The Feckless Wonder (uvula_fr_b4) wrote,
The Feckless Wonder

Paranoia, Self-Destroyer.

Adam Hochschild's The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin (1994; 2003 reprint) briefly shines a disturbing light on the Eastern Front of World War II, known to the Soviets/Russians as "The Great Patriotic War;" first, a preamble:

" the 1930s drew to a close, Stalin had new reasons for his hostility toward foreign Communists. He knew that many of them would be appalled by his 1939 pact with Hitler to divide Eastern Europe between themselves. All this meant a high death rate among foreign leftists living in Russia at the time. Plus, the Russians had no tolerance for any independent thinking in any other country's Communist Party. The Soviets, [historian Robert] Conquest points out, 'skimmed off a lively section of the European revolutionary Left, which might have otherwise fertilized a broad and unified movement and barred the way to Fascism.'"

-- p. 181

Hochschild notes how Stalin's Great Purge damn near lost the Great Patriotic War:

"Since 1945, the cult of [World War II] was at least as important as the cult of Lenin. Honoring the great sacrifices of the war used to be one of the few things that government and people agreed on. Even dissidents seldom questioned the mythologizing....

"But now, as the fiftieth anniversary of the German invasion approached, hard truths about the war could be denied no more and the press was filled with searching questions. Why was so much of the front-line air force wiped out on the ground on the war's first day? Why were millions of soldiers surrounded and captured in the first months? Above all, if the Soviet Union started the war with thirty more divisions than Germany, more than twice as many tanks, and nearly three times as many warplanes, why did it suffer the deaths of what the government now admits was 27 million people, while the Germans, battling not only Russia but the United States and England as well, lost less than 5 million?

"The key to Russia's huge number of casualties, especially the stupendous losses of men and territory at the beginning, is, of course, Stalin's sweeping purge of the Red Army on the very eve of the war. Some 43,000 army and navy officers were shot or sent to the gulag. More Red Army officers were executed or died in Soviet labor camps than died in the war itself. Among those of higher rank, the figures are even more stark. Some six hundred Soviet generals were killed in action during the four years of World War II; one thousand were shot by Stalin just before the war. Has any aggressor in history ever had so much help from the country it was invading?....

"In the late thirties, German intelligence eagerly watched the purge of the Red Army, and tried to fuel Stalin's paranoia still further by planting false papers that showed various generals to be in touch with Berlin. Meanwhile, NKVD agents, eager to advance their careers by proving that top Soviet generals were Nazi spies, were themselves forging similar documents in German. Today, researchers are still trying to figure out which papers are which. The one thing that just about everybody agrees on is that before the war no top Red Army officers did conspire with the Germans.

"The war is fertile territory for revisionist Russian historians. And for psychologists. Why did Stalin ignore all alarm signals of the impending German attack? He failed to put Soviet forces on alert; he dismissed desperate, repeated warnings from front-line commanders and diplomats; when spies brought messages about German preparations, he ordered them shot. The millions of Russians who dutifully condemned Purge victims as foreign spies ignored the danger from within: the madness of Stalin. The dictator himself killed millions of imaginary internal enemies but ignored the danger from without: the 3 million German troops massing on his border. In the end, he was the biggest denier of all."

-- p. 191; pps. 192-93

Alan Furst's second novel, Dark Star (1991), wraps up with a conceit that is as amusing as it is revolting: that Hitler and Stalin were, in essence, star-crossed lovers starring in their own demoniacal opera, who viewed all of Europe as their dowry-cum-marriage bed. To say any more is to spoil the surprise, delight and dismay that will greet you some thirty pages before the end of Dark Star; suffice to say here that, even if you're not especially enamored of historical fiction in general or World War II fiction in particular, you should read this book. It's kind of a shame that Hochschild didn't reference Furst's book, even if only in the reprint edition of The Unquiet Ghost; the near hysterical fancy in Furst's novel is scarcely more absurd than the actual workings of Stalin's regime, which demanded -- and depended upon -- the rooting out of conspiracies anywhere and everywhere, even if they had to be made up out of the whole cloth: from children's conspiracies with members who confessed, under torture, to having been Fascist agents from the age of seven to a 21-year-old American expatriate former elevator operator and acquaintance of various jazz musicians living in Moscow in the early 1930s who confessed, also under torture, to having been suborned by a "Latvian counterrevolutionary espionage organization" to "overthrow Soviet power and create a mighty Latvia on the territory of the Soviet Union" (p. 167). (Hochschild dryly notes that "Creating 'a mighty Latvia on the territory of the Soviet Union' was about as feasible as creating a mighty Costa Rica on the territory of the United States.")

As Hochschild observes, "logic...was not the point" of the Great Purge; indeed, one might safely say that logic was the chiefest enemy of the Great Purge, and one of the first victims to be seized, silenced, and shipped off to the sub-arctic hell of the NKVD's personal fiefdom, Kolyma, to be seen nevermore.

If the one of the main lessons to be derived from Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22, according to Paul Fussell's Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989), was that the main reason that the Allies defeated the Axis powers in The Big One was because the Allies committed slightly fewer goofs, screw-ups, snafus and fubars than the Axis did, then it absolutely beggars the imagination to consider the length and breadth of, say, Nazi Germany's incompetence, negligence, corruption and criminal stupidity if it actually beat out Stalin's Russia in the race to the bottom. Was "Uncle Joe" given a special dispensation from this Wagnerian exploration of Murphy's Law, or was his kingdom of the deranged the exception that proves the rule?

Makes me wish that the current administration -- from "Dubya" and Dick (who surely deserves Nixon's old sobriquet of "Tricky Dick" if anyone does) Cheney to ex-Attorney General John Ashcroft to current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on down -- would, at minimum, read The Unquiet Ghost, if they groan at the heft of Robert Conquest's The Great Terror or roll their eyes at the "irrelevance" of the Inquisition(s) and/or witch-trials of medieval Europe: even if you don't give a rat's ass about your fellow beings, torturing them is an absolutely lousy way to extract information, unless you want to uncover seven-year-old agents of SPECTRE and operatives for the Grand Duchy of Fenwick in your midst. The fact that the U.S. government ever considered for a moment making torture a part of its public policy in its "War on Terror" and had to be publicly shamed by a senator who was a POW in Vietnam for five-and-a-half years into disavowing the use of torture shows, if nothing else does, just how far this country has fallen short of its ideals...and how the policies and practices of some countries are much closer than they might first appear in our rearview mirror.
Tags: books, history, paranoia, russia, war on terror

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