The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

David Priestland commends an impressive journey through the aftermath of communism in eastern Europe

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Reviewed by: David Priestland
Author: Marci Shore
Publisher: William Heinemann
Price (RRP): £20

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The fall of eastern European communism is now often seen as a straightforwardly positive story, in which good triumphed over evil and the mass of the population was on the side of the angels. Mention ‘1989’, and we immediately think of crowds of young Germans clambering over the Berlin Wall, taking crowbars to a grim symbol of oppression. Yet, as Shore shows in her beautifully written, brilliantly perceptive, and often moving book, things were, and are, much more complicated.

Shore, a historian at Yale University, is the author of Caviar and Ashes (Yale UP, 2009), an acclaimed study of the early generation of Polish communists, and has spent a great deal of time in eastern Europe since the early 1990s teaching English and doing research, mainly in the Czech Republic and Poland. Her latest book is a personal account of those years. Structured like a piece of travel literature, with loosely connected chapters based around her visits, it is packed with anecdotes and humour and is extremely readable. But the informality is deceptive, for she always brings her scholar’s eye to her experiences and encounters, using them to illuminate the big historical questions of this troubled region.

Shore’s journey began when, as a student, she read about the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, led by the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, and sought to find out more about this revolution that seemed so unusually virtuous and untainted by power.

And yet, when she arrived in the Czech Republic, she realised how marginal the dissidents were, and how far many Czechs had been willing to tolerate a communist system that deprived them of freedom, but that also gave them security.

She also found that Czech history was not the simple story of struggles between good dissidents and bad communists. Many dissidents were enthusiastic Stalinists in the 1940s and 1950s, including the writer Milan Kundera, who wrote that “the communists took power… to the cheers of about half the population… the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half”. And even when they became disillusioned with Stalin, the dissidents remained committed to Marxism in the 1960s, before abandoning it in the 1970s and 1980s.

These people were also not likely to be supporters of the highly commercialised societies that emerged after 1989, and their place in the post-communist world has been an uneasy one. In Poland, campaigns against figures with a communist past were partly aimed at dissidents, who were often the children of Stalinists; meanwhile, Kundera was widely condemned when it was discovered that he had denounced an anti-communist intelligence agent to the Stalinist authorities.

Shore is therefore determined to avoid easy moral judgments, agreeing with Havel that everybody was “both a victim and a supporter of the system”. Her view of the region’s history is a tragic one: “These were historical situations in which no decisions were innocent ones,” “in which all possible choices involved suffering.” It is therefore no surprise that the past, and the inevitable moral compromises that it involved, should have such a powerful effect on the present. Even so, Shore suggests that this influence may be waning as a new generation grows up without memories of communism. When she asks a 16-year-old nephew of a Czech friend who Stalin was, he hesitates, before answering uncertainly: “A dictator?”

With the opening of the archives, many excellent histories of communist eastern Europe have appeared in recent years (although fewer historians have dealt with the post-communist era). But I cannot think of any that succeed so well as this in communicating the ways in which individuals responded to both communism and its legacy. In combining subtle historical judgments with literary flair, Shore has produced a masterpiece.

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David Priestland is a lecturer at the University of Oxford and the author of Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (Allen Lane, 2012)