The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

  • Marci Shore
  • Crown
  • 384 pp.
  • February 19, 2013

The author explores the ambiguity and the unfinished nature of communism’s fall.

Reviewed by Judit Vásárhelyi-Kondor and Amanda Norris

The fall of communism and the subsequent reunification of the splintered continent was thedefining momentof 20th-century Europe. Totalitarian rule in Europe ended and hopes rose for a swift and flawless democratization of the ex-communist countries. In the wake of that optimism, The Taste of Ashes tells a more realistic story about a region where history remained palpable and heavy, a part of the everyday and often a sensitive personal matter.

The book is a patchwork of memories: it tells the personal histories of people the author befriended — well-known public figures as well as everyday men and women — and of the historic figures whose lives she researched. Since Marci Shore first arrived in Prague in 1993, she has acquired more knowledge about Eastern Europe than most of its inhabitants. She gained an insider’s view and an intimate understanding of the impact of the totalitarian regimes. Fortunately, however, she remains an outsider, in the sense that she lacks the acculturation that would have prevented her from approaching taboo topics or asking questions avoided by locals.

Realizing that post-1989 Eastern Europe cannot be understood without the legacy of the preceding decades, Shore goes back: to the Prague Spring in 1968, to the beginnings of Stalinism, to the Holocaust and to the interwar years. She leads us backwards and forwards in time, slipping towards 2011 and 1920 simultaneously. She tells stories about the victims — who were killed, who fled, who fought or who conceded — and about the oppressors. Most importantly, she tells stories about how the two categories were often hard to tell apart.

Shore approaches her characters with curiosity and empathy. Even when she writes about people whose names are now anathemas in their own lands, she seeks to understand their thinking, their motivations, the choices they faced and the alternatives at their disposal. In doing so, she devotes considerable attention to the biographies of “non-Jewish Jews” who turned into fervent communists. Although the focus on this sometimes feels disproportionate, Shore touches on one of the most interesting, complicated and sensitive issues of 20th-century European history.

Once familiar with characters living in “historical moments in which there are no innocent choices,” the reader inevitably starts asking what she would have done in their place. We meet parents, who denounced their dissident daughter to the secret police in order to protect their other children. We meet the young Polish Jew who reproaches her grandparents for not having left their country, and another one who feels most at home on the flight between Warsaw and Tel Aviv. We learn about Stalin’s alleged lover whose husband was killed by the secret police and who then married the man sent to solicit her understanding for this “excess” of Stalinism. A former dissident tells us how his one-time informer asked him for a letter of recommendation based on the fact that his subject had not noticed that he had been spied upon.

These people often say that Westerners, especially Americans, cannot understand these experiences and the enduring impact on everyday life. As one of them put it: “Our grandparents were never happy, there was the war, the Holocaust. Our parents were never happy. There was communism, martial law, the memory of the Holocaust. We grew up and we could never be happy. It was impossible, obscene, to be happy.” According to the famous Czech dissident Martin Simecka, “All of us who lived at least part of our adult lives under communism must have been marked by the past to the extent that we may never be able to discuss it in the language of a natural, free world.”

Shore notes that not everyone shares these fatalistic views. While another former dissident, Kostek Gebert, sees the burden of excessive expectations and failed illusions post-1989, he reminds us that one “who has witnessed 1989 does not have the moral right to be a pessimist.” Still, one gets the impression that the real hope for a fully liberated Eastern Europe is the generation that was already born into the free world and thus was neither formed by totalitarianism, nor by the fall of it.

The Taste of Ashes shows the ambiguity and the unfinished nature of communism’s fall. Shore brings her readers closer to understanding the complex psyche of both pre- and post-1989 Eastern Europe. What at first looks to be a collection of interesting anecdotes turns into a hard, sometimes even heartbreaking, read. Although Shore provides brief explanations of the referenced historic events, her shifting story lines and characters unfamiliar to the general public will make the book most appreciated by readers having some prior knowledge of the countries and the events discussed. For them, Shore gives stories that will complement their knowledge and that will stick with them for a long time after turning the last page.

Amanda Norris is a second-year M.A. candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies studying International Economics and European Studies. After graduating from the College of William & Mary, she undertook a Fulbright Scholarship in Germany where she furthered her interest in post-communist European history. Amanda has worked on Eastern European issues throughout the years in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria, France and most recently in Brussels at the United States Mission to the European Union.

Judit Vásárhelyi-Kondor is a second-year M.A. candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies studying International Economics and European Studies. Judit was born in Manchester, England, grew up in Budapest, Hungary, studied in Denmark and Italy, and currently lives in the United States. After earning a degree in Business Administration, she worked in consulting in Central and Eastern Europe.


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