Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Gulag Revisited

Michael Weiss's review of the revised and updated The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest is so full of worthy reminders of the awful, unnecessary brutality of the Soviet Union that the review, if not the book, ought to be taught in American history classes. For, as Weiss describes him, Conquest is "the premier truth-teller of the most sustained totalitarianism of the twentieth century."

He also is, along with John Ciardi and a few others, one of the premier writers of obscene light poetry in the last century. As Weiss points out, this probably is not a quirk, since it has fallen to Conquest's lot to write "some of the most tragic passages committed to print in the last hundred years," and a sense of humor -- the more irreverent the better -- in such a case probably helps you avoid the tragic course of an Iris Chang.

Among Conquest's gems cited in the article are: "The sequence Lenin-Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev was like a chart illustrating the evolution of the hominids, read backward," and this warning about historical research; "There are records cut in stone in which successive Pharaohs ostentatiously reattribute, in great detail, various (often nonexistent) triumphs (from Sahure to Pepi II, and from Tuthmoses III to Rameses II to Rameses III)." His suggested title for the new edition of the book, in which archival material unearthed in Moscow since the fall of the USSR vindicated his earlier conclusions, was “I Told You So, You Fucking Fools."

As sometimes happens when you try to excerpt something really thoughtfully constructed, the prose doesn't come apart into blockable passages. A tangle of bleeding flesh dangles off each end and drips on your carpet whenever you try to pull out a chunk and prop it up in another piece of writing.

So here's another way to try it: In the style of Marianne Moore poem:

Of the 3,789 “former kulaks” (or wealthy peasants, a class enemy of Marxism-Leninism) rounded up in this period, 3,552 were actually proletarians. ...

... Stalin’s climb to the top was not entirely unencumbered but was a product of his seeming political moderation ....

... the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of ideological haplessness ...

... in 1931 the first prison terms were handed down for Russians found guilty of violating labor discipline. Theft of state or collective property carried the death penalty beginning in 1932 ...

“We are told in recent Soviet articles that on 12 December 1937, Stalin and Molotov sanctioned 3,167 death sentences, and then went to the cinema.”

Of course, to Communists, their despair at current events took the more parochial and self-serving form of worrying about what had become of their precious Party. (Contrast how many deplored capital punishment for old comrades but said not a word about its legal application to twelve-year-olds.)

Dvoeverye in Russian means “double belief,” or double standard of morality in adjudicating crimes committed against one’s own sodality and those committed against everyone else.

... the dimwitted but efficient head of the NKVD, whose deputy Agranov once claimed that if he had “Karl Marx to interrogate, he’d have him confess to being an agent of Bismarck” ...

... an almost sub-human gullibility by even non-Communists around the world to believe coerced confessions that ranged in tenor between the abject and the masochistic ....

... “semi-Trotskyites,” “quarter-Trotskyites,” and “one-eighth-Trotskyites” in an attempt to distinguish shades of conspiracy as though they were in accord with antebellum race laws.

... if Bukharin were allied to the Social Revolutionaries, as the state maintained, why had the Social Revolutionaries thrown a bomb at him during the suggested alliance? These and other keen points of reason were ruled out of order.

... Edmund Wilson, a rather quaky fellow traveler, knew right away that Zinoviev and Kamenev’s confessions were untrue, and he spent the rest of the 1930s trying to convince incredulous cocktail party audiences of the fact.

... torture was not the only incentive. Conquest writes cogently of Partiinost, the idea that the Party enjoyed the absolute right to decide all questions of state policy, including who was to be sacrificed at the altar of Almighty October.

... When a Norwegian steam cruiser came to his aid, the officer refused rescue. He shrewdly explained his action by saying that being picked up by a non-native vessel would have led to his being asked “when and how this meeting with foreign agents had been arranged and for how much I had sold our operational plans while the ship was passing through the channel.” This is exactly what did happen when he was back in Soviet territory.

Kaganovich, nicknamed the “black tornado,” ...

... Katyn Massacre of up to 20,000 Poles in 1940—originally blamed on the Germans—represented a “mass execution carried out, without trial and in complete secrecy, as a routine administrative measure—and in peacetime.”

... 570 German Communists wanted by the Nazis were gathered in Moscow prisons and summarily “sent over the bridge to the German-occupied Poland at Brest-Litovsk, while NKVD men checked the lists with Gestapo men.”

... if the authorities have done you an injustice, chances are they’d never forgive you for it.

... every fifth person in the typical office was a state informer ...

... his daughter had a poodle that became adept at shutting the dining room door whenever the chatter descended into hushed tones.

... secret policeman in the Ukraine was given a quota of 3,800 arrests; having exhausted all his new leads, and having re-arrested even old collars, he petitioned village soviets to nominate new lists of anti-Soviet elements. His own name appeared on one.