Paul Richards’ Review of Kristen Ghodsee’s “The Left Side of History”
Improvements in the lives of women and children in a socialist society are at the heart of what Kristen Ghodsee labels as “the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism.” In her book, Ghodsee interviews women who were at the forefront of making these improvements in the lives of women in Bulgaria during the communist era.
It is a fascinating book that takes readers through the years of World War II, the Communist era and then into the post-communist times after “The Change”, which is how people there refer to the 1989 collapse of the communist regime. Not the liberation. Because when communism collapsed in Bulgaria, so did the social services that generations had grown up with. Rosy pictures of Freedom faded quickly as unemployment spread, pensions shrank, and social service disappeared under the rule of a new wealthy elite.
If Alice Richards were still alive today, she would have loved Kristen Ghodsee’s book, The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe. Alice was the prime mover in the making of two films (A Visit to the Soviet Union, Part 1: Women of Russia, and Part 2: Far from Moscow) about the Soviet Union in 1961 that focused on women and children in a socialist society. Alice’s husband, my father, Harvey Richards, was the producer and photographer of those films. At age 17, I traveled with them, carried the camera batteries and got to witness the making of the films.
The Left Side of History tells many fascinating stories about the beginning, middle and end of communism in Eastern Europe. First among them is the story of Frank Thompson, the brother of famed historian E.P. Thompson, who wrote The Making of the English Working Class, one of the best history books ever written. Frank Thompson was killed just days before Soviet troops captured Bulgaria in 1944 while serving as a British soldier fighting against the pro-Nazi Bulgarian government along side Bulgarian partisans, who were mainly communists. Thompson himself was a member of the British Communist Party and a dedicated fighter against fascism. His photo graces the cover of the book.
Another interesting story is Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian who was the first leader of the new communist government that came to power after the Red Army conquered Bulgaria in 1944. Dimitrov gained fame in 1933 when he won an acquittal in a Nazi courtroom where he was accused of setting the Reichstag fire. He later headed the Comintern, the Communist International, and was one of Stalin’s close associates. Dimitrov ruled Bulgaria for three years (1946-1949) before he died suddenly and mysteriously, perhaps a victim of Stalin’s incessant treachery. His body was placed in a mausoleum in Sofia, like Lenin’s in Moscow, where it stayed until 1990 when The Change occurred. He was then cremated and buried in a local cemetery.
But the most fascinating stories in the book are those of the women who lived through these times in Bulgaria. Some of the women are not identified by name, fearing repercussions against them in the post-communist era. Others, like Elena Lagadinova, whose photo is on the book cover also, tell their stories openly. I was glad to learn about the Lagadinova family (Elena and her three brothers) who were partisan leaders during the war and after. Elena’s story includes her work with the Bulgarian Women’s Committee and the new Family Code enacted in 1985. She worked to educate women about this code and how it could be applied to their daily lives. The process included local women’s committees initiating measures they wanted, like child care, family leave, and restroom facilities at work. Then the Bulgarian Women’s Committee would sponsor the measures. She and other women interviewed also recount how these improvements were lost after The Change.
The Left Side of History brings new insights and depth to the message contained in Harvey and Alice Richards’ films about women and children in the USSR in 1961. Ghodsee brings long overdue recognition of the accomplishments of socialist regimes in uplifting and protecting women and children. She grapples with the continued legacy of the Cold War which has blinded many against this information. Her book offers new generations of the 21st-century insights into the world and ideals that motivated so many communist activists during the 20th-century.
Little by little, the world is coming out of the fog of the Cold War. So much of what has been written about communism and the wars that engulfed it has been sifted through the ideological filters of writers trying to condemn it. Such writings merely prolong the hatreds and tragedies of past eras. Kristen Ghodsee’s The Left Side of History tells the story of World War II and its aftermath, focusing on the Bulgarian part of it, with open eyes, giving credit where credit is due. She does not whitewash the crimes of the Nazis or the communists. She portrays the lives of people who accomplished a great deal for Bulgarians and whose legacy needs to be known and given the credit it deserves. She likens communism to Cassandra, the mythical prophet in the Iliad who foretold the future but was not believed and, therefore, ignored. It is a great analogy for understanding the legacy of the socialist experiments that briefly ruled eastern Europe. Read this book if you have any interest in understanding this history and how it is influencing current generations.