Writing Eastern Europe in Canada

In conversation with Canadian writers Eva Stachniak and Andrew Borokowski, we wondered why Canada has so few books by writers with Eastern European background. This seemed particularly odd because there are a million Canadians of Polish heritage and a similar number of those with Ukrainian background, to say nothing of Baltics and others.

Unknown Lands
Unknown Lands

These musings led to a talk we gave at a Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs conference and again at a University of Toronto Slavic Studies sminar. I then wrote up my musings and published them in the online journal, The Toronto Review of Books.

Here is a link to that article.

In particular, I was interested by one attack in the comments. Eastern Europe and history call forth many impassioned responses, not all of them informed or balanced.

A Nonfiction Book about a Village?

I am rewriting the Provisionally Yours manuscript, am consulting on the translation of 1997’s Buying on Time, and have assembled  a stack of research material for my next novel, so the last thing I need is a new idea.

Yet one has come at me, and I’m finding it very powerful.

I received a letter from a reader in Lithuania who had some information about Kostas Kubilinskas. I used this historical character as inspiration for one of my fictional characters. Kubilinskas was the most prominent postwar children’s writer who, it turns out, had a dark secret.  In order to ingratiate himself with the Soviet authorities, he infiltrated  the partisan movement, shot and killed a partisan and betrayed several others who were killed in ambush. Then he went on to write popular children’s ditties.

I thought I was done with him, but  my correspondent began to tell the story of Kubilinskas the year he worked as a teacher in 1944-1945 in the village of Lynezeris. My correspondent’s father was a boy then, and remembered the writer well. Each evening, Kubilinskas would take a half bottle of vodka and sit under the oldest oak in the area, and write poetry.

A Village House in Lynezeris

So far, so good – a little extra information about my past subject matter.

-But the more my correspondent wrote, and he wrote almost every day, the more interesting the place became to me. I encouraged him to keep sending me the strange and sad anecdotes of the war and the postwar in Lynezeris. Here are summaries of a few of them.

– The correspondent’s father, as a boy, stole a side of bacon and ran off into the woods to grease railway tracks because he’d heard you could stop a train that way. He tried it and it worked, but he and his friends were almost shot to pieces when the German guards fired at them in the woods.

– His grandfather found a German motorcycle in the forest. A retreating rider had run out of gas and fled. So the man hauled the motorcycle home and traded a Russian soldier a bucket of liquor for a bucket of gasoline. The farmer rode the motorcycle happily all through the  the forties until early in 1950, when he was deported to Siberia and his riding days were over.

– The villagers had managed to protect six Jews during the German occupation, but the Jews were betrayed for a reward by a farmer’s nephew who came in the fall to help with the harvest. After the Soviets came, they couldn’t find the nephew, so they deported to Siberia the family that had helped hide the Jews.

There are many more stories like this, all filled with poignant  detail, so I have arranged to meet my correspondent next summer and spend some time in the village.  In the past, it had hundreds of inhabitants and a school, but now it is down to twenty-seven year round inhabitants. Others come in the summer.

I think that the oak tree, the children’s writer, and the incidents of the villagers might make for a strong nonfiction book. I’ll find out.

The Devil in History

Communism, Facism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

Vladimir Tismaneanu

Hard on the heels of Anne Applebaum and Marci Shore, we find another reassessment of Europe in the twentieth century in Valdimir Tismaneanu’s The Devil in History, a book which is a theoretical study of the century’s two disastrous belief systems. If Applebaum looked at how the structures of civil society were destroyed in postwar Eastern Europe, and Shore looked at the personalities involved in the post-communist landscape, Tismaneanu studies the belief systems of Nazism and Communism that brought Eastern Europe to its present unsettled state.

The evolution of the whole idea of this comparison between nazism and communism is a study in the fast-changing understanding of the last century. For a long time, it was considered reprehensible to compare the two because it diminished the evil of the Nazis. Some thinkers believed every attempt to compare the two was a veiled project to diminish the significance of the Holocaust. The Prague Declaration, a resolution signed in 2008 to study the crimes of communism (Vaclav Havel was among the signatories), in particular has been singled out as just such an attempt to obfuscate history.

Yet when Timothy Snyder visited Toronto to speak about his history, “Bloodlands“, I asked him if it wasn’t unfair to compare these two systems and he responded that if you refuse to compare them, you already have. When I asked Anne Applebaum the same question after her talk in Toronto after the publication of Iron Curtain, she said that this position, the refusal to compare the two, had become marginal. Now, in 2013, the comparison in Tismaneanu’s book is public and most mainstream reviews I have seen of this study only mention the previous “interdiction” on comparison.

When I wrote my 2011 novel about the Lithuanian partisans, I was questioned pointedly by some of my friends about why the Holocaust in Lithuania was not given more space in my book. I thought I had written a story in the shadow of the Holocaust, but clearly some readers were uneasy. I insisted that there were multiple narratives about WW2, and now the subsequent rise in the number of books on the subject of Eastern Europe shows that the multiple narratives continue to appear without, I believe, diminishing the importance of the Holocaust story.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is interesting for his personal history as well as his writing. His parents were committed communists and he was an academic Romanian communist who emigrated to America and began to consider the dictatorships of the twentieth century.  His experience is clearly coloured by his past in Romania, where the communist regime devolved into one with strong fascist overtones.

So what does Tismaneanu say these two ideologies, communism and nazism shared? In his eyes, a willingness to purge societies of “former people”, to use the communist formulation. Humanistic values were abandoned in an attempt to build what Tismaneanu calls the City of God, a perverted version of St. Augustine’s idea of heavenly perfection. Thus Jews could be deprived of life and whole classes of people could be executed, imprisoned, or deported under communism.

The critical difference, of course, is that Nazism sought to destroy the lives of a category human beings, whereas communism was not bent on the necessary physical annihilation of the classes it sought to eliminate. Thus there were no ovens in communism.

Tismaneanu is bewildered by western fascination with communism and its apparent return in some places in Eastern Europe. He goes to great lengths to show communism was not merely an idealistic project that went off the rails. It was a murderous project from the very beginning. One of the further differences between communism and fascism is that the former can live on through the party (which is elevated to god-like status) whereas fascism’s appeal frequently lies in the deification of a leader, and once the leader dies, the system collapses.

Facism, Tismaneanu says, is a form of depraved romanticism whereas communism is a form of depraved enlightenment.

Tismaneanu lingers for some time in Eastern Europe, where he says there has been a great disappointment in the post-communist era. People have lost a belief system, and yet they long for one and their reflex is to yield either to embrace ethnic nationalism or revert to communism. What these places need, he says, is societal glue.

Tismaneanu’s book is not for the faint of heart. It is intended for those with knowledge of Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler and other thinkers on these matters. Those with less historical or philosophical background will find the going slow, as I did, but well worth the effort for the piercing insights that come out.

The theme I have seen running from Tony Judt to Timothy Snyder, Marci Shore, Anne Applebaum and now Vladimir Tismaneanu is empathy for the individuals who lived between the hammer and the anvil of communism and fascism. When Timothy Snyder was asked why the numbers of deaths he gave in his book were not rounded off, he answered that the death of every individual needed to be taken into account – to round off was to lose sight of the humanity of each person.

The humanity of individuals and the tragedy of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe continues to open up as more and more books are being written.

By coincidence, I was speaking to a group of Balts about my own novel two days ago at the Estonian Hall in Toronto, and I was asked by an audience member if the story of the Baltics was eventually going to come out in the west. I said it was indeed coming out, but perhaps not in the way the questioner expected or hoped. The subject of the history of the twentieth century, particularly in Eastern Europe, continues to be a minefield, but the unexploded bombs of the past are being dug up more and more often now. One thing is sure. On the way to broader understanding, there will be more explosions of controversy.

The Taste of Ashes

The Aftermath of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

Marci Shore

Marci Shore’s new analysis of Eastern Europe in the post communist era takes us into that territory through her personal journeys and the people she has known there for over twenty years. It is similar to Anna Porter’s The Ghosts of Europe (2011) but somewhat more intimate. Where Anna Porter went into Europe as an investigator, Marci Shore lived in Poland and Czechoslovakia and studied there and travelled throughout the region. Thus her analysis tells us from up close about the struggles we have read of elsewhere from a more distant perspective.

She deals with countries where there is no democracy after the Soviets (Romania) and where crime rises dramatically (Poland and Czechoslovakia). She is on the one hand investigating post-communist understanding of the holocaust though those who suffered from it, and showing some impatience for easy generalizations:

…Hundreds  of Jewish teenagers from the United States, from Israel, from dozens of other countries were coming to Poland. They came to Poland wearing stars of David….

The Jewish teenagers did not want to talk to Polish journalists – they did not want to talk to Poles at all…

When Poles tried to talk to them, these young Jews wanted to know how they could live there – in a land that was a cemetery. They wanted to know why the Poles had not saved the Jews Jews. They believed it was not by chance that the Germans had chosen Poland as the site of the death camps. They didn’t want to know about the heroic Polish underground. They didn’t want to know that Poles had also died at Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know.”

This anger and limited view is not limited to young Jews. It applies to many others who are aware of their own suffering only.

She discusses the impact of the book Neighbours, by Jan Gross, which described the destruction of the Jews of the Polish town of Jedwabne (there was also a play of this book, which ran in Toronto last year). A number of Poles did not want to know about this story either.

But The Taste of Ashes does not speak of Jewish relations only. It explores why things have not turned out as well as Eastern Europeans had hoped. It explores in particular the act of collaboration with the communist regime. What did it mean to agree to be an informer?

The book analyzes through an individual what Czeslaw Milosz called “ketman“, the ability to profess one thing publicly and believe another privately. Informers sometimes felt as if they were simply playing a game in which they gave the authorities insignificant bits of information. Yet this act split the personality, leaving neither one the possibility of being authentic.

It is a book about a seriously wounded place, part of the world which Timothy Snyder pointed out in Bloodlands, was the worst place to be in WW2. It is a place where people were often both victims and oppressors. It is arguably not an easy place to be in even today.

Marci Shore says she wanted to understand people and why they came to make the choices they did, among them parents who informed on their daughter to the secret police in an attempt to protect their other children. It is a book about people for whom things turned out, in her words, “really, really badly… This book – their story – is a tragedy.”

And yet the reading of this book was very easy because it was so intimate. I felt as if I were sitting in bars and cafes with Shore, talking with people who could only choose among bad choices, and suffered as the result of them. The book expands our understanding of people living in difficult places in difficult times rather than demonizing a new group.

Anne Applebaums’ Iron Curtain

The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944 – 1956

Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum was in Toronto recently to speak about her excellent new book in a Donner Lecture series. Keith Lowe, in his Savage Continent, predicted that there is far more to understand about the destruction in Eastern Europe, and now, months after that statement, we have Applebaum’s book, covering some of the same territory as Lowe and to a certain extent, that of Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt before her.

The great strength of this history is the detailed description of how the communists functioned to destroy civil society in the lands they occupied, flying in Soviet-trained specialists to take control of local radio stations first. Stalin had a sense that radio was the most important tool in taking control of a country, but it was only a first step.

The war had habituated the occupied territories to violence. In Poland, whole buildings of inhabitants were arrested. In Hungary, a man pulling his two children in a cart was arrested and the children left on the street.

Czeslaw Milosz is often quoted on this matter of violence: “The man in the East cannot take Americans (or other westerners) seriously because they have not undergone the same experiences. Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling.”

What Milosz meant was that in the East, one turned away from signs of violence and distress to preserve oneself, while those in the West could not understand the lack of empathy that might stop a man from going to the aid of another being treated unjustly.

The violence of the war had left a vacuum, and into this vacuum came the communists, first with their army and then control of the radio. Some enthusiasts saw this as a good thing, if only because it brought order.

But what order!

Applebaum says the red army’s arrival is rarely remembered as pure liberation  – it is remembered as the beginning of a new occupation. I imagine that could not have been true for Jews, for whom the Soviets were the only hope of liberation in the East, no matter how bad their regime. At least they were not bent on the annihilation of a whole people. The Reds also freed non-Jewish prisoners in camps such as Stutthof.

But the rapacity of the Red army has been documented thoroughly, and Alpplebaum reminds us that in the iconic photo of a Soviet soldier raising a red flag above the Berlin Reichstag, the photo needed to be doctored to hide the several watches the soldiers were wearing on their arms.

Chillingly, Moscow viewed all inhabitants of the new Western territories as potential subversives, so the vice of repression was applied slowly, but relentlessly.

Among banned groups were hiking clubs and charities. The intention was to create a new type of person who was not even capable of imagining alternatives to the Soviet model.

Interestingly, Applebaum raises the question of why more people did not resist. I do wonder if this isn’t a slight application of Milosz’s claim that Westerners cannot understand (although Applebaum is practically an Easterner). Of course one does not resist when the price of resistance is so high. She does mention that resistance (and repression) carried on more intensively in the Baltics and Ukraine, but these areas are outside the scope of her book, which focuses on Poland, East Germany, and Hungary.

Sadly, I might add. These forgotten Baltic and other countries were covered to a certain extent by Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands, but they are difficult for most Westerners to understand because they did not have country status after the war. They were absorbed right into the Soviet Union. Their histories remain absorbed to this day. The multilingual Timothy Snyder explained that Lithuanian is too hard to learn (to say nothing of Estonian and Latvian) and as a result, histories of these places have not been written from the point of view of the west.

Applebaum gives plenty of detail in her work about the erasure of civil society (and even the reduction of free time, which now had to be devoted to partry-approved lectures, memorials, and marches). But the happy ending, if one can call it that, is that resistance remained muted, but present, at least in people’s minds, and it became active as Soviet power began to diminish due to the failure of communist economics.

The reaction to Applebaum’s book has been interesting. Timothy Snyder was praised by most reviewers, but as Adam Gopnik pointed out in an article in The New Yorker, some people were offended by his book because it could be used by ultraconservatives to diminish the importance of the narrative of the Holocaust. Snyder has denied this and claimed he simply lays out the facts of what happened. But in extremist circles I have heard echoes from, Snyder’s work was called “disgraceful”.

I couldn’t agree less.

In these various blog posts, I have discussed the idea of multiple narratives coming out of WW2 and the postwar era, but instead a kind of war of narratives has gone on. I still see claims that attempts to document the crimes of the Soviets are a cover to mask the crimes of Nazis and their collaborators. But when I approached Applebaum after the talk, and asked her about this claim, she said it has now become a “fringe view”.

We do tend to look at these stories from a point of view or fixed position, if we have one. Most westerners do not because they are ignorant of what happened in the East, but even so, the New Yorker review of Applebaum’s book is an example of argument from a position.

One of reviewer Louis Menand’s main questions is whether the United States could have done something about the crimes of the Soviets.

Unrealistic though the proposition may have been, most in the East thought so. The lack of interest in the West is still known as “the great betrayal”.

Menand is interested in the belief that Stalin had no grand plans to invade the west and the Soviet military might was often exaggerated by the United States. A subtext here is that the right-wingers in the West were exaggerating for their own motives. He also ads that Soviets really believed in their ideology, but can that be any sort of excuse? The Nazis believed in their ideology too.

Menand also says that USA could not do anything in any case, and that its goal was to destroy Germany, not save Poland.

But Poland did have treaties with England and France. What were their responsibilities?

Menand writes: “What happened on one side of the wall stayed on that side of the wall. It had no effect on the other side of the wall. Few officials in the West really wanted to se the iron curtain lifted”

That sounds like betrayal to me.

To his credit, Menand adds that Alpplebaum has depicted the human price. And what a human price!

When it comes to history, God is in the details. Alpplebaum has laid out the details in a book less horrific than Timothy Snyder’s but no less illuminating.