Five books (and a few more) on Eastern Europe

What we learn from the region I study

I am a fan of the Five Books website where they ask experts and writers to recommend five books about a particular theme and then respond to questions about them. My help hasn’t been asked yet, but I noticed that there hasn’t been a call for books about Eastern Europe (Russia excepted). I thought that I would put forward a few that I would recommend if they ever come calling my way.

Politics and Ideology

Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind

This book was a turning point for me in seeing through not just communism, but any sort of ideas that I might hold because they were fashionable or convenient. The key concept of the book is ketman, which Miłosz says is the practice of publicly avowing Islam while secretly opposing it. He distinguishes various forms of ketman according to the sort of true beliefs that one holds and the way that one justifies one’s public stance. One might thus publicly accept communism but secretly believe that Stalin perverted it or that Russia was not the best carrier of the tradition. Alternatively, one could justify one’s support by believing that the true meaning of one’s life lay in one’s professional achievements or in one’s aesthetic experiences.

Probably the most compelling part of the book is Miłosz’s descriptions of four Polish writers, concealed under the pseudonyms of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta, who in various ways gave up their true beliefs to serve the regime. These studies provide a kind of typology of the ways that one might surrender to communism or to any other belief system. Miłosz is a keen psychologist and is aware that ketman provides pleasures as well as stresses.

The book does not provide a neat solution on how to avoid ketman. Miłosz himself served the regime and only wrote this book after emigrating. If one wants a book with a clear lesson, then I suppose one could turn to Havel and his command to “live in truth”. However the costs of that posture can be very high and it is probably too much to expect. Where Milosz helps I suspect is in showing the subtle ways that we rationalize our compromises. Being aware of this might make us a bit more honest. And it reminds us that better people than us have succumbed to this sort of thinking. None of us are immune.

I could imagine the book enjoying something of a revival during this current period of political correctness. I’m thinking not just of the left here. Republican supporters of Trump in Congress engage in their own forms of ketman. Of course, it might be worth noting that while he was a professor at Berkeley, Miłosz was a strident critic of counterculture protesters who he viewed as misguided and naive.

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Though he is a novelist of ideas, Kundera might have been the most popular Eastern European writer of his time for his combination of readability and sex. This book is known for the set piece with which it begins where an aide to the first communist leader of Czechoslovakia is erased from a famous photograph, but his hat remains behind because he lent it to the leader. This is summed up in the phrase, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” I don’t think that this is in general correct, though it does have some purchase on Czech history where the communists had to erase a democratic and liberal heritage.

The reason I recommend it is not just because it is a fun and compelling read, but also because it gives readers a sense of the importance or perceived importance of ideas in the region. As I mentioned Kundera is a novelist of ideas - his equally famous Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with Nietzsche’s myth of eternal return - and Eastern Europe is possibly the place in the world where philosophical ideas, whether Marxism or liberalism or nationalism, were taken most seriously, both by citizens and their rulers. Kundera understands this seductiveness and he is seductive in his own way.

Like Miłosz, he is a perceptive observer of the appeal of communism, especially for young people after the war, maybe because he was one of them. As he puts it, “So the Communists took power in February 1948 with neither bloodshed nor violence, but greeted by the cheers of about half the nation. And now please note: the half that did the cheering was the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better. Yes, say what you will, the Communists were more intelligent.” Kundera himself joined the party, was expelled, joined again, was expelled again and then emigrated to France.

There is one other aspect of Kundera’s work that makes him a good fit here. He is also a theorist of the novel. (The literary essays collected in The Art of the Novel are a fun read.) His conception of the novel is that it is a laboratory for human behavior. Novelists insert different characters in new situations and watch how they behave. His Czech-language work in particular (he later wrote in French) often puts characters in situations distinctive to communism and thus helps readers see the uniqueness of that regime.

I’d also recommend that readers seek out older editions of the novel. In addition to being more literary translations, Kundera has edited out certain passages from the newer version, particularly ones that refer to distinctively Czech situations, most famously where he refers to the singer Karel Gott as the idiot of music. Here are a couple of possibly dated pieces that describe the changes in the texts.

Everyday Adversity

Timothy Garton Ash, The Uses of Adversity

Timothy Garton Ash is one of the best writers among experts on Eastern Europe and I think the form where he shines is the essay. This volume collects many of his essays published in the New York Review of Books and The Spectator during the 1980s and I think they give a good sense of what communism looked like at that time; in Garton Ash’s terms, they are a “history of the present”, which is the title of a later volume of his essays about postcommunist life.

Knowing, as we do today, how communism ended, and that it did end, makes it easy to look back and come to clear judgments about right and wrong. By contrast, these essays paint portraits of people trying to make decisions in real time and facing genuine dilemmas and tradeoffs; we see the various ways that they make use of adversity, as the Shakespearean title suggests. Some of the topics described in the book are mainly of historical interest today - West German foreign policy, the status of Central Europe, the pope’s visit to Poland - but some remain alive like Polish anti-Semitism and the value of dissidence.

For those who enjoy these essays, a later collection of NYRB pieces about postcommunist Europe are collected in the aforementioned A History of the Present, though I’m not sure that they have the same moral urgency as these. A better companion might be The File which is a full-length book about the file that the Stasi compiled on Garton Ash while he was conducting dissertation research in East Germany and his present-day interviews with those who informed on him.

Malcolm Bradbury, Rates of Exchange

This short novel follows Dr. Angus Petworth, a middle-aged professor of linguistics, on a British Council-sponsored tour of the communist country of Slaka - “Land of lake and forest, of beetroot and tractor”. Despite his obliviousness, he ends up involved in romantic and political intrigues. The novel has something in common with Borat in its satire of the pretensions of communist states, but also finds the humanness in the people trapped behind the Iron Curtain. It does give readers an impression of how the culture of communist states looked to outsiders and the sort of foreboding that a visitor might have felt upon arrival. Bradbury was a close friend of David Lodge, who might be more familiar to readers, and shares his compatriot’s careful plotting and wry humor.

Slavenka Drakulić, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed

These essays are significant for providing a woman’s perspective on the communist regime. They are obviously more than that, but the issue of gender is the reason I would include it. Though ostensibly committed to equal rights for women, communist regimes were dominated by men. This despite (or because) a shortage of men due to war deaths, alcoholism, and poor diets. Women really made the countries go in that they worked full-time jobs and more or less took care of the household alone, which include tracking down products in short supply and waiting in long lines for them.

Drakulić shows some of the less obvious problems of a centrally-planned economy, where the male planners often forgot about women’s needs. This includes shortages of such necessities as sanitary products, which were in shorter supply than most goods. More generally she demonstrates the difficulty women had in expressing their individuality due to the lack of material accoutrements as well as the small and cramped living spaces to which they were confined, sometimes even after divorce.

The Planned Economy

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty

I was trying to think of a book that explains why central planning didn’t and doesn’t work. One could think of theoretical writers like Hayek or economists who can unpack the system like Kornai, but I thought that Spufford’s novel based loosely around the Russian economist Leonid Kantorovich does a nice job of showing the scale of the problem - the number of equations that need to be optimized in order to make sure that the right number, size, and style of women’s shoes show up in village X at a certain time along with millions of other goods. And that is just the consumer side. One also had to place workers in the right factories and stores and motivate them to do their jobs. 

Kantorovich ultimately won the Nobel in economics for his work in helping to create the mathematical techniques for dealing with these problems. But solving those equations requires not only enormous computers but also information about the people’s needs and wants that can’t easily be gathered. The set piece in the book that many remember is Kantorovich standing in the bus trying to figure out the mathematics and realizing that his shoe has a hole in it and how hard it will be to find a replacement. It is very difficult to imagine an alternative to markets for running the economy and anyone who is sympathetic to communism (as I used to be) should know the Eastern European experience with trying to make central planning work.

Vladimir Voinovich, The Ivankiad: Or, the Tale of the Writer Voinovich’s Installation in his New Apartment

The communist housing system with its dominant role for state-owned apartments along with massive shortages meant that improving one’s living situation required cutting through enormous red-tape not to mention cultivating favors from bureaucrats. This book describes the writer’s real-life attempts to upgrade his living situation from one room (shared with his pregnant wife) to two. Though initially allocated a newly available flat from the writer’s union, he soon encounters a rival, who is a less successful author (his one book is Taiwan: Chinese Land from Time Immemorial), but better connected politically and more loyal to the regime. Told in a mock epic style, the wranglings of the rivals end with the author simply occupying the flat and creating a fait accompli.

The book thus dramatizes one of the absurdities that made the communist system unique. If one wanted another work along the same lines, a good but more challenging read might be Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue. This novel consists entirely of dialogue among a changing cast of characters waiting in a long queue for something, they are not sure what.

As an aside, I think a criminally underviewed film is the Czech “Ball Lightning”. It describes another way to alter one’s living arrangements - trading one’s state-owned apartment for someone else’s. But because it is hard to find a match - someone who wants your apartment and you want theirs - people constructed long chains where A’s apartment goes to B whose apartment goes to C and so on. The film describes a record-setting exchange, where 12 families need to exchange their apartments all on one day, the ball lightning of the title. Of course, obstacles arise like one of the exchangers dying on the day of the move and another getting cold feet, which threaten to call off the whole exchange.

The Postcommunist Transition

Julian Barnes, The Porcupine

This novella considers the case of a fictionalized former communist leader, most resembling Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, who is being put on trial for crimes he committed under the communist regime. While the case appears airtight and a just ending to communism, the Porcupine, as the erstwhile leader is known, has a number of tricks up his sleeve. He knows everyone’s secrets, including the prosecutor’s, and has his finger on the pulse of the nation, which he uses to make invidious comparisons between the security of communism and the insecurity of the transition. 

Though Barnes is no expert on communism, he finds a compelling tone in capturing the former leader’s imperiousness and street-smarts. The novel was criticized for its lightness (only 138 pages) and for equating the sins of the new and the old regime - the prosecutor engages in his own tricks when it looks like the dictator will escape a just punishment - but I think it is worth reading for the dictator’s voice and the ways that he justifies his rule and wrongfoots the democrats. We shouldn’t be so confident that liberal democracy has all the best arguments. And it is easy to overlook the appeal of people like the Porcupine as we do with Trump. If one wanted to transpose this to a US context, one might watch the theater professors who performed a Clinton-Trump debate, but switched the genders of the protagonists; the transposition makes Trump’s appeal a bit clearer. It might also be worth noting that the novel was popular in Bulgaria.

The issue that the novel portrays - what to do about the crimes of the old regime - has inspired a substantial academic literature. Garton Ash has described the main choices as “Trials, Purges, and History Lessons.” Trials of the kind that Barnes presents were a rarity in the region, sometimes for reasons that Barnes suggests, their potential to backfire and make the communists into martyrs. The image of powerless senior citizens on trial is not always positive. A few states have instead tried purging the bureaucracy of communists (sometimes termed lustration), though often their technical competence was needed in the new regime. No postcommunist country attempted the South African technique of public confessions (or history lessons in Garton Ash’s terms), though the more democratic states did end up setting up historical commissions to investigate the crimes of the regimes. Doing little to settle scores has in the end been the modal path and was even advocated by dissidents like Havel who saw most citizens as implicated in the sins of the old regime.

Václav Havel, To the Castle and Back

While Havel is best known for his plays and essays, I think he is at his most endearing in this memoir of his time as president. The Czech title is “Briefly, Please”, a reference to the requests of reporters, which Havel had trouble granting given his natural prolixity. The memoir does grant him the space that he desires, but it is made up of a juxtaposition of excerpts from an interview with the journalist Karel Hvížďala, Havel’s own reflections from a sabbatical in Washington, and perhaps most interestingly verbatim memos that he wrote to his staff during his presidency.

Though I am not well-read in political memoirs, this one strikes me as considerably more honest than most. Though the interviewer is Havel’s friend, he does bring up most of the main criticisms of Havel’s presidency, forcing Havel to respond to them. And the memos do give a nice sense of the day to day life of the politician. Some knowledge of recent Czech history is probably necessary to appreciate the book, but I think readers can figure out most of it.

Daniel Treisman, The Return

A political scientist at UCLA, Treisman is what I like to think of as a triple threat - equally gifted at crunching numbers, analyzing strategic interactions, and constructing a compelling narrative. This book puts all three talents to work in telling the story of Russia’s path from communist superpower through reforms to today’s state that Treisman’s characterizes as a fairly standard middle-income country with a corrupt economy and flawed politics (albeit one with nuclear weapons).

The book overturns a good amount of conventional wisdom about Russia’s transition, particularly about Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s mistakes, which Treisman often attributes to the institutional constraints that they were working under. Rather than simply present these contrarian interpretations as hot takes, Treisman backs up his conclusions with copious data and analysis, not to mention consideration of alternatives. While this might sound boring, this analysis is always in the service of telling a story about the transition and he highlights the major personalities of the time. You might not agree with his conclusions, but if so, you’ll need to bring some new evidence to the table.

Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible

A child of Soviet emigres, Pomerantsev grew up in London, but returned to Russia to work in television in the early 2000s. This volume consists of sketches describing life in Russia during the postcommunist years grouped under headings like “Reality Show Russia” and “Forms of Delirium”. More specifically, the topics include a mafia boss turned TV producer (who films his own goons), a cultish self-help group connected with the suicide of a fashion model, a businesswoman jailed on flimsy charges due to a battle between two agencies, and the Kremlin guru and gangsta rap fan Vladimir Surkov. The stories nicely capture the air of surreality in Russian politics and include the author’s personal experiences with censorship or guidance from above when presenting (or attempting to present) some of these stories on television.

Andrew Wachtel, Remaining Relevant after Communism: The Role of the Writer in Eastern Europe

Writers have long been icons in Eastern Europe associated as they are with the revival of national languages and cultures not to mention independence movements. One can find prominent statues of writers like Sándor Petőfi or Adam Mickiewicz in capital cities across the region. This idolization continued under communism when writers - who Stalin famously called engineers of human souls - were put on state payrolls and published in enormous print runs, at least those who didn’t oppose the regime. 

Wachtel deftly covers this ground in his book and then turns to the transition which is the heart of his research. He describes the varied responses of writers when these subsidies dried up after the fall of communism and they had to survive in the free market. Wachtel lays out a number of paths they took and illustrates them with representative writers from across the region. They include on the literary side moves into better-selling genre fiction like fantasy or detective novels, writing for better-paying foreign markets, and journalism. A good number of writers also entered politics or took the plunge into nationalism. 

One can read the book as literary criticism, as a set of reading recommendations, or as a sociology of a changing literary scene. In any case, it is the kind of book that one would want to read about any region.

The Region in Context

Tony Judt, Postwar

Histories of Europe have tended to focus on the West - France, Germany, and England in particular - and ignore or downplay the role of the eastern half of the continent. A number of recent historians, however, have tried to write general histories that give both sides equal weight. The most extreme might be Norman Davies’s Europe where even the maps are reoriented so that Poland is in the center of Europe (not surprising, given that Davies’s magnum opus was Poland: The Heart of Europe). 

A more illuminating one might be Mark Mazower’s The Dark Continent, whose big contribution is to reframe Europe’s 20th century as a battle between liberalism and fascism/nationalism rather than between liberalism and communism. Fascism was much more popular than communism and constituted the real threat to liberal democracy in Europe though we tend to forget that threat because it was so thoroughly defeated and banished from politics. This may be why we are surprised by the resurgence of populism and nationalism today.

But my favorite general history that combines East and West is Tony Judt’s Postwar. It begins with his realization in 1989 that standard narratives were thrown in doubt by the fall of communism. This included the view that the division of Europe into two parts was the result of some kind of historical necessity - in fact it was more accidental - and the optimistic narrative that the postwar era was a miraculous recovery and learning of lessons - in fact it was more a restoration of what was lost economically through two wars and a forgetting of the past. The postwar era was more of an epilogue than something new.

He finds a number of parallels between the former two halves of the continent: the way that both systems were born of anxiety as much as ambition and how they lived for so long in the shadow of dictatorship and war. Both also lost faith in master narratives and politics and were marked by the absence of an older multiculturalism. Though he does find a European way of life, in the end the continent is more of a fox with many varieties.

And here are a few others that didn’t quite make it into the final list:

  • Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands

  • Derek Sayer, Coasts of Bohemia

  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward or First Circle

  • Danilo Kiš, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

  • Olga Fedina, What Every Russian Knows (And You Don’t)

  • Istvan Bart, Hungary and the Hungarians: The Keywords