Marci Shore: In Slavic languages, life happens to you

Marci Shore, photo: archive of Marci Shore

Anyone who is interested in the history of Central and Eastern Europe has likely come across the name Marci Shore. An associate Professor at Yale University, she has published a number of books focusing on the modern history of post-communist countries. She stopped by Czech Radio, while travelling through Prague earlier this week, and I started by asking her about the impact that Nazism and communism had on the region and the psyche of its people.

Marci Shore,  photo: archive of Marci Shore
“As a historian, of course I am going to tell you that the past is very important. For me what is important about the experiences of Nazism and communism in former communist Europe in particular, which makes these countries different from other European countries, is that experiences of Nazism and communism were intertwined.

“In France or what was formerly West-Germany, you can have theoretical conversations comparing Nazism and Stalinism; it can be a political science comparison, a theoretical comparison. In Eastern Europe these were not experiences that can be theoretically compared, they were deeply intertwined and in some sense inextricable from one other. People were put in situations for a very long time in which there was no innocent space. There were moments where there were no good choices to be made. When anything you chose involved causing suffering to someone or to something.

“There is a relatively unknown novel by Heda Margolius Kovály, the widow of Rudolf Margolius, who was executed in the Slánsky trial. She was known best for her memoir, ‘Under a Cruel Star’, which is an extraordinary memoir. But she also wrote this work of crime fiction. It is set in a movie theatre in 1952. It was just published in English a couple of years ago, posthumously, and it is called ‘Innocence'. Although it is crime fiction and designed to be fine reading there is a deeper philosophical point which is that there is no innocence.”

So in other words you are saying that experience left no one with clean hands?

“Exactly. Either way you are guilty. To participate in the resistance is to take on the guilt of retaliation and to not participate is to take on the guilt of passivity.”

You have mentioned this difference between post-communist states and Western Europe where they did not experience this dilemma. Have western countries underestimated that democratic transition process in Eastern Bloc states after 1989?

”People were put in situations for a very long time in which there was no innocent space. There were moments where there were no good choices to be made. When anything you chose involved causing suffering to someone or to something."

“I think there were many things that the West, speaking generally, did not understand. The first thing I would say is that the West fell under the illusion of what gets put under the slogan of Frank Fukuyama’s ‘End of history’ book - the liberal teleology of progress that is leading us all inexorably towards liberal democracy. There was not a real self-questioning of how one disentangles democracy, liberalism and capitalism/economic neo-liberalism/the rule of the free market. They were all kind of mixed-up together in this utopian capitalist package.

“Pavel Barša [political scientist] was telling me yesterday, half-jokingly, but not entirely in jest: ‘Well we learned that you cannot have democracy and socialism, they do not go together, so it must be, we thought, that democracy goes with capitalism.’ In fact, that also turned out to have problems.

“So there was that allusion of no one asking themselves what the relationship is between majority rule, rights of the individual, rights of free speech and the rule of the free market. There was a kind of assumption that all good things go together and naturally they are all part of the package. I think that was a problem.

“Also, although the West had that experience of Nazism, they did not have that overlapping experience of communism that went on for so long. The West did not understand the Communist Party files. They did not understand the archives. There was this sort of feeling that ‘ok the wicked witch is dead; communism is over’ everybody open the archives, everybody bask in the light of truth and we will all live happily ever after’. But it turns out that the Wizard of Oz metaphor was wrong. Because it turns out that the Communist Party archives were less like the Wizard of Oz and more like the Freudian unconscious.

“For Freud the unconscious was like this dark psychic closet where everything that was too upsetting for the conscious mind was shoved. What Freud understood was that once you start coaxing the contents of that dark psychic closet into consciousness, it might be healthy in some way. It might be salutary. But it will not be pleasant. It will be agonising. And so you open these archives and it is not a pleasant moment, it is a wrenching, agonising moment.”

We already have a generation that did not experience communism. How quickly can this area of Central and Eastern Europe change? Will it simply happen by a new generation coming or will this process of disentangling oneself from the past take much longer?

Photo: Broadway Books
“History never ends. We are always disentangling ourselves from the past and we are always shaped by that past at the same time that we are shaping what is happening in the present. I think that one of the ways in which I became so preoccupied by generation was in part a reaction to my generation of historians who were tired of hearing that everything was about nations and nation building and that everything can be understood on the paradigm of ethnic conflict and national conflict. I think we were all looking for different categories to understand what was happening.

“But I also think that, having come to Eastern Europe around 1989, it was impossible not to notice that the age you were in 1989 became completely decisive. Whether you were 10, 15, 20, or 25 had this huge impact on shaping lives, whether or not you were formed by communism. Had you already had your 12 years of Russian, or were you now going to switch to English? Had you already absorbed that there were things you do not discuss publicly? Had you already had the experience of not having conversations too close to walls, because what if the neighbours are informing?

“You could feel that almost palpably. It was impossible not to notice that generation difference and how quickly it changed. How suddenly differences of just a few years at moments of great historical drama become quite formative.”

This year the Czechs will be celebrating the Velvet Revolution and you lived in the Czech Republic in the early 90s, both in Prague and the town of Domažlice. You lived in other post-communist countries as well, but if we look specifically at Czechs now, did you find anything that made them different from for example Poles, Romanians, or Ukrainians?

“I never did a systematic comparison and I was in different places at different times at a moment when time was moving very quickly. One thing that happens in 1989, that exacerbates the generational divide is that time, which had seemingly stopped for so long, suddenly jumpstarts, so it should be noted that I was in Poland a few years after I was in Prague.

“However, the phrase I kept hearing in Czech, which I did not hear in any other language, was: ‘To není možné. To se nedá. To nejde’. In English that means: ‘That is impossible’. All sorts of variations of that phrase in Czech to say it is not possible. And the realm of the 'not possible' was just vast. There was this sense that the space for manoeuvre was so incredibly circumscribed in some sense precisely at the moment when, in principle, everything had opened.”

“For me as an American it terrified me. I felt these implications of helplessness and passivity, this reluctance to claim any kind of agency. That anything anyone might not feel like doing or might require a little more effort, or what might not traditionally have been done, is thrown into the realm of the impossible.

“It somehow felt to me like a passivity that I could not understand. It was about passivity and a sense of helplessness and the acceptance of the absurd. A sort of sense that life falls down upon you and you deal with it. The sense that you are a sort of passive recipient of the forces that be.

“The phrase I kept hearing in Czech, which I did not hear in any other language, was: ‘To není možné, To se nedá, To nejde’. In English that means: ‘That is impossible’. For me as an American it terrified me. I felt these implications of helplessness and passivity, this reluctance to claim any kind of agency.”

“This struck me about Slavic languages in general. Czech was the first one I learned, but this is true in all of the Slavic languages that I studied. That what in English would often be in the first person nominative, ends up being in the accusative or more often in the dative in Slavic languages. Life happens to you. Something is dealt to you. You are the passive recipient instead of the agent.”

In your book [The Taste of Ashes] you mention passing through Holešovice and how run down it was. Now that you are in Prague, I was just curious if you have stopped by just to look at the place or in Prague in general. Has it changed a lot and in what way?

“I sadly haven’t stopped by Holešovice, although I would be curious to see what is going on, on that particular street where I spent so much time. The city does not feel like it has radically changed. It has been cleaned up a bit and to some extent renovated, but it does not feel radically different to me. Warsaw feels much more radically different than Prague.

“When I first came to Prague in 1993 there were already people on the streets all the time, especially in the centre. Whereas when I came to Warsaw around 1996 or 1997, the streets were basically empty after dark except for gangsters in Adidas tracksuits and drunken staggering men. In some sense, now the centre of Warsaw feels not so different from the one in Prague in the sense that there are lots of people on the streets and that there is a thriving nightlife that does not feel ominous or threatening.

“Prague is also much more of a tourist city, so the centre is so dominated by tourists. And it is interesting that it was so ostentatiously true in the 1990s and continues to be so today.”

What about the Czechs themselves. We have already talked about the city, but what about your interactions with Czechs? Have you noticed any difference?

“It has not been systematic enough. I mean definitely I sense that there is a younger generation. I think that the younger generation I have talked to, people who were not formed by communism, do seem to be free of all those simultaneous superiority and inferiority complexes that Czechs and Poles, but also, on the other side, Americans had coming here. We all had simultaneous superiority and inferiority complexes that perhaps complimented one another that would play themselves out in their own tumultuous dramas. I think there was this sense that Poles or Czechs had of somehow being inferior and not being as good at things, of being perceived as inferior while at the same time feeling resentful about that, while also knowing that they had experiences that Westerners had not had. There were things they understood more deeply, which were not being recognised. That they were being talked to as if they were Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady, which is an analogy from Ivan Krastev and Steven Holmes use in their new book. That was bound to generate resentment.

“At the same time there were Americans and Westerners coming and feeling like their lives were full of superficiality and consumer culture and now they were going to have this experience of authenticity through communing with people who actually suffered. We all felt better and worse at the same time (laughs).

Photo: Yale University Press
“I think that all the romances, relationships and friendships forged in the 1990s were in some sense variations on that particular combination of simultaneous superiority and inferiority complexes. I feel like this is not present in the following generation. If I teach a seminar in Europe or in the USA I do not feel the difference between my graduate and undergraduate students coming from both sides of the former Iron Curtain in that very palpable way that you could sense it 20 years ago.”

Already through this interview I have noticed that you often answer questions by giving specific examples or stories. You books are filled with detailed reconstructions of conversations and settings. How do you go about recording such events? Do you simply have such a phenomenal memory, or did you for example keep a diary?

“I kept quite a systematic journal. It is true that while I was younger I had a much better memory than I have now, but I was also constantly taking notes. In some cases I recorded conversations that were done specifically as interviews.

“As a historian I always feel that you need narrative. In some sense this is the difference I feel between my friends and colleagues who are political theorists, scientists or sociologists working on a lot of the same material. Whenever I write I am always telling stories. You start with the empirical narrative. You bring you characters on stage. They are doing something. They are talking. I want to let them talk. Then we can think about what the meaning is behind what they said, but first you have to let them talk.”

In your books you often depict people’s stories and experiences. Recently you described how important phenomenology and direct experience are important in depicting historical events such as the Velvet Revolution. How important are they in conveying their pure ‘truth‘.

“For me it is very important. But it does depend on the book. My first book was almost entirely made up of archival sources. As a historian you always prefer to write about people who are dead. You can have more sources and don’t have to worry about how they might feel about it later on.

“Both ‘The Taste of Ashes’, in which a good portion of the characters is still alive, as well as my new book, ‘The Ukrainian Night’, were much more about the present. That is something I never intended to do as a historian. However, in both cases, for various reasons, I ended up feeling very strongly about writing these books.

“We all had simultaneous superiority and inferiority complexes that perhaps complimented one another that would play themselves out in their own tumultuous dramas. We all felt better and worse at the same time.”

“I take a kind of Chekhovian approach. Chekhov says that it is not the task of the writer to tell the reader what to think. It is only the writer’s job to do a good job of evoking the situation and telling the story. You have to give the reader the space to draw their own conclusions. I try very hard not to be heavy-handed. Instead, in some sense, my job is to be the story teller.

“When I wrote about the Maidan and the Ukrainian Revolution, I was in some sense responding to the current moment as it was going on. I had friends and colleagues who were there and getting shot at. The media coverage was understandably about geopolitics, oligarchy, and gas pipelines. The kinds of things that are talked about in this realm as geopolitical events are happening. I did not want to engage in that conversation. First of all, I understand nothing about global finance. I understand very little about the politics of oligarchy. I do not know what effect sanctions have if you put them on x or y.

“However, I felt what was missing from the story and something I could talk about, was what the experience of revolution was like. What did it mean for people on that square November 2013, who never would have imagined that they would be willing to freeze to death on this square and ultimately get shot to death by a sniper in order to overthrow Yanukovich. How did they get to the point where something that was inconceivable in November ends up being an existential imperative in late-January.

“I wanted to capture that revolution as an experience given to individuals in its purity without making a political argument.”

You and your husband [Timothy Snyder] focus on the region of Central and Eastern Europe in your research. I was wondering, does it often come up at conversations at home and, if so, what are you discussing right now?

Timothy Snyder,  photo: myself,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“It comes up constantly at conversations at home, because, in some sense, this is our life. Stuff like the crisis of civilization. Is it possible to save the world? (laughs) I am more of a neurotic catastrophist while Tim is more optimistic.

“This week we were talking a lot about Paul Manafort. We have a little boutique industry in America of PR consultants for gangsters with presidential ambitions. Even though it seemed he could never come back after the 2004 Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovich hired Paul Manafort, who, despite the fact that he does not speak Russian or Ukranian, comes over to Kiev and gives him a makeover and the former wins the elections of 2010. There is the massacre on the Maidan in February 2014, Yanukovich flees over the border to Russia and suddenly Manafort is out of a job. We all know what he does next.

“It is not a coincidence that Paul Foyer broke the story of Paul Manafort in April 2016 during Trump’s campaign, Frank, whom I had met in Kiev in the spring of 2014, while he was following the Yanukovich story. In April 2016 he wrote this piece saying: ‘All of you who do not think Trump can win, you do not know Paul Manafort’. Just last week Mr. Manafort was sentenced in the Muller investigation, according to the sentencing guidelines he should have been given 27 years, and the federal judge gave him 47 months saying: ‘He has otherwise led a blameless life’. I was just flabbergasted by that. That was our dinnertime conversation. What does that mean ‘a blameless life?' Oh, there were a couple of technicalities. Maybe he stole a few million dollars here and there, or did not quite fill out his taxes right, but he has otherwise led a blameless life? It forces you to reconsider the meaning of blameless. He spent his life taking murderous gangsters and putting them in positions of power.”

One of the reasons why I asked this question is because I noticed a parallel in a talk you gave, where you stressed the importance of empirical journalism today. I know that Timothy Snyder’s book ‘The Road to Freedom’ opens with a dedication: ‘For the Reporters, the heroes of our time’.

“I think it is true for both Tim and me that in the last 5 years we have felt particularly close to journalists. The reason why, and I do not think that we are outliers in that sense, is because the very notion that there is a thing that such a thing as empirical reality exists, has come under question. There never was any tension between historians and journalists in the past. It just seemed like a very different kind of activity and writing that they do. I never thought that it was better or worse. It just was not my world per se. I felt that what I was doing was very different.

“However, at a moment when the very notion of empirical reality existing comes under question, it suddenly feels like our similarities are much more important than our differences, because without empirical reality we lose the ground under our feet. We have nowhere to stand. Hannah Arend calls this ‘Bodenlosigkeit’ – when you are literally groundless.”

In Czech society often the question is brought up of whether we should be pro-West or pro-East. I wanted to ask you where you see the future of Central Europe. Does it have to make that choice, or can it remain its own region?

“I take a kind of Chekhovian approach. Chekhov says that it is not the task of the writer to tell the reader what to think. It is only the writer’s job to do a good job of evoking the situation and telling the story. You have to give the reader the space to draw their own conclusions.”

“I do not think any of these categories are so reified. History keeps happening. What the EU or Europe will be in 50 years no one knows. One thing that makes me nervous about these conversations about what it means to be European and whether one is looking towards Europe or Russia, is that I fell the implicit subtext of a lot of these conversations seems to be that if you are European that means you have some sort of God-given-entitlement to human rights, the rule of law and personal dignity. Whereas if you are looking to Russia or you are not European and decide you belong to some other category, then we throw up our hands, because ‘there have never been human rights in Russia anyway and the conversation is not relevant’.

“This does not strike me as a morally sustainable line of reasoning. Either you believe in human rights or you don’t. The idea that you believe in it as something belonging to Europeans but not to other people strikes me as deeply problematic.”