Book Review: Maya Nadkarni. Remains of Socialism: Memory and the Futures of the Past in Postsocialist Hungary

The Remains of Socialism:Memory and the Futures of the Past in Postsocialist Hungary is a great contribution toward the understanding of the public memory of communism, and an example of the added challenges present when this examination is rooted in a Western perspective that lacks the Eastern bloc’s direct experience with communism.

By addressing the present and futures of the past, Nadkarni observes the production of memory in its many facets of physical, social, and political locations. “Remains” are conceptualized as “both physical objects and cultural remainders”, and “produced by a modern historical optics that anxiously scans the present for threatening signs of an unwanted past and thus undesired future” (p.5). The book draws comprehensively on various theoretical concepts on memory and provides an extensive list of references on scholarship, especially as it relates to communist and socialist memory, and nostalgia. The author problematizes how Hungarians remember communism and imposes a fragmentation of the past aiming to understand its memory from a Western perspective. By fragmenting the past, I mean dividing the past into periods in a way that is informed by an author’s perspective rather than by the perspective of those who lived and experienced it.

The first chapter is an analysis of public debates surrounding the removal of the communist-era monuments and the creation of the Statue Park Museum that opened in Budapest in 1993. The Park was created as an effort of the country of Hungary and city of Budapest to signify a historical departure from the communist past. It was designed by the architect as an “anti-propaganda park intended to subvert the totalizing mindset that erected the monuments, and… to transform the authoritarian icons into emblems of freedom” (p.39). The analysis includes the debates on the Statue Museum involving political parties, art historians, and local authorities, with groups having varied interests and agendas in the process. The author argues that the park was “forced into being” and the collections of communist statues in one place had a “performative” function as the end of an era (communism), rather than a beginning.  As the park “became susceptible to monumental invisibility” (p.49), as the monuments served to escape the attention of present everyday life.

Proceeding chronologically, chapter two begins in1993 and focuses on discussions about national history and identity taking place in Hungary during preparations and the celebrations of the “Magyar Millennium” of 2000-2001. The “recovering of the 1956 revolution as a symbolic foundation for a new Hungary” (p.53) occupied the major discussions and served as markers to revitalize new national identity and took on the “task of creating new histories” (p.53). These debates also marked a clearer right-left political division on dealing with the communist past, with those leaning right framing the national identity debates as historical justice against communist amnesia, and those to the left as reactionary nationalism.

Chapter three examines the nostalgia of mass and popular culture consumerism in personal and private lives during communism and is a great contribution to nostalgia scholarship, particularly on nostalgia as the refusal of politics. The author concludes that by “maintaining the ideological distinction between warm memories of everyday life and the harsh context that enabled these fond recollections, nostalgia also inherited the impossibility of overcoming the tensions between them” (p.97). The analysis is focused on personal memories of the interactions and perceptions of what meant to be Hungarian and Western, then – during communism – and now – during transition.

Chapter four focuses on the politics surrounding the 2002 opening of the House of Terror Museum to commemorate Hungary’s victims of fascism and communism. The museum is in Budapest in the same building used by fascist and communist governments to torture the persecuted. The author observes the political divisions on the museum addressing the left’s opposition to the museum as “it connected them to the crime” (p.120) and claims from the left that the museum was being built to serve the Fidesz political party (which lost the elections of 2002). The author’s main argument is that by not having a chronological order of terror, the museum links the fascist and communist terror as one, thus legitimizing the communist terror along the same lines as holocaust terror. The same concern continues as the 1956 revolution and Kadar-era are mixed, “blurring the chronology of these events” (p.121).

Chapter five focuses on the discussions of secret police files, particularly those ignited in 2006 with the publication of “Identification of an Agent” by the historian Andras Gervai. In a way, this chapter addresses more closely who the perpetrators and victims of the communist regime were. The concept of inheritance, introduced in chapter three, is used to explain the different levels of relationships people had with the communist regime, especially intellectuals. Particularly the concept of “corrupted inheritance” as a previous involvement with the communist regime is used skillfully to imply the fear of a “polluted future” (p.155). Chapter six focuses on the remains of socialism as an accumulated effect of the transition crisis and remains addressed in the previous chapter. The public’s disappointment in the government and political corruption caused the left-leaning government to lose the elections in 2010 and a right-leaning government to come to power. The chapter brings a pessimistic view that “communism never left” and that “normal” life is nowhere in sight, especially with the right-leaning government persisting in power.

I commend the author for undertaking the analysis of a communist memory, a daunting and complex task that often seems impossible, especially when considered within rich national histories. The analysis covers almost three decades of post-communism, and we can see the shifting of “remains” through this time of transition. The book is a significant contribution to examining memory and its many manifestations in collective and public life.

One of the best chapters of the book is the analysis of nostalgia as a- political. The author manages to distinguish the personal/collective from the political, which is a very difficult task to accomplish, especially in the context of oppressive totalitarian regimes. Also, the concept of inheritance, which is addressed again as “corrupted inheritance” in chapter five, organically and effectively explains the past through the concept of remains.

At the same time, the book is a manifestation of the challenges that come when examining the memory of pasts not lived. Communism for Western scholars is often more of an idea, while in the Eastern bloc, the experience of communism as a totalitarian regime has consequences that continue today. I have a few concerns with the book.

The major weakness of the book is that it tries to understand memory by fragmenting the past. By fragmenting the past, I mean dividing the past into periods in a way that is informed by an author’s perspective rather than by the perspective of those who lived and experienced it. I argue that the past must be taken as a whole. The recent and distant pasts, inter-war, fascism, and communism are organically embedded, in relationship with each other, and interwoven as they are lived and experienced by Hungarian people. The 1956 revolution is embedded in the overall historical memory of Hungary, with its inspiration from the 1848 revolution (16 points), the inter-war period and especially with its oppressed remembrance during communism. The relationship with our collective pasts is complex. We, as collectives, can never have a clear break with the past nor fully represent it, especially when analyzing public discourse (Zelizer, 1995).

Another concern with the book is the presentist approach to memory. By problematizing how Hungarians remember, the author takes a presentist approach to memory, and claims the current crisis of illiberal authoritarianism is an effect of current political development and not as much a consequence of the communist totalitarian past.  In addition, it would have been beneficial if the author included more participants and views of those persecuted by the communist regime.

This is a good book to use in various courses. However, teachers would need additional books to explain what communism was in Hungary and other countries of Eastern Europe, such as The Black Book of Communism (Courtois, 1999) which it is mentioned once in this book. What communism and socialism were like in Hungary is not adequately explained, it becomes available only in snippets.

NINA GJOCI

Howard University

References:

Courtois, Stephane. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. (Cambridge, MA:   Harvard University Press, 1999)

Zelizer, Barbie. “Competing memories,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12, no. 2 (1995): 213-239. doi: 10.1080/15295039509366932