"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, February 21, 2020

On Pining for Past Slavery and Servitude

I've been at several academic conferences over the last decade in which I keep hearing lectures from researchers deep inside Russia repeatedly discovering potent pockets of nostalgia for the Stalinist era--sometimes even replete with pseudo-icons of Uncle Joe inside Orthodox churches! We might think this very strange, but for those of us who have read Erich Fromm's 1941 international best-seller, Escape from Freedom, this makes a great deal of sense. As he demonstrated there (in what his biographer Lawrence Friedman calls his most important and profound book), most of us, at least some of the time, rather prefer slavery to freedom, and rather like having strongmen of various sorts tell us what to do.

It is not a shock, therefore, to hear of such stories elsewhere across the formerly communist states of Eastern Europe. Some of them are captured in a recent book I just came across: Witold Szablowski, Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyrannytrans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Penguin, 2018), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
For hundreds of years, Bulgarian Gypsies trained bears to dance, welcoming them into their families and taking them on the road to perform. In the early 2000s, with the fall of Communism, they were forced to release the bears into a wildlife refuge. But even today, whenever the bears see a human, they still get up on their hind legs to dance.
In the tradition of Ryszard Kapuściński, award-winning Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski uncovers remarkable stories of people throughout Eastern Europe and in Cuba who, like Bulgaria’s dancing bears, are now free but who seem nostalgic for the time when they were not. His on-the-ground reporting—of smuggling a car into Ukraine, hitchhiking through Kosovo as it declares independence, arguing with Stalin-adoring tour guides at the Stalin Museum, sleeping in London’s Victoria Station alongside a homeless woman from Poland, and giving taxi rides to Cubans fearing for the life of Fidel Castro—provides a fascinating portrait of social and economic upheaval and a lesson in the challenges of freedom and the seductions of authoritarian rule.

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