The Left Side of History

World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe

The Left Side of History

Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 57 illustrations Published: February 2015

Author: Kristen Ghodsee

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > European History

In The Left Side of History Kristen Ghodsee tells the stories of partisans fighting behind the lines in Nazi-allied Bulgaria during World War II: British officer Frank Thompson, brother of the great historian E.P. Thompson, and fourteen-year-old Elena Lagadinova, the youngest female member of the armed anti-fascist resistance. But these people were not merely anti-fascist; they were pro-communist, idealists moved by their socialist principles to fight and sometimes die for a cause they believed to be right. Victory brought forty years of communist dictatorship followed by unbridled capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Today in democratic Eastern Europe there is ever-increasing despair, disenchantment with the post-communist present, and growing nostalgia for the communist past. These phenomena are difficult to understand in the West, where “communism” is a dirty word that is quickly equated with Stalin and Soviet labor camps. By starting with the stories of people like Thompson and Lagadinova, Ghodsee provides a more nuanced understanding of how communist ideals could inspire ordinary people to make extraordinary sacrifices.


“Ghodsee turns Thompson’s life and the equally heroic story of three Bulgarian brothers and their 14-year-old sister, who were also part of the resistance, into a gentle, reflective exploration of the idealism that drove them, despite the barbarity that many communists had already glimpsed in Stalin’s Soviet Union.” — Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

"Wonderful.... History looks very different if you fought for national liberation and human progress under the banner of Communism.... To understand ... modern Bulgarians ..., you must enter their world of human self-sacrifice." — Freeman Dyson, New York Times Book Review

“History meets ethnography, all delivered in an absorbing, novelistic style.” — Donny Gluckstein, Socialist Review

The Left Side of History is a stimulating study and a delightful read. It should provoke other fearless ones to collaborate in solving the major mysteries of our time: what was communism really like, and why did it end in an array of countries, but not everywhere?” — Joan Roelofs, Counterpunch

“Through a careful sifting of archival material, interviews and personal recollections, the book aims to be much more than a scholarly text, but a self-reflexive personal interaction between the author and these personal histories of communism that recent pro-capitalist discourses have pushed aside. …[I]f we want to follow the author’s crucial proposition and analyse communism as a shared socially structured experience, and if we wish to focus on the social configurations that rendered political experiences communal, that made Frank Thompson’s intimate choices part of a collective undertaking, such a historical analysis of left-wing communities may prove essential; not least because it might help us in better understanding the dynamics of developing a critical social movement in Eastern Europe today.” — Mihai-Dan Cirjan, European Review of History

“[Ghodsee’s] skills as a seasoned ethnographer and “part-time” Bulgarian resident shine in her astute analysis of the cultural and social circumstances that account for what has become the convoluted and highly controversial history of communism. … The Left Side of History is a remarkable account of Bulgaria’s current history of triumph and despairs, wrapped in the aspirations, hopes, and tragic failures of humans. It is told with astute historical accuracy and striking intimacy concerning the personal stories of Bulgarian communist activists, as well as ordinary people whose lives were indelibly marked by the rise and demise of communism.” — Elza Ibroscheva, H-SAE, H-Net Reviews

"If you think that the study of Communism is boring, you are wrong. Kristen Ghodsee has written an eyeopening and entertaining story of how Communism came to Bulgaria and how the average citizen suffered when socialism was replaced by the free market economy. — Aaron Finestone, Mighty Zed blog

"Kristen Ghodsee tells a tragic and beautiful story. She leaves aside broader political and diplomatic history and concentrates on personal stories. In this way she makes interesting contributions to the existing academic studies regarding the resistance movement in Bulgaria and the period of communist rule." — Vasil Paraskevov, History

"At its heart, The Left Side of History is less an academic investigation and more a mosaic of people and events which can serve to further a much needed conversation about the shifting meanings of communism in contemporary Eastern Europe. It is well suited to be used as an accompaniment to other scholarly works on the region, as a source of inspiration for graduate students and researchers, as well as lay historians, in their quest for new questions to be investigated."
  — Karen Kapusta-Pofahl, Anthropology of East Europe Review

"[A] beautifully written and passionately argued narrative.... The book does not romanticize the Communist regime. Instead, it presents us with biographies of extraordinary individuals who sacrificed a great deal, including their own lives, for ideas that were transformed into policy and practice sometimes at odds with those ideas. It is a call to reengage with the memory and legacies of the Communist regime through a more nuanced framework that allows for both a critical and an appreciative analysis of its accomplishments."
  — Maria Bucur, Nationalities Papers

"The Left Side of History is ... not a typical academic book in so far as it is highly readable, and at times hard to put down."
  — Rachel Applebaum, Social History

"This book benefits from Ghodsee’s creativity and raconteurism. It reads less like a traditional history book and more like a captivating piece of fiction. Ghodsee’s seamless and engaging writing allows the reader to become so invested in each of the people she writes about to the extent that one is moved when any one of them experience misfortune or success. Moreover, this book is a credit to Ghodsee’s career as a social and gender historian as it sheds an important light on the role of women in the communist Eastern Bloc."
  — Matthew Martin, Slovo

"The Left Side of History bears witness to Kristen Ghodsee's intellectual courage, analytic gifts, and profound compassion. She offers portraits of people for whom communism was a living ideology, a belief system that compelled self-sacrifice and nobility, and she does this by looking at their actions rather than criticizing or deconstructing their beliefs." — Elizabeth Frank, author of Louise Bogan: A Portrait

"The marvel of this beautifully written book is to address a complex set of historical questions in intimate and personal terms. It's stunning as ethnography, but also part memoir—an account of Kristen Ghodsee's quest to satisfy her curiosity about the fate of Frank Thompson, a British partisan killed fighting the Nazis in Bulgaria in 1944. The story she ends up telling is much larger: about communism as an aspiration and a political system; about the economic and social impacts of democracy and free markets after 1989; about the preservation and erasure of public memory; about the relationship of individuals to history. It's a small story with vivid characters and a very large resonance. Best of all, it's a gripping and compelling read."
— Joan W. Scott, Institute for Advanced Study


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kristen Ghodsee is Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Bowdoin College and a former Guggenheim Fellow. She is the author of Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Maps and Illustrations ix

Prologue. Communism 2.0? xi

A Note on Transliteration xxi

Part I. The Way We Remember the Past Determines Our Dreams for the Future

 1. The Mysterious Major Frank Thompson 3

2. A Communist by Any Other Name . . . 11

3. "I Simply Want to Fight" 21

4. The Brothers Lagadinov 34

5. A Failed Petition 41

6. Lawrence of Bulgaria? 49

7. Ambushed in Batuliya 57

8. Guerillas in the Mist 63

9. Everyday Life as a Partisan 69

10. Blood of a Poet 84

11. The Head Hunted 90

12. Words of One Brother on the Death of Another 97

Part II. The Remains of the Regime

13. The Retired Partisan 101

14. A Woman's Work Is Never Done 113

15. History Is Written by the Victors 126

16. On Censorship and the Secret Police 134

17. The Politics of Truth 144

18. Cassandra's Curse 151

19. The Red Samaritan 155

20. The Past Is a Foreign Country 165

21. A Moment of Redemption 176

Conclusion. On the Outskirts of Litakovo 187

Acknowledgments 201

Notes 205

Selected Bibliography 219

Index 225
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2015 Honorable Mention for the Heldt Prize for the Best Book in Slavic and East European Women’s Studies from the Association for Women in Slavic Studies (AWSS)

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