Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams
John Feffer
Zed Books, $22.95 (paperback)

One of my earliest memories is of being carried on my father’s back into an anti-government protest. I am three, and my father teaches me a rhyming slogan that compares our Soviet-imposed president to a dragon from a local folk tale. It is my first time in a large crowd, and we are in front of town hall, all chanting the same refrain. My father and I are there with his two brothers and a cousin they are close to. Now, more than twenty-five years later, one would not see the four of them at the same rally. Part of the reason is geographical distance: my father’s cousin is a bus driver in Dublin, and rarely calls; one of his brothers spends much of his time, including major holidays, in Italy. But a great part of this new divide is also ideological: after years of defining themselves simply as anti-communists, the brothers have cast their bets on very different emergent political programs. My father has become a centrist liberal and his two siblings have swerved rightward. His Italy-based brother is a technocrat libertarian; the other one supports the fascist-leaning populist movement that won our most recent election. Christmases, my father tells me on the phone, are hard these days. “There isn’t enough weather to talk about.”

After 1989, in the long years of political and economic reconstruction, Eastern Europeans lost many illusions about themselves.

After 1989, in the long years of political and economic reconstruction, Eastern Europeans lost many illusions about themselves. One of these illusions was that the West was going to pull us up to its own economic level with the equivalent of a Marshall Plan. Another was that we had all agreed on what we wanted to obtain and learn from capitalist democracies in the first place. A third, and most basic one, was that we understood the Western systems about whose adoption we came vehemently to quarrel.

Most Eastern European families, like mine, have their own micro-histories of the social fractures that ensued from these unexpected and not fully planned transformations. In Aftershock, the novelist, journalist, and political scholar John Feffer attempts to view these stories from a middle distance: a point of view broader than a participant’s, if also less aerial than a professional historian’s. Through interviews with Eastern Europeans from all walks of life—politicians, activists, academics, blue-collar workers, clerks, and Ikea managers—he pieces together an affective and cultural history of post-communism. Aftershock gives its reader a panoramic view of the fantasies and hopes through which recently post-communist societies interpreted their ongoing transformations to themselves. Terms such as “neoliberalism,” “the West,” and even “the transformation” entered Eastern European public discourse without being properly clarified and debated. The “Big Lie,” one of Feffer’s interviewees calls his countrymen’s views about market reform; “I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy,” confesses another. In such unclarities, and in the misplaced hopes they fueled, Feffer finds seeds of Eastern Europe’s current economic inequalities and its ongoing rightward political turn.

Aftershock is a sequel to Shock Waves, which Feffer published twenty-five years earlier. In 1988, Feffer traveled to Warsaw as a young journalist to write about communist repression in Eastern Europe. A few months after his arrival, that plan fell through. Following a wave of political upheavals to which the Soviet Union put up little resistance, Eastern European states began to regain political independence. Feffer was blindsided by the political revolutions surging around him. Perhaps because of this, he found himself to be finely attuned to the similar astonishments and confusions evinced by those around him.

Eastern Europe was forced to contend with an intense self-hatred while also learning how to inhabit newly won political autonomy.

Written mostly for Feffer’s fellow Westerners, Shock Waves doubled as a political diagnosis and a cultural primer. On one level, it sought to explain to Western readers the broader context of the historical events Feffer witnessed. With several bulky introductory chapters, followed by individual sections devoted to Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Romania, and Yugoslavia in turn, Shock Waves reads like a cross between long-form journalism and a travel guide. (“In East Berlin’s high rent district, not far from the showpiece Grand Hotel . . . the orchestrators of East Germany’s revolution sat in their House for Democracy,” one chapter begins, in a characteristic instance of this hybrid style.) More importantly, and of benefit to insider and outsider alike, Shock Waves sought to document the staggering affective and cognitive difficulty of the political and social transformations Eastern Europe was undertaking.

On the surface, the political and social landscape Feffer traversed in Shock Waves was one of intense, nearly utopian hope. New political parties emerged, led by young people whom Feffer joined for afternoons of debate and soccer practice. Sophisticated, uncensored newspapers sprung up, and their pages soon began to feature aspiring new intellects and leaders. The people to whom Feffer spoke dreamed of foreign travel, better educations, and equality with the rest of Europe. At times, Feffer echoed his interviewees’ enthusiasm, describing Brussels and the European Union as the region’s “radiant future.” But more often than not, he worried. “Eastern Europe,” he wrote, “is strangely out of phase. . . . East European liberals more resemble John Stuart Mill than Michael Dukakis; the region’s conservatives are closer to G.K. Chesterton than Ronald Reagan.” Troublingly, the people he described were not completely aware of this asynchrony, or of the fact that the economic reforms they were beginning to undertake were paradoxically both belated and rushed. Feffer was sure that these reforms would leave behind many of his still eager, starry-eyed interviewees.

In Aftershock Feffer documents the future that he and his interview subjects sought to foretell in Shock Waves. The first half of the book reports on various unhappy consequences of post-communism throughout the region; the second half highlights the generally less frequent and more ambiguous positive ones. Organized around vague categories, this new book is harder to navigate than its predecessor, and the arguments and takeaways of each section are not always clear. In part precisely because of its open-endedness, however, Aftershock is also more conceptually provocative. As Feffer repeatedly professes his difficulty in judging which aspects of the region’s reforms led to its current socioeconomic fragmentation, his interviewees’ contradictory interpretations of their recent past come sharply into view. Moreover, instead of seeing Western Europe as its eastern neighbors’ savior and mentor, Feffer depicts both regions as peers in an ongoing, necessary conversation about their whole continent’s current political crises. Feffer looks for clues that Eastern Europe might offer about why, after decades of collaboration and optimism, Europe in general seems more balkanized than ever.

Aftershock’s overarching themes are neglect and abandonment. Vikhra Gancheva, one of Feffer’s Bulgarian interlocutors, poignantly observes that “twenty years ago, I was a victim of Western influence.” The West did not give Eastern Europe as much support as it had promised. The Eastern European elites did not, in turn, do enough for their countries’ disadvantaged social groups, even as they built up their favored urban haunts. “You could,” Feffer observes, “put together an itinerary of the capital cities of Eastern Europe that would leave you with the impression that the region had indeed closed its gap with the West.” But such a limited view would fail to include the voices and perspectives of people left behind by these reforms, many of whom at first adopted them hopefully and enthusiastically. Metaphorically describing “the history of Eastern Europe after 1989” as “a train leaving a station,” Feffer makes this train sound like a real-life equivalent of Snowpiercer (2013), a post-apocalyptic film in which all that remains of humanity, despite traveling at the same speed and in the same direction on the same train, are immutably assigned to vastly dissimilar cars: the rich, to ones of great opulence, the poor, to ones of indescribable depravity. In Feffer’s view, instead of reducing class inequality, Eastern European economic reforms since 1990 have tended instead to solidify them, breeding collective resentment and frustration. Adam Janeczek thus describes these patterns in Poland: “When the changes took place and firms collapsed, it was precisely the farmers who suffered. . . . And later it was obvious who was opening things up here: various city slickers who had capital.” “The truth is,” Janeczek adds, “that the EU is terribly demanding.” In exchange for promised subsidies, it forces Eastern European farmers to invest in huge adjustments to Western norms and higher competition levels.

‘Communism, in theory, was the opposite of nationalism. . . . In practice, however, communism and nationalism were intimately connected.’

Aftershock does not deny Eastern Europe its success stories, some of which break away from these typical patterns. Feffer describes, for instance, a previously impoverished academic whom Ikea rapidly promoted to a managerial position, and many former opposition members who became leading public intellectuals and politicians. However, most of the narratives Feffer tells are darker. His greatest fear is that Eastern Europe’s supposed transformation was merely superficial, and in some ways even regressive. The people who are doing well in Eastern Europe these days tend to have belonged to its intellectual elites from the outset. “It’s no surprise,” he comments bitterly, “that those who orchestrated the changes in 1989 crafted a transition that benefited their class, whether it was former Party officials who profited from insider privatization or former dissidents who staffed the new government ministries.” By contrast, those without such elite connections have little access to their countries’ emergent opportunities and resources. Indeed, they have become increasingly vulnerable to age-old ethnic and gender prejudices that both communism and capitalism were supposed to eradicate.

In the opening chapter, Feffer tells the story of a former Czech union activist who became a migrant worker in Kentucky because he could not find work in his home country. In other sections, he describes the post-communist surge of violence and prejudice against Roma populations in Bulgaria and Romania (“their children were going to segregated classes,” says one observer); the disappointing backlash against feminism and LGBTQ rights in Poland; and the repressive, racially charged laws that deprived thousands of people of their Slovenian citizenship (it happened “without legal ground and without any administrative decision,” recounts one activist, “even without any notification to them, simply by erasing them from the register of permanent residents of Slovenia”). Caught in between such hostile forces, the rare instances of unambiguous progress Feffer locates—such as a Roma journalist’s unexpected rise to prominence on Romania’s national television—appear precarious.

Feffer’s descriptions of these developments do not easily yield policy recommendations. But they do shed light on the emotionally charged tensions inherent in Eastern Europe’s political and social relations. Seen through the prism of Aftershock, post-communist Eastern Europe faced two major cognitive and affective problems that were all the more difficult to address for being generally unacknowledged and unrecognized. The first of these problems was the arduous process of learning how to inhabit newly won political autonomy. Such autonomy could now no longer be defined just in negative terms, through opposition to an authoritarian Soviet government. In Feffer’s reading, Eastern Europe’s elites did not rise to this challenge. They established their countries’ new policies too hastily and narrowly, replacing a dogmatic anti-communist stance with an equally unquestioned pro-liberal one. As Rayna Gavrilova bitterly puts it, “[liberals] never cared about what people felt, about our messages, about our choices.” The newly minted liberals’ talk of progress soon turned out to be a façade behind which unresolved or even unarticulated political disagreements continued to brew. The liberals themselves professed to be blindsided by the economic difficulties their countries faced, and by such accusations of elitism: “When I realized that the majority of people didn’t think like I did, that was a big slap,” one of them confesses to Feffer with painful earnestness.

These elites’ liberal dogmatism bred a second problem, which Feffer describes as an intense cultural self-hatred. One immediate result of the fall of communism was a wholesale rejection of local social and political cultures—or a sense, at the very least, that such a cultural overhaul was a necessary prerequisite of attaining Western-style economic prosperity. “I loved everything Western and hated everything Bulgarian,” Gancheva tells Feffer, “and now I realize that this shouldn’t have happened.” As Eastern Europe failed—despite the widespread intensity of such feelings—to actually join Western Europe on equal terms, it settled into a resentful, marginalized position of an imperfect cultural and political imitator. These feelings of inadequacy exacerbated the increasing gaps between more and less cosmopolitan urban and rural areas. Especially after 2008, in the midst of a global economic downturn that called the neoliberal project into question, such unsatisfied and internally conflicted imitative tendencies fueled the region’s intensifying nationalism and xenophobia.

The nationalism that has escalated throughout Eastern Europe since the 2000s—and which most recently led Poland to restrict free speech about its citizens’ involvement in the Holocaust—has infected the entire continent.

For Feffer, these deepening gaps are useful to point out as more than just local diagnoses. They illustrate and foreshadow Europeans’ general loss of national as well as transnational community. Aftershock went into press shortly after the UK population voted for Brexit, and this vote weighs heavily on Feffer’s narrative. He fears that the nationalism that has escalated throughout Eastern Europe since the 2000s—and which most recently led Poland to restrict free speech about its citizens’ involvement in the Holocaust—has infected the entire continent. The Europe he depicts is lost in cycles of mutual blame cast by the former Soviet bloc on its Western neighbors, by Eastern European populists on the liberals, by younger generations on older ones, and by supposed locals on people branded as immigrants or outsiders. As he works his way north and south between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, Feffer cannot find anywhere in these regions a sense of trust in various social groups’ and countries’ nations to extend to each other anything resembling empathy. “By [a] slender margin, the [Brexit] referendum challenged the irreversibility of European integration. It’s sobering to remember that, at one time, Yugoslavia too seemed solid,” Feffer comments, in one of his many suggestions that the fragmentation of the EU might lead to violent political upheavals no lesser than the ones that broke apart the formerly prosperous and enviable Balkans.

What alternatives does Europe have, then, to a precarious neoliberalism tainted by class self-interest and a fear of others? For Feffer, the Soviet system that Eastern Europe left behind is emphatically not the answer. Indeed, at many points throughout the book, he insists that the sectarian nationalism he now finds surging throughout Eastern Europe had been quietly reinforced by its years under Soviet rule. “Communism, in theory,” he says, “was the opposite of nationalism. It imagined a society led by workers that transcended all national boundaries. In practice, however, communism and nationalism were intimately connected.”

Despite such protestations, the hopes he voices bear a red tinge. Feffer’s implied ideal is a tantalizing combination of cosmopolitanism and communitarianism within which individual autonomy and consistent mutual care somehow coexist, within as well as across national borders. This ideal is implicitly defined by the earnest, open-minded solidarity that Western and Eastern Europe professed toward each other, and toward all of one another’s collective populations, in 1989. Thirty years later, Feffer insists, we need to look back to that year not only with relief at the conflicts it finally resolved, but also with a renewed effort at goodwill and mutual care—and a renewed reflection about what kind of political system could accomplish such altruistic ends while remaining committed to its citizens’ autonomy and self-governance. We should try to recover a path out of the Cold War that would have been forged not from neoliberalism alone, but from a process of bi-directional, transcontinental material and intellectual sharing. What such a political system might look like, and whether such goodwill and care can coexist both on the local and on the international level, are questions to which Aftershock does not provide answers. It does, however, makes its readers poignantly aware of such interrogations’ urgency, and of their applicability not just to Europe, but also to the equally torn and soul-searching United States.