The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

“Eastern Europe is special,” Shore writes in her opening lines. “It is Europe, only more so. It is a place where people live and die, only more so.” That sense of pathos shapes her highly intimate reflections on communism’s bitter residue for Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks. That residue has much to do with the lingering burden of choices made during the era of communist rule—hard choices that harmed others, for, as the Czech dissident Václav Havel wrote, “Everyone in his or her own way [was] both a victim and a supporter of the system.” By sharing the emotional fervor of her many, often deep personal relationships with eastern Europeans, formed during ten years of travel and research in the region, Shore gets at the agony and guilt felt by some and the sublimation resorted to by others. During her visits, she also managed on more than one occasion to meet and ruffle the feathers of those who had served the system loyally and without regrets. Shore, now on Yale’s history faculty, gives depth to this searching, personalized account by weaving into her story brief but deft and unobtrusive elements of historical context.

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