Thursday 20 February 2014

Week Four of Our Humanity Challenged: Communism

A single note of music could contain a greater intensity of feeling than pages of writing but it does not by itself excite in us the more terrible emotions of horror, rage etc.
—The Descent of Man
Charles Darwin

Revolutions are produced by men of action, one-sided fanatics, geniuses of self-limitation. In a few hours or days they overturn the old order. The upheavals last for weeks, for years at the most, and then for decades, for centuries, people bow down to the spirit of limitation that led to the upheavals as to something sacred.
Doctor Zhivago
Boris Pasternak

We resembled the great Inquisitors in that we persecuted the seeds of evil not only in man’s deeds, but in their thoughts. We admitted no private sphere, not even inside a man’s skull.
Darkness at Noon
Arthur Koestler

Link on the power of poetry 

The following is a selection from an early blog on this webpage. This material did not make it into That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) for reasons of space.  

Anna Akhmatova
The gifted and enormously resilient Anna Akhmatova felt the need to continue the tradition of earlier poets and assume a moral responsibility to be the voice of memory by bearing witness to these ghastly times. Between 1935 and 1940, although she dared not speak it aloud because she was under conspicuous surveillance by the NKVD, who clearly intended to intimidate her, Akhmatova ended her silence by sculpting in words a memorial to the victims of the Stalinist terror, Requiem (not published in Russia during her lifetime) that expressed with searing emotional clarity what others could only feel. It was written on scraps of paper, a fragment read silently by a friend who committed it to memory and burned the paper. Grounded in personal experience, she stood in a prison queue with a food parcel for her son, after he (who was arrested repeatedly), and her lover were arrested within a couple of weeks of each other primarily as hostages to ensure her compliance. Standing in that line with women also desperate for news of their loved ones, Requiem is a testament to their suffering and by extension the anguish of a whole people. As her preface makes clear, she would connect her personal experience with all those other women:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone ‘recognized’ me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear [everyone spoke in whispers there]:

           ‘Can you describe this?’ And I answered: ‘Yes, I can.’ Then something that looked like a 
           smile passed over what had once been her face.

With a piercing honesty that cuts through the miasmic fog of lies and fantasy, Akhmatova captures the intense pain of these women left behind, the fabric of their lives dissolved in grief, loneliness and despair:

          And like a useless appendage, Leningrad
          Swung from its prisons.
          And when, senseless from torment,
          Regiments of convicts marched,
          And the short songs of farewell
          Were sung by locomotive whistles.
          The stars of death stood above us
          And innocent Rus writhed
          Under bloody boots
          And under the tires of the Black Marias.

         They led you away at dawn,
          I followed you, like a mourner,
          In the dark front room the children were crying,
          By the icon shelf the candle was dying.
          On your lips was the  icon’s chill.
          The deathly sweat on your brow …

The prose introduction and fifteen verses of the Requiem comprise a terrible mosaic of daily life in terror-stricken Leningrad of arbitrary malevolence characterized by arrests, pleas for mercy and endless lines by the prison wall awaiting news of the loved one. Leningrad becomes a city of the dead, where the briefest farewell is permitted to the prisoners who will be herded by train into exile and the purgatory of the camps. The ancient land of Rus writhe under the boots of the modern police state as vans, the infamous “black Marias” or “black crows,” camouflaged as ordinary delivery trucks, transport the prisoners away to the trains or dark forests where sometimes they dig their own graves. The secrecy of many executions is shrouded in the sentence “ten years hard labour without the right of correspondence” that cruelly leaves survivors with the false hope that they will one day see their loved ones. Her poem powerfully counterpoises the state’s casual indifference to the victims’ life and death with the deep love of the grieving family members left behind.
Former house of Anna Akhmatova

Akhmatova believed that the responsibility of the poet was to commemorate for future generations the fear and deprivation of her times regardless of the risks. She took upon herself the burden of not forgetting or allowing history to forget the “hangman’s” terror. Despite being a symbol of resistance during the siege of Leningrad and offering Russian people hope with her poem, “Courage,” she was denounced as “half nun and half harlot” in the late 1940s. Yet her creative impulse never tamped but expressed an authenticity, that countless thousands perhaps millions experienced, that no authority, however oppressive, could erase.

Until Gorbachev permitted glasnost and the filling in of the "blank spots," Soviet leaders—Khrushchev’s brief interlude during the early 1960s aside—have made it a priority to rewrite history and expunge from public consciousness the flogging, the execution pits and bestiality of the camps, and the emotions they generated. Against these odds, her tableau was no mean accomplishment. When she died in 1966, thousands remembered the woman whose mission in the words of Lev Kopelev was to “preserve Russian speech and keep it ‘pure’ and ‘free.’” Her voice was a beacon of truth at a time when everywhere else there were lies, silence and amnesia. Whether her poetry will find new readers in the commercial noise of the current ‘managed democracy’ may present a more formidable obstacle than the opprobrium and intimidation she experienced at the behest of a tyrannical police state.
Museum of Anna Akhmatova

Relevant films:

Stalin film portrays the political career and personal life of the former leader of the Soviet Union, Georgian-born Ioseb Jughashvili, who later adopted the name Joseph Stalin demonstrating his rule and how he was able to bring the Soviet Union to a place of great power on the world stage, but at a consequence: in this case, the destruction of his family as well as the mass murder of millions of his own Revolutionary partners. The focus is on the behaviour of Stalin and the after effects. The story is as narrated by Stalin's daughter, who defected to the United States in 1967.

Within the Whirlwind  is based on the two-volume memoir of Evgenia Ginzburg, a literature professor, who was sentenced to ten years hard labor in a Gulag in Siberia during the Stalinist terror. Without her love of poetry and meeting a camp doctor, she would have lost the will to live. Her memoir is a testament of the tenacity of the human spirit. The film has some strong moments, but the books are superior.

The 1994 film Burnt by the Sun poignantly captures how in the course of a single day in 1936 a retired army officer and apparently a close friend of Stalin could morph from Revolutionary hero to an enemy of the people.. In an atmosphere infused with a seductive Chekhovian elegance that is filmed with a sun-dappled glow, he basks with his family in his idyllic summer dacha, an unquestioning believer in the benevolence of Stalin’s paternal rule. But when he uses his influence to stop army tanks from rolling over his neighbour’s wheat fields, he is soon brutally disabused of any illusions that he once harboured about the beneficence of living in a Stalinist society.
Goodbye Lenin
A dedicated young German boy pulls off an elaborate scheme to keep his mother in good health in this comedy drama from director Wolfgang Becker. Suffering a heart attack and falling into a coma after seeing her son arrested during a protest, Alex's socialist mother, Christiane remains comatose through the fall of the Berlin wall and the German Democratic Republic. Knowing that the slightest shock could prove fatal upon his mother's awakening, Alex strives to keep the fall of the GDR a secret for as long as possible. Keeping their apartment firmly rooted in the past, Alex's scheme works for a while, but it's not long before his mother is feeling better and ready to get up and around again.

Der Tunnel is based on a true story a group of East Berliners escaping to the West. Harry Melchior was a champion East German swimmer at odds with the system under which he has already been imprisoned. On his own escape, he is determined the arrange the escape to the West of his sister and her family. The idea of the tunnel is born, but the project does not run smoothly. The participants struggle not only with the massive logistics of their task, but betrayal from friends in the East. And always the East German Stasis are close to discovering the plot. 
 The Way Back is a compelling epic story of survival, solidarity and indomitable human will. Shot in Bulgaria, Morocco and India, the film documents how prisoners of a Soviet Union labor camp flee their Siberian Gulag and begin a treacherous journey across thousands of miles of hostile terrain. The film is inspired by the acclaimed book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, as well as first-person accounts and anecdotes, as told to and researched by director Peter Weir and executive producer Keith Clarke.

The day after the funeral of Varlam Aravidze, the mayor of a small Georgian town, his corpse turns up in his son's garden and is secretly reburied. But the corpse keeps returning, and the police eventually capture a local woman, who is accused of digging it up. She says that Varlam should never be laid to rest because he was responsible for a Stalin-like reign of terror that led to the disappearance of many of her friends. Although the film may appear to be slowing moving for North American reviewers, it is worth your patience as there are some very powerful surrealistic images that convey the horror of Stalinism. Also worth noting is how the son of Varlam justifies his father's activities while the grandson is furious.

Children of the Revolution is an Australian film set in two time periods, the 1950s and 1990s, and goes back and forth between them. In the 1990s, Australian politician Joe Welch is having some serious difficulties that are expressed through a series of interviews with important political commentators. Joe blames his mother, Joan Fraser, for his problems. This claim seems ridiculous until we flash back to the 1950s and discover that Joan, an ardent communist, had a very brief fling with Joseph Stalin that Joe Welch could be Stalin's love-child. Welch was brought up accompanying his mother on her political rounds, and acquired a fondness for jack-booted womensomething which haunts him in his adult life. The film is significant in that it vividly captures the zeal and the naivety of a Western fellow traveler who became enthralled by the promise of a radiant future in the Soviet Union. It also illustrates how environmental and hereditary influences can shape an individual's character structure.

In The Lives of Others, a true believer who has devoted his life to ferreting out "dangerous" characters is thrown into a quandary when he investigates a man who poses no threat. It's 1984, and Capt. Gerd Wiesler is an agent of the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. Weisler carefully and dispassionately investigates people who might be deemed some sort of threat to the state. Shortly after Weisler's former classmate, Lt. Col. Grubitz, invites him to a theatrical piece by celebrated East German playwright Georg Dreyman, Minister Bruno Hempf informs Weisler that he suspects Dreyman of political dissidence, and wonders if this renowned patriot is all that he seems to be. As it turns out, Hempf has something of an ulterior motive for trying to pin something on Dreyman: a deep-seated infatuation with Christa-Maria Sieland, Dreyman's girlfriend. Nevertheless, Grubitz, who is anxious to further his career, appoints Weisler to spy on the gentleman with his help. Weisler plants listening devices in Dreyman's apartment and begins shadowing the writer. As Weisler monitors Dreyman's daily life, however (from a secret surveillance station in the gentleman's attic), he discovers the writer is one of the few East Germans who genuinely believes in his leaders. This changes over time, however, as Dreyman discovers that Christa-Maria is being blackmailed into a sexual relationship with Hempf, and one of Dreyman's friends, stage director Albert Jerska, is driven to suicide after himself being blackballed by the government. Dreyman's loyalty thus shifts away from the East German government, and he anonymously posts an anti-establishment piece in a major newspaper which rouses the fury of government officials. Meanwhile, Weisler becomes deeply emotionally drawn into the lives of Dreyman and Sieland, and becomes something of an anti-establishment figure himself, embracing freedom of thought and expression. One of the most powerful scenes is watching Weisler listening to Dreyman playing a moving piano piece after hearing about his friend’s suicide. The film raises the interesting question as to whether art can change people. 

Most people don’t think about singing when they think about revolution. But song was the weapon of choice when Estonians sought to free themselves from decades of Soviet occupation. The Singing Revolution is an inspiring account of one nation’s dramatic rebirth. It is the story of humankind’s irrepressible drive for freedom and self-determination.

"Imagine the scene in Casablanca in which the French patrons sing La Marseillaise in defiance of the Germans, then multiply its power by a factor of thousands, and you've only begun to imagine the force of The Singing Revolution."

Matt Zoller Seitz in The New York Times


1 comment:

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