Friday, 24 April 2009

The Lost World of Communism: An Oral History of Daily Life Behind the Iron Curtain

Taylor Downing reviews Peter Molloy's new book on the lost culture of the Eastern bloc

Apparently in Germany today there is a growing nostalgia for the days of the Democratic Republic – there is a GDR-themed youth hostel and a revival of interest in kitsch East German design. There is even a word for it in German, Ostalgie or ‘nostalgia for the East’. I am glad to say there is no sense of nostalgia in The Lost World of Communism, which recalls the horrors of Communism in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania.

This is the book of the BBC TV series marking the 20th anniversary of the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe. It allows the ‘talking heads’ to be quoted at greater length than in the TV series, which is much to be welcomed. And it is part of that explosion of oral histories published by Ebury, often in the strand Forgotten Voices.

Peter Molloy relates the story of each individual with a minimum of context and then quotes extensively from interviews. This is the strength and the weakness of this type of history. If you like oral histories you’ll love this book. If you seek out explanation and analysis you’ll find these accounts frustrating and cursory. But the range of 50 or so characters in the book makes fascinating reading. There is an East German border guard, a leading member of the Politburo, a Czech cosmonaut, a transvestite East German athlete, a Lutheran pastor, a female prisoner who fell in love with her Stasi interrogator (they finally married in 2006) and a sexologist who claims that East German women had a much higher number of orgasms than women in the West.

For me, nothing here matches up to the revelations of life in East Germany in Anna Funder’s compelling Stasiland. But the material about Romania under Ceausescu is remarkable. Abortions were banned to keep up population growth and women workers were regularly inspected to ensure they were not terminating pregnancies. The Securitate bugged anyone, including the president. The weirdly obsessive behaviour of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu is related by those who had to sustain it. And their grisly end is recounted by the man who led the execution squad.

Much of the apparatus of these appalling states happily crumbled with the Berlin Wall but the climate of fear they generated left a moral devastation that will take longer to heal. The former Czech President Vaclav Havel reckons it will be two generations before the footprint of Communism has been fully washed away.

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