Monday, June 28, 2010

Last rites for Stalinism?


The removal of Stalin's statue from the Man of Steel's hometown in Gorii, Georgia, on June 25th, 2010, was done unanounced in the dead of night, without the pomp, ceremony, and tank lines that typically commemorate the death of a generalissimo. The circumstances of the statue's removal are eerily similar to those of Nicolai Salmanovitch Rubashov's banal execution in Arthur Koestler's fictional masterpiece Darkness at Noon. At the end of the novel, Nikolai, who was also once a great hero of Soviet Russia and leading member of the Bolshevik party, is hastily executed in a dark cellar at the bottom of a Soviet prison, a death wholly unfitting for a once glorified leader and revolutionary hero, his death symbolizing the destruction of the original revolutionary class and the triumph of Stalinism. And so this statue's removal, combined with Russian leadership's recent stinging rejection of Stalin and the canceling of plans in Moscow to hang Stalin posters during Victory day, may also represent a final bullet in the head to the once-triumphant Stalinism, the revenge of the original revolutionary class far after the death of revolution. Yet ideas seem far harder to kill, as the recent unveiling of a Stalin statue by communists in south-eastern Ukraine under heavy police protection, carried out against the wishes of a majority of the population demonstrates. It would be difficult to argue, however, that the general picture of Stalinism is one in steady decline.
The brilliance of Darkness at Noon is that it went beyond Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World is that the novel doesn't attempt to present a completely fictional totalitarian state dreamed up by British intellectuals, but instead plumbs the mental depths of one of history's most infamous totalitarian movements through an author who had witnessed Stalin's state and had taken a journey from avid Bolschevik to defender of democracy. By the end of the novel, as the aging revolutionary Nikolai collapses under the interrogations of the new revolutionary elite, he completes his own interrogation of the ideas behind Stalinism and the shocking logic behind the show trials, embodied in the cruel logic of "the ends justify the means" and confesses to "having placed the idea of man above the idea of mankind." But what were the ends that were ultimately reached through Stalinism even worth these means?
The removal of Stalin's statue in Gori itself was justified by the government in that it was a symbol of Russian imperialism, which a claim likely rooted in events immediately following the end of the Revolution. Stalin's support of the overthrow of the newly-independent Georgian government in 1921 and the immediate Sovietization of the country over the objections of other Bolschevik leaders, along with his deportation of Cacusian peoples to Siberia during WW2, didn't stabilize the Caucasian region, but created a time bomb in the USSR that continues sporadically exploding to this day.
The Bolshevik revolution didn't spread after the "temporary set-back" of 30s European Fascism and the eventual victory of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe, but simply created a series of unwilling sattelite states, and the Baltic states, so prized by Stalin, became the Achilles heal of the USSR. A mere ten years after Uncle Joe's death, the Soviet economy began it's steady, systematic decline. By this time in the mid-sixties, radical student movements and 3rd-world liberation movements were increasingly turning to Maoist China, not the Soviet Union, for their models of revolution (the assassination of a Soviet minister by French Maoist students in Godard's La Chinoise is a perfect example of this shift in Western leftist Weltanschauung). From then on it was all downhill, by the arrival of Gorbachev it was too late.
Rubashov tells his interrogators towards the end of his trial that "it would be more in accordance with our ideas to tell people the truth," his interrogator responds "whether Jesus spoke the truth or not, when he asserted that he was the son of God and of a virgin, is of no interest to any sensible person. It is said to be symbolical, but the peasants take it literally. We have the same right to invent useful symbols which the peasants take literally." Yet once the symbol dies without a promise for eternal life, the whole farce unravels.

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