Blood on all their hands

Economic History of the USSR

This map shows the 1974 geographic location of...

This map shows the 1974 geographic location of various ethnic groups within the Soviet Union. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The past is always with us, it’s not even past.” In the case of this book, this is very true: I bought it in 1989 or 1990 read a few pages, put it down and then “lost” it. I genuinely don’t know where it has been for most of the intervening years, but just a few weeks ago I noticed it, in close to pristine condition, on the top shelf of a bookcase and – having read Applebaum on Eastern Europe – I thought the time had come to finish the job (or restart it – I don’t claim to recall the pages I covered three decades ago).

Since 1989 both the Soviet Union and Alec Nove have passed on, but Nove is surely the greater loss to humanity: as the book makes very clear, murder and Soviet economics went hand in hand from the very start.

Nove’s work is powerful both because he was Russian (his family were Mensheviks I believe) and so has read in the original, and he’s on the left. This is not to say that the objective facts change from a political perspective but to know that his work is impervious to the claim of anti-Soviet propaganda.

The bulk of the book describes the terrible years of Stalin’s long rule – most Soviet citizens (the ones who survived) were poorer in 1950 than in 1913 (and while the struggle of the Great Patriotic War was plainly a major factor in that, the book shows it is not a good enough excuse). But from the very start we see that Lenin and Trotsky too were all in favour of brutal methods. Indeed the Stalinist plan for “socialism in one country” bears a great resemblance to the Trotskyists “primitive socialist accumulation“: treat the peasants (80% of the population in 1928) as the class enemy and squeeze them for all they are worth.

Of course the Stalinists did more – mass deportations of the “Kulaks” and engineering a famine in the early 1930s – but how can the Trotskyists claim their hero would have been better? The man who urged the Red Army to shoot the Kronstadt mutineers “down like partridges” has no moral clothes to hide behind. (Though it is difficult to disagree with Nove’s view that the Stalin famine was a crime against peasants, many of whom were Ukrainian rather than a crime against Ukrainians, many of whom were peasants.)

Further, Nove shows how a lack of democracy and debate worsened the economic situation. One only has to look at how Trotskyists behave – to one another never mind those they have a fundamental disagreement with – to know that democracy and Leninism do not mix.

The book feels strange because it is written with  the Soviet Union in full existence and even – in 1989 (the year of my revised edition) – before the nationalist pressures in the Baltics and the Caucasus were widely visible. Nove writes that we will need to wait to the 21st century to be able to make a critical examination of the impact of the Gorbachev reforms.

The history of the post-Soviet states is a mixed one. The Baltics have become liberal democratic republics – though lies have been told about the role of many of their citizens in Hitler’s murders and they treated many within their borders as second class citizens. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have struggled to make the transition to democracy and liberalism but with limited success (though hope should not be abandoned for any of them). Russia and the rest are in varying degrees authoritarian failures. But no one can read Nove’s book and wish for a return of the USSR.

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The mind of a sociopath

The Book of Evidence

Badge of An Garda Síochána

Badge of An Garda Síochána (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Banville‘s work is often difficult. Reading this short novel involved keeping a notepad and writing down words and names I wanted to look up – villous, Euphorion, accidie and so on – and you never quite know whether Banville is doing this to show off or because these are the sort of words he would use in everyday conversation.

But – as with The Untouchable and unlike, despite what the Booker judges thought, The Sea – this book is compelling and not just a slog. Banville paints an entirely believable portrait of a sociopath struggling to justify his actions in murdering a family friend’s servant in a botched art robbery. One can truly imagine the man and many of the other characters found here.

The one thing the book does not really do is give an insight into the murky politics of “The year of the GUBU“. The 1982 GUBU – grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented – was the moment when one of Ireland’s most wanted murderers was found to be a house guest of the Attorney General who had recently discussed his own case with the Commissioner of the Garda. Banville’s book is indeed based on this case, but only very loosely. There is no attempt here – as, say in The Heather Blazing – to examine why the regime of Charlie Haughey had so betrayed the values of the founders of the Irish state. This book looks inward rather than outward, but does it rather well.

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Barn doors and banjos

English: List from Eastern Europe AMS Topograp...

English: List from Eastern Europe AMS Topographic Maps. Series N501, U.S. Army Map Service, 1954 Русский: Лист из набора карт Восточной Европы Картографической военной службы США. Серия 501. 1954 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56

At the very end of this book Anne Applebaum says there is a need to tell the story of the Stalinist take-over of Eastern Europe without resorting to caricature or a tale of villains. She is right. Yet she fails to do it.

In writing this I want to make clear my complaint is not that she attacks the Communists. It is that in her determination to show the (leading) Communists as uniformly, consistently, inflexibly and completely evil she lets them off the hook. And they certainly do not deserve that.

Once or twice in the book she comes close to letting the Communists speak in their own terms and then the effect is far more devastating than the vast majority of the book where she just piles on her pre-determined narrative. Here are people talking of “democracy” while building a police state – we do not need to be reminded they are criminals, their own words reveal them to be so.

Here and there a junior figure in the Communist world – the ultimately heroic Jacek Kuroń is one example – is allowed to express their doubts and their uncertainties, to have a conscience – but such moral greyness is not permitted for the top leaders: but surely they too were once sincere in their hopes?

And so, for instance, the brutality of the regimes – which must have become increasingly horrific and shocking to those who lived under them – is portrayed as a constant as opposed to a ratchet (as Applebaum seems unwilling to concede that the regimes degenerated as they were always so evil or at best on a pre-determined path to full, brutal, dictatorship).

That said it is also seems obvious that Applebaum has difficulties in being objective. Her refusal to list the Soviet Union’s casualties in the second world war while discussing those of everyone else sticks out like a sore thumb. The Soviets may have been paranoid and vicious in their treatment of people they thought to  be a threat to “peace” but it is surely also important to examine why they might have been so. As I have seen another reviewer remark, she treats the Soviet anxiety to conquer Berlin as quickly as possible as though it was a fault: when surely it was both right and natural to want to see the Nazis utterly crushed as rapidly as was feasible?

Similarly there is no consideration of the politics of the West and indeed the whole European dynamic and its impact on Eastern Europe. Applebaum more or less dismisses the idea that Cold War politics made things worse in the East early on in her book, but it is also plain, from reading it, that in some way 1947 did mark a crucial break year. Whether an attempt at “detente” would have made any difference in the long run is another question – and it is difficult to be optimistic – but don’t Finland and Austria (both ignored here) show that the Soviet response was not necessarily monolithic?

Further she seems reluctant to discuss the legacy of pre-war politics in any of the countries she discusses. Maybe those claims that opponents of Soviet occupation were “fascists” had some basis in truth? Or at least enough basis in enough cases to persuade a big enough minority in the countries of Eastern Europe to agree that the ruling regimes had a point?

It’s all a great pity because in here there is a great book struggling to get out. Once or twice we glimpse it – she is particularly good in her discussion of socialist realism, for instance. But most of all we get a mess – a readable mess, for sure – but in the space of a few pages we are first told that the “Moscow Communists” (those who spent the 1930s and the war in the Soviet Union) had long had plans for a takeover, then that they did not plan to make their countries miniature Soviet Unions, and then that they did not know what to do. One of these three is right, but they cannot all be.

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