Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Soviet Colossus, by Michael Kort

Just before we start, I ahve to say, the soviet propogandists had a fascinating art sense. Soviet propoganda wasn't always promoting something good, but it could be really interesting, visually. You know, from a Graphic Design PoV. Sorry. I work with Designers. I'm a geek. Sorry. YEah. Anyway.

The book I read (I believe there is a new edition) was a little dated - it ended in the 80's, talking about how there was a new generation with reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev rising up to take up the mantle of the Soviet Leadership. This datedness, ironically, gave the book an interesting cast. A book written now on the Soviet Union, now, inevitably, must carry something of the arrogance of history - it is the history of a thing that was born, and then died, that we are now apart from (at least in the most immediate sense). This book was different, more like a briefing. I remember, as a child living just over the border from East Germany, the sense of what Russia was - a place with grim, heavy-faced people wearing red armbands and stiff military hats, living in dreary apartments, and feeding an endless governmental hunger (though, at that age, my particular way of expressing this idea would have been more like 'Russians are all sad, and they can't talk without getting in trouble.'). Of course, this wasn't the whole story, and the author knew this, but one couldn't help but feel the edge of his consciousness, struggling to fidn the story that helps him understand the differentness of these humans that his own people are staring at over an iron fence, rifles loaded with the safeties off.

This isn't to say the history is a poor one. It is certainly written by a westerner, and bears the mark of a bias that I cannot imagine it would even have been possible to write without, given the situation it was written in. But the information is fairly biased, neither reductionist or apologistic. He admits people's strengths (Lenin, for instance, seems to genuineley have been uninterested in personal gain), and doesn't shy away from their weaknesses (he also had the revolutionary's weakness of trying to force people to be happy).

Having started my next book on the Soviet Union now (I'm taking an exam to get credit for the subject), one written after the fall of the 'Evil Empire', I can't help feeling like, aside from a great deal of very interesting and well-researched facts, I've learned a great deal more about what it feels like to be a Western historian trying to understand Russia, than what it felt like to be Russian in one of the most dramatic human stories ever lived - to have gone from being a serf, to a peasant, to the flush of revolution, to civil war, to Stalinism, all in one lifetime, conceivably, and then to go from STalinism through World War II, through a period of world dominance, through the Democratic revolution, through Yeltsin's antics, into the current day's counterrevolution, all in the next.


hamilcar barca said...

it's très kewl that you read history books, Jason. i get to ask inane history-buff questions.

so if Stalin was such a tyrant, how come Russia *never* rose up against him? Especially during World War 2 when the Germans teetered on the brink of overthrowing him.

Jason Gignac said...

That's an excellent question. It seems crazy from the outside, but if you look at it, Russia had been ruled by crazed autocrats for centuries - the Tsars made Louis XIV look like a Democrat. So, the people were used to looking up to a supreme leader as a God. On top of this, most of Russian culture was peasant, or had been a single generation ago, and the peasant culture in Russia was a very communal one, in which the needs of the individual were subordinated to the needs of the group - ironically, the Bolsheviks were one of the first groups to oppose ad disband this communalism. So, a single person's suffering, if it could be framed right, seemed unimportant, if it served the needs of the community.

On top of that, there just weren't a lot of options. Stalin was always getting people to betray each other, so you couldn't trust anyone, or really put together a cohesive opposition group. Individually heroic acts were only symbolic, and this symbolism was meaningless in a culture where facts were imminently pliable. And who else would they go to? The Germans, when they invaded, thought the Slavs were one of the lesser races, and good for nothing but slaves and servants, and treated them even more like dogs than Stalin did.

hamilcar barca said...

i find it curious that, when people are subjected to brutal regimes like Stalinism or Mao's Cultural Revolution, instead of banding together even in silent resistance to it, they seem to embrace the "rat on your neighbor" edict. which is exactly what Stalin and Mao wanted.

of course it's easy for me to be philosophical about this, since i've never lived under a totalitarian regime.