Not recommended is Adam Hochschild’s, The Uuquiet Ghost, which lands on a significant subject. It supposedly tells of Stalin’s Gulag and survivors thereof. That is fine, but there is no I (me, Adam Hochschield) in the book. The author is not a survivor, the spouse of a survivor, a family member of a survivor, and he is not Russian. He is an American writing about Stalin’s Gulag. His text has the blunders of Edmund Morris, who decided to include himself in the Reagan biography, Dutch. About the stories from the survivors, the book reverses its purpose. I did this, I travelled there, the author tells. However notes giving brief backgrounds are in the text at the end of a section or at the end of a chapter. The reverse should be true – less author, more history.
Of interest in the Preface and the early chapters of The Unquiet Ghost, are statements:
iii: “And it’s important….that those things should be documented by someone who speaks with the authority of having been there.”
iii: “How could the country that gave the world Tolstoy and Chekhov also give it the gulag?”
iv: “Thomas Hardy…wrote that ‘if way to be Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.’”
vii-viii: “…no one should have any illusions that the country’s path will be a smooth and easy one. …[A] secret police major…thought it would take two generations for the Russian Bureaucracy to completely outgrow it’s authoritarian habits.”
xix: “…a more hazardous facet of Utopianism: the faith that if only we make certain sweeping changes, then all problems will be solved….Marxism offered this: the belief that once people overthrew the social and economic system…human character itself would be transformed.”
20-21: “Memory made public is also a warning: You can’t get away with this again…’Retrospectively, the broadcasting of truth…upends the torturer’s boastful claim…is at once more subtle and perhaps more momentous…It is essential to the structure of torture that it takes place in secret, in the dark, beyond considerations of shame and account…Torture can never again feel so self-assured – not their victims so utterly forlorn.”
21. “Vaclav Havel speaks of the “fear of history” that leads people to avoid dealing with complicity and guilt. But, sometimes we blot out the past simply to spare ourselves unnecessary pain.”
The easy points to address are about art and about politics, pages iii and vii-viii above. Tolstoy and Cheknov were not authors promoting social change. They wrote about Russian society before them, and did that well. It is naive to believe everyone in Russia wanted to preserve what Tolstoy and Chekhov wrote about, the glory of Russia under the Czars. Likely the population wanted political change. Can art change society is en elementary question? That is the hope. But recurring in early Nazi Germany were the identical questions with scores of cultural giants that the population knew. A cultural heritage actually aided the Nazis in the racially and religiously charged exterminations and prejudices.
It is not bureaucracy that needs changing; it is the system of government. Democratic ways seeking truth and society’s advancement must override bureaucratic rules. But democracy is not an automatic avenue to rectify governmental ways. It must be worked at. Without a long history of democratic expectations, Russia, for instance, has demonstrated it is easy to lapse into previous totalitarism ways.
Thomas Hardy is correct, to make the human race better, we must force a complete understanding of the worst. And who better to describe the worst – the persons who suffered. One cannot rely on officials. Stalin said it best: The loss of one human being is a tragedy The loss of 62,000,000 is a statistic. 62,000,000 has been published as the number of Russians and other nationalities killed by the Communists from 1917 to 1991.
Communism does offer utopian promises and goals becoming reality after making “sweeping changes.” Human beings with any education, knowledge, and intelligence know the promises of dictators, authoritarians and tyrants are false and must be disbelieved. Some pandering with those aspirations are lying without caring that change cannot be made with sweeping changes. Human beings done’t change with alterations of the basic law. Witness the Civil War Amendments to the United States Constitution, directing to shift the status of former slaves and other African-Americans. As revered as is the Constitution to the American people, the actions and behavior of Americans needs more change.
The dictator, the tyrant, the authoritarian primary tool is torture to get people to comply and to follow. Shifting from that system to one of democracy is not perfect and absolute. Again human beings does not change immediately, over generations or longer. Yet the South Africans held its Truth Commissions for all the world and its own people to witness. I do not know the status of interpersonal relations, based upon race, wealth, faith in South Africa. I have not heard completely bad news, but I don’t know. Perhaps the South Africans led by Nelson Mandela did it right.
Is there a fear of history? Likely not. The persons who led and those who contributed to atrocities and exterminations were not concerned what will be written or thought about them. The numbers of deaths must be HUGE. Who remembers Pol Pot? If history means leaders and their disciples will be remembered, they have overachieved. And given the reverence some Russians have for Stalin, the Chinese for Mao and westerns for the drug-addled Hitler and the Nazis, the enormities attract fans, followers and devotees. It is hard to say what will end those influences – open the archives and expose all the facts?