Little wonder that the war appeared to many as a sort of spiritual purification, a violent purging of the ‘inhuman power of the lie’ that had stifled all political discussion in the years before. ‘The war forced us to rethink our values and priorities,’ remarks Lazarev, ‘it enabled us, the ordinary soldiers, to see a different kind of truth, even to imagine a new political reality’.
This rethinking became more widespread as the war neared its end and much of the vast Soviet army entered into Europe, where the soldiers were exposed to different ways of life. By the start of 1944, the Soviets had amassed an army of 6 million men, more than twice the size of the German army on the Eastern Front. In June 1944, just as the Allies launched the invasion of northern France, the Red Army burst through the bulk of the German forces on the Belorussian Front, retaking Minsk by 3 July and pushing on through Lithuania to reach the Prussian border by the end of August. Meanwhile the Soviet troops on the Ukrainian Front swept through eastern Poland towards Warsaw. In the southern sector, where the German forces soon collapsed, the Red Army swept across Romania and Bulgaria to reach Yugoslavia by September 1944. The Soviet advance was relentless. By the end of January 1945, the troops of the Ukrainian Front had penetrated deep into Silesia, while Zhukov’s Belorussian Front had reached the Oder River and had Berlin in its sights.
Hardly any of the Soviet soldiers had ever been to Europe. Most of them were peasant sons who had come into the army with the small-world views and customs of the Soviet countryside and an image of the wider world shaped by propaganda. They were not prepared for what they discovered. ‘The contrast between the standard of living in Europe and our own in the Soviet Union was an emotional and psychological shock, and it changed the views of millions of troops,’ observed [war correspondent] Simonov. Soldiers saw that ordinary people lived in better houses; they saw that the shops were better stocked, despite the war and looting by the Red Army; and that the private farms they passed on their way to Germany, even in their ruined state, were far superior to the Soviet collective farms. No amount of propaganda could persuade them to discount the evidence of their own eyes.
The encounter with the West shaped the soldiers’ expectations of the future in their own country. Peasant soldiers were convinced that with the end of the war the collective farms would be swept away. There were many rumours of this sort in the army, most of them involving promises by Zhukov to the troops. Retold in a million letters from the soldiers to their families, these expectations spread throughout the countryside, resulting in a series of peasant strikes on the collective farms. Other soldiers talked about the need to open the churches, about the need for more democracy, even about the dismantling of the Party system root and branch. The film director Aleksandr Dovzhenko remembered a discussion with a military driver, a ‘Siberian lad’, in January 1944. ‘Our life is bad,’ the driver had said. ‘And all of us, you know, just wait for changes and improvements in our lives. We all wait. All of us. It’s just that we don’t all say it.’ ‘I was astonished by what I heard,’ Dovzhenko noted in his diary afterwards. ‘The people have a tremendous need for some other kind of life. I hear it everywhere. The only place where I don’t hear it is among our leaders.’
Officers were in the forefront of this army movement for reform. They openly expressed their criticisms of the Soviet system and their hopes for change. One lieutenant wrote to the Soviet president Mikhail Kalinin in 1945 with a ‘series of considerations to put to the next meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet’. Having been to Maidanek, the Nazi death camp in Poland, and having seen the consequences of a dictatorship in Germany, the officer demanded an end to arbitrary arrests and imprisonment in the Soviet Union, which, he said, had its own Maidaneks; the abolition of the collective farms, which he knew were a disaster from what he had been told by his own troops; and a list of other, more minor grievances, which his soldiers had asked him to convey to the president.
Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas. For those who cared to look back at history, there was an obvious parallel with the war against Napoleon in 1812–15, when the returning officers brought back to tsarist Russia the liberal thought of Western Europe which then inspired the Decembrist uprising of 1825. Political activists attending a conference at the Second Belorussian Front in February 1945 called for efforts to counteract the pernicious influence of the West.
Monthly Archives: April 2008
How did people respond to the sudden disappearance of colleagues, friends and neighbours in the Great Terror? Did they believe that they were really ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, as claimed by the Soviet presses? Surely they could not think that of people they had known for many years?…
Nadezhda Grankina encountered many Party members in the Kazan prison in 1938. They all continued to believe in the Party line. When she told them of the famine in 1932, they said ‘it was a lie, that I was exaggerating so that I could slander our Soviet way of life’. When she told them how she had been kicked out of her home for no reason, or how the passport system had destroyed families, they would say, ‘True, but that was the best way to deal with people like you.’
They thought I had got what I deserved because I was critical of the excesses. Yet when the same happened to them, they thought it was a mistake that would be fixed – because they had never had any doubts whatsoever, and whatever instructions had come down from the top, they had always cheered and carried them out … And when they were being expelled from the Party, none of them stood up for each other; they all kept quiet or raised their hands in support of the expulsion. It was some kind of universal psychosis.
For the mass of the population there were always two realities: Party Truth and truth based on experience. But in the years of the Great Terror, when the Soviet press was full of the show trials and the nefarious deeds of ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, few were able to see through the propaganda version of the world. It took extraordinary will-power, usually connected to a different value-system, for a person to discount the press reports and question the basic assumptions of the Terror. For some people it was religion or their nationality that allowed them to take a critical view; for others a different Party creed or ideology; and for others still it was perhaps a function of their age (they had seen too much in Russia ever to believe that innocence protected anybody from arrest). But for anyone below the age of thirty, who had only ever known the Soviet world, or had inherited no other values from his family, it was almost impossible to step outside the propaganda system and question its political principles.
The young were particularly credulous – they had been indoctrinated in this propaganda through Soviet schools. Riab Bindel remembers:
At school they said: ‘Look how they won’t let us live under Communism – look how they blow up factories, derail trams, and kill people – all this is done by enemies of the people.’ They beat this into our heads so often that we stopped thinking for ourselves. We saw ‘enemies’ everywhere. We were told that if we saw a suspicious character on the street, we should follow and report him – he might be a spy. The authorities, the Party, our teachers -everybody said the same thing. What else could we think?
After leaving school, in 1937, Bindel found a job in a factory, where the workers regularly cursed the ‘enemies of the people’.
When the factory had a breakdown, they would say: ‘Comrades, there is sabotage and treachery!’ They would look for someone who had a blemish on his record and call him an enemy. They would put him in prison, beat him up until he confessed that he had done it. At his trial they would say: ‘Look at the bastard who was working secretly among us!’
Many workers believed in the existence of ‘enemies of the people’ and called for their arrest because they associated them with the ‘bosses’ (Party leaders, managers and specialists) whom they already blamed for their economic difficulties. Indeed, this mistrust of the elites helps to explain the broad appeal of the purges among certain sections of the population, which perceived the Great Terror as a ‘quarrel among the masters’ that did not affect them. This perception is neatly illustrated by a joke that circulated widely in the years of the Terror. The NKVD bangs on the door of an apartment in the middle of the night. ‘Who’s there?’ the man inside asks. ‘The NKVD, open up!’ The man is relieved: ‘No, no,’ he tells them, ‘you’ve got the wrong apartment – the Communists live upstairs!’
“Be careful, Amir,” he said as I began to walk. “Of what, Baba?”
“I am not an ahmaq, so don’t play stupid with me.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Remember this,” Baba said, pointing at me, “The man is a Pashtun to the root. He has nang and namoos.” Nang. Namoos. Honor and pride. The tenets of Pashtun men. Especially when it came to the chastity of a wife. Or a daughter.
“I’m only going to get us drinks.”
“Just don’t embarrass me, that’s all I ask.” “I won’t. God, Baba.”
Baba lit a cigarette and started fanning himself again.
I walked toward the concession booth initially, then turned left at the T-shirt stand-where, for $5, you could have the face of Jesus, Elvis, Jim Morrison, or all three, pressed on a white nylon T-shirt. Mariachi music played overhead, and I smelled pickles and grilled meat.
I spotted the Taheris’ gray van two rows from ours, next to a kiosk selling mango-on-a-stick. She was alone, readirig. White ankle-length summer dress today. Open-toed sandals. Hair pulled back and crowned with a tulip-shaped bun. I meant to simply walk by again and I thought I had, except suddenly I was standing at the edge of the Taheris’ white tablecloth, staring at Soraya across curling irons and old neckties. She looked up.
“Salaam,” I said. “I’m sorry to be mozahem, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“Is General Sahib here today?” I said. My ears were burning. I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eye.
“He went that way,” she said. Pointed to her right. The bracelet slipped down to her elbow, silver against olive.
“Will you tell him I stopped by to pay my respects?” I said. “I will.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Oh, and my name is Amir. In case you need to know. So you can tell him. That I stopped by. To … pay my respects.”
I shifted on my feet, cleared my throat. “I’ll go now. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
“Nay, you didn’t,” she said.
“Oh. Good.” I tipped my hed and gave her a half smile. “I’ll go now.” Hadn’t I already said that? “Khoda hafez.”
I began to walk. Stopped and turned. I said it before I had a chance to lose my nerve. “Can I ask what you’re reading?”
She blinked. I held my breath. Suddenly, I felt the collective eyes of the flea market Afghans shift to us. I imagined a hush falling. Lips stopping in midsentence. Heads turning. Eyes narrowing with keen interest.
What was this? Up to that point, our encounter could have been interpreted as a respectful inquiry, one man asking for the whereabouts of another man. But I’d asked her a question and if she answered, we’d be … well, we’d be chatting. Me a mojarad, a single young man, and she an unwed young woman. One with a history, no less. This was teetering dangerously on the verge of gossip material, and the best kind of it. Poison tongues would flap. And she would bear the brunt of that poison, not me—I was fully aware of the Afghan double standard that favored my gender. Not Did you see him chatting with her? but Wooooy! Did you see how she wouldn’t let him go? What a lochak!
By Afghan standards, my question had been bold. With it, I had bared myself, and left little doubt as to my interest in her. But I was a man, and all I had risked was a bruised ego. Bruises healed. Reputations did not. Would she take my dare?
She turned the book so the cover faced me. Wuthering Heights. “Have you read it?” she said.
I nodded. I could feel the pulsating beat of my heart behind my eyes. “It’s a sad story.”
“Sad stories make good books,” she said.
“I heard you write.”
How did she know? I wondered if her father had told her, maybe she had asked him. I immediately dismissed both scenarios as absurd. Fathers and sons could talk freely about women. But no Afghan girl—no decent and mohtaram Afghan girl, at least, queried her father about a young man. And no father, especially a Pashtun with nang and namoos, would discuss a mojarad with his daughter, not unless the fellow in question was a khastegar, a suitor, who had done the honorable thing and sent his father to knock on the door.
Incredibly, I heard myself say, “Would you like to read one of my stories?”
“I would like that,” she said. I sensed an unease in her now, saw it in the way her eyes began to flick side to side. Maybe checking for the general. I wondered what he would say if he found me speaking for such an inappropriate length of time with his daughter.
In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Tom Frank correctly identifies the resentment of gays, intellectuals, and liberals as compensatory efforts by the insecure to feel better about themselves. But telling working-class Americans that they are fools is not the path to victory. About the worst thing you can tell the economically insecure and the status anxious is that they are victims.
Kansas was received as a critique of moralizing but is itself the ultimate morality tale. Frank fancies himself a populist but it’s plain that he can’t stand the masses of people he grew up with. Frank writes as though contempt flows only one way, from the backlashers to the liberal elite, but the feeling is quite mutual. Frank wields pity like a weapon, to club fools who forsake materialist rationality for postmaterialist morality.
Whereas moral-values crusaders tell their followers that they are spiritually rich and morally superior, materialist liberals tell their followers that they are materially poor and intellectually inferior….
Frank characterizes right-wing nostalgia for a halcyon Leave It to Beaver past as little more than an irrational yearning for the protective womb of childhood. It is thus more than a little ironic that he fills his book with nostalgic visions of a progressive Kansas of the populist era of the 1890s and the New Deal era of the 1930s — times when, Frank believes, the people of Kansas rationally acted upon their material self-interests. Frank ends his book with a eulogy for the Kansas of FDR’s New Deal and President Johnson’s Great Society….
In America, the political left and political right have conspired to create a culture and politics of victimization, and all the benefits of resentment and cynicism have accrued to the right. That’s because resentment and apocalypse are weapons that can be used only to advance a politics of resentment and apocalypse. They are the weapons of the reactionary and the conservative — of people who fear and resist the future. Just as environmentalists believe they can create a great ecological politics out of apocalypse, liberals believe they can create a great progressive politics out of resentment; they cannot. Grievance and victimization make us smaller and less generous and can thus serve only reactionaries and conservatives.
As liberals and environmentalists lost political power, they abandoned a politics of the strong, aspiring, and fulfilled for a politics of the weak, aggrieved, and resentful. The unique circumstances of the Great Depression — a dramatic, collective, and public fall from prosperity — are not being repeated today, nor are they likely to be repeated anytime soon. Today’s reality of insecure affluence is a very different burden.
It is time for us to draw a new fault line through American political life, one that divides those dedicated to a politics of resentment, limits, and victimization from those dedicated to a politics of gratitude, possibility, and overcoming. The challenge for American liberals and environmentalists isn’t to convince the American people that they are poor, insecure, and low status but rather the opposite: to speak to their wealth, security, and high status. It is this posture that motivates our higher aspirations for fulfillment. The way to get insecure Americans to embrace an expansive, generous, and progressive politics is not to tell them they are weak but rather to point out all the ways in which they are strong.
Once we touched down in Jakarta, my wife was there on the tarmac along with throngs of media…. The bus ride into the city took two hours. I had never seen such a bad traffic jam in my life. In Pyongyang there was rarely any traffic at all, even in the center of the city, but here the streets were jammed with cars. I did not wait long before getting down to business with my wife. I had already been waiting so long, I didn’t see any reason to delay the discussion any further. The bus was full of the Japanese delegation, so I still had to be a little discreet. We sat side by side, not looking at each other while we talked. “Why didn’t you want to have this meeting in China?” I asked. “If we met in China,” she said, “I may have been sent back to North Korea.” So I asked, “You don’t want to go back to North Korea?” “No,” she said quietly but firmly. “But I thought you did,” I said. “The [Korean Workers Party] Organization told me that you have been trying and wanting to come back this whole time.” “Gae-so-ri,” she said. (That is dog talk.) “Well,” I thought, “that’s it, then. The decision has been made. We are not going back.”
They put us up in a hotel downtown that was the nicest place I think I have ever stayed. We were in a suite on the fourteenth floor. It was larger than any house I had ever lived in. Brinda and Mika were in a state of shock. The television just blew them away. Actually, it blew me away, too. All those channels. The size of it. The brightness of all the colors. Some of the stuff that was shown, and the fact that it was on twenty-four hours a day. I think that was their very first whiff that there might be a lot more to the outside world than the North Koreans had ever told them. It didn’t take them long to sense that the rest of the world was much more free than North Korea had been. At the same time, there was only so much freedom for us: There was a guard on our door (officers from the Niigata police force, to be specific) twenty-four hours a day. Right across the hall from us was the Japanese delegation, including Saiki and Nakayama.
The next morning, my wife and I continued the discussion we had been having on the bus. To test her resolve on the matter, I said to her, “If you are not going back, then there is no point to me being here. The girls and I will go to China for a little while and then return to North Korea to pick up our new house. I don’t see what the problem is for you to come to North Korea. The Organization says you can go and come as you please. You can take the ferry back and forth. You can visit anytime you want.” She responded, “You know one big reason why I am not going back? It is not just because of me. It is because of you. Because of your family in the United States. If you go back to North Korea, you will never see your mother and sisters again.” “But I am not going to see them anyway, since I am going to go to jail for life!” I yelled. “You are not going to go to jail!” she yelled back. “How can you say that? ” I asked. “You can’t say that for sure.” I had realized by then that she and Koizumi were doing everything they could to appeal to the Americans for understanding and leniency in my case, but I also knew that my wife was in no position to offer me assurances about how the U.S. Army was going to choose to punish me. Whenever it was I had to face my accusers, I knew at least on that count, I would be doing it alone.
It was around that time I also realized that the power between my wife and me had changed. In North Korea, I was primarily responsible for protecting her and providing for her, and she would do what I thought was best for us almost without exception. She needed me. Now, however, the equation had changed. I would have to listen to her; she would be my guide. I now needed her more than she needed me. This change in our relationship has been one of the most noteworthy parts of our lives together since 2002, and, to be honest, sometimes one of the hardest for me to adjust to.
[My defense attorney] introduced himself, and we made a little small talk. He asked me what he should call me. I told him something we used to say ages ago in the army: “You can call me anything you want, as long as you call me three times a day for chow and once a month to get paid.” So with that, he started calling me Charlie. I had never been called Charlie before in my life. Growing up, I was always Robert. When I was a teenager, I was Super. In the army, I was Jenkins. In North Korea, the three other Americans took to calling me C. R., while the Koreans sometimes called me Min Hyung-chan. (They gave me this name when I started acting—they needed something to put on the credits—but in person, I refused to answer to it.) So, although I have gone by many names in my life, Charlie was a new one. But now, thanks to Capt. Culp, a lot of people, especially everyone I now know in the U.S. Army stationed in Japan, refer to me as “Charlie.”
Busy with travel, family, and other things.
There is a very different story [than that in Jared Diamond’s Collapse] that can be told about human history, one that embraces our agency, and that is the story of constant human overcoming. Whereas the tragic story imagines that humans have fallen, the narrative of overcoming imagines that we have risen.
Consider how much our ancestors – human and nonhuman – overcame for us to become what we are today. For beginners, they were prey. Given how quickly and efficiently humans are driving the extinction of nonhuman animal species, the notion that our ancestors were food seems preposterous. And yet, understanding that we evolved from being prey goes a long way toward understanding some of the feelings and motivations that drive us into suicidal wars and equally suicidal ecological collapses.
Against the happy accounts of harmonious premodern human societies at one with Nature, there is the reality that life was exceedingly short and difficult. Of course, life could also be wonderful and joyous. But it was hunger not obesity, oppression not depression, and violence not loneliness that were primary concerns.
Just as the past offers plenty of stories of humankind’s failure, it also offers plenty of stories of human overcoming. Indeed, we can only speak of past collapses because we have survived them. There are billions more people on earth than there were when the tiny societies of the Anasazi in the American Southwest and the Norse in Greenland collapsed in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, respectively. That there are nearly seven billion of us alive today is a sign of our success, not failure.
Perhaps the most powerful indictment of environmentalism is that environmentalists so often consider our long life spans and large numbers terrible tragedies rather than extraordinary achievements. The narrative of overpopulation voiced almost entirely by some of the richest humans ever to roam the earth is utterly lacking in gratitude for the astonishing labors of our ancestors.
Of course, none of this is to say that human civilizations won’t collapse again in the future. They almost certainly will. Indeed, some already are collapsing. But to focus on these collapses is to miss the larger picture of rising prosperity and longer life spans. Not only have we survived, we’ve thrived. Today more and more of us are “free at last” – free to say what we want to say, love whom we want to love, and live within a far larger universe of possibilities than any other generation of humans on earth.
At the very moment that we humans are close to overcoming hunger and ancient diseases like polio and malaria, we face ecological crises of our own making, ones that could trigger drought, hunger, and the resurgence of ancient diseases.
The narrative of overcoming helps us to imagine and thus create a brighter future. Human societies will continue to stumble. Many will fall. But we have overcome starvation, disease, deprivation, oppression, and war. We can overcome ecological crises.
Talking could be dangerous at the best of Soviet times, but during the Great Terror a few careless words were all it took for somebody to vanish for ever. Informers were everywhere. ‘Today a man talks freely only with his wife – at night, with the blankets pulled over his head,’ the writer Isaak Babel once remarked. [Mikhail] Prishvin wrote in his diary that among his friends there were ‘only two or three old men’ to whom he could talk freely, without fear of giving rise to malicious rumours or denunciations.
The Great Terror effectively silenced the Soviet People….
In his diary of 1937 Prishvin wrote that people were becoming so adept at concealing meaning in their speech that they were in danger of losing the capacity to speak the truth altogether.
Behaviour in Moscow: one cannot speak of anything or with anyone. The whole secret of behaviour is to sense what something means, and who means it, without saying anything. You have to eliminate completely in yourself any remnant of the need to ‘speak from the heart’.
Arkadii Mankov noted a similar phenomenon in his diary:
It is pointless to talk about the public mood. There is silence, as if nothing has happened. People talk only in secret, behind the scenes and privately. The only people who express their views in public are the drunks.
As people drew into themselves, the social realm inevitably diminished. ‘People have completely ceased to confide in each other,’ Prishvin wrote in his diary on 9 October. It was becoming a society of whisperers:
The huge mass of the lower class simply goes about its work and whispers quietly. Some have nothing to whisper about: for them ‘everything is as it ought to be’. Others whisper to themselves in solitude, retreating quietly into their work. Many have learned to keep completely silent … – as if lying in a grave.
With the end of genuine communication, mistrust spread throughout society. People concealed their true selves behind public masks. Outwardly they conformed to the public modes of correct Soviet behaviour; inwardly they lived in a realm of private thought, inscrutable to public view. In this atmosphere fear and terror grew. Since no one knew what was concealed behind the mask, it was assumed that people who seemed to be normal Soviet citizens could in fact be spies or enemies. On the basis of this assumption denunciations and reports of ‘hidden enemies’ became credible, not just to the general public but to colleagues, neighbours and friends.
People sought refuge in a private world of truth. Some people took to diary-writing during the Great Terror. In spite of all the risks, keeping a diary was a way to carve out a private realm free of dissembling, to voice one’s doubts and fears at a time when it was dangerous to speak. The writer Prishvin confessed his greatest fears to his diary. In 1936, he had been attacked by literary bureaucrats in the Writers’ Union for a bitter comment he had made at a New Year’s party, a comment he now feared would cost him his freedom. ‘I am very frightened,’ he wrote, ‘that these words will drop into the file of an informer reporting on the characteristics of Prishvin the writer.’ Prishvin withdrew from the public sphere and retreated to his diary. He filled its pages with a microscopic scrawl, barely legible with a magnifying glass, to conceal his thoughts from the police in the event of his arrest and the seizure of the diary. For Prishvin, his diary was an ‘affirmation of individuality’ – a place to exercise his inner freedom and speak in his own true voice. ‘One either writes a diary for oneself,’ Prishvin mused, ‘to dig down to one’s inner self and converse with oneself, or one writes to become involved in society and secretly express one’s views on it.’ For Prishvin, it was both. He filled his diaries with dissident reflections on Stalin, on the destructive influence of Soviet mass culture, and on the indestructibility of the individual human spirit.
It’s not that different if you’re running for office in the U.S. these days—as if trying to please a million Stalins.
Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg tells the story of a young woman named Zina, a mathematics teacher from Gorkii, whom she met in the Lubianka jail. Zina had been arrested for failing to denounce one of her teachers, a lecturer in dialectical materialism who came to Gorkii from Moscow once a week. In conversations with Zina the lecturer had openly expressed his criticisms of the Stalinist regime. Because he stayed in Gorkii in a dormitory, he had used Zina’s apartment to entertain his friends and had kept a trunk of his books there. When the NKVD carried out their search, it turned out the books were Trotskyist. Zina acknowledged her guilt. She decided to expiate her sin and ‘clean all the stains from [her] conscience’ by informing on other ‘enemies’ to the NKVD. She told her interrogators about a certain professor who had given lectures at her institute. One day there had been a power cut while the professor was performing an experiment. There were no candles, so, as she explained, Zina
split a ruler and lit a splinter from it, as the peasants do, to provide light. The professor finished his experiment by the light of the splinter and at the end remarked [poking fun at Stalin’s famous phrase], ‘Life has become better, life has become more joyous. God be praised, we have reached the age of the splinter!’
The professor was arrested. Zina did not feel that she had acted wrongly in denouncing him – just a little awkward when she had to confront him during his interrogation. Asked by Olga what she thought about having ‘ruined someone’s life’ for such a petty thing, Zina replied: ‘There are no petty things in politics. Like you, I failed to understand at first the criminal significance of his remark, but later I realized.’
Political sensitivities in modern American political campaigns seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to those in Stalin’s Russia.