History and Historiography

Making Sense of Red Nostalgia

By Helen Andrews, The American Conservative

Why do so many Eastern Europeans say the fall of Communism hasn’t made their lives better?

Taking Stock of the Shock: Social Consequences of the 1989 Revolutions by Kristen Ghodsee and Mitchell Orenstein (Oxford University Press: 2021), 304 pages.

Professor Kristen Ghodsee of the University of Pennsylvania got herself into trouble in 2017 when she published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” Next to a photo of an apple-cheeked collective farm worker in a demure kerchief, Ghodsee’s op-ed noted that Eastern European women in surveys reported having twice as many orgasms as Western women. The social media response was swift and brutal. “Who cares about not having any food when you can have sex instead,” snarked one tweet. “Better sex? Before or after their husbands were sent to the gulags?” asked another.

That clickbait headline may have deserved derision, but Ghodsee’s work does not. It is ironic that so many of her Twitter critics said, essentially, that if Ghodsee thinks communism was so great she should talk to people who actually lived through it. That is exactly what she does for a living. An ethnographer and Russian and East European Studies professor, Ghodsee has traveled extensively in the former Soviet bloc and interviewed countless ordinary citizens about how they view the old regime and its capitalist successor. Shocking as it may be to American readers, many prefer the former.

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