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."[tag]
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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. 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. 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).