Books interview: Kristen Ghodsee

The scholar of East European studies and author of Red Hangover on reading for escape, quoting Lenin at the Model United Nations and understanding everyday life ‘behind the Iron Curtain’

October 12, 2017
Kristen Ghodsee

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?

I was a total science-fiction/fantasy nerd. Growing up in the Reagan-era US, I needed to escape to other worlds. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, about an anarchist planet, was one of my favourites. Also, everything by Philip K. Dick.

Your new book, Red Hangover, is about the ‘legacies of communism’. Which books first piqued your interest in life ‘behind the Iron Curtain’?

In the 1980s, I lived and breathed Model United Nations (MUN), where students role-play different nations in mock UN meetings. At my school, girls were always assigned to represent the Warsaw Pact countries, so I needed to understand how their worldview informed their votes at the UN. But we were also warned that if you checked out library books by Marx or Engels, the FBI would open a file on you. Most stuck to secondary sources and UN publications; I went straight for those books. Perhaps the first one I read was Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Then Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital. Once I began to understand the theories, I could argue foreign policy from a historical materialist perspective. While my competitors regurgitated factoids from U. S. News and World Report, I could quote Lenin. This ultimately won me MUN accolades and began a lifelong interest in socialism and Eastern Europe (and maybe an FBI file, too). After 1989, Slavenka Drakulić’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed and Katherine Verdery’s What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? inspired my extended fieldwork in Eastern Europe.

What would you recommend as nuanced accounts of daily life in Eastern Europe under communism?

There are many great books, but a few favourites are: Everyday Stalinism by Sheila Fitz­patrick, Love in the Time of Communism (Josie McLellan), Within Walls (Paul Betts), Domesticating Revolution (Gerald Creed), Staging Socialist Femininity (Ana Hofman), Politics in Color and Concrete (Krisztina Fehérváry) and Peasants under Siege (Gail Kligman and Katherine Verdery). I also enjoyed the novel Red Plenty by Francis Spufford.

Where would you suggest people go to get a sense of what life is like in the region today?

Ethnographies provide intimate cultural details. Recent books in this genre include: Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow (Olga Shevchenko), Bastards of Utopia (Maple Razsa), The Space of Boredom (Bruce O’Neill) and The Depths of ­Russia (Doug Rogers). For news, I read Transitions Online , based in Prague. For blogs, I peruse LeftEast out of Romania.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

The Feminism and Socialism of Lily Braun, a biography by Alfred Meyer, to my teenage daughter.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

I’ve got four on my nightstand: The Cold War: A World History (Odd Arne Westad), The Unwomanly Face of War (Svetlana Alexievich), Finding Women in the State (Wang Zheng) and The Shadow Land (Elizabeth Kostova).

Kristen Ghodsee is professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her latest book is Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism (Duke University Press).

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