Cover of "The Taste of Ashes"
Cover of the paperback edition of “The Taste of Ashes”. Photo Credit:Penguin Random House/Broadway Books

In the Preface to The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, Marci Shore tells us, “I came to Eastern Europe because I wanted to hear a story that ended happily.” What she discovered in the two decades of research that followed was the opposite of what she had been expecting: here was a story where a happy ending not only proved to be stubbornly elusive, but which didn’t seem to have an ending at all. A century and a half after the publication of The Communist Manifesto, Shore writes, “communism, no longer a specter to come, remained no less haunting as a specter from the past.”

Shore opens her book with the suicide of Oskar, a man who found personal and professional success for over two decades in the United States before deciding to return home to Poland, the country he had left behind during the Communist era. For reasons which remain unclear, Oskar apparently grows disillusioned with the new, post-Soviet Poland that greets him upon his return, and soon takes his own life. This opening sets up certain expectations for what is going to follow: the reader anticipates an examination of how the legacy of Communism still impacts the lives of the individuals Shore meets in the former Soviet states during the 1990’s and 2000’s, and the struggles they face in adjusting to this strange new world. These expectations will be disappointed — at least in part — but the book does manage to raise some interesting questions about the nature of totalitarianism and the painful legacy it has left behind.

Shore is a young Graduate student in the early 1990’s when she first moves to Poland and the now-Czech Republic to pursue her research and perfect her languages. Along the way, she meets a cast of individuals — some young, some old — who are all grappling with the post-Soviet society they find themselves in. A Czech psychologist she meets tells her that the abrupt transition from the Soviet world to the capitalist one is “a move from a zoo into a jungle”, with oppressive statism replaced with economic upheaval and new forms of moral uncertainty. Shore’s landlords in Prague, an elderly couple, struggle to scrape by on their near-worthless pensions, fretting over the rising costs of even basic necessities. During a stint of teaching in a small school out in the countryside, Shore finds herself feeling surprised and alienated by how vestiges of Soviet groupthink and petty power struggles continue to play out amongst the school administration and townspeople. The line between past and present, Shore swiftly learns, is neither simple nor clear.

But Shore’s focus is not only on those who are living within the former Soviet states. She also introduces us to individuals like Jarmila, a former dissident who now teaches Czech in Vermont and who dreads the very thought of ever returning home. Out of all of Shore’s contemporary case studies, Jarmila is perhaps the most complex and unsettling. While her dissident activities against the Soviet regime once gave her a strong sense of purpose and direction, she becomes adrift in the United States, suffering from psychiatric issues, gender identity struggles, and even multiple religious crises. Such a dramatic fracturing of identity, Shore ponders later, reveals “a certain kind of personality with an insatiable craving for Manichaean divisions . . . Where was the line between moral clarity and madness?” What, after all, becomes of people who dedicate much of their lives to struggling against a certain kind of system once that system collapses? This is one of the many moral quandaries that haunt Shore’s book.

It is the moral quandaries Shore touches on that create the most compelling moments in her narrative. One of the greatest quandaries of all involves lustration, the controversial act of publicly unveiling the identities of those who were police informers, secret agents, or apparatchiks of the former Soviet regimes. Shore returns repeatedly to the problem of “clean hands” – during decades of state oppression that made everyone suspicious of everyone else, was anyone truly innocent? And how should citizens in post-Soviet societies punish those deemed “guilty”, now that the regimes they once served have vanished? Should contemporary citizens even seek to punish them at all? Those who once collaborated with the Soviet regimes also sometimes struggle with the same questions. One man, revealed as a police informer, makes a public plea in the face of lustration:

I have only one wish . . . I would like my personal file amassed by the State Security to be the first – and the last – to be made public. By means of blackmail, fear, provocation, beatings, the political police in a communist state broke the moral backbones of many people . . . For the past dozen years each of those people has tried to forget about the drama he lived through. About the fact that he did evil to those closest to him – at the same time living with the feeling that he himself had fallen victim to violence.

Matters become even more complicated – and even more fascinating – when Shore invites us to recognize how many of the most prominent dissidents were often fervent Stalinists in their youth, or who were raised by devoutly Communist parents. In an especially moving passage, one of Shore’s interviewees explains that his own dissident views were, paradoxically, a tribute to the idealism inherent in his parents’ Communist beliefs: “Everything good in me I have from my parents . . . If I spent a dozen or so years of my life trying to pull down the system they pulled up, it was because of values that they had taught me” [italics mine]. Communism, after all, was originally rooted in the hopes of a better, more just, more equal world for all – the anti-Soviet dissidents who rebelled against their parents’ beliefs were striving to rescue those very same ideals, to reclaim them from regimes that had perverted and betrayed all of those brave hopes.

The book has a rather fragmented form, shifting between various personal narratives offered by Shore’s interviewees and alternating between different eras of history. And in truth, the book rather belies its subtitle of The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe by ultimately being absorbed far more by the past than by the afterlife of the contemporary, post-Soviet present. We learn a great deal about Soviet showtrials, about the deeply vexed relationship between Poles and Jews during and after World War II and the Holocaust, and about the tangled lives and thoughts of some of the era’s dissidents. While much of this material is deeply interesting in its own right, it does speak to one of the book’s weaknesses: Shore often seems unsure as to whether she is writing a personal memoir about her own experiences in Eastern Europe, a work of serious contemporary reportage, or a more straightforward historical account centred largely upon the relationship between Judaism and Bolshevism.

The result is that the book is a mix of all three approaches and underserves in all three categories, creating a rather disjointed and often frustrating reading experience. Some people and themes seem to be given a disproportionate amount of attention, while others appear and vanish in a rather illogical way. Oskar’s suicide, for example, is handled in a way that is rather crudely perfunctory. His life and death is barely examined or discussed in the book at all, and even his American widow is not given any space to share her views as to how and why her husband felt so adrift in his homeland. He therefore serves more as a framing device than as a personality in his own right, which is a missed opportunity and feels uncomfortably gimmicky.

Another issue is that Shore’s focus is both too wide and too narrow simultaneously. She barely discusses anywhere outside of Poland or the former Czechoslovakia in any real depth, which means that the book offers very little insight into “Eastern Europe” on a wider scale. It is also rather disappointing that Shore frequently seems to struggle to relate to anyone outside of her very scholarly, very narrow social and intellectual milieu. She treats the rural town she teaches in with a mix of bewilderment and condescension, and her pool of interviewees and historical case studies tends to be limited to dissident intellectuals and scholars. This creates a rather lopsided portrait of Soviet and post-Soviet society; the absence of variety, of a larger mosiac of voices, is keenly felt.

However, The Taste of Ashes also has significant merit. Shore’s willingness to confront uncomfortable questions and history’s murkier moral dilemmas is both compelling and admirable. Many of the historical events and personalities she brings to life will be of interest to any reader curious about the region’s totalitarian past. She demonstrates considerable empathy towards those caught up in history’s cruelties and absurdities, and the impossible choices many people were forced to make. Above all, Shore is honest in reflecting upon what she herself has discovered along the way. “I learned that the past could not be made okay”, she admits. The Soviet past is a conundrum that no one can fully solve, and it continues to haunt and shape the present in ways that are inescapable. And in turn, we are still left with the most pressing question of all: for the countries of the former USSR, what will the future be?

Get the Book:

  • Shore, Marci. The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. New York: Broadway Books. Paperback edition published in 2013 and currently in print.

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2 thoughts on “Never Quite Past: “The Taste of Ashes”, by Marci Shore (Review)

  1. What an interesting review. The concept of the book is fascinating, but I can see from what you say that it has flaws. I do feel that modern works sometimes suffer from trying to encompass too much in one volume. I found the aspect you discuss of guilt and culpability very interesting – there were similar situations in post-War France with those who collaborated, and of course with the former Nazis after WW2. As you say, no-one really has clean hands and it’s hard to judge – we don’t know how we would behave in those situations.

    I also found the comment about how hard it must have been to make the transition from state controlled to capitalism out of control – what a transition, and no wonder people’s mental health suffered…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right that trying to do too much in one volume is a bit of a common pitfall for many modern authors, although I’m not sure why it is that way . . . It becomes especially apparent with organization/form, and yet the editors are MIA! But yes, all quibbles aside, the book is very interesting and the idea of guilt is a hugely pervasive one . . . The controversy about “lustration” and the question of how you could even adequately punish is very unsettling. It gave me a lot to think about. In the book, one contemporary citizen even says — I think it was in relation to the Holocaust — “Who will they say sorry to? The people who need to be apologized to are dead”. That’s one aspect of the situation Shore’s book illuminates very well: the impossibility of true closure, and the heartbreak of that impossibility.

      Liked by 1 person

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