Red Hangover is a compendium of observations, analysis and personal notes about Eastern Europe, which Kristin Ghodsee has been studying for decades. Focusing on the period since the fall of the Berlin Wall, when these countries went from socialism to capitalism, Ghodsee interrogates Eastern Europeans on their comparative experience with the two systems, bringing them to life for readers who have been fed only propaganda about both.
Most readers will be surprised to learn that since 1989, when Eastern Europe began to break free of the Soviet Union (which in turn collapsed in 1991), its people, whether Bulgarians at the eastern edge, or East Germans now part of the central powerhouse, have come to regret the 'good old days' of Soviet 'domination'.
Via short stories, interviews, vignettes and no-nonsense statistics that illustrate shocking economic realities, Red Hangover is an emotional roller-coaster. Ms Ghodsee is particularly artful in fictionalizing child organ trafficking, which the reader only discovers at the end of a complex narrative, and which contrasts with the benefits lost under capitalism. It brings to life the century-long struggle that accounts for much of the incomprehension between the United States and the rest of the world. In ultra-modern Western Europe, that struggle is still part of everyday life, as shown in Ghodsee's account of a yearly German tribute to two early socialist theoreticians, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, founders of the German Communist Party who were murdered in 1919 by embattled socialist leaders, in a prelude to Germany's eventual takeover by Hitler.
These events are echoed in the chapter on Ukraine. The US-organized coup against the legally-elected pro-Russian President in 2014 put that country back decades, the role of violent neo-Nazi sympathizers in Kiev boosting the recent rise of far-right across Europe.
Ghodsee's ability to move seamlessly from past to present is admirable, but frankly, I could have done without a chapter on typewriters, and I regret that perhaps editorial demands required her to include A Million Unattributable Cucumbers, first published in 2015. But then again, how many contemporary authorities on Eastern Europe have investigated the relative sexual satisfaction of Eastern and Western European women?
As someone who spent five years in Eastern Europe under communism, I have read and loved all Ghodsee's books, each one more than the last. Red Hangover is the most complex, melding personal and professional experience with history and political theory much better than I was able to do in my memoir, Lunch with Fellini, Dinner with Fidel. Indeed, Ghodsee's work is proof that the academic path I eschewed does not have to stifle creativity.
Now a professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Ghodsee has chosen to insert the story of Eastern Europe's transition from communism to capitalism into a theoretical frame that generously involves other researchers. Her assessment of the comparative merits of social democracy and neo-liberal democracy, the former embodying a promise, the latter a terrible disappointment, is most forcefully illustrated in interviews with two professional women.
Over dinner, a recently arrived lawyer friend from Bulgaria who "with her liberal colleagues had fought hard to banish communist influences from the government and the economy," confesses:
"I can't tell you how disgusted I am, Kristen. I feel like such an idiot. Ii thought we were fighting on the right side"for freedom and democracy, for principles that I believed in. But it was all a lie. What we have now is worse than what we had before"1989 was not about bringing liberty to the people of Eastern Europe, it was about expanding markets for Western companies. They used the language of freedom and democracy, but it was all about money. I never understood how people could support a system like communism, but now I see that they made the same mistake that I made. They believed in something that they thought was good but that turned out to be very bad, and I did the same thing."
Ghodsee also quotes a writer who helped draft laws to eradicate state censorship and guarantee a free press, imagining a new future for East Germany, which would be a democratic socialist one. Unreported in the West, an opinion poll taken in November 1989 (just after the fall of the Berlin Wall) showed that 89% of East Germans preferred to 'take the path to better, reformed socialism", with only 5% supporting the capitalist path. "It soon became clear this would not happen".With lightning speed, the Wester German constitution became the new constitution of a unified Germany."
I remember being in a taxi from the Gare de Lyon in Paris, carrying the first copies of the book I had written that foresaw the reunification of Europe, when the radio announced the fall of the Berlin Wall. Arriving at my apartment building, I phoned my German philosopher neighbors with the news, opining that within a year, Germany would be reunited. They didn't believe me, imagining the consultative process bemoaned by Ghodsee's Eastern friends. In fact, in just under a year, reunification was a fait accompli. The East Germans, like their brothers in the other Eastern European countries, were not given a choice. And by the way, and the promises made to Gorbachev that NATO would not move an inch beyond the Eastern German border, are now dismissed as a 'misunderstanding', as its troops camp along Russia's border, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and Russia is forced to organize its armed forces accordingly.
Ghodsee's descriptions of life under really existing socialism, a complex and under-reported reality, together with its history, of which most Americans are shockingly ignorant, lead seamlessly to the present situation. She confesses:
"Since 2005, I have written four books about communism and post-communism in Eastern Europe, and I believed for a long time that I was researching the lived experiences of the transition from communism to capitalism, exploring the impacts on ordinary lives"..Today, after twenty years of research on the region, I realize that things are not improving and that I was naive. Without intending to, I've been documenting the failures of democracy in the aftermath of the Cold War. Francis Fukuyama famously claimed that the collapse of world communism was the end of history, because liberal democracy and free-market capitalism had triumphed and proved themselves to be the best political and organizational systems for organizing human affairs. But today, capitalism threatens to destroy democracy, and the world stands on the edge of a post-democratic age."
In a brilliant chapter, Ghodsee imagines a "female former member of the American Democratic party" being interrogated for days by a German bureaucrat for eventual asylum in that country after having to flee "Drumpism" in 2029. The investigator ultimately denies her request for an academic position on the basis of her failure to have acted to prevent the United States from descending into fascism. Her answers to the German's questions illustrate the real life inability of the American left to form a solid core capable of organizing the rejection of neo-liberal capitalism that is leading at best to authoritarianism, at worst to civil war.
Sadly, this work has been (favorably) reviewed by fellow authors, but not by the media upon whose recommendations readers base their choices. Presumably, professional reviewers are intimidated by the current association of today's Russia with its predecessor, the Soviet Union, whose 'subjection' of Eastern Europe justifies the claim that it seeks to recreate its former 'empire', in total ignorance of what life was actually like under 'really existing socialism'. Aside from the absurdity of a country that spans eleven time zones seeking to overrun the tiny Baltic states, Kristin Ghodsee's latest work is a fascinating challenge to those misconceptions, and should be required reading for anyone seeking to imagine where the current American administration is taking us.