- Lost In Transition: Ethnographies of the Everyday Life After Communism
Lost in Transition by Kristen Ghodsee is not a conventional ethnography which analyzes the daily practices around a particular theoretically-informed framework leading to larger theoretical debates. Yet, it is written with great ethnographic sensibilities that captivate the readers with the intimate narratives of the ordinary people who lived through communism and experienced the often confusing realities of its aftermath. As Ghodsee mentions, this book is written for students and non-specialists as an introduction to “the joys and sufferings of ordinary people who, from our perspective in the West, were on the losing side of the Cold War” (xiv). The author successfully achieves her objective with highly accessible prose and engaging stories which she deftly blends together with her own experiences as a scholar, participant, and observer of this historical transformation.
The volume consists of 15 short stories, four of which are marked as ethnographic fiction, as well as an introduction and afterword. These stories are based on Ghodsee’s fieldnotes, journal entries, and her memories of events that occurred between 1989 and 2009 in Eastern Europe, primarily in Bulgaria where she has conducted over 13 years of long-term research on issues of gender, ethnicity, and Muslim minority politics. The engaging opening chapter interweaves Ghodsee’s own intellectual biography with the motivations and goals of the book. The subsequent ethnographic stories are organized so that they speak for themselves rather than follow a particular narrative sequence. At the same time, the chapters follow a 20-year chronology, which allows the readers to have a glimpse of the lived experiences of this turbulent period. In the afterword, Ghodsee offers her own interpretation of these stories and discusses some final thoughts on post-communist transition. [End Page 587]
Ghodsee calls her stories “ethnographic snapshots” (xiii), which read as historical episodes that capture various moments of transition from communism with wonderful anthropological insights. Many targeted readers will be drawn to the book by the introductory chapter where the Cold War is contextualized with Ghodsee’s own intimate experience as an American student in the 1970s and 1980s who worried about the nuclear threats and other fears arising from the confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union. She shares how such experiences resulted in her dropping out from college and traveling across Europe and the Middle East. It was during her travel in Europe that she came to witness the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989.
Chapter one is based on one of her traveling experiences during this period when Ghodsee returned to Europe to witness the lives behind the Iron Curtain before its anticipated changes. The story captures her own stereotypes of the young Eastern European (Serbian) men with whom she ended up sharing the train compartment transiting from Istanbul to Belgrade. When she discovered that her train companions hid something from the customs officers, she thought they were smuggling drugs and panicked. It turned out that they were “smuggling” something, but it was Heinz ketchup in bulk quantity, which couldn’t be obtained in Belgrade. The ketchup was important for the restaurant business that one of the young men’s father ran. The readers are left with a strong impression of the first encounter between the ordinary “Westerner” and “Eastener” immediately after the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
The next chapter fast-forwards to 1998, almost a decade later, when Ghodsee returns to Bulgaria as a graduate student. She introduces the life histories of two Bulgarian men who are children of former communist elites and who were young adults at the time when the democratic changes occurred. In post-socialist literature, they are often characterized as the generation who benefited from both the old and new systems: they received the free and quality education under communism which they utilized with the flexibility and adaptability of young educated people in challenging times. Yet even among their company, who seemingly benefited from the transition with good jobs...