Author Topic: Books about life under communism  (Read 4645 times)

imitationleather

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #30 on: February 11, 2019, 11:36:24 AM »
I'm currently reading Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy. I've read half of it in one sitting (a rarity for me) and I am totally digging this shit. I know the general story of course, but it's written in such a thrilling style that in addition to being full of lots of interesting info about just what went down that night the pace and storytelling is absolutely top notch.

I too am now very much wanting to read more about what life was like in the latter stages of the Soviet Union. In this book here's mentions of the bureaucracy and things such as needing to join a lengthy waiting list to own a car and the chronic housing shortages, but I want to know more! More, I tell you!

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #31 on: February 12, 2019, 11:47:43 PM »
Another shout for Stasiland here - I'm about halfway through, and as someone who rarely reads historical nonfiction (not because I'm not interested, I've just never really got around to it/am a bit daunted due to my own pretty crap general knowledge of modern history), I'm finding it great so far.

Her writing has a mesmerising, dreamlike quality, but also dare I say a sort of Germanic elegance and undercurrent of wry humour as well. The stories speak for themselves really, but the balance of style and warmth frames them excellently.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, an oral history of Soviet women in WWII, is on my list.

FerriswheelBueller

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #32 on: February 13, 2019, 04:48:21 AM »
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen.

I am an incorrigible chef and food bore, so this was right up my alley. Recipes woven into the recollections of the author.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/15/mastering-art-soviet-cooking-review

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #33 on: February 17, 2019, 02:21:23 AM »

imitationleather

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #34 on: February 20, 2019, 11:04:38 AM »
Another shout for Stasiland here - I'm about halfway through, and as someone who rarely reads historical nonfiction (not because I'm not interested, I've just never really got around to it/am a bit daunted due to my own pretty crap general knowledge of modern history), I'm finding it great so far.

Her writing has a mesmerising, dreamlike quality, but also dare I say a sort of Germanic elegance and undercurrent of wry humour as well. The stories speak for themselves really, but the balance of style and warmth frames them excellently.

Seconded. Been really enjoying this. Have fired through over half of it since I started reading it yesterday.

And here was me thinking the Stasi were the good guys. :(

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #35 on: February 20, 2019, 01:50:12 PM »
And here was me thinking the Stasi were the good guys. :(

You can try Timothy Garton Ash's The File, where he discovers post-89 that there was a Stasi file on him, and traces and meets the people who'd informed on him. Part autobiography, part detective story.

And - I know it's a book thread, but I chanced upon this documentary recently, about a UK film crew who'd filmed interviews in Rostock before The Wall fell, and then went back there a couple of years ago and re-interviewed the people they'd met (the men from a Fishermen's Collective and the women from an all-female Crane Operators' Collective). It's fascinating, and well-worth the £4 rental fee.

From Us To Them


imitationleather

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #36 on: February 20, 2019, 11:56:55 PM »
You can try Timothy Garton Ash's The File, where he discovers post-89 that there was a Stasi file on him, and traces and meets the people who'd informed on him. Part autobiography, part detective story.

And - I know it's a book thread, but I chanced upon this documentary recently, about a UK film crew who'd filmed interviews in Rostock before The Wall fell, and then went back there a couple of years ago and re-interviewed the people they'd met (the men from a Fishermen's Collective and the women from an all-female Crane Operators' Collective). It's fascinating, and well-worth the £4 rental fee.

From Us To Them

Ta for those recommendations. I may well fork out on payday!

Petey Pate

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #37 on: April 25, 2019, 03:23:54 PM »
Not read it yet, but Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More is an anthropological analysis of the late Soviet period that looks pretty interesting.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #38 on: April 25, 2019, 08:27:38 PM »
I've mentioned it already but I found The File really quite boring. The premise sounded good though.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #39 on: April 26, 2019, 10:40:57 PM »
Fourth call for Stasiland. My gf forced me to read it and I'm glad.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the man for gulag literature. One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, and Love-Girl & The Innocent cover gulag life and the temperature of Stalinist Russia with black sense of humour in all of its penny-pinching, backstabbing, and suffering. He also wrote The Gulag Archipelago, which is incredible, though Jordan Peterson has written the foreword of a new edition. A lot of those guys like Vladimir Bukovsky did come out of the gulag into a wholehearted embrace of neoliberalism but I honestly don't blame them.

Pepotamo1985

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #40 on: May 01, 2019, 12:16:42 PM »
I've mentioned it already but I found The File really quite boring. The premise sounded good though.

That book is absolute rubbish. Excellent premise, but Timmy boy's a very tedious writer and the contents of is file are pretty uninteresting anyway. Add to this lots of padding - presumably inserted precisely because his file's hardly dynamite or particularly extensive - and servile, patriotic fawning over the UK and its own intelligence agencies and you have a total write-off of a book.

This brief article by Paula Kirby, a Brit who lived in the GDR and was heavily surveilled by the Stasi, is far more interesting than anything in Ash's book - https://thevieweast.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/paula-kirby-on-life-in-the-gdr/ - particularly this excerpt:

Quote
Despite its fearsome reputation today, the Stasi was capable of almost farcical incompetence, something which becomes clear from a copy of a second letter that I found in my own file, as shown below. This letter was dated February 1988, and was sent between Stasi divisions in Dresden. It related to something that had happened seven months earlier, in June 1987, when an official at the British Embassy in Prague had been on a visit to Dresden and had, of course, been trailed by the Stasi. According to the letter in my file, he had been seen entering my flat at 6.13 pm, but “no further information concerning the duration of the visit is available”.  On the basis of this, the letter asks the recipient to try to investigate the nature of the relationship between the embassy official and me, and the possibility of using me to report to them on his activities. There is so much about this that is just breathtakingly inept! First, the letter refers to my still being resident in Dresden in February 1988, but by the time it was written I’d been back in the UK for nearly six months, since my GDR visa had expired at the end of August 1987. Secondly, the letter was written less than a month after the GDR had finally deigned to tell Knut [her partner] that our application to marry and for him to leave had been turned down, so it is safe to say it would have been a particularly unpropitious time to ask me to do the Stasi a favour.

And it gets funnier: when I read this letter in my file I hunted out my 1987 diary and turned to my entry for the day of the embassy official’s visit. Not only had he not been alone when he visited me, his companion was an official from the British Embassy in East Berlin. Given the extreme concern about my contacts with the British Embassy that is apparent in the rest of my file, I am quite sure that the presence in my flat of officials from not one but TWO British Embassies would have left the Stasi hyperventilating, if they’d only known about it! And since both officials entered my flat quite openly and together, I can only assume that whoever had been given the task of trailing the official from Prague that day had taken a very narrow interpretation of his instructions and had seen no reason to mention the existence of a second visitor.

Even more amusingly, my diary reveals that we were only in my flat a very short time before walking to the restaurant of the Interhotel right next to my apartment block, where we spent several hours in full view of anyone who cared to see us, in animated discussion about the GDR, the CSSR, Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost, the GDR elections and much more besides. One of the very reasons the GDR built so many Interhotels was to make it easy for the Stasi to keep an eye on Western visitors, so really, we couldn’t have made things any easier for them if we’d tried. Yet they still managed to miss all the interesting bits. I am irresistibly reminded of this, possibly the best commercial of all time.

I'm also in a minority of not particularly liking Stasiland - I also find it very irritating its author is now regarded as a leading expert on the GDR.

On the plus side, Funder gets some excellent and valuable interviews (although I wonder whether all her interviewees were entirely honest - the commemorative plate episode one recounts just sounds like fiction to me, for instance) and it's readable, but that's about it. Her frequent, florid personal tangents get extremely tiresome after a while, particularly as they seem to get more frequent and protracted closer to the end, and they detract significantly from the quality of the work. Moreover, for all her attempts to reconstruct the disappeared country - aesthetically, politically, socially etc. - I don't think she offers a particularly accurate or comprehensive portrayal of what life in the GDR was actually like on the whole, instead literally creating a 'Stasiland', in which the secret police force were as dominant and influential in all aspects of citizens lives as the Nazis were. Sure, it was an exceptionally large and powerful agency, but it was merely one element of a wider system - one which wasn't universally nightmarish, and indeed one in which people found a number of inventive ways to get around the restrictions directly and indirectly imposed upon them, and often lived perfectly happy and unmolested lives. Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall is a series of one-to-one interviews with people who grew up after the wall was built and is very interesting and insightful in this regard (even if some of the interviews aren't massively edifying) - while some suffered terribly and live with the trauma to this day, others recall how food shortages drew communities closer together, with neighbours pooling and sharing their resources to ensure no one ever went hungry or without essential goods. Among other things, these collaborative bonds facilitated a thriving black market for outlawed books/music/etc. and lively community groups - some of Funder's interviewees hint at such things, but she doesn't seem interested in exploring those aspects further.

I'd also add Stasiland almost completely glosses over the historical context of the GDR's origins and structure (as dire as the GDR was, it was pretty much an inevitability, given the Soviet Union's obvious aversion to Germany becoming a militarised capitalist state again, let alone a Western-facing member of NATO, and conversely the West's refusal to allow a reunified Germany that wasn't), while also being heavily and obviously biased in favour of the West - for instance, she condemns the Soviets for stealing various German industrial plants from their occupation zone, while failing to mention several other countries (in particular Britain) did exactly the same thing (and their bounty was far more valuable). Likewise, she slams the Soviets' attempts at denazification - which essentially involved framing Nazism as a largely West German phenomenon, in effect a hostile foreign occupation of the East - but doesn't discuss how the West struggled immensely with the same issue, employing a number of different practical and psychological remedies (including, funnily enough, trying to frame the Nazi party as unrepresentative of German citizens), before giving up on the project entirely in the early 1950s. Moreover, such was the Soviets' determination (with a few notable exceptions...) to purge their occupation zone of Nazis (and their savage treatment once captured) many former party members and officials fled (or 'defected') to the West because they knew they'd get an easier ride - as a result of the purge, virtually no former Nazis ended up in positions of any power in the GDR, while all the FRG's institutions were of course rife.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #41 on: May 02, 2019, 01:52:07 PM »
Yeah I seem to remember Stasiland being all Legend Anna out on the piss with her washed-up rockstar pal, couldn’t give a shit mate.

EDIT that is the dumbest book review of all time

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #42 on: June 12, 2019, 09:29:36 PM »
Another novel: I'm currently reading The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian, whose books are banned in China.

My knowledge of Chinese history and society is pretty basic, but that sort of adds to the sense that all these events, characters and passages in the novel which at face value seem too bizarre, dark and surreal to be true most likely are based on real events.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #43 on: June 13, 2019, 01:56:30 PM »
I'm also in a minority of not particularly liking Stasiland - I also find it very irritating its author is now regarded as a leading expert on the GDR.

You're right, but then there's a dearth of books in English that deal with the subject currently - the period seems to be far better served by films (Goodbye Lenin, The Lives Of Others, Ballon). I took my family to the Stasi museum a couple of weeks ago and it was dry in a manner that only German museums can manage. Then we watched Ballon the same evening and the penny dropped about what it was like to experience living under that government.

That said, I don't think the book should be dismissed completely. My wife was West German for the first 25 years of her life and had never even heard of the puzzle ladies, whose salaries were being paid for by her taxes. I spent three days in East Berlin in 1988 which makes me more of an expert on the GDR than she is, even though it's 'her' country.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #44 on: June 13, 2019, 08:53:38 PM »
Just finished The Noodle Maker, there's a lovely bit towards the end featuring a smart-arsed talking dog eloquently berating its owner for all his human flaws (and by extension, the flaws of the government policies he supports) which reminded me more than a little of My Wrongs. I don't think it was translated into English until the early 2000s though so prob just a coincidence.


zomgmouse

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #45 on: June 15, 2019, 03:32:18 AM »
The Joke, by Milan Kundera.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #46 on: June 21, 2019, 11:26:49 AM »
My wife recommended Baba Dunja's Last Love which ties in nicely with all the Chernobyl interest swirling around at the moment.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #47 on: June 22, 2019, 07:23:22 AM »
'Seven Slovak Women' by Janette Baer (who has also written a Czech equivalent). I fell quite hard for a Slovakian waitress who has kind of inverted herself to escape intergenerational trauma and her own, and wanted - or rather was driven - to reach back and try to understand better what I feel I instinctively have.

I feel bugged by how there is no Roma representation in this book, which chimes badly with remarks made by this waitress about the woman doing the washing up a metre to her right every day for even less money. Have not made my mind up yet whether this book is the roots of that unpacked. It's thorny - living in a town with a high Slovak Roma population and falling for a 'white' Slovakian woman who turns out to be quite self-centred and brattish. Then, wrestling with a binge-drinking issue myself, noticing a Roma woman walking back and forth daily with a bag of drinks, looking lost, and feeling a bit guilty really that my Guardian reader sensibilities are still in need of some work. But they drum, or had drummed, the holocaust into Slovakian children at 6, it must be part of what takes a toll.

I am really grateful for the list this thread has made. Cheers.

Doomy Dwyer

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #48 on: June 22, 2019, 04:15:02 PM »
I’ve been meaning to mention ‘Red Plenty’ by Francis Spufford for some time but don’t feel that I’m able to do the book justice on account of my fading, murky, threadbare memory. It's a book that deserves a far, far better recommendation than the one I’m about to provide. I only read it about two or three years ago but it may as well have been way back in 1964, coincidentally the very year that Nikita Krushchev was ousted as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or Premier, by Leonid Breshnev in a bloodless coup, if such a thing can ever be said to truly exist. Which is, also coincidentally, pretty much the point at which the book ends, as does the dream of a working 'communist' model that can compete on a level footing with God’s America and its decadent western European lapdog lackeys. I don’t know whether you noticed, but I’ve effortlessly introduced a couple of major themes of the book there, which deals exclusively with the period of Soviet growth, strength and competitiveness that took place immediately post WWII and lasted until the early to mid-sixties when Russia was one of the fastest growing economies on earth. It also had the least fashionable and shoddiest produced denim jeans on earth, too, a fact that I can't help but feel hastened its demise as a viable super power, that and a couple of other niggling little problems that I won’t bother to go into here. But you can’t make an omelette and all that. Red Plenty is an unusual book in that it focuses on one of the more positive periods in Soviet history, a time when the future genuinely seemed to be up for grabs, rather than the usual litany of terror, tractor production shortfall and charmless 3am executions without trial that most Imperialist Running Dog Propaganda tends to dwell upon, and it is written as a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. This last point was something that I was initially dubious about – I don’t like people fucking about with non-fiction. But Spuff Spufford writes with great empathy and imagination and brings what is essentially a book about post war Soviet economics alive in a way that is fantastically entertaining and immensely readable. It’s a very humane book and I can’t recommend it enough, although this will have to do.

As a companion piece, and slightly off the remit of this thread, I’d just like to mention ‘Welcome To Mars’ by Ken Hollings which covers exactly the same period in Amerikkkan history but with a greater emphasis on UFO sightings, microwave ovens and the burgeoning military industrial complex/capitalist free market economy cross over type deal that we know, love and has been reaming our sorry arses for decades. The book depicts a happier, more innocent time of wonder and plenty when shadowy government departments worked on projects with sinister all upper case acronyms like GRUDGE, CASTIGATE, and ARTICHOKE and no one gave a bollocks because their fridges were so fucking large. There’s even a computer called MANIAC. Hollings is one of those po-mo/post human popular cultural theorist types who is very good at connecting the dots, seeing the hidden patterns and making you say "fucking hell, lads" every page or so.   

I’ve got to have my lunch now, but I’d also like to mention ‘K Blows Top’ by Peter Carlson, a telling of Krushchev’s aborted visit to Disneyland, and would like to also big up Second Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, which has been mentioned several times already and I think I’ve even written about on here before myself and is one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking reads committed to paper. Unless you’re reading it on one of those new kindles they have, in which case, fuck you, you modern fucking ponce.  Although, to be fair, it is quite a hefty book and they're really handy when you're traveling, aren't they?       

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #49 on: June 22, 2019, 04:50:37 PM »
I’ve been meaning to mention ‘Red Plenty’ by Francis Spufford for some time but don’t feel that I’m able to do the book justice on account of my fading, murky, threadbare memory.     

Thanks for this - one of my favourite books is his The Backroom Boys which details technological marvels that Britain should be proud of but no one properly is: the Black Arrow rocket, Concorde, the computer game Elite, mobile phone call switching between masts, and sequencing DNA. It's one of those books I have have two copies of so I can lend it out.

Doomy Dwyer

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #50 on: June 22, 2019, 05:23:47 PM »
Yeah, I've heard that's a good read, I must give it a go. His research is wide ranging and fantastic. He did a book about polar exploration as well: I May Be Some Time. That was an absolute bastard. About the days when all you needed to be a polar explorer was a big coat and a dog. Utter insanity. I forget which one of the Scott lot it was but he was so frozen that when they found him and tried to shift his body his arm snapped off like a fucking breadstick. Brutal. When I look at these modern wankers, bunch of posh over grown public schoolboys to a man with their woolly hats and that, I just think, so what? You've got all the gear and you've lost a couple of toes, big fucking deal. Oates walked sixty miles in minus forty degrees with broken ribs and only had wellies and an old pair of his dads Thinsulate's on. Your Ralph Fiennes and that lot. The Mumford & Sons of being cold.   

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #51 on: June 26, 2019, 12:20:29 PM »
One of my ancestors was on the Scott mission. He just stopped walking and died where he was standing.

Doomy Dwyer

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Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #52 on: June 26, 2019, 12:57:54 PM »


It's a shit business.

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #53 on: June 26, 2019, 08:41:27 PM »
It's a shit business.

I read the story of Shackleton to my daughter, and strangely, it was the massive wholesale slaughter of penguins (300 in one day was the peak), seals and dog-sled teams (including the puppies) that put her off polar exploration...

Re: Books about life under communism
« Reply #54 on: July 16, 2019, 12:09:57 AM »
I got a lot out of Grass Soup by Zhang Xianliang, an account of his 20+ years in a Chinese forced labour camp under Mao. Learned a lot from it- it's still shocking to me that this horror is so recent.