Documenting Evil: An Inconvenient History

Claire Berlinski has an intriguing piece in this issue of The City titled “A Hidden History of Evil: Why doesn’t anyone care about the unread Soviet archives?” Part research paper and part detective story, Berlinski traces the fate of the damning records of Soviet totalitarianism–an unappetising tale that does not turn rosy even with the advent of perestroika in the 1980s. A number of these documents have been physically and electronically smuggled out of Russia by researcher Pavel Stroilov and dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who are now trying to publish them for a western audience. But they have found scant enthusiasm among translators and the academic presses that you might think would have an interest in disseminating primary documentation. Why?

Berlinski suggests that the root of the problem is a basic academic affinity with the tenets of communism and I’m inclined to think she’s right. In perhaps the same impulse that leads many denizens of the ivory tower to sympathize with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, there is a tendency to view Soviet communism as a flawed but still valid experiment. For those who believe in the basic soundness of Marxism, the catastrophic failure of the Soviet Union is an inconvenient truth made more palatable by the assertion that it was brought about by external factors. The line seems to be that the Soviets were no better and worse than we–different, sure, but perhaps we could learn from them and we certainly are in no position to judge.

This never-never land of moral relativism is shattered by the kind of cold, hard documents Berlinski describes. A picture emerges of a creeping evil that threatened to engulf the west even as we were attempting a rapprochement with it. And yet the response is a collective yawn–perhaps a delicately raised eyebrow, a hint of impatience with this unseemly attempt to rake up bygones. Look away. There’s nothing to see here.

Unfortunately there is all too much to be seen–from the psychiatric “hospitals” to the hard-labor camps to the execution chambers–all of which added up to an utter disregard for human life and dignity that is at least on par with the depravities of Nazism. Berlinski writes:

We rightly insisted upon total denazification; we rightly excoriate those who now attempt to revive the Nazis’ ideology. But the world exhibits a perilous failure to acknowledge the monstrous history of Communism. These documents should be translated. They should be housed in a reputable library, properly cataloged, and carefully assessed by scholars. Above all, they should be well-known to a public that seems to have forgotten what the Soviet Union was really about. If they contain what Stroilov and Bukovsky say—and all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that they do—this is the obligation of anyone who gives a damn about history, foreign policy, and the scores of millions dead.

As uncomfortable as it may be for those who think it’s progressive to keep Mao’s Little Red Book on their bedside table or favor the radical chic of a Che t-shirt, we need to expose and acknowledge the reality of Soviet-style communism that has claimed so many tens of millions lives. A good place to start would be recognizing it for what it was, and understanding its history. To their credit, Yale University Press has published some related volumes of late, although they have not picked up the material in Berlinski’s article. Hopefully they will reconsider and publish the Stroilov and Bukovsky archives as well.

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