An enlightening if unsettling account of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia 20 years after the collapse of communism.
A Canadian writer whose parents fled Hungary in 1956, Porter (Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, 2007) tours these nations, describing the sights and history in between interviews with heroes of the struggle for freedom, as well as a few villains (as in Russia, many former communist bureaucrats have prospered spectacularly). She then moves on to other establishment figures: elected officials, opposition leaders, artists, academics and gadflies. A universal vision during the heady first years of independence was an economic “third way,” a compromise between inefficient socialism and heartless capitalism. Nearly everyone now admits that was a fantasy, and that capitalism has won. Porter describes chain stores, malls, skyscrapers, trendy night life and glitzy Western media transforming formerly sleepy medieval Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Budapest. An unfettered free market combined with Russian crony-capitalism has produced new wealth and a large middle-class, leaving behind a growing, resentful underclass as pensions and social programs dwindle along with uncompetitive, state-supported factories. The author notes a persistent nostalgia for former communist security in addition to a few disquieting movements with a long history in central Europe but stimulated by the current world economic crisis: anti-Semitism; persecution of ethnic minorities (Hungarians in Slovakia, gypsies everywhere); and nasty right-wing nationalism.
Less a scholar than an opinionated journalist, Porter fills her book with interviews and personal observations, producing a broad and vivid but not terribly deep portrait of four nations that have been off the American radar for decades.