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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/13/18

Review: Red Hangover: Legacies of 20th century Communism

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I feared Kristen Ghodsee's Red Hangover: Legacies of 20th century Communism (2017) would be yet another dumping on the sad ending to the world's socialist experiment, or at best a boring collection of footnotes. I was wrong. It is full of ironies, twists, incisive exposes of the venality of the whole process of 'liberation'. And some biting Bulgarian barbs.* Oh, and women have twice as many orgasms under socialism.

Like Feffer in Aftershock, also published in 2017, Ghodsee uses her travels, studies, lectures to audiences east and west to test the waters of eastern Europe today. This fresh approach to documenting history through the eyes of both participants and sympathetic observers is more like reading a page-turner spy novel, full of often misunderstood heroes and villains, crafty confidence tricksters and lots and lots of victims. Who needs fiction? You enter the theatre of life, feel its pulse.

Sleuthing in Sofya

Ghodsee, always the researcher, saw a heap of documents in a garbage can on a trip to Bulgaria in 1997, and on an impulse started putting them in her bag. A pathetic homeless guy, clearly a drug addict, accosted her, always on the lookout for something to hawk. She told him she was CIA and he fled. Safely back at Duke University, she started perusing them.

The files were of agronomist Andreev, who rose in the 1950s to be Mr. Cucumber, responsible eventually for importing Dutch seeds and planting them in government greenhouses to feed the nation, with some for export to other socialist countries in COMECON. He had been awarded a golden badge of honour. It appeared his life was tranquil, successful, that he was a model citizen who didn't worry about 'profit', though he no doubt was key to determining the production, distribution and pricing of cukes.

Andreev died bitter and forgotten, his discarded files, a sad metaphor for what happened in Bulgaria with its 'colour revolution' in 1989 (choose your colour). Andreev's precious greenhouses were privatized and closed, the (profitable) land sold. 'Investment' capitalist style. Now Bulgarians import plastic-wrapped cucumbers from Turkey and Israel, courtesy of the new 'Andreev', though the new one will set a price to maximize profit, not to earn a golden badge of honour.

From 1990 on, such new Bulgarians ran illegal weapons to Serbs in the Bosnian war, making their first killing, then morphed into private syndicates to pillage the remains of the socialist economy. Gangs and murders proliferated.

Six Bulgarians doused themselves in gasoline and burned to death in public from February to March 2013 (one further despairing old lady in 2014). Only Tibet can compete (130 fiery suicides from 2009--15). The prices of now privatized energy and water were the sparks.The prime minister and Varna's corrupt mayor were forced to resign. Perhaps these Bulgarian martyrs had heard about the Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set off the Arab Spring shortly before with his self-immolation, and thought they could spark a real revolution, based on the masses (as they had been taught in the old days).

The wall

The 25th anniversary in 2014 of fall of the Berlin Wall on November 29, 1989 had two faces. The drunken celebratory one at the Brandenburg Gates, featuring David Bowie's Heroes and Beethoven's 9th symphony as its theme songs,** Gorbachev, Walesa, and GDR dissident satirist Biermann (expelled from the GDR in 1976) singing his protest songs.

Disgruntled ossies (ex-GDRers) and fellow travellers were allowed an official counterprotest, which was shunted behind barriers near the Reichstag. Among the motley crew of all stripes, hundreds of polizei milled in full riot gear carrying plexiglas shields. The protesters complained of state video uberwacht (closed-circuit tv), which records more footage of ordinary Germans than the Stasi. They argued that German prosperity was from exploiting guest workers, that Ukraine was moving towards outright fascism.

20% of those in ex-socialist countries still have lower incomes than pre-1989. 'Successes' Poland, Czechia, Slovenia are slightly better off. Most are so far behind they can't aspire to pre-1989 levels for at least 20 years. The social costs for eastern Europe have been enormous, resulting in a million deaths and still counting.

Ghodsee was puzzled that there were no celebrations in Bulgaria. "Because there was nothing to celebrate," her friend Svetozara, said bitterly. Once an enthusiast of change, Sveta had helped reorganize local governments to be more responsive to citizens' needs, to make legislation less bureaucratic, more transparent. "It was all a lie, worse than what we had before. Rotten from the start. 1989 was about expanding markets for western companies. They used the language of freedom and democracy, but it was all about money."

Her (east) German friend Daniela Dahn: I always longed to live in a democracy. But not in capitalism. I had no illusions about its tendency to economic and financial crises, its power to create a social divide between the rich and poor, and its inclination to military solutions. 90% of east Germans wanted the path to better, reformed socialism; only 5% wanted the capitalist path."***


The partying in Berlin 2014 could not last. Contradictions were reaching a boiling point. The vacuum from the collapse of socialism, combined with the rapacity of capitalism, had spawned an angry right wing populism everywhere. It seemed to have come from out of the blue.

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Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games", "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" and "Canada (more...)

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