Welcome to the Wild East. First, there are Bulgarian Gypsies with dancing bears. Then there is a Polish village whose inhabitants dress up as Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings, along with Gandalf, played by a woman, and Gollum—in private life a farmer who receives European Union subsidies. There are hundreds of thousands of communist-era bunkers in Albania, some of them now being demolished by men in search of rebar. Meanwhile, a Serbian remembers being “treated” by the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade, where the notorious war criminal was in hiding, disguised in a ponytail and beard and pretending to be a faith healer: “At one point he told me that cosmic energy came to him via the hair and beard.” And to cap it all off, a Georgian woman dreams of Joseph Stalin visiting her at night: “He gazes at me, puffs on his pipe, and twirls his moustache. He smiles, and then heads for the door. Then I weep and cry for him to stay.”

Dancing Bears, the latest book by the Polish journalist Witold Szablowski, is never dull. This is Tom Wolfe meets Franz Kafka, or perhaps a Milan Kundera remake of Dances With Wolves. The excellent English version by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, a leading translator from Polish, perfectly captures Szablowski’s pithy, staccato prose.

Yet niggling questions remain. The subtitle of the American edition promises readers “true stories of people nostalgic for life under tyranny.” Szablowski’s account hardly bears out this diagnosis. As a collection of vivid, skillfully crafted reportage from the wilder corners of the postcommunist world, Dancing Bears is a rattling good read. But in what sense, precisely, are these stories true, and what do they actually tell us about life in postcommunist Europe?

EXOTIC EAST

Szablowski’s report is divided into two halves. The first is about the dancing bears once kept by Bulgarian Gypsies (now more politely called Roma). After Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, animal-rights activists persuaded the last remaining bear keepers to hand their animals over to a reserve, the Dancing Bears Park, in Belitsa, in southwestern Bulgaria. “The animals were taught how a free bear is supposed to move about,” Szablowski writes. “How to hibernate. How to copulate. How to obtain food. The park at Belitsa became an unusual ‘freedom research lab.’” Yet “for every retired dancing bear, the moment comes when freedom starts to cause it pain. What does it do then? It gets up on its hind legs and starts to dance.”

When Szablowski heard about this story, it occurred to him that the bears were in the same condition as the people of eastern Europe. “Ever since the transition from socialism to democracy began in Poland in 1989,” he writes, “our lives have been a kind of freedom research project—a never-ending course in what freedom is, how to make use of it, and what sort of price is paid for it.”

The dancing bears therefore serve as an allegorical leitmotif in the book’s second half. The chapters in Part 2 have the same titles—“Love,” “Freedom,” “Negotiations,” “Hibernation,” “Castration”—as those in Part 1, and each has an epigraph with a putatively apt quotation from the earlier description of the bears and their keepers. But this time, Szablowski whizzes around the postcommunist world, from Cuba—assuming we can now call Cuba postcommunist—to Ukraine, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Estonia, Georgia, and that Polish Hobbit village. At the end of his tour, Szablowski takes an unexpected turn to Greece, where he finds a young architecture student, Maria, protesting for an end to capitalism. The book closes with her prophecy: “We’re starting a landslide here that will engulf the entire world.”

No wonder Szablowski’s previous reporting received the Polish Press Agency’s Ryszard Kapuscinski Award. Kapuscinski is the founding father and presiding deity of the contemporary Polish school of reportage, of which Szablowski is now a leading practitioner. Take Dancing Bears in one hand and Kapuscinski’s 1992 book, The Soccer War, in the other. There are the same short paragraphs, punchy prose, surreal stories, and first-person narration; the same short, apparently disconnected chapters, presented in a strictly nonlinear order; the same devotion to showing, not telling.

But there is a problem with Kapuscinski. The maestro played fast and loose with the facts; he borrowed anecdotes and turned them into what looked like his own reporting; he embroidered, fabricated, and fabulated. The scholar Abbas Milani, an authority on the shah of Iran, once told Kapuscinski’s biographer, Artur Domoslawski, that “you can open [Kapuscinski’s] Shah of Shahs at any page, point to a passage, and I will tell you what is wrong or inaccurate.” A resident of Addis Ababa complained that Kapuscinski’s celebrated book about the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie is “like a tale from The Thousand and One Nights.” The biographer showed the former Bolivian guerrilla Osvaldo Peredo what Kapuscinski wrote about his family. “This is fiction,” an indignant Peredo responded. “It may be colorfully written, but it’s entirely untrue. Well, almost entirely.”

Distinguished wordsmiths still defend Kapuscinski on the grounds that this was Literature, with a capital L, not mere reporting. But that’s not what it says on the label. When his work was translated into English, Kapuscinski was celebrated as a great reporter: someone who had seen, heard, endured, and accurately recorded everything he wrote about.

In these times of industrial-scale online disinformation, hyperpolarization, and general all-around “Trumpery,” such trespassing is more dangerous than ever. We writers of nonfiction need to guard the bright line between fact and fiction with every weapon at our disposal.

This is not to suggest that Szablowski willingly distorts facts or misleads his readers as Kapuscinski did. But he certainly operates within the loose conventions of the Kapuscinski school of reporting. Leave aside, as enjoyable ludic ursology, several passages in which he tells us what individual bears “probably” thought and felt. (“Misho is not capable of getting his head around Dimitar’s death. Probably all he knows is that the man was there . . . and then suddenly that man was gone.”) But take those Albanian bunkers. “In a country slightly smaller than Maryland, inhabited by barely three million people,” readers are told, “the Communists built about 750,000 of them.” That would be roughly one bunker for every four inhabitants. Yet at the end of the same paragraph, Szablowski quotes his source as saying, “Someone once suggested that there are 750,000 of them, and now everyone keeps repeating that.” Why include this figure if it represents an unfounded and obviously ridiculous claim?

Nine-month-old bear Dancho dances to the tunes of his owner in downtown Sofia, Bulgaria, March 1994
Dimitar Dilkoff/REUTERS

Another symptom of mild Kapuscinski-itis is the author’s self-dramatization as an intrepid reporter risking his neck on the reader’s behalf. When Szablowski makes a trip to the Estonian city of Narva, he excitedly reports warnings of “Mafiosi, hired assassins, polluted air, and exploding cars.” He suggests he was “probably the first hitchhiker in independent Kosovo.” As someone who hitched several rides in Kosovo immediately after the 1999 NATO invasion, I beg to differ. However harmless these individual exaggerations may be, taken together, they contribute to a narrative in which everything becomes wilder, more extreme, and more exotic. The British writer John Ryle, in his analysis of Kapuscinski’s writings about Africa, called this style “tropical baroque.” One might also call it Orientalism.

There is a long tradition, stretching back to the Enlightenment, of western Europeans and North Americans orientalizing eastern Europe, as Voltaire did with Russia and Rousseau did with Poland. What is unusual about Szablowski is that he is orientalizing his own region. Dancing Bears is, so to speak, the self-orientalization of eastern Europe (perhaps better in German: die Selbstorientalisierung Osteuropas.) Odder still, Szablowski is writing his account at a time when eastern Europe—or at least east-central Europe, from Poland to Bulgaria—has never been closer to the West. All of its states have some version of the political and economic system prevalent in the West, and most of them are members of the same political, economic, and security communities—the EU, NATO—as their western neighbors, something unprecedented in European history. How nice, then, for Westerners to be reassured that they are, after all, still on a higher plane of civilization, reason, and Enlightenment, while eastern Europeans remain, under their L’Oréal-smoothed skin, the same old dancing bears.

WEEPING FOR TYRANNY?

This brings us to the strange matter of the subtitle of the American edition: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny. Very few of the protagonists in Szablowski’s political reportage seem to fit this bill. A Ukrainian who works as a cleaning lady in Poland admires how EU membership has transformed the country: “You Poles are looking better. And you’re eating better too. These days every Biedronka supermarket sells olive oil.” And she concludes: “I pray for the EU to come to us too.” In the Polish Hobbit village, the author sits on a bench with Gollum (aka Zenon Pusz, a villager), drinking beer, smoking Marlboros, and “remembering the days when in the countryside you smoked filterless cigarettes and drank cheap wine known as ‘brainfuck.’” Nostalgic for brainfuck, anyone?

Nor will readers find much evidence here that the Serbs—let alone the Bosnians—are nostalgic for Karadzic, even in his capacity as a faith healer, or that the Kosovar Albanians are pining for the days of domination by Serbia. Yes, some of the ethnic Russians the author meets in Estonia are indeed nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and Szablowski is rightly critical of the early years of Estonian policy toward the country’s Russian minority. But even among that minority, we encounter the figure of “Asya’s mom,” a presumably middle-aged or elderly Russian woman who passes her Estonian language exam on the seventh attempt, opening the door to Estonian citizenship.

There is a long tradition of western Europeans and North Americans orientalizing eastern Europe. What is unusual about Szablowski is that he is orientalizing his own region.

One of Szablowski’s finest characters, and a testament to his empathetic reporter’s eye, is an old woman who hails from the provincial Polish town of Pabianice but now spends her life on the streets around the Victoria coach and railway stations in London. She goes by the name Lady Peron (peron means “railway platform” in Polish). Is she nostalgic for life under communism? Apparently not: “Suddenly the Lady falls silent, smiles, and takes me by the arm. ‘But tell me frankly, mister. Many a healthy person hasn’t seen as much of the world as this cripple from Pabianice.’”

Only two people in the pages of Dancing Bears genuinely are nostalgic for tyranny: first, the widow of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, and second, the Georgian woman who works at the Joseph Stalin Museum and is visited in her dreams by the mustache-twirling charmer Uncle Joe. Well, they would be nostalgic, wouldn’t they?

To be sure, some people in postcommunist Europe will say that they miss some good things about the bad old days. They may, for example, mention a kind of rudimentary economic security—“we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us,” as the old quip went—or say that their lives were once less stressful. Others may recall a sense of equality and solidarity among those below the small communist ruling class, the nomenklatura. There’s an interesting subject there, one for another, less colorful, but perhaps deeper, book.

THE ROOTS OF DISCONTENT

Such a book might start by asking how it could happen that as we approach the 30th anniversary of the revolutions of 1989, leaders such as Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland have achieved high levels of electoral support while systematically eroding the checks and balances of their countries’ still fragile liberal democracies. To what extent are these leaders part of a wider populist and antiliberal movement that includes such figures as Donald Trump in the United States, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, and Matteo Salvini in Italy? And how much of their success is due to the specific circumstances of postcommunist central and eastern Europe?

Did the absence of a major public reckoning with Hungary’s and Poland’s communist past open the door to a pseudo-revolutionary politics in which a turn to illiberalism is justified as the only way to end the legacy of communism? How significant is it that societies behind the Iron Curtain had relatively little experience of immigration, let alone western European–style multiculturalism, so that nativistic sentiment is now easily mobilized against potential newcomers—especially Muslim ones? Or is the cause more a wounded national pride, a sense of humiliation, of being perceived only as poor copies of western European societies, and a desire for a new, heroic role as the true defenders of a more traditional, Christian Europe? This narrative upends former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s famous comment dismissing disgruntled western European allies as “old Europe”: instead, populist leaders in Budapest and Warsaw claim they are defending the old Europe, while decadent, multicultural western Europe is the new. 

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the revolutions of 1989, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland keep winning elections while systematically eroding the checks and balances of their countries’ still fragile liberal democracies.

How far are we simply witnessing an understandable human reaction against so much rapid change—liberalization, globalization, Europeanization, digitalization—all hitting at once? Or is it the atomization of consumer society, especially in the digital age, that is leading people back to the old familiar solidarities of Christian churches and ethnically defined national communities? A new saying is making the rounds in Warsaw: “Where do Poles meet? Answer: only at the gas station.”

For an author, it is always supremely irritating to be criticized on the grounds that you did not write a different book—the one the reviewer would have liked to read. I raise the alternative here only because the American publisher gave Szablowski’s book that subtitle about nostalgia for tyranny, suggesting a thesis the book does not advance, let alone sustain. The original Polish edition had no subtitle, whereas a more recent Polish edition has a subtitle that translates roughly as Freedom Means New Challenges, New Smells, New Sounds, a New Great Adventure. Notice that there’s no mention of nostalgia for tyranny, a notion that most Polish readers would laugh out of court.

A skilled reporter such as Szablowski could potentially do a fascinating job of talking to the voters for Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party in his own country and unpacking the warp and woof of their discontents. I enjoyed this book, but I would love that to be his next one. The explanation of what is happening in eastern Europe today lies not in dancing bears but, perhaps, in stationary people who feel the world is dancing around them.

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  • TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
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