Dancing Bears (2018): Witold Szabłowski


True stories About Longing for the Old Days

There’s a fascinating premise behind this book by the Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski. Its first half is devoted to the tale of how Bulgaria’s entry into the EU obliged it to forbid the keeping of dancing bears, thereby destroying one of its cherished traditions. Following the ‘rescued’ bears in their new home, Szabłowski looks at how the animals are coping with their new ‘freedom’ and also follows the fate of their former keepers. In the second half of the book, the bears’ clumsy encounter with their new freedom forms the framework for a series of vignettes assembled in various Eastern and Central European countries, whose peoples are still struggling to define their identities and purpose in the aftermath of Communism. Unfortunately the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first part, but the book as a whole offers a glimpse of an unfamiliar world struggling in that gap between death-throes and birth-throes.

The town of Belitsa in southern Bulgaria is home to the Dancing Bears Park, a thirty-acre nature reserve which currently enjoys a 4.5 star rating on Tripadvisor. Szabłowski is intrigued by the story of its resident bears, which were ‘liberated’ from the Roma families who had trained them to perform as dancing bears, a popular tradition once seen across much of Central and Eastern Europe. With Bulgaria’s admission into the EU, however, such treatment of animals had to come under the directives followed by other European countries. The animal charity Four Paws took it upon themselves to rescue and rehome these bears in a park painstakingly arranged to recreate their natural habitat.

There’s just one problem. The bears who were taken to Belitsa didn’t understand their natural habitat. Free roaming among trees and rivers wasn’t natural for them. They were used to living with families, to performing in return for titbits and to having all their basic needs provided for. Once they were carried off to Belitsa, away from the only people they’d ever known, the bears were faced with a conundrum. They were free, but they’d never asked to be free. They were suddenly released from the obligation to perform and from the nose-rings that their keepers used to control them, but they had no idea how to react to their new environment. Szabłowski describes how the bears have to be taught how to be free: how to interact with one another; how to find food; how to hibernate. Freedom, he argues, doesn’t come naturally. In fact, it can be terrifying.

And, using the bears as a basis, Szabłowski goes on to explore how people in former Communist countries have experienced a similar dizzying grant of ‘freedom’. Whether they wanted it or not, people in these countries have been given systems which require a completely different approach from the world in which they grew up. Some have adjusted to a new world of capitalism, seeking to take every opportunity they can and to establish themselves in their country’s new elite. Others are almost paralysed by confusion, resentful at having a Western European system imposed on them which no longer offers the securities they could once depend on. Healthcare, pensions and secure jobs for life are no longer guaranteed in this scary new world. Indeed, the people of Belitsa itself have a complex attitude to their popular bear park. While it brings in the tourists, the community finds it hard to warm to an enterprise where the animals receive the best food, dentistry and financial support – a far cry from what any of the local families can hope to enjoy.

Leaving Belitsa behind, Szabłowski sets off on a journey through other former Communist countries which are trying to adjust to the demands of a new capitalist world. On his way he tries to meet as many people as possible: housewives; illegal second-hand car salesmen greasing the palms of guards at border points; students; and those seeking to find new ways to reinvigorate failing communities. He is always balanced, mixing the optimistic voices of the new with the confused and frustrated voices of the old. On the Ukrainian border he meets Yevheniya Cherniak, a cleaner who works much of the time in Poland and who admires that country’s regeneration since its entry into the EU. On the contrary, she disparages her own countrymen, including her husband, who sit apathetically at home in Ukraine waiting to be cared for, as they were under the old system. Or Szabłowski goes to Cuba, where he finds a country waiting anxiously for a new direction as the days of its cherished Fidel Castro come to an end.

Cuba feels like something of an outlier, because all the other stories take place in Eastern Europe, and I’m not sure it really added anything to Szabłowski’s point (why not then go to China as well?). He returns to more familiar ground, visiting Albania, where enterprising teams demolish the bunkers left over from Soviet occupation and sell the materials for profits. He experiences the simmering resentment between Estonians and Russians in eastern Estonia, where the Soviet era has left two populations divided by language and outlook; he takes a walking tour in Belgrade themed around the life of the war criminal Radovan Karadžić; he visits angry workers in Greece whose lives have been destroyed by economic collapse (‘If I wanted to be a German, I’d dye my hair blond and start getting up at six‘); and he meets the elderly female custodians of the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia, who still grow starry-eyed over their dead hero. Perhaps his most bizarre visit is to his native Poland, where regeneration attempts have focused on the creation of themed villages, including the Hobbit Village at Sierakowo Sławieńskie.

The second half of the book meanders a great deal and there were points when I almost gave up. I couldn’t quite see what Szabłowski was getting at with each section, although the overall message came through loud and clear. It felt occasionally as if he were painting on too large a canvas, which is a shame, because the first half of the book – with its tight focus on the bears, their rehabilitation and his sensitive treatment of their former keepers – works much better. Nevertheless, this opens doors onto a vast realm of experience that I rarely get to understand in my comfortable Western life. Moreover, it emphasises how multivarious Europe really is and the challenges that will face us going forward, as we try to knot these disparate countries – not only politically (which my country has already rejected) but also culturally. But it has resonance beyond our continent, showing exactly why people might be seduced by authoritarian regimes. It seems, as Szabłowski himself says, that ‘Freedom is a terribly complicated business.’

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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