Quote of the Week – Living Life Amidst Terror

Teffi.jpg

“It was as if we were living in the tale about Zmey Gorynych, the dragon that required  yearly tribute of twelve fair maidens and twelve young men. One might well wonder how the people in this tale could have carried on, how they could have lived with the knowledge that a dragon would soon be devouring the finest of their children. During those last days in Moscow, however, we realized that they too had been rushing from one little theater to another or hurrying to buy themselves something from which to make a coat or dress. There is nowhere a human being cannot live. With my own eyes I have seen sailors taking a man out onto the ice in order to shoot him – and I have seen the condemned man hopping over puddles to keep his feet dry and turning up his collar to shield his chest from wind. Those few steps were the last steps he would ever take, and instinctively he wanted them to make them as comfortable as possible.

We were no different. We bought ourselves some ‘last scrap’ of fabric. We listened for the last time to the last operetta and the last exquisitely erotic verses. What did it matter whether the verses were good or terrible? All that mattered was not to know, not to be aware – we had to forget that we were being led onto the ice.”

The quote is taken from the first chapter of Teffi’s account, Memories: From Moscow to the Black SeaTeffi, the pen name of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was a well-known and celebrated humorist, satirist, and author in early 1900s Russia. Memories is her personal account of her last months spent in Russia and the Ukraine as she fled from the collapse of the Tsarist regime and the Bolshevik revolution, along with most other intellectuals and artists of the era. What makes the narrative unique is that Teffi is largely reticent on political statements and instead puts journalistic focus on the personal narratives and stories of everyone she meets during her harrowing journey. Along the way, she always believes she will make it back to Moscow within a matter of months, but that dream ends years later as she stays in exile in Paris. Memories is described by one reviewer as, “A vividly idiosyncratic account of the disintegration  – moral, political, strategic, – of Tsarist Russia after the Revolution, as alive to the farcical and the ridiculous as it is to the tragic.” I am just diving into the book myself and expect to pull many more such powerful and vivid depictions of what life must have been like for Russians in these perilous and harrowing times. Thus far, Memories is the indispensable book that I am currently reading that I can’t put down.

 

Modern Day Towers of Babel – Lessons from the Soviet Union Man-made Famines

Tower of babel

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, mankind busied themselves with building a giant tower stretching up to heaven, united in a common goal of reaching high enough in the firmament to achieve the status of God. In order to prevent this prideful use of mankind’s time and talents, people are thrown into confusion through divine intervention forcing  people to grapple with different language barriers. This ended the quest to build the tower, which presumably required a great degree of communication and collaboration as well as coercion of others to lend their time and energy to the project. It is the latter point on coercion to achieve Utopia that I use as an analogy for something I have been reading a lot about as of late, which is the tragedy that is Russian history; in particular, the part of Russian history that was the quest to build a humanist utopia on earth in the guise of a workers’ paradise ideology of Marxist Communism.

Robert Conquest’s seminal work, The Harvest of Sorrow, provides a chilling narrative of Stalin’s mad and macabre drive to implement his five-year plan to force all peasants into state-owned collective farms. Having recently won a string of political and ideological battles in the wake of Lenin’s death, including the completion of transforming urban areas into economies based largely on state-owned factories, state ownership of the press, orienting the essential arms of the Communist Party under Stalinist control through the appointment of his own self-selected protégés into essential roles in the Party, achieving Stalinist dominance of the essential arms of the Government (Commissariat and Politburo), internal police (OGPU), and military, and with a dictatorship based upon a cult of personality largely established, Stalin opened the next front in the Communist revolution – consolidation of the farms along Communist ideological lines. It is remarkable that up into this point in the late 1920s, a full decade after the initial Bolshevik revolution, that the great mass of Soviet land, population, and largest sector of the Soviet economy, agriculture, was relatively untouched by the maiming and malignant arm of the Soviet state. Indeed, market forces were tolerated in agriculture for a relatively long duration of time under Lenin and subsequently Stalin under something deemed the “New Economic Policy”, or NEP, which was for a season a tactical retreat from an aborted attempt at crash collectivization launched in the early years of the revolution. Unfortunately for the peasants, this lifestyle under market forces was ultimately doomed to be short-lived as it was anathema to Marxist Communist ideology. Stalin is known as many things and has accumulated a wide degree of historical scorn and unflattering sobriquets that are warranted, but less discussed and known is the actual degree to which he truly was a fully committed Marxist more so than he was a practical tactician, which is the typical reputation historians grant to him. The degree to which peasants and farms continued undisturbed and living under market forces was irreconcilable with his dream of a unified and fully communist Soviet Union, and their destruction was always inevitable so long as Stalin had power.

There were largely two high level essential elements of the plan, if the crash and chaotic collectivization that ultimately ensued can be considered planned. The first critical element was fomenting class warfare and eliminating a class of so-called rich peasants. In Communist Party parlance, this class of peasants was pejoratively labeled “kulaks.” While there were numerous official central party attempts to define what a kulak was (tragically comic attempts to define them include the number of cows they owned, acreage tilled and owned, other peasants employed, etc.), in the chaos and opportunism of other peasants seeking to gain kulak assets, opportunism of career ladder seeking party members, internal police officers (OGPU, also know throughout the years as Cheka, NKVD, and KGB), party activists, and sycophants eager to prove their mettle and communist dutifulness, the reach and definition of who would be a kulak was ever-expanding and completely arbitrary and ultimately boiled down to who might be a leader that had the potential to cause trouble for the regime. Thus, “wealthy” peasants, middle class peasants, clergy, and village leaders all got caught into the snare of what occurs when humanity devolves into its most beastly and evil forms. The great irony is that many of the oppressors were far more handsomely paid from their official perches than were the wealthy peasants they were murdering, deporting, and sending off to the gulags of Siberia. The second critical element in the “plan” was to force the remaining peasants into collective farms. The ostensible utopian goal behind the collective farm was the theoretical notion that large industrial farms would produce much more efficiently than small landowners could and the centralized planning would align the needs of the country at large. More malevolently and cynically, the Soviet leaders knew that state collective farms would give them control of the all-important grain that they required to feed their core political base, the urban populations, and to export grain to obtain the needed cash for the state.

The predictable outcome of all of this state-induced crash collectivization was a massive decrease in agricultural production due to the massive deportation, imprisonment, and murder of the Soviet Union’s most productive farmers and ranchers who were mostly located in the Ukraine and the Central Asian steppes, respectively. The disruption that the oppression caused and the lack of incentives the new system created to produce anything more than what your family required were also significant contributing factors. What relatively little products did get extracted out of the peasants was more prone to rot on trains and in warehouses due to Soviet government incompetence than it was to get put into the mouths of Soviet citizens, further exacerbating the problems in a tragically ironic way. Needless to say, the offshoot was to further scapegoat ever-growing numbers of kulak saboteurs and calls from the central planners to extract more in the form of expropriated grain requisitions from the peasants, which often had the effect of not leaving families with enough grain to even feed themselves. At one point in this terror, the Soviet government relied upon newly deputized Communist activists that were largely city dwellers to descend upon the farms to discover grain wherever they could and forcibly take it from the peasants with the aid of OGPU officers.  These 25-thousanders, as they were called after the approximate number of them that were commissioned for the task, had little knowledge of agriculture, but what they possessed in abject ignorance they made up for in their fervent desire to do their part to build the workers’ utopia. They were easily whipped into a mob mentality frenzy based upon a notion that anyone that opposed them was an enemy of the state and inimical to the necessary changes that the revolution needed in order to complete its idealistic aims. One of their members, who would defect decades later, recounts a speech chronicled in Conquest’s book that was given to the 25-thousanders by a Party member who addressed them in order to provide direction on the terror that they were to unleash on the countryside.

The local village authorities need an injection of Bolshevik iron. That’s why we are sending you. You must assume your duties with a feeling of the strictest Party responsibility, without whimpering, without any rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out of the window and act like Bolsheviks worthy of Comrade Stalin. Beat down the kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war – it’s them or it’s us! The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost!

Secondly, comrades, it is absolutely necessary to fulfill the government’s plan for grain delivery. The kulaks and even some middle and poor peasants are not giving up their grain. They are sabotaging Party policy. And the local authorities sometimes waver and show weakness. Your job is to get the grain at any price. Pump it out of them, wherever it is hidden, in ovens, under beds, in cellars or buried away in back yards.

Through you, the Party brigades, the villages must learn the meaning of Bolshevik firmness. You must find the grain and you will find it. It’s a challenge to the last shred of your initiative and to your Chekist spirit. Don’t be afraid of taking extreme measures. The Party stands four-square behind you. Comrade Stalin expects it of you. It’s a life and death struggle; better to do too much and not enough.

Your third important task is to complete the threshing of the grain, to repair the tools, ploughs, tractors, reapers, and other equipment.

The class struggle in the village has taken the sharpest forms. This is no time for squeamishness or rotten sentimentality. Kulak agents are masking themselves and getting into the collective farms where they sabotage the work and kill the livestock. What’s required from you is Bolshevik alertness, intransigence, and courage. I am sure you will carry out the instructions of the Party and the directives of our beloved Leader.

Carry out the instructions of the dear leader is indeed what was done. According to Conquest’s research and analysis at the time, close to 5 million so-called kulaks and their family members were killed or sent to the Gulags where many, including wives and children, would go on to perish. As a result of the predictable subsequent man-made famine, another estimated 10 million would go on to die in the following years. What is striking is that at the time of Conquest’s forecasts and estimates (made in the 50s), Western media outlets lampooned the account as overly sensationalized and hyper-critical of Stalin and the Soviet system. As it turned out, once the Soviet archives were opened in their entirety decades later, Conquest’s estimates proved to be remarkably prescient.

My own interest in these accounts is that I am often fascinated, humbled, and terrified by the conditions that led to such a human created humanitarian crisis. The ultimate human paradox is the great good that we are capable of, but also the tremendous evil that we are equally capable of. I don’t get the sense that any culture, society, or ethnicity is immune to such deprivations.  While I don’t think the conditions are ripe for such a disaster in many Western nations and feel compelled to ward off charges of being an alarmist, it is still a valuable lesson of the arrogance of building utopias on the backs of oppressed and coerced individuals. Individual liberties and freedoms are essential elements that we should cherish dearly, even if it means we pass up some immediate expedient aim and benefit that would force us to give them up.  Conquest chronicles another party member and activist who participated in the actions against the peasants and who would go on to later write that,

We were deceived because we wanted to be deceived. We believed so strongly in communism that we were prepared to accept any crime if it was glossed over with the least bit of communist phraseology…confronted by something unpleasant, we compelled ourselves to believe that it was an isolated phenomenon and that on the whole the country’s state of affairs was just as the party described it…in other words, just as it was supposed to be according to communist theory.

This quote is classic and could be applied to any urge to participate in mob mentality and populist urges, either from the political far right or left. Oppression and catastrophe really take nothing more than a passionate minority that believes that all that stands in the way between them and a paradise on the other side is a smaller minority that deserves to be trampled, coupled with a largely complicit mass majority that stands silent while atrocities are committed in the vain hope that they won’t be touched. Evil can be whitewashed and rationalized by us all if it is deemed a necessary act to bring about a hoped for greater good or paradise.

The modern-day Tower of Babel is not a tower reaching up to the heaven, it is a belief that an institution of the state can create better conditions for all, even if it means destroying rights of the few. There are much less malevolent forms of this urge in the Western world today, but the same desire to build paternalistic utopian societies that aim hopelessly to improve the lot of the majority, even if it means expropriating the property and wealth of the minority, is still something that we should be extremely careful with and which we see as prevailing themes in much of the drive for proposed “free” goods in higher education and healthcare, to name just a couple of issues. To borrow from Milton Friedman, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”