The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, by Marci Shore (Crown, 384 pp., $27)
The new dawn that broke over Eastern Europe in 1989 was bright, but the landscape it illuminated was exhausted, a territory of shadows and regret, where hope was jostled by apprehension and old demons stirred. To read some of the accounts of that time and that place is to confront sadness unexpected after the jubilation on the Wall, the Hungarian border, or Wenceslas Square — a melancholy echoed in Marci Shore’s beautifully written, discursive, and by her own admission “deeply subjective” new memoir, a work of well-told history and perceptive reporting that is both less than its title promises and rather more. Either way, it could have done with an index.
Don’t read The Taste of Ashes expecting a survey that covers all of the old Eastern Europe. With the exception of Romania (does that count?), the Balkans do not really feature, nor do Hungary and the former East Germany. There’s a brief excursion to Lithuania, but the other Baltics and the rest of the Soviet far west are notable only by their omission. This is a volume centered on Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, but quite a bit of what Shore discovered there could easily have been found elsewhere in the region. Thus, in early 1995, she returns to Prague and visits the house of an apolitical elderly couple, all too typical of a generation throughout Eastern Europe whose lives had been impoverished by Communism, but ruined by its fall:
The Velvet Revolution had brought freedoms they had no use for, and in any case had not the money to enjoy. Their whole adult lives they had worked under the Communist regime, and that regime had promised they would be cared for in their old age. Now the social contract had been broken. For their generation the revolution had come too late. For Pan Prokop and Paní Prokopová, it would have been better had it not come at all.
That, of course, assumes that — had it survived — the crumbling economy of Communist Czechoslovakia would have been in a position to deliver on those undertakings, something that is by no means certain.
Shore is an associate professor of history at Yale, a Generation X intellectual of somewhat progressive hue. Thus it may not be surprising that her description of her time in the Eastern Europe of the “post-Communist moment” — doubtless further skewed, in a form of confirmation bias, by the views and experiences of those with whom she chose to associate — comes with a sigh of disappointment. History failed again. The rise of the philosopher king, Vaclav Havel, was not accompanied by the rise of a philosopher people.
There’s prim tut-tutting about the profusion of pornography, and, more justifiably, about the increase in crime and the persistence of the inertia, passivity, and conformity of the “realm of the not possible” that was so much of the Communist state. There is little about the revival in free enterprise, but plenty on the resurgence in national tensions. Shore spent time “working as an intern for an ethnic-conflict project at an American-funded research institute.” Ex-Yugoslavia was in flames, and other long-suppressed conflicts had reemerged into the space that Moscow had once policed. In Romania, Shore investigated tensions between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians. Fair enough, interesting enough, but all this risks giving an unbalanced impression of a region where most just wanted their lives to be “normal,” an adjective that Shore happens to hear used by a Romanian politician, but that was voiced often in Eastern Europe in those days. When the old regimes fell, achieving a “normality” defined in largely Western terms was a widespread objective.
This idea is reflected in a clever phrase deployed by Shore to describe 1989’s upheavals: “Time, seemingly halted for so long, suddenly leapt forward.” And if the results of the leap have been uneven, they have still been impressive: “To tens of millions of East Europeans the end of Communism brought countless good things — above all a freedom the vast majority of people never imagined that they would live long enough to see.”
But in one sense, time did count, and it counted very much. Shore trains her historian’s eye on the impact of the Communist years, with a keen focus on the telling detail and defining atrocity. And she takes a longer view than most. The rise of the red flag over what her husband, Yale professor Timothy Snyder, dubbed the “bloodlands” in his magisterial book of the same name cannot, she correctly stresses, be seen in isolation. The subtitle of Shore’s book refers not just to Communism but to totalitarianism. In her view, the different stages in the evolution of Eastern European Communism must be read as links in a chain that stretches back to World War II, Nazi occupation, and the Holocaust and, before that, to the Depression, the rise of Fascism, and even to “the dizzying possibilities of the 1920s.”
It is widely recognized that war and Nazi misrule were critical in clearing a political, military, and (perversely) moral space for Eastern European Stalinism, and the link between the war and the troubled decade that preceded it is hardly a secret. The connection to the “unhinging” 1920s is more novel. Shore uses the microcosm of a group of 20th-century Polish poets as a window into the revolutionary fervor that enveloped large sections of the European intelligentsia in a decade happier, luckier Americans remember for jazz and Al Jolson.
Those poets — many of them of Jewish descent — dominated her book Caviar and Ashes and crop up again in The Taste of Ashes. From the later 1920s onward, they exchanged the (to them) ultimately unbearable uncertainties of nihilism for the messianic determinism of the far left, a faith that they — and a number of their associates — were eventually, and crucially, to put at the disposal of Stalin’s Poland. That’s a timetable that suggests to me that the original sin from which the nightmares Shore describes were to flow was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. After all, it was Lenin’s blood-soaked millennial upheaval that frightened many into Fascism as a supposed last bulwark of civilization. And it was Lenin’s revolution that drove its followers worldwide into a Communist cult that became dangerously intertwined with Stalinism years before the alibi that was Auschwitz.
To attribute so much of the blame to Lenin fits awkwardly with the emphasis that Shore’s narrative places on Hitler. The Holocaust is justifiably central to our reading of Eastern Europe’s dark 20th century, but its role as Stalin’s enabler needs more nuance than Shore gives it. Equally, notwithstanding the pantomime anti-Semitism (a gargoyle hounding of phantoms) that still, shamefully, persists in these lands, the horrors of the Shoah are less critical — other than for the hideous absence that it left behind — to our understanding of the region today than Shore appears to suggest. In a book billed as wide-roaming, she devotes perhaps too much space to what is now, tragically, only a tiny, introspective, often conflicted minority of Polish Jews. A minority of a once slightly larger minority (the Communists arranged a final anti-Semitic purge in 1968), they stay put in a country that groups of visiting Jewish teenagers — there to mourn at the death camps — regard (Shore recalls) “as a cemetery.”
Theirs is a disturbing, compelling story, but it crowds out a broader discussion of the encounter with a Communist past in which so many Eastern Europeans were profoundly compromised and then, “in a world where all the rules had changed,” left exposed by the opening of files that were either devastatingly ambiguous or, worse, all too clear.
There could have been more too in this book on the appeal of totalizing ideology to so many intellectuals. It is a topic that obviously interests Shore (it surfaced in Caviar and Ashes), but she gives too little attention to a phenomenon that still endures, if more benignly, even in the attitude of those such as the former dissident and Velvet Revolutionary who opts out of the, yes, normal politics of the new era: “To be engaged” is, in his view, “to forgo clean hands,” an abdication that is itself a declaration of absolutist thinking. Shore notes that “dissidence . . . had often been born of communism”: Once a believer, always a believer — all that changes is in what. That dangerous thrill remains.
Shore concludes the book with a tale of meeting a “bright young” member of the Polish new Left, who thanks her for Caviar and Ashes — a work he regards as rehabilitating those Marxist intellectuals of seven decades ago. Shore contradicts him, explaining that their fate is a “tragedy.” “But I didn’t read it as a tragedy!” says the bright young man. “I read it as a romance.”
We have been warned.
– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.