I was most fortunate to have spent time in places like Russia, Belarus, Cuba, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, where I saw the tragedy of communism up close, the gray world it created and its effect on human beings. The lasting impression was of a society devoid of religion, and thus of morality which is based on religion, leaving a materialistic world of eating, sleeping, and working. It was a strange place, centered around an unreal view of things based on economic determinism and means of production.
It was a world where the individual (soul) was not important, and man was a cog in a supposed worldwide worker’s revolution, in the fight against worldwide “capitalism.” In this revolution, the end justified the means, which has meant that everyone, without exception, must believe in the ideology of communism. Those who protest are removed. Religion has no place; art is important only as a means to advance this revolution. Man’s sole allegiance is to the state.
Being a materialistic world, and one that is poor, it was a world on Dickens and Darwin, and of the Industrial Revolution’s mill worker. Marx was a product of this milieu. But, the communist world I experienced was not quite Dickens or Orwell. Dickens was not quite materialistic enough. The worst part was not the shabbiness or the industrial aesthetic, but the strange ethics accompanying a world seen through a revolutionary or utopian prism. Right and wrong were somehow reversed in the need to justify the end. This was illustrated best by the purges of the 1930s, with executions in the name of progress to weed out possible skeptics. Solzhenitsyn, Koestler, and Milosz described this best, as did Orwell. All aspects of daily life were entwined around ideology. Thus, reality was twisted. Friends and parents were enemies and suspects. God and religion were bad. History could be reinvented. The central reality was the struggle between classes. The central reality was that “capitalism” was in its last stages, and using nationalism to manipulate the workers in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. Aesthetics were not important. The spiritual-material dualism in man, so central to Western tradition, was broken for the first time in the name of science. In retrospect, it is amazing that this distorted system held on until 1991.
The worst part of the system was that it was dehumanizing. It created something called the new Soviet man, who was to be devoid of emotions and human weakness, which could thwart sacrifices need for the revolution. Westerners could not really communicate with the Soviet (dogmatic) man, as we found out in trying to reason with Molotov and Gromyko. Words meant different things. There was no common language. In their vocabulary, “peaceful coexistence” meant a bilateral truce while they went ahead with their support of revolutions. “Democracy” meant a Poland under a communist government, where people lacked individual freedom but had economic egalitarianism. When pressed at Potsdam on Poland, Stalin said, “If it is not fascist, it is democratic.” What the Russians were doing in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany in 1945 was, to them, “democratic,” despite the fact that one-party states were established without any legitimate opposition parties or “bill of rights” freedoms for individuals, to attend church, read a free press, say what he or she wants, believe what he or she wants, and have meetings on political issue with whom one pleases, etc.
The Soviets scoffed at this “illusion” of democracy, which was, to them, exploitive of the masses and a smokescreen for upper class control of all means of production under the guise of liberalism. This is what the Soviets really believed. Soviet man saw no need for international news or travel abroad. Paradise was at home, despite its temporary shortcomings. Foreign Peace Corps volunteers, businessmen, and diplomats were obviously spies. Foreign magazines were banned, as were foreign radio broadcasts. Foreign novels and books were censored.
Brutality was admired for being “tough minded.” In the civil war and purges, this meant killing priests, intellectuals, and the propertied classes, starving the middle class farmers, and even killing family members. Lenin said you had to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Unfortunately, this meant you had to have a police state, and as Barbara Tuchman has pointed out, whenever you have a strong security service, it eventually takes over the control of the political figureheads at the top. The KGB was the real power behind the throne, not the Communist Party. It was the state within the state.
When I was in Moscow from 1979-81 during the communist era, everyone was the same except for a few dissidents. All were loyal Soviets, proud of their state and genuinely critical of the “bourgeois” West. Apparently, however, a lot had reservations beneath the surface, and grew tired of communism after the glow of World War II wore off in the 1970s and 1980s and their idealism faded amid consumer shortages and party corruption. Along came Afghanistan, Solidarity, and Chernobyl and Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
When I returned in 1991, after Yeltsin took power, it actually became easier to lift the veil, and see things in Russia as they really were. The new changes exposed the old system. You could juxtapose modern Russians of 1991, who wanted freedom, with those who could not initially make the mental transition to a new world. The latter included the pensioners who, mentally, still lived in the 1940s and 1950s; the “orthodox” Party intellectuals, ideologues, professors, and writers, who taught and lived the communist ideology; and the KGB and military, hard liners who were front line soldiers of the Cold War. These were the elites, or “halves”, of the old system.
A lot of Western observers during the 1991-94 era felt the struggle for reform was not really over ideology, but over pragmatic control over resources and power. They felt the old communists had really been cynics all along. Various state enterprises were fighting economic reform because they were trying to maintain their market share in the face of Western competition. But, I felt I knew better, perhaps better than my colleagues in Moscow and St. Petersburg, because I had more direct contact with Russians, out in the provinces. The old system died hard in the minds of the people. The socialistic mentality had not changed.
I saw a split among the elites. The newly appointed “reform” governors, put in office by Yeltsin, had the right feelings about capitalism and democracy, mixed with some concerns for maintaining some sort of social net. But, they ran up against the local military and security chiefs, former Communist Party district and regional officials, major newspaper editors, local legislative leaders, and state factory and enterprise directors. Yeltsin and reform were surprisingly supported by a majority of average citizens in the big cities, including factory workers, bureaucrats, enlisted ranks, fishermen, etc. But, they were up against the old power structure working behind the scenes to block any reforms towards a market economy, those who were still communists and fighting Yeltsin. The rural areas were more conservative.
This was not open revolt, except for one attempt in Moscow, but they were putting the brakes on legally, using their influence in state parliaments, city councils, associations of factory directors, and so forth. The Director of the Lenin Shipyards was a virtual Czar in Komsomolsk-na-Amur, a city of 500,000, and fought change there. The Dalzavod Ship Repair and Construction plant in Vladivostok, the largest defense factory in the Russian Far East, had similar influence and power. Only one of the nine defense plants in Vladivostok was moving quickly to privatize
The former governors (Communist Party First Secretaries) had been removed, but remained shadowy figures still running in the informal “old boy” networks consisting of former Komsomol youth leaders, the natural leaders, long ago identified for key roles, who now controlled the levers of power and employment in the regions.
I would see the former communist era governors, all powerful in their day, still mingling at state and city receptions, now as private citizens, standing in a close circle with the current deputy governors and district administrators, plus some key enterprise leaders in fishing, ports, defense industries, etc. Some of the deputy governors seemed to have local mafia connections. A lot had worked for the former communist governor and believed he might be back in control again in the near future. The former, communist era, governor in Vladivsotok was the “eminence grise” and I was his enemy. As a Western diplomat, I could never approach his group. They would turn their backs, or walk away. They were bitter, and the new reform governors had to fight to take them on.
When I arrived in Vladivostok in late 1991, the new reformist governor was in a losing battle with the local state legislature, which shared power with him. He was forced out after a year, and replaced by a mining company director who was willing to support Yeltsin, but slowed reforms. In Khabarovsk, the governor and state legislature were more openly communist and hard-line. The Governor was pragmatic, but had to move reforms very slowly in that conservative city, which was previously the bureaucratic and administrative center for the Soviet Far East region until 1991.
In Sakhalin, a very reform-minded governor made some changes, before being forced out and replaced by a communist mayor who pretended to be pragmatic. Reforms generally slid backward until the late Nineties, when a reformist deputy governor associated with the oil industry took over. In Magadan, the democratic-minded governor was supported by a number of local reformers, in a city influenced by the Gulag experience and proximity to Alaska. The state monopoly, the North East Gold Co., which controlled the town, was privatized and broken up, but future governors had to go slowly since the economy was hurting. In Kamchatka, the governor was hard line and reform never took off. Blagoveshchensk and Amur Province, like Sakhalin, was schizophrenic, with a healthy market oriented sector versus a Siberian old style group. Amur had China across the border, liberalizing, and they had Archer Daniels Midland, and for a while a democrat was elected, then removed later as times got tougher.
The strength of democratic governors depended on how well President Yeltsin was faring in Moscow against the hard liners, Zyugannov, Khasbulatov, Rutskoy, etc. Despite the setbacks to reform and democracy, the system did reform itself from below, with small entrepreneurs gradually taking over more of the economy and obtaining slightly more latitude. Reform did not come from above, except for the fact that Yeltsin represented the state official ideology, despite his weakness in securing necessary legislation on taxes, ownership, investment laws, banking, etc.
Ultimately, the hard-liners and those sitting on the fence saw the people wanted a more Western-style government and economy despite the hardships. That is what carried the day in Moscow and the provinces. That is why the tanks did not run over Yeltsin in 1991, and why the military and KGB did not intervene in 1993. Each year, as Westerners poured in and Russia joined the world, the generals and admirals saw more clearly how bankrupt the old communist system had been both spiritually and economically. They had begun to shed the old Soviet lenses of class struggle, and began to recognize the world as it really was. They began to want it for their kids.
I was never sympathetic with the hard-line communists, even the older people. I had seen too much of the worst aspects of totalitarianism as it had been manifested in practice in Nazi Germany and communist Russia.
The Holocaust, a Nazi rather than Soviet crime, was one manifestation of totalitarianism. Near the end of my tour in Minsk, I was invited by my friend Marty, the Brooklyn-born Israeli Ambassador in Belarus, to attend a ceremony at a downtown theater hosted by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, to honor a Belarusan lady who had sheltered a Jewish girl during the Holocaust. The honoree was an eighty-five year old Belorussian grandmother, a typical “babushka,” wearing peasant clothes and with a scarf tied over her head. She was given a plaque and had a tree planted in her name in the row of the “righteous” at Yad Vashem.
The Israel officials present, having flown in from Jerusalem, read her plaque stating the relevant facts. In 1942, the righteous woman, a non Jew, had been handed an infant Jewish girl by the child’s mother in their village when the German SS arrived in their small village and were hauling away all the Jews. The mother of the child was taken away and never seen again. The Belorussian lady being honored had taken the child, and had hidden it in her house, even from her neighbors, fearing all the time that the baby’s cries would give her away, leading someone to tell the authorities who would then execute both her and the baby.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the infant Jewish girl, who had been saved and reunited after the war with relatives, now in her early 60s, came up on the stage and hugged the elderly woman who had hid her for two years. The elderly woman being honored came forward, embarrassed by the fanfare, saying in Russian that she only did what any woman would have done in that situation. Marty looked over at me, knowingly.
On another occasion, he and I had traveled as part of the diplomatic corps in Minsk to a killing site in northwest Belarus, in order to honor victims of the Holocaust. The visit, organized by the Belarusan government, included visiting delegates from four European nations. We were taken to a hillside clearing in the forest, near a small village of about 50 wooden houses, where Jews from the village were shot. I was at first surprised that the killings took place within sight of the village, probably three hundred yards away, meaning the locals had to have seen what was happening.
The second surprising thing I learned that day was that a group of Italian soldiers, who were allies of Germany at the time, refused to do any shooting, and some of them were allegedly killed for not following orders. It is a matter of pride for the Italian government, which is why the Italian Ambassador always comes along, that their soldiers risked death and were in fact shot because they refused to go along with the massacre.
The European delegates included a middle aged French woman and an elderly Belorussian man, who were two of the survivors. These two, along with a third man, made a run for it and escaped into the woods. They made it to the partisans in the forest, but one of the men had not been believed and had been shot by the partisans.
On another occasion, I went with my boss, Ambassador Speckhard, to Grodno, a city on the Polish-Belarus border, where we met with the sole Jewish survivor of the Holocaust from that town. This man, twenty years old then, told us over coffee about how he jumped from a train carrying all 2000 of Grodno’s Jews to the Treblinka death camp in the Ukraine. He later did some research, and learned he was the only person on that train who escaped death. The others on the train were marched directly from the railhead to the gas chambers. On a separate visit to Vilnius Lithuania, I saw the streetcar stop downtown where the Jews had to assemble on orders of the German occupiers, from which they were taken outside of town to Ponary Forest and shot.
Then, there were the Soviet crimes, Stalin’s crimes. Outside Minsk in the Kuropaty Forest are the buried remains of perhaps 150.000 victims of Soviet purges. It appears that a lot of Baltic and Polish soldiers and intelligentsia were rounded up by the Red Army and NKVD in World War II, and taken to the forest where they were shot.
Near Smolensk Russia on the Belarus border is Katyn Forest, where up to four thousand Polish POW officers were shot by the Russian NKVD in 1940, a crime the Soviets tried to pin it on the Nazis.
There are Stalin’s 1936-38 purges. In addition to the killing fields in the Kuropaty forest outside Minsk, I saw a similar site where 30,000 victims of the Stalin’s terror were buried outside Khabarovsk Russia near the city cemetery. A “Memorial” plaque marks the site. I saw the building in Minsk, now the Army Navy Club, where convicted enemies of the state were reportedly shot in 1938. In Vladivostok, it was the basement of the NKVD Headquarters building downtown, now the Far Eastern State University Law School. In Magadan, it was a small concrete blockhouse with no windows just outside the grounds of the Intourist hotel. In Vilnius, Lithuania, it was the KGB Headquarters Building, now a museum, whose basement was a prison with isolation cells, water cells, etc. The inner courtyard was the execution site for political prisoners. There was a tennis court size area with a cement wall on one side where the condemned where shot within eyesight of prisoner’s windows. Prisoners were also shot In the arched driveway leading into the prison. Truck motors were revved up to muffle the sound of the shots.
I also saw a killing site in Minsk from an earlier period when the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, academics, and priests were eliminated shortly after the 1917 revolution and during the Russian Civil War on Lenin’s orders. This site in question is now the Interior Ministry hospital in downtown Minsk, primarily a geriatric hospital for retired MVD police officers. The grounds around the hospital are surrounded by a cement fence, and include a radio tower.
I also encountered the disbanded camps from the notorious “Gulag” prison system that we read about in Solzhenitsyn. I visited one camp outside of Magadan, where prisoners had been marched from the trains over the ice to the bay where the camp was located. All that was left was some low, grass roofed dilapidated barracks, some guard towers and barbed wire fences. I also saw the notorious Gulag Transit station in Vladivostok, although no one ever showed it to me or spoke of it during my three years in Vladivostok. I recognized it from photographs of similar Gulag transit buildings on the rail lines in my studies. The dissident poet Osip Mandelstam died in this one.
This was all part of the terrible milieu that I visited in the dark forest. Most of these things I learned from Russian contacts, who were local businessmen or democrats, and who whispered to me what to look for in a particular building as we drove past. It recalled my trips with taxi drivers in Moscow in 1980, when we would drive through Manenge Square, passing the Lubyianka KGB Headquarters Building, where so many were executed. I would casually, as a tourist, ask the driver what building that was. All would profess not to know what building that was. Of course, I never let them off the hook.