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.”