Lost in Transition

Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism

Lost in Transition

Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: 30 photographs Published: September 2011

Author: Kristen Ghodsee

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, European Studies > Eastern Europe and Russia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

Lost in Transition tells of ordinary lives upended by the collapse of communism. Through ethnographic essays and short stories based on her experiences with Eastern Europe between 1989 and 2009, Kristen Ghodsee explains why it is that so many Eastern Europeans are nostalgic for the communist past. Ghodsee uses Bulgaria, the Eastern European nation where she has spent the most time, as a lens for exploring the broader transition from communism to democracy. She locates the growing nostalgia for the communist era in the disastrous, disorienting way that the transition was handled. The privatization process was contested and chaotic. A few well-connected foreigners and a new local class of oligarchs and criminals used the uncertainty of the transition process to take formerly state-owned assets for themselves. Ordinary people inevitably felt that they had been robbed. Many people lost their jobs just as the state social-support system disappeared. Lost in Transition portrays one of the most dramatic upheavals in modern history by describing the ways that it interrupted the rhythms of everyday lives, leaving confusion, frustration, and insecurity in its wake.


“. . . Ghodsee’s book will prove insightful to those investigating the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe, as well as those reflecting on the practice of ethnography itself.” — Veronika Pehe, Slovo

Lost in Transition tells stories about how the lives of ordinary people changed after the fall of the Soviet Union. The author… navigates the task of producing a balanced account of the transition from communism to capitalism with skill…. The continuation of this project will surely enrich the body of literature on the subject.” — Sahar Razavi, International Feminist Journal of Politics

“[A] captivating collection of ethnographic essays and short stories about real people and fictional characters whose daily lives were turned upside down after the collapse of communism. . . . There is nothing careless or self-indulgent about Ghodsee’s writing. Her probing inquisitiveness, together with her astute thoughts and vivid observations, breathe life into each and every character in the book, from ketchup smugglers and flashy mobsters to shrewd entrepreneurs and irate shepherds, and bring the reader closer to everyday life after communism.” — Vasiliki P. Neofotistos, American Ethnologist

“Ghodsee’s stories beautifully demonstrate how nostalgic sentiments do not mean a return to the past but are part of a coping mechanism during hard times. . . . I would highly recommend the book in various classrooms to introduce the intimate experiences of Cold War, communism, and post-communism, as well as to broaden the understanding of modern Europe, and theworld which continues the legacies of the Cold War. Courses on ethnographic methods as well as ethnographies of post-socialism will also find use in these compelling stories and experimental writings.” — Yuson Jung, Anthropological Quarterly

“The[se] stories are short, written in a simple style, that is accessible and easy – as well as a pleasure – to read…. this book has much to offer both students and nonexperts of the region (especially in the US, which clearly is the intended market for this work). But its value goes beyond the concern with postsocialism, as the stories also throw light on one US citizen’s experiences of growing up during the Cold War…. [A] valuable contribution.” — Deema Kaneff, Anthropos

“Without having lived through it first hand, it is hard to grasp the magnitude of the change to daily life in the Eastern Bloc after the collapse of the region's Communist regimes in the late 20th century. Not only was this a time of fundamental system change in the higher echelons of government, it was also a significant juncture in the lives and prospects of ordinary people. And, contrary to Western assumptions about the inherent superiority of democracy, for many the transition has been extremely challenging. In this accessible book, ethnographer Kristen Ghodsee turns her attention to the human costs of the passing of Communism in Bulgaria.” — Hester Vaizey, Times Higher Education

“This book reads quickly and might well appeal to students. It does an excellent job of highlighting both the harsh realities of life under developed socialism and also the pain and disruption caused by the collapse of Communism.” — Emily D. Johnson, Slavic and East European Journal

“These charming essays have an unintended consequence. Not only are they a documentary ethnography of the lives of people caught up in the painful transition from socialism to capitalism. They are also a sort of bildungsroman of a young American discovering another world and shedding stereotypes.” — Maria Todorova, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

“The collapse of the Soviet empire entailed not only the blitzkrieg dissolution of the socialist economies and one-party states of Eastern Europe but also immediate accidental and incidental changes in the everyday lives of its residents. With an ear for the ironic, the sensual, the playful, and the tragic, Kristen Ghodsee tells personal stories from this period of dissolution, which began several decades before the Berlin Wall came down. Drawing from her encounters during many years of research in Bulgaria, she portrays the changing nature of experience in that place during that time. Though understood as impoverished at the time, this socialist experiment reveals, in retrospect, lives filled with adventure, surprising friendships, and an openness to forms of engagement and being that makes the fullness of the free market and democracy in the post–Cold War order of today seem, by comparison, pale and predictable.” — John Borneman, Princeton University


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Price: $25.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kristen Ghodsee is the Director and John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. She is the author of Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria and The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism, and Postsocialism on the Black Sea, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface. Echoes Off the Iron Curtain ix

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction. The Road to Bulgaria, 1983–1990 1

1. Contraband, 1990 21

2. Kaloyan and Hristo, 1998 37

3. Her Lover in Cuba, 1999 47

4. Hair: Ethnographic Fiction 61

5. Shopaholic in Eastern Europe, 1998–2006 83

6. Carpets for Kilims, 1999 93

7. Comrades, 2107 101

8. Petar Hails a Cab: Ethnographic Fiction 107

9. Bassets in the Balkans, 2005 117

10. The Master of Conspiracies, 2005 123

11. An Explosion of Sofia, 2008 131

12. Coffee: Ethnographic Fiction 143

13. Kaloyan in Maine, 2009 151

14. Tito Trivia: Ethnographic Fiction 155

15. Pilgrims from Sofia to Zagreb, 2009 161

Afterword. Lost in Transition, 2010 177

Appendix. Timeline of Twentieth-Century Communism 195

Further Reading 201
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"Tito Trivia," one of the short stories included in Lost in Transition, has won the 2011 Ethnographic Fiction Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology (American Anthropological Association)

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