BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
INSIDE THE STALIN ARCHIVES: Discovering the New Russia, by Jonathan Brent
, October 3, 2009
The struggle against forgetting
INSIDE THE STALIN ARCHIVES:
Discovering the New Russia
by Jonathan Brent
(New York: Atlas & Co. / Melbourne: Scribe)
Paperback: 352 pages
Rec. price: AUD$29.95
Reviewed by Bill James
As the title indicates, this book is about the USSR under Stalin, and a project to locate and publish long inaccessible primary sources essential to the study of that era.
However the subtitle, Discovering the New Russia, signals Jonathan Brent's ambition to use his document-stalking experiences over nearly 20 years to reflect on how the residual Russian rump of the Soviet Union has coped since 1991 with the collapse of communism.
Dean Acheson once said, "Great Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role", and Brent presents a Russia confused, resentful and susceptible to quasi-fascist nationalism, as it broods over its loss of imperial glory and great power pretensions.
Brent's mixture of Soviet history, Stalinist biography, Byzantine (or Kafkaesque) negotiations with the archival bureaucracy, and the kitchen-sink (literally) minutiae of everyday Russian life, makes for an untidy book which lacks topical focus and organisation, but is unfailingly moving, compassionate and enlightening.
At one level, it is the story of the editorial director of the Yale University Press accumulating papers, and meditating on their historical significance.
At another, it is a story of hungry, underpaid, educated, middle-class Russians living in shabby flats in huge, bleak, vandalised housing projects.
Lifts and stoves and hot water systems don't work, banks can't be trusted, and the only customers patronising the new Western shops selling obscenely priced luxuries, or the night-clubs exhibiting live sex, are oligarchs or mafioso with limousines and bodyguards.
Motorists turn off their engines at red lights to save fuel, and desperate street-stall vendors offer junk for sale, down to, and including, used toothbrushes.
Bored young soldiers with sub-machine guns "guard" government offices such as archives, and security cameras are placed by authorities in restaurants to monitor diners, not to deter criminals.
Stalin's hatred of Jews (such as his concocted "Doctors' Plot") hangs around like a bad smell. News-stands carry a variety of antisemitic papers; The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still published and believed; souvenir chocolate boxes carry nostalgic, retro cartoons reminiscent of Der Stuermer; and a circus features dancing monkeys dressed in Jewish side-curls and yarmulkas.
As one of Brent's interlocutors put it, Stalin might have died over half a century ago, but his legacy remains: "secrecy, illegitimacy, conspiracy, concentration of power in the hands of the few, violence as a legitimate exercise of political power".
Since 1991, more journalists have been murdered in Russia than in any other country.
Russia never had a Nuremberg experience to expose and deal with its criminal past. This has resulted in a widespread denial of Stalin's crimes in Russia which, as Brent points out, is analogous to Holocaust denial in the West.
Yale University Press's Annals of Communism, it was hoped, would eventually contribute to the eradication of such toxic myths.
While nervous Russian authorities have since begun to reclassify and restrict embarrassing documents, the halcyon days of the nineties resulted in the publication of a number of volumes of hitherto suppressed material, and the archives which are still open to research remain huge.
Time and again the documents provide evidence for Soviet espionage, subversion and duplicity which were well-known, but for which there was no smoking gun.
Some, for example, further vindicate Whittaker Chambers's case against US State Department official Alger Hiss.
Jonathan Brent is particularly excited that Stalin's personal archive has been made available.
He describes the moment when an archivist hands him an account of a report to Beria by the head of the MGB, which details Stalin's instructions - his very words - to torture confessions out of the Jews who were to be prosecuted in show trials over the so-called "Doctors' Plot".
He also describes going through Stalin's library, noting the absence of anything frivolous (detective stories, Westerns, pornography), and inducing, from his underlinings and marginal notes in Lenin's works, Stalin's essential impersonality (if it is possible to discover a non-existant!).
The figure which emerges is an ideological cipher, aware that he is merely a cog in the great machine of history, but paradoxically determined to carry out the role predetermined for him by forces beyond his control, with all the ruthlessness and amorality he can muster.
The passages he marks in his books are all about destruction, violence, struggle, hardness, correctness, power and strength. They all concern systems, not people or human feelings - after, all, this is the man who used to describe gratitude as "dog's disease".
There are references to Lenin, Molotov, Ehrenberg, Wallenberg, Vyshinsky, Yezhov, Zhdanov, Kirov, Babel and Voronsky, but also to obscure and heroic archivists who preserved the truth over decades with the faith that magna est veritas et praevalebit ("Truth is mighty, and will prevail").
Well, as regards the USSR, it is prevailing, thanks in large part to the project which Jonathan Brent initiated.
Anyone at all interested in Stalinism, its fall and its lingering influence in Russia, should buy and read this book.