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In Cannibalistic Times

Last year Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror was translated into Russian and published in the USSR in the journal Neva. (Unfortunately, only the first edition was published. I hope that the second, revised and enlarged edition will be published as well, if it is not suppressed by the censorship so recently revived in the Soviet Union.) The fate of this book in the USSR is truly remarkable. Many of those who opened Neva in 1989–1990 exclaimed: “But I know all this stuff already!” How did they know it? From Conquest himself.

The first edition appeared twenty years ago in English, was translated into Russian, and infiltrated what was then a closed country. It quickly became an underground best seller, and there’s not a thinking person who isn’t acquainted with the book in one form or another: those who knew English read it in the original, others got hold of the Russian text, made photocopies at night, and passed them on. The book gave birth to much historical (underground and émigré) research, the facts were assimilated, reanalyzed, argued, confirmed, elaborated. In short, the book almost achieved the status of folklore, and many Soviet people measure their own history “according to Conquest,” sometimes without realizing that he actually exists. This is why many readers, especially the younger ones, thought of Conquest’s book as a compilation of “commonly known facts” when they read it for the first time. The author should be both offended and flattered.

This is a book about the Stalinist terror, about the Great Terror, which began in the Thirties and continued—growing and fading—until the death of the Great Tyrant in 1953.

The very expression “Great Terror” leads to the idea of the “Little Terror” which remains necessarily outside the confines of this book. Of course, no one can write a book about Russia that includes everything, explains everything, weaves together the facts and motifs of history, revealing the root system that every so often puts out shoots and suddenly blossoms into the frightful flower of a Great Terror. I’m reminded of the protagonist of Borges’s story “Aleph,” who tried to create a poem that described the entire universe—but failed, of course. No one person can possibly accomplish such a task.

The Little Terror in Russia has been around from time immemorial. It has lasted for centuries and continues to this very day. So many books have been written about the Little Terror! Virtually all the literature of the nineteenth century, which is so valued in the West, tells the story of the Little Terror, sometimes with indignation, sometimes as something taken for granted, and tries to understand its causes, explain its mechanisms, give detailed portraits of its victims: individual personalities, entire classes, and the country as a whole. What is Russian society and why is it the way it is? What can and must be done in order to free ourselves of this all-permeating terror, of total slavery, of fear of any and everyone? How do we ensure that an individual’s fate does not depend on others’ whims? Why is it that any revolution, any attempt to rid Russia of terror, leads to an even greater terror?

Russia didn’t begin yesterday and won’t end tomorrow. The attempts of many writers and researchers to explain Russian horrors by the Bolshevik rise to power are naive. The sigh of relief that in recent years has been heard more and more often in the West is naive as well: the cold war is over, Gorbachev has come, everything will soon be just fine. (The events of the last few months have shown the West what has been clear to Soviet people for almost two years: nothing good can be expected from Gorbachev.)

Human life is short. For many people, delving into history’s depths is boring, frightening, and they have no time for it. Furthermore, in the West the sense of history has weakened or completely vanished: the West does not live in history, it lives in civilization (by which I mean the self-awareness of transnational technological culture as opposed to the subconscious, unquestioned stream of history). But in Russia there is practically no civilization, and history lies in deep, untouched layers over the villages, over the small towns that have reverted to near wilderness, over the large, uncivilized cities, in those places where they try not to let foreigners in, or where foreigners themselves don’t go. Even in the middle of Moscow, within a ten-minute walk from the Kremlin, live people with the consciousness of the fifteenth or eleventh century (the eleventh century was better, more comprehensible to us, because at that time culture and civilization were more developed in Russia than in the fifteenth century). When you have any dealings with these people, when you start a conversation, you feel that you’ve landed in an episode of The Twilight Zone. The constraints of a short article don’t allow me to adequately describe this terrifying feeling, well known to Europeanized Russians, of coming into contact with what we call the absurd, a concept in which we invest far greater meaning than Western people do. Here one needs literature—Kafka, Ionesco; one needs academic scholars like Levy-Bruhl with his study of prelogical thought.

Archeological digs have been carried out in the ancient Russian city of Novgorod, once an independent republic carrying on independent trade with the West. The earth reveals deep layers of the city’s history. In the early ones, from the eleventh or twelfth century, there are many birch-bark documents and letters written by simple people that testify to the literacy of the population. And there are also remains of good leather footwear. In the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, when Novgorod was conquered by Moscow, letters disappear, and instead of leather boots lapti appear, a kind of shoe made from bast.

The sixteenth century, when Ivan the Terrible ruled, was also a time of Great Terror, perhaps even the first government-wide terror on the territory of what was then Russia, a terror that is horribly reminiscent of Stalinist times. It is particularly appalling in what would seem to be its inexplicableness, its lack of precedent: after all, there wasn’t any Lenin, there were no Bolsheviks or revolutions preceding Ivan the Terrible. It was during his reign that someone said: “We Russians don’t need to eat; we eat one another and this satisfies us.”

The backward motion of history, the submersion of culture under a thick layer of gilded, decorative “Asiatic savagery,” governmental piracy, guile elevated to principle, unbridled caprice, an extraordinary passivity and lack of will combined with an impulsive cruelty; incompletely suppressed paganism, undeveloped Christianity; a blind, superstitious belief in the spoken, and especially in the written, word; the sense of sin as a secret and repulsive pleasure (what Russians call Dostoevskyism). How can all this be described, how can one give a sense of the ocean from which the huge wave of a Great Terror periodically rises?

Robert Conquest investigates only the Great Terror, not touching on the Little one. He sees its roots in the Soviet regime that formed before Stalin, in the very principles and organization of the Soviet state. In his own way he is absolutely right; this is true, and every investigation must begin somewhere. I merely wish to remind the reader once again (and Robert Conquest knows this very well) that the Soviet state was not created out of thin air, that its inhabitants were the inhabitants of yesterday’s Russian state who awoke one fine morning to find themselves under the so-called Soviet regime. The Revolution and the civil war that soon followed led to the exile and destruction or decivilizing of the Europeanized Russian population (by Europeanized I mean people who were literate, educated, who possessed a work ethic, a developed religious consciousness, respect for law and reason, and who were also familiar with Europe and the achievements of world culture). Those who survived and remained in Russia lost the right to speak their mind and were too frightened or weak to influence anything. Russian society, though it wandered in the dark for centuries, had nonetheless by 1917 given birth not only to an educated class, but to a large number of people with high moral standards and a conscience, to honest people who were not indifferent to issues of social good. This is the intelligentsia—not really a class, but a fellowship of people “with moral law in their breast,” as Kant put it. Lenin hated them more than anyone else, and they were the first to be slaughtered. When Gorky wrote to Lenin in their defense, saying that “the intelligentsia is the brain of the nation,” Lenin answered with the famous phrase: “It’s not the brain, it’s the shit.”

The savage, barbaric, “Asiatic” part of the Russian empire was invited to participate in the “construction of a new world.” and its members received certain privileges, some people in word alone, others in fact. What this section of the population really represented, what it was capable of and what it aspired to, no one actually knew, particularly the Soviet leaders, whose notions about the “people” derived exclusively from their own theories; the model for the “worker” was taken from the German or English working class, and the peasant was entirely dreamed up. Arrogant, impatient, cruel, barely literate people took advantage of the historical moment (the war dragging on, the military leadership’s lack of talent, thievery in the army and the rear guard; a weak tsar; and after the February Revolution, a weak transitional government, widespread disorder, chaos, a dissatisfied people, etc.) to carry out what they called a revolution, but what was actually a counter-revolutionary coup.

As is well known, Lenin’s initial idea was to hold onto power for no less a period than the French Commune once did. This desire to become a chapter heading in a history textbook is quite characteristic of bookish, theoretical thinking. Then he intended to suffer a defeat, go underground, and work for a real coup. However, no one ended up taking power away from the Bolsheviks: they were better organized and much more cynical and unscrupulous than any of their opponents. Seizing power turned out not to be too difficult. But governing the Russian empire was almost impossible. (Even today no one knows how.) Terror came into use.

In one of his telegrams Lenin exclaims indignantly: “We’re not shooting enough professors.” Isn’t this a portent of typical Stalinist methods: destruction by category? Under Stalin arrest by category became a regular thing: today they’re killing miners, tomorrow they’re destroying railway engineers, then they’ll get around to peasants, then historians of local customs (students of local lore, history, and economy were almost completely destroyed for being “spies”). One of my grandfathers, Mikhail Lozinsky, a well-known translator of the poetry of Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Corneille, who spoke six languages fluently, was frequently interrogated in the early 1920s for participating in the “Poets Guild” literary group; the ignorant investigator kept trying to find out where the “Guild” kept their weapons. This was under Lenin, not Stalin. His wife (my grandmother) was jailed for several months at the same time, perhaps because so many of her friends were members of the Social Revolutionary party. She later remembered that she had never before or since had such a pleasant time with so many intelligent and educated people. In 1921 my mother’s godfather, the poet Nikolai Gumilev, was shot on a false accusation of involvement in a “monarchist plot.” (There were other deaths in our family, but fewer than in some. The hatred many felt toward our family because of this was typical, and was expressed in the following way: “Why is it that they’ve lost so few family members?”) Gumilev’s wife, the famous poet Anna Akhmatova, referred to these relatively peaceful times as “vegetarian.”

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