Book Review: Award-winning journalist Witold Szabłowski collects oral histories of Eastern Europe in Dancing Bears

For hundreds of years, Bulgarian Gypsies trained bears to perform. In the early 2000’s the practice was outlawed following the fall of communism, and the bears, who had only ever known their human family, were released into a reserve. Even now, years later, the bears still stand on their hind legs to dance whenever they see a human.

In Dancing Bears: True Stories about Longing for the Old Days, Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski meets with owners and trainers, workers from the reserve, and other personalities from across Eastern Europe’s former communist states, taking down the stories of people who, like the Bulgarian dancing bears, cannot quite shake the old ways.

It seems, at first, to be a curious mix, the Bulgarian entertainment of dancing bears used as an analogy for the vibrant and violent history of Eastern Europe, but once you get stuck into this engaging, often funny, and sometimes heartbreaking book the comparisons become clear. The first half, focusing on the history of the bears, sets the scene, while the second draws on the first’s lessons and key ideas, to explore the stories Szabłowski collected on his travels.

Like the bears, people across the former Soviet Republic are learning what it means to be free (or, at least, the Western concept of it). Some struggle with the changes, finding that this natural state comes unnaturally to them after knowing another way of life for so long. Others embrace it and learn to adapt. Others still try to help those falling behind, like the wardens of the reserve. An unusual analogy, perhaps, but one that works well in the context of the region, and the beliefs and ideas explored.

Nostalgia sits at the heart of this book, whether for the old days of the dancing bears or the early days of Stalin’s rule. An intensely relatable feeling, despite being triggered by often incredibly different things, it drives the various narratives, and provides an excellent foothold for those of us who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain. A modern history degree is not required for Dancing Bears, and even if your knowledge in that area is lacking, there’s still plenty to unpack as Szabłowski moves from country to country. After all, who doesn’t look wistfully back to a better (and perhaps a little rose tinted) time?

Elegantly pulling together the varied threads, Szabłowski combines personal histories, letting his interviewee do the talking, with a unique storytelling device. As a result, Dancing Bears is both a compelling social history and a stunning example of literary journalism.

Dancing Bears: True Stories About Longing for the Old Days is available now through Text Publishing.