As the name and subtitle of the book suggest, it is not a cheery work. It is a panoramic view of one of the darkest periods of human history, the 'dirty thirties', the decade of Depression and of the apogee of the great dictatorships.
This is not to say that it does not sparkle with imagination and wit. In addition to being an accomplished stylist himself, Brendon frequently quotes brilliant, or lapidary, or epigrammatic quips.
One of the best passages, for example, consists of a series of quotes that Brendon strings together about Chamberlain's Cabinet:
Chamberlain drew around himself an inner circle of subservient mediocrities, most of them knights remote from the practice of chivalry. Sir John Simon, a serpentine lawyer described as a snake in snake's clothing, was singularly lacking in resolution at the Treasury: he had sat on the fence so long, Lloyd George famously remarked, that the iron had entered into his soul. Sir Samuel Hoare, now at the Home Office, had learned no lessons from the dictators: he was later said to have "passed from experience to experience, like Boccaccio's virgin, without discernible effect upon his condition." Sir Thomas Inskip, Minister for Coordination of Defence, had little ability, less power, and no perceptiveness: "He could look with frank and fearless gaze at any prospect, however appalling—and fail to see it." Other acolytes, such as Sir Horace Wilson, with his "temporising, 'play for safety,' formula-evolving mind," and Sir Kingsley Wood, who on the outbreak of war opposed the bombing of munition works in Germany because they were private property, were equally unable or unwilling to stand up to Chamberlain. [p. 611]Another example serves to introduce what I would like to comment upon: writing about the whole book would be impossible, of course, but focussing on one aspect will help give a sense of the whole.
In his chapter on the Soviet Purges (pp. 465-93), Brendon looks at the terrific (in the sense of 'having the quality of inspiring terror') paradox that the Great Purge, and the means by which it was at once concealed and revealed, begat a kind of double mind in people. It certainly begat one of the vastest networks of snitches in history [p. 490]:
According to one (probably exaggerated) estimate, every fifth citizen was an NKVD nark. Russians joked about the man looking at himself in the mirror who says, "One of us must be an informer."The unreality of the Great Purge and the corrupting effect that this unreality had on the hapless citizens of the Soviet Union, then, is what I wish to look at in greater detail.
Incidentally, the bleak humour often expressed by Soviet citizens themselves, as well as by others, around the murderous, mindbending deeds committed by the Communist State, is extraordinary (consider, for example, that there is no similar culture of humour surrounding similar atrocities perpetrated by the National Socialists), and is explored in Martin Amis's Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. Martin Amis, an accomplished novelist and writer in his own right, is the son of the famous writer Kingsley Amis, who for many years was a Communist fellow-traveller. I am insufficiently familiar with the works of either man; but I would recommend Koba the Dread, which I have read and own, to anyone interested in a different take on the man behind the Iron Curtain, Joseph Stalin.
Quite aptly, then, Brendon's chapter on the Great Purge begins with both a sample of his delectable style and an example of the gallows humour so prevalent in Stalin's Russia:
As Japan thrust deep into China it seemed that the Soviet Union was also bent on suicide. Stalin... was now mangling the Communist party, shattering his own instrument of repression, the NKVD, and decapitating the Red Army. The entire nation was sucked into this vortex of terror. ... About Stalin's motives the Japanese were as much in the dark as his victims. Those newly arrested in Russia repeated "Za chto?"—"What for?"—so often that fellow prisoners described the expression as "Record No. 1" and told them to switch it off. ...After handling the situation in Leningrad in his typical fashion, it did not take long for the real targets of Stalin's manhunt to be caught in the ever-widening net of suspects:
... [H]aving sown famine, Stalin evidently decided that he must reap a harvest of his enemies. Certainly he studied, and was impressed by, the Führer's method of cutting such a crop. At a... meeting after the Night of the Long Knives he exclaimed, "Good chap, that Hitler! He showed how to deal with political opponents!" Soon Stalin found the excuse to imitate Hitler, except that his pogrom destroyed millions and took a thousand nights to reach its ghastly climax. As the writer Eugenia Ginzburg famously said, the year 1937 began on 1 December 1934—the date on which Sergei Kirov, head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, was assassinated. [p. 465] As Brendon goes on to explain on the following page, much suggests that the Kremlin, if not Stalin himself, was involved in the assassination, despite the fact that it occurred at the hands of a 'rogue' terrorist, from the fact that security at Kirov's headquarters was unaccountably lax to the eradication of anything (and anyone) having to do with the case upon Stalin's arrival in Leningrad shortly after the murder. Ginzburg's remark is notable, in that it rightly identifies the tone of a period of time with a date that does not, strictly speaking, belong to it. Just as the twentieth century can be said to have really started on 3 August 1914, with the outbreak of war, the 'character', as it were, of 1937, the year the Great Purge entered full swing, was stamped the day Kirov was shot as he walked to his office by a lone gunman. Stalin's 'One Thousand and One Nights' are not a menagerie of legends, fancies, and fables, but a litany of terror, a mythology of murder. The line about 'Za chto?' being called 'Record No. 1' by inmates in prisons (such as the notorious Lubyanka in Moscow) is another example of the gallows humour which pervades this chapter - no other kind of humour can, for this is one of the grimmest subjects Brendon treats in The Dark Valley. In his typical paranoiac fashion, Stalin approves of the actions of one who, in principle, should be his fiercest rival - in the event, of course, Hitler did become Stalin's fiercest rival. In any event, throughout The Dark Valley Brendon shows how, despite their would-be ideological differences the dictators shared so much in common that they could not help but admire the others' actions; Brendon also recounts how ideological and moral qualms about Soviet Russia prevented the Western powers from coming to a rapprochement with Stalin in order to stop Hitler when decisive action taken earlier (even as late as 1938 during the Sudeten crisis) could have stopped National Socialist Germany in its tracks. Of course (as Brendon also argues), Stalin's murderous domestic policy was one of the key reasons why his foreign policy of collective security failed. In 1938, why would any of the Western powers want to make common cause with a tyrant such as this?
Back in Moscow, Stalin denounced White counter-revolutionaries, Trotskyists, wreckers, class enemies, terrorists, spies and saboteurs. But... [he] particularly directed the purge against the old guard of the Communist Party. Perhaps he saw himself as a renascent Ivan the Terrible, whose mistake had been, Stalin considered, to succumb to the qualms of conscience and kill too few nobles. Certainly he determined to destroy the boyars of Bolshevism: they were, he said, "a millstone round the neck of the revolution." As former acolytes of Lenin, Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev seemed still to be the greatest menace. ... [One was] one of the Party's ablest theoreticians... [the other] an outstanding orator. In fact both men were ciphers. ... Once wont to sneer at Stalin's clumsy formulations of Marxism, Kamenev and Zinoviev had long since abased themselves before him. But they were arrested, together with a number of associates. While the NKVD were searching his apartment, Zinoviev (who for years had been so cowed that he would not reveal his state of health to foreign journalists wthout consulting the Kremlin) scrawled a frantic note to Stalin. He was guilty of "nothing, nothing, nothing[.]" ... But the NKVD, staffed by men who boasted that they could have got Marx to confess to being an agent of Bismarck, soon extorted pleas of guilty. Kamenev and Zinoviev were convicted of moral responsibility for Kirov's death. [pp. 466-7] Certainly the boasts of the NKVD men, 'that they could have got Marx to confess to being an agent of Bismarck,' suggests how far from adhering to their own ideological code many 'committed' Communists really were. Against the kind of nonsensical psychoanalysis of Communists found in, say, the works of Tom Clancy (whatever its merits his book Red Rabbit, for example, is certainly guilty of including such things, if memory serves), in which leading Communists are depicted as convinced of the rightness of their cause (or at least struggling to reconcile the Party's methods with its ideological convictions), as this chapter (not to mention the other chapters on the Soviet Union) in The Dark Valley shows, the corruption caused by the exercise of power extends from the greatest to the least; despite everyone appealing to Communist ideology, everyone knew that they were enacting a great lie. Nobody knew what to believe, but the double-think they had to think all the time at least demonstrated that they knew better than to believe the party line, even if they had no choice but to say it was true. Along this line of approach to the widespread cynicism regarding Communist ideology in the Soviet Union is Stalin's real motive for widening the dragnet in order to catch the enemies of the people behind Kirov's assassination; it becomes a ready-made excuse to rid himself of his old enemies, the other Old Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, 'moral responsibility' for a crime is a wonderful (if you are the prosecutor) charge, vague but able to imply that the ones charged with it are as guilty of the deed as those who carried it out. (Not that Kamenev and Zinoviev actually had to have any connection, which they most certainly didn't, to Kirov's murder, as the trumped-up charges against them would demonstrate.)Although in the immediate aftermath of Kirov's murder and the arrests of prominent Old Bolsheviks such as Kamenev and Zinoviev there were arrests, deportations (Brendon writes that so many citizens of Leningrad were sent to Siberia in what was jokingly called the 'Kirov torrent' that 'Leningrad's housing problem was said to have been cured at a stroke.' [p. 466]) and torture, the Great Purge did not begin in earnest until after the second of the three show trials.
The first began on 19 August 1936. Incidentally, the year 2011 was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Moscow show trials, and an article on the event in the Canada Free Press (whose ideological commitments are almost without doubt nonsense since the tagline reads '...Because without America there is no Free World', and the website features a time tracker counting down until Obama 'leaves office'; thankfully, other than the conclusion, which is a piece of right-wing agit-prop, the body of the article is a more-or-less accurate summary of the show trials and accompanying purges) describes the year 1936 as 'the diamond anniverary of much wickedness' - after all that year also featured (as the article notes), 'the start of the Spanish Civil War, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the Berlin Olympic games, the annexation of Ethiopia by... Italy [not to mention the accompanying war of conquest], and the rise of... militarist... government in Japan[.]'
About the first show trial, Brendon writes:
[Sidney and Beatrice Webb]... likened Stalin and his acolytes to the enlightened specialists whom Auguste Comte had called "the Priests of Humanity." Such views, not surprisingly, outraged the exiled [Leon] Trotsky. To prescribe Stalinism for the Bear but only Fabianism for the Lion was crazy, he thought; England was "the last ward of the European madhouse."As I pointed out, the first show trial set the stage, almost literally, for the second:
Actually, the Soviet Union was succumbing to lunacy. In the summer of 1936 it became a vast glass darkly reflecting the homicidial mania of its leader. This national psychosis is often called the Great Purge and it began with the first of the three major show trials, whose star defendants were Kamenev and Zinoviev. Recalled from prison to Moscow, these old Bolsheviks were accused of having planned a Trotskyist version of the coup which Franco had just mounted in Spain. ...
[The trial] took place in the October Hall, the upstairs ballroom of what had once been the Noble's Club and was now the Trade Union Building. Where tsarist aristocrats had once waltzed, Communist revolutionaries now danced with death. In the musicians' gallery, Stalin orchestrated the proceedings from behind an opaque screen, occasionally signifying his presence with puffs of smoke from his Dunhill pipe. ...
Opposite the dock was a desk occupied by the State Prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky. He was a slight figure with sparse red hair and a florid countenance, a trim moustache over thin lips, and grey eyes magnified behind steel-rimmed spectacles. In his stiff collar and smart suit Vyshinsky looked like a stockbroker. But he behaved like the Grand Inquisitor. ... On the basis of their confessions, [he said]... these rabid curs deserved to be shot. What baffled foreign reporters was that the curs themselves agreed. They did not fight for their lives but admitted to fantastic crimes, supplying a wealth of detail that seemed authentic. Although cursing Trotsky and blessing Stalin, they did not "testify like men coerced." Maybe each prisoner was, as the Russian proverb had it, lying like an eyewitness. Surely there was more to their extraordinary performance than appeared. But as the accused men made their final speeches, some denouncing their co-defendants, others sobbing "like camp-meeting converts," New York Times journalist Harold Denny concluded with a classic inversion of the truth: "There is free speech in the shadow of the executioner."
... The guilty verdict was inevitable... . Even [the judges]... seemed impressed by the dignified way in which the white-haired Kamenev heard his doom pronounced. Zinoviev, by contrast, looked crushed. Apparently he continued to protest his innocence and to beg for mercy in the few hours remaining before he was shot in the cellars of the Lubyanka. Afterwards, in the Kremlin, a witness gave an imitation of Zinoviev's frantic last moments which reduced Stalin to tears of helpless laughter.
The Russian people, though, were transfixed by the grisly drama enacted in the October Hall. In the thrall of propaganda, they increasingly took shadows for substance. Hermetically sealed inside their own national theatre of the absurd, they confused illusion with reality. They were, for the most part, convinced by the new "Method" of acting exhibited at the trial: where Stanislavski had brought out his players' latent powers of self-expression by precept and practice, Stalin did so by torture and intimidation. Russians suspended disbelief, moreover, because they saw in the October Hall not only a mystery play but a transparent fable designed to convey the truth that enemies of the people would be executed. It was hard, even for Stalin, to distinguish between people and enemies of the people. "That is why it was necessary," wrote Fitzroy Maclean (who attended a later show trial), "for there to be so sharp a contrast between good and evil, between darkness and light, for the characters to be portrayed in such crude colours, to correspond accurately to the conventional figures of Communist Heaven and Hell." [pp. 472-4] You will not be surprised to learn, as we shall see, that the consequence of the first Moscow show trial was to pave the way for the second: as with the witch hunts of early modern Europe and America, the 'defendants' named names, eager to implicate others if only to lighten the tortures to which they were subjected. The last paragraph of this passage, meanwhile, expresses something of the increasing difficulty of discerning reality in the Soviet Union. The emphasis is on the 'show' of show trial; Brendon describes it as a 'grisly drama', a 'mystery play', a demonstration of a torturous form of 'Method acting', a 'dance with death' ('orchestrated' by Stalin, the Red Maestro), a 'fable' - like one of Aesop's fables, the first show trial was designed, as Brendon points out, to 'convey' a simple truth. Unlike one of Aesop's fables, the 'truth' which the show trials were designed to convey was, at bottom, a lie. 'Enemies of the people' were surely destroyed, but those 'enemies' were none other than the 'people' themselves. Later in The Dark Valley, Brendon recounts an experience by Fitzroy Maclean at the third show trial, in which he 'unforgettably... noticed Stalin silhouetted by an ill-directed arc-lamp inside his screened private box' (p. 667). Stalin was the Red Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain to whom nobody should be paying attention, who was pulling all the strings. Stalin like Stanislavsky was a director, but one who resorted to thuggery to bring out the defendants' 'latent powers of self-expression': NKVD men with truncheons and a cramped cell in the Lubyanka provided the answer to the question, 'What's my motivation?' (As an aside, the sole comment on the Lonely Planet page for the Lubyanka is, I think, unintentionally hilarious: 'would not recommend', writes its author.) The inability of Russians to perceive the truth accurately stemmed from a climate in which intellectual freedom was as much imprisoned and murdered in the Lubyanka as the victims of the Purge. Now, an atmosphere of intellectual freedom does not guarantee that, at any given time, anyone will know the whole of the truth; but it is a sine qua non. In the Soviet Union, especially during the Purge and accompanying show trials, Soviet citizens were permitted to see only what Stalin wanted them to see, and allowed to say only what the Party (through its organs of propaganda) permitted; but they could guess at what lay beyond the veil of obscurity, and find ways to hint at the unspeakable. Moreover, as the example of Denny (and others, as we shall see) shows, it was not only Russians who were taken in; his comment that ' "There is free speech in the shadow of the executioner" ' is indeed, as Brendon puts it, an 'inversion of the truth'. He, too, and many other foreigners besides, mistook 'shadows for substance'. (That line feels like an allusion to Plato's allegory of the cave, which is an apt metaphor for what was going on during the show trials and the Great Purge.) The Trade Union Building, in which the trials were held, is a lovely old building. But it became the home of a travesty of justice. Actually, it is fitting that the show trials were held in a Hall where the tsarist nobility once played the fanciest games of dress-up and waltzed; the judges, prosecutor and defendants were all dancing to Stalin's tune. Finally, the uncomfortable truth that humour can sometimes be cruel is demonstrated by Stalin having been 'reduced... to tears of helpless laughter' by an imitation (undoubtedly exaggerated for 'comic' effect) of 'Zinoviev's frantic last moments'. Do we not frequently imitate others comically in order to mock them? I am reminded of Heath's & Potter's brief analysis of Freud's theory of humour in The Rebel Sell (which I don't think I looked at in my marginal commentary on the work), in which they pointed out how curious it was that we should find funny the joke about a man shooting his friend and fellow hunter because of misinterpreting the direction of the 911 operator that he 'make sure he's dead'. I am also reminded of a book my brother once owned criticising the former president George W. Bush, in one place attending to the fact that while governor of Texas he once, for his own amusement and that of others, imitated the final pleas of an inmate scheduled for execution. (It would be easy at this point to take the idiotic Adbusters route and say that this shows that Bush is no better than Stalin, but even if this were true we would have to concede that most of us are no better on those grounds, since it is almost certainly true that everyone has at least once been amused by cruel imitations of others. Actually, as I expressed in my commentary on The Rebel Sell, we can posit moral continuity between our own deeds and misdeeds and those of worse men and women than we; but it is nonsenical to posit absolute moral equivalency.)
The defendants had indicated other candidates for perdition. They thus prepared the way for a second Stalinist pogrom more widespread, though somewhat less bloody, than that accompanying the collectivisation of agriculture. In factories and institutions all over the country mass meetings clamoured for action against spies, saboteurs, traitors and terrorists who had yet to be unmasked. Newspapers magnified the cry, demanding an investigation into the treachery of those senior Communists who had been implicated, notably Tomsky, Radek, Piatakov, Rykov and Bukharin. Stalin tried to lure Mikhail Tomsky into a false sense of security, calling at his dacha with a bottle of wine. But Stalin had violated the unwritten compact, dating to Lenin's time, whereby Russian revolutionaries would not spill one another's blood—outsiders remained fair game—in some Bolshevik Thermidor. After a blazing row, Tomsky drove his visitor from the house with a volley of screamed obscenities. Stalin left, still clutching the bottle of wine, and shortly afterwards Tomsky committed suicide. The State Publishing House, which he had run, was at once exposed as a "nest of Trotskyists."The fog of unreality, already heavy after collectivisation, thickened after the first trial. It grew denser still during the course of the second:
After ordering the death of 5,000 Party members already under arrest, Stalin craftily distanced himself from the growing witch-hunt. In September 1936 he dismissed Yagoda as head of the NKVD and appointed in his place Nikolai Yezhov. ... [One observer] interpreted this appointment as an attempt to curb the power of the secret police. Quite the opposite was true. But Yezhov did not quite warrant the position he was to occupy in popular demonology. ... Certainly [he] was a vicious little sadist whose crimes were legion; but like everyone else in the USSR he was the victim of Stalin's insensate lust to kill. He played midget Faust to the Kremlin Mephistopheles. ... He was, nevertheless, seen as the "Iron Commissar." Yozh means hedgehog in Russian—a spiky cartoon character of that name briefly eclipsed Mickey Mouse... and Yezhov's victims were known as his prickles. The next two years became the Yezhovshchina, the Yezhov era. Even sophisticated journalists like Ehrenburg believed, so he said, that Yezhov was responsible for the reign of terror. And many people... exclaimed despairingly with Pasternak: "If only someone would tell Stalin about it."
In fact Stalin was making repression a way of life. [pp. 474-5] Yezhov undoubtedly bears responsibility for his own part as head of the NKVD for the appalling extent of the murderousness and viciousness of the Great Purge, but it must not be forgotten that he was never more than Stalin's tool. Again we find another example of gallows humour as it relates to Stalin's rule over the Soviet Union; the victims of Yezhov were called 'prickles' because his name derives from the word for 'hedgehog'; see? 'If only someone would tell Stalin about it', is an expression of the kind often found on the lips of those whose conception of the nature of power and authority is naïve: we often see someone in a position of authority, who is subordinate to yet someone else, misusing his (say) authority, and we suppose that if only his superior(s) knew about it, she (say) would do something about things; but in fact abuse of authority is usually 'authorised' (in a sense) by the way in which higher authorities exercise their own power or relate to their underlings. Even had Stalin not been directly complicit in the subsequent manic Purge by his secret police, he would have shared in the guilt by virtue of his office. Family systems theory is very revealing in this regard. In the case of Stalin and the supposed 'excesses' of his secret police (they are only 'excesses' if one takes the view that the purges were actually necessary and that Stalin didn't want them to go as far as they did, but they weren't, and he did), not only did his behaviour 'authorise' their abuse of their power (already excessive due to the role of the NKVD in the Soviet state apparatus), but Stalin positively (in the strict sense) desired that these excesses be committed. Meanwhile, that anyone would view the appointment of Yezhov as 'an attempt to curb the power of the secret police' is due, Brendon explains (on pp. 474-5), to the 'ghetto-like isolation in which diplomats lived, shunned like typhus carriers by Soviet citizens and cut off from most Russian reality'. True to form, the Soviet system could not withstand scrutiny, so those in a position to scrutinise were routinely isolated in order to be unable to form an accurate picture of what was going on - though Brendon notes that sufficient evidence had been provided to 'lift the veil' from Stalinist iniquity and reveal the Soviet state for what it was. But such was the fog of unreality, the choking atmosphere of falsification, that even the truth seemed incredible. To most people - myself included - the allusion to 'Thermidor' by Brendon is obscure. It is a reference to the Revolutionary calendar established in France after the Revolution, for in the month of Thermidor reactionary elements overthrew Robespierre and ended the Revolutionary Terror (although they followed it up with some bad stuff of their own). Brendon's 'Bolshevik Thermidor' is a recognition that, in putting revolutionary comrades to death, Stalin really had betrayed the Revolution (although it is inarguable, given the nature of the exercise of power by Soviet leadership, that some such 'betrayal' was in the offing - you might say that this 'Thermidor' was not an unexpected re-evaluation of and renunciation of revolutionary method, but followed it by logical necessity). The Red Terror following Stalin's Thermidor, however, grew worse, not better.
By January 1937 everything was ready for the October Hall's second judicial masque. Seventeen men stood trial, the most famous being Yuri Piatakov, who had helped to revolutionise industry, and Karl Radek, Stalin's most brilliant sycophant. ... All... admitted to charges which seemed stranger than fiction. They confessed to treason, espionage, terrorism, wrecking on a grand scale and "counter-revolution of the most vile, loathsome, fascist type." These crimes emanated, of course, from "the suffocating underworld of Trotskyism."The second trial paved the way for a nation-wide witch-hunt:
As in the previous trial, some testimony was demonstrably false. The alleged Oslo conference between Piatakov and Trotsky could not have taken place because Norwegian records, refuting the prosecution's case, proved that no plane had landed. Such flaws added to foreigners' bewilderment. Simone de Beauvoir dismissed as "the merest imbecility" Le Matin's claim that the confessions had been extracted by means of an American "truth drug" but added helplessly, "What explanation could one offer in its stead?" Keynes professed himself "absolutely baffled for the correct explanation. In a way, the speeches of the prisoners made me feel they somehow believe [italics original] their confessions to be true." Others were sceptical. Lord Chilston reported to the Foreign Office that the indictment as a whole was "utterly unworthy of belief." Like most diplomats and most reporters, he believed that false confessions had been extorted by "unavowable methods." And he was glad that the trials helped to discredit the Soviet government abroad. ...
However, those predisposed to favour the regime, such as the American Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, were credulous to a fault. Davies accepted the guilt of the accused and said that Vyshinsky conducted the trial "in a manner that won my respect and admiration as a lawyer." It was to the uncomprehending Davies, apparently, that the journalist Alfred Cholerton made his classic comment on the 1937 show trial: "I believe everything but the facts." But cynicism was powerless against the true fellow-travelling faith. The German writer Leon Feuchtwanger did not agree with friends who were disillusioned by the "tragi-comical, barbaric, incredible" proceedings at the October Hall. As he observed the trial his "doubts melted away" and he wrote:
Read any book or any speech of Stalin's, look at any portrait of him, think of any measure which he has taken ... It at once becomes as clear as daylight that this modest, impersonal man cannot possibly have committed the colossal indiscretion of producing, with the assistance of countless performers, as coarse a comedy, merely for the purpose of holding a sort of festival of revenge, with Bengal lights to celebrate the humiliation of his opponents.[pp. 475-6] Chilston's view is, in retrospect, the truest. It seems hard to credit bafflement to anyone, but Keynes and de Beauvoir were not idiots (so far as I know), and in any case while the show trials laid bare for all to see the moral barrenness and near-absolute mendacity of the Soviet Union, at the same time they hid them, for Stalin's Russia (and satellites) displayed these characteristics to a heretofore unheard-of extreme. The truth was so much beyond anyone's experience that it seemed fantastic, incredible. Feuchtwanger's avowal is ironically true: in fact Stalin did commit the 'colossal indiscretion' of 'holding a... festival of revenge, with Bengal lights to celebrate the humiliation of his opponents.' Bengal lights are a kind of firework; in fact, those hand-held sparklers you somtimes see are very much like miniature Bengal lights. Meanwhile, Davies's appraisal of the situation is wholly discreditable: he can hardly be said to have actually watched what Vyshinsky was doing as prosecutor. "I believe everything but the facts," is another piercing statement, and a pity it was wasted on Ambassador Davies. (However, Brendon later recounts, unlike his sceptical staff Davies correctly predicted that the Soviet Union would successfully resist Hitler's invasion.) Chilston's hope that the show trials discredited the Soviet government abroad was realised; as we saw, the Western powers made no effort to form a coalition with the Soviet Union in the late thirties on account of Stalin's iniquitous domestic policy. The accused at both the first and second (and later at the third) show trials were made to appear to be a part of an incredibly (in the strict sense) wide-ranging conspiracy, spearheaded by Trotsky, but the real conspiracy was enacted by Stalin and his cronies. And, as proof that when you are indulging yourself in a conspiracy theory you don't need to trouble yourself with bothersome facts, we have situations in which what actually happened (for example, Piatakov being unable to meet with Trotsky in Norway) is deliberately ignored in favour of a vicious fantasy. It is not so much that Stalin and his closest associates actually believed that the Old Bolsheviks they were rounding up had anything to do with Trotsky (at least after his downfall and exile); the point is that they needed a scapegoat, and he was the best at hand.
The importance of this trial... was that it removed the last restraints on a universal heresy hunt. All over the country mass meetings and demonstrations, in which even school children participated, demanded death for counter-revolutionary bandits. ... Stalin himself overcame the last vestiges of resistance inside the Party, assisted by the suicide of the forthright Politburo member Sergo Ordzhonikidze. This was successfully disguised as a heart attack at a time when, it was said, Russians no longer believed there was such a thing as natural death. Addressing the Central Committee in March 1937, Stalin projected his own paranoia on to the vast Soviet screen. The dark side of their industrial success, he declared, was that Communists had become blind to the ever-increasing dangers of capitalist and Trotskyist subversion. Their agents had infiltrated "nearly all our organisations," often in the guise of loyal Party members and hard workers. They must be arraigned without mercy and crushed like vipers. So the purge entered its most manic phase, sweeping the country like a Siberian blizzard and blasting the lives of millions. [p. 477] Brendon's account of this 'manic phase' of the Great Purge has to be read to be believed (no doubt fuller accounts are available elsewhere). For my purposes suffice it to say that following the second trial the purges nearly bled the Soviet Union white. Brendon's account of the Great Purge in this chapter (and of its accompanying phenomenon, exile to the Gulag) comprises pp. 477-88. There is a passage or two in that long section that I may quote as it touches on the subject I am exploring. The line about the Yehzovschina being a time 'when, it was said, Russians no longer believed there was such a thing as natural death' is yet another example of the kind of gallows humour so prevalent in Soviet Russia. Meanwhile, Stalin's paranoia is not merely the result of morbidity of a psychologically unbalanced mind (although it is probable that Stalin could have been diagnosed as clinically paranoid), but also reflects a tendency to 'paranoia' common to all people. You can see this kind of paranoia at work among those with power who in every case act as though they are at risk of being usurped by their underlings or rivals: indeed, for all that may be said to be good about our democratic systems of government, they essentially promote just this kind of paranoia, because when one party forms the government, it is always aware of the fact that other parties wish only to remove it from power in order to form the government themselves and act to protect its own interests. To use the American government as an example, a Democratic president, Congress or Senate must always 'be on guard' against 'the dangers of Republican and reactionary subversion', while, when the Republicans are in power, they in turn are 'paranoid' about 'the dangers of Democrat and radical subversion'. And so on.After the wide-ranging account of the victims of the Purge (and the cruel fate to which they were subjected if they were sent to the camps), Brendon returns to the question of how people experienced or understood the Great Purge:
Yet... Stalin's victims often found it difficult to credit the evidence of their senses. They were innocent so there must be some mistake, for which neither Stalin nor the Party could be held responsible. Or perhaps they really were guilty: Communists, like Christians, carried about with them... a "sense of sin, a vague and indefinable feeling of having transgressed, combined with an ineradicable expectation of inevitable punishment." In some obscure fashion, then, many thought the NKVD right. This was certainly the view of free workers in Magadan, as Eugenia Ginzburg recorded:But if the Communists wanted to deceive others, there were more than a few who were willing dupes:
Their naive trust in official propaganda was so strong that they simply refused to believe what their own eyes told them about the realities of Kolyma. Anything that appeared in a newspaper carried more conviction with them than what they saw in the street.To add to the obfuscation, even ideologues who recognised the character of Stalin's despotism did not necessarily want to reveal it to the Party faithful outside Russia. "If you deprive them of their illusions," said Roberta Gropper, formerly a Communist member of the Reichstag who was imprisoned in Butyrka before being handed over to Hitler, "you rob them of their last hope." [p. 488] This latter hypocrisy is not, of course, exclusive to Soviet Communism. In fact it is a well-worn Gnostic position, although in this instance is a cynical form thereof. Basically, the view is this: the world can be divided into 'believers' and 'unbelievers', and the 'believers' can be further sub-divided into 'the wise' and 'the ignorant'. 'The wise', of course, are the only ones who really know (or who think they really know) who's in what category. Actually, this is very much like the kind of 'knowledge' of who's in and who's out criticised by C. S. Lewis in his various essays on what he calls 'The Inner Ring'. This particular expression of that Gnostic viewpoint is cynical and hypocritical because, unlike 'the wise' in many Gnostic (in the loose sense) circles, Gropper and others who shared her opinion that 'the Party faithful outside Russia' ought not to be deprived of their illusions (whereas Gropper and her ilk were 'disillusioned' in the strict sense) no longer give credence to the supposedly Revolutionary aims of Communism. 'The wise' in other such circles would have felt themselves to be 'true believers'. Actually, I think it is fair to say that when people form 'Rings' in Lewis's sense (that is, in order to feel as though they are a part of a group of people who 'really know what's what'), all ideals, whether warranted or not, become victims of a winking cynicism. If the important thing is to be part of a circle of intimates who 'know what's what' - precisely in order to enjoy that superiority over others - then the cause to which such a circle is ostensibly committed really becomes secondary. This kind of mode of life is antithetical to a well-articulated and well-lived Christian worldview: but it must be admitted that many Christians (and probably very nearly all from time to time) succumb to the temptation to 'belong for the sake of belonging', even when such belonging results in unwarranted skepticism, cynicism, and snobbery. The 'vague sense of sin' which Brendon notes is common to Christians and Communists alike also ought to have no place in Christianity; but it is often in the interests of Christian leaders to inculcate such a vague - and it is important that it be vague - and indefinable sense of guiltiness in the flock, rather than exhorting them to repent of and forgive specific and particular acts of sin, and never mind any 'existential sinfulness' about which we can do nothing (except, of course, manipulate other people's sense of their own for our own selfish and vicious ends). The flock themselves prefer a vague sense of sinfulness, too, for it allows them to feel (upon repenting of it) that they shall 'sin no more', when, in fact, the particular sinful acts of which they are guilty remain unaddressed and unrepented of. Actually, both the wrongful 'belonging' and the wrongful 'sense of sinfulness' are besetting temptations of humans generally, and not of some groups (such as Christians) only. Gropper's fate, meanwhile, is cruelly and ironically appropriate given her sentiments. Butyrka is a prison in Moscow: Gropper, then, a member of Germany's Communist Party and ostensibly an ally of Stalin's Soviet Union, was imprisoned by her Communist comrades and handed over by them to Hitler after Stalin's ideological volte-face following the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Western fellow-travellers, some of whom were taken in by "Intourist" prisons, echoed Soviet propaganda. None was more fatuous than Shaw, who said that in England the convict entered gaol an ordinary man and left a criminal, whereas in Russia the opposite was the case—"but for the difficulty of inducing him to come out at all." Such remarks muddied the waters. So did the capitalist efforts to boycott goods produced by slave labour. They made the humanitarian outcry against conditions in the camps, ample evidence of which filtered out, seem part of a plot to do down Communism. Foreigners could therefore profess honest bewilderment about what went on in the Gulag, just as they could regard the purge trials as (in Thomas Mann's phrase) "ugly riddles." [p. 489] It is remarkable that George Bernard Shaw could say something so 'fatuous' (as Brendon puts it). Despite his great intelligence and wit (or, perhaps, because of at least the former quality?), Shaw succumbed to the temptation that human destiny is effectively determined by a 'life force', and his convictions led him to accept at face value the 'Potemkin prisons' which were presented to him. A 'fellow-traveller' is someone who is unwilling to commit to a specific platform, programme, or doctrine, but who is sympathetic to it; it is most commonly used of those who advocated socialism or something akin to Communism, and who wrote or spoke sympathetically or supportively of the Soviet Union, but who were themselves never members of the Communist Party. The Webbs and Shaw are examples of this. In principle lots of people are 'fellow-travellers' with respect to all kinds of causes. The line of Shaw's quoted here by Brendon is taken from a book called The Fellow-Travellers, by David Caute. The second edition of the work bears the subtitle 'Intellectual Friends of Communism'; the first bears the revealing subtitle 'A Postscript to the Enlightenment'. In my view it is one of the under-appreciated studies of Western intellectual (or, perhaps, anti-intellectual) history. Meanwhile, I suspect that Shaw's fellow-travelling is downplayed, for example, by the Shaw Festival. Of course, it is generally true of prisons in Anglo-American society that convicts enter gaol ordinary men and leave criminals - how much more so in Shaw's time than now! But even the 'supermax' prisons which are the dream of far too many Anglo-American conservatives and the nightmare of any commonwealth worth its salt have nothing on the Gulag. Only as a thought experiment can anything like it be conceived: imagine if the Canadian federal government, instead of building jails (or 'detention centres' as they are euphemistically called), sent convicts to build roads in the Arctic winter, digging the permafrost with tools hardly better than bare hands, housed them in clapboard, ramshackle huts both overcrowded and uninsulated, fed them poorly, and generally organised things so that most people sent up there died of malnourishment, disease, or exposure, and you have an inkling of an idea of what the Gulag was (is?) like. (This is not taking into account the prisoners whose 'job', so to speak, was to make the lives of their fellow convicts even more of a living hell than it already was.) And it is this kind of prison system that Shaw (unknowingly) praised. It would be interesting to see if he ever retracted any of his fellow-travelling sentiments (as, for example, Kingsley Amis, who was, in fact, a committed Communist for a time, did). Meanwhile, for all the devilry of the capitalist economic system, it is to date the only one which has not had to rely on human slavery, at least in the strict sense. Unlike the anti-apartheid boycott (exemplified in the world of sports), which was largely successful, it is significant that boycotts against Communist-organised slavery failed - of course, given how little Brendon refers to such efforts (this is the only place I recall him mentioning any such thing), it is probable that they were unsystematic. While no one questioned the purpose of the anti-apartheid boycotts, which was to 'do down apartheid' (to borrow Brendon's turn-of-phrase), the same motive and purpose for similar efforts in the 1930s against the products of slave labour was cast in a sinister light. 'Doing down' Communism was, it would seem, bad. But no one (outside of supporters of apartheid in South Africa and rascists elsewhere) thought apartheid was any good, whereas lots of otherwise well-meaning people thought Communism was the future.Another 'ugly riddle' is, as Brendon goes on to recount, the extent to which the citizens of the Soviet Union themselves knew about what was going on:
Many [Russians] seemed quite sincere in taking official pronouncements at face value. ... Fitzroy Maclean discovered an "absolute lack of independent thought" and a general propensity to parrot the views of Pravda and Izvestia [the two major Communist papers]. Of course, in the presence of aliens, as another visiting Briton found, the average Russian became a "gramophone record of Stalin." Nevertheless, there is copious evidence to support the view that the nation had been brainwashed. Stalin received millions of letters from petitioners, who must have hoped that he would right their wrongs—in fact most of these missives were bundled up and burned. Confident of their innocence, some Communists, even when arrested, were not terrified by the terror. The leader cult continued to work its malign magic. Many people, including the mature and the well educated, felt not just genuine pride in the regime but a real love for its presiding genius. ...But it also seemed to be true that everyone knew what was going on:
That their idol should be engaged in a Machiavellian betrayal of the revolution seemed less likely than that the charges against his enemies were true. The very fact that these charges were so incredible, it was said, made them easier to believe. After all, the world's "most accomplished mystery writers could hardly have invented such a case." (George Orwell punctured this paradox with his comic skit about a monstrous Churchillite conspiracy to overthrow the British empire by means which ranged from blowing up the House of Lords to spreading "foot and mouth disease in the Royal racing-stables.") But even informed members of the Soviet élite swallowed similar stories about Trotskyites, not least because "the unpredictable, incomprehensible and treacherous daily reality of the Soviet system fed perceptions of omnipresent conspiracy." General Gorbatov, one of the few to return from Kolyma, accepted Tukhachevsky's guilt. Stalin proved once more the efficacy of the big lie. [pp. 489-90] With regard to the comment about Russians talking to foreigners like a 'gramophone record of Stalin', this is largely because Russians who had even incidental contact with foreigners were likely to be purged. In another chapter, Brendon recounts how, before he was replaced as Soviet Foreign Commissar by Vyacheslav Molotov, Maxim Litvinov confided in a whisper to the French Ambassador, 'How can I conduct foreign policy with the Lubyanka across the way?' [p. 672], although Litvinov himself 'never had to choose between the Lubyanka and suicide. [p. 677]' As for Brendon's quotation about 'the unpredictable, incomprehensible and treacherous daily reality of the Soviet system' feeding 'perceptions of omnipresent conspiracy', it may be fairly said that Russians had every reason to fear that 'they' were out to get them; it was just that the 'they' were not Trotskyists, but agents of the NKVD. Of course Stalin had indeed 'engaged in a Machiavellian betrayal of the revolution' (not that the revolution had accomplished much by way of recommending itself, in the first place). But as the example of General Gorbatov, who survived exile to one of the camps, demonstrates, it became commonplace to strain at the Trotskyist gnat while swallowing the Stalinist camel. Meanwhile, Brendon's remarks about 'the mature and well educated' and 'even informed members of the Soviet élite' feeling 'not just genuine pride on the regime but a real love for its presiding genius' or swallowing incredible 'stories about Trotskyites' should serve as a reminder that maturity, education, and knowledge are insufficient grounds of virtue. Those who were not 'terrified by the terror' had every reason to be '[c]onfident in their innocence,' for they were, in fact, innocent (at least of the crimes for which they were arrested, executed, or exiled). It is still remarkable that people really believed Stalin was not behind, or at least complicit in, what was going on - but then, we are often prepared to overlook the bad habits of our leaders or idols. (Innocently, because many, if not all, of us in childhood have to adopt such a strategy with respect to figures of authority, and guiltily, because overlooking the faults of others permits us to overlook ours to a certain extent.)
On the other hand, all Russians knew that they were living through an appalling cataclysm. Moreover, recent research into secret police files reveals that dissonant views could often be heard in jokes, verse, rumours, letters and conversation. "This 'shadow culture' ensured that official propaganda was never able to secure a total monopoly on popular opinion." Despite indoctrination and secrecy, many grasped the import of the show trials. Victor Kravchenko, who later defected to the West, said that no one he met in Moscow attached the slightest value to the confessions of defendants. They were simply "puppets in a political morality play not in the least related to truth." Another contemporary was still more scathing: "Even the simplest fool knew that all those thousands were not 'traitors,' 'enemies of the people,' or 'spies.' " ... Eugenia Ginzburg exposed the reality with Humean logic which shocked some of her fellow prisoners: "But if everybody is supposed to have betrayed one man, isn't it easier to think he has betrayed them?" Few had the courage to express such blatant scepticism behind bars (jailbirds were often stool pigeons, or as prisoners said, "broody hens") let alone inside the greater panopticon of the Soviet Union itself.Brendon more or less ends the chapter with a glance at the man behind the Purge:
... Russians joked about the man looking at himself in the mirror who says, "One of us must be an informer." So although there was (according to a leading authority) "mass discontent with Soviet rule," people kept their own counsel. "Today a man only talks freely with his wife," Babel memorably remarked, "at night, with the blankets pulled over his head." Yet, according to another of Stalin's victims, by the time of the Piatakov trial, "we were all thinking the same thing"—namely that the charges were "rubbish." The gulf between what could be voiced and what could be thought was deep but it was also murky. For what Stalin's subjects said with their lips tended to corrupt their minds. They took refuge from the yawning gap between private and public opinion in the licensed schizophrenia which Orwell called "doublethink." As a student of this "dual consciousness" has written:
At public meetings, and even in private conversations, citizens were obliged to repeat in ritual fashion grotesque falsehoods about themselves, the world, and the Soviet Union, and at the same time to keep silent about things they knew very well, not only because they were terrified but because the incessant repetition of falsehoods which they knew to be such made them accomplices in the campaign of lies inculcated by the party and state.Universal mendacity was inevitable. It was a time, as Solzhenitsyn noted, when the "permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence." [pp. 490-1] A 'panopticon' is a model of a prison designed, I believe, by the utilitarian philosopher Bentham; it was expanded into a metaphor for modern social life, notably by the postmodern thinker Foucault. Bentham's design was of a circular shell, the inside of which housed cells. At the centre of the circle there stands a tower, the 'panopticon' proper, from which the guards can see into all of the cells. Certainly the intent of the Soviet state apparatus was to 'see' everything everyone was doing. With all of the concerns over privacy, the intrusion of technology into our lives, and the power and scope of cameras these days, one may come to think that we live in a panopticon of sorts. (If I understand Foucault aright, his point is that modern society is the Panopticon.) This passage is, I feel, the linchpin of the chapter. '[A]ll Russians knew that they were living through an appalling cataclysm', but because they could not speak freely about it - in fact, would be put to death for admitting the truth - they had to implicate themselves in a lie in order to protect themselves. 'Universal mendacity' was, indeed, 'inevitable.' '[W]hat Stalin's subjects said with their lips' corrupted 'their minds.' I would say that so far as it goes, 'universal mendacity' is something in which all people at all times participate to an extent. Saving face; the little white lie; euphemistic speech; being unwilling to admit that you have done wrong - all of these things are prevalent in contemporary Western society (and they, or forms of dishonesty like them, in all other contemporary societies). You might say that the reason why 'big lies', of the sort whose efficacy Stalin proved in the course of the Purge, succeed is because they can count on our having already swallowed so many 'little lies'. We are already committed to untruth, we are all, to one extent or another, 'accomplices in [a] campaign of lies inculcated' not, in our case, by party and state (although both may conduct such campaigns of their own, or abet others), but by general society. Despite this, we must insist on a kind of fundamental honesty - for we all sooner or later perceive the fragmented, dishonest, and self-deceptive world in which we live, and even the worst liars must utter the truth from time to time, even if only, as it were, by accident. (This is why I cannot adhere to the view that truth is 'only' relative, or subjective, determined only by context, because it is self-evident that all falsehood is a perversion or turning away from truth.) All of our lies are departures from truth, and if mendacity is universal (among Western democrats as among Soviet Communists, although to a less vicious extent), it is because it cannot but participate in universal truth, being a departure therefrom. To return to the matter at hand, this passage is the linchpin of the chapter because it reveals why, finally, everyone involved in the Great Purge, whether perpetrator or victim, knew the whole affair to be a baseless lie, yet couldn't face the truth of it. It is because (as Brendon writes, quoting Solzhenitsyn, 'the "permanent lie [became] the only safe form of existence." '
It is, indeed, still unclear whether Stalin was a dictator committed to a revolution that devoured its children—a communist Kronos—or a tyrant hell-bent on eradicating his enemies—the figure memorably foreshadowed by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Alexander Herzen, Genghis Khan with a telegraph. It has been argued recently that "the key to understanding" Stalin (and Hitler) is to recognise that he was entirely serious about his historic role and devoted his life to what he saw as a "higher cause." Certainly, in private letters to Molotov, Stalin gave every sign of believing that the Soviet Union was menaced by counter-revolutionary enemies within. On the other hand, he had all the hallmarks of a malevolent despot. There is a chilling cynicism about the aphorisms attributed to Stalin: "Death solves all problems. No man, no problem!" "One death is a tragedy, a million just statistics." He seemed about as much hampered by ideological considerations as Al Capone. Throughout the 1930s Stalin kept the door open for an agreement with Hitler. Nothing now seems more preposterous than Ambassdor Davies's assertion that the purpose of the "terrific" purge was to keep in power a government "sincerely desirous of elevating the condition of the common man." More plausible is Boris Pasternak's suggestion that the Yezhovschina was prompted by the failure of collectivisation. This could not be admitted and "every means of intimidation had to be used to make people forget how to think and judge for themselves, to force them to see what wasn't there, and to maintain the contrary of what their eyes told them." Stalin acquired absolute power to make facts as plastic as Salvador Dali's clocks. He was the Surrealist of Realpolitik. [pp. 491-2] Pasternak's verdict seems to me to sum up the purpose of the Yezhovschina; it truly was meant as a way for the Party to save face following the failure of collectivisation. If this seems extreme, one need look only at the extent to which denial and face-saving create ills and make bad men out of good in our own society. Everyone in every society is condemned, as it were, to complicity in denial and face-saving from the very beginning of their lives; to draw an example cited in Eviatar Zerubavel's The Elephant in the Room (a book I highly recommend that everyone reads), there is a modified form of the rhyme from the poem 'Antigonish':The Great Purge, then, was yet another facet of the dark and illusory age which was the 1930s.
Yesterday upon the stairThe poem was inspired by sightings of a ghost in the Nova Scotian town of Antigonish, but as an image of the distorting and destructive power of denial, as Zerubavel portrays it, it is chilling. (Incidentally, Zerubavel attributes the lines to an '[a]nonymous nursery rhyme presumably based on a very similar poem by Ogden Nash. [p. 121]' 'Antigonish' was actually written by Hugh Mearns; but despite the fact that Zerubavel wrote the book not long ago (so that, for example, they could search for basic information on an online search engine), he (or his researchers) did not uncover the origins of these lines. In any case, the purpose of the Great Purge was to create and maintain a conspiracy of silence on the grandest of scales, the enforcement of denial about the nature of the Party's positive failures to create the new communist society, a collective conspiracy of silence, in which every single citizen was made complicit, from Vladivostok to Kiev, from Kolyma to the Crimea. And, of course, like all such conspiracies of silence, the evidence disproving the fiction that was being maintained was always and everywhere in plain sight. So much for the social and political motivations of the Great Purge. As for Stalin's own motives, it almost hardly matters whether he was a cynical practitioner of Realpolitik or genuinely dedicated to the cause, for, as Brendon's image of 'a communist Kronos' implies (and as his history has demonstrated), the cause to which Stalin may or may not have been genuinely dedicated was intrinsically vicious. After all, as Brendon wrote, what was unclear was whether Stalin was 'committed to a revolution that devoured its children' - Stalin would have shed blood one way or the other. The Purge and the evils of collectivisation which preceded it were outworkings of what was potential in the Bolshevik revolution from the beginning (indeed, one might say the same of all revolutions which do not have limited aims). Stalin may have, as Brendon puts it, 'acquired absolute power to make facts as plastic as Salvador Dali's clocks', and, as we have seen, he succeeded in persuading, through force and fear, the citizens of Soviet Russia that what he said was so was so, but even as the Purge, like Kronos, consumed the children of the revolution, everyone knew, even if he could not say so, what was really going on.
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh how I wish he'd go away. [p. 80]