Dancing Bears. True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny
By Witold Szabłowski
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Published by Penguin Books
Publication date: March 2018
Mixing bold journalism with bolder allegories, Mr. Szabłowski teaches us with witty persistence that we must desire freedom rather than simply expect it.
—Timothy Snyder, New York Times bestselling author of On Tyranny
An award-winning journalist’s incisive, humorous, and heartbreaking account of people in formerly Communist countries holding fast to their former lives
For hundreds of years, Bulgarian Gypsies trained bears to dance, welcoming them into their families and taking them on the road to perform. In the early 2000s, with the fall of Communism, they were forced to release the bears into a wildlife refuge. But even today, whenever the bears see a human, they still get up on their hind legs to dance.
In the tradition of Ryszard Kapuściński, award-winning Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski uncovers remarkable stories of people throughout Eastern Europe and in Cuba who, like Bulgaria’s dancing bears, are now free but who seem nostalgic for the time when they were not. His on-the-ground reporting—of smuggling a car into Ukraine, hitchhiking through Kosovo as it declares independence, arguing with Stalin-adoring tour guides at the Stalin Museum, sleeping in London’s Victoria Station alongside a homeless woman from Poland, and giving taxi rides to Cubans fearing for the life of Fidel Castro—provides a fascinating portrait of social and economic upheaval and a lesson in the challenges of freedom and the seductions of authoritarian rule.
Witold Szabłowski is a born storyteller. His reports from the post-Communist world read like fairy-tales with the stench of reality. Absurd, darkly funny, compassionate, his book is a literary jewel.
—Ian Buruma, author of Year Zero and Murder in Amsterdam
Should be required reading for anyone hoping to understand the growing appeal of authoritarian leaders in Eastern Europe today . . . Combining black humor with lyrical prose, Szabłowski brilliantly captures the tragic disorientation of men and women whose lives were bifurcated by the sudden collapse of Communism and ruthless onslaught of neoliberal capitalism. . . . A poignant allegory about the human costs of regime change. —Kristen Ghodsee, author of Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism
A fascinating and wide-ranging book that shows how, across different and diverse species, old habits die slowly, if at all. Humans, like other animals, often don’t know when they’ve gained freedom because conditions of oppression have become the norm and they’re unable to adjust to a newfound lack of restraint. Szabłowski’s clever and metaphorical use of dancing bears to make this point is beautifully done.
—Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado; coauthor of The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Age of Humans
What a gem of a book. . . . So eloquent and original about the psychological transition from regimes.
—Ruth Ben-Ghiat, New York University
A brisk narrative [and] a surprising look at societies grappling with profound change.
Heartrending . . . A sharply drawn account.
Witold Szabłowski is an award-winning Polish journalist. At age twenty-five he became the youngest reporter at the Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza’s weekly supplement, Duży Format, where he covered international stories in countries including Cuba, South Africa, and Iceland. His features on the problem of illegal immigrants flocking to the EU won the European Parliament Journalism Prize; his reportage on the 1943 massacre of Poles in Ukraine won the Polish Press Agency’s Ryszard Kapuściński Award; and his book about Turkey, The Assassin from Apricot City (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Stork Press 2013), won the Beata Pawlak Award and an English PEN award, and was nominated for the Nike Award, Poland’s most prestigious literary prize. Szabłowski lives in Warsaw.