz extoll local farmers to "produce, produce, produce!". That same official mantra, however, collided with State Department and White House policies after the soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and shot down a Korean commercial flight. The ensuing boycott of the Soviet-sponsored Olympics was startling enough; the grain embargo, however, went beyond diplomatic tit-for-tat and resulted in the collapse of U.S. commodities prices. When farmers such as my parents spent - for example - 2.50 to produce a bushel of corn ("maize" in British English) but could sell the harvest for a mere $1 or $1.25 a bushel, they ran into real trouble. The first year the bank extended them credit with which to plant another crop; the same eager terms were extended the second and a third year. After a certain point, though, when a "dangerous" level of debt had been reached, the banks called in their loans and via juridicial channels demanded repayment. Their customers had no choice but repay. The problem was, farm capital is not fluid, but invested: to raise the demanded sums, farmers had to liquidate their operations - their machinery, their livestock, the land...even their very homes. In the case of my parents, my father already had taken a night-shift job at a local meat-packing plant to try to make ends meet. On a night in December 1985--at a quarter to midnight, to be exact - the Cerro Gordo County sheriff came knocking at our ancestral home and served foreclosure papers issued by the bank. Like one might have expected in Soviet Russia or Apartheid South Africa, my mother was roughly roused from sleep and brought to her feet. Unable to find her glasses and wearing only a modest nightrobe, she made her way to the door, dazed and alarmed. The shock of it all ate at her for months; when my father returned the next morning and heard the news, the world he had known since birth evaporated: he has not been the same since.
Relatively seen, my parents were lucky. Having had a modest operation of only a quarter square mile of land, their debt load was small enough to be negotiated: they had to sell the land which my great-grandparents had bought in 1897, as well as the cattle, the hogs, Dad's prized horses and the machinery, tools, etc., but were allowed to remain in the house that Ma's father and his father had built in 1925. In the same house where my mother was born, her grandparents died, I grew up... a world revolved... around seasons and ceremonies, holidays, news of war and peace, of birth and death, of food and fighting, faith and love. Admittedly a simple, self-contained world, it was nonetheless a world which had existed at Ashlawn Farm. Since its demise, though, we have all lost part of our shared agrarian roots and have become poorer for it.
Given my family's disillusionment with the American status quo during the cruel 1980s, in my mind one of the best things that George Bush ever did was to send me to Czechoslovakia on the Fourth of July, 1991. Under the auspices of the United States Peace Corps, I taught American history, pedagogy and English for two years in Ostrava, the future Czech Republic's third largest city, which huddles against the Polish and Slovak borders.
When I arrived in Prague in July 1991, I encountered a gray, dreary city which hardly resembles the colorful, buzzing tourist mecca of today. At that time the restitution laws had not yet been settled, so there was not a private shop to be seen in the whole city. When I left two years later - as was the case in Ostrava, too--there was not a state-owned shop left.
This somewhat superficial example speaks of deeper, less tangible changes afoot in the country during my stint there as a teacher. Deeper hints of radical shifts of values and attitudes, however, could be seen everywhere. We foreign lecturers at Ostravska Univerzita, for example, lived not in the smoke-soaked industrial plain of Ostrava proper, but in the rambling villa of a former communist big-wig perched in Hostalkovice, a village on a hilltop some twenty minutes outside the city by bus. We watched with interest as one villager after another tried her or his hand in opening a private business - a pastry shop, a cafe, a tour-bus line shuttling gawking Czechs to exotic destinations like Paris or London, a beauty parlor, etc. The local "potraviny" (grocery store) became a combustible source of friction, as one former local powerbroker after another vied to scoop up the sleeping gold mine during the feverish privatization which swept across the land once the national government had settled property issues. Even the frugal "commoners" of Hostalkovice kept up a dizzying pace of "modernizatcie" - throwing out communist-era furntiture, stripping the walls of "Eastern" wallpaper, buying marvelous gadgets for the kitchen produced by unpronounceable Western firms, knocking out walls and building onto their humble cottages a garage... This massive consume rush knew no boundaries nor sense. Scores of brands of yogurt or juice or other locally produced goods disappeared from the shelves as yogurt from Stuttgart, juice from Italy and other imported "stables" flooded the shops. It was as if the country was reliving four decades of "missed" development - economic as well as social: the consume craze smacked of the benighted '50s, the novice-led dabbling with metaphysics and "self- actualizacie" of the '60s or '70s, the unfettered capitalism of the 1980s.
If also confusing and frustrating, it was an intoxicatingly eventful time to live amongst the ruins of the collapsed Soviet empire. Change was not on everyone's tongue; it was in their eyes and under their feet and in their hands... Above all, Czechs the age of my students at the university were old enough to appreciate the implications of such a revolution, yet young enough to reap the benefits of it. They spoke among themselves and in class of the new world which was arising daily in their midst. Certainly, some complained. Some suffered nostalgia for the security of the drab statist world on which they had been weaned as babes. Most agreed, though: virtually anything was possible now - and they loved it!
I have returned to Ostrava a handful of times since moving to Berlin in July 1993. Each time, I have been amazed by the changes, by the transformation of the gritty, colorless pit I had first seen there in summer 1991. Now a bustling, incomparably cleaner place, Ostrava symbolizes the larger experience endlessly replicated across post-Soviet Eastern Europe. The luckiest of its inhabitants have ventured into a new world; with all its insecurities and oddities, most agree that it is better then the one which it is still replacing.