Samuel Romilly Reply to on 26 September 2015
|'I love it' , as the five stars say, is not exactly true. One cannot love a gut-wrenching account of the destruction of human personality, decency and humanity, but one can admire it. For a non-Russian it is impossible to get into the mind-set of people who would betray their own parents and children, would believe that everyone arrested must be guilty, that saboteurs and other ogres spawned from Communist paranoia and inability to admit to error, were everywhere, and that any sacrifice (of other peoples' and sometimes even their own blood) was justified by the earthly paradise to come. What is clear is that Communism murders not just the body but the soul. It is an acid dissolving or a cancer consuming human feelings and humane sentiments. Crazy North Korea is the nearest we have to Stalin's terrors.
This book, by telling their stories in their own words of those who survived, compromised, colluded in or even welcomed mass murder on an unparalleled scale, lays bare the Russian soul: agonised, guilt ridden, deferential, subjugated and despoiled. There seems to be no trust in Russia. Perhaps it is their savage history, their stoic resignation in the face of a succession of brutal autocracies, or something in the Russian psyche that explains this, but despite this book an enigma remains. One of the most glaring facts is that people who had devoted and distorted their lives in service of a communist ideal could never admit the terrible truth: that is was all for nothing but a mirage, and that an ideology had made them betray their humanity. But hope does resurge in sorts, like bluebells breaking through snow. During the Great Patriotic War fellow feeling and devotion to Mother Russia seemed to displace cringing fear, dissimulation and worship of the great Satan, Stalin. Even after the war and the further repression something of the human genie had escaped the bottle.
What is quite clear as we have been recognising more and more in the last 20 or 30 years, is that Communism is every much as evil as Nazism, and that Stalin was an greater murderer than Hitler. The tragedy of the Second World War is that the two vilest tyrannies the world has ever seen did not destroy each other. Instead the jackboot of Germany was displaced by the jackboot of the Soviet Union. It is a terrible but undeniable lesson of history that those ideologies that have sought to create de novo, that would eradicate the past to build the perfect future, have done incalculable damage. Just look at the French Revolution: Wordsworth's 'very heaven' soon became Burke's human hell. The Guillotine not the tricolour, is that revolution's lasting legacy. Both the French and Russians managed to replace a bad authoritarian regime with something much much worse. The only successful revolution was that of the Americans where although much was new it built on the old: the English common law, and freedoms wrested from a tyrant kings by Magna Carta, the English Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution. In other words what America did, steeped in the English tradition, was evolutionary far more than it was revolutionary. Nor did it feed on blood lust. It exalted, rather, the rights of the individual against the state. This was not true in Communist Russia or China or Korea. The state, or at lest the Party, can do and think and believe no wrong. However many wars religion may have fostered they were as nothing to the wars and carnage occasioned by atheistic ideologies.
What amazes and affrights me is the ease with which authoritarian norms have returned to Russia under Czar Putin. Stalin has always had his devotees but now his cult is resurging. If a German were to praise the virtues of Hitler he would be vilified and imprisoned, yet eminent ad ordinary Russians can still revere that quintessential monster, Stalin, with impunity. Oh he won the Great patriotic War, they say. No he did not, however much Russians may have done. He almost lost it, by massacring his generals, by his tactical incompetence, and by trust in his old friend, Hitler. How many Russians then or now are aware of the fact that, before the war, Hitler was Stalin's ally in that unholy pack for raping Poland.
I am aware of the controversy which had surrounded Figes's work but the voices that speak through this book sound authentic, and the picture they portray of having to live and lie in the communist paradise ring true. The author has done a major service in recording and securing this living legacy of one of the most soul-destroying periods and places in human history. it gives us the beginning of an understanding of the Russian psyche during the psychotic years of Communist tyranny. However hypocritical the West maybe at least in Britain and America and the countries influenced by the common law constitutional tradition, liberty, equality before the law, civil liberties and human rights have been enshrined, and the culture has flourished. it is hard to imagine the British or Americans succumbing to the chicanery and brutality of a sadistic dictator such as Stalin. It is equally hard to imagine our culture creating such a monster. If this is cultural imperialism I am glad to be a cultural imperialist and have the freedom to express such sentiments. Twitter abuse I can put up with, far preferable to the Gulags