01 May 2009

Years ago, I worked with a software developer from the Ukraine. We were talking about something related to Russian politicians, and he abruptly looked at me and said: “They’re all creem-een-als.” Those of you who’ve known Eastern European emigres or read their materials know that they possess a certain biting wit. But this guy wasn’t joking. He meant it. He’d seen it. At the time, I laughed it off as hopeless cynicism.

Now I think I finally understand. I’ve really come to see politicians as largely a criminal class. Here’s yet another example.

There’s really no difference between this congresswoman and a thug in an alley with a switchblade.

03 Aug 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died. More than anyone else, he demolished the belief that a pure Leninism had been debased by Stalinism, and furnished plentiful examples of the future’s discreditable past. Mr. Solzhenitsyn was a great man. Some select quotes from his masterpiece, Gulag Archipelago:

You are arrested by a religious pilgrim whom you have put up for the night “for the sake of Christ.” You are arrested by a meterman who has come to read your electric meter. You are arrested by a bicyclist who has run into you on the street, by a railway conductor, a taxi driver, a savings bank teller, the manager of a movie theater. Any one of them can arrest you, and you noticed the concealed maroon-colored identification card only when it is too late. p10

…that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; …that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp… [W]hat normal Russian at the beginning of the century… could have believed, would have tolerated, such a slander against the bright future? …[W]hat had already been regarded as barbarism under Peter the Great… [and] totally impossible under Catherine the Great, was all being practiced during the flowering of the glorious twentieth century– in a society based on socialist principles, and at a time when airplanes were flying and the radio and talking films had already appeared– not by one scoundrel alone in one secret place only, but by tens of thousands of specially trained human beasts standing over millions of defenseless victims. -p93-94

Here is one vignette from those days as it actually occurred. A district party conference was underway in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.”
For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause rising to an ovation” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.
However, who would dare be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform and it was he who had called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first.
And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the leader, the applause went on—six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks. At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly—but up there with the presidium, where everyone could see them?
The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter …
Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a business-like expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.
That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed the Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:
“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!” p69-70

28 Jun 2008

I was quite interested in Adolf Hitler as a youth. I read and reread books about him. With the advent of the History (aka. Hitler) Channel, Hitler is even more fascinating to people. My theory is that much of this interest springs from the occultic and Wagnerian theatrics of his early dictatorship captured by Leni Riefenstahl. It’s the juxtaposition of the gas chambers with the candlelight vigils, the swastika, the salute, and massive demonstrations of spartan order, all done with a painter’s eye. I still remember a high school friend’s funny imitations of a fanatical Rudolf Hess.

Stalin and Hitler shared many attributes. Both had alcoholic fathers. Both were involved in underground subversion. Both were eccentric, fanatical, paranoid, cunning, ruthless criminals. And yet, for all their shared traits, I think Hitler was, at core, a nut. Stalin was not a nut. And that perhaps explains his enduring fascination for me, perhaps more than any other non-Biblical historical figure.

Robert Conquest’s standard The Great Terror is a good starting point to learn about Stalin. There are the biographies of Volgonokov, Radzinsky, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen, Animal Farm, Darkness at Noon… the worthwhile books go on and on. Solzhenitsyn’s rapier-like Gulag Achipelago, especially volume 1, provides revealing insights into The Friend of the Working People’s character, as does a keen chapter from The First Circle describing an encounter between the old dictator, circa 1950, and his secret police chief Abakumov. Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom is a harrowing and sadly forgotten journey of a Soviet technocrat through collectivization and terror. Malcolm Muggeridge’s upward journey from leftism began with his own experiences in early 1930s Russia, recollected in his riotous autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time. David King’s sadly out-of-print coffee table book, The Commissar Vanishes, is an Orwelllian look into the dangers of owning even pictures of Enemies of the People. It also shows ongoing falsification of photographs and history itself (for example, this infamous photo of Stalin, Molotov, and “the bloody dwarf” Yezhov). Imagine being part of the team who brushes out a body and replaces it with background! There are some great photographs in the book, including a particularly sinister NKVD group photo entitled “Murderers.”

On a lighter note, there is the singular East Side Story, a slow but truly odd 1997 documentary on the genre of Eastern European musicals. It includes vignettes from several American-inspired Soviet musicals of the 1930s, including Stalin’s favorite movie, the happy-go-lucky Volga Volga (I have the full version– alas, no subtitles!). Released at the height of the Great Terror, it is said that Uncle Joe saw it a hundred times and even gifted a copy to FDR.

If they appear on Turner Movie Classics, don’t miss the dreadful Mission to Moscow and North Star. These wartime films were created by major studios at FDR’s behest as tokens of friendship toward our Soviet allies. Both are among the worst things Hollywood ever released. The first is just a wonder to behold; the falsehoods are astounding. It even pleasantly spins Stalin’s loathsome prosecutor Vyshinsky, he of infamous lines like “I demand that dogs gone mad should be shot – every one of them!” Meanwhile, North Star, written by Lillian Hellmann (who is skewered in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals), features a happy, well-fed collectivized village. The depredations of Ukrainian villages fresh in his memory, the defector Kravchenko said that the film “drove me to helpless despair.” “Why, why,” he asked, “did these Americans insist on fabricating a paradise and locating it in my tortured country?”

None of these works, though, answered questions I’d long pondered about Stalin. How did a man sign off on thousands of executions of innocents and then attend the cinema that same evening? How does he send millions to dreadful camps, destroying lives and families? How could he lovingly prune his roses and sing along to musicals and yet casually deport entire civilizations? How could he imprison and shoot members of his own family? His charm was considerable (he charmed even enemies like Churchill). That he charmed the dilettante FDR is no surprise. Nor was his appeal to leftists, including Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Paul Robeson. The ongoing fascination of leftists with Utopian thugs from Stalin to Mao to Che is well-chronicled — hilariously by Muggeridge and in more scholarly fashion by writers like Paul Hollander. (It’s hard to imagine now, but pre-WWII Russia was admired by progressives and the avant-garde. Fellow travelers went to faraway Siberian towns to build socialism. The motherland supposedly offered equality to all races. And if a few million were crushed by the Bolshevik bulldozer, well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.) Furthermore, Trotsky and his followers said that Stalin was a clever politician but an intellectual lightweight. But how did that explain the mordant wit of his epigrams? His diabolical cleverness is seen in this exchange with the Spanish war correspondent Mikhail Koltsov:

Stalin: “How do they address you in Spanish? ‘Miguel’ or something?”
Koltsov: “Miguel.”
Stalin: “Don Miguel, we honorable Spaniards thank you for your excellent report.”
Koltsov: “I serve the Soviet Union, Comrade Stalin.”
Stalin: “And do you own a revolver, Comrade Koltsov?”
Koltsov: “Yes, I do, Comrade Stalin.”
Stalin: “And you are not planning to shoot yourself with it?”
Koltsov: “No, Comrade Stalin. I never even thought of it!”
Stalin: “Well, that’s excellent, Don Miguel! All the best, then, Comrade Koltsov.”
(Koltsov was afterward arrested and shot.)

So these were all vexing questions. But then this decade saw the release of two magnificent books by Simon Sebag Montefiore that have finally begun to answer them. The Court of the Red Tsar (2003) is a fascinatingly detailed look at the intricacies of Stalin’s court after his ascension to power. Young Stalin (2008) covers his early period through the 1917 revolution.

Born in Georgia of the southern Caucasus, Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili ended up in religious schools. The teenage boy was a promising poet who abandoned his Orthodox faith at Tiflis seminary (though he fondly sang Orthodox hymns with his cronies once in power). He went underground around 1900, and never truly resurfaced until 1917. It was during this time that he took his revolutionary name Stalin (man of steel). Young Stalin was always on the run, working his network of terrorists, criminals, sympathizers, party members, and lovers. Two illegitimate children resulted. It was one long period of robberies, agitation, and executions, always matching wits against Okhrana (Tsarist secret police) agents. As young Joseph put it: “To choose one’s victim, to prepare one’s plans minutely, to slake implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed.” It was said that Stalin had an uncanny knack for instantly knowing Okhrana spies. Periods of exile interrupted this existence (such relative Tsarist leniency would not characterize the Bolshevik regime). One such exile was a four-year interval in the netherworld of the sub-Arctic Siberian taiga, where he could catch fish in the bitter cold and break off frozen, raw bits of flesh to melt in his mouth. It was perhaps the happiest time of his life.

Montefiore argues persuasively that Stalin never left the paranoid world of the criminal underground after the Revolution. He shared Lenin’s pitilessness. Lenin would send his Georgian disciple to the areas most in need of vicious repressions in the Civil War, whereupon the shootings would soon begin. After Stalin rose to power, war was continued against “rich” peasants and supposed double agents, industrial “wreckers,” and “hostile party elements.”

Aided by the archives, Montefiore explodes the idea that Stalin was an intellectual non-entity. He was a crucial figure in Bolshevik circles long before the revolution, and indeed was Lenin’s right-hand man for a time after it. He was a man of action with a will to power, a man after Lenin’s heart. Stalin was a voracious reader and autodidact. His preparedness and intelligence intimidated even his smartest underlings. Ruthlessness and brilliance is a bad combination.

Soviet Russia of the 1930s was one of the most bizarre and horrific periods in all of history. Peasants were herded into collectivized farms, with millions killed in the displacement (food was still exported during the resulting famine). The political show trials in the Hall of Great Columns featured witnesses and defendants who were beaten to ensure that all went smoothly. The Western press at the time predictably bought the lie. These sham trials featured those the maestro most despised; many were left pathetically groveling for full communion again with their beloved party. (Solzhenitsyn noted that at Yagoda’s trial, when he begged his life, “a match flared in the shadows behind a window on the second floor of the hall… and while it lasted, the outline of a pipe could be seen.”)

The revolution devoured its children during the Great Terror of the late 1930s. Longtime allies were rounded up and shot, including Stalin’s own in-laws. Former paramours were imprisoned along with the wives of his magnates. He executed the wife of his devoted attache. Scores were settled with old Bolsheviks like Kamenev and Bukharin who patronized or offended the young Stalin. Even most of his secret policemen were tortured and killed after serving their usefulness.

The gulags swelled with untold millions throughout the thirties. These chains of inhuman labor camps, the “sewage disposal system” to use Solzhenitsyn’s term, were put in place by Lenin just as Solzhenitsyn said long ago, back when it was still commonly said that Stalin had corrupted “pure” communism. As the archives show, this is completely false. Lenin was worse than his detractors thought. (As a sidenote, the ruthless Molotov knew both Stalin and Lenin well, and thought Lenin the more severe of the two. For example, a letter from Lenin to Molotov shows how Lenin used the famine of the early 1920s… “Now and only now, when people are being eaten in famine-stricken areas, and hundreds, if not thousands, of corpses lie on the roads, we can (and therefore must) pursue the removal of church property with the most frenzied and ruthless energy and not hesitate to put down the least opposition. … [P]ass a secret resolution of the congress that the removal of property of value, especially from the very richest lauras, monasteries, and churches, must be carried out with ruthless resolution, leaving nothing in doubt, and in the very shortest time. The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and the reactionary bourgeoisie that we succeed in shooting on this occasion, the better because this “audience” must precisely now be taught a lesson in such a way that they will not dare to think about any resistance whatsoever for several decades.”)

Montefiore has summed up the dictator up this way: “Stalin is one of those subjects that one never gets bored with. He was incredibly complex and subtle, both diabolical and terrifyingly seductive.”

Mr. Montefiore needs to finish off a trilogy with a biography of the (underserved) 1917-1929 years!

17 Jun 2008

“One morning just before the October [1917] Revolution,” recalls Anna Alliluyeva, “there was a ring at the door. I saw a smallish man dressed in a black overcoat and a Finnish cap on the threshold. ‘Is Stalin at home?’ he asked politely. … After a brief conversation, Stalin and he left together.”

Just days later, these scruffy, diminutive figures [Lenin and Stalin], who now walked the streets of Petrograd disguised and unrecognized, seized the Russian empire. They formed the world’s first Marxist government, remained at the peak of the state for the rest of their days, sacrificed millions of lives at the pitiless altar of their utopian ideology, and ruled the imperium, between them, for the next thirty-six years. -Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin, p332

25 May 2008

Most tourists visit Moscow to see the ballet, the Kremlin, and the churches. There weren’t any Stalin tours when I was over there a few years ago. Requesting such from a Russian would prompt a suspicious retort: “Why would you want to see that?” They were amused, even proud, that a foreigner would be interested in their recent history. However, it was their history, and maybe it was still too fresh. They were ready to move on.

Reminders of Stalin were therefore more of the “if you know what to look for” variety: the “wedding cake” skyscrapers, the House on the Embankment (adorned with a Mercedes symbol of all things), the Lubyanka, the grand but unrenovated subway where Stalin spoke during German bombings, and Red Square of course.

And then there was the New Tretyakov gallery. It housed an incredibly interesting collection of Soviet art, including huge portraits of the mustachioed Friend of the Working People. After communism fell in the early 90s, Muscovites didn’t want monuments of Lenin and crew prominently displayed about the city, so they took them down (Stalin had been removed many years before). These dark reminders, including the Dzerzhinsky statue that ominously fronted the Lubyanka before being famously toppled in 1991, were eventually moved to a courtyard adjacent to the art gallery. The unkempt courtyard was coined the “Graveyard of Fallen Monuments.” Someone apparently decided that it was too good of a fate for the statues of Bolshevik monsters, and so gulag sculptures were added here and there.

What a motley sight it was a few years ago, another odd and yet moving spectacle of Russia. Alas, it sounds like less of it remains today.

19 May 2008

There are some really bizarre places in Russia. Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, for one. The modern part is where the glitterati who didn’t make the Kremlin Wall were buried: Yeltsin, Khruschev, Raisa Gorbachev, Mayakovsky, Orlova, Stalin’s second wife, cosmonauts, generals. Even Solzhenitsyn’s censor. Pictures do the totality of Novodevichy Cemetery little justice, but to give you an idea, check out this, this, this, this, and this. There was one particularly hideous grave featuring a bald man’s head jutting almost horizontally out of a rock formation. Alas, I cannot find one picture of it; ours must not have turned out.

Individually these graves at Novodevichy were all quite appalling, as the English might say, and emblematic of man’s boastful pride. The haphazard landscaping at the cemetery added to the bemusing quality of it all.

Don’t miss Novodevichy Cemetery if you go to Moscow. Hopefully you will leave it wanting the humility of a simple marker.

14 Mar 2006

Tim Ware notes a detail of 17th century Russian court life.

[Worship] Services lasting seven hours or more were attended by the Tsar and the whole Court… The children were not excluded from these rigorous observances. ‘What surprised us most was to see the boys and little children…standing bareheaded and motionless, without betraying the smallest gesture of impatience.’


09 Mar 2006

Winter Palace

In St. Petersburg, we stayed at a hotel where, looking out a window, I could see one of Dosteovsky’s flats. Across the square lay majestic St. Isaac’s, commissioned by Alexander I. Not far away was Tchaikovsky’s apartment. Across a small park, the Bronze Horseman rears up along the Neva. A ten minute walk leads to the Winter Palace, seat of 200 years of Romanov rule and site of the final Bolshevik blow against the crumbling Provisional Government. Today it houses the famous Hermitage; locals and tourists wander about the large square below where many died in 1905. Who can understand the rhythms of Tsarist life, or the fear that reigned during the great siege of 1942, or Stalin’s terrors the decade before? Even in this recent city, born from 18th-century swamps, the past overwhelms.

Somewhere – I wish I remembered where – the late Shelby Foote noted that when it was still at Shiloh in early April, he could hear the yells of the boys in the wind whistling through the first growth on the trees. The history that he knew so intimately was alive. In some sense he communed with his forbears. How many have felt the same when peering at the crosses overlooking the windy sea at Normandy, or standing in the Gettysburg wheat field, or overlooking Rome from the Palatine Hill, or walking the grounds of Oxford, or a thousand other places including St. Petersburg?

And yet God’s glory, His weight, encompasses and far surpasses all of it combined. Who has known the mind of the Lord? (Rom 11:33-36)

13 Aug 2005

As always in life, the best moments are unplanned. On the way to see the lovely Russian church shown in a previous post, we stopped with our guide in Vladimir. We stepped into the medieval Assumption Cathedral, perhaps around noon, by happenstance toward the end of Liturgy. Long candles were the only illumination inside the stone edifice, which was plain white on the outside, but ornate with gilding, paintings and icons in the cool, mostly dark interior. We walked amid the standing congregation but stayed respectfully toward the rear. The female-heavy choir filled the air with sweet and exalted chants. Congregants lit the votive candles. Amid the flickering paintings and gilding, in the candlelit darkness, the effect was overpowering, so ancient but eternally alive. At the end of the Eucharist, the Father proclaimed something, perhaps forgiveness. And how forcefully so!

Scripture says: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Indeed. What a promise.

14 Jul 2005

Every few years I re-read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago for its chronicle of heroism and mind-boggling wickedness, its powerful phrasing, its uncompromising honesty and moral beauty, its vicious wit and wisdom. It describes the criminality and crushed lives, the rottenness, and colossal scale of murder and mayhem in this sinister era of Russian history. Gulag is one of the greatest books ever written.

And there are many lessons to take from it. The easy one is an abiding thankfulness that we walk freely, that we can do simple things, like drink a beer, that a prisoner could only dream of. And maybe after a deeper reading it is evident how evil so often backfires, that it cannot shake the good that attends it despite evil’s worst intentions.

After this reading, however, another more practical thought took hold. It is unlikely that we will ever live in conditions like the Gulag in this lifetime. So why is this book so relevant? Maybe because Hell is worse. Yes, Hell is worse. It’s worse than the starvation and torture and filth and treachery in the worst prison of the archipelago. It has none of Gulag’s rare conveniences such as friendship and a bit of water. And it is everlasting. We ought to heed the call of Isaiah 55: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. “

28 May 2005

This is the 12th-century Church of the Intercession near Bogolyubovo in Russia. It stands alone in a remote field by the small Nerl river. To this eye it is one of the loveliest churches ever constructed.

Church of the Intercession on the Nerl

02 May 2005

Stalin’s atheism was neither abrupt nor complete. His atheism was a rebellion against God rather than a disavowal of the deity.

So says Donald Rayfield in “Stalin and His Hangmen.” It is a most intruguing statement about this hard, cruel man. How many atheists does it describe today, whose rebellion stems more from anger than disbelief? And this anger or rebellion, no matter what caused it, is always without warrant. God has forgiven us for things far worse than we can ever imagine or suffer ourselves.

19 Jan 2005

Malcolm Muggeridge was one of the greats of the 20th century. His memoir, Chronicles of Wasted Time, is a sharp, hilarious journey through key events of the past century. Two vignettes follow from this beautifully-written book, both from his time in the Soviet Union during the deadly era of Stalinist famine, both illustrating the heavenly, eternal joy that pierces worldly darkness:

It just suddenly seemed to me that Russia was a beautiful place– these pine trees, dark against the snow which had now begun to fall, the sparkling stars so far, far away, the faces of the Russians I met and greeted, these also so beautiful, so clumsy and kind… In the woods there was a little church, of course disused now. The fronts of such churches, like the Greek ones, are painted with bright colours; blues bluer than the bluest sky, whites whiter than the whitest snow. Someone — heaven knows who — had painted up the one in the Kliasma woods. Standing in front of this unknown painter’s handiwork, I blessed his name, feeling that I belonged to the little disused church he had embellished, and that the Kremlin with its scarlet flag and dark towers and golden spires was an alien kingdom. A kingdom of power such as the Devil had in his gift, and offered to Christ, to be declined by him in favour of the kingdom of love. I, too, must decline it, and live in the kingdom of love. This was another moment of perfect clarification, when everything fitted together in sublime symmetry; when I saw clearly the light and the darkness, freedom and servitude, the bright vistas of eternity and the prison bars of time. I went racing back over the snow to K[itty, his wife], breathing in the dry icy air in great gulps of thankfulness.

In Kiev, where I found myself on a Sunday morning, on an impulse I turned into a church where a service was in progress. It was packed tight, but I managed to squeeze myself against a pillar where I could survey the congregation and look up at the altar. Young and old, peasants and townsmen, parents and children, even a few in uniform– it was a variegated assembly. The bearded priests, swinging their incense, intoning their prayers, seemed very remote and far away. Never before or since have I participated in such worship; the sense conveyed of turning to God in great affliction was overpowering. Though I could not, of course, follow the service, I knew… little bits of it; for instance, where the congregation says there is no help for them save from God. What intense feeling they put into those words! In their minds, I knew, as in mine, was a picture of those desolate abandoned villages, of the hunger and the hopelessness, of the cattle trucks being loaded with humans in the dawn light. Where were they to turn for help? Not to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, certainly; nor to the forces of democracy and enlightenment in the West… Every possible human agency found wanting. So, only God remained, and to God they turned with a passion, a dedication, a humility, impossible to convey. They took me with them; I felt closer to God then than I ever had before, or am likely to again.