Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism

January 26, 2012

Without having lived through it first hand, it is hard to grasp the magnitude of the change to daily life in the Eastern Bloc after the collapse of the region's Communist regimes in the late 20th century. Not only was this a time of fundamental system change in the higher echelons of government, it was also a significant juncture in the lives and prospects of ordinary people. And, contrary to Western assumptions about the inherent superiority of democracy, for many the transition has been extremely challenging. In this accessible book, ethnographer Kristen Ghodsee turns her attention to the human costs of the passing of Communism in Bulgaria.

Take the story of Yordanka, a young Bulgarian woman who is struggling in a competitive work market to look after herself and her sick, elderly father. Naive about the lengths her boss will go to to make a profit in the newly free-market economy, she is cheated out of her wages on two occasions. Desperate for money to buy her father's medicine, she reluctantly consents to selling her long hair at an agreed price, only for the hairdresser to drop the price once the hair is cut off. After failing to get to grips with the new system, Yordanka turns to prostitution. This story, as well as others told in Lost in Transition, highlights that there were losers as well as winners when the system changed.

Ghodsee is by no means an apologist for Communism, however. The staggering impact of the long arm of the state under Communism is laid bare in her encounter with Damiana, a middle-aged woman working in the tourist industry. Under the Communist government, Damiana had worked so diligently in her training as a hotel manager that in 1983 she was sent on a friendship exchange to Cuba. While there, she fell in love with a Cuban named Manuel and the two planned to marry. In the interim she returned home and continued with her job. All of a sudden, though, the letters from Manuel stopped. She kept writing to him but received nothing back.

Only 14 years later, in 1998, did she find out why. Manuel, it transpired, had defected from Cuba to the US, and had wanted her to do the same. The Bulgarian state authorities intercepted 140 letters from Manuel to Damiana, and blocked all hers to him too, fearing that she would defect as well. Damiana, however, knew nothing of this until she accessed her state file in 1998. In the last letter from Manuel, written just two months before the Berlin Wall fell, he explained that he could wait no longer and was going to marry a girl who was expecting his child. Having waited all this time for Manuel, Damiana was now in her forties and too old to have the family she had always dreamed of. The Communist government's desire to retain power and control over its population could and did have very serious implications for the lives of ordinary people living under it.

Lost in Transition emphasises the disparate legacies of Communism in Bulgaria, from those eagerly pursuing new business opportunities in a new capitalist world to those nostalgic for the safety and security provided by a paternalistic state. The book has the feel of a travelogue, as Ghodsee tells us how falling in love as a graduate student led to her interest in the plight of post-Communist Bulgaria. Although occasionally this can be too much, when she hints at her husband's adulterous behaviour, or when she waxes lyrical about her love for the rock band U2, overall the travelogue approach gives her work an immediacy that is both compelling and highly readable.

Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism

By Kristen Ghodsee. Duke University Press 232pp, £62.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780822350897 and 51023. Published 14 October 2011

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