Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Главное Управление Исправительно—Трудовых Лагерей и колоний

I started a new book called Gulag: A History which, as the title suggests, is a chronicle of the Soviet Union concentration camps from 1917 to the 1980's. The introduction of the book brought up a point that I had been pondering lately. Luckily the author, Anne Applebaum, included the full text of the introduction on her website so I can cut and paste it here for discussion. Speaking here about the tendency by Westerners to downplay Soviet crimes as opposed to the atrocities that Hitler committed:

I first became aware of this problem several years ago, when walking across the Charles Bridge, a major tourist attraction in what was then newly democratic Prague. There were buskers and hustlers along the bridge, and, every fifteen feet or so someone was selling precisely what one would expect to find for sale in such a postcard-perfect spot. Paintings of appropriately pretty streets were on display, along with bargain jewelry and "Prague" key chains. Among the bric-a-brac, one could buy Soviet military paraphernalia: caps, badges, belt buckles, and little pins, the tin Lenin and Brezhnev images that Soviet schoolchildren once pinned to their uniforms.

The sight struck me as odd. Most of the people buying the Soviet paraphernalia were Americans and West Europeans. All would be sickened by the thought of wearing a swastika. None objected, however, to wearing the hammer and sickle on a T-shirt or a hat. It was a minor observation, but sometimes, it is through just such minor observations that a cultural mood is best observed. For here, the lesson could not have been clearer: while the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another mass murder makes us laugh.

If there is a dearth of feeling about Stalinism among Prague tourists, it is partly explained by the dearth of images in Western popular culture. The Cold War produced James Bond and thrillers, and cartoon Russians of the sort who appear in Rambo films, but nothing as ambitious as Schindler's List or Sophie's Choice. Steven Spielberg, probably Hollywood's leading director (like it or not) has chosen to make films about Japanese concentration camps (Empire of the Sun) and Nazi concentration camps, but not about Stalinist concentration camps. The latter haven't caught Hollywood's imagination in the same way.

Highbrow culture hasn't been much more open to the subject. The reputation of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has been deeply damaged by his brief, overt support of Nazism, an enthusiasm which developed before Hitler had committed his major atrocities. On the other hand, the reputation of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has not suffered in the least from his aggressive support of Stalinism throughout the postwar years, when plentiful evidence of Stalin's atrocities was available to anyone interested. "As we were not members of the Party," he once wrote, "it was not our duty to write about Soviet labor camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrels over the nature of the system, provided no events of sociological significance occurred." On another occasion, he told Albert Camus that "Like you, I find these camps intolerable, but I find equally intolerable the use made of them every day in the bourgeois press."

Some things have changed since the Soviet collapse. In 2002, for example, the British novelist Martin Amis felt moved enough by the subject of Stalin and Stalinism to dedicate an entire book to the subject. His efforts prompted other writers to wonder why so few members of the political and literary Left had broached the subject. On the other hand, some things have not changed. It is possible--still--for an American academic to publish a book suggesting that the purges of the 1930s were useful because they promoted upward mobility and therefore laid the groundwork for perestroika. It is possible--still--for a British literary editor to reject an article because it is "too anti-Soviet." Far more common, however, is a reaction of boredom or indifference to Stalinist terror. An otherwise straightforward review of a book I wrote about the western republics of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s contained the following line:_"Here occurred the terror famine of the 1930s, in which Stalin killed more Ukrainians than Hitler murdered Jews. Yet how many in the West remember it? After all, the killing was so--so boring, and ostensibly undramatic."

These are all small things: the purchase of a trinket, a philosopher's reputation, the presence or absence of Hollywood films. But put them all together and they make a story. Intellectually, Americans and West Europeans know what happened in the Soviet Union. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's acclaimed novel about life in the camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published in the West in several languages in 1962– . His oral history of the camps, The Gulag Archipelago, caused much comment when it appeared, again in several languages, in 1973. Indeed, The Gulag Archipelago led to a minor intellectual revolution in some countries, most notably France, converting whole swathes of the French Left to an anti-Soviet position. Many more revelations about the Gulag were made during the 1980s, the glasnost years, and they too received due publicity abroad.

Nevertheless, to many people, the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler. Ken Livingstone, a former British Member of Parliament, now Mayor of London, once struggled to explain the difference to me. Yes, the Nazis were "evil," he said. But the Soviet Union was "deformed." That view echoes the feeling that many people have, even those who are not old-fashioned left-wingers: the Soviet Union simply went wrong somehow, but it was not fundamentally wrong in the way that Hitler's Germany was wrong.

Applebaum provides a few theory's as to why this clear and present bias exists. One is that information about the crimes of the soviets was simply not available. This, to me, is far too kind. Clearly information was available from the word go for anyone who wanted to know what was happening. Not only that, but there were outright lies from Western reporters about what was happening. For instance the case of Walter Duranty who lied his way to a Pulitzer Prize false reporting about how the Ukrainian terror famine never happened.

A second theory is that we like our World War II history to be cut and dry; Allies good, Axis bad. Seeing as Uncle Joey was a member of the Allies reminding people that he killed 20 million before Hitler touched his first Jew might make things uncomfortable for the masses. It might especially question the demigod status of everyone's favorite president, Mr. Franklin Roosevelt. After all, why would such a champion of the common man stoop so low as to shake hands with the man who slaughtered millions of proletarians? This is a theory I like for explaining why the general population might ignore the facts of Soviet rule, but it in no way forgives the intelligentsia.

So what do you think?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

I suppose talking about a book is as good a place as any to restart with the blog. Soon I'll update the buttons and all since I canceled the web host I was using and all my images got deleted. For now I'll say I read this book:

Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire is the story of the Rwanda genocide in 1994 from the perspective of the Dallaire who was the head of military operations for the U.N. peacekeeping force of the time. The book is horrifyingly detailed and the last few pages when Roméo describes his own mental breakdown are quite moving, but I can't fully agree with conclusions that he makes.

He claims he would have been able to stop the genocide if given the proper amount of troops and money from developed nations and there's no doubt that's true, but one wonders to what end? The hate the Hutu's possessed for the Tutsis may have been contained for a time but would it ever have fully died? Are we to set up police states in every third world nation to prevent tribal warfare?

Another issue the book made me think of is the Wilsonian doctrine that Neo-Conservatives hold that spreading democracy will help sustain peace. Much was made in the time before the genocide began on the failures of the former warring sides to form a democratic government to stabilize the region. I fail to see how achieving this goal would have done any good as the monsters who were responsible for the genocide were some of the elected officials who were going to be installed. I guess I just don't see how, practically speaking, having government officials in place would have prevented the violence.

One final note, the current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, was the leader of the rebels fighting against the incumbent and extremist Rwanda government before and during the genocide. One would think the man would be a man of the people, a revolutionary, but instead Rwanda is still listed as "not free" by the human rights organization Freedom House. So in the end the people of Rwanda are still pretty much screwed.

Fantastic book, but I was left with more questions than others who seem to be convinced by Dallaire's call for a new Age of Humanity.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Does anyone really read this thing anymore?

I mean really.