Monday, December 20, 2004

Read about Stalin on the beach

Australia is at the end of the earth. It's a 14 hour flight from the US, and getting anywhere at all involves an international flight of at least a few hours. As a result we're sheltered: for example, there's no rabies anywhere on our island.*

This isolation has different effects on different people. For some, the distance creates an overwhelming travel itch, a desire to see the wide world so long denied them. (My dad and my friend Matthew are good examples of this type.) A global Grand Tour is almost an institution at the end of high school, and anyone who's spent time in a youth hostel anywhere is, I'm sure, familiar with the lazy-vowelled Australian accent. We roam the world with our backpacks and dusty sandals, needing little to sustain us but our indefatigable good humour and interest in the multifarities of existence, and also our nonperishable tub of Vegemite.

And others are insular and complacent - not that there aren't people like that everywhere, but it's particularly easy in Australia, which is so comfortable, and prosperous, and where there are quite formidable barriers to travel. Sitting on the sunny beach near Sydney, swimming in the happy ocean and watching the other happy middle-class swimmers, it feels a bit like Prince Siddhartha's garden: what, world politics? War? Famine? What, in this happy world?

I took "Koba the Dread," a biography of Stalin by Martin Amis, to the beach with me. I think that Amis' principle audience is the left-wing Socialist-leaning British literary community he's known throughout his life, who only recently admitted the full moral horror of the Soviet Union, and so the organization of his book suffers from his need to continually convince us just how bad the Stalin era was. My dad always told me the story of how my great grandfather was sent to Siberia because he was Swiss, so I don't need convincing, and I was twiddling my thumbs a bit during parts, but it's nonetheless a good book, and chock-a-block** with black humour.

I like the story about the Party conference in Moscow Province with a tribute to Stalin, where everyone applauded and nobody dared stop. Amis quotes Solzhenitsyn: "The older people were panting with exhaustion. After ten minutes, with make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! The first man to stop clapping (a local factory director) was arrested the next day and given ten years on another charge."

There's another section where Amis actually tries to weigh Hitler's evil against Stalin's: why, he wonders, does it seem OK to joke about the Soviet Union, whereas Nazism is considered beyond the pale? If you choose quantity of human life slain as your metric of loathesomeness, Stalin is ahead by a good 30-40 million souls. Amis concludes that Hitler had a brief career of incandescent intensity, and only managed to carry out a few of his apocalyptic plans before everything blew up in his face. It's not just the 6 million or so lost in the Holocaust that stuns us, it's the world conquest that he didn't (quite) manage. Stalin, while he had slightly less hellish ambition and personal magnetism, managed a sustained and productive career with a whole series of famines and genocides; he was a self-actualized dictator who fulfilled his potential. A sort of hare vs. the tortoise race theory of evil genius.

Amis has some excellent literary flourishes. He notes that the Cheka, when they came to arrest you and send you to the Gulag, preferred to do it in the middle of the night for reasons of shock and awe. "This presented a logistical challenge in oft-purged Petrograd/Leningrad during the long days of arctic summer. Witnesses describe the two or three hours of darkness as something like a Monte Carlo rally of black marias."

And he has a good review of the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, both of whom wrote about their experience in labor camps, which were monumentally soul-crushing (imagine eating your own shit because you're so hungry, and take it from there). Solzhenitsyn is the better-known, and his three-volume Gulag Archipelago is the touchstone for writings on the subject - it shattered, apparently, the bubbles of many of Amis' Communist-leaning friends when it first came out. One of the things that most fascinated Solzhenitsyn was how some people (including himself) managed to survive their stints in hell with their essential spirits intact. What was the common theme? Some people "were able to absorb something of the gulag into themselves, and take inner strength from it. In a place dedicated to death, what you needed in your self was force of life." Solzhenitsyn describes entering Cell 67 after seven days of torture:

"At the sound of the door opening, my three fellow inmates started and raised their heads for an instant. They, too, were waiting to learn which of them might be taken to interrogation. And those three lifted heads, those three unshaven, crumpled pale faces, seemed to me so human, so dear, that I stood there, hugging my mattress, and smiled with happiness. And they smiled. And what a forgotten look that was - after only one week!"

Shalamov's message, in his "Kolyma Tales," is less life-affirming. He relates stories of a prisoner hanging himself in a tree fork without using a rope; of a man whose fingers are permanently molded by his tools - he'd never straighten his hands again; of a philosophy professor who forgets his wife's name; a man whose rubber galoshes were so full of blood and pus that his feet sloshed at every step "as if through a puddle." Shalamov believes that "in the camp situation human beings never remain human beings; the camps were created to this end."

Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn knew each other, of course, and had a long correspondance. Solzhenitsyn was always trying to wheedle his friend round to a more generous estimate of human spiritual resilience. He pointed out that Shalamov himself never betrayed anyone, never denounced or informed. "Why is that, Varlam Tikhonovich?" Solzhenitsyn wrote. "Does it mean that you found a footing on some stone and did not slide down any further? Do you not refute your own concept with your character and verses?"

Juicy ruddy ocean-wet flesh with faint white streaks from sunscreen, and withered beaten frostbitten Siberian limbs; it's the world we live in. Further ponderings on how such differences can coexist, and what it means that I was born to the world of the beach, and why exactly I have the gall to get in a tizzy about my minor emotional trials in my glowing lively world, will be familiar to an averagely-motivated twelve-year old, and are left as an exercise to the reader (hopefully with the aid of an introductory textbook on world religion and philosophy).


* Thanks to a rigorous quarantine process for any animal brought here - the woe of many a doting pet owner, including my dad. Part of the reason we never moved back here was that he thought the 9-month separation would emotionally devastate our golden retriever, Cossack. My dad thinks that if you decide to have a pet, you've got to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually responsible for its well-being for the rest of its life. (This is NOT the same as spoiling it and allowing it to be badly behaved; a dog suffers without rules.) It's something I admire him for.

**Australian slang. "Full of."


Blogger jon faith said...

Koba the Dread isn't a biography, eschewing my petty concerns I am glad you liked it; I bought it for my father for his birthday and then realized that it was far-too-dense a work for the old bloke: it is on my shleves at this moment. You should check out the work of Vasily Grossman. ciao - jon faith

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