The unsettling transition from socialism to democracy leaves many people longing for the past.
Polish journalist Szablowski (The Assassin from Apricot City, 2013), winner of journalism awards in his native Poland as well as an English PEN award, investigates the effects of newfound freedom on individuals who spent their lives under authoritarian rule. Some of those individuals are bears: captured, tethered, and trained to dance in order to provide a livelihood for their Romani owners. In 2007, when Bulgaria joined the European Union, keeping these bears was outlawed; they were removed from captivity and sent to a wildlife refuge where they could roam free. Freedom, though, proved a challenge: having been plied with alcohol and candy, “they were used to having somebody do the thinking for them,” and they became aimless and depressed. The bears’ difficult adjustment to freedom serves as an analogy for humans in countries that emerged from communism. Like the bears, many individuals found freedom “extremely complicated.” “It turns out,” the author discovered, “that fear of a changing world, and longing for someone who will relieve us of some of the responsibility for our own lives” is widespread, even beyond “Regime-Change Land.” In a brisk narrative, translated by Lloyd-Jones, Szablowski reports from Cuba, where people fear that Castro’s death will change the culture for the worse; and from Albania and Estonia, where people complain about the breakup of the Soviet Union, the infiltration by the European Union and the U.N., and the trials of independence. “What do we need all this capitalism for, all these American cheeses, juices, and chocolate?” one woman complains. When a power station was built in Kosovo, residents opted to buy their own small generators rather than pay electrical bills. At a Stalin museum, docents extol Stalin’s memory, defending him from such events as the famine in Ukraine and the Katyn massacre. Communism provided free health care, education, utilities, and security, the author was repeatedly told; capitalism leaves some feeling unprotected and at sea.
A surprising look at societies grappling with profound change.