Tony Traub reviews Aftershock – A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams by John Feffer, 573 pp, published by Zed Books, November 2017
The book was written by American journalist and novelist John Feffer. The story starts in 1990 when the author was hired by the Quaker organisation AFSC to establish an office in Eastern Europe. Feffer’s brief was to ask as many people (he could speak some Polish and Russian)and seek advice about what niche its regional office could fill.
Because he was American people were intrigued and were keen to give their views (this was before mass invasion of Western backpackers to region).
Two decades later, he retraced his steps and returned to Eastern Europe to see what people thought about the intervening period. He tried (and in many cases succeeded) interviewing original people. He managed to track down about 80 original people. He deliberately opened himself up to a wider range of society. For example, he met a legendary Charter 77 dissident in the Czech Republic. There were some surprises along the way – for example a Bulgarian activist who ended up working at an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky, U.S.
The book is broken in to 2 major parts. The first part details the disappointments and setbacks in the region, the second details the more positive effects of the last 25 years.
Pessimism was rife in all the countries, definitely a half empty glass region. In the Czech Republic for example he met a Green Party activist in 1990 who was full of hope but has now practically given up.
One must bear in mind that even before the Berlin Wall collapse, there had been a move to liberalism in certain countries, for example Hungary. In the modern era much of the population of these countries became disillusioned, e.g. in 2014 60 per cent of Romania felt life was better under socialism. In Hungary the proportion rose from 40% in 1991 to 54% in 95. The ‘shock therapy’ and austerity which prevailed in much of the region was no doubt responsible for this hardening of attitudes. In addition, there was not a softening in social attitudes towards oppressed groups – for example Romania was very homophobic before the collapse of the old order but progress has been very slow to translate itself into concrete social gains.
A major theme of the book also relates to disillusionment with the EU in general. Eastern Europe is no exception to this trend. In the final chapter the effects of globalisation and the accompanying increase in inequality are analysed. In particular, the author poses the question about the Brexit vote and the Trump victory and what impact this would have on the region. He talks about the growth of ‘illiberal’ social/political movements.
The book is very readable and goes in to a lot of detail. Because the writer is a journalist and novelist he at times maybe expands too much on certain aspects of the changes taking place (the book is over 500 pages). These changes are illustrated with individual case studies (for example he talks to the son of a Czech Communist Party dissident who himself became a leading democracy activist in the Czech spring). Overall though I learnt a lot about the politics and social trends of the region.