A common motif of post-communism is shininess. Post-1989 buildings in Eastern Europe often have abundant rose-coloured marble and mirrored glass and, for the nouveau riche, bejewelling and gold-plating are the go-to aesthetic from mobile phones to toilet seats. Of course, this flourish of colour is often explained as a natural response to the ‘greyness’ of state-socialism: from the concrete housing towers to the wizened gerontocracy that governed the USSR Politburo until Gorbachev came along. But, over the past twenty-nine years, the glamour and brightness of this style has come to seem not just brash but insulting. Citizens of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries are not satisfied with the progress that has been made since 1989. Many feel that they have traded in the grey faceless bureaucratic oppression of the Communist Party for a new capitalist class who are offensively showy: every four-carat diamond and London flat pilfered through privatisation has become a personal insult to an unemployed Donbass miner or pension-dependent babushka in Yekaterinburg.
The new book Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny by Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski extensively employs another metaphor: the dancing bear set free. Szabłowski’s central story is of bears that once danced for money in the streets of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, as well as in tourist resorts on the Black Sea. The bears were liberated from their Roma owners by the European Union, which made bear-keeping illegal, aided by the efforts of an Austrian environmentalist NGO that built a park for retired bears outside of Sofia. But the animals were miserable there: they did not know what to do with their time. They were confused and sometimes they even seemed to yearn for the strong hand of their masters or the chain that attached to a ring in their nose.
Szabłowski extends this metaphor through half the book: ‘Large parts of the world gained freedom for which it was not prepared, in the most extreme cases, it was not expecting or even wanting it,’ and he combines this story with reports from Estonia, Albania, Cuba, and Ukraine. Eastern European citizens are the object of Western European pity in Dancing Bears: not just for never attaining the material comforts of their counterparts but for failing to understand the source of their misery and the means to move forward with their lives.
Dancing Bears is an interesting exercise in ostblock anthropomorphism: unlike Animal Farm (the leader in that genre) it’s never quite clear what the political message is. It illustrates the continued effects of communism but the resulting problems do not have a finite culprit. State corruption is the most proximate source of all the trouble: Poles are driving illegal cars into Ukraine, the Italian mafia builds empty flats in Albania to launder money, and a Bulgarian mob boss keeps a pet lion in his backyard. However, the role of rapid economic liberalisation is mostly absent, aside for the coda of the book which briefly examines anti-austerity protesters in Athens. Szabłowski sometimes seems to cast blame on the post-communist citizens themselves for being too bear like and yearning for ‘life under tyranny’ as the English translation subtitle puts it.
One miserable character is a delusional older Polish woman who sleeps at a London train station. She found her way there via Strasbourg, where she went to complain about the land grabbing that resulted in the loss of her cottage, to the European Court of Human Rights. Sometimes it seems that Szabłowski is genuinely sympathetic for those ill-suited to post-communist life and the EU, but he also gently mocks the Polish homeless woman’s desire to continue begging in Spain and Italy where the weather is warmer. In a standout passage about Bulgarian villagers living near the NGO-funded bear park, it’s hard to make out whether he ridicules the economic concerns of Bulgarians (the EU’s poorest country) or if he is poking fun at the priorities of environmentalist non-profit groups:
The residents of the local town Belitsa are not quite mature enough to have a dancing bears park in their neighbourhood. Why do I say that? Because when park manager, Dimitar Ivanov, tells them the beautiful story of how the lives of the bears and lions have been saved, the citizens of Belista respond with comments that miss the point. They ask, for example, how much is an air ticket to South Africa for a lion? Or, what’s the monthly cost of keeping a bear?
The topic of maturity is hard to parse here because Szabłowski’s major conceit is that nostalgia is holding back post-communist Europeans with a kind of Stockholm syndrome effect: they yearn for a system that chained and beat them. Ironically, this failure to modernise and be ‘mature enough’ for a bear park was a common talking point amongst communist apparatchiks who viewed most of the Eastern Bloc as too backward, religious, and peasant to fully appreciate the sacrifices needed to achieve urbanisation, industrialisation, and modernisation.
More broadly, while Dancing Bears is riveting and filled with stories that are deliciously madcap, it adheres to a popular vision of Eastern Europe: a freak show that would be funnier if it were a bit farther from ‘real’, ‘serious’ places, like Vienna and Frankfurt. Bulgaria is filled with Roma who play fiddle while their bears dance, Albania is speckled with Enver Hoxha’s many cement igloo bunkers, and one can find the Bosnian-Serb war criminal Radovan Karadžić practising New Age medicine from his hideout in Belgrade. While all these things really happened, the collection of them together tends to make the experience of post-communism the sum of its wackiest pieces. The median experience of post-communism, sadly, is probably a worker in a rural city losing an industrial job, living on an insufficient pension, and slipping into depression and, potentially, substance abuse. Yet, in Dancing Bears we learn about old Georgian women coming to a Stalin museum to frantically kiss his portrait, while the reasons why they may be nostalgic for Uncle Joe are black-boxed.
Like the strikingly effective oral historian and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, Szabłowski often lets his characters speak for themselves, and their voices are compiled without comment. While this may leave readers in a bit of a lurch as to his political analysis of post-communism, it is an admirable technique for hearing from those already relegated to the past. In an interview with an employee of the Stalin museum in the Georgian city of Gori, she laments: ‘If it weren’t for communism… I would have never thought about occupying a managerial position because only men had those positions before… No system has ever given women so much.’ Indeed, informants remember both the good and the bad. Some were viciously persecuted in ways that seem to be ripped from the pages of Darkness at Noon or the Gulag Archipelago. Others survived communism only to find new political problems arising from the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
This is the case for ethnic Russians living in Estonia, where they are denied the right to work in professions such as law, medicine, and teaching without fluency in the Estonian language (which is similar to Finnish and which few people spoke fluently before 1989, especially not the twenty-five per cent of the country that is ethnically Russian). What’s more, Russian ethnics were no longer Estonian citizens when the piece of land they were living on switched from the Soviet Union to the Republic of Estonia in 1990, and their children likewise are not given birthright citizenship despite living all their lives in independent Estonia. While Estonians have good reasons to feel bitter for what they were subjected to during the Soviet period and to be wary of Russian irredentism, particularly in the wake of the invasion of Crimea, Szabłowski gestures at the internationalist nature of the USSR compared to the splintered nationalism taking hold across Eastern Europe, where ethnic minorities are distrusted and non-European migrants are despised.
The exuberant style of Moscow in the 1990s – filled with luxury cars and glimmering new towers – may be receding, as many post-communist economies slow down and the wealth gap between the Haves and Have Nots becomes undeniable. This is especially the case given that new fortunes are often assumed to be ill-gotten and, in many cases, that’s true. As a Cuban woman tells the author in explaining why she hopes Fidel Castro will live for 200 years: ‘Without him they will turn this country into a bordello.’
Indeed, like this woman, many in post-communist countries openly speak about how shared poverty created a kind of equality which, while they don’t exactly miss it, can seem like a fairer system compared to the rampant inequality of the mobster capitalism that flourishes across much of the former Soviet Union. In this sense, the question of how to ‘teach freedom to animals that had never been free’, that Szabłowski poses at the beginning of the book, seems a bit too narrow. Post-communist citizens may enjoy political freedom but their economic insecurity prevents a sense of true success and, with the rise of illiberal nationalism in places like Hungary and Poland, future political freedom is anything but guaranteed.
Image: Moscow – Morton F / flickr