Sunday, March 27, 2011
One of the more interesting aspects of communist camp life, as revealed in Paul Thorez's Model Children: Inside the Republic of Red Scarves, is the myriad camp songs that expressed the ideological hopes of the U.S.S.R. for its emerging citizens, the youth who were, according to socialist teachings, perfectly malleable. Here are a few of these songs:
Such joyful laughter
Such flames in the eyes
Down there--it's the changing of the guard
It's the Communist youth, the Young Leninists.
Pioneer, don't waste a minute
Don't leave time on your hands
Don't leave time on your hands
When the sun comes up
Salute it with your Pioneer sign
Salue the sun of the Motherland
It's you that I love above all.
When night falls across the sea,
At Artek it's bed for me.
All over the world,
In Russia, In China, in Hungary,
The sun is shining on everyone.
The winter is over.
Flag of the nation
Flag of the people
Leading the country
On to victory.
Georgian, Estonian, Russian, and Uzbek
We're all one great big family
Him, her, you, and me
On nights like tonight
In the campfire light
We will hear the story
Of our country's glory
And of workers and heroes
Building a new world.
The seagull flaps its wings
Telling us to hurry
Comrades, friends, Pioneers,
Follow me on another journey.
Russians and Chinese are brothers forever,
The people are advancing
Stalin and Mao are at our command.
We believe in the cause of Lenin and Stalin.
In the vast territories of our marvelous land
Tempered in battle and in toil
We have written a song of joy
Of Stalin--of the Guide
Stalin--our glory in battle
Stalin--our youth in song
Victorious ever, a song on our lips,
The people are on the march,
With Stalin at the fore.
Paul Thorez, son of longtime French Community Party leader, Maurice Thorez, has had a long and complex history with the Soviet Union. For Paul Thorez's parents found refuge in the country during the Second World War and maintained close contact with Moscow, the epicenter of global communism, in the post-war world. In fact, Maurice Thorez made frequent political as well as health-related visits to Russia until his death. Not surprisingly, Maurice's sons grew up in the shadow of their father's (and mother's) affection for the motherland of proletarian revolution. Paul's small book, Model Children: Inside the Republic of Red Scarves, examines one concrete manifestation of this affection: his father's decision to send both sons to the U.S.S.R.'s most famous youth camp, Artek, located long the coast of the historic, scenic Crimea.
The pan-Soviet camp, which always admitted fraternal guests from around the socialist world, was a workshop for the production of faithful communists. Camp members exercised, watched thinly veiled propaganda films, learned socialist songs, and deepened their commitment to personal hygiene, collective responsibility, atheism, socialism, Party-loyalty, and pan-Soviet patriotism. Pan-Soviet patriotism was a key dimension of camp life, since the Soviet Union, even in the aftermath of the war, was riven by ethnic and linguistic divisions. At camp, the children were constantly reminded of everything that made the country great, including its vast size, peaceful disposition, military strength, and putative sophistication in the realm of science and technology.
At the time, the children earnestly believed that Russians had invented almost everything, that Lysenko's twisted genetics would revolutionize Russian agriculture, and that the U.S.S.R. was poised to win a third world war, since everybody knew that the First World War had led to the emergence of the first worker-state, and that the Second World War had led to a communist bloc that extended from China to East Germany.
The camp even prepared young people for communist politics. As Paul Thorez describes camp elections, power operated in mysterious ways. Somehow, behind the scenes, a select group of children were nominated for official positions. Somehow, in an aura of mystery, no more than one child actually ended up running for any one office. So, in the end, all elections were unanimous, and the children as a whole believed that they had participated in a genuinely democratic political process, but one that had the merit of expressing the unanimous will of the collective.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Andrei Sinyavsky's brilliant treatise on Soviet culture, Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, reminds us that revolutions are linguistic phenomena as much as they are political ones. It's not surprising then that the Bolshevik victory in 1917 led to linguistic changes in the Russian language that rival those of Peter the Great's momentous reign in the early eighteenth century. What were those changes? As a folklorist, Sinyavsky is well-placed to analyze and categorize these changes. He says that the Revolution unleashed a plethora of new words, expressions, metaphors, phrases, slogans, and literary constructions.
The linguistic revolution had both positive and negative implications. On the one hand, it led to new and sometimes startlingly original literature, as exemplified by the Blok's poetry and Zoshchenko's prose. The vernacular, as connoisseurs of Hip-Hop and Rap music know, is alive, endlessly inventive, and refreshingly spontaneous.
But as the language of the street entered into the central discourse of the Russian political and cultural elite, it had a coarsening effect on public life--"[c]rude words corresponding to the language of the street; sometimes very apt and exact, sometimes word monsters." Moreover, the violence and absurdity of the new language were one of the worst aspects of Bolshevik rule, responsible in part for many of its tangible and therefore sanguinary crimes. As Sinyavasky reminds us, the very term, Soviet Union, makes little sense, or worse, is an Orwellian construction signifying the very impotence of the workers' councils, or soviets, that acted as rubber stamps for the Politburo or Party Leader's decisions and played no part in the formulation of Soviet policy at any point in Soviet history.
As a revolutionary state, the U.S.S.R. came up with neologisms for everything. Old terms associated with the bourgeoisie, church, former military order, or tsardom in general, were no longer acceptable. Ministers became people's commissars and almost everything was given the prefix, Soviet, to differentiate the new from the old. Indeed, the term, "man," was now seen to be inadequate, or redolent of everything that was outdated or wrong in the world. In contrast, the phrase "Soviet man" connoted everything that human beings were striving to become through enlightenment, education, industrialization, and socialism. And what of the simple, hoary term, Russia? It too was seen to be inadequate and was of course replaced with the infinitely more complex term, Russian Federated Socialist Republic or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Over time, the language of the Soviet state became almost nonsensical, filled as it was with strange-sounding acronyms, neologisms, and novel new Bolshevik names for ancient Russian cities. Even ordinary Russians were likely to receive new names. In Sinyavasky's example, the Revolution almost put an end to common Russian names such as "Ivan," which seemed too atavistic to be employed by good, future-oriented Bolshevik parents. Better to name one's child after the heroes of socialism such as Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Engels, or even a symbol of socialist accomplishment such as electrification or the tractor.
Other linguistic trends included the new passion for terms associated with modernity, including mechanization, modernization, industrialization, "chemicalization," and electrification, and the creation of myriad scientific-sounding terms for non-scientific phenomena, such as idealism, materialism, Trotskyism, "deviationism," and so on. Sinyavsky sees the strange expression, "I-don't-give-a-damn-ism" was emblematic of Soviet discourse. The term, like so many others, absurd and illustrates his argument that Soviet citizens began to speak in "word signals" rather than words, since no one, "not even themselves," can explain their meaning.
As Soviet rule wore on, Soviet language ossified, its bureaucratic underpinnings becoming ever more apparent. Khrushchev sees to exemplify its increasingly boorish essence. Although both clever and populist, Khrushchev's verbiage was often violent, crude, and semi-literate. Khrushchev also mixed peasant constructions with an impoverished Marxist, sloganeering, brand of agitprop and officialese.
In the end of course Soviet language became so divorced from reality that it practically signified its opposite. In other words, one could often read state newspapers or listen to public broadcasts and determine that the reverse of whatever was said was in fact true. It seems that Soviet language and Soviet reality had, at long last, veered too far apart to be sustainable.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 cinematic masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, can be read as a metaphor for the individual's tortured plight within the ideologically stifling atmosphere of the world's first socialist society. For the film's protagonist, Rublev--a character perhaps only loosely based on few facts we have about the real-life biography of the fifteenth century icon painter--wrestles with the meaning of art in an age of violence and spiritual crisis. The metaphor was alarming enough to halt its distribution in the Soviet Union after a single Moscow airing, according to Wikipedia. After all, the director had chosen a religious man as the hero of his film in officially atheist Russia. Worse, he had tried to capture the genius of an icon painter, when the Bolsheviks had so viciously attacked icons as a symbol of pre-socialist decadence.
Rublev's film is divided into seven loose episodes, framed by a prologue and an epilogue, but these episodes are only loosely related to one another. As a Harvard film professor tells us in the film's Criterion commentary, Tarkovsky believes the juxtaposition of these seven episodes will make his film complex, more subject to the viewer's own meaningful interpretations. In fact, Rublev is not the protagonist of every episode, and doesn't even appear in some of these at all scenes. For instance, it's not Rublev who invents a flying machine in the film's brilliant opening sequence, it's just a creative man whose innovation is challenged by the obscurantist medieval mob who attack his assistants. The beautiful film, which is black and white save for the brilliant icons that appear in the film's epilogue, is multi-layered but never veers too far away from creativity or religion and the quest for meaning. What's interesting is that Tarkovsky seems to be saying that Rublev's calm, serene religious faces were the perfect if paradoxical artistic response to the medieval cruelty, persecution, and torture depicted throughout the film.
Monday, March 7, 2011
One of the hallmarks of communist regimes, and the Soviet Union in particular, is its egregious disregard for justice, especially with respect to political opponents, schismatics, and dissidents. With this in mind, it's not surprising that so many legal tragedies are featured in the book Great World Trials: The 100 Most Significant Courtroom Battles of All Time, edited by Edward W. Kappman.
Which Russian communist or other communist trials made the list? It should be no surprise that the Moscow purge trials of 1936 to 1938 made the grade. Here, famously, Stalin explained the logic of the Great Terror to the world, inviting about 30 foreign guests and journalists to witness communist justice first-hand. In the first trial, which set the tone for the other two, a number of Old Bolsheviks with impeccable revolutionary credentials waived their "right" to defense attorneys and publicly confessed to coordinating (or in one case merely passively encouraging) a massive conspiracy to assassinate Kirov and Stalin, and overthrow the Soviet state. The other two trials saw the fruits of continued terror, intimidation, torture, and ideological persuasion, and other Soviet leaders publicly confessed that they bore direct responsibility for economic failures, Trotskyite plots, and foreign intrigue. Almost all of the accused were shot almost immediately following the trials, although a few perished in the gulag, as millions of less famous victims of Soviet justice did throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and, to a lesser extent, thereafter.
Other, less famous, trials were equally politicized and unrelated to credible evidence. In Hungary, the editor thought that Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty's trial deserves to be remembered, since this Catholic anti-communist was arrested in 1948, tortured, forced to publicly confess to plotting to overthrow the government, and sentenced to a life in labor, although he was freed during the Hungarian revolt against communism in 1956 and remained at the U.S. legation for fifteen years before agreeing to move to Rome in 1971, where he died fourteen years later.
In Yugoslavia, Milovan Djilas' trial is of course noteworthy. Djilas, the former Yugoslavian Politburo member and one of Tito's closest collaborators World War II, had become increasingly vocal in his opposition to Soviet-style political rule, and was eventually and repeatedly tried and jailed for allegedly slandering his country in the foreign press.
In Cuba, Castro's 1959 revolutionary tribunals followed a similarly disturbing pattern, with Batista's officers receiving little if any legal due process. Indeed, after three officers were convicted and killed in a show trial atmosphere, a court acquitted 44 airmen for alleged "genocide", but Castro personally overturned the verdict and re-tried the men, despite a lack of evidence against them. Soon, Castro had eliminated any pretense to an independent judiciary. However, it should be noted that Batista's 1953 trial of Castro and his fellow rebels, was no model of legal normalcy either, insofar as many of Castro's fellow conspirators had been tortured after they had been captured by the military.
Communist legal philosophy, which privileged political or moral considerations and devalued putatively bourgeois notions of fairness and due process, was put into practice with disastrous results throughout large portions of the world. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was repeatedly tried and punished between 1977 and 1989 for allegedly undermining state interests through his advocacy of civil rights and freedom. And of course China's legal system was, and remains, deeply flawed, although Great World Trials only mentions the Gang of Four Trial, which thrust four notorious Chinese communist leaders into their own show trial in 1980. The verdict, which did not benefit from a legitimate legal process, nevertheless helped China to put an end to the worst aspects of Mao's disastrous political legacy, much as Robespierre's down's fall during the French Revolution, or Beria's arrest and summary execution following the death of Stalin, led to positive political changes notwithstanding the hypocrisy of the judgments. Not that the farcical Tianamen Square trial doesn't also garner a mention in Great World Trials.
In addition to the above-mentioned examples of a profoundly flawed approach to justice, communism has frequently been on trial, directly or indirectly, in many of the West's most famous trials of the twentieth century. Think of the trial of Rosa Luxenburg's murderers in Germany following World War I, the Nazi case against those accused of setting fire to the Reichstag, the Rosenberg trial in the United States, or Victor Kravchenko's case. Kravchenko, the author of a vehemently anti-Stalinist memoir, decided to defend the legitimacy of his opposition to Stalinism by suing a Paris journal, Les Lettres Francais, for defaming him. He won the suit but his libelers, freedom fighters during the era of Nazi occupation of France, emerged unscathed.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
No doubt Girgori Chukhrai's 1959 black and white film, Ballad of a Soldier, found a large audience in the Soviet Union. It's a simple story about a young villager, Alyosha (played by the spectacularly handsome Vladimir Ivashov), who goes off to war, single-handedly destroys two tanks, and wins the honor of returning home to see his mother. Along the way the soldier enjoys the camaraderie of fellow soldiers, sees the devastation of the countryside at the hands of marauding Germans, falls in love with a beautiful young woman, saves some (but not all) homeless train passengers from a German attack, and returns, very briefly, to see his peasant mother before returning to the front where he will die. Ballad of a Soldier reminded Russians of their victory in the Great Patriotic War, but didn't underestimate the costs of the war.
In a nation which had suffered the loss of perhaps twenty million citizens to Hitler's madness, the war could not have been sugarcoated anyhow. People remembered, and always would remember, how much they had suffered at the hands of the enemy. Unusually, the romantic film begins and ends in tragedy. In the opening credits, the soldier's forlorn mother looks out upon the small village road her son had taken to rejoin the struggle against Germany. As the narrator explains, others will honor the sacrifice of this brave soldier, a promising young man who could have become "a builder of socialism," but his mother will feel nothing but grief at the loss of her beloved son. And really, the film highlights the nation's loss on a personal as well as cosmic level. The German invasion has killed the film's protagonist, and decimated the country as a whole. Although civilians work to erect barricades against the German tanks, and soldiers bravely resist tanks without adequate weapons, the country is laid waste in the process. Fields burn, innocent girls die, cities crumble, soldiers lose limbs, and the women are left alone to till the fields in the absence of husbands.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
The plot of the German film, Goodbye Lenin!, revolves around a patriotic East German woman's coma, which takes place in the final days of the Erich Honecker's G.D.R. In a coma, the woman misses her country's dramatic political revolution and transformation into a constituent part of Helmut Kohl's democratic, capitalist version of the German nation. Upon awakening her children, who have seen their mother destroyed by the putative defection of their father to West Germany many years earlier, struggle to protect their mother's fragile health by hiding the changes that overtaken their countrymen.
Just what are those changes? The film invites its viewers to ponder what has actually been gained or lost with the fall of communism. What did communism represent? The son has to think hard about what exactly might tip his invalid mother off about the end of her beloved country. What is first to go? The son, and a rather more reluctant sister, immediately exchange trendy Western fashions for older, shoddier, garments. Did we really used to wear this crap, the girl asks her brother? The children are incredulous, but put on their old clothes. And where exactly did the Che Guevara poster used to hang? And where can we put our new rock albums? The next step is to visit a supermarket to see if they can find any of the old, second-rate food brands their mother will recognize. Does the store still carry the old brand of pickles--Spreewell Pickles to be precise--the son asks? The grocery clerk is appalled: why would we do that when there's been a revolution?
More outlandishly, the son helps to set up fake political news, read monotonously in the style of the old regime. In this apartment, if no where else, communism wins, and events are reversed at the Berlin Wall, which is torn down by exploited Westerners who flood into East Germany in order to seek a better, fairer life. The East German state, now forty years, opens its arms to help its oppressed brethren.
The possibility that socialism might ever defeat capitalism now seems absurd. But how absurd is it? Surely the fact that East Germans publicly shouted in praise of West German currency, or flocked to see West German fast food joints and pornography shops, is not less absurd. What is it about capitalism, after all, that makes its triumph so desirable? Time plays tricks on us. The film reminds us that many ordinary men and women in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe used to imagine the triumph of their civilization, and at least sometimes believed that their governments were on the right side of historical progress. It's easy to forget that there were two sides in the Cold War.
The film has a few surprises. Near the end of the film the mother confesses that her husband did not, in fact, defect without her knowledge. Although her enthusiasm for socialist reform was apparently genuine, she reveals that her husband had been persecuted by the state and had actually asked her to go with him to the West. She feared that even an application to leave the country would lead to the loss of her children, and so she chose to remain in East Germany, devastated by the loss of her husband, but close to her children.
The tragedy of this separated family is emblematic of the tragedy of the nation which was itself bifurcated. What's interesting about the mother's revelation is that the malevolence of the East German State did not necessarily mean that she isn't capable of mourning its absence. This is something we would all do well to remember: we can be deeply nostalgic even about bad personal choices or historical roads that led nowhere.