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'Dancing Bears' Offers A Look Into How Countries Adapted To Life After Communism


The Polish journalist Witold Szablowski tells two stories in his new book "Dancing Bears." The first is a true story about literal bears freed from captivity in Bulgaria after the country outlawed the tradition of dancing bears in 2007. The second story he tells is about people freed from oppressive regimes in former communist countries. In the introduction to this book, Szablowski describes the gradual adjustment to freedom.

WITOLD SZABLOWSKI: (Reading) We have had to learn how free people take care of themselves, of their families, of their futures, how they eat, sleep, make love because under socialism, the state was always poking its nose into its citizens' plates, beds and private lives.

SHAPIRO: When I spoke with the author, he began by telling me about the dancing bears released into a park. Trainers used to lead them around by a ring through the nose.

SZABLOWSKI: The nose is very sensitive for the bears, so it's very easy to move a bear using just his nose and this little ring. It was called holka in Bulgarian. So removing holka was the first step to freedom. So bears were a bit surprised and even shocked, and they were checking their noses with their paws.

SHAPIRO: You say they, like, put their paws over their faces, touching their nose like they couldn't believe it was gone.

SZABLOWSKI: Just, like, they were surprised - totally surprised. But then they were getting more and more used to this situation. And actually that's the moment where the instincts were born because many years, the bears had spent years without any natural instincts. They began hibernating, which was not easy for them. They had never done it before. They began copulating, which was also a first time for all of them. And they began gaining fat. So the first weeks and the months of freedom were usually quite promising.

SHAPIRO: You spend the first half of your book telling the story of these dancing bears, and then it becomes clear that these bears are also a metaphor. What are you really talking about when you're talking about these bears?

SZABLOWSKI: I'm talking about how complicated the freedom is, how painful it might be. They are living in a kind of freedom laboratory where people teach them what freedom is, what freedom means. And when I heard this story for the first time, I realized that actually here in Eastern Europe, in the countries which used to be part of communist world or used to be so-called satellites of Soviet Union, since 1989, we've been living in similar freedom laboratories. And we just try to understand, like the bears in the very first moments, what's going on.

SHAPIRO: In another chapter about Cuba, a man named Alfonso tells you the fact that Communism has failed is obvious, but they can't just introduce capitalism here overnight either. That would be as if someone who hadn't eaten for ages were suddenly given five hamburgers all at once. The stomach can't cope with it. Do you think he's right?

SZABLOWSKI: Yeah. Yes (laughter). Well, you can try eat five hamburgers at once.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SZABLOWSKI: But what we probably miss here in Eastern Europe is that taking the new system - and I mean free market, capitalism - we weren't ready. Like, we were so spontaneous, so happy that communism is over that we probably didn't think too much. We thought that only good things are coming with the new system. So we didn't prepare, like the bears. They don't know how to prepare for worse times.

SHAPIRO: You're saying that freed bears don't prepare for hibernation. They don't eat enough on the fall, and so they get cold and skinny in the winter. And people who are freed from communism are the same way.

SZABLOWSKI: Exactly. And that's what happened in Eastern Europe. Like, we didn't prepare democracy well enough to get through the turbulences we have been facing in the last few years, which - I mean the soft autocratic governments that you can see in many countries in Eastern and Central Europe in the last years.

SHAPIRO: You're describing the governments in Hungary and Poland and some of these other countries as soft autocratic.

SZABLOWSKI: Yes. I would call them soft autocratic. It's not a full autocratic regime yet, but - well, it's very heavy words I'm going to use, but I'm afraid they are on their ways. Like, they have their champions, which is Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and I'm afraid they learned a lot from them.

SHAPIRO: And they feel comfortable with that. That's what feels like home to them.

SZABLOWSKI: I was thinking like, who's dancing bear now in this story? Like, because Vladimir Putin, for me, he's - for many years I thought he's a trainer, the guy who used to have bears, who used to train them, and he doesn't know other life. But now I think about the soft autocrats in our countries or just autocrats like Putin, that actually they are also dancing bears. They just don't know other life. They grew up in a world where you couldn't trust anyone, where you didn't have any democratic institutions, and they just follow.

SHAPIRO: Witold Szablowski, thank you very much for talking with us.

SZABLOWSKI: Thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: His new book is called "Dancing Bears: True Stories Of People Nostalgic For Life Under Tyranny."


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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.