A Look Back at the Eastern Bloc

Twenty years ago, Robert Tyschko was a student activist in the Polish city of Poznan. Until the day of his arrest, he had been in the underground Solidarity movement. Printing leaflets landed him and his friends in jail.

"I was released in the summer of 1989, after a year in prison. By mid-September, Poland was the first Soviet Bloc country to have a democratically elected government and I was released," Tyschko told ABC News.

"I remember the excitement and disbelief when, for the next six months, we saw the rest of the Soviet Bloc crumble. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, all fell one after another, like dominoes."

But for Tyschko, the reuniting of East Germany and West Germany which happened 20 years ago this week, was different.

"The Berlin Wall was unique, because it was such a symbol. By then we knew it was final and the Soviets had to leave us alone."

Tyschko recalls how he and his friends gathered at his parents' tiny apartment in Poznan around an old black and white TV, cheered and toasted the Germans with Soviet champagne and cheap vodka.

"That's all we had," he smiled wistfully.

On Nov. 9, 2009, Tyschko and his friends again watched events in Berlin – in his new home in the town of Tomysl, not far from Poznan, to watch the anniversary celebrations. And once again, they drank to the Germans and applauded as former Polish president Lech Walesa toppled the first of 100 ceremonial dominos set up to dramatize the falling of the Soviet empire.

Twenty years on, Tyschko and his friends seem to reap the benefits of what the two decades of freedom have given them. They are now the new middle class – he is a doctor, his wife runs a gym. "We're doing quite OK."

But, he hastens to add, "Some are less fortunate, but are still better off than under communism.

"On the one hand," Tyschko said, "we've come a long way. We are free and independent, in the European Union and in NATO. We are free to make our choices and are incomparably more prosperous than ever before.

"But really, we're just back where we should've been a generation ago," Tyschko said. "When Europe was going forward, we were shoved into a deep freeze. Our lives were totally abnormal. Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe deprived us of one priceless commodity – normality. Today, we are again normal, no different than the rest of Europe."

Perhaps being just a 'normal country' as Tyschko puts it, is not a tall demand, given the years of sacrifices, suffering and struggle that this part of Europe lived through. But relative to the rest of Europe, its eastern part was indeed different. So becoming 'normal' again is no mean feat.

Politics aside, during the cold war, the Eastern Bloc had a flavor all its own, only slightly differing from country to country.

The air that hung over towns in this part of Europe was a pungent, choking cocktail of coal smog and two-stroke engine exhaust. It was amazing that traffic so sparse could make the air smell so acrid.

Sometimes the monotony of this one dominant scent was broken by equally disagreeable smells. Cheap chlorine detergent was another popular aroma, followed closely by eye-stinging tobacco smoke.

Towns were drab and dreary, with little life in the streets. Even in the middle of summer, with flowers in bloom, grey was the prevalent color – with a bluish tinge from that all-encompassing exhaust smoke. Come fall, winter and spring, the grey changed to muddy brown.

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