April 9, 2008


Stalin and Putin (Thomas C. Reeves, 4/09/08, HNN)

Michael Weiss, in The New Criterion, has called historian Robert Conquest “the premier truth-teller of the most sustained totalitarianism of the twentieth century.” Conquest published some twenty books on Russia and the Soviet Union, but Weiss was referring principally to The Great Terror. This landmark volume appeared first in 1968 and has recently been republished with the subtitle “A Reassessment.” It is the definitive work on Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. The new edition, based on the latest evidence (more than two million secret documents have been declassified in recent years, and the quantity continues to escalate), further documents one of history’s most insane and deadly crimes against humanity. To enter Stalin’s world is to confirm the Judeo-Christian concept of original sin, experience the relative weakness of human reason, and view the undeniable difference between good and evil. The fashionable temptation to be “non-judgmental” plays no role here. The politically correct version of the Cold War, seeing both sides as equally to blame, carries no weight.

Conquest makes clear that terror as an instrument of Communist policy, while not inherently part of Marxism, was begun under Lenin. The first show trials of enemies of the state began in 1922, a desperate attempt to retain power at all cost. Stalin rose in the party as a moderate, few realizing his mad capacity for thievery, torture, and murder.

How deadly was Stalin’s purge? Between 1937 and 1938, about seven million Russians were arrested, a million were executed, and some two million more perished in the Gulag. A conservative estimate is that from 1934 to 1939, Stalin’s victims numbered some 15 million. On a single day in late 1937, Stalin and V. M. Molotov sanctioned 3,167 death sentences and then went to the movies. This slaughter was preceded between 1930 and 1933 by an orchestrated famine that killed some 10 million peasants. And it was followed, during the war, by Stalin’s near annihilation of the Soviet Union’s top military. For example, 25 out of 28 Corps Commissars and 58 out of 64 Divisional Commissars were purged. A record number of Soviet troops fled to the Allies to escape the killing.

All through the famine, terror, the Second World War, and beyond, leftist dupes in Great Britain and the United States, such as Walter Duranty of the New York Times, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and American ambassador Joseph Davies, portrayed the Soviet tyrant in glowing terms.

Solzhenitsyn and the Truth of History: a review of August 1914, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Edward E. Ericson, Jr., Spring 1973, First Principles)
August 1914 recounts the events of one month during World War I, in which Russia hastily and unpreparedly invaded Germany. The crucial event of the unsuccessful invasion is the surrounding and demolition of the Second Army led by General Samsonov, one of many characters taken directly from the historical record. Solzhenitsyn sees great import in this Russian defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg; thus the novel. Specifically, it is that turning–point in history when old Russia is shown to be incapable of fending for itself and is therefore vulnerable to all manner of destructive forces tearing at the national fabric. (The trilogy will, of course, take us through the Revolution of October, 1917.) Apart from this guiding generalization, a superhuman effort will be demanded of the reader to keep from becoming bogged down in the density of historical detail. While the minutiae of military maneuverings may still be annoying to most readers, it is justifiable by the need to show that chaos reigns. The reader may perhaps take some small consolation from the fact that most of the Russian generals have no idea of what they are doing and share his bafflement!

Several major themes thread their ways through the novel. Of these, the primary one is Solzhenitsyn’s concern for truth. The novel concludes with the epigram, “Untruth did not begin with us; nor will it end with us.” The truth which he is after in particular in this novel is the truth of history and its meaning. But one cannot speculate on the meaning without first having the facts at his disposal; thus the importance of the details of his historical reconstruction, even if at the expense of boring some of his readers. The Russian authorities have too long, for their own ideological purposes, kept accurate factual accounts of events from the people which would allow them to draw their own meanings from the facts. Solzhenitsyn is concerned to recover for the Russian people truthful facts. We may call this a concern for truth at its lowest, or most fundamental, level. A minor figure expresses it thus: “The stuff of history is not opinions but sources. And your conclusions are determined by the source materials, even if they contradict your preconceived views” (548). It is easy enough to extrapolate the radical implications which such a procedure will have for a totalitarian state, and it is no wonder that the commissars consider Solzhenitsyn an enemy.

The concern for truth appears over and over again in the novel. For instance, it appears in the doctored newspaper accounts of the events on the front line; at the moment of defeat, the public reads of heroic Russian fighting which will bring victory with God’s help. Worse, the military dispatches send back the same false but self-serving versions of the events. The theme culminates in the final chapter, when the archduke gathers his defeated generals for a post-mortem. In unison, they heap the blame on the head of the dead General Samsonov, who was undeserving of such obloquy. Fortunately, an honest man, Colonel Vorotyntsev, is present, and he is determined “to speak out once and for all” (601). He calls this truth-telling “a sacred duty,” reminiscent of his author’s own words in other contexts. That Vorotyntsev is ultimately not heeded is part of the tragedy of Russian history, but Solzhenitsyn places great importance on the responsibility of a man to speak the truth as he knows it, whether or not others listen to him. The pragmatism of careerists will not do; one’s first loyalty must be to the truth.

Another theme of the novel, which is congruent with the author’s other writings, is the nobility of the individual. This theme is enunciated by one of his minor figures, Varsonofiev—and Solzhenitsyn includes a series of minor figures to speak his mind and to place his interpretation upon events. Countering the expressions of two students, Varsonofiev asserts, “ . . . we should develop our soul. There is nothing more precious than the development of a man’s soul; it is more important than the well-being of countless future generations” (409). Another minor figure, Professor Andozerskaya, in a rebuttal of economic and environmental determinism, tells her students, “But apart from the environment there is also a spiritual tradition, hundreds of spiritual traditions! There is, too, the spiritual life of the individual, and therefore each individual has, perhaps in spite of his environment, a personal responsibility—for what he does and for what other people around him do” (p.549). Sozhenitsyn’s Christianity is becoming more and more widely acknowledged (see Philip Rahv’s review in New York Review of Books, Oct. 5, 1972. 14), and it is no accident that the above-cited spokeswoman is a professor of medieval history who praises that period for its “intense spiritual life” which was “predominant over material existence” (548).

The traditional Christian humanist view of man keeps in tension his grandeur and his misery. The part of that equation which is in need of resuscitation today is the grandeur, and Sozhenitsyn displays many images of this in his novel. But what is most striking and doubtless disconcerting to many readers, is that his images of human grandeur and valor are to be found among military men, and here Sozhenitsyn seems deliberately to flaunt his soldiers in the face of the militant anti-militarists. He explains why: those soldiers, who are “ridiculed by liberal writers,” nevertheless “represented, in purified and concentrated form. The vitality and courage of the whole nation” (357). He speaks in praise of ideas far out of fashion: patriotism, nationalism, the dignity of soldiering, the just war.

Another major theme of August 1914 is ones responsibility toward his fellows. The great example of this is Colonel Vorotyntsev, one of the two sympathetic major characters and the closest thing to an authorial alter ego in this novel. Vorotyntsev is a very capable and energetic man who does much more than could reasonably have been expected of a man of his rank to bring about a Russian victory. His character is almost non-Russian, perhaps Western and even German in its combination of intelligence and energy. In his devotion to duty he could easily have come out of a Puritan or Calvinist tradition. And he is able to inspire in others a sense of responsibility for their fellows. In an outstanding scene Vorotsyntsev tries to rally a fleeing regiment to the probably suicidal task of covering the retreat of the larger army. Standing before them, he considers alternate possibilities. He could invoke the concept of honor or their obligation to Russian allies, but such abstractions ill suit their desperate straits. He could ask them to die for the Tsar, but he despises the Tsar and the corrupt system over which he presides. He could appeal to the name of God. But why should God prefer a Russian victory to a German? He could appeal to the fatherland, but he knows the concept means less to them than it does to him. Finally, he says, simply, “Brothers! Isn’t it selfish to save ourselves at the expense of others? We haven’t far to go from here to reach Russian territory, we could easily make it—but if we did, other regiments would simply be cut to pieces” (360). And, although without enthusiasm, they do respond to the call to help their brothers in need. If there is one watershed issue, one separator of sheep from goats, in this novel, it is just this. Who will help his brothers? Those who do not are the villains. Those who do are the heroes.

It is precisely at this point that Solzhenitsyn chiefly takes issue with Tolstoy (who appears briefly as a character in the book). Running throughout the novel is a love–hate relationship with the author of War and Peace, and in important ways August 1914 can be seen as his version of the subject and even his rebuttal of his master. On this crucial issue Tolstoy avers that men do not control their own destinies, do not make history, but rather that impersonal forces of history rule the fates of men. For all his love of Tolstoy the writer, Solzhenitsyn feels compelled to draw a sharp line of distinction from him here, and Vorotyntsev is his answer.

The final theme which we will consider is the one embodied in Solzhenitsyn’s other hero, General Samsonov: the theme of Tragedy. And here we come to a theme which transcends anything which has appeared in the earlier fiction of Solzhenitsyn. In the novels rooted in his autobiography, he presented a vivid picture of suffering, but it was always undeserved suffering inflicted upon innocents by totalitarian oppressors. The books were protests against that oppression. Now we come to something different and more elemental. In Samsonov we have a character who approximates the tragic heroes of the Western literary tradition, a man who suffersand dies and whose tragic end grows in large measure out of his own failures, yet a man who retains his dignity and integrity to the end. The meaning of the tragic events escapes him, but he dies affirming the will of God.

Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism (Robert D. Kaplan, June 1999, The Atlantic)
(In perceiving the Soviet Union as permanent, orderly, and legitimate, Kissinger shared a failure of analysis with the rest of the foreign-policy elite -- notably excepting the scholar and former head of the State Department's policy-planning staff George Kennan, the Harvard historian Richard Pipes, the British scholar and journalist Bernard Levin, and the Eureka College graduate Ronald Reagan.)

And Robert Conquest and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 9, 2008 7:25 PM

In perceiving the Soviet Union as permanent, orderly, and legitimate, Kissinger shared a failure of analysis with the rest of the foreign-policy elite -- notably excepting the scholar and former head of the State Department's policy-planning staff George Kennan...

Keenan, in his initial analysis, yes. But didn't he piss and moan throughout the rest of the Cold War about our concrete actions viz-a-viz the Soviets?

Posted by: Benjamin at April 9, 2008 10:03 PM

I read Reflections on a Ravaged Century in college and I remember being highly impressed by Conquest's combination of massive intelligence and deep wisdom. Those two qualities don't normally come together, but he has them both in spades.

His takedown of the Western dupes of the Soviets was particularly insightful. The novelist Robert Harris, in an NR book review, quoted Conquest's statement that the mental contortions involved among the Soviet dupes would be incredible to later students of mental aberration, and then added his own comment: "They seem fairly incredible now." Touche.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 9, 2008 10:08 PM


Yep, he became a classic moral equivalence type. Paul Hollander records the gory details in a chapter of this book.

As Hollander notes, Kennan's argument essentially boiled down to this: "America isn't perfect, so we have no right to criticize the Soviets." Another perfectly good mind destroyed by elitist liberalism, a shame really.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 9, 2008 10:13 PM

Kennan's insight was that we needn't do anything and the USSR would collapse of itself. Containment would guard our allies in the meantime. Recall that Ike shared this wisdom. It was Kennedy who turned to the sort of adventurism that Kennan opposed.

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2008 6:27 AM

Marx called for all power in a society to be concentrated in the hands of the state. The state applying terror against any perceived threat to its power is the natural consequence.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 10, 2008 9:19 AM