Author Topic: Books about life under communism  (Read 2800 times)

Mark Steels Stockbroker

  • Lost in the former West
Books about life under communism
« on: July 26, 2018, 09:54:07 PM »
Not just novels but also memoirs and critical essays. And no just the critical ones, anything positive as well.

2 years ago I went to a talk about Life Is War by Shannon Woodcock, about life in Albania. I wrote a thing about it but I'm not allowed to post a link because of the oppressive tyranny and mind control that Barry Admin is imposing on CaB, it is exactly what it will be like every day if Corbyn and Novara FM take over this country. So message me and I'll send you the link that way.

Meanwhile, I was very impressed (though it's hard work) by My Happy Days In Hell by Gyorgy Faludy. It describes his life, fleeing fascist Hungary in 1938, then having to get out of France when the Nazis moved in, then getting back to Hungary after the war but ending up in a labour camp when the communists took over. Surprisingly not well known, as it does feature a narrator who has already read 1984 and Darkness At Noon when he gets imprisoned.

Petey Pate

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #1 on: July 27, 2018, 09:53:38 AM »
A while ago, a CaB user recommended Svetlana Alexievich's Second-hand Time, which is personal accounts from people who lived during the tail end of the Soviet Union.

buttgammon

  • You can't trust a man what's made of gas
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #2 on: July 27, 2018, 10:41:23 AM »
A while ago, a CaB user recommended Svetlana Alexievich's Second-hand Time, which is personal accounts from people who lived during the tail end of the Soviet Union.

Must give that a go!

I recently read her book Chernobyl Prayer. Obviously, communism isn't the main subject, but the state of the Soviet Union at the time is a major factor in the book, and a lot of the people Alexievich talks to have interesting thoughts on the links between the disaster and the collapse of communism.

Thomas

  • well they do all sixteen dances.
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #3 on: July 27, 2018, 12:30:57 PM »
Now, it is a novel, but Julian Barnes' recent The Noise of Time (2016) is an interestingly structured story about the paranoid mind of Soviet composer Shostakovich, struggling to cope with his thoughts, fears, and artistic ambitions in the USSR.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #4 on: July 31, 2018, 06:53:34 AM »
I don't know if Edward Kuznetsov's 'Prison Diaries' recording his time in a Soviet 'special regime' camp in the early 70s would qualify for the kind of book you're looking for, but thought I would mention it.

New York Times article about the book in 1975.  https://www.nytimes.com/1975/05/25/archives/prison-diaries-profiles-in-russian-resistance.html

Kirkus review.  https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edward-kuznetsov/prison-diaries/

icehaven

  • I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #5 on: July 31, 2018, 01:22:17 PM »
For Non-fiction Escape from Camp 14 (account of life in N.Korea and his subsequent defection) is worth a read (although there's been accusations of exaggeration/fabrication of parts of his account, there's been no suggestion that it isn't mostly true.)

Novelwise The Commissariat of Enlightenment (set in Soviet Russia) by Ken Kalfus is cracking.

chveik

  • it was banned in Germany!
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #6 on: July 31, 2018, 01:47:37 PM »
Arthur Koestler - Darkness at Noon
Varlam Chalamov - The Kolyma Tales

Howj Begg

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #7 on: July 31, 2018, 02:40:33 PM »

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #8 on: July 31, 2018, 08:17:18 PM »
Born in the GDR by Hester Vaizey might be a bit lightweight for what you're looking for but it's very readable and offers a good balance of perspectives. It's a series of interviews with people who were teenagers when the Berlin Wall came down, and their lives pre and post Wende.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #9 on: July 31, 2018, 10:08:27 PM »
Arthur Koestler - Darkness at Noon
Varlam Chalamov - The Kolyma Tales

Yes to these.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge is a fantastic novel, based on life under Stalin after the murder of Kirov, from multiple characters.

I remember enjoying Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer, set in Hungary after WWII. I can't remember anything about it though.

Twit 2

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #10 on: August 01, 2018, 10:16:53 AM »
Spot’s First Gulag

Howj Begg

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #11 on: August 01, 2018, 02:55:42 PM »
Spot’s First Gulag

Preface by Jordan B Peterson.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #12 on: August 01, 2018, 04:25:39 PM »
See Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism and Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain.

Kishi the Bad Lampshade

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #13 on: August 01, 2018, 09:13:11 PM »
Has anyone read The Unquiet Ghost? It's a series of interviews with people who lived under Stalin. It's by Adam Hochschild, the guy who wrote King Leopold's Ghost (guess he just fucking really loves ghosts), which I just finished and really liked, so I think I'll be giving it a go.

Shoulders?-Stomach!

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #14 on: August 04, 2018, 12:53:11 PM »
Not sure if you're talking purely non-fiction, but the book that spawned the pretty terrible film Child 44 (also called Child 44) is fantastic, very well researched without coming across like the author Tom Rob Smith is trying to show off how much he has learnt.

The follow-up The Secret Speech is a bit underwhelming in comparison, but has the most tense chapter of any book I've read (those who've read it will know which one).

Jakey Chesterton

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #15 on: August 04, 2018, 08:12:40 PM »
I've heard that 'Socialism with a German face' by Jonathan Steele is supposed to be a fairly even-handed account of the GDR and life in it.

finnquark

  • come un sogno che va via, ti svegli triste
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #16 on: August 05, 2018, 10:54:25 AM »
Slightly more of a theoretical work, but of the period is the Rudolf Bahro book The Alternative. He was an East German SED member who broke from orthodoxy and challenged the idea of actually existing socialism. Upon it being published, Bahro was arrested and then deported to the West. He went on to become a big player in the FRG Green movement. Interesting bloke.

finnquark

  • come un sogno che va via, ti svegli triste
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #17 on: August 05, 2018, 10:59:29 AM »
2 years ago I went to a talk about Life Is War by Shannon Woodcock, about life in Albania.

One of the most interesting/surreal things I've done as a teacher was take a taxi through Berlin at night with a British Communist who went to live in the GDR in the 1960s. He is related to a former student and kindly offered to give a talk to the students (two years running). He came with his wife, and the three of us went ahead of the students to a restaurant which is GDR-themed (called the Volkskammer after the GDR 'parliament'). In the cab he just kept pointing out parts of the city where the wall had been, or where the Stasi had offices - he was notably reticent to talk about the Stasi to students. Anyway, his talks were genuinely very funny and fascinating, and he is still quite committed to certain aspects of Communism. His wife more so, to the point where she shot down a girl who asked a pointed question about the failure of the GDR to fully liberate women - she lectured our students on the fallacies of western 'pseudo-feminism'.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #18 on: August 05, 2018, 05:41:10 PM »
Sorry but Stalingrad by Antony Beevor is my very Corrigan reply

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #19 on: August 06, 2018, 12:34:07 AM »
For some reason I've only read GDR takes on this.

Anna Funder - Stasiland is excellent. Timothy Garton Ash did one called the file, which by description should be more interesting than Stasiland but isn't because he's a dry academic writer that can't consider the human element in a way that Funder absolutely nails.

Mark Steels Stockbroker

  • Lost in the former West
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #20 on: August 06, 2018, 07:40:19 AM »
You've reminded me that Total State Machine, the book about British anarchist industrial noise makiers Test Department, has sections dealing with the gigs they did in East Berlin and elsewhere and the paperwork they had to go through when taking all their equipment abroad. It has a short section called "The Stasi File" showing what they found out about what their hosts thought of them.

Pingers

  • With the ill behaviour
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #21 on: September 25, 2018, 12:25:18 AM »
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. An incredible book, it really opened my eyes and messed with my head. It's one of those books you want to recommend to people, foist on them, give them a copy and go 'read it!', but it's so bleak at times you don't want to be the person who foisted it on them in case they hate you for it, but you do want them to have read it.

I think what it does well is illustrate what totalitarianism really is. It's not just surveillance or telling you what to think, it's the state getting into every tiny corner of life, so soaked into the psyche that it becomes almost unthinkable to rebel or to live without it. The naivety and devotion to the nebulous concept of the motherland is so strong it's painful. You hear from men who were rounded up from their civilian lives and told to go up on to the top of the reactor with little or nothing in the way of protective equipment. When people balked, they were told that if they did it they would get a Certificate of Merit. And some vodka. 'Oh yes, well in that case of course I'll do it, why did you not mention that before?'. It's very hard to comprehend how people will do suicidal things for what is essentially a piece of paper from the Communist Party. It's like giving a child a sticker. Many of the people living in Pripyat, a town built purposely to service the power station, knew nothing about radiation. A painful and compelling read, one of the best books I've read in a good while.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #22 on: September 27, 2018, 02:17:09 AM »
This really chimes with my experience of reading her book about post-Soviet life,Second Hand Time, in that, good as it is, I would absolutely never recommend it just in case it messed with the recomendee's mental health. It's not exactly a book about suicide, but the suicide of a friend or relative crops up so often in the background details of her interviewees lives that it gradually creeps up on you as a theme of the book, without ever quite being tackled head-on. I found this really unsettling, to the extent that I often thought about giving up (the book).

There are some really striking bizarre set pieces in there, the most striking being a sniper who talks about camoflaging himself in the carcass of a bear. There are also a lot of appalling Eastern European conflicts talked about here which I've never heard mentioned anywhere else.
 
A major thread is a number of voices lamenting the passing of the Soviet Union. Mostly this is intellectuals who miss the times when
            a)the general public had literature and classical music foisted upon them by the state,
            b)people were poor and therefore philosophical and unmaterialistic,
but also c)artists and writers were engaged in what seemed an important struggle with the state over freedom of ideas.  They miss that struggle, even with it's dangers.
Why doesn't anybody care about my dissident poetry magazine any more?
They wonder if they fought on the wrong side, they watch perplexed as others adapt much more easily to the new entreupenurial style of life.

Being the imaginative, freedom-loving enemy of a murderous and stupid bureaucracy is exactly what some people want. 

« Last Edit: September 27, 2018, 02:41:09 AM by Astronaut Omens »

Pingers

  • With the ill behaviour
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #23 on: September 27, 2018, 07:11:54 PM »
I think she has a talent for piecing together different narrative accounts to create something that has a consistent thread and teases out a theme or an important point. I do have slight worries over whether this is manipulative; it would be easy to only choose those accounts that confirm a certain point of view, although she does seem to present some disparate and dissenting voices. All in all I found Chernobyl Prayer surprising and educative, also quite scary.

One account has really stuck with me; that of a woman who had fled an ethic conflict somewhere in Central Asia and was happy enough to live in the contaminated zone because that was one place free of 'men with guns'. What a life.

buttgammon

  • You can't trust a man what's made of gas
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #24 on: September 27, 2018, 08:12:22 PM »
I think she has a talent for piecing together different narrative accounts to create something that has a consistent thread and teases out a theme or an important point. I do have slight worries over whether this is manipulative; it would be easy to only choose those accounts that confirm a certain point of view, although she does seem to present some disparate and dissenting voices. All in all I found Chernobyl Prayer surprising and educative, also quite scary.

One account has really stuck with me; that of a woman who had fled an ethic conflict somewhere in Central Asia and was happy enough to live in the contaminated zone because that was one place free of 'men with guns'. What a life.

Very similar to my experience of Chernobyl Prayer. It scared the hell out of me, particularly when authoritarianism and the destruction caused by the disaster merged, and this inhuman disaster combined with the all too human abuses of power. A very harrowing book.

That woman's story (from Tajikistan I think) is one of the bits that really haunted me when I read it.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #25 on: September 28, 2018, 01:24:37 AM »
I think she has a talent for piecing together different narrative accounts to create something that has a consistent thread and teases out a theme or an important point. I do have slight worries over whether this is manipulative;
Second-Hand Timedefinitely feels a bit manipulative in the way you describe, if only because Alexievich herself is not really there much as a narrating voice in the book, so you're forced to infer her opinions from the information she chooses to present, and the collage-like manner or presentation- it's harder to guess what her biases and blind spots are. (I guess the lack of spelling-it-out is what makes her appealling, though. ).( Is there a clear mission statement in Chernobyl Prayer? I'm guessing she's not pro-radioactivity.)



Cuellar

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #26 on: September 28, 2018, 10:47:46 AM »
The Captive Mind by Clezslaw Milosz is interesting for an artist's take on creativity under Stalinism.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #27 on: October 01, 2018, 03:38:07 PM »
More Socialism than Communism per se as it's late era Fidel Castro but 'Dirty Havana Trilogy' by Pedro Juan Gutierrez is a decent insight into the daily hustle. It's also very saucy! 

Clive Langham

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #28 on: October 01, 2018, 05:15:31 PM »
"Against All Hope" by Armando Valladares is a good read. It's the story of a bloke who is arrested in the sixties in Castro's Cuba for being opposed to communism and spends the next twenty-two years in a tropical gulag.

Pingers

  • With the ill behaviour
Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #29 on: November 27, 2018, 08:29:06 PM »
For some reason I've only read GDR takes on this.

Anna Funder - Stasiland is excellent. Timothy Garton Ash did one called the file, which by description should be more interesting than Stasiland but isn't because he's a dry academic writer that can't consider the human element in a way that Funder absolutely nails.

I have just finished Stasiland. I thought it was very good. I like the way she more or less keeps herself out of it, offering a few observations here and there but mostly letting her interviewees tell it through their stories. What came across strongly for me was what a mundane dictatorship the GDR was, in contrast to the balls-out, vodka swilling craziness of the Russian experience. How dourly, methodically horrible they were.

There are some full-on Catch-22 moments, such as when she describes how it was possible to apply to leave the GDR, and even for your application to be successful, but that if it was unsuccessful you could then be charged with the crime of... planning to leave the GDR. Also memorable is the scene in what is essentially a labour exchange, where the young woman is berated for mentioning being unemployed; "There IS NO unemployment in the GDR! You are merely seeking work!".

I found this disturbing in a historical sense, but also in a current sense. Really, how much of a conceptual difference is there between boldly claiming that there is no unemployment in the GDR to a group of unemployed people, and the DWP continually and robotically assuring us that 'no-one's worse off in work' when that is demonstrably untrue? And how different is trapping people in a no-win legal situation to denying people disability benefits because they are too disabled to get into the building where the assessment is due to take place? Not different enough.