Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

How Grey Was Communism?

Communist states in Eastern Europe were imagined as places drained of all colour, outside of time – but it's increasingly clear they were a lot more colourful than we were led to believe.

What colour was state socialism? Christoph Neidhart, who lived in the Soviet Union during its final years as a correspondent for the Swiss news magazine Die Weltwoche, could only remember one: grey. ‘The Soviet grass was grey,’ according to Neidhart, ‘as was Soviet snow and the Soviet people.’ Soviet greyness spread like a fog to the socialist satellite states: the German Democratic Republic, a BBC report on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall tells us, was ‘grey, regimented and plagued by shortages.’ For anti-communists in particular, greyness was ubiquitous, indeed almost unbounded, manifesting primarily in architecture and a lack of consumer goods but spreading to people, modes of thought, or forms of behaviour. In Czesław Miłosz’s classic anti-communist study The Captive Mind, he depicts a ‘chronic lack of consumer goods’ rendering the masses ‘uniformly grey and uniformly indignant’.  Even ethics assumed a grey quality: the historian Tony Judt spoke of a ‘grey veil of moral ambiguity’ operating in communist states, which were characterised by citizens’ collusion in their own oppression.

As Historians Paul Betts and Katherine Pence have argued, it was common during the Cold War for those on the Western side of the Iron Curtain to link colour (or a lack of it) to a caricatured vision of state-socialist society as formed of ‘cultures of surveillance, privation, economic mismanagement, and colourless lifestyles‘. The capitalist world was colourful, mobile, and free: socialism was grey, concrete, and thus totalitarian. In Anna Funder’s Stasiland, which depicts the GDR as a panoptic maze of Stasi agents and zealots, the word grey appears over twenty times: Funder’s Germany is a ‘greyscape’ with ‘grey buildings, grey earth, grey birds, and grey trees’. Such depictions either are either consciously or unwittingly indebted to George Orwell’s 1984, which depicted a ‘grey and barren world’ with ‘drab-grey wholly unaesthetic surroundings’.

If socialism was concrete, then it was also static. Timothy Garton-Ash spoke of post-Prague Spring Czechoslovakia as being ‘frozen in immobility’. This, above all, was seen to be the result of the stultifying effects of ideological ritualisation, a critique put most influentially by Vaclav Havel, who depicted 1970s Czechoslovakia as a senile, inert, ‘post-totalitarian’ state. Another Czech dissident, Lubomir Sochor, claimed that the principal function of the ideology of ‘real existing socialism’ (the name given by state-socialist leaders to their societies post-1960s) was to justify a system which had ceased to produce any dynamism. For Sochor, ‘ideology helps make immobility a chronic social disease, it generalises it by adding intellectual immobility to the immobility of social relations and institutions’. Under conditions of postmodernity, the argument goes, capitalism sped up in the 1970s while the un-modern socialist citadel was engulfed or surrounded by the motion of ‘the global’: the collapse of socialism thus contributed to a quantum leap in globalisation, as the ditches were filled, the Iron Curtain was breached, and the world was allowed to rush in to a previously impenetrable eastern bloc.

‘Unser Leben (Our Life)’, a 1964 mural by Walter Womacka.

Concrete housing, as Krisztina Fehérváry notes in her study of socialist materialities in Hungary, was central to this trope, operating as an archetype, forming a grey background which seeps into people, behaviours, and moral codes. This focus on housing is supposedly reflective of a ‘concrete’ reality: a particular propensity for concrete in socialist-modernist architectural design. As an author from a recent edited collection on housing and the modern city puts it succinctly: ‘socialist cities were grey and made of concrete’. Whether or not this notion has a basis in reality is questionable, however. While Eastern Europe today is often depicted as bearing a singular brutalist heritage, the untrained eye would be unable to distinguish between the prefabricated concrete blocks built by the socialist state in Berlin’s Marzahn and those built by the West German authorities in the Märkisches Viertel.

To what extent, then, did this depiction of a grey world chime with the actual haptic experience of communism? The concept is certainly apparent in dissident literature, but in ways that are unsurprisingly more sophisticated and nuanced than the televisual accounts of Cold Warriors. An emphasis on the literal experience of a grey socialist world was often a feature of the Western gaze: for Neidhart, the experience of Soviet greyness was a product of what he called a ‘Western calibration’ which ‘melted into the thin air of memory’ as time went on. The implication, as with much of the discourse of totalitarianism, was that greyness enveloped the socialist subject herself, rendering her immobile, mute, and literally colour-blind, unable to realise that she inhabited a colourless world.

In contrast, depictions of greyness which emanated from socialist citizens, writers, or dissidents were often conscious attempts to assert their agency against political stultification. Katarzyna Zechenter has shown how Polish writers in what she calls the ‘grey period’ from 1976-1989 used greyness to critique the limitations the state placed on political and civic life: ‘The overwhelming presence of grey in Polish literature of the time reflected the political and social mood of society and was not a literal depiction of reality’, Zechenter writes, ‘which in many respects had been improving since [Edward] Gierek came to power’ in 1970. This was a reaction not to the immediate visual experience of living in socialism but to the political aesthetics of the 1970s, a period of ‘normalisation’, a shabby consumerism and constrained political possibility. As Zechenter highlights, this is best explored via the work of the poet Stanisław Barańczak, who created the figure of the ‘grey man’ in the form of ‘N. N.’, a figure who has given into political quietism and depression: ‘It’s morning. And a bed. And a room / in a hotel, a grey thaw outside / the window, the paving / of the street, business trip, unpleasant / taste in the mouth, blinding / light of the morning. N. N. wakes up.’

‘The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy’, a 1970 Josep Renau mural in Halle-Neustadt.

Greyness signified absence and lack in the former eastern bloc; 1989 was thus celebrated as a ‘return to history’. In the triumphant atmosphere of the early 1990s, it made sense to represent 1989 as a clean break from stolid modernism to postmodern democracy, from grey to colour. In a Lonely Planet guidebook to Prague, the reader learns of a past defined by ‘grey streets, grey houses, shops that had identical goods all over Czechoslovakia no matter what city you lived in’. In contrast, the authors of the book inform us that today, Prague ‘has taken its place among Europe’s colourful capitals’. Beneath the surface, however, there has been a degree of bite back against this depiction. In the former GDR, Ostalgie packaged critiques of the triumph of capitalism within an apparently apolitical form of nostalgia, manifesting as colourful museums of everyday life in the GDR, bright pastel painted Trabis, and neon plastics. Others inverted the colour binary: former Polish dissident Adam Michnik would claim in 1996 that it was democracy, in fact, that was grey, ‘[an] eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business’.

The Tower, Uwe Tellkamp’s semi-autobiographical novel, focuses on a holdover bourgeois community in GDR-era Dresden, emaciated but surviving in a sort of early modern time warp in a community—the eponymous Tower—accessible only by a funicular railway. The residents of the Tower are depicted as being encompassed by grey: ‘The eyes of the Tower dwellers, accustomed to grey, to the finest gradations of everyday grey, thirsted after colours.’ But it was outside the bourgeois burg that (negative) colour was to be found, in the world of real existing socialism. When the novel’s protagonist, Christian, is sent to hard labour for insubordination during his military service, he travels to ‘Samarkand’, the name Tellkamp gives the GDR’s ‘chemical triangle’, an industrial conurbation in Saxony which was the heartland of the GDR’s chemical and oil refining industries. Here, colour abounds as a metaphor for pollution: Samarkand bears a ‘chemically inflamed sky’ and was known as the ‘Orient… [so-called] because of the colourful effusions from the factories…Handcuffed, they followed the Friendship oil pipeline that went from the town on the Oder, whose high-rise buildings were bright in the distance, to the Orient of the chemical industry in its main area, Samarkand, in the south-west of the Republic.’

A more powerful critique of the trope of greyness has been the attempt, by former socialist citizens and scholars alike, to attempt to redress the emphasis on ‘greyness’ and its attendant implications of immobility and a lack of agency with accounts which seek to recreate the full palette of everyday life within state socialist society. As the pre-eminent historian of the GDR Mary Fulbrook has argued, many former citizens of state socialism have found their accounts of ordinary life within state socialism ‘drowned out’ by ‘narratives of power and oppression’. In contrast to such narratives, recent accounts have emphasised the agency that state socialist citizens had to populate their lifeworld with colour. As Krisztina Fehérváry has shown, for example, 1970s Hungary saw the creation of what she calls a vernacular ‘Organicist Modern aesthetic’ whereby families embraced ‘organic shapes, so-called natural colours and materials, and aged or brightly coloured folk artefacts as a way of breathing life, colour, and character’ into socialist materialities.

Warsaw’s Neon Museum, opened in 2012.

Everyday colour could also come from the state, too. The legacy of state ‘neonization’ in Poland has become the subject of a revival of interest, with the opening of a Neon Museum showcasing communist-era illuminations: neon flowers outside florists or glowing depictions of Syrenka, the mermaid symbol of Warsaw. A similar interest has arisen around neon lighting in Hungary, where photographer Isabel Val has documented communist-era neon signage in Budapest. While much of communism’s neon legacy is slipping away, Germany has seen the renovation of a number of communist-era murals in recent years. In the GDR, it was common from tower blocks and public buildings to be decorated with expansive, coloured murals, usually depicting Marxist-Leninist dreams of scientific and technical mastery over nature. The Plattenbauten of Halle-Neustadt have long served as archetypes for the worst excesses of communist architecture, but they also house the murals of Spanish artist Josep Renau—who fled his homeland after the Spanish civil war and made a living making enormous Wandbilder in the GDR—depicting space flight, automation and the potential of atomic energy in saturated reds, oranges and blues. In 2019, one of Renau’s works in Erfurt, entitled ‘Man’s Relationship to Nature and Technology’ was saved and listed as a protected monument when the building that housed it was demolished – it has since been renovated and remounted. Other, earlier murals such as Walter Womacka’s Unser Leben (Our Life) which wraps around the former Haus des Lehrers in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, have recently been renovated, and are rapidly becoming a part of Berlin’s ever expanding, stultifying tour scene.

‘Grayness could not fill us with despair,’ Theodor Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, ‘if our minds did not harbour the concept of different colours, scattered traces of which are not absent from the negative whole.’ In the thirty years since state-socialism collapsed, the grey/colour binary has been the dominant lens through which the Cold War was understood. It joined an array of other binaries through which the Cold War was understood: public vs private, the state vs the market, and the individual vs the collective. But the promise of capitalist colour was often a disappointment to ex-socialist citizens: in Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin!, post-Wende Germany is invaded, ironically, by the colour red, which seeps, disassociated, into rooms, or appears multiple times as the ubiquitous blood red of coca cola ads which appear throughout the film. Alongside the triumphalism of East-Central Europe’s return to colour was often also a sense of melancholy: the bringing of colour sometimes only served to highlight inequality and poverty. As Zechenter shows, in Tomek Tryzma’s 1994 novel Miss Nobody the colours of Western objects only emphasise the subject’s poverty:

‘Seeing all those gaily coloured Western objects makes Miss Nobody reflect on how mediocre her life had been and would continue to be, because she is and feels poor. She allows herself to be enticed, but pays dearly for her enticement by jumping from a window of her parents flat in a grey, concrete block to “liberate herself from the greyness of her old life.”‘