Book Review: The Taste of Ashes

No post-communist ‘happy end’ in Central Europe, writes historian Marci Shore, just the same old sins of capitalism

TVR Books | Justin McCauley | March 2013

Yale historian Marci Shore (Photo: Timothy Snyder)

"You know, the human being is rather perverse," Gabriel, a former Romanian dissident, told Marci Shore in the spring of 1995. He was referring to the nostalgia felt by some of his countrymen for the despotic Stalinist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, which came as a surprise to the young graduate student then working for a Prague-based NGO in Bucharest.

It was a sentiment that was quite common in the countries of the former Ostblock. Indeed, the neat and tidy narrative of liberation from the Communist yoke followed by a ride-into-the-sunset happy ending is largely a myth, viewed by some in the region as a condescending farce. Democracy brought with it a whole different set of problems, leaving many Eastern Europeans debating which they preferred – the security and oppression of totalitarianism or the liberty and comparative chaos of democracy and free markets.

This question permeates the complex and often contradictory social and cultural layers explored in Dr. Shore’s intimate and penetrating work, The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.

A professor of intellectual history at Yale, Shore spent many of her formative years as an academic traversing the region, from Prague to Krakow, Bratislava to Budapest, Warsaw to Kiev, learning languages and immersing herself in local cultures. The Taste of Ashes is a chronicle of these times – a personal record interwoven with historical primers and vignettes, which unobtrusively provide context and clarity to the broad cultural, historical, and ideological terrain that Shore explores.

Particularly remarkable is the book’s unabashed honesty, rare for a work of its type. A flowing, conversational memoir, this is not simply a survey of post-communist Eastern Europe, but the story of a young scholar’s acculturation through path-beating travel and intimate human interaction.


System destroyed, people remain

    Shore paints a multifaceted picture through these human relationships. Some, such as the young Slovak parliamentarian Miloš have made out well on democratisation, gaining social status and wealth. Others, such as the elderly Czech couple Shore rents a room from in Prague, bemoan the precarious transition to Capitalism and its threat to their pensions, as well as the arrival of freedoms – uncensored literature, rock concerts, open borders – that they have no use for. "For their generation," Shore laments, "the revolution had come too late."

Inflation, corruption, crime and prostitution rose after the collapse of communism. Partly, this was the fault of the revolutionaries, who, as often happens, were ready to oppose but not to govern. The dissidents’ movement "had been about the moral restoration of human beings; its objectives had never been political ones," she writes. Indeed, had Charter 77 or Solidarność been able to ensure human and civil rights without the collapse of the system, they would have.

However, it was also the latent cynicism – even nihilism – of the ordinary citizenry which made democratisation problematic. "It’s very difficult," Jan Urban, a Charter 77 signatory, tells Shore, "to explain something to people who don’t believe in anything." This Eastern European Weltanschauung evolved gradually, beginning with post-war Stalinist true believers, followed by a generation whose aspiration to "socialism with a human face" was crushed under Soviet tanks or else denied by vulgar doctrinalism, in turn resulting in a "second, agnostic generation of communist apparatchiks, bereft of any ideals."

The social traits these events produced – sardonicism, fatalism, amoral survivalism – were not expunged at the onset of democracy. As one of Shore’s earnest young students in the Czech town of Domažlice tells her, "the system was destroyed…but the people are still the same." 

Shore learns of the deeply tragic consequences of history for Eastern Europeans – the burden of identity, deed, and belief. Czesław Miłosz’s oft-referenced adage is instructive here: "The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously," Miłosz wrote, "because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgements and thinking habits are."

For many Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks, the Stalinist period, from 1948-1956, was an era of unquestioning faith and dedication to the Communist project.

Then, like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, many continued to spy on, arrest, and torture their fellow citizens, in spite of a private abandonment of belief. Show trials continued, and people called for death, because, as Milan Kundera asserts, the legacy of totalitarianism was "the spirit of the trial."

People informed on friends, family, neighbours – totalitarianism breaks the feeble moral backbone of everyone, and naïve Western moral absolutism, Miłosz believed, is ill informed of certain pathways of the human condition. To the man of the East, the insatiable craving for Manichaean divisions, for clear choices between good and evil, results in, Shore says, an existence where one does not see the line between moral clarity and madness.

Perhaps this is why, to a person, all those who were imprisoned assure Shore that they forgave their betrayers – because they understand the betrayal.

While in Warsaw, Shore becomes heavily involved with the Jewish community there, ending up a spectator to the ongoing identity war of Polish Jews. To some Jews, particularly Americans and Israelis, Poland is but a graveyard, "an enormous mound of ashes, ashes and anti-Semites." Shore’s friend Tamara is consumed by self-pity and resentment towards her grandfather for not immigrating to Israel when he had the chance – she feels on the wrong side of history.


The legacy of Marxism

But others feel as Polish as they do Jewish and, in turn, resent Poles who leave for the Holy Land. This conflict has its roots in the struggle between the Bundists and the Zionists that began at the start of the 20th Century. Acerbic debates have arisen involving international Jewry on Poland – over how to identify with Poland, with Poles, how to reckon with its bloody history, the Holocaust, the post-war pogroms.

All the while, anti-Semitism among gentile Poles remains pervasive, a "pre-war" anti-Semitism which "after 1989 had thawed, emerging in the same form in which it had frozen." Much of the honest reflection and debate required to come to terms with the tragic history of the Jews in Poland was only allowed to begin after Communism fell.

"Marxist ideology – in its reduction of people to mere objects of history – was in essence dehumanising."

This subconscious legacy weighs heavily on the peoples of Eastern Europe. Marci Shore has produced an excellent exploration into the essence of the modern Eastern European in an era of significant change – some have adapted, some have yet to, and some never will.

Darkly, Shore concludes, "I learned that the past could not be made ok." Perhaps.

What Shore’s work also affirms is the maxim of Polish poet Wisława Szymborska: "We know ourselves only insofar as we have been tested." ÷


The Taste of Ashes

by Marci Shore

Random House, Jan. 2013 

pp. 384 


Other articles from this issue