Monday, October 24, 2011

The Collapse of Western Communism

"Such people, such terrible people," she sobbed. "And that is the material out of which we must make the Revolution."

"There's good and there's bad in Revolution as in everything. The question is who will come out on top when the Revolution settles down, the honest people or the beasts..."

"Poverty, it appeared, was a most inappropriate godmother to a new world." From I Choose Freedom.

"If you believe, there is a god; If you don't, there isn't." Maxim Gorky from The Lower Depths.

I believe that a strong Israel is the best guarantee that peace will someday be possible in the Middle East. If Israel weakens, or is undermined in any serious way, what incentive will its neighbors have to someday end tensions and make a lasting peace with the Jewish people?

Ever since I was politically conscious, I have had a sympathetic view of the nation of Israel. My sympathy for Israel is predicated on the bellicosity of its neighbors but also on the history of the Jewish people, who have suffered frequently and grievously at the hands of non-Jewish Europeans. The holocaust was of course the ultimate expression of Europe's extraordinary capacity to inflict harm on a minority religion. But Russian history, including its tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet iterations, has witnessed countless episodes of egregiously bloody or vicious Anti-semitism.

Of course, my sympathy for Israel doesn't preclude sympathy for the Palestinian people. If European anti-Semitism made Israel necessary, local Arabs--not Europeans--were the ones who were forced to cede territory to the Zionist project, however legitimate that project was. So, although I continue to believe that a strong, secure Israel is a prerequisite for peace in the Middle East, I understand that the Palestinians have strong, legitimate claims against the Israeli state. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are entitled to civil rights, free economic development, and self-governance.

As the tide of world opinion continues to turn against Israel, I wonder about my support for Israel. Will history make my support for Israel seem ill-considered, ridiculous, or even immoral? Will Israel's sins in the West Bank and Gaza, sins related to colonization and police-state regulation, outweigh the sins of the terrorists and belligerent enemy states who oppose her? I continue to support Israel, but nervously, sometimes even guiltily.

By analogy, I think about how liberals and progressives in the 1940s and 1950s continued to support or excuse Soviet Communism in the face of overwhelming evidence of Stalin's brutality. Why were so many Western intellectuals sympathetic to the U.S.S.R. long after it became clear that the world's first socialist state was guilty of man-made famine, bloody purges, the gulag system, and a Nazi-Soviet diplomatic alliance? The answer, I think, is complex and multifaceted, but Western intellectuals generally believed that socialism was the best antidote to a wide variety of evils, including colonialism, militarism, unregulated capitalism, and fascism. They weren't always blind to the evils of Stalinism, but they assumed that the world's first workers' state needed to be protected against its enemies, its flaws overlooked. As the British journalist and Soviet sympathizer Walter Duranty famously said, "you must break a few eggs to make an omelet."

Opposing the sentiments of men like Walter Duranty were a small number of highly influential anti-Communist writers, many recent apostates from the quasi-religious socialist faith. John V. Fleming's beautifully written and exhaustively researched book describes four of the most important books in the under-appreciated canon of Western anti-communism. These books, which include Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Richard Krebs' Out of the Night, Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom, and of course Whitaker Chambers' Witness, help to explain how and why American and even French sympathy for the Soviet Union and its philosophical creed began to wane.

Koestler's book argued that Bolshevism was so inherently anti-humanistic that many of its chief theoreticians rated the Party as inherently more important than self-interest or indeed truth. An anti-Stalinist might be innocent of a specific criminal action against the state, but if he opposed the will of the Party, he was guilty of the larger crime of resisting human progress and the general course of history. In fact, even a loyal Bolshevik might be called upon to sacrifice himself for some broader Party goal, even if that goal was dimly comprehended.

Kravchenko's book, I Choose Freedom, was the autobiography of a Soviet official who defected from the Soviet Union while working as a trade official in Washington, D.C. The Ukrainian Kravchenko had lived through the entire Soviet experience and witnessed the worst aspects of the Soviet dictatorship first hand. His book is an indictment of Bolshevik politics as well as economics, and discusses collectivization, man-made famine, show trials and purges, economic inefficiency and chaos, ruthless Party discipline, and the overall transformation of Communist hope into dark Communist cynicism and despair. Amazingly, Kravchenko was forced to defend the very idea that Soviet Russia maintained prion labor camps in a French libel court. His victory in court--reinforced by a grudging $1 dollar fine to the Leftist French journal that attacked him--did at least give Gulag survivors the chance to testify about their experiences in open court.

The other two books in Fleming's wonderful book are Krebs' Out of the Night, which is an outrageously exciting if slightly fictionalized account of Communist as well as Nazi activities in the interwar years. Krebs' international adventures in communism revealed a highly unsympathetic and decidedly undemocratic German Communist Party, German Communist Party, and Comitern.

Fleming's greatest praise is reserved for Whitaker Chambers conversion narrative. Chambers, the famously controversial accuser of the allegedly communist state department official, Alger Hiss, was a disheveled, overweight, secretly bisexual, former communist spy. But he was also a brilliant and deeply learned writer. It seems hard to credit, but Fleming, a Princeton scholar of medieval literature, claims that Chambers' indictment of communism is a literary triumph on par with the greatest memoirs of all times, including St. Augustine's Confessions. I have yet to read Chambers' Witness to judge whether this is hyperbole or not. But it's certainly hard to understand how anybody connected with Richard Nixon might warrant a comparison with a Church father.

In the end, all of these books are worth reading, if only to remind us that there was a time when ordinary American and European intellectuals had to be convinced that Russian Communism was a positive menace to the most elementary forms of Western freedom. One wonders what, in our own time, is analogous to the war against communism.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Varieties of Communist Experience

"Look! A beautiful bourgeois apartment filled with ugly things produced during Communism."

Slavenka Drakulic's exploration of Eastern European communism, entitled A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, A Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, & a Raven, examines the varieties of post-war Communism through the lens of fiction. Although Draukulic's analysis of Eastern European Communism isn't strikingly original, her fictive device of using animals to narrate important facets of each country's unique national experiences is highly original.

From the mouse, the readers gets a tour of the Czech Museum of Communism. The mouse jokingly suggests that the museum ought to display household items such as diapers, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper, since these things were often extraordinarily difficult to locate in Communist countries. The Parrot, a personal pet of the Yugoslavian dictator, Tito, tells the readers something about Tito's international celebrity and charisma. According to the pet, Tito possessed thirty-two residences and put thousands of his citizens into political prisons, and yet still deserves some recognition for founding the global nonaligned movement and steering his country away from unmitigated Stalinism.

The bear, part of a Roma circus act, is Bulgarian, and tells about more about Bulgaria's first secretary of its Communist Party, Todor Zhivkov. On the whole, Zhivkov's thirty-three year rule was a period of economic stagnation. The dictator was wise enough to allow his charismatic daughter, Lyudmila, to disguise this impoverishment of material conditions with bread and circuses.

In many ways Lydumila reminds one of Imelda Marcos. Like Imelda, Lydumila held many official governmental posts. Like Imelda, Lydumila strongly believed that symbolic and even spiritual remedies could serve as effective antidotes to poverty. If you view a recent documentary about Imelda Marcos, you see that her thousand-plus pairs of shoes were not exactly spontaneous purchases. Instead, Marcos has created a full ideological defense of aestheticism. Believing that the last thing her miserable people needed was a reflection of their poverty, Imelda Marcos went out of her way to project an image of beauty. On a personal level, Marcos always made a concerted effort to live up to her reputation for glamour. And at the level of state policy, Marcos tried to create large public projects related to culture that could deflect the public from focusing--too narrowly in her view--on bread and butter issues. No matter that one palace of culture actually collapsed, killing more than a few of Filipino citizens, in her haste to impress the world. Lydumila adopted a similar approach to politics with her "national program for aesthetic education." Beauty mixed with nationalism could surely prevent the counter-revolution.

Drakulic's other animals have similar tales to tell. The cat describes Poland's difficult path to freedom, and subsequent attempts to come to terms with a legacy of collaboration in the face of Soviet intimidation. The mole points to the absurdity of the Berlin Wall, which humans, strange organisms that they are, often tried to surmount or breech by way of air balloon, tunnel, secret car compartment, or other ingenious devices. The escapes, or attempted escapes, continued right up until the wall came down in 1989. Before that, East Germany employed some 189,000 "informal employees" to ensure the regime's continued existence in the face of its unpopularity and economic backwardness.

The pig discussed Hungary's "goulash" Communism, which was essentially a reversal of traditional Communism ideology. Whereas the Bolsheviks always claimed that "whoever was not with us, was against us," the Hungarian dictator rather generously decided that "whoever is not against us, is with us." In these circumstances, the Hungarian Communist Party could overlook individual opinion and indeed private enterprise, just so long as the state's monopoly of public power was preserved in tact. The Romanian situation is explained by a dog, one of many thousands who roamed the streets of Bucharest as a result of the dictator's brutal decision to raise the homes of their owners. As the dog explains, having made the decision to treat his citizens like dogs, Ceausescu and his wife couldn't quite stomach the idea of inflaming domestic or foreign opinion by killing off this enormous and quite rapid dog population. Such was the absurdity of Romanian Communism, which of course ended with the savage death of the married tyrants.

The book concludes the story of a raven in tiny Albania. The raven witnesses the murder of one of Albania's leading politicians at the hands of his more powerful rival, the first secretary of the Communist Party. According to Drakulic's bird, the man, who was murdered for no other reason than that his son had decided to marry an Albanian with relatives who lived in the suspect West, left the following note, which might serve as an epitaph for any Eastern European victimized by Communism: "Oh, you ravens devouring me, don't touch my black eyes."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A World of Would-Be Communists

"His was a tragedy of a pure communist in a world of would-be communists."

Chris Marker's documentary, The Last Bolshevik, gives us a window into the creative life of one of the Soviet Union's best early film directors, Alexander Medvedkin's whose adult life corresponds almost exactly with the life of the Soviet state.

According to Marker, Medvedkin was an artist, innovator, atheist, propagandist, Civil War veteran, and, notwithstanding his aesthetic independence, a communist true-believer. Medvedkin is perhaps most famous for his masterpiece, Happiness, which incorporates elements of Russia's long folk tradition to satirize peasant life before and after the Revolution. But his career was filled with aesthetic highlights. For instance, Medvedkin staged the storming of the Winter Palace prior to Eisenstein's famous film, October, attached film cameras to soldiers' rifles, and turned a propaganda train into a miniature film studio. One experimental film sequence seems to incarnate Medvedkin's aesthetic daring: reversing footage of the 1931 demolition of a cathedral in Moscow, the Church of the Christ of the Savior, Medvedkin called attention to the high cost of the Soviet Union's march toward the future, and indeed pointed out that Russia's past might yet be resurrected.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"There were so many surprises..."

"Today's crooks aren't expected to repent."

"Now I think: Did Vermont exist?"

"There were so many surprises...Because we never knew anything."

"There was a tacit agreement--they delivered dialectical materialism lessons, and we acted like sheep."

Alexander Solzhenitsyn possessed remarkable wisdom and moral courage. He wasn't always right, but he got one big thing right: the Soviet Union was a morally bankrupt, blasphemous enterprise from start to finish.

Alexander Sokurov's television documentary, Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, gives us a window onto the soul of this brilliant if opinionated man. In the film, we get a snapshot of Solzhenitsyn's rich but tortured life, including his university education in physics and mathematics, his early dedication to socialist ideals, his brave leadership in the Second World War, his trial for slandering Stalin in personal letters to a friend (they burned his war diaries), his eight years in the gulag and exile in a small town in Kazakhstan, his emergence as a powerful new voice in Russian literature, his subsequent persecution as a dissident writer, his eighteen year exile in Vermont, his second marriage and family of three boys, and his dramatic return to a free Russia.

Sokurov's quiet film treats the grand old man of Russian letters with awe and reverence. Sokurov allowed the camera to languidly follow the Nobel Prize winner as he slowly moved along a nature trail or sat at his desk in silence working. We see two studies, an old-fashioned typewriter, hand-written manuscripts, a green and red pen, bookshelves, and windows that overlook a forest.

In conversation, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates his obsession with the Russian language (he says he learned Russian again, in prison, from a dictionary--from the ground up) God, nature, ethics, repentance, Russian literature, and his bitter past. Some of the film's most powerful moments occur when the writer's memories are stirred by some banal topic and he seems to be transported back in time the Gulag, which never seems far away. Solzhenitsyn wife explains that she and the author receive thousands of letters from former political prisoners, and actually systematically contacted former inmates or their families to offer them financial assistance.

Solzhentisyn's second wife is also interviewed. She describes her husband as a simple, quiet, modest, orderly, grateful, and easy-to-please man, a creature of routine. But what a routine!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Stray Dogs Attacked Me

"Autocracy is a socioeconomic system that exists only to the degree that we are convinced of its inevitability"

"The highest government officials make the very existence of innovation possible only as a result of serendipity."

Alexei Plutser-Sarno's brilliantly original, Notes from Russia, is an semiotic analysis of the collapse of Russian communism. Plutser-Sarno, a lexicographer and folklorist, tells the story of this brutal transition by dissecting the myriad hand-written or printed notes, posters, fliers, and graffiti that covered the walls of Russia's public places in the early 1990s. Although a few of these cris de coeur could be found anywhere in the world, taken in the aggregate, these idiosyncratic messages reveal a troubled, crisis-ridden citizenry trapped half-way between the worst aspects of capitalism and communism. What kind of place was Russia in the early 1990s? Which aspects of Soviet culture survived the political downfall of the Soviet political system, which aspects of capitalism emerged immediately after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., and how did the two elements coexist with one another? Plutser-Sarno's handwritten notes and petty bulletins tell us that everyday life in this period frequently entailed a brutal struggle for survival. The authors of Plutser-Sarno's vast collection of street messages are all conditioned by an assumption that life in Russia was impoverished, unequal, venal, cynical, conspiratorial, bureaucratic, and chaotic. Russia in 1991 was a veritable landscape of despair, replete with runaway inflation, financial scandal, alcoholism, unemployment, ill health, police corruption, prostitution, violence, fraud, and every other form of social malady known to modern society.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the post-Soviet moral economy is that although Russians were actively participating in the marketplace, they seemed to deeply resent capitalism. Consumers resented producers and sellers, but the reverse was also true: store owners had all sorts of nasty things to say to their would-be customers. Post-Soviet Russians were not yet willing to accept the notion that they were obliged to be courteous to others in exchange for currency.

The flip side of the brutality of Russian life in the early 1990s was that many formerly Soviet citizens were desperately naive. I am reminded of the strange sensation I get every time I see a sloppy, hand-written cardboard sign that advertises easy work or a quick real estate sale. I often wonder about the dual naivete of such egregiously unprofessional attempts to make money at someone else's expense. Who exactly deserves my sympathy when I see the uneven lettering on these hastily constructed signs? Is is the potential customer who is apparently so downtrodden that he or she might actually be lured in by such crude overtures? Or is it the would-be flim-flam man who actually pins his own hopes to such transparently unsophisticated ploys?

On hard times:

Peepl! [sic] I hav [sic] a request for you. I just did my term. I was on my way home. Stray dogs attacked me. I'm hungry. Pleez help me out if you can.

I have been informed that the hot water will be cut off for 30 days starting May 6th. Floor Chief.

Attention! The lifts are old and might get stuck. Don't get in with more than four people, because if you get stuck you'll suffocate.

Working breaks from 9:30am to 10:30am, 10:40am to 11:40am, 2:30pm to 3:30pm, and 3:40pm to 4:40pm.

Attention Superintendents of Condominium -- 337! Please write down the apartment numbers where the radiators are not working (no heating): Apt 1, 2, 3, 20, 16, 28, 71, 80, 121, 18, 93, 146, 108... [etc.--the list goes on and on and on].

Looking for a girl with a tent. Will provide canned meat and massage. You should bring hope; sex is not obligatory. Meet me by this message board at 10pm. I look a lot better than I write!

On the marketplace and marketplace values:

In this apartment we don't sell moonshine, buy fish, or know the whereabouts of granny Ann! Now clear off!

Liquidation sale! I am going back to Vietnam for good.

For sale. Ural motorcycle. RUNS. No Wheels.

No vodka sold from 11pm to 8am. And stop cursing and shouting! Don't even ask! We're all in this together.

Announcement. Dear public, so you don't complain, we would like to warn you beforehand that the meatballs are from the day before yesterday. Kitchen Manager.

No entry; Not receiving today; I don't answer questions.

This register only rings up eggs.

Payphone accepts only metro tokens.

If you're still closed tomorrow, you're fucked! I'm not alone. There are many of us. Why fuck do you put up a schedule, if no one's ever there? You should notify people beforehand, like it says in the contract--the one you don't give a shit about. With services like this, we're going to stop giving a shit about you. We can easily put an end to your monopoly. You've been forewarned.

We enforce selective admission. The Management.

To patrons: people wearing tracksuits are not allowed in the bar.

High paying job for slender girls with no problems.

On the Russian culture of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and regulation:

From 10:00pm to 6:00am the life jacket is kept in the chief of lifeguard's office. The key is with the janitor in apt. 43.

If you drown, you're not swimming here again. Ever!

...The minimum temperature of the water for swimming must be 64 degrees Fahrenheit....You must enter the water only on the command of your superior officer and only to the designated must swim in the direction and manner determined by your commanding officer.

On the general lack of civility in civil society:

Information for imbeciles, morons, and other Moscovites: The Rubbish dump is across the street, 500 meters.

Slam this door and you'll need a disability pension.

No toothpaste protects your teeth better than paying for your ride.

Warning! Don't park your cars near the entrance, or you'll pay with a broken windscreen. The Management.

Stop! Warning! Posting notices on these walls of pavilions is forbidden. A fine of 1000 roubles will be enforced and physical force will be used against those who post ads here! The Management.

Please return the ATM bank terminal for a reward. The Management.

Dogs! Don't allow YOUR OWNERS TO EMPTY THEIR BOWELS in the courtyard.

Gentlemen junkies, please do not throw used syringes and other paraphernalia through the letter boxes!

A note to whoever is stealing the light bulb: I'll kick your your teeth out one by one, arsehole!

Warning! It is a sign to kiss holy icons while intoxicated! If you do so, it will incur the wrath of God!

On Russian politics:

I vow to smash the system of bureaucratic and criminal outrages.

On Russian hopes:

Do you want to talk to God? Call 916-70-09.

Jesus is waiting for you.

Magic and sorcery. Cheap.

We offer an easy ride to other worlds....Materializer of Spirits and Distributor of White Elephants, who kills bedbugs with his gaze and collects empty bottles by willpower alone....

From bathroom messages:

Don't flatter yourself--come closer.

Fellow Pharaohs! Please push your pyramids after you!!!

Attention office staff! Please flush the toilet regardless of goals set and results achieved. The Management. If the result have exceeded all expectations, please use the toilet brush. The Janitor.

Guys visit us all the time, so please wipe off your monthly traces of the Red Army.

This place is cursed. Soiling it will cause impotence and incurable diseases of the prostate gland.

Dear customers. If you are not satisfied with the condition of our toilet, push down the handle to summon assistance. The Management.

It is not just immortal to stand on the toilet bowl with your feet (you could use some toilet paper); it is very dangerous! There have been numerous occasions when feet have slippe--and broken, dirty tiles can cut your arse like butter. A gruesome death from lock-jaw is not worth the price of your ignorance.