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Pizza and Coke Behind The Iron Curtain

Maarten / Flickr / Creative Commons

When I was a youngster in Wichita in the 1980s, I knew that the Soviets were the "bad guys" and that the world would be destroyed in the event of World War III, thanks to the Evil Empire. Like dozens of cities in America, locals asserted that our hometown would be one of the first to be obliterated in a nuclear war.

But what I remember most was when, in 1986, Pizza Hut announced plans to open 100 stores in the Soviet Union. From my eyes, people felt proud that their local pizza had penetrated the Iron Curtain. Even though Russians lived in a bad system, at least they could enjoy a good pan pizza.

Dr. Mark Keck-Szajbel

Within the larger context of global politics—where the Soviet Union and the United States dominated strategic decision-making—small cultural openings were frequently the means by which ordinary people on both sides of the Iron Curtain understood the collapse of socialism. In the East bloc, the process of reform, democratization, and the introduction to open markets was a process of assimilation with the West and its culture. The presence of Pizza Hut or Coca-Cola were palpable results of these peaceful revolutions.

This might seem like a happy story for us. But the way the West was marketed was a fantastically exaggerated version of “real” Americana. People in Poland, the former East Germany, or the Czech and Slovak Republics have since grown to understand that Western commercialism and free market democracy is rarely as luxurious as advertised.

It is the way they move on from this that informs their decisions going forward. The most frequent reaction is either to be nostalgic for the Soviet past or hopeful for a European future.

Dr. Mark Keck-Szajbel is a researcher at the Center for Interdisciplinary Polish Studies at the European University in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany