Stalinophiles and ignoramuses
Rex Dunn examines a selection of fiction that deals with Stalinism and anti-Stalinism
This article is about western literature on Soviet ‘communism’. I will look at works that even glamorise its monstrous character, whilst ignoring its betrayals of the class struggle. That started with the fellow-travellers in the 1930s and has reappeared in the nostalgia of the present. For reasons of space, I can give only a few examples, because I also want to look at those who are critical of Stalinism.
In the past many writers were imbued with the ‘fellow-traveller spirit’, choosing for moralistic and romantic reasons to side with the Soviet Union, ‘warts and all’, which they falsely believed to be building socialism. In the face of fascism and later American imperialism, this was considered to be the only progressive stance to take. Yet even within this distorted prism, some novels are better than others; including those written from the perspective of a bourgeois journalist, who is supposed to be ‘non-partisan’, as opposed to a committed ‘leftist’. In this regard, for me, Graham Greene’s cold war novel The quiet American (1955) is superior to Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish civil war classic, For whom the bell tolls (1940).
But today Stalinophile literature has taken a more ‘sophisticated’ turn. This is a reflection of three things. Firstly, it is part of the rise of the professional writer and the fact that writing novels is now big business. Secondly, there is the drive to develop the novel form. On the one hand, this involves research-based writing (as opposed to writing ‘from the heart’, à la Hemingway, Greene and Roth); on the other, it has become de rigueur for post-modernist writers to play around with narrative structure, so that we end up with ‘multiple voices’ (which is fine), but also “many meanings” (to quote one recent book review) - which lets the reader off the hook, when it comes to working out what the story is really about.
It is a sign of the times: ie, the narrative structure has to become more complex as a means to reflect the increasing complexity and fragmentation of modern life. The rise of writing courses as a discipline within higher education has contributed to this trend. If you are good at stringing words together, and have the money, why not try your hand at a ‘creative writing’ course - especially if you do not have the experience of life or an ‘inner urge’ to write fiction. But to what degree can one teach creative writing, if this particular aptitude is not already innate within the individual?
Thirdly, there is a growing sense of nostalgia for the certainties of the past - in particular the binary nature of the cold war period, when there was a basic choice between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, between freedom and tyranny, western democracy and ‘communism’. Today, especially in the age of Trump, the world appears to be turned upside-down. For example, the CIA is at odds with its commander-in-chief, whilst the latter argues that America can no longer continue as “the world’s policeman” (really?). All is confusion. The future is uncertain, so let’s look back to the certainties of the past - even if by being pig-ignorant, you end up distorting them.
Writing has become a glamour profession. But for callow youth, including those who want to write about the ‘communist’ period, you have to start by researching the archives, in the hopes that this can provide the author with an authentic background, within which the drama can unfold, along with the emergence of a few convincing characters. Hence the author is obliged to include an ‘acknowledgements’ section. By contrast, Hemingway’s and Greene’s novels usually begin with a quotation which establishes a central theme (see below), but neither need to provide acknowledgements, since their creative juices are not driven by research (the same could be said for Philip Roth). Rather, they were able to rely on their own experience, along with their own creative imaginations, in order to turn an historical event into a work of fiction.
Hence we have the possibility that fiction can lead to a clearer vision of the truth, whereas now, in the age of the fiction industry, the balance appears to have been reversed. Today’s authors are so closeted within their own social media bubble, they have to do a lot of homework: ie, systematic research. A writer needs to learn the tricks of the trade, but there is no substitute for experience and imagination.
Finally, there is the category of the novel, which is driven by commercial considerations. In some cases the author seeks to make use of a ‘good’ education, wherein both writing and research skills become a means to make money, or become a TV celebrity, which keeps the money flowing. The main thing is to produce a riveting page-turner, which brings tears to the reader’s eyes, as a distraction from mundane reality! Who cares about the truth? The historian and novelist, Simon Sebag Montefiore, is a prime example.
The background to what is arguably Ernest Hemingway’s most famous novel is as follows. In 1937, he agreed to report on the Spanish civil war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. He arrived in Spain with Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens [who] was filming the Spanish Earth, a propaganda film in support of the Republican side. He wanted Hemingway to replace John Dos Passos as screenwriter, since [the latter] had left the project when his friend, José Robles, was arrested and executed. The incident changed Dos Passos’s initially positive opinion of the leftist republicans, creating a rift between him and Hemingway, who later spread the rumour that Dos Passos left Spain out of cowardice.
Late in 1937, while in Madrid with Martha [Gellhorn, his second wife], Hemingway wrote his only play, The fifth column, as the city was being bombarded by Franco’s forces. he returned to Key West [in Florida] for a few months, then back to Spain twice in 1938, where he was present at the battle of Ebro, the last republican stand, and he was among the British and American journalists who were some of the last to leave the battle, as they crossed the river.1
For whom the bell tolls was published in 1940. It takes its title from John Donne’s famous poem: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main …’ Unfortunately, this theme of internationalism was understood only at a rudimentary level by most of the thousands of brave men and women who volunteered to fight for the International Brigades. On the other hand, Moscow merely paid hypocritical lip service to it, given that the bureaucracy always acted in its own self-interest.
That said, Hemingway’s themes of romantic heroism - sacrifice for a just cause in a faraway country - within which the tragedy of love and death unfolds, is the reason why the novel is still popular today, almost 80 years after it was written. This is how it is pitched on the Amazon website:
High in the pine forests of the Spanish sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American writer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebel [forces]. Like many of his novels adapted into a major Hollywood film, For whom the bell tolls is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century by one of the greatest American writers.2
But it fails miserably, when it comes to the idea that serious writing - whether fiction or autobiography - really should offer a clearer understanding of what actually did happen.
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) is an autobiography which tells the truth; because ‘the general’ is in ‘the particular’ (his own personal experience as a volunteer in the civil war). More importantly Orwell analyses this from the standpoint of dialectical and historical materialism.
On reflection, he realised that the struggle for Barcelona against Franco’s rebel fascist forces was betrayed by the bitter fruits of Stalin’s popular front strategy. The alliance between the Communist Party and the bourgeois government that had won the elections in 1936 (the republican government) had to be preserved at all costs. On the other hand, those who supported the idea that a social revolution in Spain was both necessary and possible were starved of weapons. If the revolutionary factions refused the leadership of the government in Madrid, then they had to be destroyed - either by the Republican secret police or Russian agents.
The above provides a basic outline for Orwell’s description of the battle for Barcelona a year or so later: The Spanish communists (ie, the Stalinists) had taken over the Catalan government. But they were not doing enough to save the Catalan people from the fascists. Meanwhile,
Police spies were everywhere. The jails were jammed with prisoners ….always, of course, anarchists and POUM [Trotskyites] … no-one was ever charged … not with anything as definite as Trotskyism; you were simply flung in jail and kept there … Foreigners from the International Column and other militants were getting in jail in greater numbers.3
At this point Orwell begins to have doubts about what being a communist really means. He also sums up the whole dilemma which revolutionaries face when up against a powerful counterrevolutionary enemy, which also calls itself ‘communist’:
If I were a coalminer, I would not care to be known to the boss as a communist [since] the notion of ‘liquidating’ or ‘eliminating’ everyone who happens to disagree with you does not seem natural. It seemed only too natural in Barcelona. The ‘Stalinists’ were in the saddle and therefore it was a matter of course that every ‘Trotskyist’ was in danger (p189).
The seeds of Animal Farm had now been sown.
Grahame Greene’s The quiet American (1955) is one of the great cold war novels. It is partly inspired by a Byron quote:
This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions.
The story reads like a script for a film noir (which Greene was good at doing). It is 1954, Fowler is an ageing Times war correspondent stuck in Saigon, as the war is hotting up; he is also an opium addict. Although he is morally flawed, in the end he does the right thing for the wrong reasons: from being a disengaged journalist, he becomes engaged; he takes sides with the national liberation movement led by the Stalinist Viet Minh. This was during the last days of French rule in Indochina, just as the Americans are moving in. But Fowler is motivated by green-eyed jealousy rather than opposition to American imperialism - a man called Pyle has just seduced Phuong, his beautiful Saigon mistress. Not only is he a younger man, who has more money, he also happens to be working under cover for the CIA; because now only the Americans can ‘save the east from communism’.
Fowler is also troubled because his Catholic wife will not divorce him. Yet she says: “I suppose like the rest of us you are getting old and don’t like living alone.”4But what is the nature of Fowler’s love for Phuong? He tells the idealist Pyle, “You can have her interests. I only want her body. I want her in bed with me” (p58).
Fowler witnesses some terrible things (as Greene did too during a stint as a journalist in Vietnam):
The canal was full of bodies: I am reminded now of an Irish stew containing too much meat. The bodies overlapped, one head, seal-grey, and anonymous as a convict with a shaven scalp, stuck up out of the water like a buoy. There was no blood: I suppose it had flowed away a long time ago (p172).
This would become emblematic for the crimes of American imperialism in future wars of aggression, right up to the present. Later Fowler has a conversation with himself: “Sooner or later one has to take sides, if one is to remain human” (p172).
Greene also uses irony to great effect. In a crucial scene, the American attaché is about to send one of those telegrams to a young man’s parents, which begin with the words:
Grieved to report your son died soldier’s death in cause of Democracy … The Economic Aid Commission doesn’t sound like the army” [says Fowler]. Do you get purple hearts?” (p30).
Unlike Hemingway, Greene gets away with it, because his Byron quote applies to American imperialism. Stalinism only plays a peripheral role in this story. Besides the Stalinised national liberation movement (the Viet Minh) was only able to defeat imperialism by defying the Stalinist hand which fed it (at least in the short term). But the human cost was enormous. With hindsight, given the fact that Vietnam has now returned to capitalism, we are entitled to conclude that the millions of Vietnamese who were sacrificed to the cause died in vain. But that is not Greene’s concern. Then there is the quality of his writing.
Philip Roth is an intelligent left liberal critic of communism (which he confuses with Stalinism). Arguably this makes him better than a fellow-traveller. Once again, he is a great writer. Following the precedent of Hemingway and Greene, I married a communist (1998) starts with a declaration, a Russian song for the working man sung by the Red Army choir. There is no acknowledgements, because this is a work of the author’s imagination, based on his own experience. It is history re-enacted through the eyes of his fictional characters and their circumstances.
Set in the late 1940s and 50s, the story is personal as well as an ‘American tragedy’. It takes its cue from the thousands of Americans who joined the US Communist Party. They were encouraged by the ‘new deal’ and the wartime alliance with the Soviets, which led to the defeat of fascism. But capitalism continued to exploit the American working man, while blacks were still being lynched in the deep south. President Truman was threatening World War III. So there had to be a communist revolution in America.
Henry Wallace - Roosevelt’s former vice-president, now leader of Progressive Party - offered the way forward. But in order to pursue this popular front strategy, in McCarthyite America, communists were forced to adopt their own personal ‘front’. For Roth’s larger-than-life main character, Ira Ringold, it was acting in a national radio show, The free and the brave. His marriage to a famous actress also helped.
But things begin to unravel when Eve Frame discovers that her husband is not just unfaithful: he is also a communist! In a jealous rage, she turns informer and outs Ira to the “zealous anti-communist cause”. The listener in this story, Nathan Zuckerman (one of Roth’s alter egos), who is Ira’s friend, also feels betrayed.
Like Roth and his alter ego, Ira is Jewish. He also joined the Communist Party because he believed that the revolution could also guarantee his assimilation into American life. But, when Stalin started his anti-Semitism campaign in 1948, his obedience to the party was tested to the limit.
But how does Roth approach the question of communism? On the one hand, he does not see it through rose-tinted spectacles: his narrator tells us that in the Soviet Union the secret police kill their own people. On the other, Roth is not a Marxist (but he is not obliged to be either). He makes one or two references to Trotskyism, but he decides to leave this “can of worms” unopened - which is a pity! Whist Roth is not a fellow-traveller, he is sympathetic to all those Americans who lived the communist dream - even if this was a “crazy fairy tale”.
Later he muddies the picture. Was Ira really a card-carrying working class communist? In the end, Nathan says that nothing makes sense - neither Karl Marx, Stalin nor Trotsky … or even himself! There is only the universe - “the vast brain of time, a galaxy of fire set by no human hand”.5 It appears that this is a tragedy which extinguishes all hope. There is no chink of light.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is an Oxbridge graduate, who is also “an English banking scion with a playboy reputation” (Vanity Fair), who went on to become a popular historian and TV presenter - as well as turning his research into best-selling novels, which means that he is laughing all the way to the bank.
It is appropriate to begin with his most successful work, a biography called Stalin: the court of the red tsar (2003). In the introduction to his acknowledgements, it is clear that he makes no attempt to establish a historical context. The events which led to the rise of Stalin are not seen in terms of the degeneration of the revolution. The latter was not the result of the imperialist counterrevolution from without - which allowed the Stalin faction to mount its own counterrevolution from within. Hence Montefiore talks about “Stalin’s struggle with Trotsky” in a sort of vacuum, implying that it was the latter who was the would-be usurper of Lenin’s mantle! So what we get is an irrational view of history, which is driven by individuals, either good or bad, who are simply ‘men of their time’. Thus Montefiore writes:
My mission was to go beyond the traditional explanations of Stalin as ‘enigma’, ‘madman’ or ‘satanic genius’ and that of his comrades as ‘dreary sycophants’ … [by] deploying the archives and unpublished memoirs, my own interviews [etc]. I hope Stalin becomes a more understandable and intimate character, no less repellent. I believe that placing Stalin and his oligarchs in their idiosyncratic Bolshevik context as members of a military religious order of sword-bearers explains much of the inexplicable.6
What a waste of research skills! It merely leads to a popular historical biography which sells well - to all those who do not see the need for independent critical thought.
When it comes to his ‘creative’ side, clearly Montefiore has raided his own research material: viz his trilogy: Sashenka (2009), One night in winter (2013) and Red sky at noon (2016). Perhaps he sees himself as a latter-day Boris Pasternak, who wrote Doctor Zhivago, or the Stalinist, Mikhail Sholokhov, author of And quiet flows the Don. Like them, he uses the revolution and the civil war as a backdrop to a romantic melodrama, centred around his key characters - except that he continues the story into the period of Stalinism, ending with the Battle of Stalingrad.
In a conventional sense, he is very good at narrative structure - not too complicated - as well as writing convincing characters, both historical and fictional, who interweave seamlessly. Stalin takes pride of place. But in order to humanise him Montefiore shows that he can sometimes behave like an avuncular uncle or father figure, who likes nothing better than to relax from the burden of being the great leader of the revolution. In Sashenka, Stalin attends a party where, thanks to some good wine and music, he is able to impress everyone around him with his warmth and good humour; he can even sing! I have only read the first in the trilogy, so it behoves me to defer to the author himself. Then readers can judge for themselves as to the literary quality of his fiction, let alone its veracity.
In an interview about Red sky at noon, he said:
I wanted to write something very different to the other two novels in the Moscow trilogy … This book is more physical action, it’s more violent and the movement is sudden and surprising, and I wanted to write that sort of book. It has the great love affair, it has the ominous figure of Stalin in Moscow, but really we are living with this tiny posse of riders, their horses, the hot plains, the terrifying killers on both sides, the jerk of sudden events, the unleashing of grotesque monsters and, all the time, the aspiration to stay alive, to survive, to do good, to preserve your humanity.
In some ways, this is a homage to the great western writers such as Larry McMurtry of Lonesome dove and others who understand that a western adventure is sometimes a good way to look at what makes us humans different from the animals … I hope you enjoy this novel. I’ve loved writing it.7
David Szalay belongs to a new breed of young, professional full-time writers of fiction. The innocent (2009) is his second novel, which is about life in the Soviet Union. His later novels are about young, middle class people trying to make sense of living under capitalism in the 21st century, wherein life is more fragmented and atomised than ever. Turbulence, which has just been published, evolved from a BBC commission to produce 12 short pieces for Radio Four - they are really a series of short stories, which are interconnected.
So we are presented with a character who literally flies from one place to another, where he meets another character; thus setting up another story. As a review in the Financial Times says, “The narrative baton passes between protagonists, and the reader’s sympathy shifts, as perspectives change.”8 In an accompanying interview, Szalay opined: “Only by juxtaposing multiple stories was it possible to create something meaningful.”
Not only does the juxtaposition of different story lines appear to be his preferred narrative structure, but there is the danger that this will become more important than the creation of an imaginary world, within which the characters interact, where the reader is made to think about the real one, both past and present.
At least in The innocent we have a principal character; so there is a tighter narrative structure, even though it jumps around in time and place. Aleksandr is a KGB officer, who is also a decent man - he is just trying to do his job in a professional manner (as Szalay sees it). The story begins in the 1930s, leading up to the great purge of 1937-38, when the ‘service’ had to work night and day. (Really they should have had an independent trade union, so that they could take industrial action!) But then it jumps forward to 1948 (omitting the ‘Great Patriotic War’). Aleksandr (‘Aleks’) is assigned to one particular case: the investigation of a Soviet doctor - the ‘innocent’ of the title - and his patient (who is now a vegetable, after being shot by the KGB).
In the next fragment, the time frame switches to 1972, which becomes another nodule for the story. For reasons which I do not understand completely, Aleks and his brother are first heard discussing the Munich Olympics - marred by the massacre of Israeli athletes. Then we move on to the world chess championship between challenger Bobby Fischer of the United States and defending champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union (Fischer’s victory ended 24 years of Soviet domination of this cerebral sporting contest). Finally the author touches on the notorious ice hockey match between the USSR and Canada, which ended in another defeat for the Soviet Union, thus denting its superiority in the propaganda war between the two superpowers (the USSR was now losing its early lead over the USA in the space race). But what is the point to all this, really?
The narrative structure of The innocents also juxtaposes a third-person account between these events with a first-person account. In the latter, Aleks confesses to his ex-wife about what happened and reveals that he is consumed by feelings of guilt - firstly because he knew from the start that he was responsible for the arrest of an innocent man, who was sent to the Gulag, where he died an early death from overwork; secondly, this is compounded by his affair with the doctor’s wife, which ended his first marriage.
The main problem with Szalay is that his research-based writing draws on the work of the Sheila Fitzpatrick, a social historian , whose special interest happens to be the Soviet Union during the Stalin years. As a result, she describes life from the standpoint of ‘everyday Stalinism’; as opposed to a Marxist account of the period. We are invited to accept things as experienced by the ordinary individual, who has no higher knowledge - just an atomised view of the world. So things are what they are and there is no alternative. Hence Aleks was a bright student who wins a place to study law at a higher school controlled by OGPU, the secret police:
1930, a sense of excitement about everything … it seemed that the revolution was fully underway, with the end of private manufacturing and trade, industrialisation and the first five-year plan, the establishment of the kolkhoz system [of collective farms] and the formation of a new Soviet working class and intelligentsia ...9
From this standpoint, history is on our side. Socialism can be built in a single country. But the people have to make tremendous sacrifices, even if millions of innocent people die from being worked to death - traitors, of course, have to be mercilessly exterminated. As the old Russian proverb says, “When chopping wood, chips must fly!”
The head of the OGPU school tells his diligent students that the civil war “did not end in 1921 - it did not end at all”. There was a conspiracy of white remnants and their supporters - the “rightists” - to undermine the party and the state, in order to destroy the achievement of communism.
They have now turned to wrecking violence, murder, terrorism … They listened in sober silence while [the chief] listed the plots that had been foiled that year, all of them involving party members - even some members of the central committee … [These included] Trotsky’s conspiracies with his supporters still in the USSR … and his letter to the CC, written from his hiding place in Mexico, in which he explicitly threatened the Soviet state with terrorist violence (p144).
For those who do not know what really happened, they are encouraged to believe that Trotsky was a counterrevolutionary. Thus Szalay contributes to the Stalinist school for the falsification of history.
But all this begs the question: once the Left Opposition had been destroyed, following the great purge of 1937, after Trotsky had been assassinated by a PGPU agent, and so on, why did the Soviet Union collapse? Why were Stalin’s successor’s the first to usher in the restoration of capitalism in Russia in 1990? That is the problem with a novel based on Fitzpatrick’s ‘everyday Stalinism’ approach. Write a research-based novel about the history of the Soviet Union by all means. But, for the sake of the ignorant, the writer is obliged to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! Julian Barnes’s fictionalised biography of Shostakovich, The noise of time (2016) is a case in point.10
Fact and fiction
Here are some more facts, which Szalay omitted, and which should be of particular interest to American readers.
Firstly, Stalin ignored Marx, who pointed out that capitalism is a world system; therefore socialism in one country could not work. Therefore Stalin had to build up a huge apparatus of repression, because he needed millions of workers and peasants as slave labour. If you complained about being overworked in the factory, then you would be sent to the Gulag. At the same time, the bureaucracy needed to have scapegoats for the run of economic failures: kulaks, party managers and party members, including old Bolsheviks, were particularly vulnerable.
In his book, The forsaken (2009) Tim Tzouliadis writes:
The NKVD guards remained convinced that they were not murderers, but righteous executioners … who became passionless slaughter men, too busy for introspection … Each … executioner was paid special rouble bonus for killing people in the ‘zones’ … The Gulag ran as high as 30 million over its lifespan … between January 1 1935 and June 22 1941 there were approximately 20 million arrests and eight million deaths …11
Secondly, in the 1930s, thousands of American workers - many of them Communist Party members - went to the Soviet Union as volunteer workers. Many of these also gave up their American citizenship. When they realised this was a mistake, they went to the American embassy in Moscow to apply for a new one:
Meanwhile, lurking outside the embassy gates, the NKVD agents were waiting for the emigrants to emerge. Many Americans … were arrested in this way, on the pavement just yards from the embassy (p105).
Because the records have been destroyed, an untold number ended up in the camps, where people were worked to death. This included the notorious Kolyma gold mines in Siberia, originally discovered by American geologists. At the height of its production, Kolyma produced more gold than that of the British empire or America. Given Roosevelt’s ‘special relationship’ with the Soviet Union, much of it was exported to the United States.
Stalinophile writers, of whatever complexion, do not start out by asking the question, ‘Was the Soviet Union under Stalin communist or not?’ As a consequence, they contribute to the lie that communism is a bad idea. Hence their preoccupation with the evils which they describe are a form of morbid fascination, little more. This becomes more reprehensible if the author sees their task as primarily an intellectual exercise (how can I make the narrative structure more complex?). But the lowest of the low is when they do it simply for the money, a là opportunists like Montefiore.
But Greene and Roth are different. For Greene, the humanist “sooner or later has to take sides, if one is to remain human”. For Roth, the left liberal, communism is just a “crazy fairy tale”. He does not understand the difference between communism and Stalinism. But - like Greene, above all - he is a great novelist, because he is able to create an imaginary world, which, at the same time, is based on reality. As Roth said in his last interview before his death (2018), “I rub two sticks of reality together to get a fire of reality.”12 This produces a world we can immerse ourselves in.
Yet, at the same time, it makes us think about the real one more critically - which hopefully leads on to the question, ‘Things need to change so what is to be done?’
1. ‘Ernest Hemingway’, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway.
3. G Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Penguin Books, 1966, p 187.
4. G Greene The quiet American London 1967, p117.
5. P Roth I married a communist London 2016, p328.
6. S Montefiore Stalin: the court of the red tsar London 2003, introduction.
8. ‘Multiple voices, many meanings’ Financial Times January 6 2019.
9. D Szalay The innocents London 2009, pp142-43.
10. Max Grierson ‘The music inside ourselves’ Weekly Worker May 25 2017.
11. T Tzouliadis The forsaken London 2009, pp103, 158.