The Remains of Totalitarianism

The following is based on Elena Bonner’s speech accepting the 2000 Hannah Arendt Award, given jointly by the city of Bremen, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the Hannah Arendt Association.

I was educated in Soviet schools, where social studies and courses in the history of the CPSU were obligatory. Later at medical school I studied philosophy (naturally, Marxist-Leninist) and political economy. I did not ask myself whether there was even a grain of truth in them. Once I passed the exams, without which I could not graduate and become a doctor, I forgot everything I’d learned.

It took many years for me to understand that by not studying subjects beyond the official requirements, I had rejected an important, perhaps the fundamental, part of human culture and had become a person without an intelligible view of the world.

I am speaking of myself because I am no exception. Most people in my parents’ generation and my own had a similar experience. We lived and grew up in an atmosphere of total fear, often without even realizing it. There were twenty-three pupils in my class, and eleven had parents who had been arrested. “Terror is the true essence of this form of government,” Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism.*

Stalin’s death and the fall of totalitarianism did not lead to the disappearance of this fear. It seemed to become part of our genetic structure, passed on to subsequent generations. That is why there was never a student movement in the USSR. On the whole our society remained one without genuine convictions. I am not speaking of state ideology—we don’t have one now and we don’t need one!—but of the absence of moral criteria and the ability to distinguish truth from lies, good from evil.

And only a few people, like Sakharov, could develop a cosmologically whole and humanistic picture of the world that rejected lies totally.

Reading Arendt is frightening even today. Her account of the general resemblance of the Nazi and Communist regimes has been confirmed by many others. On Hitler: “He was phenomenally false…lack of a sense of reality …indifference to facts” (Konrad Heiden). On Stalin: “revulsion for the truth of life,” “indifference to the real situation” (Nikita Khrushchev). In Germany: “The Führer is always right.” In the USSR: “The Party is never wrong.” Hitler: “The nation will be victorious or it must perish totally.” In the USSR, as a song put it, “Bravely we’ll go to war for the power of the Soviets and we will die as one in the fight.” Death camps and the Gulag. Gas was used in the former. The latter didn’t need to waste money on it—hunger and cold did the job.

However, in Germany some legal court procedures were observed—for non-Jews. In our country people were executed immediately after a fifteen-minute meeting of a troika summary court. And sometimes without one. My uncle was executed on December 20, 1937 …

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