Posts Tagged ‘Stalin’

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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