Feinberg: De-Pathologizing the Recent History of Eastern Europe

Melissa Feinberg on her new textbook Communism in Eastern Europe

Ferenc Laczo: Your new book Communism in Eastern Europe begins before the establishment of Soviet regimes and covers developments to the early 21st century. Let me begin our conversation by asking you how you view some of the key challenges of writing such an overview today. Are there perhaps special problems of translation that almost any author writing for a US audience about Soviet communism needs to confront? Second, how do you relate to the theory of totalitarianism which enjoys quite a hegemonic position within Eastern Europe today? More generally, are there perhaps some prevalent misconceptions your book is trying to tackle? 

Melissa Feinberg: Those are excellent and key questions to start with. One of the things that I would mention is that I don’t call it Soviet communism because the countries that I’m talking about are not part of the Soviet Union, although they’re allied to it. Of course, there would not have been communist regimes in Eastern Europe without the Soviet Union.  At the same time, the countries in this region do develop on their own, they don’t simply follow Soviet policy, and in some ways they’re distinct from what’s going on in the Soviet Union. That’s something that is important to emphasize, especially in the American context: if I was to call it Soviet communism, students in the US would think I was talking about the Soviet Union. In fact, many of them do think that half of Europe was simply occupied by the Soviet Union when that wasn’t the case. One of the things that I do want to emphasize in the book is that East Europeans had their own investments in communism.

Even more broadly, in my experience, Americans at least have little sense of what communist regimes were like, or what they wanted to do. They tend to see them as merely evil: they imagine that their goal was really only to oppress people. I think it’s striking that today, some thirty years after the end of the Iron Curtain, the idea of communism is still used as a political epithet in the United States. Just about two weeks ago a woman who had been nominated to be a bank regulator in the United States was rejected for that position, in part because she was labeled as communist. She had been born in Soviet Kazakhstan, and because she had some ideas about allowing the Federal Reserve Bank to serve consumer clients – ideas which aren’t communist at all, by the way – that’s one way in which she was vilified, meaning that she was somehow beyond the pale. For many Americans communism is simply something that is against all American values, as if equality was not an American value. One of the things I want to say is that we can’t reduce communist societies in Eastern Europe only to oppression. I certainly don’t want to hide the ways in which these societies were oppressive. 

At the same time, I think it’s important that people learn what these societies did and how they changed the lives of their citizens, to acknowledge that they were not just imposed from above, but that they were actively shaped and changed by their own citizens, and that they learn that these regimes had goals which were not simply about oppressing people: they did have ideas about making people’s lives better, whether or not those turned out in the way that some had hoped. 

Nonetheless, we have to acknowledge that such ideas were present and played a role in shaping these regimes. 

I don’t see totalitarianism as a particularly helpful concept, and I think for many people who employ it tend to see power in society operating only in one way, which is from the top down – a society in which people have very little agency or ability to determine their own lives. Communist societies certainly had all kinds of constraints that limited people’s freedom. At the same time, we can say that all societies have their own kinds of constraints and so one of the things I wanted to do was not to see communist Eastern Europe as uniquely constrained, but to encourage readers of the book to think about the historical specificities behind what communism repressed, but also what it enabled. For me, the word totalitarianism doesn’t allow that to come out, so I don’t actually use the word totalitarianism in the book until the final chapter. I put it at the end as a way of saying that some people and especially people in Eastern Europe have wanted to view their past through that lens. In that sense, the book does actually define what totalitarianism is, but only after readers have already read about this history – because my sense was that then people can decide for themselves. I wanted the opportunity for people to read the book without subsuming the history under that label and then decide for themselves if they want to put it under that rubric or not.

You also asked about other misconceptions that I might want to address; I think one of those is the idea that because communist regimes in Eastern Europe were dictatorships, governments were so powerful that they took away the possibility for people to think or act independently and people thus had no agency.  There is the idea that people didn’t have any political power. People didn’t have the same kinds of political freedom under communism that they have under democracy. They could vote, but they could only vote for certain people. Nonetheless, I would like readers to think about political power expansively. It’s not as if people under communism couldn’t act, certainly they could protest and there are many examples in the book of that.

But there are other forms of political power, including the power of popular expectation. One of the things I do want to bring out in the book is that, especially in the late 1960s and in the 1970s and 1980s, the pressure of popular expectation was something that communist regimes really had to deal with. They created expectations about a rising standard of living that then they had to try to meet, and that put them under enormous pressure. 

I think again the rubric of totalitarianism doesn’t really allow for thinking about that kind of pressure.

Another misconception that I wanted to address, at least in the way people think of it from the American perspective, is that somehow under communism, there was no fun – that it was a monotonous, boring, and gray society in which somehow all fun was extracted.  Popular culture is a major theme in the book, as we can’t understand how people might have fond memories of their childhoods under socialism if we don’t allow for the fact that people lived lives and had good experiences even in a non-democratic, authoritarian regime.

Ferenc Laczo: Your book does very well at depicting several of the key paradoxes of communist or Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe. You show how these regimes managed to reduce inequality while producing shortages; how they took away political rights while redefining people’s basic necessities as their rights; how they ran a centrally planned economy that was deeply intertwined with a large, informal part of the economy and with black markets; how they offered a consumerist bargain but also kept on surveilling societies ever more; or how members of society resonated with the egalitarian rhetoric of these regimes but were also very much concerned with achieving higher standards of living for themselves. I guess the most general way to ask my next question would be: what made these regimes and societies so complex and paradoxical? And what approaches and methods can historians use to grasp how these complexities and paradoxes played out? You also state that there is no agreement in Eastern Europe on how to integrate the experience of Soviet communism into national histories. May I ask in connection with those questions what you see as potentially fruitful ways of integrating these experiences into those narratives of national history?

Melissa Feinberg: I’m not sure that communist regimes are actually more paradoxical then capitalist ones, I just think that they operated differently.  In Katherine Verdery’s essay “What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?”, originally from 1993, she says that both systems, the communist and the capitalist, were in a sense equally rational or irrational, they just had their own rationalities and irrationalities. It’s not that these regimes are necessarily different, but we need to try to understand them on their own terms and not to always be judging them against some other standard. I also think that we should attend to both sides of these paradoxes, on the one hand, these were regimes that wanted to instill a kind of egalitarian ethos, and on the other, they sponsored a kind of consumerist society at least by the end. We need to hold these things in tension and see each of them as equally valid and not necessarily put our emphasis on judging whether these systems are bad or good.  I think that’s something that historians can really get caught up in, especially because of the politics surrounding these regimes and how people want to remember them. Instead, we need to think about how these systems operated and the effects they had on people’s lives.

Regarding the second question, the first thing I should say is that in this book I don’t emphasize national histories. I look at Eastern Europe as a region and I bring up specific countries as examples and sometimes talk about something specific happening in one country or another. But I don’t take a country-by-country approach which earlier books on this topic did. I chose that approach because of my audience: I was writing this book for readers who are like my students, for whom these countries are places they’ve never been to and they don’t know anything about them. To take the country-by-country approach, which is what I did when I was an undergrad, trying to think about what was happening in Bulgaria versus what was happening in Romania, I don’t think that’s a task that has a lot of meaning for most of my students.  Maybe it would have in, say, the 1980s, when this was actively going on in the world.

Nonetheless, in terms of integrating the communist period, I think the best way to do that is not actually in a book like the one I wrote, which is mainly about the communist period, but to think about the continuities and discontinuities from the interwar period and beyond.  One example that I could take from my own background as a gender historian is the example of movements for gender equality and resistance to them. One of the things that we see across communist Eastern Europe in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s is more conservative family policies as a reaction to the gender egalitarianism of the Stalinist period, where there is much more emphasis on women as mothers as opposed to workers, wanting to enable women to take time off from work to take care of children. And on the other side, in some cases, limiting access to abortion and other things.

It is not surprising that we see that happening in the 1960s and 1970s, if you think about how in the 1930s nationalist and Catholic activists were similarly pushing back against rights that had been granted to women in the 1920s after World War I – when a lot of women around the region got the right to vote or new access to higher education, and new positions in the working world. We see the same thing. Thinking about those kinds of continuity allows us to then see that what happened under socialism is not just a foreign aberration, these aren’t regimes that somehow came from outside like an alien landing and just took over, but that they are part of longer-term trends as well and not just a radical discontinuity from what happened before or after.

Ferenc Laczo: You show how demands were recurrently made prior to 1989 to further democratize the system and that when it came to economic thinking the idea of democratization was increasingly linked to the agenda of deregulation. This produced quite a mismatch: the idealistic expectations around 1989 confronted the experience of neoliberal restructuring when, as you write, some prospered but many suffered. In what ways were the experiences of the post-communist transformation shaped by certain legacies of the pre-1989 period and how did the image of the West and Western plenty that people cherished square with the actual functioning of the new economic order which was based on such different principles and logics than the Soviet one? How was this major historical reorientation and adjustment experienced in the everyday lives of people? 

Melissa Feinberg: One of my goals with this book was to think of the narrative of this period a little differently, because I think most of the existing surveys had either been written, in some cases, actually before 1989 and just revised shortly thereafter, so they tend to have a certain kind of triumphant teleology, even if there was a little coda at the end saying that maybe not everything worked out. I felt it was time to think about the communist period and its end in a new way, because now, some thirty years on, we can certainly see that 1989 was not necessarily a glorious beginning. It was a transition indeed, but for many people it was a transition to something that just pushed them into new lives of precarity from what had amounted to a kind of stability before 1989. Even if they gained certain kinds of freedom, and to me it was very important to bring those stories out as well.

You asked about the image of the West in East Europe, and I think there’s an interesting continuity there. 

Even though many East Europeans in the 1980s, depending upon the country that they were in, had interaction with the West and could go there on vacation, for instance, there was a tendency before 1989 to not see the West as it really was, but just as an ideal of everything that the society that you were in was not, to view it as the repository of all of your hopes and dreams, almost as a magical solution to the problems of one’s own society. In that sense, the West was identified with something that could never be achieved. 

Then after 1989 for some people that continued. I think there was the idea that once communism fell the East would become the West, so that you would have access to this ideal. But for many people, the West remained something unattainable, and they found that instead of becoming part of it, there were new forms of division and I think we still see that today. I’m not a political scientist, but it seems clear to me that one of the things that is motoring popular support for populist parties in Hungary and Poland is resentment at this West that never came, and instead seems to only come to exploit. There seems to me to be an unexpected legacy, and that instead of remaining an ideal, the West became something to resent and began to be viewed not as the solution to people’s problems but as their cause.

Ferenc Laczo: One of the remarkable points you make in the book – and you have also pointed to this slightly earlier today – is that a conservative turn in gender politics started to unfold well before 1989. A reassertion of so-called traditional gender roles and pro-natalist policies became quite prevalent already during late socialism. You close the book by emphasizing the role mobilization against what its vehement critics call “gender ideology” plays today in societies that are uncertain about their future and where fears of losing national identity are quite powerfully present. Would you care to comment on the gender regime under communist regimes and since? Would you perhaps say that what we see today in countries like Poland or Hungary are radical versions of what began during late socialism in terms of a reassertion of patriarchy?

Melissa Feinberg: First I should say that everything in this book is a synthesis, and the idea that there is a conservative turn in gender ideology under socialism is not one that originates with me. I’m building on the work of quite a number of other scholars who have been writing about that. But it is clear from the work of these scholars that there is indeed a marked conservative turn during the period we call late socialism. Nonetheless, it’s also true that under communism this conservatism is qualified in certain ways. While there is definitely a new emphasis on motherhood, women are also considered to be workers, so that motherhood instead of work is not something that you see in the communist period. Nor is it the case that young women are discouraged from getting education because they should simply see themselves as mothers. We also see different forms of liberalisation of sexual mores in the communist period, not so much in terms of homosexuality, although homosexuality is decriminalized during the communist period, but it doesn’t tend to be seen very positively in popular culture or have any visibility there. But in terms of a bit of a loosening of traditional marriage, so the acceptance of pre-marital relationships, of divorce, these things are definitely issues where we don’t see much of a conservative turn before 1989. There is a conservative turn in certain ways and not in others and it’s important that we recognize that.

It’s quite clear that this kind of conservative gender ideology is another kind of continuity from the communist period to today. That’s, of course, ironic because the loudest voices today that are spouting anti-gender or anti-LGBT ideology are the ones that see themselves as the most anti-communist and I think they would not like to think about such continuities. Nonetheless, we can’t see this as just a simple continuity because the circumstances have also changed.  

There’s a new book that just came out by scholars Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk titled Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment and one of the arguments they make in the book is that what’s happened today is also a reaction to the inequalities created by the neo-liberalist reforms that took place after 1989, where people are mobilizing for greater control over their lives.  And one way of doing that is by emphasizing things like parents’ rights and the idea that parents need to be able to control their children’s education and to protect them from supposedly evil ideas about gender or LGBT people. That’s part of where this movement is getting some of its strength. I do think it’s not simply a continuation of what was going on under communism, but also in some ways a reaction to what happened after communism. There are all kinds of ways in which we might think about that. I think for many people in the anti-gender movement in Eastern Europe the idea of gender equality, and even more perhaps LGBT equality, is equated with a Western imposition. It is equated with the kind of Western imposition that came into their lives after 1989 and was brought by same kinds of elites that they imagine took over and pushed them to the edge, so there might be another kind of synergy there.

Ferenc Laczo: You make several important observations towards the end of the book, one of which is that having a more global outlook was downgraded with the reorientation to Europe and the West after 1989. Let us perhaps close our conversation with addressing that issue. How do you view the connection between the much cherished “return to Europe” of the transition years and the rise of conservatism, nationalism, and populism in more recent years? Do you observe the rise of more global approaches in the study of Eastern Europe and, if so, would you care to comment on their promise and potential?

Melissa Feinberg: The idea of the return to Europe is obviously something that can mean many things, but certainly from the vantage point of today we can see how the idea of a return to Europe was always in some ways connected to the idea of a white Christian Europe and that coming back to Europe definitely meant cutting off ties to non-white non-Christian parts of the world – by which I think people meant not only Asia and Africa, but in fact the Soviet Union itself.  When you were talking, I was thinking of the classic essay by Milan Kundera The Tragedy of Central Europe, where he laments the fact that what he sees as truly European capitals of Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest were somehow falsely ripped away from Europe by what he refers to as Asiatic barbarian hordes. 

The idea of coming back to Europe meant coming back to not only a kind of civilization but could also mean being opposed to this foreign but very racially coded “rest of the world.” So that returning to Europe is claiming ties to a Europeanness that is in many ways about whiteness and about keeping out the people who are not seen as that. 

We see all kinds of voices in Eastern Europe today that are talking about wanting to defend Christian Europe from black, brown, and Muslim interlopers. That’s certainly not something that was as visible in 1989 but looking back you can see the seeds of it there, and that’s just one of these trajectories that we might draw.

Your other part of the question was about global approaches to the study of Eastern Europe which I think is really one of the most positive directions we’ve seen in the field and there’s all kinds of really interesting work being done now on that. If I could write this book again, I would want to emphasize that more. When I started working on this book, there were a lot of people who were working on this topic, but not so many had published anything. This is work that is just really beginning to come out and so I could really only allude to it at different moments.  

One of the things that historians of the region will increasingly need to do is to think about Eastern Europe in a more global framework and to explore not only the specific connections between East Europeans and other parts of the world, but to see how Eastern Europe fits into larger global trends.  

And that might require an even more radical rewriting of the narrative than maybe I was able to accomplish in this particular book, but maybe for the second edition we’ll have some more of that.

In collaboration with Karen Culver.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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