Anyone acquainted with “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” certainly remembers its most striking chapter which features the dictionary of mutually misunderstood words Sabina and Franz shared. The differences in their social and individual upbringing mirrored themselves in contrasting interpretations of every-day habits and events. Grown up in Switzerland, Franz sees people of communist Czechoslovakia living “real life” he never experienced while Sabina thinks the drama of her country is ugly and devoid of romance. Marches and demonstrations excited and moved Franz, in them he saw a uniting and liberating force. This was not the same for Sabina who was forced to march and for whom May Day demonstrations became symbolic of kitsch.
This little dictionary of Sabina and Franz brilliantly points at how heavily charged with ideology our customary objects and habits are and how their relative symbolism only stands out in the process of synchronizing views and ideas.
The few years spent in expatriation taught me to see familiar every-day objects and customs in different light. At once, I could understand the perspectives of both, Sabina and Franz, each willing to exchange and trace the ephemeral symbolism of things. My childhood, coincided with the late 1980s, was populated by such attributes as cloth bags, reuse of just about anything, state-supervised recycling of glass, metal and paper — all what have taken a permanent residency in today’s mundane activities of Eurozone.
Some habits of those days resembled the contemporary environmental ethical code: no extra packaging, for example. Butter was sold by weight and wrapped into baking paper while vegetable oil was poured straight into the empty bottle you were expected to bring with you. Everything was then carried in a cloth bag. Despite their outer similarity, there is a wide ideological abyss between the cloth bag in my childhood and that in today’s EU. While in the agonizing USSR cloth bags screamed deficit of choice (single-use plastic bags were simply unavailable), in Europe it speaks environmental awareness and deliberate refusal of plastic.
Same goes for upcycling. However, the trend wasn’t executed out of fashion in the USSR. Reinventing pellets and pieces of fabric into a furniture piece was driven by necessity and the lack of alternatives, not by optional creativity as it is today. Nobody called it “vintage” and clasped their hands in delight when I wore mum’s (hand-sewn, excellent quality) clothes to school. Indeed, in times of total deficit and deep economic, political and social crisis garments from grandma’s wardrobe were looked at as old fashioned and beggarly.
When, many years later, I met the painfully familiar objects and customs in their new hypostasis in Malta, it took some time and effort to recognize their new meaning. What previously signified misery and drama, became symbolic of good intent and care for environment. While the Western socio-cultural evolution has manifested itself in deliberate refusal of plastic and extra-packaging, supermarkets and single-use plastic items have become part of Russian routine. Cloth bags painfully reminded of communist past whereas plastic practically connoted Western-style prosperity and abundance.
It wasn’t only the meanings of commodities I had to unlearn after having moved to Malta but also those of food. Take pasta — food deficit in the late 80s and the early 90s enforced a limited diet that mainly included spaghetti (humanitarian help from Italy), potatoes, canned vegetables and fish. It took time and effort to peel the label of past miseries off excellent pasta in general and to recognize its merits in the Mediterranean in particular. Yet the most ideologically-charged product always remained meat.
Meat consumption in the USSR was a sensitive political issue. Just like meat on baroque still-lives was symbolic of high social status of their owners, in the USSR its provision index was one of the standard measures of the country’s well-being. It was hard-to-get, especially good quality beef and pork therefore consumption of it wasn’t hitting the sky. In fact, if in 1970 meat consumption in the USA was 106.1 kg per person and in the UK — 74.3 kg per person, in the USSR this value was almost twice less — 48.6 kg per person. Meat meant prosperity, full stop. Everyone tried to make acquaintance with a butcher to gain better access to a piece of animal flesh, which in mass understanding was both, a basic need and a luxury. A festive table was unimaginable without meat and, specifically for the reason of its poor availability, its presence on a plate was an additional reason to celebrate. Although vegan diet was secretly practiced during lent by devoted followers of Christian Orthodox faith, veganism in USSR would have been unthinkable: a movement to reject meat and dairy products for ethical reasons would have immediately drown in vociferous protests by offended consumers in distress.
Years passed and meat is no longer rarity in present day Russia. However, the memories of its past scarcity are still circulating in the collective mind. Recently, I happened to be reminded of its ideological importance once more. On a train trip from Moscow to Astrakhan, a stewardess delivering lunch to the travelers was seemingly proud of the meal’s dignified ingredient — meat. When I politely turned it down admitting that meat had been off my plate for a while, her face expression screamed humiliation as if I offended her personally. Until the end of the trip, she muttered reproaches on the lines of “how-overly-satisfied-with-life-one-must-be-to-refuse-the-gifts-of-good-life-with-no-starvation” every time passing by my compartment.
The clash of ideologies, revealed by this accident, goes far beyond meat in my train lunchbox — it highlights dissimilarity of prosperity symbols in the two, been long off-sync, cultures. To many Russians, improved meat availability still means better quality of life, an achievement, a step forward. To refuse a local symbol of prestige is to openly neglect and disrespect struggles of many for whom this prosperity still is unaffordable. Try explaining the benefits and importance of veganism in the name of global sustainability to the starving people in a warzone? All they would feel is humiliation.
It’s no secret that our mundane desires aren’t just influenced by personal preferences but largely reflect the common ideas of prestige. Together with upcycling, recycling, refusal of single-use packaging and keeping consumption rates in check, veganism signifies a historic turn in the socio-cultural evolution. It tells that in order to recognize the movement driven by the ethical concerns without provoking mass annoyance and humiliation, a society needs to move away from the persisting memories of starvation, deficit, misery and poverty.
Another fundamental dissimilarity between cloth bags and low meat diet in the USSR and their contemporary Western cousins is that the former was practiced in the absence of choice and the latter is optional. As a movement, veganism could only have been born in a democratic environment. Such ethically-concerned movements can only evolve in societies with plenty of options, since the limited number of them could possibly lead to post-deficit explosion of unsustainable practices of all kind as in the case of the former USSR. Absence of choice and undignified poverty can never lead to progress.
Returning to Kundera’s Sabina and Franz, I can only add how glad I am to have experienced perspectives of them both. Appreciation of the idea of human progress inevitably includes shifting of perceptions, synchronizing them with polar opposite ones and understanding how contextual many of them truly are. To forget is, after all, to learn again.