Ed Driscoll

The Banality of Stalinism

In his weekly column titled “Fom Russia with Euphemisms,” Jonah Goldberg asks us to “consider the stunted and ritualistic conversation (‘controversy’ is too vibrant a word for the mundane Internet chatter) about the Soviet Union sparked by the Winter Olympics. The humdrum shrugging at the overwhelming evil of Soviet Communism leaves me nostalgic for the Eichmann controversy. At least [Hannah] Arendt and her critics* agreed that evil itself was in the dock; they merely haggled over the best words to put in the indictment:”

What to say of the gormless press-agent twaddle conjured up to describe the Soviet Union? In its opening video for the Olympic Games, NBC’s producers drained the thesaurus of flattering terms devoid of moral content: “The empire that ascended to affirm a colossal footprint; the revolution that birthed one of modern history’s pivotal experiments. [Video here — Ed] But if politics has long shaped our sense of who they are, it’s passion that endures.”

To parse this infomercial treacle is to miss the point, for the whole idea is to luge by the truth on the frictionless skids of euphemism.

In America, we constantly, almost obsessively, wrestle with the “legacy of slavery.” That speaks well of us. But what does it say that so few care that the Soviet Union was built — literally — on the legacy of slavery? The founding fathers of the Russian Revolution — Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky — started “small,” merely throwing hundreds of thousands of people into kontslagerya (concentration camps).

By the time Western intellectuals and youthful folksingers like Pete Seeger were lavishing praise on the Soviet Union as the greatest experiment in the world, Joseph Stalin was corralling millions of his own people into slavery. Not metaphorical slavery, but real slavery complete with systematized torture, rape, and starvation. Watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, you’d have no idea that from the Moscow metro system to, literally, the roads to Sochi, the Soviet Union — the supposed epitome of modernity and “scientific socialism” — was built on a mountain of broken lives and unremembered corpses.

To read Anne Applebaum’s magisterial Gulag: A History is to subject yourself to relentless tales of unimaginable barbarity. A slave who falls in the snow is not helped up by his comrades but is instantly stripped of his clothes and left to die. His last words: “It’s so cold.”

Meanwhile, at Big Journalism, John Nolte notes that “CNN Overlooks ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin’s Mass-Murder of Millions.” But then, that’s been the story of CNN throughout its existence — both with the former Soviet Union specifically, and with virtually every other dictatorship, from Castro to North Korea.

Such moral equivalence bleeds (pun intended) into lighter fare on TV as well. In his weekly G-File, which expands upon his column on the banality of Stalinism, Jonah links to this clip from the 1990s sitcom Friends:

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As he adds, “This gag would never work with an Adolf Hitler.”  A decade ago, Applebaum gave a speech which touched upon how this pop culture lacuna came to be. As she noted, when veteran foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan reviewed her first book for the New York Times in 1994, he wrote the following description of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, in which, as far as the west was concerned, the banality of evil was in full force:

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.

Of course, the Times is particularly to blame for west not remembering these horrors, given that the paper won a Pulitzer whitewashing them away. But beyond that, as Applebaum said in response in 2003, “Were Stalin’s murders boring? Many people think so. Put differently, 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 people who are not old-fashioned members of the British Labor Party: The Soviet Union simply went wrong somehow, but it was not fundamentally wrong in the way that Hitler’s Germany was wrong.

Until recently, it was possible to explain this absence of popular feeling about the tragedy of European communism in the West as the logical result of a particular set of circumstances. The passage of time is part of it: Communist regimes really did grow less reprehensible as the years went by. Nobody was very frightened of General Jaruzelski, or even of Brezhnev, although both were responsible for a great deal of destruction. Besides, archives were closed. Access to camp sites was forbidden. No television cameras ever filmed the Soviet camps or their victims, as they had done in Germany at the end of the Second World War. No images, in turn, meant that the subject, in our image-driven culture, didn’t really exist either.

But ideology twisted the ways in which we understood Soviet and East European history as well. In fact, in the 1920s, a great deal was known in the West about the bloodiness of Lenin’s revolution. Western socialists, many of whose brethren had been jailed by the Bolsheviks, protested loudly and strongly against the crimes being committed then.

In the 1930s, however, as Americans became more interested in learning how socialism could be applied here, the tone changed. Writers and journalists went off to the USSR, trying to learn lessons they could use at home. The New York Times employed a correspondent, Walter Duranty, who lauded the five-year plan and argued, against all the evidence, that it was a massive success–and won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, a part of the Western Left struggled to explain, and sometimes to excuse, the camps and the terror that created them precisely because they wanted to try some aspects of the Soviet experiment at home. In 1936, after millions of Soviet peasants had died of famine, the British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb published a vast survey of the Soviet Union, which explained, among other things, how the “downtrodden Russian peasant is gradually acquiring a sense of political freedom.”

Hey, everybody’s entitled for their predictions to be off by over half a century.

Which brings us to the moral blinders worn by those who populate the offices of NBC and CNN today. To paraphrase Jonah’s frequent question to college students regarding National Socialism, aside from the murder and genocide, what exactly don’t you like about Communism?

That would be quite an interesting query for anyone employed on the air at CNN, NBC, or (especially) MSNBC.

* For much more on that topic, check out our post from last month on the recent German biopic, Hannah Arendt.