All About My Mother: How Capitalism Erases the Human Costs of Post-1989 Transitions

After the post-1989 shock therapies imposed on “communist” regimes forced countless workers to move to Greece, where they became essential to the country’s economy, Troika’s austerity measures imposed on Greece at the end of the 2000’s forced them out once again. In her contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” the researcher Tsvetelina Hristova reflects on the consequences.


My mother now lives in the hometown of Heidi Klum, a small West-German town in the former industrial heart of the Third Reich. On the day I first visit her there she says: “There is a souvlaki place near the station, let’s go and eat a souvlaki.” You can hear the excitement and the nostalgia in her voice. She speaks with the waitress, Eleni, in perfect Greek, exuberant that she can once again feel like in her second home, Athens. Glad that she can, once again, feel in control of her ability to communicate and express her thoughts and feelings.

For months now, since moving to Germany, she had suffered the infantilizing effects of being restricted by a new language she barely speaks. Her nostalgic memories bring her back to the first time I visited her in Athens as a teenager, at the house where she was a live-in cleaner and cook. She remembers how her employers took us both to a souvlaki place and how much tastier the food was there.

My mother has been migrating with the crisis, a loyal companion that never leaves her alone. In the early 1990s, in the midst of a collapsing post-1989 economy and a messy separation from my father, she left her job as a shopkeeper in a grocery store (her hands always smelling of feta cheese brine) and her nomadic existence in the homes of relatives and moved to Greece.

Escape from ruined landscapes

Collapsing economy barely describes the years of confused, precarious and miserable experience of millions of people across the “former East.” Workers would get their salaries and by the end of the same day the out-of-control inflation would undercut their value in half. The imposed demolition of industries, privatization of state assets, and overhaul of political and economic structures left industrial towns like mine in ruins, literal and metaphorical. Cracks in factories, potholes in roads, patches in clothes, parents illegally crossing the borders to Greece and Italy to work as dockers and domestic cleaners – these were the tangible effects of the post-1989 transition that remain dismissed and misinterpreted as a local corrupt version of capitalism or as the eagerness of people to escape to the “free” world.

She crossed the border “through the woods,” slept on cardboard boxes, lived in houses she cleaned, a 24/7 workplace and safe haven from the police, nervously refused to speak Bulgarian in public in fear of being deported, tried to look Greek, and finally came to love Greece. In 10 years or so her Greek was perfect, her documents were sorted and she was passionately discussing local politics, appreciating Greek culture and cooking Greek food.

In 2015 when she left Athens, Syriza was fighting against the austerity measures imposed by the Troika. Life was getting harder for the people there. She was cleaning a few houses. She had made friends with her employers, they would spend holidays together, go to concerts, talk about life, discuss Greek politics and music, help each other. When things started getting harder, she offered them discounts, saying she understood life was getting tough and wanted to show solidarity. Her hours of work got reduced and her wage was getting lower.

Crisis déjà vu

She said she realized it was hard for the Greeks. The crisis hit them. They had to give up expenses. But while their choice was to reduce the hours and visits of their domestic cleaner or to give up a holiday abroad, her choice was to give up a visit back home to Bulgaria and to worry if she could pay the rent. She was told they could no longer cover her health and social insurance for fear that expenses for a domestic cleaner will be interpreted as luxuries in their tax records. So she had to return to the days of eating her pension and health insurance or starving and paying the insurance herself.

In 2016, after Syriza lost the stand-off against the Troika and the core EU countries, Jacobin published an analysis of the large-scale privatization that followed the defeat. The text, written by the Greek radical left academic Eleni Portaliou, starts with an introduction by the political theorist Stathis Kouvelakis. There, he frames the economic experiment imposed on Greece as comparable to the shock therapies prescribed in the post-socialist or post-colonial world – but as seemingly less acceptable for a member of the club:

The following article concentrates on one of the most important aspects of the ongoing experiment in the country: the imposition of a model of “accumulation by dispossession,” not to a country of the Global South or Eastern Europe but to a member of the eurozone since its creation and of the European Economic community since the early 1980s.

At that time, Bulgarians and Albanians who had migrated to Greece because of the process of accumulation by dispossession in the years after 1989, were losing their jobs and either returning back home or moving further West. Their crises, and crises of people from the former USSR and the “third world” had translated into cheap labor that sustained Greek agriculture, construction, and reproductive care work for years. Decades of migrant life that had finally led to some feeling of belonging were blown to pieces again. It was the kind of jobs that Bulgarians and Albanians held – low-wage, precarious, self-employed – that were the first to go.

Accumulation by dispossession

These industries, most welcoming to migrants, are like the pouches of marsupials – ejecting the ones they cradle at the first signs of crisis. Migrants are easily erased and replaced because “they never belonged there in the first place.”

What is more, the significance of the crises of post-1989 transitions is erased by the ease with which perpetual displacement is also a method of invisibilizing the continuing repercussions of privatization and austerity in the post-socialist East. People move away and become invisible. They disappear from statistics. Their poverty gets displaced the same way their labor is easily convertible across borders – economies always need backs that lift and hands that clean.

Kouvelakis’ introduction which, contrary to David Harvey, sees accumulation by dispossession as a process constrained geographically and temporally to the peripheries of the capitalist world, indicates another way, in which the consequences of the post-1989 crises get erased: Crisis and austerity become naturalized and normalized as intrinsic to certain parts of the world. But they creep up and travel and become accumulated into the bodies of migrants. Crisis clings and carries on with the never completed process of becoming and belonging, with the gestures, words and faces that migrants acquire, the tastes, loves, and disappointments.

After absorbing the Bulgarian “post-communist” crisis, my mother now carries the Greek one as well. She carries the wounds of loss and the nostalgia for a place that lets itself be cleaned but not inhabited. I think about people like my mother who drip their sweat, soak up each crisis, and move on, forgotten and erased. And I think about the amnesia and rejection that writes the history of capitalist crises. This amnesia writes off regions ruined by the plundering of capitalism and then writes off the bodies that accumulate the pain and despair of the ruins they leave behind.

I wonder how many Albanian and Bulgarian hearts have carried the pain of the Greek crisis elsewhere, in other homes they clean and other lands where they toil. And I wonder if the pain from their own towns, wrecked and disembowelled by the post-communist transition, ever dripped down with their sweat and left a mark on the streets of Athens. And if it did, what would the map of solidarity look like if it incorporated the losses, trauma and hopes of the “post-socialist” space?

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here:

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