If you think that the study of Communism is boring, you are wrong. Kristen Ghodsee, Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College, has written an eyeopening and entertaining story of how Communism came to Bulgaria and how the average citizen suffered when socialism was replaced by the free market economy.
The Left Side of History (Duke University Press) begins with the story of Major Frank Thompson, a British intelligence officer, who died in 1944 while fighting alongside the Communist partisans in Bulgaria. Thompson was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Ghodsee writes about his idealism, his hopes for a better world after World War II, and the dreams he shared with Iris Murdoch, whom he might have married had he survived the war.
The book continues with a portrait of Elena Lagadinova, the youngest Bulgarian partisan. Known as the Amazon, she became a legend in her own time. Elena’s family were Communists. Her father founded the local branch of the Party. One brother was killed by German collaborators. Another brother rose to be a General in the post-war Bulgarian military, until he was forcibly retired in a political purge.
Ghodsee tells how King Boris III joined the Axis in exchange for parts of Macedonia and Greece. Boris was two-faced. Though he instituted racial laws and deported Bulgarian Jews to the countryside, he refused to hand them over to the Nazis. Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Greece were sent to the Nazi gas chambers. The Germans never occupied Bulgaria, and King Boris refused to send troops to fight against the Soviet Union.
King Boris III
In September 1944, as Soviet troops drew near, the monarchy was overthrown and the Fatherland Front took power. Bulgaria remained under Communist control until 1989.
Elena Lagadinova as a partisan in World War II
Ghodsee interviews Lagadinova and other Bulgarian women’s leaders and examines the decline of the welfare state after the fall of Communism. Under Communism, Bulgaria was a world leader in women’s rights. Women had the right to three years maternity leave. Equal employment and equal pay were guaranteed. Everyone received free education and medical care. Upon graduation, the government provided job placement, though not in the career or location a person wanted. The people were not rich, but they were secure.
Ghodsee is fun to read. She uses interesting terms–like having lunch in Bulgaria with her “ex-in-laws.” She loves to write about food.
While a scholar at the the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, she wanted to meet the renowned physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson. She nervously debated with herself on how to meet him. One day, she spotted him in the cafeteria line. We learned that he was considering between the blackened haddock and the baked acorn squash stuffed with quinoa, when she introduced herself.
In Bulgaria, she tracked down Elena Lagadinova, who was then past 80 years old. During her long career, Elena had been head of the state-run Bulgarian women’s movement. Although she had completed post-doctoral research in agriculture at a Soviet university, Elena was a traditionalist when it came to hospitality. Ghodsee visited her flat.
Elena Lagadinova and Kristen Ghodsee in 2013
There was a price for an interview. Elena insisted that she eat watermelon and salty cheese, round after round of them. Elena knows how to tell a good story, Ghodsee related. But she always wanted Ghodsee to be eating. If Ghodsee were to stop eating, Elena would stop talking. Ghodsee calls this indentured eating.
Later Ghodsee visited a non-Party member who worked in East Berlin for eight years as an editor with an international women’s group aligned with the world Communist movement. After Communism fell, she supported herself as a freelance translator. She also was a traditionalist in hospitality. Her price for an interview was thin slices of kashkaval (Bulgarian yellow cheese), salami, batter-covered peanuts, almonds, two different types of crackers, some cookies and potato chips, Bulgarian vodka, Bulgarian tonic, and a glass bowl full of ice. Smoking was mandatory for the interview.
Ghodsee recognizes the lack of political freedom, the corruption and privilege, and the stifling effects of one-party rule during the Communist era. However, she gives a fresh look at life from the view of the average, nonpolitical citizen.
Even if you are not interested in politics and ideology, it is a great read for foodies.
Gotta go. My Weight Watchers meeting is about to start.