Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe, by Kristen Ghodsee

General Kostadin Lagadinov, age 91: “And now what?  Capitalism has defeated our socialism, but today we can see that this system is not fair.  I am certain that sooner or later people will come to realize that only through public ownership of the means of production will we have social justice.”

A student:  “We don’t want Communism back, we just want a normal country.”

Anyone who has spent six years in Eastern Europe when it was still located behind an Iron Curtain could not but be intrigued by an ad from an academic press for a book with the above title.  While most Westerners would find its subtitle difficult to believe, I had not been surprised when reading about a certain nostalgia for the Communist past among both Russians and Eastern Europeans, given that I had experienced first hand the social advantages that existed under communism. But here was a discussion of the phenomenon written not by a political analyst, but by an ethnographer.

A professor at Baudoin College who has won many awards Kristen Ghodsee has successfully melded her private and professional lives and moreover she has done what few academics dare, going beyond the confines of a narrow speciality. I suspect that her life story has played a part in this: her father was Persian, her mother Puerto Rican, Ghodsee grew up in San Diego, where at University, she met and married a Bulgarian law student, acquiring at once a research area and direct access to it.  

According to Wikipedia: 
Early work on the emergence of communist nostalgia focused on its consumer aspects and considered the phenomenon a necessary phase that post-socialist populations needed to pass through in order to fully break with their communist pasts.[15] In contrast, Ghodsee’s concept of "red nostalgia" considered how individual men and women experienced the loss of the real material benefits of the socialist past.[16][17] Rather than just a wistful glance back at a lost youth, red nostalgia formed the basis of an emerging critique of the political and economic upheavals that characterized the post-socialist era.

After reading The Left Side of History, I searched Amazon for Ghodsee’s other books and noticed one written with Rachel Connelly called Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia. Further evidence of Kristen Ghodsee’s personal approach to ethnography is suggested by the fact that one of her protagonists resulted from an encounter with a physicist. She had admired Freeman Dyson from afar until she found herself standing behind him in a lunch-line at Princeton. When Ghodsee told him she was doing field working Bulgaria, Dyson drew her into his office and asked her to find out what exactly had happened to a young Englishman he’d known during World War II, whose death among the Bulgarian partisans had never been completely elucidated. It just so happened that Ghodsee was researching the lives of Bulgarian resistance fighters, so the case of Frank Thompson, brother of the famous historian E.P. Thompson, became part of her remit when she returned to Bulgaria.

Thompson’s fate is the peg upon which Ghodsee hangs descriptions of the incredibly harsh conditions under which resistance fighters lived, which in turn are contrasted to the postwar — then post-communism — lives of several of its survivors. 

In just 200 pages, she conjures up the ordeals of men and women sabotaging the German occupation of Bulgaria and Greece, the mystery of what actually happened to one British soldier who joined them, and the reminiscences of several women resistance fighters who became leaders in postwar Bulgaria, ending with their appraisal of the country’s transition to liberal democracy.

Another of Ghodsee’s areas of inquiry has been the lives of women under communism, hence the lead figure in Left Side is Elena Lagadinova, who at fourteen was a courier for her partisan brothers, with whom Thompson fought. After the defeat of German fascism and the institution of a Communist-led government, Lagadinova pursued post-graduate studies in Moscow, becoming a wheat geneticist, then was asked to head the Bulgarian Women’s Movement, which involved frequent meetings with counterparts in other Eastern European countries as well as participation in major international women’s events.

Recently, I was discussing Greece’s economic problems with an acquaintance, who declared that you just couldn’t let people retire at forty-five. Although I do not know the official Greek retirement age,  I was certain that this was not the case because I was familiar with retirement criteria in Eastern Europe under communism: coal minors in Poland retired at fifty due to their harsh working conditions, but in the sixties across the Eastern bloc men retired at sixty, while women could retire at fifty-five.   

Even today, Americans know little about the efforts made by  Communist governments to improve the lives of women, and again I can vouch for Ghodsee’s accuracy from my experience in both Poland and Hungary. While Americans are only just beginning to realize how much more vacation time Europeans have enjoyed under the welfare state, they still ignore the systematic, concerted efforts the East European Communist regimes made, both because gender quality is part of Communist ideology, and because they needed all the workers they could get, to bring women into the work force under conditions that also promoted infant and child welfare. 

Talking about the 1946 Communist government  (when future American libbers were still in high school), Lagadinova told Ghodsee:

“It was clear that we needed to give women paid maternity leave, and to build more creches and kindergartens for the children……Women needed help. We developed a comprehensive plan.”
……Elena’s eyes filled with excitement as she explains that Lenin believed that housework needed to be socialized in order to free women from the domestic burdens of the home and fully incorporate them into society." (sic)

At first the men running the country didn’t want to spend the money on day-care, preferring to make abortions legal, but when Lagadinova pointed out that wives would avoid sex and that would lead to  broken families, they relented:

"When they rewrote the constitution in 1971 they elevated the right to maternity leave as a constitutional principle……We were well ahead of all of the other countries when we went to Mexico City in 1975 for the First World Conference on Women."

When I lived in Hungary in the late sixties, working women were entitled to three years’ paid maternity leave — perhaps as an alternative to building more day care facilities, or perhaps to encourage the birth rate. I do not remember what the main objective was, but I can vouch for the fact that the countries of the Eastern bloc were way ahead of the West when it came to working mothers. 

According to Ghodsee’s Wiki: 

“Contrary to the prevailing opinion of most feminist scholars in the 1990s who believed that women would be disproportionately harmed by the collapse of communism, Ghodsee argued that many East European women would actually fare better than men in newly competitive labor markets because of the cultural capital that they had acquired before 1989.” Alas, the testimonies in The Left Side of History contradict that expectation, for ‘democracy’ trashed much of what was accomplished under Communist rule.  As Lagadinova explains:

“A lot of people think communism was about equality.  But it was not about equality; it is impossible to have perfect equality. People are too different……It was about justice….It was about building a society that would work for the many rather than enriching the few.”

Elena waves her arm at the window:  “And now, you see what we have? So many people are without medicine; so many children are on the street. They are not going to school. Prostitutes make more money than doctors and judges.  People are poorer now than they were before the war, while the rich live in mansions with swimming pools.”

After 1989, Bulgaria became a ‘democratic’ country, but it also became a miserable one. After January 1, 2007, Bulgaria officially joined the European Union and earned the distinction of being its poorest member state. By 2011, the European Commission found that 44% of Bulgarians had experienced ‘severe material deprivation’….Communism was not the only political dream that had disappointed.

Ghodsee describes a meeting with a group of retired professional women to discuss the changes they had witnessed. A historian admitted: "I hated communism: not being able to get the books I wanted, or articles from the West.  Having to use Marxist theory.  But recently I’ve come to see that perhaps I did not understand it so well.  I saw it only from the university.  But for ordinary people I suppose it was different.  I think there were some good things about the system that I didn’t see because I was so angry about the books.”

Another historian is described by Ghodsee as disapproving of “the marketization of historical scholarship…… with (Bulgarian) scholars dispatched into the archives to find evidence for whatever thesis Western donors wanted to prove.”

When the women at the meeting ask her for a story about communism from the American point of view, Ghodsee tells them how as a child she practiced hiding under her school desk during nuclear bomb drills. But the memory suddenly provokes doubts about her work: “Would I become an apologist for totalitarianism if I tried to document the progress of women in Bulgaria between 1944 and 1989?”

Notwithstanding her misgivings, it is with real anger that she reports that members of the wartime government allied with Nazi Germany who had committed crimes against humanity, were posthumously declared ‘victims’ of Communism, complete with monuments erected by the ‘democratic’ government. Reading this in the spring of 2015, when signs of a fascist revival are all around us, is chilling.

Combining traditional ethnography with the stylistic conventions of creative nonfiction, Ghodsee’s book reads like a memoir. Inspired by the work of Clifford Geertz, this technique, known as “literary ethnography,” produces academic texts that are meant to be accessible to a wider audience, and Ghodsee’s succeeds masterfully at that task, and not only in The Left Side of History

After reading it, I was intrigued by the title of a short e-book listed on Amazon: A Million Unattributed Cucumbers crystalizes Ghodsee’s doubts about the validity of her professional trajectory. It is the best 99 cent read around, in which the line between ethnography and literature comes close to blurring. I know what she means when she reports typical US cocktail exchanges in which fellow academics are not sure whether Bulgaria is in Europe or South America, or that kids tease her daughter at school for spending summers with her grandparents in…..Sofia.

But the story is actually about spying. As Ghodsee tells us: 

"In the era before Internet snooping and mass electronic surveillance, governments gathered intelligence by sending trained agents into the field. In the world of international espionage, two kinds of spies collect state secrets: OCs and NOCs. Those with ‘official cover’ (the OCs) work in embassies. and consulates (and) enjoy the protection of diplomatic immunity if their true purpose in a country is revealed. At worst, the host nation declares the individual a persona non grata and she leaves with no repercussions. Those operating under non-official cover (NOCs) lacked the necessary affiliation with a diplomatic mission to qualify for immunity. NOCs operate at great risk. When caught they face severe penalties, often death, for their transgressions.

Bulgarians assumed that I was an NOC. In the immediate post-Cold War era, only this possibility explained my presence in and knowledge of their country. I spent over a decade denying this double identity until one day a jumpy druggie forced me to embrace the part."

Describing the humdrum life of a foreign researcher in the Bulgarian capital, one day Ghodsee comes across a collection of government files in a trash can, but is confronted with a young passer-by who challenges her right to take them. In the grip of the ethnographer’s passion for evidence, and thinking the files might serve a future research project, she pretends to be an NOC, speaking a few words of English and staring down her young challenger.

The files tell the life story of an agricultural specialist under Communism, a Mr. Andreev. Ghodsee wonders what happened to him after communism collapsed. “Had he lost his life savings, like so many other Bulgarians of his generation when the whole banking system imploded in 1996?  How had he survived the hyperinflation that destroyed the value of his pension?  After working and paying into the system for forty years, did he have to accept money from (his son) to afford the basic necessities?  The new Bulgarian government privatized the old state greenhouses to foreign investors who shut them down and then sold the valuable land beneath them. What did Mr. Andreev think when the new democrats broke up the collective farms, their tractors sold for scrap metal?  After years of being self-sufficient in food production, Bulgaria now imported shrink wrapped cucumbers from Turkey and Israel.

Noting that for thirty years Mr. Andreev had kept Bulgarians in cucumbers while not a single vegetable ever bore his signature, Ghodsee fingers the refusal of intellectuals to accept limits on their freedom to think, versus the reliable provision of basic necessities and even comforts to the far larger cohort of ordinary citizens.  

Those who write about communism by definition see it through an intellectual lens, yet when people who do not read
intellectual publications discover life under really existing socialism, they are envious.

Among Mr. Andreev’s files were railway time tables for holidays on the Black Sear, and even weekly TV schedules.  Ghodsee notes that the evening news came on at 17:30, and the national ‘Good Night, Children” song was broadcast as usual at 19:50. “Andreev’s son would have been three in 1977, and like most Bulgarian children, he probably listened to that song each evening before bedtime: ‘I am Sandman, I’ve come from the woods to wish you kids ‘Good Night’.  It is dark outside.  It is time to sleep.” (A similar program sent my own children to bed in 1960s’ Hungary, where summer vacations would find us in a government funded guesthouse on Lake Balaton…..)

Noticing permission for foreign travel and participation in international conferences, Godsee wonders whether Mr. Andreev was ever accused of being a spy, then realizes that the papers that document her own career could enable some future Ph.D candidate to make the case that she too was a spy:

"Someday, a graduate student might use my old field notes and journals as raw data for her dissertation.  This aspiring Ph’d student will work her way through my files. Between some old teaching evaluations and notes for unwritten fellowship proposals, she will discover the folders from Mr. Andreev, a collection of communist era documents from an official Bulgarian Ministry. Maybe this will be the evidence she needs to prove that I really was a CIA NOC. Why else would I have these personal files from 1970s Bulgaria? These weren’t just crop reports; they were encrypted military secrets, perhaps coordinates for a clandestine underground nuclear weapons…..

The dissertating Ph.D. student will suggest that Mr. Andreev was not an agronomist. He was an undercover agent involved in agricultural espionage. When she convinces the Bulgarian government to release Mr. Andreev’s secret service dossier and they confirm his true employment, a web of mystery and suspicion will descend over my entire academic career. My books will be reread for information about my secret missions. The dissertation might become a bestselling e-book.

Because Mr. Andreev and I were Cold War spooks, readers will take an interest in our biographies. Expert cryptographers might scrutinize our half-finished crossword puzzles. My grocery lists will be scanned and digitally stored in the British Museum. Perhaps a novelist will be inspired to write a cloak and dagger  thriller about a young American woman who is initiated into an international society by a retired Bulgarian intelligence agent posing as a cucumber expert. The phallic symbolism is irresistible. Neo-Freudians will celebrate. They’ll make a movie. There’ll be a plastic actionbot of the actress who plays me. My grandchildren will brag in school…"

In the final ironic lines of this small e-book, Kristen Ghodsee distills the essence of America’s war syndrome: the temptation to see the worst in others, and especially, the conviction that our own way of life is superior to theirs.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the "Left Side" book and followed up with "Lost in Transition." There are more articles available at the author's own webpage and YouTube has various additional video for those who are interested.