Seeing Shades of Gray in the Red

Kristen Ghodsee, Professor of Russian and East European Studies, encourages more nuanced conversations about communism.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

By Karen Brooks

The atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Forced labor camps under the Gulag. Devastating famines. Kristen Ghodsee calls these things “the troika”—the vile images Westerners are conditioned to invoke whenever they hear the word “communism.”

This oversimplification of what she recognizes as a deeply complex era troubles Ghodsee, an ethnographer who joined the Department of Russian and East European Studies (formerly the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures) as a professor last August. In her new book, Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism, Ghodsee acknowledges the horrors enacted by communist regimes but posits that as a social and economic system, state socialism also had redeeming qualities that Western narratives omit.

“It’s like we’ve been programmed to equate communism with Stalinism—but history isn’t that black and white,” she says.

Red Hangover comprises 10 essays and four fictional stories inspired by Ghodsee’s experiences living and traveling in Eastern Europe over more than two decades. She describes the atmosphere in Belgrade, Serbia, during a visit in spring 1990—six months after the fall of the Berlin Wall ended the Cold War—as “pure jubilation.” But in most post-communist countries, celebratory moods didn’t last.

Unbridled joy had turned into sheer desperation by March 13, 2013, when Ghodsee was working in Sofia, Bulgaria, and smelled a strange odor she soon realized was the burning body of a man who had set himself on fire in front of the presidential palace. His demonstration was one in a series of suicides and suicide attempts triggered by extreme poverty, as democracy had come coupled with economic decline.

“That day, it hit me that this wasn’t a temporary transitional period. We could no longer promote the rhetoric of ‘just wait, things will get better’ when people were suffering this much almost 25 years after the Wall fell,” she says.

Ghodsee believes anticommunist leaders sincerely sought to bring human rights to oppressed citizens in the Eastern Bloc, but she also confronts the economic motives that made it impossible for most of these same citizens to prosper. Western corporations wreaked havoc, she explains, when they bought previously state-owned enterprises in an “economic takeover” that led to widespread unemployment, the disintegration of many Eastern European industries, and deep social displacements that endure to this day.

“We thought we could bring democracy as a gift, and everyone would be fine—but it didn’t work that way,” says Ghodsee, noting that while people in post-communist regions wanted personal freedoms, they didn’t necessarily want free market capitalism. “Although it wasn’t practiced anywhere near perfectly, the underlying idea of state socialism was to create a more humane society that provided a basic floor under which people would not fall—where they didn’t suffer from the brutal, boom-or-bust fluctuations of the free market. That idea is worth saving.”

Other ideas worth saving, she says, include a strong public commitment to science, the arts, women’s rights, and education. Red Hangover argues that the West’s failure to appreciate these socialist principles, to help rebuild the economies of the former Eastern Bloc, and to confront its mishandling of post-communist regime change have led to the political extremism that permeates the world today.

Ghodsee began writing the book in December 2015 after witnessing a neo-Nazi rally in Leipzig, Germany. Wielding baseball bats and axes, violent demonstrators aimed to intimidate residents of a neighborhood known for its liberal and immigrant populations. Two months later, anti-refugee right-wing protestors in the village of Clausnitz shouted “Wir sind das Volk,” or “We are the people”—the same slogan anticommunist protesters used when the Berlin Wall came down.

“The book was my way of showing how what happened in 1989 is still reverberating now. I could feel the zeitgeist around me—xenophobia, racism, misogyny, all things that are anathema to democratic politics—even before the election of Donald Trump and before Brexit. Things were becoming more and more polarized, right there on the streets of Germany and around the world,” she recalls.

It’s time for the West to acknowledge the shortcomings in its “fantasy” that free markets and democracy bring prosperity to everyone they touch and to stop silencing people who promote nuanced conversations about state socialism, Ghodsee says.

“Democracy is invaluable, and we should go to great lengths to salvage it. But we’re jeopardizing our prospects for longer-term democracy by ignoring the legacies of the past 30 years. I’m pushing back at stereotypes so people can have an informed discussion: What can we learn from 20th-century communism? There were many bad things to leave behind, but there were also good things we should take forward into the future.

“This part of history requires a more thorough understanding, and that’s what I tried to show with Red Hangover.”