Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for a Life Under Tyranny
An award-winning journalist’s incisive, humorous, and heartbreaking account of people in formerly Communist countries holding fast to their former lives
Finalist for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award
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.
Praise for Dancing Bears
“Utterly original.” —The New York Times Book Review
“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 and The Road to Unfreedom
Utterly original . . . Provokes a far-reaching and unresolved conversation about what freedom might really mean.” —The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
“[A] jewel of a book . . . Szabłowski writes in a simple, vivid style . . . with [a] fine sense of the comic and the absurd. . . . His allegory is humorous, ironic, frequently absurd, and sometimes dark, but always full of understanding and compassion for its subjects, both human and animal. . . . The great strength of his book is its nuanced understanding of the reasons why so many people are nostalgic for the way of life they lost when Soviet communism disappeared. . . . Anxious and confused, they are not used to thinking or working for themselves. They yearn for the old certainties. Perhaps, in the end, human beings are more like bears than we imagine.” —Orlando Figes, The New York Review of Books
“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
“A rattling good read . . . Vivid, skillfully crafted reportage from the wilder corners of the postcommunist world . . . Dancing Bears . . . is never dull. This is Tom Wolfe meets Franz Kafka, or perhaps a Milan Kundera remake of Dances with Wolves.” —Timothy Garton Ash, Foreign Affairs