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Slavenka Drakulić

From Women in European History

A Wiki Page by Nora Augustine

Based primarily upon the autobiographical essays of Slavenka Drakulić in How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. New York: HarperPerennial, 2003.

The cover art for Drakulić's How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.


Critical Biography


To some, Slavenka Drakulić (4 July 1949--) may not seem like a particularly remarkable figure in European history. She is not often proclaimed to be a hero who might inspire all people; nor was she, arguably, a particularly explosive dissident. However, in reading Drakulić's own accounts of her life under Communism in former-Yugoslavia, we may see that Drakulić herself places great value in what others may deem “the boring parts of the revolution.”[1] Indeed, through her examination of the seemingly trivial ways in which communism touched the lives of herself and other Eastern Europeans in the late 20th century, her work provides us with a perspective on the ever-present influence of this system upon those living under it. For Drakulić, communism permeated all aspects of life with an impact so strong that its victims--though miserable and degraded under a system which neglected their fundamental rights to things such as self-expression, privacy, and even one's basic physical needs--could not easily be compelled to abandon it. Indeed, we may see that communism cannot be understood as just one potentially influential force that could have easily been exchanged for another. As Drakulić notes, “communism, more than a political ideology or a method of government, [was] a state of mind.”[2]

Forced Equality Under Communism

Lack of Self-Expression

Dehumanizing Effects

For Eastern European women like Drakulić, living under communism in the 1980s and 1990s meant living without many of the items that modern American women might take for granted. As Drakulić notes, political leaders "had more important tasks than producing make-up" in the process of establishing communist governments in post-World War II Europe, and the egalitarian principles of communism demanded that no single person should be permitted access to a luxury that could not be afforded to others.[3] Consequently, these women had to live largely without any sort of beauty products or fashionable clothing, because items such as these simply were not available. Furthermore, because communism supposedly equalized all people, a woman’s use of any product purely “to please men” should not have been necessary.[4] However, we may see that Drakulić did not share the government's apparent belief in the frivolity or insignificance of cosmetics in the life of a woman under communism. Indeed, despite their state-enforced poverty, Drakulić maintained that "women still wanted to be beautiful" and they could not see what bearings a political system should have upon a woman's right to feel comfortable in her own skin.[5]

Certainly, no human can claim that his or her survival depends upon opportunities to enhance their physical appearances--no one ever died of make-up deprivation. However, for Drakulić, these products symbolized something much greater than their potential to help women entice the opposite sex. On the contrary, the freedom to use a particular hair dye or wear a certain style of clothing would have truly enabled the citizens to distinguish themselves from mere animals while living under communism. Therefore, the unavailability of these products only served as a bitter reminder of the greatest sacrifice they made to communism: that of human dignity. Communism may have been (just barely) sufficient to keep the people alive, but certainly did allow them to truly live. As was echoed by her daughter later in life, a woman in misery must nevertheless be able to perceive herself as leading a civilized existence, "because even if she has lost everything, she needs to feel like a normal person." [6] As Drakulić realized, communism dehumanized the citizens by pressuring them to accept only what they needed to for physical strength, but this was not enough to promote their welfare as sophisticated intellectual beings. In asking “what is the minimum you must have so you don’t feel humiliated as a woman?” Drakulić voiced her concern for this loss of ability to feel like a “normal person”--a civilized person who cannot live on bread alone--under a system that discouraged you from thinking of yourself in this way. [7]

Slavenka Drakulić as a young woman.

The Question of Taste

In addition to damaging a person’s of humanity, we may see how communism’s frequent shortages also stunted a person’s ability to cultivate a sense of their own individuality. In particular, Drakulić’s writings reveal her regard of the notion of self-expression through consumerism, or one's tastes. In the world of today, people place great significance in one’s favorite books, movies, music, etc both in the search for a personal identity as well as in making judgments about the characters of others. However, for women like Drakulić, the scarcity of even the most basic necessities such as food or toilet paper in communist nations meant that you could not entertain the notion of "taste" affecting your selections. Indeed, Drakulić found it mystifying that one would imagine limiting the foods they ate to those that they "liked," because "the word 'like' implies not only choice but refinement, even indulgence."[8] To reject a food because you don't care for its flavor or texture presumes the availability of another food that can both satisfy your nutritional needs and provide sensory pleasure. However, it was so difficult to find sufficient food under communism that it would have been unthinkable to refuse what little food you were given--there was no hope of holding out for a better option. As Drakulić notes, "to behave as if you are somewhere else, where everything is easy to get...is not a sin against God, but against people," thus communism conditioned the people to forget about the possibility of having taste.[9] The reality was that these people were not facing the dilemma of whether to eat this food or another, but rather whether to eat this food or starve.

In Drakulić's experience of communism, the absence of seemingly trivial choices--such as the right to choose the way you want to look or the foods you want to eat--reflected the greater consequences of the system's efforts to impose total equality upon its citizens. Certainly, the people were placed under great physical stress by the scarcity of utilitarian items such as food, clothing, and sanitation accessories in life under communism. However, readers must also note the way in which the absence of these items took a toll on the emotional welfare of women like Drakulić, who had to struggle just to feel like human beings. In its adherence to economic equality, communism produced a widespread poverty that denied people the chance to express themselves through their choices. In doing so, the system cut its citizens off from one of the most important outlets for developing the human faculty for individuality and civility that transcend that of mere animals. For Drakulić, the communist governments reinforced this total uniformity across the people's lives as futile means of defense against what she felt to be the inevitable failure of the system. As she states, "to be yourself, to cultivate individualism, to perceive yourself as an individual in a mass society is dangerous. You might become living proof that the system is failing."[10] The irony of this statement, of course, lies in the presumption that any government could ever fully prevent any single person from "being themselves"--from being a unique person and having thoughts and opinions that are not exactly the same as anyone else. On the contrary, it became clear to Drakulić that in spite of communism's pressures, the fundamental human inclination to live as unique, civilized, "normal" people would always persevere.

Desire of "Otherness"

A recent portrait of Drakulić.

In contrast to the misery that Eastern Europeans experienced under communism, the gradually-emerging familiarity with the artifacts of other countries eventually led younger generations towards a rejection of the system under which they were being raised. Although the quality of one's life under communism was very poor, Drakulić recalls that "poverty didn't look terrible only because almost everybody else was equally poor--and it was considered just." [11] When Drakulić and her contemporaries were growing up, they had few opportunities to become aware of any better kind of life. Therefore, they had no incentive or logical reason to object to remaining in the conditions under which they had always lived. However, once people began to see the beautiful products of foreign capitalist nations and perceive the greater opportunity for civilized living (with items such as toilet paper and sanitary napkins) in these nations, they began to question the presumed superiority of life under communism. One of Drakulić's own introductions to the enticing possibility of improving one's life through desirable (albeit unfamiliar) products of another kind of society came through her experience of receiving a beautiful new doll from her grandparents while on a trip to Italy as a young child.[12] She and her young friends were drawn to this doll, not because they truly wanted to play with it, but because it was so vastly different from anything they had ever seen before. For Drakulić, their abrupt exposure to this fancy doll felt akin to stumbling upon "an icon, a message from another world," and this experience was not entirely pleasant.[13] Along with enchanting them with its exotic beauty, the comparison of this doll with their own plain dolls merely heightened their awareness of the great disparities between their own society and the kind of society that was capable of producing a doll like that, ultimately "making [them] suffer in some strange way, longing for the indefinite 'other.'"[14] Rather than inspiring them to dream of a life not under communism, the apparent hopelessness of their circumstances instead cast the doll as a horrifying reminder of what they believed they could never have.

However, whereas this elusively attractive "other" had been largely unknown to Drakulić in her own childhood, she later saw how a more clearly-defined conception of what one's life was missing led younger people like her daughter to feel entitled to greater advantages than she herself had ever imagined. Drakulić was raised in a lifestyle where one could not presume the availability of an item like decent toilet paper, so she simply adjusted her habits and mindset such that the undesirable alternatives (like Golub, which comes in "coarse brown folded sheets") became commonplace.[15] However, Drakulić saw that she could not truly object when her daughter, who had grown up fully accustomed to decent toilet paper, refused to revert to Golub in order to save money. In choosing to buy the nicer toilet paper in spite of its costliness, Drakulić not only demonstrated her unwillingness to "allow communism to degrade our intimacy," but also her ultimate determination to preserve her right of having a say in her own living conditions.[16] From this experience, Drakulić came to see how her daughter's own strict refusal to give up this right and revert to a choiceless existence could provide insights into the younger generation's eventual rejection of communism. Indeed, Drakulić noted that herself and others of her generation were able to adapt to living under the miserable circumstances in which communism kept them because "[they] didn't even know that something better existed."[17] On the other hand, the younger generation's experiences with communism seemed only to highlight the ways in which it was failing them, thus this system could not win them over because "they simply were not ready to accept a deteriorating standard of living in the name of an ideology they didn't believe in."[18] Communism was being exposed only for its flaws and none of its wisdom, and they chose to cling to that better way of life rather than allow it to fade away into an unknown "otherness" once again.

The Problem with Privacy

Another way in which Drakulić experienced the dehumanizing effects of communism was through this system's total disregard for protecting the privacy of Eastern Europeans at this time. On the contrary, communism's command over all aspects of life meant that "the state want[ed] it all public" so as to make it all the more easy to identify and quash any dissenters of the sTate.[19] Communist principles overwhelmingly discouraged citizens from professing any kind of desire for privacy, because such an act would have had highly negative implications: "Asking for the right to privacy meant you had something to hide. And hiding something meant it was forbidden. If it was forbidden, it must have been against the state. Finally, if it was against the state, you must have been an enemy."[20] In Drakulić and many others, this utter lack of privacy generated an increased emphasis on the few ways in which people could create the illusion of momentarily escaping communism's intrusion into their lives. For instance, having one's own apartment became a crucial point of interest for these citizens--not just for the obvious reasons of providing warmth and shelter from the elements, but for the additional benefit of having a place where they "felt a little bit more secure...to withdraw from the omnipresent eyes of the state."[21] Just as with other "luxuries" such as toilet paper or decent clothing, this desire for a place to call one's own was not driven by basic physical needs, but rather the psychological need to feel more like a human being than an animal. Because communism discouraged you from thinking of yourself as an individual, it seemed almost logical to justify the public access to your private information on the grounds that it wasn't any different from anyone else's. Indeed, communism made Drakulić so accustomed to an entirely public life that when the post offices implemented a new "space of privacy" within which the people could conduct their business, all she could do was wonder "how come [she] forgot that privacy is normal?"[22] Under communism, she was made to feel like her responsibility to the state superseded that of her responsibility to her own self-protection, thus she had no right to withhold anything from the public.

The cover art for one of Drakulić's best-known works, The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War.

Communist Identity

Communism Comes First

Through the denial of various modes of self-expression and self-sufficiency (such as in the lack of privacy or consumerist choices), communism taught and effectually generated the sense that one must identify first as a person living under communism--above all other aspects of one's existence. For instance, as "the child of a Yugoslav army officer who was a communist," Drakulić's early life was almost entirely devoid of opportunities to learn about religion or develop a relationship with God.[23] Because religion requires a person to adhere to the Bible and answer to a divine authority higher than that of the state, the practice of any kind of faith was considered grossly incompatible with one's position in a communist society. Religion was forbidden, and the spiritual satisfaction it had once given people like Drakulić's mother was theoretically subsumed by the pride one could take in pleasing the state and upholding "another faith that had taught its children other prayers."[24] Likewise, the use of censors was extremely common in order to prevent the publication of anything that might encourage the people to abandon communism for the ideas of another society. As a journalist, Drakulić experienced great pressure to modify her own writing in avoidance of "disturbing public opinion by expressing unacceptable ideas imported from the West, introducing values foreign to our socialist self-management society, or spreading untruthful and dangerous information."[25] Just as the scarcity of products and food shortages created by uniform poverty had prevented citizens from cultivating a superficial sense of individuality, communism fought for its total tyranny over the people by attempting to control their minds, as well. Drakulić would experience a similar phenomenon later in life when the circumstances of the war in Yugoslavia suddenly demanded that her Croatian roots become the singular characteristic by which others identified her, leading her to feel "defined by [her] nationality, and by it alone."[26] For Drakulić, it remained an everlasting dream that the Yugoslav successor states would someday stop forcing the people to shape their entire identity through their political or national affiliations and instead "restore to us a sense that we are before all else individuals as well as citizens."[27] Despite the government's greatest efforts to subjugate human individuality completely to the state, Drakulić continually noted the basic impossibility of them succeeding in this task. Even when your political system repeatedly demonstrates its regard for you as just another nameless, faceless gear in the communist machine, humans always clung to the knowledge that they were not animals, and they did not deserve to be treated as such.

Involvement with the Feminist Movement

A typical communist representation of women.

Drakulić gained a more pronounced awareness of the pressures to as a communism above all other things through her experiences in trying to enlist the support of other women in the Yugoslavian Feminist Movement. In Autumn of 1978, Drakulić and several of her friends attended the first international feminist conference, 'Comrade Women,' in Belgrad of what is now Serbia, and this event inspired them to form the first-ever Yugoslavian feminist group.[28] Despite encountering a great deal of criticism and backlash at its inception, this group eventually began to grow and inspire an increasing amount of Eastern European women to attend meetings, participate in discussions, and form their own feminist organizations. However, over the years Drakulić also noted the extremely conflicted emotions that the women in communist nations such as Poland (specifically Warsaw) and Bulgaria felt in deciding if and/or how to join the battle for women's rights. Although she and some of her contemporaries had succeeded in raising interest in this movement, Eastern European women at this time were still "unprepared, confused, without organization or movement yet...even afraid to call ourselves feminists."[29] Women were clearly able to recognize that they were not receiving equal treatment from men within their societies, yet their overwhelming compulsion to identify first as citizens under communism made it "hard to see [men] as an opposite force, men as a gender, hard to confront them as enemies."[30] People under communism were not officially permitted to see themselves or each other for anything but their political affiliations, so where did that leave gender? For women, it seemed reckless and overly dramatic to take up a battle on behalf of an aspect of themselves that they had been told to ignore for so long. Moreover, Drakulić saw that her fellow women couldn't help but sympathize with men--their supposed enemies--because they felt united with them in the struggle against (what seemed to be) the much more formidable enemy of the communist state. It was difficult for Drakulić to persuade women to discuss the specific oppression of women because "every such talk finishe[d] with the system that shapes our lives."[31] Many women felt that before they could even think about concerning themselves with fighting for feminist rights, they would first have to conquer communism's threats to more fundamental human rights.

For more information on adverse reactions to the writings of Drakulić and other prominent Croatian feminists, please visit "The Five Witches."

See Drakulić in action in this video of her speaking at the Italian literary festival, Festivaletteratura.


  1. Drakulić, Slavenka. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. New York: HarperPerennial, 2003. p. xiv.
  2. Ibid. p. xvii
  3. Ibid p. 25
  4. Ibid. p. 23
  5. Ibid. p. 23
  6. Drakulić, Slavenka. "High-Heeled Shoes." The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1993. p. 140
  7. Drakulić, Slavenka. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. New York: HarperPerennial, 2003. p. 31
  8. Ibid. p. 14
  9. Ibid. p. 15
  10. Ibid. p. 26
  11. Ibid. p. 68
  12. Ibid. pp. 57-58
  13. Ibib. p 59
  14. Ibid. p. 59
  15. Ibid. p. 66
  16. Ibid. p. 67
  17. Ibid. p. 68
  18. Ibid. p. 68
  19. Ibid. p. 92
  20. Ibid. p. 97
  21. Ibid. p. 91
  22. Ibid. pp. 97-99
  23. Ibid. p. 153
  24. Ibid. p. 157
  25. Ibid. p. 78
  26. Drakulić, Slavenka. "Overcome By Nationhood." The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1993. P. 50
  27. Ibid. p. 52
  28. Drakulić, Slavenka. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. New York: HarperPerennial, 2003. p. 129
  29. Ibid. p. 132
  30. Ibid. p. 111
  31. Ibid. p. 111

Annotated Bibliography and Other Sources

Slavenka Drakulić Sources

Main Page

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