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A Slavic Eye for Cold War Nostalgia

October 20, 2017

communist nostalgia art 2

Click on this before reading my post, please! Won’t take long – swear.

Coming from a family of Czech political refugees, I have to say that my favorite quote from the article I asked you to click on comes from a Russian-speaking commentator who reacted to immigre artist  Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi’s paintings by saying: “Why do all these people nostalgic for the U.S.S.R. move to Berlin and Israel, and not to North Korea?”

That being said, I love these paintings. They are a Slavic DNA splicing of Norman Rockwell and Charles Schultz, representing – pretty accurately in my experience – some of the more charming aspects of Soviet life. And yes, nearly every era has its charms, even if I’d never go so far as to declare that the Soviet regime was charming in and of itself. Let’s just say it for the record – communism sucked.

What enchants me about Nnadi’s work is her nostalgia for the textures of childhood. The colorful incidentals that aren’t so incidental after all, as we often recall them more vividly than the bigger events.

Communist nostalia art 1

From my own young life, it’s things like feathered hair styles replete with split ends, shiny new Chevy Nova’s, and performing random tasks in Six Million Dollar Man slow-motion. They create a collage as powerful as any individual vignette.

Like when my much older step-sister confided to me about losing her virginity – this was back in 1979. I remember her shimmery, overly-glossed lips far better than her description of how things went down (salacious as it was, I’m sure). The way they cupid-curled and puckered as she applied what looked to me like the most glamorous goop I’d ever seen. I’m not even sure I remember the boy-in-question’s name. Might’ve been Bob. Or Randy. I do recall the lip gloss, however. It was called Kissing Potion for sure, and came in a variety of roll-on flavors – grape, bubble gum, orange and of course…cherry. I later stole one from her make up drawer and hid it inside my worn and seam-split stuffed koala bear.

Nnadi gets this.

communist nostalgia art 3

Her paintings take us into moments of pithy loneliness punctuated by cringy fashion trends… and then beyond, into a realm that is so stylistically Slavic she makes me ache. Not only for my childhood, but for the very specific children’s storybooks I used to thumb through after school. Ones that chronicled where my mother and brother grew up – in a small, Czech village called Klobuky.

In the pages of my Czech storybooks, I could find scenes that I would never personally experience, though they were captured in the black and white photos framed on my mother’s vanity table.

My mom, pensive-faced, riding her rickety bike down a cobblestone street.

My brother playing naked beside a stream. All curly hair, toddler’s belly pouch and uncircumcised penis.

Slavs have an innate capacity for conjuring home life nostalgia. Of stripping politics and current events from a scene and leaving only the little things that make up our day-to-day lives, and bring essentiality to our existence.

Josef Lada, an early twentieth century Czech artist and children’s storybook illustrator, was a master at this. I can’t imagine Nnadi wasn’t inspired – if not by him, then by Slavic artists like him. His work always celebrated the quieter moments, the minutiae that in hindsight spins a magical longing for the commonplace.

Watching an old man smoke a pipe…

Josef Lada 2

Riding a makeshift wooden sled…


Josef Lada winter

The raucous, smoke-filled excitement of a night at a local pub…

Josef Lada pub

The beauty of Lada was not that he painted a bucolic picture that never truly existed except in our hearts, but that he painted precisely what had existed, but what we may not have appreciated at the time. Tiny glimmers of nothingness present in almost any child’s world.

More so, they remind us that those events continue on in our adult lives – changed perhaps, but nevertheless there. They are happening in our children’s lives and we are cautioned not to take them for granted.

It’s not about the fancy vacation, Lada and Nnadi are telling us. Or the enrichment activities and birthday parties. Or even about who was elected president. It’s about riding around on a hand-me-down skateboard wearing tube socks and piped shorts. Hiding behind the patchwork sofa, making Malibu Barbie and Malibu Ken make out. Eating bread smeared with margarine dyed a cheerful daffodil hue.

And speaking of Cold War nostalgia – The Hungarian, my latest Cold War thriller is free this weekend only on Amazon. Get it while it’s cold…

Click here to download The Hungarian


  1. Congrats on the new book. I look forward to reading it.

  2. The whole “East block” countries share interwined memories. There´s an awkward, familiar gaze in these paintings and straightforward frankness in their reservedness. I remember vaguely, waiting for my mother to come home from work in a strikingly similar ambiance, the time when the ´89 Revolution broke… Brilliant article and nice being introduced to your blog!

  3. I knew it! Your name gave you away, but you never know…I’m dying to visit Transylvania, btw, and even set some of my second novel, The Hungarian in Brasov 🙂

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