Discovering the Dark Side of Communism with The Taste of Ashes

Taste of Ashes HCby Marci Shore, author of The Taste of Ashes (Crown, January 2013).

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I was at an impressionable age when the revolutions came. This is the short answer I often give when asked by Poles or Czechs or Russians why I became interested in their part of the world. In 1989, I was seventeen years old and knew nothing about Eastern Europe. Yet growing up in suburban Pennsylvania, it was impossible not to absorb that we were locked in a struggle with the Evil Empire that might well bring about the end of the world. 

And then one day it was over. Soon pieces of the Berlin Wall were for sale at the local mall. For me, the drama of 1989 was the opening of a part of the world that had been seemingly closed forever. I was seduced by this sudden opening, personified in the fairy tale of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, of the imprisoned playwright who became a philosopher-president.

I wanted to go to that place where magical things happen. I wanted to go where there was a happy ending. Yet fairy tales inevitably have their darker sides. When I came to live in post-communist Eastern Europe, I saw that not everyone was living happily ever after. And this was so not only because prices were rising drastically while wages and pensions remained very low. There was much more that was tormenting.

For Freud, the unconscious was like a dark psychic closet in which everything too disturbing for our conscious minds was hidden. Freud had no illusions that opening that dark psychic closet would be pleasant. For decades, the communist archives had played the role of the Freudian unconscious.

“A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism,” Karl Marx began The Communist Manifesto. Marx, the militant materialist, opened his most famous text by confessing to his own metaphysical moment. Now, in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, I came to understand that communism, once a “specter to come,” was far more haunting as a specter from the past.

In researching my dissertation about Polish avant-garde poets who became communists (the short version of their story is that it ended very, very badly for all of them), I spent all told several years in former communist Europe. I dug through seventeen archives in five countries. I encountered the friends and enemies—at times the children and grandchildren—of my protagonists. And I began keeping a journal with notes on all of the stories that were too personal to go into a strictly scholarly book.

The book that grew from those notes is about the darker side of the fall of communism. It is a book about what we, who did not live there, did not understand. It is a book attesting to Hegel’s insistence that actions inevitably have consequences that exceed their intentions. The post-communist moment has illuminated painfully the omnipresence of guilt: after 1989, people had to account for choices they made, often in extreme moments, in a world in which all the rules had suddenly changed.

This is also a book about what it means to study history. To go into the archives in search of truth is to read letters never meant for you to read. Understanding the past demands an empathy that can never
be innocent. In this book I try to make the reader feel the ethical dilemmas of the historical process: the risk of moral relativism that comes with the striving for empathy, and the voyeurism of reading pages in
the lives of others.

Marci Shore, an associate professor of intellectual history at Yale, has spent much of her adult life in central and Eastern Europe. She is the author of Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918–1968, which won eight prizes, including a National Jewish Book Award. She is also the translator of Michal Glowinski’s Holocaust memoir The Black Seasons.

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