I felt a reluctant nostalgia for socialist realism during my recent trip to Vietnam. Not because I missed the silly utopian hope of Soviet-era propaganda, but because Soviet-era Hungary was my home for five years 27 years ago, and the absurdly bright posters proclaiming Vietnamese Socialism reminded me of how the streets looked all those years ago, and of those exciting times in the late 1980s when the communist regimes of eastern Europe were all falling apart.
It’s a long time, in fact, since I’ve seen such audaciously hypocritical optimism in public art. Vietnamese socialist realism actually exceeds in fervour anything I ever saw in Eastern Europe Even in the declining last days of Soviet-style socialism, the optimism was only half-hearted, and never as brazenly presented.
The irony, of course, is that Vietnam is no longer a socialist country. Taxes rise progressively only to 25%, there is very limited social security, no entirely free schooling or medical care, and all disbursements of public money are hugely depleted by bureaucratic corruption. The engine of Vietnam’s rapid growth since the early 1990s is not the ideology these posters promote, but rather the opportunity for personal gain, and the Party is perfectly happy to accept that some of its citizens can be very much more equal than others.
Nevertheless, there is something magnificent about this art. Eyes raised to a utopian sunrise, these improbably healthy workers, soldiers, bureaucrats, and artists, march forward in harmony towards the promised world, still, incongruously, under the same old hammer and sickle, their eyes necessarily averted from the Prada, Hermes and Armani shops that are, in reality, the favoured destination of the Vietnamese privileged classes.