Every day, dozens of people visit the Petrov family’s modest, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Sofia, Bulgaria, so they can travel back in time to the 1980s. With headsets on, they filter through the space mostly in silence—leafing through books, rummaging through drawers, trying on clothes and even sniffing jars of food in the pantry.

The Red Flat: Everyday Life in Communist Bulgaria, as the immersive experience is called, comes with an audio guide that brings to life the apartment’s fictitious inhabitants: Elena Petrov, a journalist; her husband, Plamen, who works abroad; and their teenage son, Boyan. Visitors learn that Boyan loves making prank phone calls by dialing numbers at random on the family’s rotary phone, and Plamen keeps a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky—the kind you couldn’t buy in Bulgaria during the ’80s—in the liquor cabinet for special occasions.

The Red Flat was founded in 2019 by Vаleri Gyurov, a Sofia-based architect and art collector, and the 365 Association, a Bulgarian nonprofit specializing in urban walking tours, including one that focuses on Sofia’s communist landmarks.

How Museums in Central and Eastern Europe Tell the Complicated Story of Life Behind the Iron Curtain
The Red Flat's immersive experience comes with an audio guide that brings to life the apartment’s fictitious inhabitants, the Petrov family. Tomislav Rashkov/356 Association

“We knew that there is a big interest in this topic for tourists, and there is also nothing offered by the state or by the city,” Gyurov says. “It’s important to give people an inside view of Bulgarian life during communism,” he adds, especially because the transition to democracy has been slow and the legacy of the old regime is “still affecting the life of people today.”

As visitors immerse themselves in the lives of an average 1980s-era Bulgarian family, the audio narration provides historical context, connecting the dots between past and present. One of the main objectives of The Red Flat is to remove the barrier between visitor and exhibition; visitors are not just permitted to interact with objects in the apartment, but encouraged to do so. They can flip through vintage books such as The Fight for Socialism in Bulgaria, 1891-1944, which traces the emergence of the Bulgarian workers’ movement that preceded the formation of the Bulgarian Communist Party, or hold a red scarf once worn by a pioneer—a member of Bulgaria’s communist-era youth organization.

“You can touch everything,” Gyurov says, “and just feel like you are visiting an old friend of yours.”

Driven by popular demand, independent museums about various aspects of everyday life under communism are cropping up in some of Central and Eastern Europe’s most visited cities, inviting tourists and locals alike to step into a time capsule. Exhibitions about communism are not new, but the recent momentum behind interactive museums designed (at least in part) with foreign visitors in mind points to a surge in tourism to former communist countries as well as to a growing fascination with an era that shaped the lives of entire generations, many of whom are now looking for a way to process the social and political transition between past and present. The projects are as unique as the histories of the countries where they are based—including Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Poland. But they are also linked by the complicated legacy of communism, where political division on the philosophy transcends borders.

In general, everyday life behind the Iron Curtain followed a familiar pattern that largely removed individual choice. Communist regimes guided people along a predetermined path, from a childhood spent participating in patriotic activities as part of a state-sponsored youth organization to a government-provided job that would, in turn, secure a place to live (though families still paid rent). The state controlled the economy, and private enterprise was largely absent, so the range of consumer goods narrowed to a few predictable brands. With access to outside media, films and books tightly controlled by the regime’s censorship arm, many people did not know options existed. And while some bristled against the restrictions, or pined for the kind of life they heard about on Radio Free Europe, if they dared listen to the forbidden U.S.-funded broadcast, most simply learned to live within the confines of the system.

This life came to an end as communist regimes dissolved across Central and Eastern Europe more than three decades ago, leading to uneasy shifts across the social and political spectrum. To this day, the recent past remains a delicate topic of discussion.

“Some people had a decent life, others had a terrible life, some people were sent to camps, others died,” Gyurov says of the communist years in Bulgaria, between 1944 and 1989, a time when many who opposed the political system were sent to camps where they were subjected to forced labor and various forms of torture. “It’s very, very controversial.”

How Museums in Central and Eastern Europe Tell the Complicated Story of Life Behind the Iron Curtain
The Red Flat's visitors are not just permitted to interact with objects in the apartment, but encouraged to do so. Tomislav Rashkov/356 Association

Historians estimate at least 65 million people died under communist regimes worldwide in the last century. In many of the Central and Eastern European countries that fell under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence after World War II, those who opposed the authoritarian regimes were swiftly punished, though the means and severity of punishment varied from place to place. In Bulgaria alone, the country’s forced labor camps, or gulags, imprisoned more than 20,000 people.

In part because of the violent history of communism, some caution that museums dealing only with the lighter aspects of this era, such as everyday life and pop culture, are not presenting a complete picture of the time period.

“It’s very hard to say that you’re going to have a museum that tells about everyday life in communism without covering the sober parts of it and the troublesome parts of it,” says Elizabeth Spalding, founding director of the Victims of Communism Museum in Washington D.C., which traces the human toll of communism worldwide.

Spalding, who describes herself as a third-generation anti-communist in her online bio, says immersive experiences about everyday life have a role to play, but they should be balanced out by context about the harsher realities of life during communism.

“You don’t check truth at the door,” she adds. “If it’s something that, in the end, is making it seem like this was somehow a good kind of regime, then that’s fundamentally a problem.”

Others argue that even initiatives that cover an isolated aspect of life under communism are valuable because they give visitors more information than they started out with and add another dimension to our collective understanding of this relatively recent historical period.

“Every visit to a museum, regardless of the kind of museum, is a history lesson, and the visitor, regardless of their age, leaves the museum with lessons learned,” says Cristina Pāiușan, a researcher at the National History Museum of Romania in Bucharest. “This is the most important role museums serve.”

Entertainment and consumer culture

Some of these museums lead, surprisingly, with humor—the kind of dark humor that is likely familiar to anyone who spent time behind the Iron Curtain.

For instance, visitors to the Budapest Retro Museum, which opened in 2021, can pick up the receiver of an old pay phone and dial a number to hear a typical communist-era joke, in which infamous Soviet leader Joseph Stalin visits a potato farm.

Budapest Retro Museum cafe
The Budapest Retro Museum includes a café selling Hungarian sausage with bread and mustard and retro-inspired soft drinks. Budapest Retro Museum

“Comrade Stalin, we have so many potatoes that, piled one on top of the other, they would reach all the way to God,” the farmer begins. “But God does not exist,” Stalin replies.

“Exactly,” the farmer says. “Neither do the potatoes.”

Cue the laugh track.

“We didn’t want to make it frightening, because the target of the museum is not to talk about history, but the life of people,” explains Andrea Kiss, the director of the museum. “We had a normal life—just the politics and the era were different.”

Kiss says the founder of the Budapest Retro Museum, Ákos Horváth, a graphic artist and businessman, created the project because no other museums in Budapest covered day-to-day life during communism.

The 8,600-square-foot space includes a café selling Hungarian sausage with bread and mustard and retro-inspired soft drinks, interactive displays and even an event room. Visitors enter through a turnstile to find themselves surrounded by miniature replicas of communist-style apartment buildings with windows that open to reveal communist-era objects ranging from egg cartons and bath soaps to pocket-sized books about communist ideology and a coffee grinder with an embossing of Stalin. Suspended from the ceiling is a 39-foot-long Soviet rocket that a retired soldier donated to the museum, apparently after having kept it in his garden for some time.

replicas of communist-style apartment buildings at the Budapest Retro Museum
Visitors to the Budapest Retro Museum can open the windows of miniature replicas of communist-style apartment buildings to reveal communist-era objects. Budapest Retro Museum

Kiss, who was 9 years old when Hungary declared a transition from communism in 1989, says that, in her opinion, many people in the West have a distorted view of life behind the Iron Curtain, thinking it was constantly frightening and politically charged. But in reality, she says, the lack of choice made some aspects of life easier.

“We didn’t miss, for example, having 12 types of bread,” she says. “We had one and we got used to it. And we didn’t miss, I don’t know, clothes from the West, because we didn’t know that it was possible to buy them.”

But for others, longing for consumer goods that were beyond one’s reach was one of the defining characteristics of life behind the Iron Curtain, according to Tibor Valuch, a social historian at the Hungarian Research Network Center for Social Sciences in Budapest. Some Hungarians, for instance, would travel to Vienna to buy brand-name toiletries and beer they could not find at home, then proudly display them when friends came to visit.

Valuch, whose 2022 book Everyday Life Under Communism and After analyzes the transformation of people’s lifestyles and consumer habits behind the Iron Curtain, says that one phenomenon that emerged during the communist years was a well-organized black market.

“People knew very well what kind of goods are lacking, for example, in Poland, that they could buy in Hungary,” Valuch says. “It was a very interesting situation.”

living room in Budapest Retro Museum
The 8,600-square-foot Budapest Retro Museum opened in 2021. Budapest Retro Museum

Parsing memory

For his 2017 book What Remains: Everyday Encounters With the Socialist Past in Germany, Jonathan Bach, a global studies expert at the New School in New York City, researched two dozen museums of everyday life in East Germany beginning in the 1990s. He says that the people he spoke with felt that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the narrative shifted in such a way that it “seemed to devalue their life experiences.” People in East Germany had arranged their entire lives around the idea that they were working toward building a socialist state, Bach explains, but the unification with West Germany, which happened on West Germany’s terms, called their experience into question. The museums, which ranged from the 10,700-square-foot DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) Museum in Berlin to more informal collections of items in garages and basements, offered a means to process this transition.

“Part of the whole idea of socialism is to break down the barriers between the personal and the political, so that you give a political edge to pretty much everything you do,” says Bach. As the state exerted control over everyday activities, from jobs to participation in civic organizations to where people spent their vacations, it “shaped how life was organized.” But this left people with the dilemma of how to frame common life experiences that had nothing to do with politics—for instance, going on dates or celebrating birthdays—to say nothing of the more complicated experiences, like having participated in (and enjoyed) activities organized by state-sponsored communist youth organizations.

“What did it mean to have lived under a regime that is considered negative now?” Bach says. “Where is the line between complicity and innocence?”

Selling emotion

When Anastasija Knežević decided to open a museum celebrating the 1980s in the former Yugoslavia, she wanted to name it “Yugoslavian Beauty,” in part a nod to the 1999 film American Beauty. But knowing how controversial the name “Yugoslavia” has become in Croatia, she says, her ex-husband convinced her to adopt a more neutral name: the Zagreb ’80s Museum.

Compared to other countries in the region, present-day Croatia enjoyed a relatively tolerant form of socialism as part of the former Yugoslavia led by President Josip Broz Tito. But the violent conflicts that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991 left deep divisions that persist to this day. They have also given rise to a form of nostalgia so widespread it has its own name: Yugonostalgia.

Knežević, a marketing professional, says the Zagreb ’80s Museum has nothing to do with the politics of the era; it is simply meant to recreate the aesthetic of what she describes as the most prosperous decade in the former Yugoslavia. With its floral wallpaper and olive-green velvet couch facing a large cabinet filled with books, porcelain and glassware, a piano and a couple of mismatched ottomans, the museum’s main room is cozy and eclectic, and it feels oddly familiar—down to the earthy smell of old furniture. Visitors, including a couple of university students in their early 20s, say it reminds them of their grandmother’s house.

The first iteration of the museum, established in 2017, was so successful that Knežević sold it to an individual in Shanghai, where it now functions as a pop-up museum. The current museum in Zagreb, a replica of the original, opened in 2019. Visitors can flip through an old photo album, squeeze into the driver’s seat of an original Zastava automobile or try their hand at an Atari computer game.

“I want a reaction,” Knežević says, adding that the museum is often cathartic for people, as it brings up memories. “We sell emotion.”

Teaching tools

Cātālina Andrieș, who opened the Museum of Communism in Bucharest in 2023 along with her husband, Gabriel Boga, says the project was inspired in part by the couple’s other business: a company that offers guided tours of Bucharest. Tourists wanted to learn about the history of communism, but the city did not have much to offer aside from tours of the Palace of Parliament, a sprawling complex commissioned by former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and constructed in the 1980s and ’90s.

Historical newspapers and photographs at the Museum of Communism in Bucharest
At the Museum of Communism in Bucharest, visitors can flip through historical newspapers and photographs. Museum of Communism in Bucharest

While Andrieș and Boga initially planned to mainly target foreign tourists, they decided to also develop a strong educational component aimed at Romania’s younger generation.

“This part of history, it’s not very studied in school,” says Andrieș, who has spent most of her career as a teacher of geography, travel and tourism. “It’s a very short chapter in the history books that students have in the 12th grade.”

Instead, Andrieș says many young people learn about the communist era from their parents and grandparents, potentially missing key parts of the story.

The museum’s history section is straightforward, taking visitors through a chronology of events beginning with the early days of the communist regime in the 1940s and ending with the revolution that overthrew Ceaușescu’s dictatorship in 1989.

Next, visitors step into the immersive sections of the museum, decorated to resemble a living room and kitchen from the ’70s or ’80s. They can flip through historical newspapers, try on an authentic Romanian fur hat, or relax on the couch and listen to an old record. Andrieș says the interactive aspect of the museum is particularly attractive for young people, who typically have little patience for traditional exhibitions with a lot of reading material.

Visitors interacting with the Museum of Communism in Bucharest
The immersive sections of the Museum of Communism in Bucharest are decorated to resemble a living room and kitchen from the ’70s or ’80s.  Museum of Communism in Bucharest

A few evenings each month, the “living room” part of the museum turns into an event space for mini-conferences, documentary screenings and other events that unpack aspects of communism in real time.

“Our most recent event was one with two former political prisoners and dissidents from communist times,” Andrieș says, describing a March discussion with Niculina Moica, a former political prisoner and current president of Romania’s Association of Former Political Prisoners, and Gabriel Andreescu, a former anti-communist dissident who is now a university professor in Romania. “They came here and told their stories, and people listened, and they had the occasion to interact and ask questions.”

Pāiușan, the researcher at the National History Museum of Romania in Bucharest, says demand is clearly growing for museums about communism, as evidenced by the popularity of independent museums on the subject. Several publicly funded history museums are also broaching the topic; for instance, the Museum of National History and Archaeology in Constanta, the main port city on Romania’s Black Sea coast, has a permanent exhibition about communism in the region. Meanwhile, the Bucharest history museum is also planning a future permanent exhibition about Romania’s communist era.

“This is recent history that today’s parents and grandparents lived through,” Pāiușan says. “There is a lot of interest in it, mostly related to nostalgia—nostalgia for a time when you were young and your life was planned out from the moment you finished school until retirement.”

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