This review was first published in The eXile on September 4, 2004
We must remember the millions who died in the Soviet camps. Why? That nasty, nagging “why?” kept dogging me as I made my way through Anne Applebaum’s long (600 pp.) and well-researched history of the GULAG. If I hadn’t lived in Moscow from 2002 to 2004, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to challenge Applebaum’s mission, commemorating the victims of Stalinism. But one thing you learn in Russia, whether you want to or not, is that the Russians are not interested in this subject at all. And their lack of interest is strangely contagious, infecting even formerly avid fans of Zek literature like myself.
Before living in Russia, I used to wonder why none of the sons or grandsons of GULAG prisoners hunted down the thugs who tortured and killed their relatives. It happened in China, where descendants of those persecuted by the Red Guard tracked down and beat or even killed ex-Guards. And there’s an army of well-funded pursuers tracking down the few living ex-Nazis. Why didn’t Russians go after Stalin’s surviving executioners?
The simple, disturbing answer is that they’re not interested. And that bothers us. It’s not that the West cares very much about the Russians — either the millions who died, or the 140 million struggling to live in contemporary Russia. We’ve made our indifference to them pretty clear, over the past fifteen years.
Rather we need to believe that everyone shares our alleged dedication to the Christian-derived notion that we have to love everyone. And that means mourning, or at least going through the motions of mourning, every mass death.
So we wait for the Russians to start moaning and gnashing their teeth over the GULAG, as we would wait for a bereaved family to start keening over their loss. We’ve been standing nervously outside the Russians’ hut for over a decade now, waiting for those banshee wails to trigger our public tears.
And there’s been this silence — at first puzzling, then offensive. And at last, realizing that these shameless Russians aren’t going to start their own rites, we decided to do the job ourselves.
Thus Applebaum’s book was born. And it has the feeling of a belated, awkward funeral oration by one who didn’t know the deceased very well, but is driven by a deep sense of moral righteousness to perform the proper rites. To her credit, Applebaum knows and admits that the Russians themselves aren’t interested in commemorating the victims of the camps. She mentions that the only monument they have in Moscow is a single stone from the Solovetsky Islands. We lived a block from that stone, and for two years we walked past it nearly every day. I don’t recall seeing anyone take notice of it, even once. It sat there, splattered with birdshit, facing Lubyanka — completely forgotten. By contrast, the statue of Dzerzhinsky, though exiled to the Statue Garden by the river, is covered with curses and homage, just biding its time.
Anne Applebaum bears the sufferings of Stalin’s GULAG victims
In her final chapter, “Memory,” Applebaum attempts to account for the Russians’ indifference. She’s quite intelligent for a conservative, and surprisingly fair-minded for someone associated with a Tory rag like the Spectator. She even acknowledges that anti-Soviet rhetoric is soiled, in the minds of most contemporary Russians, by its association with the Gaidar kleptocracy, and offers a cogent summary of other possible factors:
“There are some good, or at least forgivable, explanations for this public silence. Most Russians… spend all of their time coping with the complete transformation of their economy and society. The Stalinist era was a long time ago, and a great deal has happened since it ended. Post-Communist Russia is not postwar Germany, where the memories of the worst atrocities were still fresh in people’s minds.”
The comparison to post-1945 Germany is the crucial one, the one by which contemporary Russia keeps disappointing and annoying righteous Westerners like Applebaum. This is yet another case of the “Hitler Standard,” by which the Nazis are the gold standard of evil, and the painful rehabilitation of Germany after 1945 the gold standard of recovery.
And of course this version of what happened in Germany in 1945 requires a suppression of memory at least as great as that involved in Russia’s apathy towards Stalin’s crimes. In the first place, it’s not the case that Germany’s crimes, in general, made much of an impression on “people’s minds.” Germany’s crimes against Russians, in particular, were little noticed nor long remembered in the West — despite the fact that the majority of the Wehrmacht’s victims were Slavs.
Most massacre victims are the sort of people not likely to be remembered. This is one of those almost-tautologies that’s still worth saying, like the old evolutionary biologists’ joke that most of us are descended from people who didn’t die before puberty.
And as another cynical French wit put it, we are all very good at bearing the sufferings of others.
Only when a massacre is unusually dramatic and interesting, and/or involves people to whom we feel particularly close, do most of us feel anything. In other words, the Christian-derived premise that there is some Enlightenment moral sense in each of us, which reacts with instinctive horror at any mass suffering, is simply nonsense. There is no such sense — and a quick look at the archives of a Tory magazine like the Spectator, for which Applebaum proudly toiled, would reveal that fact a million times over. Ever hear of the “Black Hole of Calcutta”? Of course you did. That terrible overheated room in which some English prisoners were kept during the Indian Mutiny, so stifling that some of them actually died! Now, let’s do the math: what is the ratio of Indians killed during the British occupation to British prisoners stifled in the Black Hole? Few of you will have any idea, because those millions of dead never registered with us.
Applebaum would not have been capable of accepting a position with a vile publication like the Spectator unless her own consciousness contained at least one huge, highly adaptive amnesiac blob where all the crimes of the Empire should have been filed. So vast and horrific were these crimes, so long did they continue, that you could pretty much spin a globe, jab a finger at it blindfolded, and land on a spot where some Imperial force committed some sort of atrocity. (Unless, of course, you landed on ocean — though the Royal Navy would do its best to provide you with material even there.)
The crimes of history are optional. We mix, match and discard according to taste and convenience. It’s useful for Applebaum’s Tory backers to remember Stalin’s crimes because they can still use them to bash anyone who might want to beef up the National Health system with higher taxes. “Today an extra 1% VAT on my Jag convertible, tomorrow Kolyma!” is a very familiar war cry from these crusaders for human rights. Other massacres are dim stats, to be dredged up when necessary. Take, for example, all the tens of millions of dead in the Japanese occupation of China. They are rarely invoked in the West, because we don’t need them. The Japanese are thoroughly spent, neither a threat nor a bad example of anything we worry about at the moment. The Chinese are more of a worry, making the invocation of their dead a dangerous concession. And in the Tory mind, those dead are connected with ignominy: the surrender of Singapore without a fight, the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales…and so it goes, with a huge number of tangential mental associations determining which of the billions of corpses clogging the earth will be dug up and flung at one’s opponents at any particular moment.
In this context, the Russians’ lack of interest in Stalin’s victims seems quite natural and healthy. It’s Applebaum’s arduous disinterment of them that ends up seeming forced, disingenuous and surprisingly dull.
Don’t be a dick! Buy John Dolan’s comic memoir “Pleasant Hell” (Capricorn Press):
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