Skip to comments.The lingering stench: airing Stalin’s archives
Posted on 04/03/2009 6:20:25 PM PDT by neverdem
Inside the Stalin Archives by Jonathan Brent.
As he wanders through the streets of St. Petersburg contemplating murder, the hero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment notices “that special Petersburg stench” which seems to be everywhere. Somehow, that stench constitutes the atmosphere in which lethal and repulsive ideas arise.
When Jonathan Brent arrived in Moscow, he detected the same stench. It was 1992, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Brent seized a unique opportunity that, if not for him, would doubtless have been missed. He came to negotiate a deal to publish sensitive and secret documents from the Central Party Archives. But despite the new openness, the old Russian smell, or spirit—the Russian word dukh means both—persisted. Brent noticed “the smell of Moscow—flat, unwashed, sour—an accumulation of fifty years without sunlight or cleansing breeze, as if inhering in the things themselves.” The odor differed from the stink of garbage or stale apartment-building air in New York because it had no specific source. On the contrary, it seemed to be there all on its own, not like the smell of rotting objects in the refrigerator, but, rather, the smell of the refrigerator itself.
Brent describes how he learned to negotiate the bureaucratic obstacles, slovenly work habits, anti-Semitism, and lawlessness that make Russia enduringly Russian as he pursued what has turned out to be the most significant publishing venture of the past fifty years: Yale University Press’s Annals of Communism series. About two dozen volumes already published reveal documents, never seen before in Russia or the West, of the greatest importance in understanding world Communism. Though invented by Lenin in Russia, totalitarian Communism has, after all, ruled nearly twenty countries and about 40 percent of the world’s people at one time or another, and it has inspired true believers almost everywhere, including the United States. The documents show that, if anything, the ideology was more pervasive and dangerous than we thought.
The first volume in the series, The Secret World of American Communism, caused shock waves by demonstrating that the American Communist Party was not a group of home-grown idealists, as so many apologists claimed, but, from the start, conducted espionage and took orders directly from Moscow. Despite decades of leftist mockery and vilification, the basic picture provided by Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley of Alger Hiss and many others was correct. The Comintern, too, was from day one directed by Moscow as a tool of Russian foreign policy.
And despite the desperate strategy of throwing all blame on Stalin so as to excuse Lenin, The Unknown Lenin, which reproduces a selection from some six thousand Lenin documents never before released, reveals bloodthirstiness that surprised even anti-Communists. During a famine, Lenin ordered his followers not to alleviate but to take advantage of mass starvation:
It is precisely now and only now when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy.
“an (and therefore must)”: Leninist and Soviet ideology held not just that the end justifies any means, but also that it was immoral not to use the utmost cruelty if that would help. And it was bound to help in at least one way—intimidating the population. From the beginning, terror was not just an expedient but a defining feature of Soviet Communism. In Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky was simply voicing a Bolshevik truism when he rejected “the bourgeois theory of the sanctity of human life.” In fact, Soviet ethics utterly rejected human rights, universal justice, or even basic human decency, for all concepts that apply to everyone might lead one to show mercy to a class enemy. In Bolshevism, there is no abstract justice, only “proletarian justice,” as defined by the Party.
The series also published the last diary of the Tsaritsa, a volume on the Great Terror, and a documentation of the bloody war on the peasantry. One might imagine that, by now, there would be little of such importance to reveal, or, if there were, that the Putin regime, which has returned to praising Stalin, would call a halt. But the most important volumes are now in preparation: papers from Stalin’s personal archives. Soon to appear is one documenting his rise to power. It will be possible to see how strakh—terror or fear—became the guiding feature of Soviet life. Even Bukharin, the Bolshevik leader whom Stalin executed, wrote from prison that the Purges were a brilliant stroke that would, by creating “everlasting distrust,” allow the regime to achieve “a full guarantee for itself.”
How did Brent manage to get these documents, arrange for their editing and publication, and negotiate with the FSB (formerly the KGB)? After all, signing a contract with the secret police is not exactly like sealing a deal with Wal-Mart. Brent had to learn how things work in Russia, and his book shows us the conditions—moral, personal, and material—that Russians take for granted but which are utterly unlike anything Americans have ever experienced. Describing the author’s growing understanding of Russia, this long essay puts most conventional scholarship to shame.
Brent gradually realized that even though the Soviet Union had disintegrated, the Russian army had become a shadow of itself, and the Russian Orthodox Church had returned to official favor, the very feel of life—that smell of Russia—remained. He had to negotiate contracts in a land where contracts were still not binding. The process taught him
how ostensibly obsolete cultural structures or expectations can replicate themselves in radically changed conditions of daily life, how culture persists longer than ideas and regimes.
If only American economists who presume a culture-free agent calculating his best advantage would grasp the point. Culture matters, and culture, above all, consists of habits we do not even notice because they shape the very possibilities of action, or even thought.
While supposedly living in a market economy, today’s Russians understand making money by stealing, but not by producing. Efficiency remains a foreign concept. One scholar remarked that Russian spirituality allows people to deal with abstractions but leaves them unable to repair an elevator or television. Brent stayed in an apartment where “it seemed as if none of the objects … had ever been new but had come into the world already used and broken.”
Going to one meeting, Brent became perplexed by an elevator showing two second floors—the sequence went 2, 2, 3—and at last found himself in a room still equipped with manual typewriters. He instantly recognized that his host, the head of publications of the Comintern archive, was wearing “a Soviet suit”:
What made such a suit “Soviet” I could never precisely identify, but it was a combination of cheap fabric, washed-out colors, old-fashioned, wide lapels, and a cut that was always slightly too big or too small.
Russia has progressed from totalitarian terror to Mafia-like thuggery, but, except for pockets of obscene wealth, it remains, as Herzen and Dostoevsky had feared, the land of eternal shabbiness.
Even the vulgarity is shabby. My favorite moment occurs when, in pursuit of the correspondence between Stalin and the sycophantic Bulgarian leader Dimitrov, Brent checked into a Bulgarian hotel. The most striking feature in his room, he muses,
was not the paper-thin walls and the paper-thin blanket and the paper-thin mattress, and the sliver of soap in its silky wrapper on the washbasin, but rather that in place of the mint one might have found on one’s pillow in an American hotel, there was a cellophane packet containing a single condom.
Brent worked with Alexander Yakovlev, the key liberal aide to Gorbachev and Yeltsin. In return for an important favor, Yakovlev got Yeltsin to allow him to have Stalin’s private archives published. Yakovlev emphasized a point made by a handful of pre-revolutionary Russian liberals: that what Russia needs most is the concept of law. Without an understanding of legality as opposed to sheer arbitrary power, one of these liberals explained, democracy is impossible. On the right, the Slavophiles rejected law as contrary to the national spirit, and, on the left, radicals saw it as a surreptitious attempt to limit state power. In his copy of Lenin’s works, Stalin underlined his predecessor’s descriptions of the dictatorship of the proletariat:
The dictatorship is power depending directly on force, not bound by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is power won and supported by the force of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, power not bound by any laws.
The Great Purges have puzzled scholars because they seemed to be directed at no particular group; local officials were given arrest quotas to fill as they saw fit. But precisely because of their senselessness, the Purges served the function of letting everyone know that no law would ever protect them. One usually thinks of a repressive regime as one that deals ruthlessly with dissenters, but in Soviet Russia no one was ever safe.
During his last years, Stalin invented the “doctors’ plot.” Supposedly, a group of Jewish doctors had conspired to murder Kremlin officials. When the doctors did not confess, Stalin threatened the investigators with torture if they did not get the doctors to say what was wanted. Of course, they could have just shot the doctors and made up confessions, but the regime needed constantly to prove to itself that its enemies acknowledged their wrongdoing and that lawlessness was all-powerful. Recalling the Cheka, the first Bolshevik secret police force, Stalin told the investigators: “You work like waiters in white gloves. If you want to be Chekists, take off your gloves. Chekist work—this is for peasants and not for barons.” You must beat the doctors “with death blows.”
Brent agrees with Yakovlev that, today, corruption serves the role that terror played for Stalin. It is not, as Westerners presume, a threat to the state but
the very means by which the central government further destroys the rule of law and thereby can gain indisputable power for itself. The rule of law is a much greater enemy than [the oligarchs] Khodorovsky and Berezovsky.
In twenty-first-century Russia, corruption comes not from the breaking of law but from the absence of law.
No less than other Stalinist practices, the use of arbitrary power is not so much a choice as a habit, an intrinsic part of the culture, like Moscow’s ineradicable smell. The fundamental structures of Stalinist power have never disappeared:
They are rooted in social, political, and psychological traditions and habits. And because they are habitual they are all the more dangerous—because they are invisible and normal.
Also normal is extreme anti-Semitism. If Stalin had not suddenly died, and the doctors’ plot had gone forward, the Jews of Russia would have undergone another Holocaust. Camps had already been prepared, and the chief interrogator voiced the regime’s opinion that all but “a handful” of Jews were “potential enemies of the state.” It is often forgotten that Russia produced the most widely disseminated anti-Semitic document ever written, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A forgery concocted by the tsarist secret police, the Protocols purports to transcribe a meeting of the international Jewish conspirators planning to take over the world. When Nicholas II was informed the document was a forgery, he forbade its further use because, as he explained, bad means are not acceptable even in a good cause (i.e., persecuting the Jews).
The Protocols became the central text of Nazi propaganda, and it currently circulates widely in the Arab world, taught in schools and explicitly mentioned in the charter of Hamas. It still sells briskly in Russia, can be bought right outside the Kremlin, and is disseminated by extremist groups that have allied themselves with the Orthodox church. Believe it or not, few Russians have heard about the Holocaust and among those who have, many deny it. Yakovlev informed Brent that over two hundred openly anti-Semitic newspapers circulate in Russia. The Russian Nationalist Socialist Party has fifty to seventy thousand active members, mostly in Moscow. Any Russian Jew who does not consider emigrating from Russia needs counseling.
Among Brent’s saddest discoveries is the fate of the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel. Brent lists several pages of writers, artists, and scholars who were executed, imprisoned, or otherwise repressed, but Babel’s case is special because he was such a brilliant writer. I would venture that only three Russian prose works written since 1917 will be read a hundred years from now: Bulgakov’s fantastic satire, The Master and Margarita, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Arch- ipelago, and Babel’s cycle of closely linked short stories about a sensitive Jewish commissar in a regiment of violent Cossacks, Red Cavalry. Babel’s arrest and shooting in the great purges have long been known, but what Brent has discovered is that, during the course of the horrible interrogations, Babel ceased to be Babel at all. They took his soul. The documents reveal how “the system attacked his essence—his consciousness and self-identity… . Isaac Babel no longer existed as Isaac Babel.” He loved Big Brother.
Babel’s fate illustrates a key tenet of Soviet ideology, perhaps the single most important one. I have in mind the doctrine that there is no such thing as human nature or individual selfhood. As thinkers from John Locke to Margaret Mead and today’s many “social constructionists” like to say, people are simply whatever they are conditioned to be. In his 1921 treatise, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology, Bukharin claimed that
if we examine each individual … we shall find that at bottom he is filled with the influences of his environment, as the skin of a sausage is filled with sausage meat… . The individual himself is a collection of concentrated social influences, united in a small unit.
And that is all he is.
It follows that selfhood cannot be violated. Individual rights do not exist because individuals do not exist. Human nature places no limit on social engineering because human nature does not exist in the first place. Brent concludes:
The endpoint of Bukharin’s logic is that everyone is a nonperson… . Inwardness and all that comes with it, selfhood, consciousness and conscience were nothing but the illusions of a long history of Western metaphysics. What remains after the illusions of the bourgeois sausage, such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” universal justice, or truth are scraped away? Power alone and its terror, a fury that in Lenin’s words can express itself and “therefore must.” … The physical destruction of individuals had long been preceded by their philosophical negation.
Marxism-Leninism claims to be materialist, but, in fact, it is governed by ideas. It is the idea of social constructionism—certainly not empirical reality—that led Stalin and so many since to treat people as the wholly redesignable products of their environment, as so much sausage.
Stalinism was idealist in another, even more terrifying sense: it aimed at controlling from within the very thoughts we think. In a toast delivered on November 7, 1937, at the height of the Terror, the Great Helmsman swore to destroy every enemy:
Even if he was an old Bolshevik, we will destroy all his kin, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes, his thoughts—threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!
Even the worst of the tsars never thought of punishing relatives for a criminal’s acts. But what is truly remarkable about this toast is the promise to murder people and their kin for thoughts. One must live in continual fear of one’s own mind.
Brent begins his book with a memorandum written by Andrei Vishinsky, Stalin’s chief prosecutor, to Nikolai Yezhov, the secret-police chief, about what he had seen in a tour of the Gulag. There were prisoners, Vishinsky explained, who had “deteriorated to the point of losing any resemblance to human beings.” An interrogator during the doctors’ plot wrote that, after one torture session, the elderly Dr. Vasilenko “lost his entire human aspect.” Perhaps the most important lesson to come from the Stalin archives is that any ideology that does not admit the existence of human nature winds up destroying not only countless lives but also the human soul.
Under Putin, Russia has turned away from a fleeting opportunity to embrace legality. A sort of mafia rules without breaking the law—because there is no real law. And yet, by comparison with the Soviet period, Russia is free and humane. To be sure, any journalist or businessman who displeases the regime is likely to be imprisoned, maimed, or killed. But millions are not arrested at random.
Solzhenitsyn once asked why the bloodthirsty Macbeth killed only a few people while Lenin and Stalin murdered millions. He answered: Macbeth had no ideology. So far as we can tell, neither does Putin. Today no one tries to remake human nature. For the time being, and however precariously, the human spirit survives.
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Gary Saul Morson is Chair of Slavic Languages & Literature at Northwestern University.
more from this author
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 March 2009, on page 10
Copyright Â© 2009 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-lingering-stench--airing-Stalin-s-archives-4028
"...at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Communists suddenly transformed the 'Anti-Nazi League' into the "Hollywood Peace Forum," calling for American neutrality and using the slogan 'Let's Skip the Next War.'..."
--Ronald Radosh, from his book, Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance With the Left
You might like this.
Another “tell all” that makes no mention of the genocide of 10 million Ukrainians in 1933?
Check the book.
Like Dostoyevsky said, If there is no God, then there is no crime (because there is no good and evil).
If men are created in the image of God, then trying to steamroller their individuality out of existence is to destroy the very meaning of their lives.
Mao tried to put 800 million Chinese into identical suits;
collective farms try to turn men into robots; communism prattles about “the masses” but destroys masses because it doesn’t care about the man.
But there are still plenty of people willing to drink that kool aid.
Fascinating that Dostoyevsky figured out that an atheistic regime must lead to total tyranny and the attempt of the rulers to act as if they were divine and above the law themselves. (If Russia ever reads her own literature, she may come to understand her own history.)
Silly conservative...facts don’t matter, communism failed only because there were too few laws...
Thank YOU for posting the article. :)
It depends on the review.
Saul Alinsky on "Change"...
From Rules for Radicals, Alinsky outlines his strategy in organizing, writing:
"There's another reason for working inside the system. Dostoevsky said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and change the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution."
Saul Alinsky, The Latter Rain (LatterRain.com is a "Liberation Theology" commie-left website -etl)
"Barack Obama told supporters that
'change has come to America' as he
claimed victory in a historic presidential election."
“If Russia ever reads her own literature, she may come to understand her own history.”
You could also say that if the West ever reads Russian literature, she may come to understand her future annihilation.
Babels fate illustrates a key tenet of Soviet ideology, perhaps the single most important one. I have in mind the doctrine that there is no such thing as human nature or individual selfhood.
What sort of people do these things?
Our disloyal opposition, the tyrannical statists.
No cheers, unfortunately.
“What sort of people do these things?”
Given time, and unchecked power, Democrats willo those things.
Remember the politics of personal destruction? Ruby Ridge, Waco, Texas and the Branch Davidians?
Culture is all that separates us from the Russians. And, as the Russians would say, the “nekulturney” are in the White House.
Obama, the Other Huey Long - The president is more like the Depression eras populist Louisiana governor than like FDR. Check the link in comment# 7.
With bowed head and bended knee Guess who bowed to the Saudi King on video?
Some noteworthy articles about politics, foreign or military affairs, IMHO, FReepmail me if you want on or off my list.
thanks for the post. Bookmark for later.
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