A chill comin’ on

August 25, 2009

iciclesI heard a snippet of an interview today about the new investigations of the CIA by the Department of Justice.   The reporter asked some guy what he thought the effect might be on counter-terrorism operations abroad.

There will be a chilling effect, definitely.  These people [being investigated for abuse of prisoners, torture, etc.] thought they were following the policy, orders…

Not his exact words, but close.  Let’s hope there’s a chilling effect!  We need it!  Yes, do your job without torturing people, imprisoning them on flimsy suspicions, and stop “rendering” them to foreign countries willing to beat them to death to do us a favor of keeping our hands clean.

Let’s demand that our gallant defenders of our liberty stop and think a bit about what they are doing in secret rooms, and not feel free to run amok because they can use the old excuse, “I was just following orders…”

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We, terrorists all!

October 8, 2008

This cover on the New Yorker magazine caused quite a (negative) stir recently.  Disgusting and reprehensible were words applied to it, I recall.  It seems, now, however, that it was pretty much on the mark.  Yes indeed, listen to Sarah Palin talk and watch McCain’s ads (“Obama, too dangerous for America!”) and this cover appears to have been strangely prescient.  “This is what we’ve come to,” it was saying, and it was right.

I guess I’m a terrorist too, or at least a sympathizer.  I occasionally attend cultural events in town at a foundation administered by a fellow who did time for some criminal political activity in the 60s.  Oh, yes, and my wife has crossed paths in the field of adult education with Cathy Wilkerson, the Weather Underground member who demolished her parents’ townhouse in Greenwich Village with a too-sensitive bomb. 

I think Obama was in grade school while this was going on.  Palin probably wasn’t born yet.

Guilt by association.  Palin & McCain, the Grand Inquisitors.


Forever Flowing

June 6, 2008

Forever Flowing is the last book written by Vasily Grossman, and it too, was not published in his lifetime, in Russia, or anywhere else. The title refers to the prison trains, forever flowing eastward to the GULAG, like a river. This book is even more powerful a testament than his masterpiece, Life and Fate, but it is just that, a testament, a document, not really a novel, though it follows that form superficially. I have read criticisms of this book that say the translation is bad, that the manuscript from which it was taken was incomplete, but it is all we have, and it’s out of print in English! Even so, it is awesome.

Unlike Life and Fate, which deals with the fight for Stalingrad, the Nazi extermination camps, as well as the panorama of Stalins horrors, Forever Flowing focuses on the GULAG, the vast network of slave labor camps, the process by which people were placed there, and on the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. It also contains an extended essay on Russian history in which Grossman makes the heretical (for that time, certainly that place) claim that Stalin built on and carried on the essence of Lenin’s work, rather than distorting and perverting the work of that great, idealistic founder of the USSR. (Solzhenitsyn makes the same argument in The Gulag Archipelago volume I) That is, Lenin too, was an inhuman terrorist and totalitarian – he just never got too far because of his early death.

Grossman dissects the notions of the Russian soul that are so popular with thinkers of all political stripes. The soul that will redeem the rest of the world according to Dostoyevsky, and even Solzhenitsyn. For Grossman, the nature of that soul is quite simple – it is the result of 1000 years of slavery, Its gift to the world was not salvation, but Stalinism, and fascism.

Grossman makes the interesting claim that I have never encountered, that the Fascists of Italy and Germany imitated Stalin. I have often heard it said that Fascism and Communism were the same thing under different names – Grossman says it too – but he suggests that Hitler and Mussolini, observing the events in the USSR, the aggrandisement of the state, the crushing of all civil society, were impressed, and sought to imitate it within the boundaries of their own ideology. Certainly these dictators were aware of each other, and watched each other. Now, Putin carries on the tradition.

The story follows one GULAG zek, Ivan, after his release and his return to Moscow. He meets his relative, now a successful member of the Soviet “middle class”; he meets the man who denounced him and set him on his path through the camps for 30 years. The fellow is quite affluent – and he squirms with pain at the thought of having to deal with his guilty conscience. Fortunately, his former friend leaves him quickly. Ivan is not fated for happiness – he falls in love with his landlady, but she dies of cancer. He is alone – out of the world he knows in the camps – not part of the world to which he has returned.

Shortly after he begins his romance with his landlady, she tells him her story. They each tell of their personal horrors – though they want to be happy, they realize that they are the only ones to whom they can each open up and recall the horrors they have seen. Her story is the Ukrainian famine caused by the brutal policies of Stalin. First he shot or deported the male heads of households, the “kulaks”, the irredeemably “bourgeois” peasants (there’s an oxymoron!) who resisted collectivization, then he took the grain that remained to the villages. This policy was to feed the cities, and the workers there, support the state industrialization plan, and crush the resistance of the farmers to collectivization. The result was that hundreds of thousands of peasants starved to death. They starved in their villages, they crawled to the towns and starved there. The party activists came and took whatever grain they had – “parasites hiding the property of the people!” – and took that too. I have appended an excerpt from the description she gives – it is one of the most harrowing chapters I have ever read.

There is much dispute over the numbers that died in this famine and if it was “genocide.” Was it on purpose, or just the result of incompetence? Does it matter much? The policy was to ignore suffering and confiscate the grain.

Robert Conquest’s book on the famine, Harvest of Sorrow, has been criticized as having inflated numbers – he says 7 million died. He is a right wing conservative, so all the left wingers deny his evidence (or used to – are they around anymore?)   One comment I read attacked the book as trying to inflate Stalin to more of a criminal than Hitler – thus the 7 million figure!  Some dispute the magnitude of the event saying the fascist anti-semite Ukranians, the ones who welcomed the Nazi invasion – have an interest in inflating Stalin’s crimes to excuse their complicity with Hitler. All this is getting old now. Maybe 700,000 died – maybe 3.5 million – maybe 7 million. It was a lot, and it was brutal.

Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing, New York: Harper & Row, 1972
(excerpt from Chapter 14).

from: http://www.faminegenocide.com/resources/witnesses.html

I don’t want to remember it. It is terrible. But I can’t forget it. It just keeps on living within me; whether or not it slumbers, it is still there. A piece of iron in my heart, like a shell fragment. Something one cannot escape. I was fully adult when it all happened…

No, there was no famine during the campaign to liquidate the kulaks. Only the horses died. The famine came in 1932, the second year after the campaign to liquidate the kulaks…

And so, at the beginning of 1930, they began to liquidate the kulak families. The height of the fever was in February and March. They expelled them from their home districts so that when it was time for sowing there would be no kulaks left, so that a new life could begin. That is what we all said it would be: “the first collective farm spring.”…

Our new life began without the co-called “kulaks”. They started to force people to join the collective farms. Meetings were underway from morning on. There were shouts and curses. Some of them shouted: “We will not join!”…

And we thought, fools that we were, that there could be no fate worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were! The axe fell upon the peasants right where they stood, on large and small alike. The execution by famine had arrived. By this time I no longer washed floors but was a book-keeper instead. And, as a Party activist, I was sent to Ukraine in order to strengthen a collective farm. In Ukraine, we were told, they had an instinct for private property that was stronger than in the Russian Republic. And truly, truly, the whole business was much worse in Ukraine…

Moscow assigned grain production and delivery quotas to the provinces, and the provinces then assigned them to the districts. And our village was given a quota that it couldn’t have fulfilled in ten years! In the village rada (council) even those who weren’t drinkers took to drink out of terror…

Of course, the grain deliveries could not be fulfilled. Smaller areas had been sown, and the crop yield on those smaller areas had shrunk. So where could it come from, that promised ocean of grain from the collective farms? The conclusion reached up top was that the grain had all been concealed, hidden away. By kulaks who had not yet been liquidated, by loafers! The “kulaks” had been removed, but the “kulak” spirit remained. Private property was master over the minds of the Ukrainian peasant.

Who was it who then signed the act which imposed mass murder? … For the decree required that the peasants of Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their tiny children. The instructions were to take away the entire seed fund. Grain was searched for as if it were not grain but bombs and machine guns. The whole earth was stabbed with bayonets and ramrods. Cellars were dug up, floors were broken through, and vegetable gardens were turned over. From some they confiscated grain, and dust hung over the earth. And there were no grain elevators to accommodate it, and they simply dumped it out on the earth and set guards around it. By winter the grain had been soaked by the rains and began to ferment — the Soviet government didn’t even have enough canvases to cover it up!…

Fathers and mothers wanted to save their children and hid a tiny bit of grain, and they were told: “You hate the country of socialism. You are trying to make the plan fail, you parasites, you pro-kulaks, you rats.” … The entire seed fund had been confiscated…

Everyone was in terror. Mothers looked at their children and began to scream in fear. They screamed as if a snake had crept into their house. And this snake was famine, starvation, death…

And here, under the government of workers and peasants, not even one kernel of grain was given them. There were blockades along all the highways, where militia, NKVD men, troops were stationed; the starving people were not to be allowed into the cities. Guards surrounded all the railroad stations. There were guards at even the tiniest of whistle stops. No bread for you, breadwinners! … And the peasant children in the villages got not one gram. That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: “You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews!” And it was impossible to understand, grasp, comprehend. For these children were Soviet children, and those who were putting them to death were Soviet people…

Death from starvation mowed down the village. First the children, then the old people, then those of middle age. At first they dug graves and buried them, and then as things got worse they stopped. Dead people lay there in the yards, and in the end they remained in their huts. Things fell silent. The whole village died. Who died last I do not know. Those of us who worked in the collective farm administration were taken off to the city…

Before they had completely lost their strength, the peasants went on foot across country to the railroad. Not to the stations where the guards kept them away, but to the tracks. And when the Kyiv-Odesa express came past, they would just kneel there and cry: “Bread, bread!” They would lift up their horrible starving children for people to see. And sometimes people would throw them pieces of bread and other scraps. The train would thunder on past, and the dust would settle down, and the whole village would be there crawling along the tracks, looking for crusts. But an order was issued that whenever trains were travelling through the famine provinces the guards were to shut the windows and pull down the curtains. Passengers were not allowed at the windows…

And the peasants kept crawling from village into the city. All the stations were surrounded by guards. All the trains were searched. Everywhere along the roads were roadblocks — troops, NKVD. Yet despite all this the peasants made their way into Kyiv. They would crawl through the fields, through empty lots, through the swamps, through the woods — anywhere to bypass the roadblocks set up for them. They were unable to walk; all they could do was crawl…

What I found out later was that everything fell silent in our village… I found out that troops were sent in to harvest the winter wheat. The army men were not allowed to enter the village, however. They were quartered in their tents. They were told there had been an epidemic. But they kept complaining that a horrible stink was coming from the village. The troops stayed to plant the spring wheat too. And the next year new settlers were brought in from Orel Province (Russia). This was the rich Ukrainian land, the black earth, whereas the Orel peasants were accustomed to frequent harvest failures.


Telephone, for Comarade Shtrum…

May 25, 2008

One reviewer feels that the phone call in Life and Fate that I described in my previous post is one of “the most electrifying moments in 20th century literature.” I agree!

After Stalin calls and turns his world upside down, he learns what it is like to be stroked by a hand with unlimited power, as Grossman puts it. Life is good…for a while. Then the piper must be paid.

Victor is asked to sign a letter about a former teacher of his, an innocent man who has been arrested. The British and Americans are making a fuss, saying it is unjust, trying to form a committee to save him. He must, as a loyal Soviet citizen, sign this letter telling them to bugger off – it’s all nonsense! Those westerners are playing right into the hands of the Fascists!

Victor knows his teacher is innocent, but if he doesn’t sign, then what? His security, his job, the approbation of his peers – all will disappear soon enough. This request won’t be the last, it’s only the first, and it alone is enough to make him feel utterly worthless as a human being…because he does sign it.

He tried to wiggle out of it: “What do I know of such matters?” “Please – I’m just a physicist, can I just do my work?” “Surely there are details of which I am not aware, but he was a wonderful teacher…” No – just sign. You wouldn’t want to help the Fascist Fifth Columns, would you?

This roller coaster ride of Victor’s – from despair and fear, to the giddy good fortune of being the pet scientist of the State, to the utter self-abasement of signing this letter – does have a positive conclusion. Victor resolves not to do such a thing again, and not to congratulate himself on not doing so either. He knows too well now how easily one can slide into cooperation. He wants to keep that humiliating knowledge close to his heart, to remind him, to keep himself human.


His Master’s Voice

May 24, 2008

Very nearly at the end of Grossman’s monumental novel, Life and Fate, the main character, Victor, a Jewish physicist gets a phone call.

He is a brilliant scientist, but a little too free with his thoughts and his talk. He has said things, made jokes, even about Stalin!, that a more circumspect academic would have avoided. His thoughts, well…he knows what was done to the kulaks, he knows the vast, murderous injustices of the Great Terror of 1937, he doesn’t believe in those sham trials of the old Bolsheviks…NO! But for the most part, he’s been careful, and there’s his work to keep him busy during the war.

His makes a breakthrough in his study of the properties of the atom. People are ecstatic, they hail him as a great successor to the quantum pioneers! But there is that matter of nationality…Rumors grow. Some people make criticisms of his work – too Idealistic, not properly Leninist/Marxist/Materialistic. Influenced by foreign elements. And his stated belief that physics knows no party? How can a true communist say such a thing?

He is denounced at a meeting that he refuses to attend. He will loose his position. He grows depressed as he sits at home, waiting for the knock on the door of the men who will take him away in a Black Maria to the Lubyanka, the interrogration hell of the secret police organs. After all, the former husband of his sister-in-law , a fanatical Bolshevik from the early revolution was just hauled in. Hadn’t Trotsky, long ago, praised an article he had written? He philosophizes, contemplates love – he wants them to come for him so it will at least be over!

Ah, but Grossman has other things up his sleeve as he dissects and portrays the ways the State can crush all life out of a man, and not just by killing him.

Victor gets a call from Stalin. Just a brief hello. “Your work is on a very interesting topic. I hope you have the resources you need.” The world has turned completely. From being about to topple into the abyss of the Gulag, Victor is now a privileged genius to be pampered, feted, trusted, and consulted. Why? The State has realized the importance of nuclear physics for its own ends – nothing to do with pure research. Russian scientists and policy makers are aware of the possibility of a nuclear bomb. They have their plans.

Victor need tell no one. Everyone knows of his call soon enough. They smile now, instead of looking away. They hug him, congratulate him, when before they denounced him. But there’s more…

Victor starts to get used to his new life, his freedom to work, the fast cars taking him to important meetings where everyone works cooperatively. The respect of his peers and superiors, not to mention his subordinates. Yes, he still knows what went on with the Ukraine famine, the forced collectivization, the disasterous fiasco of Stalin’s stupor when the Nazi’s invaded. He knows all that, but he is proud, elevated, to have been singled out by the great leader. He doesn’t think about those things so much…

All because he heard his master’s voice…


Robespierre, I will drink the hemlock with thee!

March 10, 2008

Death of Socrates by J. L. David

The Revolution is running its course, the God, Revolt, is devouring its children. Robespierre reigns supreme at the helm of the Committee for Public Safety, but he is troubled. Enemies of the Revolution are everywhere:

Meanwhile Robespierre, we still observe, goes little to Convention, not at all to Committee; speaks nothing except to his Jacobin House of Lords, amid his bodyguard of Tappe-durs …The Incorruptible himself sits apart; or is seen stalking in solitary places in the fields, with an intensely meditative air … Art not thou he who, few years ago, was a young Advocate of promise; and gave up the Arras Judgeship rather than sentence one man to die?—

The men in charge all fear for their lives. Like the circle around Stalin, it could be the turn of any of them to next make a trip in the tumbril to a rendezvous with Madame Guillotine. Still, life goes on – one cannot cower in fear in a corner all day:

…there was a remarkable bachelor’s dinner one hot day at Barrere’s … But at this dinner we speak of, the day being so hot, it is said, the guests all stript their coats, and left them in the drawing-room: whereupon Carnot [his son would practicly invent the science of heat, thermodynamics] glided out; groped in Robespierre’s pocket; found a list of Forty, his own name among them; and tarried not at the wine-cup that day!

And so, out of self-preservation, the men will act to defang the tyrant Robespierre. Good Soviet men only dreamed of killing Stalin – nobody had the nerve! A fatal encounter, at which Maximilien addresses the conspirators against him:

Long-winded, unmelodious as the screech-owl’s, sounds that prophetic voice: Degenerate condition of Republican spirit; corrupt moderatism; Surete, Salut Committees themselves infected; back-sliding on this hand and on that; I, Maximilien, alone left incorruptible, ready to die at a moment’s warning. For all which what remedy is there? The Guillotine; new vigour to the all-healing Guillotine: death to traitors of every hue! So sings the prophetic voice; into its Convention sounding-board. The old song this: but to-day, O Heavens! has the sounding-board ceased to act?

Well, the jig is up, but some people have timing that is a bit off. The ever ready painter, Jacques Louis David declares:

Robespierre, I will drink the hemlock with thee,” “Je boirai la cigue avec toi;

As Carlyle drily notes:

—a thing not essential to do, but which, in the fire of the moment, can be said.

Perhaps David’s timing was better than it seemed. He was always able to adapt, to wiggle through. At the other end of the tunnel he paints the light that shone over France. From propagandist of the high ideals of revolution to image maker of the imperial order.

Robespierre, condemned, tries to blow his brains out but fails, destroying only his jaw. He spends a night in agony and then meets his fate on the platform of the guillotine.

J. L. David - Coronation of Napoleon (detail)

Terror Neat, Please

March 8, 2008

Medusa Cellini

As readers of my drivel know, I have a fondness for extreme political rhetoric, the more apocalyptic the better. There is also a bizarre frisson to be had from the prose of political “theorists” who stare down the abyss of terrorism, and find it good. Maximilien Robespierre is one of the best (emphasis mine):

The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny’s friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

There you have it. The Last Days are upon us, and the battle between good and evil will be resolved. Enemies are everywhere – anyone could be a traitor. There is a need for merciless terror, but it is virtuous. With such axioms and logic, almost anything can be justified.

I love the formula by which he clearly demonstrates that terror is justice. I am fascinated by the tone of the piece – so elevated, alluding to the revered, shared values of the classical past. It brings to mind that wonderful piece by the ever able propagandist for the revolution, and later, for Napoleon, Jacques Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii. Can we be so virtuous? We can, we must, but we must not flinch from the use of terror!

As the history of revolution moseys along, things change a bit. Here’s V. I. Lenin:

“We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood.

Sounds so much more emotional than Robespierre. Who knew Lenin was so romantic? Almost biblical, could easily have come from the mouth of Martin Luther, mutatis mutandis. Ah, this is more like it:

“We stand for organized terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.

Here, however, Trotsky waffles a bit:

Our class enemies are in the habit of complaining about our terrorism. What they mean by this is rather unclear. They would like to label all the activities of the proletariat directed against the class enemy s interests as terrorism.

Whatever the eunuchs and pharisees of morality may say, the feeling of revenge has its rights.

If we oppose terrorist acts, it is only because individual revenge does not satisfy us. The account we have to settle with the capitalist system is too great to be presented to some functionary called a minister.

What bothers me is the drift away from aesthetically pleasing moral certitude that Robespierre states so succinctly. Lenin and Trotsky argue. Maybe they felt guilty. The ends justify the means, but all that blood! Stalin was a stronger man, but not so eloquent.

Finally, we get the degenerate prose and rhetoric of the apologists for terror of the 40s to the 60s; the supporters of Stalin and his successors who were repelled by the violence of the Soviet State, but wished to portray it as somehow necessary, or no worse than the concealed violence of the capitalist regimes. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with his Humanism and Terror is prominent here. Why not just come out and say YES to terror?  “I’ll take my terror neat, please.”

I’m not trying to knock the left here, though it might seem that way. It’s just that liberal-socialist-marxist thinkers have a professed committment to reason, so they have to argue for the goodness of killing women, children, innocent men, etc. They have to show that in the end, it’s all for the best, sort of like Pangloss proved in Candide. This perversion of rationality is what intrigues me. Except for Ayn Rand, I cannot think of people on the right who do the same. (She perverted rationality, but I don’t know that she supported terror.) When they plunk down for terror, they usually do it out of blood lust, romantic hero worship, satanic apocalyptic yearnings, or unutterably sick, evil, and convoluted workings out of their own psychological problems. Many vicious fascists, anti-semites, Nazi fellow travellers fit this bill.