Posts Tagged ‘Stalinism’

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…

Tibor Fischer: Under the Frog

March 13, 2020

51WPGWJEK9L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I’m not sure what made me return to this novel again – the fourth reading in thirty years – but it may have been part of my urge to clear out some books. It was Fischer’s first novel, set in post-war Hungary, in communist times. The author’s roots are Hungarian, so he’s obviously very familiar with places and history.

There was a lengthy phase in my reading, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern Europe’s attempts at socialism, when I read very widely in the literature of that region, in an attempt fully to understand the complexities, bizarreness and suffering of daily life there. Fiction set in those places and times always had a completely different premise from anything written in the West: Brechtian alienation sets in from the first page. You are in a world where freedom of movement is curtailed, there are shortages of all kinds of basic necessities, you need to be careful to whom you talk and what you say to them, and truth is in short supply…

Fischer, born and raised in England and writing in the early ‘90s, did not have to be careful, unlike those who wrote earlier and from behind the Iron Curtain. His characters living in the late 1940s and early 1950s – peak Stalinism – are therefore quite openly mocking of the system and its intentions among themselves. Other writers had to be much more cautious and coded.

It’s a black comedy based around the members of a young men’s basketball team. Nominally they have jobs but aren’t expected to actually work, so their lives centre around beating the system, chasing females, training and playing the game. The attitudes of the characters, and their antics, remind me a good deal of the persona of Danny Smiricky adopted by Josef Skvorecky in a number of his novels: it’s largely about how to be human, and have a decent life and some fun under totalitarianism…

There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the novel, and I’d forgotten just how inventive Eastern European languages are in their obscenities and profanities, and general ability to abuse. If pushed, I’d be clear it’s a boys’ book, especially in terms of how the sexual escapades are viewed and presented, but that’s not the reason I like such novels: it is the local colour, the presentation of life in such a weird and surreal universe that hooks me. Having visited Eastern Europe a number of times in that era, everything rings true.

Although it’s a very funny novel, there are many sad and poignant moments of realisation about the meaning of life and what it presents you with, as well as the choices you have to make. The lightness of the novel disappears as we reach the key year of 1956 and the Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist regime. The action is far darker and more serious, tragic at times, although Fischer still works in that edgy and black Eastern European humour that I’m quite familiar with myself. I thought I’d re-read and part with this novel, but it was far better than I remembered it, and I think it will be staying on my shelves.

August favourites #12: Russian novels

August 12, 2018

41GnrrcFxKL._AC_US218_Russia is a huge country and it has gone in for more than its fair share of huge – as in door-stopper size – novels, a number of which are rightly classics. I could nominate War and Peace, although lately I’ve found myself preferring Anna Kerenina if I’m thinking about Tolstoy. I’ve a soft spot for Crime and Punishment, which was the first Russian ‘classic’ I read, and have frequently returned to. In the twentieth century, it’s the horrors of Stalinism which have preoccupied many writers, and in my younger days I really liked Solzhenitsyn’s work. Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy is not very well known, but is very powerful and convincing, but for me the epic choice has to be Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which I’ve often mentioned in these posts: he wrestles with Stalin and Stalinism, as well as the horrors of the Second World War and the Battle of Stalingrad. It truly is an astonishing novel.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

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.

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