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Looking back in anger

It’s been twenty years since my firm belief in a better way of life was vindicated. 17th November was the beginning of the end of an era shaped by collectivism, brutality and industrialised inhumanity. I have written about my experiences of communism on Samizdata before. Today I’ll use someone else’s words to describe the wasteland communism leaves behind.

In 1992, Peter Saint-Andre has written a disturbing, brilliant and accurate description of what communism does to the soul:

…the hunger that I found most disturbing was not of the body but of the soul. [...] The socialist state cared nothing for the life of the individual, and this was driven home in innumerable ways.

Yet the overall effect was not merely physical — it was a deeply spiritual degradation. It is difficult to put that degradation into words. To me, the most striking sign of it was what I called “Eastern eyes”. I could see and feel the resignation, the defeat, the despair, in the eyes of people I knew. It was an all-too-rare occurrence to come upon a person with some spark of life in his or her eyes (the only exceptions were the children, who had yet to have the life beaten out of them). If it is true that the eyes are windows onto the soul, then the Czech soul under socialism went through life all but dead.

It is tough for me to come up with something to say 20 years on that is not tinged with bitterness and disappointment and if not for the significant anniversary, I would have left this memory unturned. Despite the amazing change 1989 and its aftermath brought to my life I feel no closure over the past and a sense of proportion in the way the fall of communism has been ‘handled’. Today we should be looking back at the last 20 years counting the many communists who died in prison or are still rotting there… I can only hope that future generations will revisit the past and will have far lower tolerance of collectivism and totalitarianism. It may be a futile hope as today’s teenagers have little knowledge of the world my generation grew up and my parents lived in. And so I am bitter and disappointed that people can say the word “communism” without spitting. I am also bitter and disappointed because those who opposed communism have not won. It is still with us, in the idiotic juxtapositions of Nazism and communism, or socialism and free-market, used by those who aspire to communism and justify it by positing Nazism as the greater evil. It still raises its ugly head in those who despise free-markets and attempt to put a human mask on socialism by pointing out ‘failures’ of capitalism. Rather hard as socialism, like all totalitarianisms, has no face. It is the ultimate denigration of humanity, destruction of individuality, and subjugation of human beings to the vast merciless machine of control and power.

Communism is still with us in China and North Korea. One befriended by the West, the other frowned upon… but neither is ever challenged because of the oppression of its people, and only when it manages to ‘inconvenience’ the rest of the world. Once it falls, it will be horrifying and beyond belief to examine the monstrosities committed by the communists in the light of day. Again, I can only hope that the world will be shamed and aghast at letting this happen for so long. Until then, we only have testimonials such as this: Undercover in the Secret State

I am grateful to those who remember, struggle to understand and explain communism, and especially to those who have managed to capture something of the nature of the beast. Here are the ones I found. Please feel free to share yours.

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression – the reference book of the communist evil with a tag line “Revolutions, like trees, must be judged by their fruit”

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

The Lives Of Others captures the paranoia and danger of an Orwellian world where everyone is monitored and, unusually for such world, shows impact of the individual as making a difference. Here is my review.

Burnt By The Sun (Unaveni slnkom) from a sunny day to Stalin’s terror… One of the most powerful films I have seen for a long time. Possibly ever.

No End (Bez konca) – a complex, subtle and haunting film set in Poland 1981.

Repentance (Pokayanie) – for the more surreal amongst us. The first ‘anti-stalinism’ film I have ever seen and will never forget. I remember sitting through the entire credits at the end, stunned and shaken. For context, this was screened in Czecho-Slovakia, publicly, in a cinema in 1987!

The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s – from the book review:

It is impossible, of course, to undo the tyrant’s crimes. But one of the tasks writers have set themselves, in the last 50 years, is at least to preserve the memory of the dead, and so to resist the tyrant’s historical arrogance.

The book’s opening paragraph makes the history come the full circle, back to the suffering of the individual:

The dead cannot speak. Can one retrieve their voices? Death under I.V. Stalin, the ruler of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1953, has been written about but the dead themselves remain elusive because their voices have been lost to us. The present book is an attempt to recover the voices of those executed under Stalin.

17 comments to Looking back in anger

  • tdb

    Adriana Lukas, as a member of my generation, let me apologize on their behalf. It may be of cold comfort, but I intend to be a voice that will speak for individualism, capitalism, an open society, civil liberties, and against any who oppose these goals.

    I will not claim to be morally perfect, as for a time earlier this year I was tempted by the call for single-payer health care. Whether by reason or simple force of habit, I have returned to my libertarian ways. Your suffering will not be in vain.

    Stay strong. The future is still bright; but it belongs to those still willing to get their hands dirty. Even in today’s world, there is still much worth celebrating; instant victory will not come, but history and reality is on our side; we may lose battles, but we will not lose the war.

  • John B

    Communism (or whatever guise that spirit will take next) is making a comeback because the demons that caused it to ride in the first place were never put to rest. They were never dealt with. It was pushed back for a while to the extent that it was, but now it is howling through the ‘free’ world because we never understood the nature of the beast that gave rise to it.
    The inspiration that caused it to falter in 197+ / 1980 was not recognised either and was soon obfuscated and obliterated. The means of its obfuscation can be seen in the pride of man’s perceived self-sufficiency wisdom. The same pride that gives rise to ANY religiosity rather than a hunger for the truth.

  • veryretired

    I cannot imagine the stultifying, ennervating, and terrifying reality into which you, and so many, many others were born. Indeed, there are uncounted millions being born into variations of the same theme even now.

    I don’t recall clearly when I realized that I, and my fellow citizens in the US, had drawn our first breaths in an atmosphere startlingly and qualitatively different than the vast majority of others being born around the world.

    I imagine it dawned on me slowly as I learned of the great wars we had just fought in the decades before my birth, and the “long, twilight struggle” we were engaged in as I grew up.

    It seems to me that the collectivist impulse is a very ancient and powerful drive, an appetite as deep in the reptilian brain as hunger or sex. I often think of the nature films I have seen of various species in which the males preen and prance, posture and bluster, fight and fight and fight, until the loser limps away, and the victor claims his prize.

    Why, then, the deadly viciousness of human hierarchical struggles? Perhaps because, in other species, the order of status and dominence is usually one on one, the loser knows he has lost, the winner only has to worry about new challenges, not anything further from those already vanquished.

    Other species can’t plan and conspire, can’t share grievances and commiserate, can’t plot revenge and future treachery.

    Why does the collectivist urge refuse to die, even after an entire century of monstrous examples of its deadly and destructive consequences, all caught on film, well documented, the subject of numerous histories and personal narratives, all testifying to the disaster that results when the individual is crushed bneath the weight of the total state?

    I’m afraid that the need to dominate and control others is a visceral, primeval hunger as relentless as envy, jealousy, hunger, and physical desire.

    The reasoned arguments as put forward in the philosophies which undergird individual rights, the constitutionally limited state, and the concepts of freedom of thought and expression are so new, so little understood, and so deeply revolutionary that, even as we who have lived within their influence find them unremarkable and obvious, the great mass of humanity still finds them strange and threatening.

    Perhaps there will come a day when humans have evolved beyond some of these destructive urges. I certainly hope so.

    Until then, those of us who are in posession of the pearl of great price, either as our birthright, or as a distant treasure sought at great peril, and with great effort, must be willing to defend this valuable heritage at every opportunity, from every challenge, in any context.

    We must constantly rediscover in ourselves, and encourage and nourish in others, the courage necessary to deserve the great treasure that has been placed in our hands, and the determination to pass that inheritence on to our children, and our children’s children.

    What other committment could ever equal the satisfaction, and return the rewards, of upholding the liberty of men and women to live as truly human beings, independent in mind and heart, with souls unburdened by the tyranny of small, twisted, primitive beings?

    Repression and tyranny are the responses of fearful ceatures who are threatened by anything, and anyone, they can’t control.

    My childrens’ childens’ children will walk among the stars seeking knowledge, confronting endless challenges, advancing humanity further and further along in its understanding of reality across all the barriers of time and space.

    Such a vision is, for an old scifi fan such as myself, infinitely more attractive than some grubby utopia here on earth, built on the broken lives of innumerable victims, and run by vicious non-entities whose only claims to fame are their ruthlessness, and lack of concern for anything but their ambitions to control the lives of everyone around them.

    I have gone on too long, as usual. Take heart, Adriana. You are not alone, and there are friends and allies uncounted who will stand with you.

    The great statist was right about one thing. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

  • Dear Adriana,

    Please may I publish that in full on The Libertarian Alliance Blog as an essay – (under your byline of course and linked to here)?

    You are absolutely correct on this one, in every detail.

  • Samizdata published is under creative commons unless stated otherwise, David.

  • kim

    Great post. it is your and people like you whose job it is to keep these stories, opinions and first hand accounts alive and to educate as many as you can.

    We are in the most dangerous place the world has been in a long time, IMO.

  • As someone who has studied Russian and Czech language, culture, history, and politics, I share your feelings on this anniversary.

    Thank you for sharing your story and thoughts. Reposted here: http://vocalminority.typepad.com/blog/2009/11/20th-anniversary-of-the-czechoslovak-velvet-revolution.html(Link)

  • Off my shelves in the past year: “Stalin And His Hangmen”, Donald Rayfield, 2004, and “Mao”, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, 2005.

    The “Black Book” is essential. As usual: there is no way around Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”. Conquest: “The Great Terror” and “Harvest Of Sorrow”. Bullock: HItler And Stalin: Parallel Lives”.

    You’re the only one that I’ve seen hit this theme, Adriana. I definitely wasn’t up for all the cheering about The Wall last week, looking around at all the fucking commies getting all set to eat me alive here in America.

    Has anyone beaten Francis Fukyama’s ass raggedy, yet? The goddamned fool.

  • Paul Marks

    A very good post Adriana.

    Thank you for writing it, and sharing it with the world.

  • I cannot imagine the stultifying, ennervating, and terrifying reality into which you, and so many, many others were born

    VR, re ‘terrifying’, here’s what I think is a crucial point: at least by the time I was born into it (1960) there was no fear.

    A few years ago I was arguing with some good people in the blogosphere against the very point Adriana makes. I grew up thinking that the Nazis were the scariest people that ever walked the earth – and that was even before I knew about the Holocaust and the fact that the Nazis were especially scary for Jews.

    Sure, I heard of people in the 30s having been dragged out of their beds to never be seen again for being “enemies of the state” (my grandfather was one of them, even though he was a wide-eyed idealistic communist). But I figured, at least it was for something you did or said, not for the genes you were born with.

    And, like I said, by the time I was able to think a little (very little), it was all ancient history (30 years). So life was not terrifying, it was…well, something very important was missing (beyond material things like jeans, Beatles records and chewing gum – or a refrigerator, for that matter, although we kind of wondered about those as well), and for years I just couldn’t put a finger on what it was.

    My point is that it is not so much the fear that we all have to, well, fear right now, but the hopelessness and the lifelessness Peter Saint-Andre describes so accurately, and that we just might expect if things continue going the way they have been for the past decade or two.

    He says: the only exceptions were the children, who had yet to have the life beaten out of them. I was 14 when I was taken out of there, and nothing has been beaten out of me yet, but I can tell you that I have definitely felt it: as a child, you need horizons to look to, so to speak, and I vividly remember there being no horizons. No fear at all, but nothing to look forward to. And this may be the scariest thing of all.

  • Oh, the darn bot is at it again. Let’s see if we can trick him here:

    I cannot imagine the stultifying, ennervating, and terrifying reality into which you, and so many, many others were born

    VR, re ‘terrifying’, here’s what I think is a crucial point: at least by the time I was born into it (1960) there was no fear. A few years ago I was arguing with some good people in the blogosphere against the very point Adriana makes. I grew up thinking that the N…s were the scariest people that ever walked the earth – and that was even before I knew about the H…….t and the fact that the N…s were especially scary for people of my ethnic persuasion. Sure, I heard of people in the 30s having been dragged out of their beds to never be seen again for being “enemies of the state” (my grandfather was one of them, even though he was a wide-eyed idealistic communist). But I figured, at least it was for something you did or said, not for the genes you were born with. And, like I said, by the time I was able to think a little (very little), it was all ancient history (30 years). So life was not terrifying, it was…well, something very important was missing (beyond material things like jeans, Beatles records and chewing gum – or a refrigerator, for that matter, although we kind of wondered about those as well), and for years I just couldn’t put a finger on what it was. My point is that it is not so much the fear that we all have to, well, fear right now, but the hopelessness and the lifelessness Peter Saint-Andre describes so accurately, and that we just might expect if things continue going the way they have been for the past decade or two. He says: the only exceptions were the children, who had yet to have the life beaten out of them. I was 14 when I was taken out of there, and nothing has been beaten out of me yet, but I can tell you that I have definitely felt it: as a child, you need horizons to look to, so to speak, and I vividly remember there being no horizons. No fear at all, but nothing to look forward to. And this may be the scariest thing of all.

  • permanentexpat

    The monstrous chameleon was never slain…and will not be…it is a ‘Formwandler’.
    It can be your MP, the woman who teaches your kids, the guy you always see in his car while driving to work, that sorry looking man sitting opposite you in the Tube, your jovial local magistrate, your next-door-neighbour’s wife.
    These are the ‘dragon’s teeth’…& they flourish.
    “The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance”

  • Wonderful post Adriana.

    As you know, I am not old enough to remember communism, but *know* what happened on the other side of the Curtain. I do my best to fight collectivism, but I find it increasingly more difficult.

    It seems like every day someone conceives a new, better, more “fair” way to better society through legislation and expansion of government. When I look at government, any government I see failure, and an inability or unwillingness to adapt. I understand the yearning to have the government take care of you, but I don’t understand why so many people fail to see the logical conclusion of that desire.

    I find political discussions with my the overwhelming majority of peers increasingly disheartening.

    Thanks again for the heartfelt post.

  • CFM

    A Croatian friend visited me here in California recently. While watching one of our Progressive politicians deliver a speech on the tube, he observed “all these things have been tried before.” He turned to me and asked “Are your people blind? Did they not see what happened to us ?”

    No. They did not. They are following the pied pipers of Equality and Social Justice off a cliff into another dark age. But this time, there will be no foreign advocate, no Ronnie and Maggie leading free and prosperous lands to face down the tyrants and offer liberty. This time, there will be nothing on the other side of the wall.

    The West needs the first hand testimony of you and people like you. Our children have been cheated of the knowledge of Liberty and tyranny by the educational establishment, by the popular culture, and yes, by our complacency. Time is short, and we must make clear to the young in the West just where current political trends are carrying them. We need to be really loud about it, too.

    Keep writing Adriana. You are a treasure.

  • Jacob

    An interesting, admiring, piece on Joseph Stalin, the original obituary published by The NY Times in 1953

    Nobody in the West really gets communism.

  • Arius

    I fear that there is now nothing to stop the slide of America into the National Socialist and dhimmitude endgame.

  • Arius

    I fear that there is now nothing to stop the slide of America into the National Socialist and dhimmitude endgame.