Reader's Choice

by Oscar Handlin
On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks gained control of Petrograd. Soon thereafter they dissolved the freely elected Constituent Assembly that was to have composed a constitution. The Reds thus ended the months of democratic development which had begun with the toppling of the Romanov Czar. The Communists were then, and remained thereafter, a tiny minority of the Russian people. Yet by eschewing legality and by utter ruthlessness they were able to seize power and to consolidate their grip on the country in the years of disorder that followed their coup.
A half century has now elapsed, and the brutal consequences of the Red regime have abundantly unfolded. The rulers of the Kremlin have flouted the conventions and values of Western civilization as thoroughly as did their fascist counterparts in Germany and Italy. Yet for five decades the Communists have found doughty apologists to explain that the tyranny of any given moment was but a passing phase in the transition to utopia. And the intellectuals who would be the first victims of totalitarianism have been among the most frequently duped by its Marxist veneer. The willingness to believe in the progressive quality of the Soviet Union was comprehensible in the 1920s. But there is some deep flaw in the thinking of those still deceived after five decades of experience.
EUGENIA SEMYONOVNA GINZBURG’S JOURNEY INTO THE WHIRLWIND (Harcourt, Brace & World, $6.95) details some of the personal costs of Communism. Back in 1937, the author, then thirty years old, was a university professor and editor, a loyal Party member, and the wife of a high official in Kazan. Suddenly, and for no rational cause, she was swept up in a great purge, hastily tried, and sentenced to ten years in solitary confinement. The term was later modified but not eased by transfer to a Siberian labor camp. In all, Eugenia Semyonovna served eighteen years before she was finally rehabilitated and allowed to resume her life in Russia.
The book, which was originally published in Italy, covers the first three years of her ordeal. It conveys graphically the bewilderment of the loyal Party member suddenly accused of treachery, the calculated use of terror to dehumanize the victims, and the brutality to which prisoners and jailers alike descended. The women, mostly members of the educated elite, cannot at first even imagine the degradation to which they will be subjected. Solitary confinement, the punishment cells, the lack of water in the freight cars that carry them to Siberia, and the arctic cold in which they are set to chopping trees — each is a revelation of inconceivable indignities.
In the nature of the case, it is impossible to judge the precise accuracy of a prison narrative. Can the details of names, places, and conversations come back across more than two decades to an author unable to keep a record at the time? The feat is not implausible; a mind which year after year had no exercise but the rehearsal of the same shattering details could well retain their imprint indefinitely. In any event, this account conforms with the independent evidence available from other sources about the Soviet slave camps.
Some questions remain unanswered. Survival is simply a miracle. At the crucial moment someone turns up who intercedes to spare the heroine for further adventures. Truth under these conditions is stranger than fiction. Life in captivity is subject to such random accidental interruptions as would abash the hack producer of a TV Western. One would like to know more about the author, her husband and family. Again, the very nature of her ordeal was its depersonalization, and it is that very quality which renders the book moving and convincing. This could happen to anyone. “As I lay awake on my plank bed, the most unorthodox thoughts passed through my mind — about how thin the line is between high principles and blinkered intolerance, and also how relative are all human systems and ideologies and how absolute the tortures which human beings inflict on one another.”
Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was rarely given to unorthodox thoughts, however, and therefore totally failed to comprehend her own position. “What wouldn’t I have given in those days to understand the meaning of what was going on,” she exclaims. Unlike the true opponents of the regime, the loyal Communist had no means of explaining the terror directed against her. She knew that she was not an enemy of the people or a Trotskyite terrorist. Why then was her life destroyed? In the fascinating passages which approach that question, she shies away from any criticism of the Party and can only suggest that a band of lunatics for the moment had seized control and were persecuting the faithful.
The suggestion that it was all the fault of Stalin, which would later become enshrined in Party doctrine, enabled her and others to retain their belief in Communism. The terror was one man’s perversion and came to an end with his passing, as her own release demonstrated. The exaggeration of the influence of the individual, so much at variance with Marxist theory, is evidence of the intense desire to refrain from criticizing the system. Every informed Russian knows that although Stalin made special use of it, the terror antedated and survived him. But Communists find it more useful to make the dead Stalin a universal scapegoat than to acknowledge the violence by which they still hold power.
The Ginzburg volume is part of a general trend. It is no longer possible blandly to deny that terror had a place in the formation of Soviet society. The accounts of too many returnees have trickled through to the outer world. Since the facts are undeniable, it is more strategic to permit their publication abroad and even — though rarely — to permit their circulation within Russia, but in doing so, to emphasize that the prisons, the camps, and the police were features of the past. The current rulers of the state thus differentiate themselves from their predecessors. “How wonderful,” Eugenia Semyonovna exclaims, “that the great Leninist truths have again come into their own in our country and Party! Today the people can already be told of the things that have been and shall be no more.”
Her enthusiasm may be sincere, if mistaken. Or it may be designed to deceive. Or again, it may be part of the Aesopian language by which slaves learn to communicate. Early on in the narrative, describing her initial interrogation, the author confesses, “Doubtless, if the same thing happened to me today, I would ‘recant.’ I almost certainly would, for I too have changed. I am no longer the proud, incorruptible, inflexible being I was then.” She thus provides us with a key to help set apart what is true in her account of the past from what is added to appease her present masters.

Since Stalin

The death of the old dictator almost fifteen years ago did not transform the Soviet regime. Power passed from his hands intact, and the apparatus of the police state survived. Nor is there any more excuse for the blindness of current apologists than there was for that of their counterparts of the 1930s. The evidence is abundant and as clear as it was then.
YURY KROTKOV in I AM FROM Moscow (Dutton, $4.95) presents a simple, lucid, and convincing account of life in the Khrushchev era. Krotkov was born in 1917 and therefore spent the whole of his life under Communism. His father was a painter, his mother an actress, and he became a writer. For a time he was a correspondent for Tass; then he made a career as a successful dramatist; and finally he became a movie script writer. He was allowed to travel abroad, and in September, 1963, defected to England.
Krotkov was far from oppressed in Russia. Indeed, he belonged to the privileged new class, the intelligentsia, close to the ruling circles. As a reliable member of the Union of Film Workers, he was an insider who knew the ropes and was able to manipulate comfortably within the system. He was one of the propertied — “the intelligentsia, generals and crooks,” able to drive around in cars of their own, to wangle cooperative apartments, and to evade the shortages of consumer goods.
Much of the book deals with the petty concerns of daily life, commuting, shopping, negotiating with the bureaucracy. These themes once provided material for the satires of Zoschenko and of Ilf and Petrov, but in recent decades have been considered too serious for laughter. Krotkov deals with these subjects in incisive personal terms and also writes with complete frankness about the problems of sex and family life usually concealed by the “hypocritical puritanism” of the Communists. Thanks to a lively sense of humor he can present the funny as well as the sad aspects of his experience in the Soviet Union.
Krotkov’s decision to defect was not a response to the petty annoyances of life in Moscow. His favored position and his skill as a promoter enabled him to manage well enough. In the last analysis he left because he realized that he could never be an honest writer in Russia. He was “sick of lies, compromise and cowardice.” Aware that everything he had ever written for the Party was “a dishonorable fabrication,” he chose flight so that he could be a human being, rather than a creature of the state.
EUGENE LYONS in WORKERS’ PARADISE LOST (Funk & Wagnalls, $6.95) examines the Soviet experience in a larger perspective. This is an impressive effort to compose an overall balance sheet of fifty years of Russian life under Communism. Lyons is an experienced reporter. He knows the country, the language, and the record. His estimate deserves careful attention.
Lyons leaves no doubt about his own negative verdict, and the book sometimes suffers from its polemical tone. When the author’s passions run away with him, he becomes unfair and verges on contradiction. Thus to minimize Soviet economic progress, he emphasizes the extent of industrialization under the czars; yet to prove Lenin wrong by Marxist criteria, Lyons also emphasizes the backwardness of Russia before 1917. In the face of these sweeping condemnations, the innocent reader may react by insisting that the picture could not be as black as painted.
But the facts are there, carefully detailed, and they do add up to a condemnation of the regime. The vaunted economic development of the Soviet Union rests upon the systematic deprivations of its population, which began with the ideologically motivated decision to eliminate the “bourgeois” craftsmen and peasants and continued with measures that always left the Russians short of food, clothing, and housing. Efforts at planning have consistently failed, as revealed in the periodic flurries of reform. Science and the arts have suffered from repression; and terror has kept the masses under control. More than a decade after Stalin’s death, the basic rigidities of the system remain. “The leash has been lengthened, but the collar has not been removed.”
The review of Soviet foreign policy is particularly useful. Since 1917 the Communists have consistently promised peace and prepared for war. Despite the flips and flops of the Party line, the concept of world revolution has supplied coherence and purpose to fifty years of Russian diplomacy. Lyons is particularly good in exposing what Brezhnev has termed the “strange and persistent delusion” in the West that the Soviet Union has become “simply another great power.” There is no evidence whatever that the Kremlin has retreated from its global ambitions. This salutary reminder of the distasteful facts of life is no reason for abandoning the quest for a détente. But it poses a warning against deceptively easy solutions.

The revolutionaries

What went wrong? “Could it be that the little gestures and indignations of young apprentices in revolution had been the harbingers of the terrifying reality: the emptyeyed palaces, the slaughtered boys, the wild, mad and bad, the terror and ignominy? How was it possible so to have gone astray? What had become of the promise of a life beautiful and free?” These questions are raised by one of the central characters toward the end of M. W. WARING’S THE WITNESSES (Houghton Mifflin, $7.95). This long, sprawling novel opens in 1903 with the marriage of Prince Nelidov to an American girl. It closes with the Bolsheviks in power. In the course of the story the revolution takes form and destroys the old society.
For reasons which are not altogether clear, the author has adopted a pseudonym and has ascribed fictitious names to many historical characters who are, however, identified in a prefatory key. Perhaps the device, if not simply a tease, is intended to add credibility to the story through the implication that “Waring” was somehow a participant or related to a participant.
The author, whoever he or she is, is familiar with at least the externals of Russian life. The descriptions of the Nelidov estate, of the salons of St. Petersburg, and of life among the revolutionaries in Geneva are vivid in their detailed observations. Indeed, interest in the decor sometimes outweighs that in the action. The author’s sympathies, like the heroine’s, lie with the aristocrats whose “patrician serenity and ease” raise them above the common mass. The Czar, seen through the eyes of an officer of the Imperial Guards, is truly majestic.
The treatment of the revolutionaries is more complex. Trotsky and Martov are Jews, too Europeanized to deal adequately with the Russian situation. The liberals are worse — ambitious opportunists unaware of reality. Kerensky is a ridiculous puppet who performs a glissade, pirouettes on a heel, and waves a little paw, certainly unworthy to hold power. Lenin, by contrast, is described in awesome terms, very similar to those applied to Nicholas II. Lenin’s compelling figure “was genuine, authentic Russian. ‘Himself’ was not moving forward into the unknown. He was going back to the sources of life, to the essentials.”
These judgments are not merely historically faulty. They reflect also a lack of human imagination. Max, the Count Dorrère, the central figure who shuttles between the aristocratic and revolutionary circles, is not unreal; there were such men in the old Russia. But the motive ascribed to him is fatuous. He becomes the errand boy of the radicals out of love for Lenin’s mistress. When, after years of waiting, Max’s love is finally consummated, “he said over and over again: ‘I will give you back to him, don’t worry. I will not hold you. I lay no claim on you.’ ” He seems an utter sap because Waring has omitted from his character, as from that of the other revolutionaries, any trace of ideology. There is no sense of what these people were fighting for or against. And that omission makes credible the laudatory portrayal of Lenin, whose determination, drive, and unscrupulousness can be equated with strength, once the issue of goal or purpose is blurred.
There is a significant similarity between this view of the rebel and that presented in a quite different novel, HANS KONINGSBERGER’S THE REVOLUTIONARY (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $4.95). This is a tightly structured story, cleverly written. A young man, living under an oppressive regime, moves step by step from protest to ever more radical action, until he accepts the need for terror and is prepared to assassinate a judge. But by the time he holds the bomb he discovers that selfless love for a pure young girl dissolves the desire to kill.
Koningsberger’s skill as a storyteller lends plausibility to the tale and involves the reader in the fate of the hero. But the issue of motive is blurred, as it is in The Witnesses. The injustices of the government are the excuse, not the cause, of rebellion. The boy and the girl are really rejecting their middle-class homes and their families. “I want to live my own life,” she exclaims. Revolution is thus personal, a mode of self-expression.
It follows therefore that all revolutions are essentially the same. The novel is situated in a nameless country, with an undescribed social system, and the hero is known only as A., as if thus to abstract and universalize his experience. Again, what the revolution is for and what it is against are less important than the acts of rebellion themselves.
For many twentieth-century intellectuals rebellion became an end in itself. “Let’s be aesthetic,” suggests A. “Once we had knights and they’re beautiful; the men in power now are so terribly ugly, their power is ugly; and men on barricades are beautiful again.” As his crisis approaches, he compares himself with young men living under Napoleon and Caesar, who supply the gist, the core, the facts of life.
It was for such people that Lenin held fascination. For more than a half century, men beguiled by utopian visions looked toward a leader who would cut ruthlessly through convention and remake society by destroying its old institutions. They did not realize that when revolution becomes an end in itself, its only institution is terror, permanent terror.