‘Since it is 25 years since the end of communism, we have decided to talk about the end of communism,’ began Oliver Bullough in his introduction to Frontline Club’s event on Wednesday February 24th. Onstage with him were two writers, Peter Pomerantsev and Philip Ó Ceallaigh, recently featured in Granta magazine’s newest issue ‘No Man’s Land’. Bullough, journalist and author of The Last Man in Russia and Let Our Fame Be Great, Pomerantsev, s author of Nothing is True and Anything is Possible, Adventures in Modern Russia, and Ó Ceallaigh, author of Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, have all spent considerable amounts of time in Russia, Ukraine, and Romania – respectively – in the post-communist era. Though communism may have fallen, its mark is still felt both physically and ideologically and the narrative of liberal democracy’s triumph is less simple than it seems.
Pomerantsev’s piece ‘Propagandalands,’ focuses on the surreal, confused nature of propaganda and information sharing in Donbass region in Ukraine. ‘Ukraine,’ he argued, ‘is a laboratory of propaganda,’ where truth is an irrelevant concept. Ó Ceallaigh wrote about the Communist destruction of old Bucharest in his story ‘Bucharest, Broken City.’ Between 1984 and 1989, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu bulldozed roughly one third of Bucharest, a city where Ó Ceallaigh now lives. In his story about his daughter’s baptism in one of the city’s oldest churches, Ó Ceallaigh questioned whether the destruction of Bucharest led to a true break with history and the past. Though the connection was shaky, both men addressed themes of truth, destruction, reconstruction and regional nostalgia.
The evening began with each author reading an excerpt from his piece. Pomerantsev’s emphasis is on investigative journalism while Ó Ceallaigh’s has a more lyrical tone, both styles which Granta seeks to promote in its publication, along with fiction and poetry. From there, the conversation turned to the destruction of truth. In Donbass, Pomerantsev encountered ‘post-truth politics,’ in which there are too many sources of information, creating a ‘fog of disinformation,’ so nobody knows what to believe anymore. He was careful to point out that this isn’t an Eastern European phenomenon, but a 21st century one – it’s also happening right now in the US. In Bucharest, Ceauşescu’s goal was to create a new truth by destroying the old. Citing the forgotten history of his own neighborhood, Ó Ceallaigh argued that ‘the amnesia is total.’
This lack of truth or destruction of history has inevitably led to nostalgia for a fictional past. In Donbass, the nostalgia for a Stalinist era is propagated by the separatists, because – in Pomerantsev’s opinion – the region understands itself through its Soviet era history. In that era, many Soviet citizens migrated or were moved to the region as Stakhanovites, the mythical, highly productive workers praised by Stalin. In Bucharest, said Ó Ceallaigh, because of the spread of the European Union, the nostalgia is for a past that goes back before communism. This notion of an ideal history is false, however, because pre-dating communism was the fascist period. Though related in these large themes of the destruction of truth and nostalgia, both men were careful to point out the particularities of Ukraine and Romania, an important point as so much of Eastern Europe is often lumped together with little regard for the specificity of history or culture.
Returning to the opening remark that it’s been 25 years since the fall of communism, Bullough asked ‘Is time healing?’ Ó Ceallaigh’s remarks about Bucharest were hopeful, arguing that a certain amount of amnesia from the younger generation has led to people trusting one another and looking to the future. Pomerantsev wasn’t so optimistic about Donbass: ‘it’s disturbing…a kind of new medievalism has emerged.’ This ‘medievalism’ comes from a feeling that everything is rumor – serving as a hotbed for conspiracy theories disseminated by far-right parties. Here, Ó Ceallaigh jumped in to point out that this is not unique. ‘There’s nothing new about this paranoid way of thinking,’ he said, citing Vienna at the turn of the 20th century and, more recently, rhetoric in the wake of the Paris attacks this fall. He drew a common thread through the 20th and 21st century which successfully connected Ukraine with the rest of Europe and its coloured history.
This connection and Pomerantsev’s mention of the United States’ media and the far-right politics of the presidential election were ultimately the most important points of the evening. Neither author sought to isolate Romania or Ukraine – something often done when we in the west speak about the east, but show commonalities. Ultimately, argued Pomerantsev, the EU can learn from Romania’s example and reach out to Donbass. ‘Throw money at it,’ he joked. But on a more serious note he argued we should ‘shut up about the “west” and start talking about roads’ – in other words, focus on the needs of specific communities rather than packaging and selling a Western ideal that may be quite irrelevant. This Cold War mentality and divide between east and west, communist and liberal democracy, must be questioned. Is it helping? If not, it’s time to find commonalities in history and the present day that will lead to solutions.
GRANTA: The Legacy of Communism – From the Donbass to Old Bucharest was part of the ongoing programme of talks, screenings and panel-discussions at London’s Frontline Club.