No Man’s Land: The Legacy of Communism

February 25, 2016
No Mans Land

L-r: Oliver Bullough, Peter Pomerantsev & Philip Ó Ceallaigh

By Isabel Gonzalez-Prendergast

On Wednesday 24 February, a panel of experts met to discuss the legacy of war and communism in eastern Europe. A full house convened for the event to mark the release of the latest edition of Granta, No Man’s Land, which focuses on the ground between opposing forces, twenty five years since the fall of communism. 

Themes of amnesia, nostalgia, construction, rebuilding, liberal democracy, end of history, paranoia, and conspiracy theories led the body of the rich discussion.

Oliver Bullough, journalist and author of The Last Man in Russia and Let Our Fame Be Great who has lived and worked extensively in Russia, chaired the event. Joining him were senior fellow at the Legatum institute and author of Nothing is True and Nothing is Possible, Adventures in Modern Russia, Peter Pomerantsev, and Philip Ó Ceallaigh, author of Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day.

The event began with Pomerantsev and Ó Ceallaigh reading excerpts from their Granta pieces – ‘Propagandalands’ and ‘Bucharest, Broken City’ –  and drawing the audience into the landscape that was to be discussed.

Bullough engaged with the theme of truth being an irrelevant concept in eastern Europe. “This idea that the victory belongs to the persuasive… How pervasive is that? How quickly do you doubt everything?”

“Ukraine is a laboratory of contemporary propaganda… The problem that people have is they have too many sources of information… In all the sociology they say ‘we don’t believe anyone anymore,'” Pomerantsev responded. He went on to say that this phenomenon is not unique to Ukraine but is seen across the world – particularly in the United States.

Ó Ceallaigh commented later on the mistrust that was prevalent in Romania during the time of communism. “One of the deepest wounds of the Communist years was the fact that everyone was snitching on everyone else.” He shared that the younger generation are different in that sense.

Bullough then moved the discussion onto the subject of nostalgia, questioning its significance in the contexts of Ukraine and Romania.

“I think nostalgia might be more about not being happy with the present… The phrase that the separatists used, ‘things will be like they always were’; they’re talking about some kind of dreamscape. On the one hand the internet breaks our idea of reality, fragments it, and in this fragmented space people start dreaming of sort of lost nostalgias… But at the same time when you go and pull down a statue of Lenin no-one seems to care,” Pomerantsev responded

“It’s a nostalgia for a fictional past,” added Ó Ceallaigh.

The discussion moved to the notion of conspiracy theories, with Bullough asking: “Is conspiracy theory essentially yearning for a higher power?”

Pomerantsev commented, “Confronted with the chaos of globalisation, the chaos of too many information sources for our little minds to cope with… people revert to conspiracy theories. And that is a reflection of some of the nasty political movements.”  

“Victims of the violence are actually being confused with the perpetrators, which is exactly what you had in the wake of the Paris attacks… The media suddenly flips and you see things completely backwards. It happens over and over again. This is what we need to recognise,” Ó Ceallaigh said.

An audience member asked the panel to comment on how the West could feasibly improve the current situation in Ukraine and Romania.

Ó Ceallaigh responded, “Throw money at it. In a way it’s as simple as that. It’s crude and usually goes wrong at the beginning, because when you throw money at a corrupt society the people there who are going to take advantage are those in power.”