Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism

Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism

by Kristen Ghodsee


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In Red Hangover Kristen Ghodsee examines the legacies of twentieth-century communism twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall fell. Ghodsee's essays and short stories reflect on the lived experience of postsocialism and how many ordinary men and women across Eastern Europe suffered from the massive social and economic upheavals in their lives after 1989. Ghodsee shows how recent major crises-from the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Syrian Civil War to the rise of Islamic State and the influx of migrants in Europe-are linked to mistakes made after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc when fantasies about the triumph of free markets and liberal democracy blinded Western leaders to the human costs of "regime change." Just as the communist ideal has become permanently tainted by its association with the worst excesses of twentieth-century Eastern European regimes, today the democratic ideal is increasingly sullied by its links to the ravages of neoliberalism. An accessible introduction to the history of European state socialism and postcommunism, Red Hangover reveals how the events of 1989 continue to shape the world today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369349
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/13/2017
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Kristen Ghodsee is Professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of several books, including The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe and Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, both also published by Duke University Press, and From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read.

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According to scientists, the human body, provided sufficient fuel or kindling to ignite it, can burn for seven hours. Of course, the human being usually expires earlier in the process, but not before experiencing the most excruciating agony imaginable. Being consumed by flames is the worst way to die, which perhaps explains why the ever-so-merciful medieval Catholic Church preferred to burn witches and heretics alive. Although faster and less painful suicide options abound, six Bulgarians decided to set themselves on fire during a forty-five-day period in 2013.

The drama started in February when Bulgarians poured out onto the streets of Sofia to protest a massive hike in their winter power bills. The electricity distributors, now foreign-owned monopolies, unilaterally raised prices in the poorest country in the European Union, a nation where pensioners already had to choose among heat, light, medicine, and food. Few could afford all four. The initial antimonopoly demonstrations morphed into massive protests in front of parliament, with citizens demanding the resignation of their prime minister, Boyko Borissov. Exhausted by stagnant salaries and ever-rising utility costs, many Bulgarians believed that a popular social movement could improve their deteriorating realities. One man held up a poster that read, "Salary 270 levs, Heat 300 levs, Electricity 220 levs, Water 120 levs: How much longer?" When the prime minister resigned and called for new elections, a spark of hope shone new light on the political possibilities of democracy. That spark ignited a flame of citizen participation that media observers called the "Bulgarian Spring," a new blooming of civil society that would lift the country out of its long postcommunist quagmire. But not everyone was so optimistic.

On February 18, 2013, Traian Marechkov, a twenty-six-year-old unemployed environmentalist and social activist from the Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo, walked to a crossroads and dumped gasoline on his head. Witnesses at the scene claimed that Marechkov waved off would-be rescuers, allowing his body to be consumed by the flames. According to one Bulgarian newspaper, Marechkov's last words were, "I give my life for the people, my family, and Bulgaria, hoping that politics and the government will improve the standard of living for the people." He died in the hospital two days later.

On February 20, the day Bulgaria lost Marechkov, a thirty-six-year-old photographer and protest leader in the Black Sea coastal city of Varna, Plamen Goranov, mounted the steps of City Hall. He placed a placard on the ground demanding the resignation of Varna's mayor, believed to have close connections with powerful local Mafia interests. According to security camera footage and the testimony of witnesses, Goranov informed the guards that he planned to set himself on fire. He spread a canvas on the ground and proceeded to pour five liters of gasoline over his head. He flicked a lighter and combusted into flames. Goranov died eleven days later on the Bulgarian national holiday that marks the country's independence from five hundred years of Ottoman Turkish domination. Media pundits quickly likened Goranov's self-immolation to that of the Czechoslovak student Jan Palach, who set himself alight to protest the Soviet invasion of his country after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The Guardian and the New York Times ran emotional stories about how the sacrifice of Goranov might finally help Bulgaria fix its long-standing problems. Within seventy-two hours, the Varna mayor tendered his resignation.

Self-immolation boasts a long history as a form of political protest. Because self-immolators use an accelerant such as gasoline, the flames begin to consume the flesh much faster than an accidental fire. According to doctors who treat burn victims, the first moments of a burn cause the most agony as the flames devour the top two layers of skin — the epidermis and the dermis — filled with sensitive nerve endings. Only once these outer layers of flesh peel away can the human mind begin to shut out the acute pain. Most self-immolators suffer third-degree burns, which, if they survive, require extensive skin grafts from other parts of their bodies to heal. Once the inferno eats away all of the flesh and begins to expose the bone, the human body, or what is left of it, is beyond repair by even the most advanced medical procedures. In Tibet, some devout monks drink kerosene to ensure that their insides explode, rendering any attempts at emergency care useless.

In 2013, Bulgarians earned an average monthly wage of about 400 euros (520 dollars), a little more than 6,000 dollars per year. According to one Caritas study, 43 percent of the Bulgarian people counted as "severely materially deprived," meaning that they could not afford at least four of the following nine things: (1) their rent or water and electricity bills, (2) adequate heat for their homes in the winter months, (3) unexpected costs such as unforeseen medical bills or necessary medicines to treat illnesses, (4) to eat meat, fish, or a protein equivalent at least once every two days, (5) a week's vacation away from home, (6) a car, (7) a washing machine, (8) a color television, or (9) a telephone or mobile phone. To put this in perspective, the average percentage of the population suffering from severe material deprivation among the twenty-eight members of the European Union was 9.6 percent. Bulgaria ranked last among all member nations. According to the same study, 21 percent of Bulgarians were at risk for poverty and social exclusion, meaning that they survived on only 60 percent of the median national income, which in Bulgaria would be 240 euros or 312 dollars a month in 2013. It was no wonder that people could not afford cars, televisions, or washing machines, which were no cheaper in Bulgaria even though average annual incomes were the lowest in the EU. The young and educated fled the country in droves to seek a better life in the West.

On February 26, six days after Goranov's immolation, a fifty-three-year-old unemployed man named Ventsislav Vasilev stormed into the municipal office in Radevo, demanding work for himself and his family. Vasilev was father to five grown children. His seven-person household lived on sporadic social benefits and odd jobs, barely surviving in the winter months. Eager for work of any kind, Vasilev begged the local authorities to employ him. When they refused, Vasilev set himself ablaze inside of the municipal building. His twenty-two-year-old son Alan later told reporters that he didn't think it was the inflated January 2013 electricity bill that pushed his father over the edge. It was the water bill. Vasilev was being sued for an outstanding invoice of 215 euros. The water company in Stara Zagora had already initiated court proceedings against him.

On March 6, the Bulgarian government declared a national day of mourning for Plamen Goranov, the most famous of the three men. The world's attention turned to the desperate acts of these frustrated Bulgarians in a country with no political tradition of self-immolation. The patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church officiated at Plamen Goranov's funeral, claiming a theological exception for suicides where individuals succumb to temporary insanity. In a public statement to his compatriots, Patriarch Neofit begged Bulgarians not to self-immolate, emphasizing that suicide contradicted Orthodox Christian dogma. On March 10, the hospital announced the passing of Ventislav Vasilev, and once the media started to pay attention, they reported an increase in suicides across the country.

Three days after Vasilev's death, I was taking a break from my work in the Central State Archives when fifty-two-year-old Dimitar Dimitrov lingered for a while at the fountain in front of the offices of the Bulgarian presidency before setting himself alight. The guards in front of the presidential palace, apparently trained to deal with fires, rushed toward Dimitrov with extinguishers. I did not see this self-immolation, but I smelled it, not understanding what had happened. I heard the ambulances only moments later, and learned within the hour that paramedics had rushed Dimitrov to the Pirogov Emergency Hospital with burns covering 25 percent of his head and body. The evening news reported his critical condition. In the days that followed, I studied the faces of the men on the Sofia metro, wondering who among them might have a bottle of gasoline tucked away in his coat.

I had already returned to Maine when another man, a forty-year-old unemployed construction worker, self-immolated in the town of Silistra, on March 22. Todor Iovchev borrowed four levs from his girlfriend, filled a plastic bottle with gasoline, and walked to a stadium on the outskirts of town. According to witnesses, Iovchev cried for help and tried to extinguish himself by rolling around on the earth. But he was too late. He later died of organ failure in the Varna Naval Hospital. Bulgarian newspapers reported that the reasons for Iovchev's suicide were poverty, unemployment, and the resultant family problems.

Three days later, Public Radio International asked me to help make sense of the recent spate of Bulgarian political suicides. I explained about the dire economic situation and tried to inspire concern among the educated Americans who listen to a show like The World. For a brief moment, I allowed myself to believe that things could change, that maybe these desperate acts might make a difference. But the promised elections occurred in May 2013, and a new minority government was formed. Within months larger numbers of protesters took to the streets of Sofia to agitate for an end to corruption and oligarchy. They demanded the resignation of the new government and called for yet more elections. Once again observers waxed poetic about civil society and the Bulgarian Spring.

Despite the prospect of a better future, five more Bulgarians died from injuries sustained from self-immolations in the remainder of 2013.17 One of them was a thirty-one-year-old man named Georgi Kostov in Dimitrovgrad, a communistera city built entirely by volunteer labor brigades in the 1950s. At an hour past midnight on the fifth of June, Kostov rubbed himself down with gasoline and lit himself up at home, in front of his wife, his sister, and his four- and ten-year-old sons. Kostov had taken a loan of 12,000 levs (6,000 euros) to buy his apartment just months before his employer unexpectedly laid him off. Unable to find work, Kostov grew anxious. The compound interest and penalties meant his debts kept mounting, and he fought constantly about money with his wife. After several months of missed payments, threatening letters arrived, growing more aggressive in tone. Kostov feared that he would go to jail or that Mafia thugs would show up to kill him or his family. The stress overwhelmed him.

As Kostov went up in flames, his wife, Donka, rushed to embrace him, hoping to squelch the fire. Instead, it ignited her clothing, and she began to burn as well. Kostov's sister doused the couple with water, trying to extinguish the flames while her young nephews watched, screaming. Neighbors heard the peals of terror and called the police. Emergency crews rushed Kostov to the hospital with burns covering 30 percent of his body; Donka had 10 percent. Bulgarian doctors in Plovdiv performed the necessary surgeries and, in the end, the two little boys lost neither their mother nor father. But the 12,000 lev debt remained, growing larger with each missed payment.

As the world focused its attention on the Sochi Winter Olympics and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea, seven more Bulgarians self-immolated in 2014. Lidia Petrova, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of one son, also chose to complete her suicide in front of the offices of the Bulgarian presidency just six days before the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This time the presidential guards reacted too slowly. The Russia Today news website posted a graphic video of this self-immolation on the Internet, where anyone can see exactly how much fuel a human body provides for a fire. I watched this video in horror, shedding tears for Petrova's poor son, who would no doubt someday watch this terrifying clip of his mother's last desperate act.

The year 2014 also saw a private self-immolation. Less than twenty days after Petrova's suicide in Sofia, police discovered the charred body of Desislava Koleva, a twenty-nine-year-old woman in Pernik. Neighbors noticed a bad smell and called the authorities to investigate. Koleva left a suicide note in her journal explaining that she burned herself alive in the garage so as not to damage anyone's property. She wrote that she was exhausted from living in poverty. Neighbors reported that Koleva had recently visited the local emergency room to have a tick removed from her leg. After admitting her for the procedure, medical personnel turned her out on the street when they realized that she didn't have the 10 levs (5 euros) to pay their fee. Friendless and alone, Koleva wanted no spectacle. She just couldn't take it anymore.

Thanks to the attentions of Bulgaria's best burn specialists, Dimitar Dimitrov, the man who set himself alight in front of the president's offices in March 2013, survived. It seems the Bulgarian president took a personal interest in Dimitrov's case, and the world's media rushed to interview him once his recovery was assured. Dimitrov explained that he hoped to draw attention to the plight of ordinary Bulgarians. At fifty-two, Dimitrov had lived half of his life under communism and half of his life under democracy, or the system that Bulgarians called democracy after 1989. Like so many of his compatriots, Dimitrov had believed that democracy would improve the quality of life. The realities of the next twenty-five years frustrated his hopes: "Under Communism, I had to wake up at 5 AM so that I could stand in line to buy milk and bread for my child. Under this government, I was a blacksmith until my workshop went out of business. The job that was feeding my family went away. Then electricity became impossible to afford. Under Communism, we had money, but there was nothing to buy. Now, there is everything to buy but no money."

Dimitrov suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune of Bulgaria's transition for more than two decades before deciding to act. Plamen Goranov's self-immolation in Varna inspired Dimitrov. In his recollection of the hours before he flicked the lighter, Dimitrov describes his desire to do something that might give his daughter a brighter future:

I had decided to do it the day before. The prime minister [Boyko Borissov] had just resigned and new elections were announced, and I was sick of all of it. So I decided to kill myself in front of the president's building. I woke up early and had coffee with my wife. I had made up my mind, but I didn't tell her anything. I was very quiet. After that, I went to the store and got one beer. I drank it with my neighbors. I went to a gas station and pumped out some gas and poured it in an empty bottle of vodka. I got on the train to go downtown, and when I got there, I walked around for a while. It was about 10 AM, and I walked around until 1:30. During that time, I drank another beer alone in an unknown bar. I have one daughter, and I thought about her. It's not that she lives so bad, but I want her to have the same life as American girls. I thought it was worth it for her to not have a father if she could have a better life. One can't live in a constant recession."

When a journalist asked Dimitrov why he didn't just shoot himself in front of the presidential palace, the latter replied, "I did not want to simply commit suicide. We had all of these protests — we're still having them — and nothing gets done. Nothing changes. I didn't want anything from the Bulgarian politicians. I was hoping that the world, people like you, would look at our country with a careful eye. When Plamen Goranov committed suicide, he ousted the mayor of Varna with his self-immolation. I wanted to oust the entire system."

In another interview with the BBC, Dimitrov once again insisted that he wanted to make a difference for his country. "I believe I achieved what I set out to achieve," he told reporter Tom Esslemont. "I might have been a fool, but I hope it will change things for the better here." Although the Bulgarian government deleted all of his social media accounts, fearing his influence on other Bulgarians frustrated with the path their country had taken, Dimitrov imagined himself as their spokesperson. "Now I see that, having survived setting myself on fire, I can be the voice of those experiencing what I have experienced. I hope that by telling my story I can make more people aware of the situation here in Bulgaria."


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Table of Contents

Prelude: Freundschaft  xi
Part I. Postsocialist Freedoms
1. Fires  3
2. Cucumbers  1
3. Pieces (Fiction)  24
4. Belgrade, 2015 (Fiction)  39
Part II. Re ing the Divided
5. #Mauerfall25  47
6. The Enemy of My Enemy  68
7. A Tale of Two Typewriters  84
Part III. Blackwashing History
8. Gross Domestic Orgasms  101
9. My Mother and a Clock  111
10. Venerating Nazis of Vilify Commies  129
Part IV. "Democracy Is the Worst Form of Government, Except All Those Other Forms that Have Been Tried from Time to Time"
11. Three Bulgarian Jokes  149
12. Post-Zvyarism: A Fable about Animals on a Farm (Fiction)  150
13. Interview witha Former Member of the Democractic Party of the United States (Fiction)  167
14. Democracy for the Penguins  179
Acknowledgments  201
Notes  205
Selected Bibliography  223

What People are Saying About This

Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics - Jodi Dean

“Kristen Ghodsee courageously confronts the liberal triumphalism that refuses to learn from seventy years of state socialism, acknowledge the tragic human costs of forced privatization, or recognize the gross inequities of capitalism. Her brilliant essays and stories provide a potent allegory of our present condition: the real cost of the continued demonization of socialism is democracy.”

The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe - Marci Shore

"Our 'post-factual' present is a moment of crisis, which renders it all the more crucial that scholars with deep knowledge of Eastern Europe be able to write for a wide audience. Kristen Ghodsee does this unusually well, with a good sense of pitch, appealing self-awareness, and the ability to conjure up the perfect ironic phrase. Her central argument is very provocative: Fukuyama’esque Western triumphalism has led us to the present catastrophic state of Europe—and perhaps of the United States of America as well. In my opinion the apocalyptic epilogue is fantastically cast—in part because I share the author’s creepy Weimaresque feeling. I hope she is wrong, but I fear she is right."

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