From the Donbas to Old Bucharest: The Legacy of Communism

March 8, 2016 • Articles • Views: 891

Oliver Bullough and Peter Pomerantsev

Oliver Bullough and Peter Pomerantsev

Text by Agne Dovydaityte

Edited by Darya Malyutina

Amnesia, nostalgia, end of history, paranoia, and conspiracy theories: although twenty-five years have passed since the fall of communism, those words are still commonly used in references to Eastern Europe, and, in some cases, to the ’normal’ everyday life in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

On 24 February 2016, Frontline Club hosted a discussion on the legacy of war and communism in Eastern Europe. The latest edition of Granta, a literary magazine ‘of new writing’, focused on the ground between opposing forces in ‘those huge swathes of territory… which are now the no man’s land of failed states.’

Oliver Bullough, author of The Last Man in Russia and Let Our Fame Be Great, who was recently longlisted for the Orwell Prize for Journalism 2016, chaired the panel. The speakers, Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute and author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, and Philip Ó Ceallaigh, author of Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, read extracts from their pieces from the magazine. They also shared thoughts, doubts and hopes on the current situation in the regions of their interest (Ukraine and Romania, respectively).

In the introduction to the latest Granta‘s issue, editor Sigrid Rausing referred to the trope of revolution eating its children that has become a curse for some post-communist states. After a quarter of a century, some countries still struggle to liberate themselves, not politically (which might be a problem as well, though), but rather mentally. The statues have been torn down, but the new ones are yet to be built.

In the discussion, Peter Pomerantsev stressed the role of propaganda as one of the factors that holds people back and misguides them at the intersections of reality and fictional past. After Pomerantsev’s trip to Eastern Ukraine, he wrote a brilliant journalistic piece ‘Propagandalands’, where short conversations with locals reveal the power of the media and the frozen Soviet mentality of displaced people. This vision might be applicable not just to Ukraine but to many more distant places where time has stopped before the Soviet decline.

‘If there’s no mention of us on TV, then it won’t be a big deal if the town is lost. We are being erased.’ The refrain is, ‘Nobody wants to hear the Donbas!’ Pomerantsev describes it like a mantra or a prayer, begging for God to hear the forgotten land. However, while wishing to be heard, many people tend to ignore the outside world themselves. ‘People would rearrange the evidence to fit the world view they saw on television, however little sense it made,’ Pomerantsev writes. This phenomenon often becomes the focal point of discussions about propaganda, while in psychology it might be described as ‘confirmation bias’. Although the author of ‘Propagandalands’ focuses on Eastern Ukraine, some situations are common for other post-communist states, especially among the older generation citizens, who sometimes even describe themselves as ‘Soviet’ by nationality.

Bullough raised a valid point, asking how quick a western journalist may start doubting themselves and popular ideas they were accustomed to, after coming to the region where ‘victory belongs to the persuasive’. According to Pomerantsev, Ukraine today is the laboratory of contemporary propaganda. It is contemporary in a sense that it is so different from the propaganda the world faced in the 20th century. ‘The BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe were on one hand, and Moscow Radio on the other, and they kind of collided. And the point was getting the information to the other side. Now that problem really does not exist. The problem we have now is too many sources of information,’ the author stressed. Unfortunately, the winning factor often becomes more cinematic and emotional narratives, and propagandist channels prove successful in producing such stories.

Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s excerpt from ‘Bucharest, Broken City’ was less political, but very rich in historic facts, descriptive, and full of personal details that the author recalled while reflecting on the city once destroyed by Ceauşescu. The tearing down of huge urban areas was like a message: anything that had been created before the arrival of the Communist Party was worthless, and the history began with Ceauşescu. After the destruction, everyone was busy creating something new, which did not really work: ‘houses were enormous but still looked like crap’.

However, it was definitely not the quality that made some people feel nostalgic about the Soviet era. On the contrary, the worshiping of the unqualified, the poor, the uneducated, the people with criminal history who had no connection with the land, just with factories, has destabilised the Donbas region under the Soviet rule, and attracted all kinds of workers to become the miners of Donbas. This feeling of self-importance was poked like a bear throughout the whole Ukrainian revolution, but ‘no one heard the Donbas’, and the bear woke up to fight for the ‘life how it used to be’. However, Pomerantsev questioned this nostalgia, saying that people are unhappy about the present, rather than nostalgic about the past. The past they wish for, according to the author, is a mythical past, a dream that was promised but never came true. That is why ‘when you go and pull down the statue of Lenin, no one seems to care,’ he noted.

Ó Ceallaigh added that the revolutions and unrest that happened in Ukraine or Egypt were set to happen even in Romania. However, it got into the European Union, and built at least an institutional basis for democracy. Despite this, some Romanians still share nostalgic feelings, just not for the communist past, but for the pre-communist past, when, they believed, life was better. Ó Ceallaigh stressed that it was not, though: ‘before Romania was communist, it was a fascist country,’ and the past that people were missing was purely fictional. Moreover, he said that nationalism, not socialism, resurfaced after the fall of communism in many post-Soviet countries, no matter how hard the communists tried to claim that there was no nationalism in their fellow states. Even though times are changing, the scars of the past seem to be healing mainly because of generational changes, and younger citizens who are less paranoid and less suspicious about each other.

Although now these two post-communist countries, Romania and Ukraine, are in very different positions, Ó Ceallaigh outlined some ideas from Romania that might be instrumental for the West to tackle the crisis in the East. Europe needs to throw money at Ukraine, he said: ’It is crude and usually goes wrong at the beginning, because when you throw money into a corrupt society, people who are going to take advantage of it are those in power.’ In Romania, it took a decade for people who were taking money, to start going to jail, which is an uncomfortable truth to face, and a serious price to pay. Nevertheless, in order to have a magazine talking not just about the legacy of communism, but also about abandoning outdated ideas and rapid development in the new East, all sides need to agree to pay this price.

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