Books: Cultural Amnesia — Grigory Ordzhonokidze |
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Grigory Konstantovich Ordzhonokidze (1886–1937) is sometimes given retroactive credit because he died mysteriously during Stalin’s terror campaign in the late 1930s, and therefore might have been some sort of proto-liberal who, despite his curriculum vitae as an Old Bolshevik, had been secretly at odds all along with the course towards absolutism. There can be no doubt that in the year of his “suicide” he protested directly to Stalin about the free hand given to the NKVD, and it seems probable that in the mid-1930s he had more than once expressed doubts about Stalin’s excesses: a sign of independence which certainly spoke for his bravery, and might well have ensured the subsequent mysterious death all on its own. But his earlier record was of a factotum thoroughly implicated in repressive measures that neither he nor other grandees of his rank thought excessive at the time. Indeed he wasn’t just implicated in those measures: in many cases he planned them. One of the few non-Russians ever to serve in Stalin’s government, he was born in Georgia, joined the Bolsheviks in 1908, and during the Civil War was instrumental in bringing the Caucasus under Soviet control, with appropriately firm methods of persuasion. Moving to the economic sphere, in the 1920s and early 1930s he led the forced march to industrialization, with an impact on the civilian populace that would have looked excessive enough if he had not been so confident about acting as one of the instruments of history. If he did indeed become a member of the “moderate bloc” that some historians would like to think made an attempt to rein Stalin in, his motives for joining it would have had to be the result of considering some of his own past actions, about which he was on record as being unrepentant, if not untroubled. From our position now, at a safe distance from the ideal State which at one point he was proud of having helped to build, we can see that his true historical role was to provide us with a standing joke. He really did believe, and really did say, that the people who inflicted the suffering suffered most.

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Our cadres who knew the situation of 1932–1933 and who bore the blow are truly tempered like steel. I think that with them we can build a State the like of which the world has never seen.

NATURALLY ENOUGH, this immortal statement was first made in Russian, and had to be translated into French for its appearance in Le Livre noir du communisme in 1997. Further translated into English, it needs more translation yet: into its true sense. When Ordzhonokidze talked about the cadres who “bore the blow,” we need to know that the blow they bore was the supposed necessity to inflict injustice, not to suffer it. (They had been inflicting it since Lenin decreed that the Party would have to rule by terror.) In other words, we are being asked to sympathize with the butchers, not the victims. As Primo Levi was to warn the world after the Holocaust, it will always be in the interests of the perpetrators, after a great crime is identified, to say that they, too, were helplessly caught up in it, and also suffered. But Ordzhonokidze was saying more that that. He was saying that the perpetrators were the true victims.

In the period 1932–1933 Stalin staged the first of his great massacres: the immense disaster comprising the collectivization of agriculture, the liquidation of the kulaks, and famine exploited as a social weapon. His second great massacre was still ahead: the Yezhovchina, the comprehensive terror of which the 1938 show trials were merely the small component that the world heard about. But the two-year jamboree of repression euphemistically cited in Ordzhonokidze’s grotesque letter was bad enough. The upper-echelon officials, many of them the very same Old Bolsheviks who later on would be eliminated almost to a man by the bureaucrat they had foolishly allowed to inherit Lenin’s keys of office, had faithfully carried out their orders to mow down the innocent. Anyone who had qualms did not allow them to affect his trigger finger. Ordzhonokidze should really be talking about the ruined lives of hundreds of thousands of blameless citizens. But the only suffering that interests him is the supposed wear and tear on the nerves of those deputed to carry out the destruction. By implication he includes himself and Kirov among their number: a brotherhood of martyrdom. This brand of sentimental fellow-feeling is not uncommon among mass murderers and presumably helps to sustain them in their shared memories. One of the Einsatzgruppen chiefs, Paul Blobel—the distinguished leader of Einsatzkommando 4A—said after the war that the liquidators were the real unfortunates. “The nervous strain was far heavier in the case of our men who carried out the executions than in that of their victims.” (Quoted, along with much other similarly noxious testimony from the hard-done-by, on page 364 of Heinz Höhne’s The Order of the Death’s Head. Not a book for the beach.)

It is not recorded that Kirov declined the honour of being addressed as one who summoned up his bravery for the challenging task of making war on the defenceless. Because Kirov was later murdered in his turn (in 1934, the year the letter was written) we tend to forget that his own record as a murderer was exemplary, with the White Sea Canal—which efficiently depleted the number of those prisoners who built it but was never dug deep enough to float a ship—as his masterpiece. But the fact might be remembered when the Kirov ballet company next comes on tour to a theatre near you. Petersburg is no longer called Leningrad, but the Maryinsky company, when on tour outside Russia, is still called the Kirov, presumably on the assumption that the ballet audience abroad remains clueless enough to believe that Kirov had once had some sort of background in the fine arts, like Sir Kenneth Clark or Sir Jeremy Isaacs. Kirov’s background was one of unrestricted power and the extermination of blameless human beings. A measure of our slowness to face up to the real history of the Soviet Union is that the expression “Kirov Ballet” does not strike us as obscene. The expression “Himmler Youth Orchestra” would. So, to be fair, would “Pol Pot Academy of Creative Writing” or even “Madame Mao School of Calligraphy.” The subsidiary Communist regimes have been stripped of their prestige: acquired late, it was quick to go, and it would be an uncommonly servile Western ideologue who still said, or even thought, “hands off democratic Kampuchea.” But the Soviet Union, an earlier and more massive event even than Communist China, has retained its legitimacy, at any rate to the extent that some of its historical figures are still granted a stature that was always ludicrously at odds with their true significance. The regrettable tendency of intellectuals to worship power is exemplified by their readiness to attribute dignity to men who could prove their seriousness about politics only by slaughtering anyone who might disagree with them, as if ruthless nihilism were a testimonial to dedication, and an utter lack of mercy a mark of strength: if you can’t stand the blood, get out of the abattoir.

Few among the intellectuals of the civilized world ever made a comparable investment in the future of Nazi Germany, so they had no trouble condemning it even before it fell, and showed no reluctance to analyse its workings. As a result, we are well acquainted with the retroactive soul-searchings of Nazi functionaries who were obliged by circumstances—circumstances beyond their control, according to them—to list mass murder on their curriculum vitae. Whereas we tend, erroneously, to think of the Soviet Union’s Ordzhonokidzes and Kirovs as rare birds, we know that for the Nazis an upstanding blockhead like Gustav Franz Wagner was standard issue. As second in command under Franz Stangl, Wagner was the man in charge of the day-to-day business of the extermination camp at Sobibór. The place was supposed to be a bad dream but Wagner made sure that it was even worse than it needed to be. Rather distinguished in his personal appearance, he had a talent for supererogatory sadism that made the few survivors of his hellhole grateful for the relative humanity of those among his myrmidons who were content to devote themselves to mere murder instead of prolonged torture. Interviewed on film in his old age, he was full of the difficulties of the “hard task.” Such language echoed Himmler’s with the cold precision of a pistol shot in a brick-built barracks. Himmler was always telling his lovingly nurtured young SS officers how hard it would be for them to overcome their natural compassion. He had the same grim news for senior members of the party. At the October 1943 Posen conference (the one where Albert Speer was present according to eyewitnesses but absent according to himself) Himmler wrung all hearts by painting a picture of how the high-ranking party officials sitting to attention in front of him would have to put their civilized German values into abeyance while they continued to face the seemingly endless challenge of obliterating the sub-humans infesting Europe. “The hard decision had to be taken to have this people disappear from the face of the earth.” Touring an alfresco prisoner-of-war pen near Kiev, Himmler demonstrated his own fragility by fainting dead away when he was accidentally confronted with real blood instead of a statistic. But he nerved himself to the job. He made the sacrifice. He bore the blow.

In both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the class of professional exterminators divided fairly neatly into homicidal perverts who couldn’t get enough and routinely squeamish placemen who had to get used to it. The second category necessarily outnumbered the first by a long way: under both regimes, there was a large reservoir of men and women who were not much more insane than us but who, in extreme circumstances, could be talked into, or could talk themselves into, extreme behaviour. In that respect the regimes were mirror images of each other. When the long reluctance of the world’s intellectuals to admit this disturbing fact was at last overcome—and until the collapse of the Soviet Union the admission never looked like happening—the pendulum swung the other way. The first and loudest voice of the Historikerstreit, the acrid verbal battle between German historians that broke out in 1986, Ernst Nolte was only the most conspicuous example of a scholar who wanted to argue that the Communist ideology had brought the fascist ideologies into being, by a process more like cloning than parturition. On the whole, however, we have gained from the two great streams of unreason being seen in parallel: a full body count has at least had the merit of depriving apologists for the left (necessarily the more eloquent, because nobody except a psychopath ever apologized for the right) of the opportunity to excuse communism by saying Nazism was quantitatively worse.

But the drawback of bringing the two main ideologies closer together has been to encourage the assumption that a system of belief can explain the killing. Such an assumption springs from the familiar tendency—and in some ways it is a commendable one—to invoke a complex mental preparation for an elementary human act. The absurdity becomes manifest in the political sphere when its proponent, as he must, finds himself trying to establish similarities between the mental processes of a sophisticated intellectual like G. Y. Zinoviev and a lumbering maniac like Saddam Hussein. Zinoviev said—and therefore, presumably, thought—that the Revolution should wipe out innocent people as a matter of course. Saddam Hussein seems to have believed something similar. But really it doesn’t matter what such different men believe, or think they believe. What matters is that they behave the same way, hence allowing us to deduce that what really interests them is unchallenged power, for which the necessity to commit murder is seen as a small price.

Here one ought to put the best possible construction on things and assume that most of the desk-bound mass murderers arrive at such a solution only in answer to problems clogging the in tray. In harsh actuality, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of the great killers became political figures in the first place for no other purpose except to wipe out their fellow human beings when they got the chance. Like Stalin, if with a touch more charm, Lenin was always vicious: a fact which, for more than seventy years, was the very last to be admitted by the international left intelligentsia even though men who had known him personally, and believed in his cause, had said so from the earliest days of the regime—even though Lenin himself had said that the regime must rule by terror. But as always, the psychotic cases are morally less edifying than the apparently normal ones. Ho Chi Minh is a more instructive exponent of state terror than Pol Pot because Ho could rein himself in: leaving aside the routine massacres through which he established himself in unchallenged power, he didn’t start the class war against his bourgeoisie while the military battle remained unwon. But after his death, with the battle decided, his successors resumed the business of class war in accordance with his known wishes. Pol Pot dismantled his own victory straight away by killing everyone whose help he needed: probably because he needed their help, and found the dependency an unbearable challenge to his endlessly spiteful ego. From that angle, perhaps the most instructive example of all was Mao Zedong. The great leader began as some sort of anarchist who eschewed violence in the belief that reform could be achieved by example and persuasion. When he decided otherwise, he began killing people in large numbers. Eventually the numbers grew so large that they outran imagination. It wasn’t even enough for them to be innocent: they had to believe what he believed, and thus be guilty of no other crime except the crime of not being him. It wasn’t even enough for them to die: they had to die in agony, and the climate of fear worked best if they could be induced to inflict the agony on each other. In my ideal university, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Philip Short’s Mao would both be on the course, but there would be a danger of making the young student despair of life. Even at my age, the story of modern China can make me wonder if my life was worth living.

But there was good news. After Mao’s death, somebody put the brakes on. Those blandly smiling Chinese authorities who wonder aloud why Western liberals are so concerned with the Tienanmen Square incident of June 1989 are not quite so cynical as they seem. By Mao’s grandiose standards, an atrocity on so diffident a scale—the dead scarcely added up to a village, and Mao was accustomed to obliterating people by whole cities at a time—was truly less than nothing. No doubt any of us exposed to even half an hour of life in a present-day Chinese re-education camp would emerge gibbering if we emerged at all, but the truly orgiastic frenzy of torture and killing that went on under Mao seems by now to be a thing of the past. The juggernaut looked unstoppable, but it was stopped. The only possible conclusion is that someone knew which levers to pull, and wanted to pull them. The great mystery of the socialist totalitarian regimes has been not how they grew into killing machines—in retrospect, nothing seems more logical—but how the machines were put into reverse. When Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, it was remarkable enough. More remarkable still was that Khrushchev came to think that way, having started out as a standover man of impeccably murderous credentials. He still didn’t think that way entirely, as the Hungarians found out later the same year, but he was a different man from the Khrushchev who had carried out Stalin’s bidding in the Ukraine: a “task” which necessarily included extermination on an epic scale.

Khrushchev began his career as an apparatchik capable of any crime the state ordered. But when the time came and he saw the glimmer of a chance, he didn’t want to live that way any longer. Nor did Brezhnev. In contrast to Khrushchev, who was bright for a thug, Brezhnev was a dim bulb, but once safe in his appointment he could have done something to steer the Politburo back towards the cult of personality if he had really wanted to. Instead, he resolutely submitted to the restrictions of “collective leadership”—the only term or phrase in his pitiably mendacious official biography that means exactly what it says. Khrushchev and Brezhnev, with their sordid background in the classic massacres, are even more instructive exemplars than Andropov, the man who changed everything. Andropov could never have changed everything had not his immediate predecessors first changed something. For him it was comparatively easy: no doubt he had signed the orders for a few hundred young hotheads to be given the treatment in the psychiatric hospitals, and he had certainly been active in the re-education of the Czechs in 1968; but in his deeper past there were no stretches of permafrost or pine forest with thousands of bodies under them. It was easy for him to print off a special edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four and make his bright young officers read it. He wasn’t going to get into trouble with the KGB. He was the KGB. The real breakthrough was further back, when the first mass killers got tired of killing. Against all the odds, it happened. When you think of the blood on their gloves, it doesn’t seem much of a comfort: but if you want to live in hope, you have to deal with some very raw material. And if you want to see an end to the kind of “State the like of which the world has never seen,” you have to accept that for some people there is nothing more habitual than to do their worst, and that the sole function your fine opinions might perform, and always at a tangent, is to affect those people at the moment when they begin to wonder whether being ordered to torment their fellow human beings might not indeed be a blow, and scarcely to be borne any longer.