One can hardly imagine a newspaper running a headline that suggested a fascist society like Nazi Germany had its good points. Yet the New York Times has carved out a side industry in headlines that suggest a bright side to Communist tyranny in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
The latest came attached to art critic Holland Cotter’s 1,700-word review of “Ostalgia,” an exhibit of Soviet and post-Soviet art at the New Museum in Manhattan, splashed along the top fold of Friday’s Weekend Arts section: “When Repression Was a Muse.” “Ostalgia” is a coinage for the strange cultural nostalgia for Communism (i.e., inferior but somehow endearing cars like the East German Trabant) felt by some East Germans who found it hard to cope with the freedoms, opportunities, and responsibilities of a more capitalist society.
In August 2008 the Times ran this jaw-dropping headline over a book review: "East Germany Had Its Charms, Crushed by Capitalism."
The Times featured this headline over a February 12, 1992 story of the last Soviet political prisoners being released: "A Gulag Breeds Rage, Yes, but Also Serenity."
Cotter’s actual review talked of Soviet repression but also claimed “free-market capitalism” was a tyranny of its own:
There was an initial assumption in the West that the end of the cold war in 1991 brought universal jubilation. But time has proved and the show suggests otherwise. Free-market capitalism brought its suppressions and exclusions, as artists discovered. Among other things, some felt, it undermined the purpose and value of art.
Under Communism artists had limited professional opportunities. Those whose work didn’t adhere to state guidelines found no market. They had to support themselves with day jobs, doing whatever they could. If their art touched on hot-button political issues, it was censored, slapped down.
For some artists repression had a psychological upside. It gave their work a clear-cut sense of importance. It established art’s primary value as moral, not monetary; instrumental, not formal. If what you were doing was censorable, you could trust you were doing something right; heroic, even. And this attitude fostered solidarity and the growth of a counterculture in which experimentation, individuality and iconoclasm were protected and nurtured.