Posts Tagged ‘Stalin’

Yuri Slezkine: The House of Government

May 30, 2020

    A1agjFDAp9L._AC_UY218_Russians often go in for doorstops, in terms of book length, and this is no exception: almost a thousand pages, and not easy going, but very thought-provoking. The House of Government was the name of a specially-constructed block of apartments for the Bolshevik elite after the October Revolution, and Slezkine uses the building, its construction and its inhabitants for an unusual and sometimes enlightening take on the Communist era. He begins well before the Revolution and takes us almost up to the present day.

There are real insights into pre-Revolutionary consciousness and how this developed, explored through extracts from the memoirs of many key persons, and we see genuine fervour, commitment and idealism in those men and women; we probably think now, with benefit of hindsight that they were young and naive, but the atmosphere of the end days of Tsarism shines through in an extraordinary way, and our very hindsight at the same time possibly prevents us fully comprehending those times… There was very real belief in the possibility of constructing a better society.

Where Slezkine is original – at least to this reader – is in the way he explores Marxism and Bolshevism as religious faiths: his third chapter at great length, and in a most enlightening manner, firstly analyses the origins and development of various religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, and then considers the revolutionaries’ beliefs and behaviours in the light of this template, finding many similarities. It’s a convincing parallel, and one that for me cast a different light on subsequent Russian (and world) history.

The enthusiasm, and the Revolution itself, were in many ways the easy part; the difficulty came, as always, with what to construct to replace the old, and how to do it well. From the outset the peasantry was the problem, and the Bolsheviks were happy to apply violence and repression from the start in pursuit of their goals… so in many ways it was downhill from there on. Anarchy and civil war did not help anyone; this is not an excuse for, but perhaps an explanation of the Red Terror which was institutionalised so quickly.

Slezkine also makes clear just how quickly there were made available serious privileges for an elite, the rulers and managers of the new world, justified by the immensity of the tasks they had committed themselves to undertaking. In a supposed world of equality, a large group emerged with a sense of their own specialness, importance and entitlements. I am reminded here of how a Polish friend clarified things for me once; he is a historian and grew up under the old, socialist regime. His point was that a different group of people (the Bolsheviks) worked out how to seize the power, control and privileges that the previous group (capitalists, landowners, aristocrats) had enjoyed, and arrogated all of those to themselves. And the revolutionary talk of a new society had been the method by with they had done this… an understandable if cynical view, maybe, but one that I found enlightening at the time and since. Was that avoidable?

There was much experimentation in the early years, trying out new ways of being, doing things, including relationships, marriage and child-rearing, but against the background of privileges for the elite.

One of the things I also found myself re-evaluating as I read was the comparisons and parallels that are often proposed, between Stalinism and Nazism, often as gross and deliberate oversimplifications of an issue that nevertheless merits serious consideration. To me, the Nazi approach has always seemed to be a more trenchant and clearcut one: certain clearly identifiable races, nationalities or groups were subhuman and to be discounted and eventually eliminated. Bolsheviks (or Stalinists, or whatever you choose to call the rulers of the Soviet Union) seem to have stumbled into similar behaviour in a rather more careless and disorganised way. Nevertheless, although this is impression I was forming, I admit that I am not enough of a historian to weigh evidence and make judgements.

Internal party squabbles, especially after the death of Lenin, and then the consolidation of Stalin’s power, were the next major developments; evolving and consolidating the ‘party line’ seems to have dissipated much otherwise useful energy; again, I felt that the Nazis, as totalitarians also, were much more united and single-minded in their approach. In the Soviet Union, those who ‘lost’ the arguments were then forced into increasingly impossible intellectual gymnastics that gradually came to imply the necessity of their physical elimination…

The purges and the show trials of the 1930s were the height of the collective insanity, leading to the executions of hundreds of thousands on utterly spurious grounds, which was to leave the country seriously underprepared to face the eventual confrontation with Germany, in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5. The trials were pointless attempts at pseudo-legality, implying that there was a ‘rule of law’; again, the Nazis were more brazen and merely eliminated anyone who got in the way, without any fuss. Reading accounts of the trials, and the chilling coldness of the mass executions reminded me of accounts of similar atrocities in Nazi concentration camps, as well as of how all this was brought to life so effectively in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, which dealt especially with the show trial and execution of Bukharin.

If you are interested in the parallels between what the Russians and Germans did, and indeed how they collaborated in evil at various points, then I recommend to you the writings of American historian Timothy Snyder.

It’s a long book, and there’s more. You get a clear picture of the original dreams, as well as how things went wrong. Here was an entire social class that had never held power, suddenly seizing it and having the chance to carry out all sorts of experiments, with all kinds of lofty and often laudable aims, but because they had no experience, how were they suddenly to manage and to perfect their newly-acquired world? Again, the Nazis used those who had been running things before and who were mostly willing to collaborate with their plans; the Soviets eliminated or would not trust such people.

After the purges, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the next generation remained loyal to the regime and idealistic, making enormous sacrifices in their drive to defeat Nazism; the state apparatus switched from inward-looking paranoia and purges to defence of the revolution and the Soviet state…

It’s a very powerful and difficult book, and you need a good deal of background knowledge in order to make sense of it. The perspective is interesting, the broad sweep of Soviet history invaluable, and the questions it raises are worthy of serious reflection by any who would seek in some way to build a better world: how to learn from others’ past mistakes. I’m glad I read it, but it was too long and perhaps ought to have been edited; I can’t see ever having the time to come back to it. Reading the history through the memoirs of the history-makers was fascinating, though…

Andrei Amalrik: Involuntary Journey to Siberia

February 21, 2017

51wdlkz8lil-_ac_us218_I’m revisiting this book which I last read nearly 25 years ago: it’s astonishing what a curiosity it now seems. I’m still interested in books about life in the Soviet Union, and still can’t make up my mind about the whole experiment, which so many younger people now know almost nothing about; increasingly history is written by ‘the victors’ and a balanced approach to more than seventy years of Russian history eludes us. I’m no apologist for Stalin and his crimes, the gulag or anything else; I am conscious that in the beginning it was an experiment in different ways of organising society politically and economically, and that there may be things we should learn from it…

Amalrik was a minor thorn in the side of the authorities in the sixties and seventies and was eventually driven into exile. His book recounts his prosecution as a ‘parasite’ and year of exile to the Tomsk region of Siberia as punishment for this offence.

The investigation, prosecution, trial, sentence and appeal are very interesting. In the West we are used to living in a rechtstaat, that is a country governed by the rule of law, with clear procedures, and accountability; certainly in Stalin’s time no such governance obtained, but in the era of Khrushchev and Brezhnev there seems to have been some attempt, however imperfect, to do things by the book. By our standards everything seems rigged, with decisions being taken behind the scenes, and until we look at some of the corruptions and miscarriages of justice in various Western nations, no doubt we feel self-righteously superior to the Soviets.

What is particularly interesting is the calm and dispassionate way Amalrik writes, observing closely and recording in depth his experiences and those of others involved in his case, the decency of some and the vindictiveness of others. He avoids the polemics and the rantings of Solzhenitsyn, and we learn something of how ‘justice’ worked in those days and times. When he reaches his place of exile and must work on a collective farm, his account of conditions and inefficiency leave us in no doubt that the country was in a pretty grim state. Again he is clear, calm and balanced; alcohol abuse is a major issue wherever he goes, and the system does not give the people a real stake in their work, so everything is badly done, botched because there is no incentive to do anything differently.

Broader political analysis offered by other writers – Noam Chomsky in particular – makes it clear that the US did everything it could to cripple the Soviets’ economic prospects through the arms race, and ultimately succeeded. Monitoring of the news from the US and the UK and other countries shows us a system just as flawed, just as cruel to some, and just as inefficient in different ways, except that it’s now the only system, and we have ‘freedom’, so that’s OK…

Accounts like Amalrik’s, and those of others from those places and times, as well as fiction from that era, are important as records and reminders of how things went so awfully wrong, but also of the idealism that was originally behind the experiment. Our own experience must be evidence that we haven’t got everything right, either.

Svetlana Alexievich: Second-hand Time

January 1, 2017

31-sknsa7il-_ac_us200_I really don’t know where to start with this book: it’s probably the most harrowing thing I’ve ever read, and will go around in my head for ages. I’m not really sure it’s anything a Westerner can fully comprehend…

Some context first: Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She’s written about Soviet veterans from Afghanistan, the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, and, in this, her latest book, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She’s not a novelist or a poet: she gets ordinary people to speak, and presents the reader with their words. Hardly the stuff a Nobel laureate is made of, I found myself thinking, but then, she actually does the same as any other writer: she selects, orders and presents; only most of the words aren’t hers. Only twenty-five years have passed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and already a serious amount of annotation is needed for the reader to begin to understand much of what is said.

In one way, the book stands as a tribute to those who really believed in their ideals and strove against the odds to bring them to fruition; their memory deserves to survive. Not everyone who lived in Soviet times repudiates those times, though we are often led to believe they do. We hear from real Russians: they are given voices and allowed to speak; they deserve a hearing and respect. They speak of comradeship, of common efforts, of how they defeated fascism, of how they built a great and powerful nation in far less time than any western land.

Some recount the almost unbelievably bloody past of Stalin’s era; some are proud of their part in it (!): I reminded myself of every nation’s bloody past – the British Empire, the United States’ treatment of the original inhabitants of that land, their treatment of non-whites… fill in the blanks for yourselves. Some recount the horrors of ethnic conflict once the Soviet umbrella disappeared, and it’s incredibly scary how quickly and easily everything erupted and how savage it became. Many are appalled at the savagery of the dog-eat-dog capitalism that was released with the advent of the market, how they were deceived, deluded and robbed. And, as well as the voices of the losers, we hear from some of those who came out on top.

It’s when I try to make sense of the book at a deeper level that I’m utterly thrown: was it Lenin, Stalin, communism that allowed such misery and such horrors to be perpetrated? Were all those people who thought they were slowly and painfully building a better future utterly deluded fools? In the end, is all human existence a bitter struggle for who gets to the top of the pile and sh*ts on everyone else? If so, we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive.

I can’t accept such a simplistic analysis, in the end. Mistaken struggles for a better world are still attempts to make something better, and the genuineness of the wishes and beliefs of many ordinary Russians shines through. And Russia has not been blessed with an easy history, has not followed the same tracks as the ‘democratic’ West. Capitalism was determined to bury the Soviet experiment, and did so through the arms race; it cost the West a fortune but it cost the Soviets everything. And when the Union collapsed, the West supported the sharks in the sidelines. Most importantly, the example, the alternative, though dreadfully flawed other way of looking at things was abolished, no longer an danger, no longer able to support other experiments around the world: ‘There is no alternative’.

I have to emphasise, this is my current take on a monumental book. I think anyone who wishes to express an opinion on those times should read it.

Children of the Arbat: Anatoly Rybakov

March 22, 2013

31F2JGC8WTL._AA160_This novel – first of a trilogy – was a sensation when it was first published in the early days of glasnost and perestroika. But then it was overtaken by events – the end of the Soviet Union – and it took five years before the second volume was translated, and the third appeared a few years later, but only in the USA, as far as I’m aware.

I had never read the third volume, so there was an excuse to revisit all three. Rybakov paints a detailed, convincing and frightening picture of the gradual unfolding of the Stalinist purges and show trials of the nineteen-thirties, against a backdrop of the youthful enthusiasm of its main characters for the construction of a new and better society, which was warped and destroyed by the tyrant.

This enthusiasm is genuine and reminds us that there are other ways of building our world, that socialism has never really had a fair trial, and to beware of leaders. There may be a touching naivete – with hindsight – about the students and Komsomol members – but they want their world to be different and are committed.  And not all the older people are cynics and manipulators.

Children of the Arbat begins in 1934 with the hero in trouble and eventually exiled as the atmosphere of the times becomes ever more paranoid and menacing; he is probably saved by being sent to the depths of Siberia. In Fear, the second volume, the real madness of the times is brilliantly developed as Rybakov dares to create a convincing picture of Stalin through internal monologues; we see the increasingly twisted mind plot the destruction of rivals, potential rivals and anyone who has crossed him; we see the evil that is the NKVD grow in power and eventually consume its own, and we also see how Stalin is weakening his own country in the face of the growing Nazi threat, by destroying his best military talent.

In Dust and Ashes, Stalin struggles to face the Nazi double-cross, and the nation pulls together in the face of evil. The story of our hero works towards an inevitable tragic conclusion, and I was interested that a critic had referred to it as a Soviet Romeo and Juliet.

The trilogy is as long as War and Peace, and just as gripping in its own way. It’s a creation of its times which deserves to survive as more generations grow who never knew the Soviet Union, Stalin and the Cold War and only come across them now as headings in a history textbook. It’s ambitious and convincing in its sweep, and makes an effective contrast with the much narrower and more concentrated focus of Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

One of the tests of ‘good’ literature’ is whether it survives to be read by subsequent generations, and picking out those texts which will endure is not easy. At some point in the future, theses will be written on the creature that was Soviet Literature. The dross that was soviet realist hackwork will be forgotten, but the works produced by those times, which had to wait to be published, or be published abroad, deserve to be preserved for the future, to remind us about both dreams and tyrants.

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