Monday, May 13, 2013

Everyday Evil

Americans often find themselves working in outlandish moral environments.  Even the typical employer can resemble a Darwinian jungle, a place in which humanism seems incongruous and ethical thinking seems irrelevant to daily life.  In corporate life, power isn’t easily constrained.  Business leaders silence dissent and lay off troublemakers whenever senior leaders feel threatened.  Apart from the fragile safeguards of union membership and employment law, corporate leaders acts as savagely as the markets they navigate.  Marxist theorists always said as much.  Even so, Americans often have access to some sort of ethical discourse.  If they are disempowered at work, they at least exercise the right to participate in civic life by voting, attending church, or joining neighborhood organizations.  The typical American will be terrorized at some point in his or her career, but usually not simultaneously in every segment of his or her life.  Thus it is almost impossible to conceive of the Soviet experience in totalitarian terror, in which the Communist Party and the state intruded into almost every dimension of a Soviet subject’s struggle to make a life.  

What does such surveillance feel like?  How does it work?  We have only to read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir, Hope Against Hope, to understand.  According to the poet’s wife, the Soviet government declared war on the individual, enlisting the active and ongoing support of countless numbers of allies, including bureaucrats, employers, police agents, educators, cultural actors, neighbors, and alleged friends.  The result was victory, at least in the short run.  The individual always lost.  He or she usually surrendered straightaway, but if he or she offered resistance, the result was the same:  destruction. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir is paradoxical of course.  By writing it, she offers some testimony in favor of the long-term violability of individualism, memory, and revisionist history.  But every page of the book makes one feel that odds against the individual are extraordinarily poor.  If the average American sometimes gives up in the face of corporate dishonesty and brutality, how impossible is it to imagine doing battle with the employer when he or she is fully aligned with a unitary government and its myriad agents?  

Below are a few of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s throwaway lines about the unequal contest she wages for decades.  What’s interesting about Hope Against Hope, is the extent to which even this martyr for poetry admits to feeling implicated in the Soviet Union’s ubiquitous system of oppression.  For Nadezhda, the result was this:  that there really was no way to operate “outside” the evil of what Sheila Fitzpatrick called everyday Stalinism. 

“When we met we spoke in whispers, glancing at the walls for fear of eavesdropping neighbors or hidden microphones.”

“And we tried to become adept in Aesopian language.”

“The old Russian proverb that prison or the poorhouse waits for every man has never been more true…”

“It was typical of Elsberg that, after getting his friend S. sent to a concentration camp, he continue to visit S.’s wife and gave her advice.”

“This was the seventeenth year after the creation of our system.”

“Having entered a realm of non-being, I had lost the sense of death.  In the face of doom, even fear disappears.  Fear is a gleam of hope, the will to live, self-assertion.:

“Later I often wondered whether it is right to scream when you are being beaten and trampled underfoot…I decided it is better to scream…Silence is the real crime against humanity.”

“There is a moment of truth when you are overcome by sheer astonishment:  ‘So that’s where I’m living, and the sort of people I’m living with! So this is what they’re capable of!  So this is the world I live in!”

“People are shot everywhere,” the young physicist L. once said to me.  “More so here, you think?  Well, that’s progress.”

“My children love Stalin most of all, and me only second,” Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida Nikolayevna, used to say.” 

“All the murderers, provocateurs and informers had one feature in common: it never occurred to them that their victims might one day rise up again and speak.”

“…life can be far more terrible than death, as we have seen in our times.”

“’How much further must we go?’ and [Arch-priest Avvakum] replies:  ‘Until the very grave, woman.’”

“They are going to behead me, as in Peter’s time.”

“In my long life I have often imagined that we had reached the limit and that things would ‘ease off,’ as I put it.  Nobody likes to part with his illusions.”

“There was in his mind a total contrast between ‘ordinary people’ and the sort he had encountered in the Lubianka.”

“Walking around Cherdyn, he would look for [Akhmatova’s] corpse in the ravines.”

“But does one need to be all that hypersensitive to be broken by this life of ours?”

“When I asked them what she was like, they said she was ‘no worse than anybody else.’  There are indeed circumstances in which it is not possible to display high moral qualities.”

“We all act ‘on instructions,’ and there is no sense in closing our eyes to the fact.”

“Bleeding to death is not the worst way of getting out of this life of ours…”

“Magnificent before the defenseless, they are only good at savaging victims already caught in a trap.”

“’You said to So-and-so that you would rather live in Paris than Moscow.’”

“The interrogator’s first question was ‘Why do you think you were arrested?’”

“Public opinion here has always been conditioned to take the side of the strong against the weak.” 

“Why are we supposed to be brave enough to stand up to all the horrors of the twentieth century prisons and camps?  Are we supposed to sing as we fall into the mass graves?”

“Nothing binds people together more than complicity in the same crime…”

“When they rebuked him for being late, B. would say:  ‘I always fall asleep when I’m in trouble.’”

“Because of this system of ‘interviews,’ people developed two kinds of phobia—some suspected that everybody they met was an informer, others that they might be taken for one.”

“This is how we lived, and this is why we are not the same as other people.”

“…was it my fault for not getting rid of all of the friends and acquaintances, as did most good wives and mothers at that time?”

“…in this country all real poetry is outrageous…”

“In that memorable year I had already come to understand one or two things, but it was still not enough.”

“We have all, from top to bottom of society, learned something, even though we have destroyed our culture in the process and reverted to savagery.”

“…the people who were making history in those days had all the cruelty and inconsistency of the children they were.”

“We were set on our fellow men like dogs, and the whole pack of us licked the hunter’s hand, squealing incomprehensibly.”

“’We must create a type of Russian revolutionary woman,’ said Larisa Reisner…’The French Revolution created its own type. We must do the same.’”

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a fascinating book! It's on my "To Read" list!