Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by journalist Robert D. Kaplan [first published 1993; republished by First Vintage Departures Editions] is a fascinating account of the Balkan countries’ emergence into the modern era following decades of Soviet style dictatorships. Writing just as the Soviet Union was collapsing and its satellite states were breaking free both of the USSR’s control and their own communist governments, Kaplan traveled through the Balkans surveying the changes that were underway and weaving impressions of previous visits to the same countries as well as historical anecdotes. The Balkan ghosts in this book are the historical events that have shaped the politics and people of the Balkan countries. It is a long history of Ottoman domination, cruelty, and genocide matched by internecine ethnic conflicts, political oppression and corruption, and Byzantine plots.
I picked up this book secondhand at a book sale years ago; I do not remember when. It is a book that took me a long time to read despite being well-written and providing insights into why that region of the world is the way it is. The reason is that I could not read the book in one go. It was too oppressive. After a while the endless stories of pogroms, corrupt leadership, ethnic rivalries, political repression, nights in unheated hotels and unlit cities struggling with food and fuel shortages, becomes repetitive and depressing. It is a story of a land and people literally haunted by their past, of beautiful scenery and culture marred by a brutal history, of a psyche shaped by victimhood and mistrust. It is not the kind of book that one enjoys reading, despite it being well-written. For that reason I was only able to digest it in small bits, reading a few sessions here and there over the course literally of a few years.
This should not be taken as a criticism of the author or the book; the subject matter could not have been handled any better and I was impressed by the author’s ability to understand the roots of Balkan national identity and the regions problems with reference to their troubled history in a way that I think surpasses even the ability of local people to understand themselves.
At its core the book is a sympathetic account of a “population emerging, completely bewildered, into and unsentimental world where efficiency and hard work, rather than notions of past glory and [self-respect], were all that mattered.” [Balkan ghosts, page 280]. Written almost 30 years ago, the economic and social environment that it describes is long gone but given the way in which history continues to weigh on the countries of the Balkans I suspect that the difficult transition from communism to a Western market economy will continue to be yet another ghost added to the many ghosts that haunt this region.
One of the things I found interesting was the author’s thesis that Greece was very much a part of the Balkan milieu and that despite a veneer of westernization, it exhibited all of the same ethnic tensions, propensity to dictatorhip and political corruption as its neighbors.
Verdict: a very useful book for anyone interested in understanding the deep roots that anchor and nourish Balkan societies and why the region is the way it is.