Sunday, January 29, 2012

Five top books on dissent in Eastern Europe

Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University. His books include Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

One book tagged in his dialogue with Alec Ash at The Browser about books on the experience of dissent in Central and Eastern Europe:
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
by Milan Kundera

Why did you choose Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting?

Milan Kundera was of course not really a dissident, but this book gets across the heartfelt reality of Stalinist faith. Kundera was a young Stalinist, as were his friends. So he knows what it was like to be on the inside, to have certainty about the rest of the world and to believe that everyone who didn’t share that certainty was a fool. To know where things were going and what you wanted from society – that glowing, overwhelming sense that one is young and the world belongs to you. Kundera really gets that sense across, and I think that’s incredibly important.

When one thinks about the reality of dissidence, we in the West tend to look back and think there was bad communism and a bunch of nice liberals. But in fact most dissidents went through a pretty intense intellectual revolution themselves to get to where they were. The most important dissidents in Czechoslovakia were themselves Stalinists at one point. The point is not just that we all have original sin, but that if we don’t grasp the positive forces that attracted other people at one point then we grasp neither the human evolution of dissidence nor what they were really up against, which was a quite powerful ideology.

So was the history of Soviet dissidence written by the victors?

I think the history of dissidence has been written not so much by the victors as by observers of the victors. They played a supporting role in a larger drama about the neoliberal triumph. It’s only part of a larger story, whereas there’s a much more interesting smaller story about people's capacity to change themselves.

Interestingly, in 2008, documents were found that seemed to suggest that Kundera had turned in a spy to the communist authorities. Everyone was shocked. The Americans, the Czechs, everyone – including Kundera himself, who denies it. But we shouldn’t have been shocked. We have this delusion that everyone who we think of as resisting communism must have been a nice liberal their whole life. But of course when this allegedly happened, in 1952, Kundera was a Stalinist. So behaving irregularly was completely consistent with his worldview at the time. Everyone has together been wishfully dismissing that from history.
Read about the other books Snyder discussed at The Browser.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is on Colum McCann's top ten list of novels featuring poets.

--Marshal Zeringue