The Birthday Hero

On May 28, 2010, in Culture, Fiction, History, by marc

A few weeks ago, I was able to sit in at work on an interview with Edward Ericson, a Calvin College professor of English (emeritus), and a longtime friend and collaborator with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (and editor of the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago).  In anticipation of the event, I purchased a copy of Ericson’s The Solzhenitsyn Reader (which is well worth the price and contains samples of a wide range of Solzhenitsyn’s work), and also a copy of the book that occasioned the interview, the first uncensored edition of Solzhenitzyn’s In The First Circle.  The novel was first released in the West in the late 1960′s in truncated form; Ericson explains in his foreword to the new edition:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The drama of [Solzhenitsyn's] life story took a quantum leap forward when in 1962, as a total unknown, he made his sensational entry onto the world’s stage with the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a story about life in the Soviet prison camps…

…Hoping to parlay one success into another, Solzhenitsyn decided to try to squeeze In the First Circle through the censor’s sieve.  Yet, anticipating that its themes transgressed strict Soviet limits, he tempered his hopes with realism and in 1964 put the manuscript through a process of “lightening.”  The pruned and politically toned-down result of this act of self-censorship was what he later called an “ersatz, truncated” version; the number of chapters dropped from ninety-six to eighty-seven.  In an augury that Solzhenitsyn’s  sacrificial pragmatism was doomed to fail, the KGB in 1965 broke into the apartment of a friend of his and made off with a copy of the novel, which then circulated among selected officials.  Although Novy Mir had agreed to publish the novel in its eighty-seven-chapter form, higher authorities kept withholding their approval…

…In 1968, with official harassment relentlessly constriction his options, he took the desperate step of authorizing the publication in the West of the “lightened version” of In the First Circle, a copy of which he had been able to send out.  The secretiveness required for this transmission from east to west meant that he lost control over the book and could not see it through press.

I had intended to set the book aside to be read at some later date after I had finished a number of other works I’m in the middle of at the moment, but it sat there and stared at me as I worked my way through the Reader and I couldn’t help myself.  I dove in.

It took some work, but I finally reached the point where In the First Circle hooked me.  It happened when I reached chapter 19 – The Birthday Hero – and it gradually dawned on me that the main character introduced in this chapter was none other than Stalin himself.  Solzhenitsyn writes as if copying down a ticker-tape readout of Stalin’s mind, and in so doing creates a fascinating – but dreadfully depressing – picture.  Here we find the tyrant, awake late at night when most of his work gets done, suffering from an upset stomach:

Stalin in 1941

Joseph Stalin in 1941

It was not nausea, but a sort of heavy upward pressure from the stomach.  He took a feijoa from a bowl of peeled fruit.

Three days ago salvos had hailed his glorious seventieth birthday.

To the Caucasian way of thinking, a septuagenarian is still in his prime, able to tackle a mountain, a horse, or a woman.  And Stalin was still perfectly fit.  He simply had to live to ninety.  He had set his heart on it.  There was so much to be done.  True, one doctor had warned him about . . . never mind what, the man had apparently been shot later.  No, there was nothing seriously wrong with him.  He refused injections and therapy of any sort.  He knew enough about medicines to prescribe for himself.  ”Eat more fruit!” they told him.  As if a Caucasian needed to be told about fruit!

He sucked the pulp of the feijoa, screwing up his eyes.  It left a faint taste of iodine on his tongue.

Yes, he was perfectly fit, but he noticed certain changes as the years went by.  He had lost his hearty appetite.  There was nothing he savored; eating had begun to bore him.  He no longer delighted in selecting wine for each dish.  Tipsiness simply gave him a headache.  If stalin sometimes sat over a meal half the night with his minileaders, it was just to kill the long, empty hours, not because he enjoyed the food.  Women, too, were something he needed rarely and never for long, although he had indulged himself freely after Nadya’s death.  They did not thrill him but left him feeling . . . dulled.  Nor did sleep bring relief as it had when he was younger: He woke up feeling weak and muddleheaded and reluctant to rise.

Though he had decided to live to ninety, Stalin thought miserably, he personally could expect no pleasure from the years ahead: He must simply accept another twenty years of suffering for the sake of mankind at large.

World-weary Stalin, trudging on one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-style in his tyranny for the sake of humanity – the most fascinating character in the book so far.

Last Exit To Utopia

On April 10, 2010, in Culture, Economics, History, Politics, by marc

U·to·pi·a [yoo-toh-pee-uh]- noun - an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the book Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More. The opposite of dystopia.
ORIGIN based on Greek ou not + tóp(os) a place

Last Exit to Utopia

Last Exit to Utopia by Jean-François Revel

Note, dear reader, the origin of the term “utopia”: the Greek root indicates that utopia is, literally, nowhere.  It is not a place.  It does not exist.  Sir Thomas More, who first used the term, certainly never considered such a place to be realistically possible.  And the truth of the matter is that anyone remotely acquainted with the reality of human nature and history must admit that we do not live in a perfect world, and that such a place is impossible to create.

Anyone, that is, besides leftist intellectuals and politicians, who continue to insist – against the overwhelming evidence of history – that socialism can work, that indeed it must work!  They argue, in spite of all the plain evidence against them, that socialist solutions are more efficient and equitable than market solutions, and that the classical liberal system that has created the most vibrant societies and powerful economies in world history should be at least reined in and subjected to strict scrutiny, and at most outright replaced by a “more humane” socialist system.

Jean-François Revel was a French intellectual, a member of the Académie française, and one of the greatest French political philosophers of the 20th century, at least in the seemingly small branch of 20th century French political philosophy that wasn’t completely enamored of totalitarian schemes.  Prior to his death in 2006, he penned a book called Le Grande Parade, which has now been translated into English and re-titled Last Exit to Utopia, in which he exposes the intellectual and moral failure of leftist intellectuals who have served as apologists for the brutal communist regimes that brought misery and death to millions in the last century, and examines the project that was undertaken by the left after the fall of communism to rehabilitate Marxist and socialist ideas.

Anthony Daniels – AKA Theodore Dalrymple – contributes a fantastic preface to the English edition of the work.  An excerpt:

As Jean-François Revel establishes very clearly in this book, the left-leaning intelligentsia’s long infatuation with the Soviet Union and other Communist countries was not merely an intellectual error but, if not quite a criem itself, at the very least complicity with crime; and moreover crime on a scale virtually unparalleled in human history before the Nazis came on the scene.  With very few honorable exceptions, the whole of the left-leaning intelligentsia devoted a great deal of its formidable powers of sophistry to denying or exculpating the crimes of Communism, thus siding with the mass executioners rather than with the victims in the mass graves.

When the moral, economic, social and philosophical failure of Communism was admitted in the land of its birth, the Western left-leaning intelligentsia found itself with a serious and embarrassing problem.  It stood revealed for all to see as having, for many years, been morally not very different from, and not any better than, M. Le Pen of the French National Front, who once famously (or infamously) declared that the Holocaust was nothing but a detail of history.  While it is relatively easy, especially as one grows older, to admit to having been in error, even in gross error, it is very difficult to admit to having been a willing accomplice to evil, and evil of the most obvious and evident kind.  As M. Ravel convincingly explains, this accounts for the difference in the reception in France of two magisterial books about Communism by French scholars, François Furet’s Le passé d’une illusion, and Stephane Courtois’s Le Livre noir du communisme.

The first deals with what might be called the fashion for Communism as an intellectual error.  Anyone can be mistaken in his philosophy, and few people never change their philosophy in the light of experience and further reflection.  (An unchanging person would be suffering from what a medical friend of mine once called “a hardening of the concepts.”)  Therefore, however preposterous Marxism-Leninism might be as an intellectual system – “a farrago of nonsense,” as Professor Acton once called it – those who adhered to it do not stand convicted of wickedness or defect of character.  Hence Furet’s book, whose exposure of the errors of Communist doctrine could hardly be denied, was received respectfully and even with acclimation.

It was quite otherwise with Livre noir.  This book showed implacably that evil was implicit in both the theory and the practice of Communism, and that everywhere and anywhere it was tried, it resulted in the same appalling conduct of affairs, differing only as to scale.  Evil was in Communism’s DNA, as it were; and the crimes of Communist polities were not the result of a perversion of noble ideals, but were caused by the adoption of evil ideals.

Thus, those who espoused or sympathized with Communist ideals were convicted of harboring evil within themselves; and this is not an easy thing for people, especially those without a belief in original sin, to accept.  Courtois’s book was roundly condemned, therefore, by France’s left-leaning intelligentsia; and since it could not actually point to any serious factual errors contained in this massive work of scholarship, it resorted to defamation and the raising of smokescreens, such as that the book would bring relief and confort to the Front National.

Revel’s perspective seems to me a necessary antidote to the statist surge currently underway here in the United States.  Goodness knows this book is (unfortunately) on very few shelves among the current cadre of Washington “leaders.”  One can only hope the an electoral corrective is on the way, and that those who assume positions of power after the coming vote will take Ravel’s message to heart.

I was made aware of this book via a book review in the Wall Street Journal.  You can read it here.

“a torturing thought”

On December 2, 2009, in Culture, History, Politics, by marc

Whittaker Chambers, from Witness, describing the effect of Stalin’s purge on communists like him:

Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin: an architect, and eventual victim, of Soviet Communism

Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin: an architect, and eventual victim, of Soviet Communism

Since the purge, millions of men, women and children in the world have died violently.  the 20th century has put out of its mind, because it can no longer cope with the enormity of the statistic, the millions it has exterminated in its first fifty years.  Even among those millions the number killed in the Purge makes a formidable figure.  But, on a Communist, not only the numbers, but the revolutionary stature of the purgees, had a shattering impact.  To the Western world, those strange names – Rykov, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Piatkov, Rakovsky, Krylenko, Latsis, Tuchachevky, Muralov, Smirnov, Karakhan, Mrachkovsky – were merely tongue twisters.  To a Communist, they were the men who had made one of the greatest transformations in human history – the Russian Revolution.  The charge, on which they were one and all destroyed, the charge that they had betrayed their handiwork, was incredible.  They were the Communist Party.  If the charge was true, then every other Communist had given his life for a fraud.  If the charge was false, then every other Communist was giving his life for a fraud.  This was a torturing thought.  No communist could escape it.

More on Bukharin here, and his death cell letter to Stalin here.

Tagged with:  


On November 23, 2009, in Culture, History, Politics, by marc
Witness by Whittaker Chambers

Witness by Whittaker Chambers

Digging through the library here at work, I happened to stumble across a 1952 first edition of Whittaker ChambersWitness.

Two faiths were on trial.  Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies.  At issue in the Hiss Case was the question whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it.  At issue was the question whether this man’s faith could prevail against a man whose equal faith it was that this society is sick  beyond saving, and that mercy itself pleads for its swift extinction and replacement by another.  At issue was the question whether, in the desperately divided society, there still remained the will to recognize the issues in time to offset the immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts…

…On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable faiths of our time – Communism and Freedom – came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men.

This is a real gem; I wish there was a way for me to take ownership of this particular book, but that’s unlikely.  I’m looking forward to reading it, though; that much is sure.


The deeper meaning of the Soviet underground apparatus, and all the apparatuses that clustered hidden beside it, was not so much their espionage activity.  It was the fact that they were a true Fifth Column, the living evidence that henceforth in the 20th century, all wars are revolutionary wars, and are fought not only between nations, but within them.

Tagged with: