Dans le carnaval de I'histoire: mémoires Carnival in the spring of 1979
The Challenge of the Spirit
Notes of a Non-Conspirator
In 1942 Lionel Trilling wrote an essay for The Nation called “Tacitus Now,” in which he remarked that “our political education of the last decades fits us to understand the historian of imperial Rome.” By “us” he meant, of course, Americans, whose tradition had excluded the atrocious things that Tacitus spoke of as a recent witness—“dictatorship and repression, spies and political informers, blood purges and treacherous dissension.” Trilling had in mind the events that shook the Soviet Union during the 1930s; and equally, no doubt, the Night of the Long Knives in Nazi Germany, the activities of the Gestapo, the attrition of the Jews. But, as Boris Shragin explains in the note “To the Western Reader” which introduces his book, the spiritual crisis of Germany is no longer actual and indefinitely continuing like that of Russia. The German people, in the shock of defeat, were ready to acknowledge their guilt, and for many of them that chapter is now closed.
However, as the three testimonies now offered by Plyushch, Shragin, and Etkind—who all left the USSR in the 1970s—make absolutely plain, such questions as the Germans were brought to ask about their own responsibility for the ordeal they and others had lived through have not so far been asked by many in Russia. Those who do ask these questions have to pay for it with a prison sentence, or malign “treatment” in a “special psychiatric hospital,” or with exile.
Tacitus looked back on eighty years of the Roman Empire, from Tiberius to Domitian, and he wrote, Trilling reminds us, with the despair of a convinced republican who knew that the past could never return. The account he gave of high politics over most of that period, with no prominent citizen safe from denunciation, and the caprice of a despot like Nero or Domitian spreading panic, and with panic irresponsibility, through widening circles, led one French historian cited by Trilling to wonder that the Empire did not collapse. The same features in Soviet society, as revealed in each of these books, prompt the same question; but whereas it has been contended that Tacitus gave only a partial view of the historical process, and that Rome was in the broader perspective “a healthy developing society,” any illusions of progress in the Soviet Union died within a very few years of Khrushchev’s “revelations” at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.
The parallel between early imperial Rome and the first sixty years of Soviet power should not be pressed too hard. But the example of Tacitus—“a dangerously subversive writer,” as Trilling points out, “under the dictatorship both of the Jacobins and of Napoleon”—is worth bearing in mind when we consider the best writing that comes from the Russian dissidents. The three books in hand qualify for that distinction. But their message, unlike that of Tacitus, is not void of hope. The equivalent of the ancient republican virtue that he admired may be achieved if a reborn Russian intelligentsia can live up to,…
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