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.

And in these grey streets, life went by at an almost artificially slow pace. People hardly ever rushed, because there was little to rush to. Well, unless perhaps you got word that a store across town would take delivery of some hard to come by goods, like refrigerators or sewing machines. Then you'd want to be there fast to sign up – and maybe get one in a few days.

Today, the scene is strikingly different. Bratislava, Budapest, Vilnius, Warsaw now look much like their counterparts in the Europe that was west of the Berlin Wall.

Streets are busy, colorful, and there is a sense of life and purpose. Newfound capitalism manifests itself in an excessive number of billboards and neon lights, but at least they do add splashes of color. Czechs, Latvians, or Slovaks, sipping their espressos in street-side cafes, look no different than their European cousins from the west.

But only 20-odd years ago, they did. Indeed, it would be hard to find someone sipping coffee in a street-side cafe in the first place. You'd be lucky to find a cafe then, and even luckier to find drinkable coffee.

Men and women had to make do with locally available fashion – and variety was meager. Most men stuck to plain -- for some inexplicable reason -- usually baggy, suits. They often wielded brown, leather briefcases. In them would be sandwiches, as there were no places where you could get lunch once you left home.

Women with any ambitions of elegance were faced with a real challenge – they had to use all their imagination to stand out and not look like their friends who happened to have chosen the same dress from a selection of maybe six. Therefore, almost every woman was an amateur seamstress, improving on what little was available in state-owned shops.

Tyschko also remembers how his mother knit sweaters for him. "Back then, you had to be creative and inventive. Money mattered less because there was just so little to buy. To buy a car, you had to sign up and sometimes wait for years. Foreign travel was practically impossible. Anywhere you'd want to go, you needed a visa. On top of that, you had to ask the state for permission, " he said.

Today, Tyschko, his wife and two sons drive to Berlin regularly.

"From where we live, it's closer than Warsaw." And he added, "And I just can't get over the fact that there is no border."

Every weekend the streets of Tyschko's town, just like those of numerous other towns in western Poland, are full of Germans. "They come for their weekend lunch or dinner, to buy gas and do their shopping since prices here are still a bit lower."

Is there anything he doesn't like about the changes of the last 20 years? "Yes," said Tyschko. "The grey hair I got from credits, mortgage, utility bills, lack of security. It's all about money now."

Is there anything he misses from the previous era? "We were poor, but carefree. We had less choices and less pressure. There was more friendship, more laughter and less competition. No unemployment. But, I'd never want to turn back the clock, I don't think any sane person would."