Making Sense of Red Nostalgia
Why do so many Eastern Europeans say the fall of Communism hasn’t made their lives better?
Taking Stock of the Shock: Social Consequences of the 1989 Revolutionsby Kristen Ghodsee and Mitchell Orenstein (Oxford University Press: 2021), 304 pages.
Professor Kristen Ghodsee of the University of Pennsylvania got herself into trouble in 2017 when she published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” Next to a photo of an apple-cheeked collective farm worker in a demure kerchief, Ghodsee’s op-ed noted that Eastern European women in surveys reported having twice as many orgasms as Western women. The social media response was swift and brutal. “Who cares about not having any food when you can have sex instead,” snarked one tweet. “Better sex? Before or after their husbands were sent to the gulags?” asked another.
That clickbait headline may have deserved derision, but Ghodsee’s work does not. It is ironic that so many of her Twitter critics said, essentially, that if Ghodsee thinks communism was so great she should talk to people who actually lived through it. That is exactly what she does for a living. An ethnographer and Russian and East European Studies professor, Ghodsee has traveled extensively in the former Soviet bloc and interviewed countless ordinary citizens about how they view the old regime and its capitalist successor. Shocking as it may be to American readers, many prefer the former.
Now Ghodsee has teamed up with political scientist Mitchell Orenstein to present a comprehensive survey of all the evidence that things have gotten worse for Eastern Europe since 1989. Five countries, including Ukraine and Serbia, still have lower GDPs today than in 1989. The overall mortality rate in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine increased by 50 percent or more in the decade after 1989, due to homicide and alcoholism, among other social pathologies. Even today, death rates have not returned to their old level. Neither have fertility rates.
These statistics may explain why a 2009 Pew survey of nine postcommunist countries found that only in the Czech Republic did a majority say “ordinary people have benefited from the changes since 1989/1991” either “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” Everywhere else, majorities said “not too much” or “not at all.” A 2006 poll showed that only 30 percent of Eastern Europeans thought the economic situation was better in their country than in 1989. In no country did a majority agree that “a market economy is preferable to any other form of economic system.” Most respondents preferred a planned economy or said “for people like me, it does not matter.”
But poverty doesn’t explain why people express nostalgia for communism politically as well as economically. The same 2006 poll showed that fewer than 40 percent said the political situation in their country had improved since the transition. Only 15 percent said there was less corruption. In Poland, when asked “when was life easier for you,” almost twice as many people said “before 1989” as “at present.” The bellwether survey question, “Would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” measures the overall trust levels in a society, which has seen a massive drop from two-thirds before 1989 to one-third in 2006.
What exactly is it that people miss about communism? For some, no doubt, it is Soviet-style perks like job security and heating subsidies. For others, it is things like physical safety, which was greater in the days before homicide rates spiked and street crime became more tolerated. Alcohol used to be more tightly regulated, sold only in certain shops during certain hours, which made alcohol abuse less common than it is now. Brain drain has been huge. When postcommunist countries joined the European Union and opened up their borders, it suddenly became a lot harder to find a doctor in cities like Sofia and Bucharest, to say nothing of the countryside. Anyone smart and ambitious enough to get a medical degree was usually smart and ambitious enough to emigrate.
There are also fuzzier factors like national pride and self-respect, which are hard to quantify, but Ghodsee finds ways to make them visible in statistics. “The mildest declines in life expectancy sometimes occurred in countries with the worst economic performance, such as Serbia, Georgia, and Turkmenistan,” she notes. Nationalism drew Serbia and Georgia into self-destructive wars with their neighbors, but apparently it also kept them from falling into the anomie of other postcommunist states. Less chauvinistic countries were overcome with listlessness, even—maybe especially—when their economies did well. The most prosperous Eastern European capitals today have the same shopping malls selling the same consumer goods and showing the same Marvel movies as London or Paris or New York. What in Western cities looks like prosperity, there can feel like being on the wrong end of conquest.
Most academics have long dismissed “red nostalgia” as backward and irrational. “Almost nobody believes that there has been a sharp decline in living standards” in Poland, scoffs Jeffrey Sachs, who shepherded the country through “shock therapy” as an economic advisor to the Solidarity government. As evidence he cites “a veritable boom in ownership of consumer durables (cars, TVs, VCRs, washing machines, refrigerators, personal computers, and the like).” The official narrative is that postcommunist countries have had a “J-curve transition,” a temporary decline in living standards followed by sustained improvement.
Lately some experts have started grudgingly conceding that things are not all rosy. Usually this takes the form of an acknowledgment that transition had “winners” and “losers,” and the losers deserve compensation for their inability to hack it under capitalism. As Strobe Talbot patronizingly put it, maybe Eastern Europe needed “less shock and more therapy.”
This framing is almost as wrong as Sachs’s. “Losers” implies that these people at some level deserve their decline in wealth and status. But they’re not just being punished for laziness and absenteeism and other bad communist habits. They are being punished for things that are not their fault, like not being intellectually suited to the knowledge economy. In some cases, they are being punished for things that are actually good, like wanting to stay in one place. Does it really make somebody a “loser” to think that the brightest and most competent Eastern Europeans shouldn’t all be siphoned off to Western Europe?
Americans have heard the same “winners” and “losers” line here at home. Experts are starting to admit that globalization and the China shock left millions of Americans worse off, but according to them, the only thing we should have done differently is have a stronger safety net to make things easier on the losers. Ironically, the Americans most likely to see through this glib unwillingness to learn hard lessons are the same people most likely to feel a strong visceral anti-communism. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to what we have in common with Ghodsee’s subjects, who aren’t quite sold on the version of Western liberalism they ended up getting. The experts who got it wrong in both cases were the same people.