Commentary Magazine


The Soul of Man Under Socialism

It is interesting that despite the huge variety of books, research projects, and monographs on socialism—political, economic, sociological, and so on—no one has thought to write on “the soul of man under socialism.” And yet, without such a guide to the labyrinths of the Soviet soul, all the other studies are absolutely useless or, worse, actually obscure the issue. My God, how difficult it must be to understand this confounded Russia from outside! Such an enigmatic country, and the enigmatic Russian soul!

Judging by their newspapers, books, and films—and by what else is one to judge Soviet life?—the people are satisfied. True, they don’t have political freedoms or a variety of parties but they like it that way—the people and the party are as one! Then they have elections that are not elections—God only knows what they are: only one candidate and there’s nobody else to choose from—yet 99.9 per cent of the population take part and 99.899 per cent vote in favor. Then again they have a low standard of living and there are food shortages—but no strikes! It is said that people are being hounded and starved in jails and camps there, although they have done nothing wrong, and are prevented from going abroad. But look at their factory and village meetings, the Soviet people unanimously endorse the policies of the party and the government. They will repay the party’s concern for them with a new rise in productivity! The vote is overwhelming, all hands go up—what the hell’s going on? Foreign correspondents attend the meetings and see for themselves: it’s absolutely true, everybody supports the party’s policies, there aren’t even any abstentions. It is said that the country is economically backward, with much of the work still hand labor and so on, yet they launched Sputnik, put the first man into space, overtook the United States. More than that, they have a massive arms industry, powerful enough to keep the whole world trembling in fear. How is that? They have great scientific discoveries to their credit. And the Bolshoi theater, and the ballet! Do you mean to say that all this is done by slaves, people who are unfree?

True, Soviet literature is pretty boring—all about factories and production and meetings, but the people nonetheless read it, and buy the books, so they must like it. There are a few isolated shortcomings, but they recognize and criticize them. And there was something in the past, unjust repressions and so on, but that’s all over now—they got to the bottom of it, condemned the mistakes, and released the innocent. And now they let their people go abroad: tourists, athletes, performers, and delegations of all kinds; they’re perfectly satisfied and always go back. Well, one occasionally defects, but perhaps he’s one of the few who don’t like it, and the others are all happy and content.

Ask any Soviet man in the street whether he had a good life or a bad one and each one will answer like a phonograph record: “A good one—much better than yours in the West.” And maybe it really is better. Free education, free medical care, cheap rent, no unemployment, no inflation. Maybe Western propaganda is spouting rubbish and their life is wonderful.

Or there’s another explanation: maybe their life is better for them, because they’re different and special, that’s the only kind of life that suits them and they don’t need Western comforts and freedoms.

And these blasted dissidents are so confusing. If everything’s as bad as they say it is, with such injustice and tyranny, why are they still alive?—some of them aren’t even in jail! So there must be some freedom and some rights. Or is it all a cunning plot by the Soviet authorities? Or maybe the CIA? Anyway, how many dissidents are there? That last protest petition had only ten signatures on it. What a laugh in a country of 250 million! If everybody is really having such a lousy time of it, why are there no uprisings, mass protests, demonstrations, or strikes! The mass terror is over, isn’t it? Well, they jail about ten to fifteen people a year—it’s not like Chile or South Korea.

It is hard to understand this country from outside, but is it any easier from within? Is it any easier for the Russians themselves (the West calls us all “Russians,” from Moldavians to Eskimos) to grasp and appreciate what is going on?

_____________

 

II

And so he has just been born, this new type of man, this future Soviet man; who is he? To begin with, there is no way in which he can be considered a dissident: he demands no special freedoms, reads no forbidden books, doesn’t protest against his date and place of birth. He doesn’t yet know, of course, how much he is already in debt to the Soviet state and his beloved party. He wouldn’t be lying there so peacefully in his carriage and sucking on his pacifier were it not for the party’s tireless efforts on his behalf. But it won’t be long now before his debts are called in.

His parents, being terribly busy, will hand him over first to a day-care center and then to a nursery school, and if the first words he learns are Mamma and Papa, the next is bound to be Lenin. He will astonish his parents by coming home and reciting:

November seventh, it is clear—
The reddest day in all the year.
Through the window look ahead.
Everything outside is red!

After that, in school, his horizons are broadened. Gradually he finds out that God doesn’t exist and never did, that mankind’s entire history consists of a journey from darkness to light, from injustice and oppression to freedom and socialism. That men have dreamed throughout the ages of living in a country such as the Soviet Union and that is why they have rebelled, laid down their lives, and endured tortures and suffering for thousands of years. That all the great men of the past were striving for exactly the sort of society we have at last built—even when they didn’t realize it. Who was Leo Tolstoy, for instance? The mirror of the Russian revolution. And now the world is divided in half: on one side stand the forces of light, happiness, and progress; on the other, reaction capitalism, and imperialism—their one dream is to destroy our happiness and enslave us as they have enslaved the people of their own countries. In order to prevent this happening, you have to study diligently and later be inspired in the way you work.

The further you go—first at school, then at college, then in the army, and then at work—the more detailed and precise are the ways in which these concepts are instilled into you. Explicitly in the teaching of the history of the USSR and the Communist party, political economics, scientific Communism, scientific atheism, the foundations of Marxism-Leninism, dialectical materialism, historical materialism, and so on and so forth. Implicitly and almost in a whisper, like hypnosis, in films and books, in paintings and sculpture, in radio and television, in newspapers and lectures, in textbooks on mathematics, physics, logic, and foreign languages, in posters and placards, and even in works translated from foreign languages.

Or take the news they offer you in the press or in a newsreel. A new holiday resort is being opened in Bulgaria; a typhoon hits Japan; workers in the Urals have surpassed their targets; thousands of workers on strike in France; a rich harvest is being gathered in the Ukraine; statistics about car accidents in the U.S. are monstrous; a new residential district is completed in Tashkent; student demonstrations are being broken up in Italy. Abroad, one long procession of natural disasters, catastrophes, demonstrations, strikes, police truncheons, slums, and a constant decline in the standard of living; while here, new holiday resorts, factories, harvests, boundless fields, beaming smiles, new homes, and the growth of prosperity. There the black forces of reaction and imperialism are grinding the faces of the workers and threatening us with war; here the bright forces of progress and socialism are building a radiant future and battling for a stable peace. And the forces of peace, socialism, and progress are bound to prevail. There is nothing else at all—nothing against. Even when you are traveling by train and gazing absent-mindedly at the landscape speeding past, your eyes unconsciously scan—and your brain assimilates—the slogans spelled out in stones and broken bricks on either side of the track: “Peace to the World!” “Lenin Lives!” “Forward to the Victory of Communism!”

What should parents do? Try to explain to their children from the outset that they are being deceived? But that is dangerous—the children will tell their friends and the friends their parents or their teachers. And what advice are you to give your children? To speak up and say you disagree? Or to keep quiet, conceal your views, lie, and lead a double life? And will the children believe you, rather than what they are taught at school and by propaganda? Furthermore, this ideology not only exists in its pure form but is embedded in every subject in school: history, literature, botany, geography, etc., and the pupil has to be able to answer what is written in the textbooks. More often than not the parents simply wash their hands of the whole matter: “Oh well, to the devil with it, he’ll understand when he grows up.”

_____________

 

Sooner or later the moment of illumination comes for almost every inhabitant of the Soviet Union, and he does understand. There is a joke about this. The teacher at nursery school is giving the children a little talk. She hangs a map of the world on the wall and explains: “Look, children, here is America. The people there are very badly off. They have no money, therefore they never buy their children any candy or ice cream and never take them to the movies. And here, children, is the Soviet Union. Everybody here is happy and well-off, and people buy their children candy and ice cream every day and take them to the movies.” Suddenly one of the little girls bursts into tears. “What’s the matter, Tania, why are you crying?” “I want to go to the Soviet Union,” sobs the little girl.

But that’s only the first impulse, the first misunderstanding. Gradually it dawns on him that in real life not everything is as smooth as it’s depicted in the newspapers. Except for the big shots, everybody lives from payday to payday. And for days beforehand people can barely make ends meet, so that they are always trying to borrow from one another. To buy clothes, or furniture, or a television set, you have to beat the system, go without, or work on the side. And then there are the constant shortages—no meat, butter has disappeared, the potato crop has failed. There are lines for everything—you no longer even notice, but just stand for hours.

Take the first time the roof in your apartment house springs a leak. This is a major catastrophe, because getting a roof repaired is practically impossible. Delegations of residents troop off to see the district council, the city council, their deputies to the Supreme Soviet; they write complaints, compose petitions; commissions come to inspect—they conduct an examination of the roof and confirm that it does indeed leak. But there is no money for repairs, they weren’t foreseen in the plan. And so it goes on, sometimes for years. Meanwhile the residents muster their old wash-tubs, basins, and buckets, put them in the attic to collect the drips, and anxiously scan the sky each morning to see if it is going to rain.

All these details would accumulate, of course, and cloud Soviet man’s happiness, his belief in the radiant future. But the gargantuan chorus of newspapers and magazines, films and radio programs, lectures and instructors, would be standing by, ready to explain everything to him: “Why rush to generalize, comrades? Yes, we do suffer from isolated shortcomings and temporary difficulties. The local authorities are still insufficiently careful in the way they work. We criticize them and try to set them straight. You mustn’t forget that the path we are following is, so to speak, untraveled, we are the first to build a new type of society, there is no one to give advice, and occasionally we do indeed make mistakes. But look at how much we’ve achieved and how much has been done in comparison with 1913! Of course, in order to create the perfect society of the future we do have to steel ourselves sometimes to make certain sacrifices. If it’s not always easy now, nevertheless our children will thank us for it. After all, no matter how many mistakes we make in individual cases, we are generally on the right track and our ideas are bright. Nor must you forget the capitalist encirclement, which is out to wreck us and will keep on trying. All they are waiting for is for us to weaken and start doubting our correctness. The enemy is not sleeping! And in order to win the struggle with him we must also make certain sacrifices,” and so on and so forth, etc., etc.!

_____________

 

The years go by, nothing changes, and doubt begins to creep in: are we really building Communism? Maybe we haven’t begun yet? After all, it’s quite clear what was happening from 1917 to 1922—there was no Soviet power yet, it was civil war. Then up to 1930 we had the New Economic Policy (NEP), and everybody knows that that was a retreat. After that, up till 1953, we had the personality cult—again no Soviet power. Then, up to 1964, it turns out that Khrushchev got it all wrong, but luckily they caught on to him too and kicked him out. And so it emerges, apparently, that we didn’t even begin to live properly until 1965. But who knows—maybe this one will be kicked out too, or after he’s dead they’ll tell us that he too got everything wrong.

This wavering state of uncertainty soon gives way to a conviction that all the propaganda is totally false. No matter how hard it is to get information, one is still not completely isolated. And it becomes apparent that in other districts and regions the situation is not a whit better—and in some cases is even worse—that other branches of the economy are also in a shambles, that the space program is a red herring, while the biggest factories and dams were built by convict labor for a crust of bread. The only thing that can’t be explained away is that ballet—how come the ballet doesn’t fall apart? But to hell with the ballet, we can’t live by ballet.

More than that, it percolates through that not everything (in fact nothing) in the West is as it’s painted to us. The unemployed, it turns out, get paid for not working! What a dream. Here they’d be sent to Siberia; in the West they’re paid. Everybody has his own car, there is every sort of sausage and salami in the shops and no lines. Paradise! Fairyland! And bang goes the belief in a radiant future.

One day in the 1950’s a friend of mine carried out an experiment. He was standing in line for milk in a shop. The queue was enormous, the salesgirls were working slowly and lackadaisically. People began to mutter, as they always do, that there wasn’t going to be enough to go around and service was too slow. During a pause between these outbursts of popular discontent, my friend piped up and said in a loud, distinct voice: “This is absolutely disgraceful. We’ve been standing in line all morning, just like in America!” And he was engulfed by a wave of popular indignation: “What are you saying, citizen? Like in America! This could only happen here!” And for a long time afterward they looked at him with pity and scorn.

The further it goes, the worse it gets. It transpires, for instance, that while we are having our temporary difficulties, our bosses in the district and regional party committees and in the Kremlin have long ago built Communism for themselves. They divide up the caviar, salami, and imported goods among themselves in secret. They’ve built villas for themselves, with high fences and armed guards, so that nobody can see them gorging on their caviar. They don’t give a tinker’s damn for us, whether we live or die.

_____________

 

This represents the longest possible path of reflection, and of progress toward insight, covered by a man in the very best situation in society. For most of us it is much shorter and quicker. Sooner or later a man encounters such a glaring injustice or falsehood that he can no longer remain silent. Almost anything can set it off, so long as it brings him into direct conflict with the regime. It is particularly useful when a workingman has dealings with the workers’ and peasants’ regime in the capacity of a supplicant or protester.

At first the workingman starts to try to get at the truth, searches high and low, writes complaints and petitions, goes for interviews, and gets answers that are progressively more insolent—or no answers at all. “How can this be, in my workers’ and peasants’ state?” he fumes. “Let’s try Pravda, let’s try the Central Committee!” And again nothing. And at interviews, if he gets them, he is confronted by a blockhead in specs who simply smacks his lips—and again nothing. That does it for our workingman! He goes into a fury of writing: to the Committee of Soviet Women, to the Society for the Protection of Animals, to the spacemen, and even to the UN. As things proceed he gets wilder and wilder. And he ends up by writing things about the Soviet regime that make him amazed at his own thoughts.

Generally speaking, all complaints converge in the office of that bespectacled blockhead of whose callousness you are complaining. And you get the most soothing reply back again—we sympathize, we understand, but unfortunately we cannot help. The workingman brightens up. It is astounding how quickly he recalls everything he was taught in school, the entire history of the Soviet Union, all its literature and geography, all the propaganda that since childhood has been haranguing him about individual shortcomings and temporary difficulties, about the radiant future and capitalist encirclement; and even all that stuff about the mirror of the Russian revolution and the verses he learned about Lenin in his nursery school.

And the propaganda blares merrily on, as though nothing were wrong—about that typhoon in Japan, that strike in England, that radiance in the distance, and the forces of peace and progress. And so on, day and night, night and day, from all sides—until suddenly our workingman goes berserk. People all around him, millions of people, are meeting the targets, accepting new labor tasks, repaying the party’s solicitude with increased productivity—and they don’t know a thing. The moment they find out, the moment I explain it to them they will stop, everything will change, and the whole situation will be different. Hey, people, stop! Give me the microphones. Let me get at the microphones! This is Moscow calling—and all the radio stations of the Soviet Union!

But why only Moscow? The whole world, the whole planet should know!

While he is in this state, our workingman performs certain standard actions. He attempts to make a speech at a meeting exposing the whole situation, or to distribute leaflets, or, with the help of foreigners, to send a message to the UN or the American President. Or at the very least he airs his opinions frankly among a wide circle of acquaintances. He experiences an extraordinary sense of freedom and omnipotence. Simple human words now appear to him as mighty weapons capable of moving mountains and damming rivers. But at the same time our workingman notices that no one is very eager to listen to his words. On the contrary, he finds himself in a sort of vacuum, or rather he feels stifled. At meetings he is not allowed to speak, friends avert their eyes or try to make a joke of it, then hastily remember some urgent business. His wife is in tears all day and scolds him for being a selfish egotist who is ruining her life. And suddenly his mother-in-law, whom he hasn’t heard of or seen for five years or more, materializes from Kaluga to persuade her daughter to return home with her.

_____________

 

At work one day, just before lunch-time, he gets an urgent message to go to the personnel office. There, a polite but firm gentleman of about forty, neatly combed, wearing a well-cut gray suit, going by the name of Nikolai Ivanovich, Vladimir Fyodorovich, or at the outside Sergei Petrovich, invites our workingman to take a short trip with him to his office not far away. No, no, he doesn’t need to take anything with him, no, there’s no need to phone the wife and there’s no point in calling home either—it won’t take long. After that Nikolai Ivanovich, Vladimir Fyodorovich, or at the least Pyotr Sergeyevich escorts him to his car and they ride in it together, indeed not for long. They climb the stairs of an absolutely normal block of apartments and enter a door, which opens into a corridor with lots of other doors. One of them leads into an office where a man is sitting behind a desk, graying and wearing a gray suit, a man whose name is Nikolai Petrovich, Sergei Ivanovich, or at worst Vladimir Fyodorovich.

“Take a seat,” he says to him politely. “How’s work?” Beyond the window it’s high summer or, on the contrary, a bright, frosty morning, or maybe ripe, rosy autumn. How nice it would be to go for a walk now in the woods—somewhere far, far off, remote from civilization.

The workingman begins to expound his new discoveries, still with vigor but without his former ardor. He tries to work himself up into a lather, but somehow he no longer has that sense of world tragedy, the seething passion, and the urge to get at the microphones. His turns of phrase and conclusions seem automatically to become softened and toned down, and evasive formulations and deprecating epithets leap to his lips. Meanwhile Vladimir Nikolayevich, Sergei Petrovich, or maybe Ivan Ivanovich listens in silence, like a father, shaking his head from time to time and jotting notes in his notebook. Then, waiting for a pause in the disjointed narrative, he says:

And who else did you tell this to? Aha. And who else was present? Yes-yes. And who else saw your letter to the UN? And you were thinking of fleeing abroad? Yes-yes-yes, I see. Do you know what you’ve done? Your country nursed you, sparing no effort, raised you, educated you, refused you nothing. And you? And at a time when our enemies are frantically searching for ways to injure us! And what would have happened if you’d gone abroad? You’d have been interrogated by counterintelligence: where did you work, where did you serve in the army, what was the number of your unit, what weapons? . . .

At the mention of this proposition the working-man breaks into a cold sweat—no, no, not that! At this point, Vladimir Ivanovich, Nikolai Petrovich, or Sergei Mikhailovich takes a bulky file from his desk and opens it, and to his horror, the working-man catches sight of all his complaints, declarations, and protests, including his letter to the UN, lying there with blue-penciled comments in the margins.

Lord in heaven, a man doesn’t need much in this life. All right, so there’s no meat, but you can still buy potatoes—or anyway fermented milk. All right, so the roof’s leaking—put a bucket under it, what’s the problem? All right, some things are not quite as they should be, or maybe even wrong, but you can’t set the world to rights in a day, can you? Bad pay? Well, at least you can work extra in the evenings or something. And as for the bullshit, well, it’s the same everywhere, isn’t it?—always bullshit. Always was and always will be. It’s not my fault, and there’s nothing I can do to change it.

_____________

 

The telephone rings and Vladimir Nikolayevich or God-knows-who picks up the receiver: “Yes?” And suddenly he straightens up in his chair and sits at attention: “Yes, Comrade General. Yes, he’s here. We were just having a little chat. No, not for the time being, Comrade General. No, I don’t think it’s necessary. You know how it is, a man’s work starts to get him down a bit, of course. Yes. At your service sir. Yes, sir!

“All right, now then, sign here and here. And over here. You may go . . . home. If we need you again we’ll phone. Good-by.” And if our working-man hasn’t actually been up to much, he won’t be arrested, oh no. If they were to jail everyone like him they’d have to collar half the country, and that’s no longer necessary. It’s enough to arrest one out of every ten thousand of those who have seen the light—the most uppity ones—to frighten all the others. It’s not like the old days. Then you only had to open your mouth to find yourself on a prison transport. Times have changed. Nobody insists that you like this regime or even believe in it—it’s enough for you to fear it, submit to it, meet your production targets, raise your hand at meetings, unanimously approve, and wrathfully condemn.

Our workingman scampers through the spring, autumn, or winter streets as fast as his legs can carry him—home to his wife and his Kaluga mother-in-law. A heavy door has opened a crack in front of him, he has caught a whiff of cryptlike dankness, putrefaction, and despair, but, thank God, he has got away. A week or two later all the men at his place of work are called to a general meeting, speeches are made by the party organizer, the Komsomol organizer, and a representative of the local party committee. They wrathfully condemn him and hold him up to shame, and the elderly foreman, Petrovich, declares that in his opinion there is no room for such people in their collective. Then our workingman speaks up himself, expressing repentance and promising to reform. Somewhere on the outer fringes of the meeting, unnoticed, sits Nikolai Ivanovich, Petrovich, or Sergeyevich. No, no, he doesn’t want to sit on the platform, nor is he planning to speak. He just wants to sit in and listen to the comrades’ speeches. Just before the meeting ends, the workers’ collective resolves to take responsibility for its prodigal son and votes to reform him collectively. Some time later that evening, in the pub, the elderly foreman, Petrovich, who has been loudest of all in his denunciations earlier that day, says confidentially to our workingman over a mug of beer: “That’s the way it is, me old mate: no man can flay a stone.”

Take a good look, my friend, look closely into the eyes of your workmates, look at the crowds of people thronging the streets, going to the movies, at football matches, or even in the Palace of Congresses, and you will see that almost all of them know all about flaying a stone. So what could you have told them? Every one of them has experienced, or is destined to experience, the spasms of this revelation. And every one of them writhes for a while and then calms down; there is no way you can jolt them out of their lethargy again. What can you tell them in a skimpy leaflet, or even via all the radio stations of the Soviet Union? They know, my friend. They remember those evil times when the prison vans used to cruise the streets every night collecting their human tribute. And they remember the war. Just think of the colossal force that crashed into us then, but not even that could flay a stone. They keep quiet because they know, not because they don’t know. Can you blame them?

_____________

 

Once when I joined a geological expedition in Siberia, at one of our camp sites, I caught three ants and put them into a mug—I wanted to see to what degree ants were better than people. Naturally they tried to climb out, but I shook them down to the bottom again. They tried again, and again I shook them down. Overall they made about 180 attempts to climb out of the mug and every time, of course, were unsuccessful. They they gave up, crawled toward one another, and settled in a circle. I watched them for a long time, but they made no more attempts to get away. The mug with the three ants in it stood there in the grass for almost three days. Several times it drizzled, the sun set and rose, but they simply stayed there in the mug, twitching their whiskers—probably telling one another jokes.

What else could they do? They had grasped the situation; they needed nothing more. They would have been happy to narrow their world to the confines of family and home, to live for their quiet antlike joys, to bask in the sun on warm spring days and have a drink together. And to savor the moment while it was still sunny, while it was still so cozy sitting there over their drinks in the alehouse, while every minute consisted of sixty blissful seconds, each of which could be stretched still further by the booze.

But a man can’t be left alone, can’t be allowed to live inside his own little world. He is pursued everywhere by propaganda, by that ubiquitous bawling that drowns out the spring chirping of the birds. Like a mountain echo, this voice bears down on us from all sides, spawning a strange creation that travels from person to person—the joke. And as he drinks away in his cozy nook, it isn’t sufficient for Soviet man simply to relish the moment. The things he has been holding back all day are bursting to come out. Peering over his shoulder is that ever-present companion, the joke. And nibbling on a morsel of processed cheese he says: “What’s the best way to have plenty of everything? Plug your refrigerator into the radio network—it will always be full.”

Because, whether he wishes it or not, inside himself Soviet man is engaged in a permanent dialogue with Soviet propaganda.

_____________

 

Look at them, those Soviet people, streaming silently down the underground passages of the subway or along the main streets, past the newspaper stands, where they just pick out the headlines and gnash their teeth. Everyone is silent, each conducting his inner dialogue. And in the course of a lifetime he builds up such a store of rage that the whole world turns black for him.

An intelligent looking little old man wanders down the Arbat and into the Prague to do some shopping, a quiet, subdued little man bothering nobody. “Aha,” he says to himself, “the sun’s shining, the bloody sun’s grinning its head off again. They’ll be calling that a socialist achievement next.” He hates the sight of that sky, that Soviet sky. Even the green leaves look as if they’ve come off a May Day poster. There’s a fresh newspaper pinned to the wall—what claptrap are they blathering now? He knows it’s claptrap and it sickens him to read it, but still he stops and scans it, if only to feed his rage. “Aha, the harvest! Unprecedented, as usual, in record time, as usual. So we’ll be importing grain from Canada again. Students helping on the collective farms. Oh yes, the usual thing: collective farmers, help the students to fill the nation’s granaries! A strike in France. Go on, strike away, you’ll strike once too often one of these days. Student demonstrations dispersed. Send them here to help with the potato picking, they’ll soon forget about demonstrating.” Comrade Pinochet is the only one to warm the cockles of his heart: “Are our dear chaps squawking now you’ve put the squeeze on those Communists of yours? Squeeze away, my friend, you’re our only hope. Should do the same everywhere.” No, Soviet man is so created that he can’t possibly walk away from this stuff and shut himself away—like an addict he needs to feed his rage with this poison.

This same old man worked for that newspaper all his life, until he retired, and all his life wrote about those fantastic harvests. Or perhaps didn’t write about them, but was a compositor or a printer, a factory foreman or a schoolteacher. And why not? If it isn’t a crime to manufacture barbed wire, why is it to be a prison guard? One way or another, everyone is implicated in the crimes of the regime, everyone works for government enterprises, reinforcing the system and creating its wealth. Everyone raises his hand at meetings, votes at elections, and, most important of all, does not protest. Whatever you do is proclaimed to be the achievement of the system. A scientific discovery, a new symphony, a medal in the Olympic games—everything is a new victory for socialism and proof of its progressiveness. So why is it all right to make discoveries, write music, play hockey, and beat production targets, but not to make Soviet propaganda?

Why is it wrong to be a member of the party or the Komsomol? They do nothing special there, and nothing is required of the average member other than to pay his dues. Beyond that nobody asks you for your opinion—what difference does it make whether they send you to work for the police or the KGB? If I don’t do it, someone else will. Work’s the same everywhere—carrying out orders. After all, everybody in our country is a functionary, everybody works for the government. And the people there are no worse than anyone else; it’s their job, that’s all. As for the ones at the top who give the orders, they are just functionaries too, slaves of the system, of the internal struggle for power. If a sort of Nuremberg trial were held in Moscow today, the judges and prosecutors would find no one guilty. From top to bottom, no one believes in Marxist dogma any more, even though they continue to measure their actions by it, refer to it, and use it as a stick to beat one another with: it is both a proof of loyalty and a meal ticket.

_____________

 

But how can this mysterious being reconcile all these things? Thinking one thing, saying another, and doing a third? Jokes alone are not enough to explain it, and even the ants need elaborate theories to justify their submission:

No man can flay a stone.

What can I do alone? (If everyone acted, so would I.)

If I didn’t, someone else would. (And better me because I’ll do less harm.)

You must make compromises, concessions, and sacrifices for the sake of the main cause. (Thus the Church holds that it must make concessions for the sake of self-preservation, yet there is no end to these concessions, so that priests are now nominated by the KGB, and Soviet power is celebrated from the pulpit. Thus the writer, eager to publish the work his readers are waiting for, agrees to cross out a line here, add a paragraph there, change the ending, remove one of the characters, revise the title, and hey, presto, the whole point of the work has gone. Nevertheless, boasts the writer, on page so-and-so there is an innuendo and the villain says almost everything—though it’s true that he’s later reformed and says quite the opposite.)

We must live for Russia, the Communists will one day disappear by themselves. (This argument is a favorite with scientists and the military.)

We must live for posterity, create the eternal values of science and culture; a trivial preoccupation with protests merely distracts us from the main thing.

Never ever protest openly; that is a provocation which merely enrages the authorities and brings suffering on the innocent.

Open protests play into the hands of the hardliners in the Politburo and prevent the doves from carrying out a liberalization.

Open protests hinder liberalization, which can only succeed by means of power politics and secret diplomacy.

To protest about details is merely to expose oneself. The thing to do is to lie low. Then, when the decisive moment comes, okay. But in the meantime, we’ll disguise ourselves.

Yes, but not now, this is the worst possible time: my wife’s pregnant, my children are ill, I have to defend my thesis first, my son’s about to go to the university . . . (and so on till the end of a lifetime).

The worse things get, the better. We must deliberately take all the system’s idiocies to their logical and ridiculous conclusion, until the people’s patience runs out and they understand what is happening.

Russia is a land of slaves. The Russians have never had democracy and never will. They don’t have the aptitude for it, it’s no use trying. There’s no other way for our people.

The people are silent. What gives a handful of malcontents the right to speak out—whom do they represent, whose opinion are they expressing?

I have even heard the following argument:

Your protests are misleading world public opinion; people in the West will think that we are allowed to speak openly here and change things. Therefore you are helping Soviet propaganda.

You have to get on quietly with your career, get to the top, and try to change things from there; you won’t achieve anything from the bottom.

You have to gain the trust of the leaders’ advisers and teach and educate them on the quiet, there’s no other way of influencing the government’s course.

You protest; I’ll stay out of it. Someone has to survive to bear witness. (I heard this in the labor camp just before a hunger strike.)

If only there were a new theory to replace Marxism and carry people away; you can’t build anything on sheer negation.

Communism has been visited upon Russia in retribution for her sins; to resist God’s retribution is equally sinful.

_____________

 

And so everyone, from members of the Politburo, academicians, and writers down to collective-farm laborers and factory workers, manages to find a justification. Moreover, most people sincerely believe that these are their true feelings. Very few realize that they are pretexts and excuses. And hardly anybody will admit openly and honestly that he is simply afraid of reprisals. Only one person in my entire life has said that he actually likes living in a Communist state—because it allows him to earn a good salary by publishing all sorts of demagogic rubbish in the newspapers. “In a normal country,” he said, “they wouldn’t let me within a mile of the press! What would I be doing? Manual labor.”

In point of fact, only the so-called true Orthodox believers—the sect that has cut itself off from the Russian Church and does not recognize the Soviet state, considering it the work of the devil—are not supporting this tyrannical system. But there are very few of them, and they are all in jail because they refuse to work for the state. They don’t read newspapers, don’t listen to the radio, don’t touch official documents, and in the presence of all functionaries, including investigators, they make the sign of the cross—out of my sight, Beelzebub! When released from jail they live off what they can earn from private individuals.

And maybe the tramps living off handouts can be said to exist outside the Soviet system (although in the camps they have to work). All the rest, whether they wish it or not, are building Communism. The state doesn’t give a tinker’s damn what theories they use to justify their participation, or what they think or feel. So long as they don’t resist, protest, or publicly disagree, they suit the Soviet state. Nobody says they have to like it, everything is quite simple and cynical. Do you want a new apartment? Make a speech at the meeting. Do you want to earn an extra twenty or thirty rubles, or get a responsible job? Join the party. Do you want to keep your privileges and avoid unpleasantness? Vote at meetings, keep your nose to the grindstone and your mouth shut. Everyone does it. Who wants to spit into the wind? These are the foundations that allow this state to hound its people from prison to prison, to hold everyone in a state of terror, enslave other nations, and threaten the entire world.

As for me, I despised Soviet man—not the one depicted on the posters or in Soviet literature, but the one who existed in reality, who had neither honor nor pride, nor a sense of personal responsibility, who was capable of tackling a bear alone with a pitchfork but who shrank away and broke into a cold sweat at the sight of a policeman; who would betray and sell his own father to avoid the boss thumping his fist on the desk at him. The tragedy was that he existed inside every one of us, and until we could overcome this Soviet man within, nothing in our life would change.

_____________

 

III

The dream of absolute, universal equality is amazing, terrifying, and inhuman. And the moment it captures people’s minds, the result is mountains of corpses and rivers of blood, accompanied by attempts to straighten the stooped and shorten the tall. I remember that one part of the psychiatric examination to which I was subjected as a prisoner was a test for idiocy. The patient was given the following problem to solve: “Imagine a train crash. It is well known that the part of the train that suffers the most damage in such crashes is the carriage at the rear. How can you prevent that damage from taking place?” The idiot’s usual reply is expected to be: uncouple the last carriage. That strikes us as amusing, but just think, are the theory and practice of socialism much better?

Society, say the socialists, contains both the rich and the poor. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer—what is to be done? Uncouple the last carriage, liquidate the rich, take away their wealth and distribute it among the poor. And they start to uncouple the carriages. But there is always richer and poorer, for society is like a magnet: there are always two poles. But does this discourage a true socialist? The main thing is to realize his dream; so the richest section of society is liquidated first; and everyone rejoices because everyone gains from the share-out. But the spoils are soon spent, and people start to notice inequality again—again there are rich and poor. So they uncouple the next carriage, and then the next, without end, because absolute equality has still not been achieved. Before you know it, the peasant with two cows and a horse turns out to be in the last carriage and is pronounced a kulak and deported. Is it really surprising that whenever you get striving for equality and fraternity, the guillotine appears on the scene?

It is all so easy, so simple, and so tempting—to confiscate and divide! To make everybody equal, and with one fell swoop to resolve all problems. It is so alluring—to escape from poverty and crime, grief and suffering, once and for all. All you have to do is want it, all you have to do is reform the people who are hindering universal happiness and there will be paradise on earth, absolute justice, and good will to all men! It is difficult for man to resist this dream and this noble impulse, particularly for men who are impetuous and sincere. They are the first to start chopping heads off and, eventually, to have their own chopped off. They are the first to put their head on the block or go to prison. Such a system is too convenient for scoundrels and demagogues, and they are the ones, in the final analysis, who will decide what is good and what evil.

You have to learn to respect the right of even the most insignificant and repulsive individual to live the way he chooses. You have to renounce once and for all the criminal belief that you can reeducate everyone in your own image. You have to understand that without the use of force it is realistic to create a theoretical equality of opportunity, but not equality of results. People attain absolute equality only in the graveyard, and if you want to turn your country into a gigantic graveyard, go ahead, join the socialists. But man is so constituted that others’ experiences and explanations don’t convince him, he has to try things out himself. We Russians now watch events unfolding in Cambodia and Vietnam with increasing horror, and listen sadly to all the chatter about Eurocommunism and socialism with a human face. Why is it that nobody speaks of fascism with a human face?

_____________

 

Over the years we were often astounded by the idiotic stubborness of our authorities and their reluctance to look at the obvious facts, all of which did them catastrophic harm. This self-destructive obstinacy may strike us as incomprehensible, but that is because we forget that a regime of terror cannot behave otherwise. Where it differs from a democratic regime is precisely in not being responsive to public opinion. In such a state, the individual cannot have any rights—the least inalienable right possessed by a single individual instantly deprives the regime of a morsel of power. Every individual from childhood on must absorb the axiomatic fact that never in any circumstances or by any means will he be able to influence the regime one jot. No decisions can be made other than on initiatives from above. The regime is immovable, infallible, and intransigent, and the entire world is left with no choice but to accommodate itself to this fact. You may humbly beg its indulgence, but never demand your due. It doesn’t require conscious citizens demanding legality, it requires slaves. In just the same way, it doesn’t require partners, it requires satellites. Like a paranoiac, obsessed by a fantastic idea, it cannot and will not recognize reality—it tries to realize its delirium and to enforce its criteria on everybody else. We shall never be rid of this terror, never acquire freedom and security, until we refuse categorically to recognize this paranoid version of reality and oppose to it our own reality and our own values.

Thousands of books have been written in the West and hundreds of different doctrines created by the most prominent politicians to find a compromise with this kind of regime. They are all evading the only correct solution—moral opposition. The pampered Western democracies have forgotten their past and their essence, namely, that democracy is not a comfortable house, a handsome car, or an unemployment benefit, but above all the ability and the desire to stand up for one’s rights. Neither atom bombs nor bloody dictatorships, nor theories of “containment” or “convergence” will save the democracies. We who were born and have grown up in an atmosphere of terror know of only one remedy—the position of a citizen.

There is a qualitative distinction between the behavior of an individual and that of the human crowd in an extreme situation. A people, nation, class, party, or simply crowd cannot go beyond a certain limit in a crisis: the instinct of self-preservation proves too strong. They can sacrifice a part in the hope of saving the rest, they can break up into smaller groups and seek salvation that way. But this is their downfall.

To be alone is an enormous responsibility. With his back to the wall a man understands: “I am the people, I am the nation, I am the party, I am the class, and there is nothing else at all.” He cannot sacrifice a part of himself, cannot split himself up or divide into parts and still live. There is nowhere for him to retreat to, and the instinct of self-preservation drives him to extremes—he prefers physical death to a spiritual one.

And an astonishing thing happens. In fighting to preserve his integrity, he is simultaneously fighting for his people, his class, or his party. It is such individuals who win the right for their communities to live—even, perhaps, if they are not thinking of it at the time.

“Why should I do it?” asks each man in the crowd. “I can do nothing alone.”

And they are all lost.

“If I don’t do it, who will?” asks the man with his back to the wall.

And everyone is saved.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.