For many young people in the West, the Covid-19 pandemic is the first global crisis to disrupt their lives and livelihoods. But in Eastern Europe, where the collapse of communism and its aftermath wrought monumental changes on society, instability and unpredictability lie a little closer to home. This cross-media list combines stories of resilience from artists forged in the face of adversity, in which writers, artists, and filmmakers overcome personal and economic hardships to create masterpieces that still transmit a spirit of strength and resistance in a difficult modern world.
Dubbed a “polyphonic novel”, Secondhand Time by Belarusian Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich is made from tens of interviews with people sharing their view of Soviet life, its fall, and its wild capitalist aftermath.
Re-reading this astounding literary monument to lived Soviet history during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s the observations on enclosed spaces which come to the fore. The omnipresent secret police meant that people shunned the public sphere and kept to their kitchens in order to speak freely: “that’s where perestroika really took place,” says one interviewee.
In a more extreme case, a formerly imprisoned dissident retells: “In a cell intended for five people ... there were 17 of us. You had to learn how to fit your entire life into two square metres. It was especially hard at night [...] We’d stay up talking. In the first few days, we discussed politics, but after that, we only ever talked about love.”
Such descriptions makes readers wonder if this pandemic too could perhaps help us rediscover the people next to us, or the simple act of storytelling — either to pass the time, or as part of a platform for renewed political thinking.
Ultimately, bringing all of these cacophonous voices and experiences together in one book is an act of resilience in and of itself. For both the author and the reader, this landmark novel is a way to make sense of the dramatic changes that defined life in the Soviet and post-Soviet world.
Get a copy of the book here.
A cultural staple in the former Soviet states, this sweetly unassuming animation — based on Sergei Kozlov’s book of the same name — tells the story of a hedgehog and bear cub who meet to drink tea and stare at the starry sky each night. One evening, however, the hedgehog gets lost in the blanket of fog that rolls across the landscape, prompting meetings with a wide-eyed owl and a dream-like white horse. The short video story is both soothingly reassuring, and filled with surprisingly profound reflections about fear, desire, and friendship.
This fast-paced and poetic novel by Faruc Sehic, a Bosnian author and winner of the European Prize for Literature, is a first-person account of life and the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. Rejecting impersonal accounts of the events he himself lived through, the narrator tells his own story of communism and war. “Journalistic polymaths, those experts on everything, say it was a case of force majeure: a tectonic disturbance of history, a white hole within black matter, the collapse of the last utopia of the twentieth century, blah blah blah,” he writes at the start of the novel.
A poet and war veteran, Sehic is caught between the harsh realities of military conflict and the splendour of nature by his native River Una, with waters that “take hold of you” and “make you forget the words you wanted to say”.
But the novel also tells a personal story of losing your love for humanity and finding it again. Ultimately, the antagonistic voices of artist and soldier are reconciled. Or as the story ends: “[People] made a gentle nocturnal rustle full of optimism and hope, characteristic of warm, starry nights. He melted into the crowd, infected with a sudden love for all these people.”
Get a copy here.
This uplifting film is, above all, a tribute to jazz and its unbridled joy against the dark authoritarian undertones of 1950s Poland. We follow Fabian, a jazz trombone player and dancer returning to Poland from London, as he sets up his own swing big band. A love story ensues when he meets jazz singer Modest, whose mysteriously disappearance transforms the plot into a spy-filled thriller. With beautiful sets and costumes, a gripping story. and a fabulous soundtrack, this film is an ode to the fragility of freedom, yet still imbued with an indefatigable sense of hope.
Watch it on Netflix.
With her own life-affirming energy and a taste for experimentation, neo-avantgarde Romanian artist Geta Brătescu used her work to find the golden balance between play and self-discipline.
Born in 1926, Brătescu experimented with different media throughout her life — from film and performance to photography, weaving, and drawing. She spent every single day working in her studio, right until she died at the age of 92 (Brătescu insisted that she wouldn’t go to restaurants and socialise). Like Henri Matisse, once she became less mobile in the last decade of her life, Brătescu dedicated her practise to conceptual colourful collages, which she made in her studio at home. Despite her conceptual rigour, Brătescu said that for her, “art is created at a desk, not in the mind”: an inspiring motto for life under quarantine.
Read more about Geta Brătescu in our profile.
Originally written in German, the book-length poem Threadsuns is typical of Paul Celan’s imaginative linguistic universe, precision of thought, and vivid natural imagery.
As a Romanian Jew born in 1920 Chernivtsi (now in Ukraine), Celan survived the Holocaust but lost his family. After the Second World War, he moved to Bucharest and Vienna before eventually settling in Paris, but continued to write in German. He is now considered one of the most important post-war German language poets. Delicate and concise, Threadsuns has the power to transport readers away from their daily routines without taking a single step.
above the grayblack wastes.
grasps the light-tone: there are still songs to sing beyond
From Breathturn into Timestead: the Collected Later Poetry (Farrar Straus and Giroux). Get your copy here.
Originating in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1972, Russian rock band Akvarium became a symbol of anti-Soviet resistance thanks to their allegorical lyrics, provocative performances, and alternative sounds. Thanks to strict Soviet regulations over rock and roll, Akvarium gave acoustic “apartment concerts”.
This 1988 song remembers the anti-authoritarian resistance and the rewriting of history during glastnost and perestroika. Its lyrics set the scene: “We fought this war for 70 years/ We were taught that life is a fight/ But the intelligence has just reported/ We fought ourselves all this time.” But the song is also a call to political action. “Our train is on fire, there is no place to run [...] it’s time to return this land to itself.” Listen to it when looking for more strength to engage in the national and global efforts to fight our current “invisible enemy”.