“We Died for the Revolution”

Female Russian Honor Guard, 2018 Victory Day Parade

I have been slowly making my way through Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, in which she interviews everyday Russians about how their lives have changed since the fall of Communism. Alexievich did something it is not even possible to do in America today: She interviewed people of all political stripes, including even those who sided with the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. Imagine a book in the U.S. that interviewed not only liberal Democrats, but qAnon and Oath Keeper supporters who showed up in Washington on January 6. I don’t think such a book can be written.

The following passage is from an embittered supporter of Communism:

In my day, people didn’t ask those kind of questions. We didn’t have questions like that! We … imagined a just life without rich or poor. We died for the Revolution, and we died idealists. Wholly uninterested in money … My friends are long gone, I’m all alone. None of the people I used to talk to are around anymore. At night, I talk to the dead … And you? You don’t understand our feelings or our words: “grain confiscation campaign,” “food-groups,” “disenfranchisee,” “committee of the poor,” … “repeater,” … “defeatist.” It’s Sanskrit to you! Hieroglyphics! Old age means, first and foremost, loneliness. The last old man I knew—he lived in the adjacent courtyard—died five years ago, or maybe it’s been even longer … seven years ago … I’m surrounded by strangers. People come from the museum, the archive, the encyclopedia ,,, I’m like a reference book, a living library! But I have no one to talk to … Who would I like to talk to? Lazar Kaganovich [one of Stalin’s henchmen] would be good … There aren’t many of us who are still around, and even fewer who aren’t completely senile. He’s even older than me, he’s already ninety. I read in the papers … [He laughs.] In the newspaper, it said that the old men in his courtyard refuse to play dominoes with him. Or cards. They drive him away: “Fiend!” And he weeps from the hurt. Ages ago, he was a steel-hearted People’s Commissar. He’d sign the execution lists, he sent tens of thousands of people to their deaths. Spent thirty years by Stalin’s side. But in his old age, he doesn’t even have anyone to play dominoes with … [After this, he speaks very quietly. I can’t tell what he’s saying. I only catch a few words.] It’s scary … Living too long is scary.

Serendipity: Paul Theroux in Guatemala

The Rail Line Between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City

I have read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas several times. It got me interested in visiting South and Central America in the first place; and I keep tryi9ng to relive the experience of reading it the first time. Back in the 1970s, there was still passenger rail service in Guatemala. Now there are only railroad museums with rusting locomotives. The following is the author’s take on recent Guatemalan history—which is still largely true.

I had a political reverie on that train [the one between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City]. It was this: the government held elections, encouraged people to vote, and appeared to be democratic. The army appeared to be impartial, the newspapers disinterested. And it remained a peasant society, basically underfed and unfree. It must perplex any peasant to be told he is living in a free country, when the facts of life contradict this. It might be that this does not perplex him; he has every reason to believe, in accordance with the evidence, that democracy is feudal, a bureaucracy run by crooks and trigger-happy vigilantes. When one sees a government of the Guatemalan sort professing such high-mindedness in its social aims and producing such mediocre results, one cannot be surprised if the peasant concludes that communism might be an improvement. It was a Latin American sickness: inferior government gave democracy an evil name and left people with no option but to seek an alternative.


The Death of Stalin

Poster for The Death of Stalin (2018)

In my retirement, I have been seeing more current films than I usually do. Today, I went in the rain to see Armando Iannucci’s dark comedy of the transfer of power in the Soviet Union when Stalin suddenly died in 1953. Predictably, the movie was banned in Russia and several other of the former Soviet Socialist Republics. In fact, I think that in many instances the truth was stretched a bit to make a better film.

Steve Buscemi plays an ambitious Nikita Khrushchev; Jeffrey Tambor, a delightfully cowardly Georgy Malenkov; Simon Russell Beale, an incredibly evil State Security chief Lavrenti Beria; and Michael Palin, an indecisive Vyacheslav Molotov. The actor who practically runs away with the show is Jason Isaacs, playing Marshal Zhukov, who is the only member of the government who is willing to take on Beria.

Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov

One of the weaknesses of the Soviet Union was that the fearless leaders were too fearful to arrange for a peaceful transition of power after their deaths. In fact, according to Simon Sebag Montefiore in his book The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), Stalin’s sudden death caused a such a crisis, so that the staff in his dacha were afraid to confront the body for fear that it meant some sort of trick that would lead them to execution or a gulag.

Georgy Malenkov is initially selected to rule because of his rank in the Politburo, but his cowardice is such that, by the end, Khrushchev is holding the reins of power.

This film is loaded with violence. Beria’s NKVD carry out executions using their sidearms with alarming regularity. There are at least several score of these executions taking place during the film.

So far, this is the best film I have seen this year.



Revisiting the Cold War

Entrance to the Wende museum in Culver City

Today, Martine and I visited the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City. Located in an old armory building, the museum specialized in the Soviet Union and its satellite nations in the period between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of Communism around 1989.

Although I was not born under Communism, I am an American of mixed Slovak and Hungarian parentage. From my earliest days, I remember my mother putting together packets of clothing to send to our relatives in Hungary. They were packaged in strong white sackcloth, buttressed with rope, and addressed in indelible blue ink.

I had heard of the Wende Museum before. Only within the last few weeks has it moved to its present site on Culver Boulevard just west of Overland. Admission is free, and there is a gift shop.

In 1977 I visited Hungary and then People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia. My parents had flown there separately and met me at Ferihegy Airport in Budapest. We traveled by train to see a festival in Szeged (featuring the opera Aïda), and then went by rail to Kosiče . We were picked up there by my father’s relatives and driven to Prešov-Solivar, where Imre Hrasko and family lived.

Bust of V. I. Lenin

The Wende Museum consisted of several rooms with Soviet and other Cold War memorabilia, including statuary, photographs, posters, models, toys, electronic equipment, thousands of books, and a few videos. Among the videos was a cute East German cartoon about Santa Claus trying to understand what Sputnik (the Soviet satellite launched in 1957) was because it was on so many childrens’ wish lists. So he goes back to the moon, where the Man in the Moon sends him back to Earth. There, at a scientific institute, he finds his answer and looks at a model of the satellite. There were a number of exhibits relating to Russia’s early accomplishments in space.

Hungarian Farm Girl Operating Tractor

It takes about an hour to visit the museum, and guided tours are available. It was interesting to see how clueless the younger visitors were about the Cold War era. Maybe that’s why Trumpf is president today.


Marina Tsvetayeva Is Robbed

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

I have just finished reading Marina Tsvetayeva’s Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Virtually unknown in the United States, Tsvetayeva was one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th Century. Here is one of her poems:

I Know the Truth (1915)

I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

The above translation is by Elaine Feinstein.

In her Moscow diary, she recounts the experience of being robbed as she leaves a friend’s house late at night:

“Who goes there?”

A young guy about eighteen years old, in uniform, a jaunty forelock peeking out from under his cap. Light brown hair. Freckles.

“Any weapons?”

“What kind of weapons do women have?”

“What is that there?”

”Please, take a look.”

I take out of my purse and hand him, one after the other: my new, favorite cigarette case with lions (yellow, English: Dieu et mon droit), a coin purse, matches.

“And there’s also a comb, a key … If you have any doubts, we can go see the yardkeeper; I’ve lived here for four years.”

“Any documents?”

At this point, remembering the parting words of my cautious friends, I conscientiously and meaninglessly parry:

“And do you have any documents?”

“Right here!”

The steel of a revolver, white in the moonlight. (“So it’s white, and for some reason I always thought it was black.I saw it as black. A revolver—is death. Blackness.”)

At the same instant, the chain from my lorgnette flies over my head, strangling me and catching on my hat. Only then do I realize what’s going on.

“Put down that revolver and take it off with both hands, you’re strangling me.”

“Don’t scream.”

“You can hear how I’m speaking.”

He lowers it, and, no longer strangling me, swiftly and deftly removes the doubled chain. The action with the chain is the last one. I hear “Comrades!” behind my back as my other foot steps through the gate.

(I forgot to say that the whole time we were talking (a minute plus) there were people walking back and forth on the other side of the street.)

The soldier left me: all my rings, the lion brooch, the purse itself, both bracelets, my watch, book, comb, key.

He took: the coin purse with an invalid check for 1000 rubles, the new wonderful cigarette case (there you have it, droit without Dieu!), the chain and lorgnette, the cigarettes.

All in all, if not a fair price—a fraternal one.

The next day, Marina hears the young robber was killed by a church custodian:

They offered to let me go pick out my things. I refused with a shudder. How could I—one of the living (that is—happy, that is—wealthy), go and take from him, the dead, his last loot?! I quake at the very thought of it. One way or the other, I was his last (maybe next to the last!) joy, which he took to the grave with him. You don’t rob the dead.

I will have more to say about Tsvetaeva in a future post.

Cold War Nostalgia

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad magazine

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad Magazine

Looking back, the Communists were a worthy enemy. There were no suicide vests or improvised explosive devices aimed at innocent civilians. (Religious wars are always the most brutal.) Mind you, the Russians weren’t Boy Scouts, either. But after the ugliness and indiscriminate savagery of the current Sunni Muslim jihad against the West, I grow downright nostalgic about the 1960s.

Lately, I have been reading the three great spy novelists of that time—with great pleasure. I just finished Funeral in Berlin by one of them, the great Len Deighton. The other two were Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, and John Le Carré, author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Funeral in Berlin is typical of the period. The hero, who is called Harry Palmer in the movies but is unnamed in the books, arranges to transfer a Russian scientist to West Berlin by means of a coffin. No one seems to be trustworthy. In fact, the character one would think would be the most villainous, Colonel Stok of the KGB, is actually the most sympathetic character that “Harry” encounters. The people who are supposedly his allies are an untrustworthy lot: two of them try to kill him, others just want to sell him down river.

In comparison, James Bond is almost never surprised by villains who are supposed to be on the same side as him. There are all those lovely girls, and Felix Leiter of the CIA appears as a supporting hero in several of the novels.

Only Le Carré comes close to Deighton in creating a murky world of spies and supposed friends. My favorite of his books is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been made into an excellent film and a great British TV series starring Sir Alez Guinness as George Smiley.


Fifth Graders Against Communism

Back in Fifth Grade, We Knew All About the Red Menace

Back in Fifth Grade, We Knew All About the Red Menace

When I was a grade school student at St. Henry’s in Cleveland, we received a weekly newsletter reporting on the news of the world. Most particularly, we learned how the Communists who had recently taken over Eastern Europe were persecuting Catholics and suppressing the God-given rights of the people. At no time were we ever told that Hungary and several other of the Russian satellites fought on the German side in World War Two. And now the communists were threatening us! Several times a year, we had to do drills instructing us what to do in case of a nuclear attack. If you don’t already know, this 1951 video will explain it all to you:

(Those school desks were marvelous at protecting students from radiation and falling debris.)

At home, several times a year my mother put together bundles of used clothing she got from church sales to send to our friends and relatives in Hungary. After she’d accumulated about twenty or thirty pounds, she would wrap them in sturdy white cloth and write the address directly on the cloth with indelible ink. Then off it would go. With luck, the jackbooted thugs that worked for the Budapest Post Office would let selected items be delivered to the addressees. The rest, of course, was a perquisite for Communist Party apparatchiks.

Things came to a head during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. When, after a few days of freedom, the Russian tanks rolled into Hungary and re-established Soviet rule, our family was appalled. Naturally we did what we could to help some of the refugees that made it across the line before the axe fell. (As it turned out, they were not nice people. How could that be? After all, they were Hungarians.)

And Now America Was Threatened, Too

And Now America Was Threatened, Too

Somehow, we made it through those dangerous years. We listened to the Civil Defense alarms that sounded a test on Fridays at noon. And we tuned in to Conelrad at 640 and 1240 on our radio dial. There was so much else, too, bad we licked Communism in the end. Or did we?

Red Sunset Mother

It All Goes Back to Aesop

It All Goes Back to Aesop

The three words of the title of this post were separately suppressed by Myanmar’s ruling junta: “red” because of its association with Communism; “sunset” because General Ne Win’s name meant “sunrise”; and “mother” because that was the nickname of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

That brings back to mind another draconian instance of censorship. In Costa-Gavras’s film (1969), the rightist Greek colonels in charge forbid the use of the letter Z (Zeta) in the Greek alphabet because of the protestors’ use of the Greek phrase “Ζει,” meaning “He lives.” The pronoun refers to the democratic politician Grigoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated in 1963.

What does one do when the powers that be forbid the use of certain words? Russian and Eastern European writers under Communist rule came up with the solution: use other words in their place. This is referred to as the use of Aesopian, or Aesopic, language. Just as the ancient Greek teller of fables used stories to mask political realities, writers would use metaphorical language to stand in for the proscribed language. In an article entitled “The Rhetoric of Subversion: Strategies of ‘Aesopian Language’ in Romanian Literary Criticism Under Late Communism,” Andrei Terian describes the procedure used:

Since organized dissent was absent, the ‘resistance through culture’ represented in Romania the main form of assertion of the writers’ independence from the Communist regime. Civically, it materialized through the refusal to enroll in the party’s propaganda machine, while artistically, it took place through the defense of the priority of the ‘aesthetic’ criterion in the production and reception of literary works, which generated a literature relatively autonomous from the political sphere. Nevertheless, from the perspective of maximalist ethics, the ‘resistance through culture’ is a deeply duplicitous phenomenon, which fits perfectly in the Ketman paradigm described by Czeslaw Milosz. In the Polish writer’s opinion, ‘Ketman means self-realization against something’ (The Captive Mind ….), which, in the case of totalitarian societies, is translated in a profound divergence between an individual’s private thoughts and their public expression.

I thought Milosz expressed it better in The Captive Mind—a book I urge everyone to read—but I can’t quote it because, alas, I can’t lay my hand on it at the moment.

Terian is a bit abstruse, so let me think of an example. Let us say that the Tea Party rules America as a rightist junta and bans the use of the word “abortion.” A hated Liberal writer can use another term, such as “ablution” in such a way that a censor would let it pass, despite the fact that its meaning would be clear from its context, as in “they were able to limit the size of their family with the discreet use of ablution.” Writers can and did develop an entire language of such circumlocutions under the noses of the Communist censors.

Even words as basic as “red,” “sunset,” and “mother” can find Aesopian equivalents, such as, perhaps, “rubicund,” “gloaming,” or “progenitrix” respectively—though a poet can play with the concept much as Viking poets used kennings such as “wave’s steed” for “ship” or “Freyja’s tears” for “gold.” And the Viking’s did this not because of censorship, but to help the meter of their compositions.

The Man in the High Castle

Prague Castle, Seat of the Czech Government

Prague Castle, Seat of the Czech Government

No, this isn’t about the Philip K. Dick novel of that name, but about a nation’s president who came to the world’s notice after many years as a jailed dissident and as a playwright of international renown. I am referring to Václav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and (after Slovakia decided to go its own way) the first president of the Czech Republic.

I have just finished reading his informal memoir, To the Castle and Back: Reflections on My Strange Life as a Fairy Tale Hero. Written after he left office in 2003, this book consists of three interleaved sequences:

  1. Reflections written mostly in 2005 during a protracted visit to the United States
  2. A series of memos to his staff dating from 1993-2003 that he found on his computer
  3. An ongoing interview with Czech writer Karel Hvizd’ala about his experiences running a country that had suddenly cast off the yoke of Communism

It also shows some of the small issues that endlessly plagued him, such as the following:

In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The lightbulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it.

At other times, Havel had to complain to his staff about the ugliest old telephones being in the most prominent places, about the length of the watering hose used in the gardens, and why the good silverware was not being used for state dinners.

I was curious to discover that Havel, despite being a well-known writer, was petrified whenever he had to begin writing anything. And he appears to have written all his own speeches! (And well, too.)

Czech President Václav Havel

Czech President Václav Havel

Particularly impressive was Havel’s answer as to Hvizd’ala as to what his credo was as the President of the Republic:

I think that the moral order stands above the legal, political, and economic orders, and that these latter orders should derive from the former, and not be techniques for getting around its imperatives. And I believe this moral order has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and the eternal.

Can you imagine any of our own leaders being so candid, to the point, and right at the same time?

Despite the book’s informality, I find it that To the Castle and Back gives probably the best picture of what the transition from Communism to Capitalism was like in one country, and the perils of what Havel calls “postcommunism,” in which the former Communist leaders, being still in a position of power and with all the right connections, loot the country.


An Embarrassment to the Russians

Cardinal Jószef Mindszenty

Cardinal Jószef Mindszenty

I have just finished reading Victor Sebestyen’s excellent Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. As a Hungarian-American I was acutely conscious of the events of that Fall. I never forgave President Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, or Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld of the United Nations for what I felt was their craven refusal to confront a very sticky issue. Did I say confront? They essentially ignored it—even while Radio Free Europe was broadcasting military advice and promises of American and U.S. military aid. Aid that never came. All that came was a mass invasion of Russian troops and armor that crushed the rebellion definitively.

As a kid in Cleveland in 1956, and as a student at St. Henry’s Catholic School, I had always thought that one of the heroes of the Revolution was Jószef Cardinal Mindszenty, Prince Primate, Archbishop of Esztergom, and leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary from the last year of World War II to his death in the 1970s. Poor Mindszenty had been imprisoned by the Hungarian Communist leadership until the beginning of the Revolution, in which he actually played no real part. Just days after he was released from prison, he sought asylum of the American legation in Budapest, where he stayed for the next fifteen years.

As a Catholic school kid, we were urged to sell the Diocese of Cleveland’s Catholic Universe Bulletin from door to door in our neighborhoods. According to the Universe Bulletin, Mindszenty was the hero of the Hungarian Revolution, whereas actually he played pretty much a walk-on, walk-off role. But I was just a kid and I believed all that pap.

In the end, Mindszenty proved an embarrassment to the Russians because it kept the memory of the uprising alive in peoples’ minds, even if he himself was a non-player. In the end, Pope Paul VI ordered Mindszenty to leave Hungary, and the Kádár government allowed him to go. His continued existence in the American legation made it difficult for the Catholic Church to come to any accommodation with the Kádár régime.

Mindszenty was just a minor embarrassment to the Russians. It was the Hungarian Revolution itself that proved to be a much greater embarrassment. After 1956, the Communist parties of Western Europe felt that Russia had behaved brutally. Never again were the Communist parties of France, Italy, Britain, and other countries bring any serious political influence to bear. From 1956, it was a mere 31 years before Soviet Communism itself crumbled.