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Whatever Happened to Eastern European Communism?

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Kristen Ghodsee has written an elegant book on a forbidden topic: The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe (Duke University Press, 2015). Ghodsee, an ethnographer and professor at Bowdoin College, had written several books about the status of women in post-communist Bulgaria. This book connects history and current conditions with a central theme: that there were idealists in the making and governing of communist Bulgaria, and that to some extent their ideals were realized, especially in regard to women’s rights.


Ghodsee is aware of the danger of her conclusions:



“There were big risks in trying to tackle Cold War stereotypes. . . . There was no need for official censorship when all of the scholars learned to censor themselves.
t might be easier to assert that the moon landing was staged than it would be to argue that there was anything good about the communist past.” (133)



As an anthropologist, Ghodsee had slightly more freedom to break this taboo than those in my field, political science. For us, the only politically correct approach was to identify all aspects of communism anywhere with Stalin-totalitarianism-terror; there was no point in trying to discover what was really happening in Mongolia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and all the other red devils, including of course the USSR. A few Marxists were tolerated in US university departments, but most of them were especially careful to say that those “actually existing” places had nothing in common with their own ideals. Among the rare and fair studies of communist Bulgaria was economist Robert McIntyre’s Bulgaria: Politics, Economics and Society.




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