Monday, May 24, 2010

Baseball in Moscow

Revolutions are rare events so when they fail, as they most always do, they merit prolonged study. But when they succeed, they create thousands upon thousands of new social facts. This makes the Soviet Union inherently interesting. There is nothing ordinary about any aspect of the Soviet historical experience, whether we touch upon politics, economics, education, women’s history, class relations, philosophy, or the arts. On the other hand, the Soviet Revolution quickly degenerated into abject brutality. And to stand Tolstoy’s famous dictum about families on its head, all happy societies are different, but all really unhappy societies are the same. When a violent dictatorship overcomes any pretence of political or ideological opposition, what is there to differentiate it from any other violent dictatorship?

If Nazi Germany isn’t an exact replica of Soviet Russia, there are pronounced similarities. After all, when a government assumes total authority over the lives of its subjects—when any hint of ideological resistance will likely summon the executioner or, worse still, the torturer—people tend to act in exactly the same way: with fearful, understandable, and nearly total obedience. In some ways, Soviet genocidal authoritarianism tends to shut down historical inquiry. It’s one of the central problems of this blog. Since Stalin’s security forces shot between two to seven million citizens, dispatched many millions more to their almost certain deaths in the gulags, and killed off six million or more peasants via violent grain requisitions, we know that in many ways the average Russian who lived (emphasis on these two words: “who lived”) in the early decades of the Soviet experiment was frequently called upon to do one of two very simple things: suffer in silence or assume the posture if not the role of a psychopath by participating, directly or indirectly, in the murderous logic of Soviet ideology.

If this blogger sometimes forgets to dwell upon the astonishing dimensions of Soviet tyranny, it is largely because this tyranny was so lamentable that is blunts the imagination and resists the very thing that historians do, which is to “make meaning” of the past. At least on one level, there can be no meaning, or little of it, when a mass murderer is a country’s supreme leader and demi-god. Even so, the dead demand testimony. When the Polish President and his colleagues crashed in Katyn forest, where 15,000 Polish officers were murdered on Stalin’s orders, one is tempted to think that the dead may sometimes testify to the nature of crime when the living fail to do the job. At any event, many historians have done an admirable job of explaining how thoroughly immoral the Soviet regime could be.

The book, the Forsaken, is one of the best in this genre. Although it focuses its attention on the thousands of American immigrants who tried to flee the Great Depression by seeking work in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, it manages to document American suffering without losing a sense of the larger Soviet tragedy.
The author is tireless in his exposition of Stalin’s crimes. More originally, the author indicts America’s politicians (especially F.D.R. and Henry Wallace), state department and embassy officially (especially George Kennan), artistic elite (especially Robeson), business leadership (especially Ford), and journalists (especially Walter Durante) for their decisions to systematically ignore the fate of these “forsaken” Americans. In the end, the author makes a very convincing case that broad segments of America’s leading citizens bare directly moral responsibility for failing to come to terms with the evidence in front of them.

Clearly, we knew, or in some cases could easily have known, that the Soviet Union had become a grotesque and sinister parody of the original socialist dream that inspired so many people around the world, Americans included. Nevertheless, the author doesn’t fully acknowledge the validity of the real politick position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. If it was hard enough to get Americans to endorse war with Nazi Germany or Imperialist Japan, how hard would it have been to have been to move Americans toward diplomatic isolation or even war with the Soviet Union? And, even if diplomatic isolation was possible, would this have made sense during the 1930s and early 1940s?

Although it’s hard to come to grips with the fact that the Soviet leadership was evil incarnate, it is perhaps even harder to remember that the most dynamic powers in the world were as just as evil, and perhaps more powerful. After World War II, the nuclear threat and the memory of two world wars added new reasons to find ways of living with Stalin. The author’s riposte would be that he isn’t suggesting that America’s presidents should have courted war with Russia, only that they should have been more vigorous and public about their concern for Americans who had been forced to renounce their American citizenship or sent to the gulag for unspecified reasons and unspecified durations. He has a point.

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