The Taste of Ashes

The Aftermath of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

Marci Shore

Marci Shore’s new analysis of Eastern Europe in the post communist era takes us into that territory through her personal journeys and the people she has known there for over twenty years. It is similar to Anna Porter’s The Ghosts of Europe (2011) but somewhat more intimate. Where Anna Porter went into Europe as an investigator, Marci Shore lived in Poland and Czechoslovakia and studied there and travelled throughout the region. Thus her analysis tells us from up close about the struggles we have read of elsewhere from a more distant perspective.

She deals with countries where there is no democracy after the Soviets (Romania) and where crime rises dramatically (Poland and Czechoslovakia). She is on the one hand investigating post-communist understanding of the holocaust though those who suffered from it, and showing some impatience for easy generalizations:

…Hundreds  of Jewish teenagers from the United States, from Israel, from dozens of other countries were coming to Poland. They came to Poland wearing stars of David….

The Jewish teenagers did not want to talk to Polish journalists – they did not want to talk to Poles at all…

When Poles tried to talk to them, these young Jews wanted to know how they could live there – in a land that was a cemetery. They wanted to know why the Poles had not saved the Jews Jews. They believed it was not by chance that the Germans had chosen Poland as the site of the death camps. They didn’t want to know about the heroic Polish underground. They didn’t want to know that Poles had also died at Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know.”

This anger and limited view is not limited to young Jews. It applies to many others who are aware of their own suffering only.

She discusses the impact of the book Neighbours, by Jan Gross, which described the destruction of the Jews of the Polish town of Jedwabne (there was also a play of this book, which ran in Toronto last year). A number of Poles did not want to know about this story either.

But The Taste of Ashes does not speak of Jewish relations only. It explores why things have not turned out as well as Eastern Europeans had hoped. It explores in particular the act of collaboration with the communist regime. What did it mean to agree to be an informer?

The book analyzes through an individual what Czeslaw Milosz called “ketman“, the ability to profess one thing publicly and believe another privately. Informers sometimes felt as if they were simply playing a game in which they gave the authorities insignificant bits of information. Yet this act split the personality, leaving neither one the possibility of being authentic.

It is a book about a seriously wounded place, part of the world which Timothy Snyder pointed out in Bloodlands, was the worst place to be in WW2. It is a place where people were often both victims and oppressors. It is arguably not an easy place to be in even today.

Marci Shore says she wanted to understand people and why they came to make the choices they did, among them parents who informed on their daughter to the secret police in an attempt to protect their other children. It is a book about people for whom things turned out, in her words, “really, really badly… This book – their story – is a tragedy.”

And yet the reading of this book was very easy because it was so intimate. I felt as if I were sitting in bars and cafes with Shore, talking with people who could only choose among bad choices, and suffered as the result of them. The book expands our understanding of people living in difficult places in difficult times rather than demonizing a new group.

Anne Applebaums’ Iron Curtain

The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944 – 1956

Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum was in Toronto recently to speak about her excellent new book in a Donner Lecture series. Keith Lowe, in his Savage Continent, predicted that there is far more to understand about the destruction in Eastern Europe, and now, months after that statement, we have Applebaum’s book, covering some of the same territory as Lowe and to a certain extent, that of Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt before her.

The great strength of this history is the detailed description of how the communists functioned to destroy civil society in the lands they occupied, flying in Soviet-trained specialists to take control of local radio stations first. Stalin had a sense that radio was the most important tool in taking control of a country, but it was only a first step.

The war had habituated the occupied territories to violence. In Poland, whole buildings of inhabitants were arrested. In Hungary, a man pulling his two children in a cart was arrested and the children left on the street.

Czeslaw Milosz is often quoted on this matter of violence: “The man in the East cannot take Americans (or other westerners) seriously because they have not undergone the same experiences. Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling.”

What Milosz meant was that in the East, one turned away from signs of violence and distress to preserve oneself, while those in the West could not understand the lack of empathy that might stop a man from going to the aid of another being treated unjustly.

The violence of the war had left a vacuum, and into this vacuum came the communists, first with their army and then control of the radio. Some enthusiasts saw this as a good thing, if only because it brought order.

But what order!

Applebaum says the red army’s arrival is rarely remembered as pure liberation  – it is remembered as the beginning of a new occupation. I imagine that could not have been true for Jews, for whom the Soviets were the only hope of liberation in the East, no matter how bad their regime. At least they were not bent on the annihilation of a whole people. The Reds also freed non-Jewish prisoners in camps such as Stutthof.

But the rapacity of the Red army has been documented thoroughly, and Alpplebaum reminds us that in the iconic photo of a Soviet soldier raising a red flag above the Berlin Reichstag, the photo needed to be doctored to hide the several watches the soldiers were wearing on their arms.

Chillingly, Moscow viewed all inhabitants of the new Western territories as potential subversives, so the vice of repression was applied slowly, but relentlessly.

Among banned groups were hiking clubs and charities. The intention was to create a new type of person who was not even capable of imagining alternatives to the Soviet model.

Interestingly, Applebaum raises the question of why more people did not resist. I do wonder if this isn’t a slight application of Milosz’s claim that Westerners cannot understand (although Applebaum is practically an Easterner). Of course one does not resist when the price of resistance is so high. She does mention that resistance (and repression) carried on more intensively in the Baltics and Ukraine, but these areas are outside the scope of her book, which focuses on Poland, East Germany, and Hungary.

Sadly, I might add. These forgotten Baltic and other countries were covered to a certain extent by Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands, but they are difficult for most Westerners to understand because they did not have country status after the war. They were absorbed right into the Soviet Union. Their histories remain absorbed to this day. The multilingual Timothy Snyder explained that Lithuanian is too hard to learn (to say nothing of Estonian and Latvian) and as a result, histories of these places have not been written from the point of view of the west.

Applebaum gives plenty of detail in her work about the erasure of civil society (and even the reduction of free time, which now had to be devoted to partry-approved lectures, memorials, and marches). But the happy ending, if one can call it that, is that resistance remained muted, but present, at least in people’s minds, and it became active as Soviet power began to diminish due to the failure of communist economics.

The reaction to Applebaum’s book has been interesting. Timothy Snyder was praised by most reviewers, but as Adam Gopnik pointed out in an article in The New Yorker, some people were offended by his book because it could be used by ultraconservatives to diminish the importance of the narrative of the Holocaust. Snyder has denied this and claimed he simply lays out the facts of what happened. But in extremist circles I have heard echoes from, Snyder’s work was called “disgraceful”.

I couldn’t agree less.

In these various blog posts, I have discussed the idea of multiple narratives coming out of WW2 and the postwar era, but instead a kind of war of narratives has gone on. I still see claims that attempts to document the crimes of the Soviets are a cover to mask the crimes of Nazis and their collaborators. But when I approached Applebaum after the talk, and asked her about this claim, she said it has now become a “fringe view”.

We do tend to look at these stories from a point of view or fixed position, if we have one. Most westerners do not because they are ignorant of what happened in the East, but even so, the New Yorker review of Applebaum’s book is an example of argument from a position.

One of reviewer Louis Menand’s main questions is whether the United States could have done something about the crimes of the Soviets.

Unrealistic though the proposition may have been, most in the East thought so. The lack of interest in the West is still known as “the great betrayal”.

Menand is interested in the belief that Stalin had no grand plans to invade the west and the Soviet military might was often exaggerated by the United States. A subtext here is that the right-wingers in the West were exaggerating for their own motives. He also ads that Soviets really believed in their ideology, but can that be any sort of excuse? The Nazis believed in their ideology too.

Menand also says that USA could not do anything in any case, and that its goal was to destroy Germany, not save Poland.

But Poland did have treaties with England and France. What were their responsibilities?

Menand writes: “What happened on one side of the wall stayed on that side of the wall. It had no effect on the other side of the wall. Few officials in the West really wanted to se the iron curtain lifted”

That sounds like betrayal to me.

To his credit, Menand adds that Alpplebaum has depicted the human price. And what a human price!

When it comes to history, God is in the details. Alpplebaum has laid out the details in a book less horrific than Timothy Snyder’s but no less illuminating.

New Novel Coming Together with the Help of Tadas Ivanauskas

With my novel, Underground, launched into the world, it is time to think of the next novel, which I have been hankering to get to.

There will still be a lot of talking about Underground and the partisan war because I have media appearances and festivals to attend in the fall, but just now I can get into the research on the new novel and expand the pages of the new book that I have already written.

The new novel’s working title is Fear no Fall – this is a thematic guideline for me, taken from John Bunyan, although I am not sure I will want to keep the title in the end (I lean toward Things Fall Apart as well, but it has been used so often).

He that is down needs fear no fall,

He that is low no pride…

The novel will be set in in the murky world of espionage and counter-espionage among the Russians, Poles, Germans and Lithuanians from 1921 until 1923, when it still seemed like a determined man might seize a nation, or create an empire. After all, D’Annunzio was the poet who seized Trieste, Pilsudski the socialist bandit who became the father of Poland, and Lenin the failed seminarian (released from a German jail) who created the Soviet Union (with a little help from his friends).

My main character might open by saying something like this:

I was a self-made man who was building a self-made world without any of the hypocrisies of the past. After the old world collapsed, all we needed to do was hammer out the rules for a new one and play by them, and we’d build a better future. If our enemies would let us. If they didn’t, we’d have to outsmart them.

While I have done a lot of research and I have the story roughed out in my mind, I continue to read background in Lithuanian and I stumbled across a remarkable memoir by a writer who is entirely unknown outside Lithuania, and probably barely known within it.

The book is called Aš Apsisprendžiu, written by the late Tadas Ivanauskas (1882 – 1970), who came from the baronial ruling class of of Lithuania in the czarist period and lived through dispossession in the Lithuanian independence period and then repression in the Communist era.

The Memoir of Tadas Ivanauskas

Through all this, he managed to be one of the men who created Kaunas university and was  what can only be called an ecologist avant le mot, while at the same time a biologist, hunter, and prose stylist.

His ruling class was destroyed, so he is interesting as a representative of the Polish-Lithuanian rulers, (repressed under the czars) whose stories are not well known.

For example, in the period after the 1863 uprising, Catholics were forbidden to buy land. The regime hoped the Lithuanian/Polish ruling class would eventually have to sell to Russians (Orthodox Christians) and disappear. In Ivanasuksas’s family, the Lithuanian family manor lay near Lida, which was Polish between the wars and Belorussian after 1945. They dud not sell, but were driven by the reds during the revolution.

Ivanauskas describes his childhood in the manor with a richness of detail I have not read since Ceslaw Milosz’s Native Realm. With great charm, he describes the interior of the manor where they huddled around the ceramic stove while outside  the birds could be seen pecking dried seeds from the pods of tall grasses sticking out of the snow. He describes characters such as “the smoker” who lived in the smokehouse while the meat was being prepared and smelled of smoke all day long. Young Tadas wandered out into the fields like some kind or Wordsworth, all clean and curious in nature. Outdoors-men of the time were hunters, and he became one too, in particular looking to find birds to shoot and mount for the manor room devoted to stuffed animals.

He did not do well in high school in Warsaw because he missed his home so much and detested the forced religiosity of the place, but he prevailed in St Petersburg where he studied science and eventually created a thriving business in providing universities and museums with skeletons and various other specimens required for the study of biology.

Why does he matter?

First, the gorgeous detail in the work is not to be missed. But beyond that, he represents what was swept away by the revolution.

Furthermore, he is interesting because he represents a place and time where language did not determine nationality. Most locals considered themselves Lithuanians, but the upper classes spoke Polish (and Russian with the government) and the lower classes spoke Belorussian. There were some Lithuanian speakers, but one had to travel some distance to find their villages.

But why does he matter to my novel? Because his is the world that  existed before my spies try to make a new one. He is one of the ones who will lose (but arguably gain as well by adapting his skills to the new world.)

The prose is so good, that his story of the family boys travelling by cart with their uniformed driver and the dogs to a distant estate for a few days of hunting rivals the prose of Tolstoy’s hunt scene in War and Peace.

And yet the man was a biologist! So much talent to spare. So much beautiful writing hidden in the shadows. He’ll be a big help to me.

In the following weeks, I’ll talk about a few of the other books that I am using. The heart of the matter wil of course lie with Jonas Budrys, his espionage memoir called Lietuvos Kontrazvlagyba, but there are many other excellent sources.