The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (2014)

The Festival of Insignificance is by far Milan Kundera’s shortest book at just 115 pages. Four men live in Paris, four men of varying ages, pottering round, bumping into each other, in the street, at parties, having thoughts and conversations.

Alain is walking down the street fascinated by the way all the girls these days wear low-slung jeans and crop tops, showing off their navels. Ramon strolls through the Luxembourg Gardens. D’Ardelo visits his doctor with a heavy heart, convinced his symptoms are cancer. The doctor assures him they’re not.

Moments later D’Ardelo bumps into Ramon in the Luxembourg (they use to work in the same institute) and D’Ardelo a) asks Ramon whether he knows someone who can organise a little cocktail party to celebrate his (D’Ardelo’s) birthday and b) deceitfully tells Ramon he has just been diagnosed with cancer. His friend commiserates. As he walks away even D’Ardelo doesn’t understand why he lied.

An hour later Ramon is at Charles’s apartment and asks if he and his partner, an unemployed actor named Caliban, can cater for this cocktail party. Sure. Ramon explains the client with a story designed to show the difference between Brilliance and Insignificance. D’Ardelo is at a party preening like a peacock and spinning jokes, whereas Quaquelique is a discreet, quiet presence. Not silent, just uttering the occasional platitude. Ramon explains how D’Ardelo’s brilliance intimidates the women he talks to, they struggle to rise to his repartee.Whereas it is Quaquelique who leaves with the beautiful woman at the end of the party.

Insignificance trumps brilliance.

Part two – the marionette theatre

Introducing the anecdote Stalin told the Politburo about how, when he was a boy, he came across 24 partridges sitting on the bough of a tree. He had his shotgun with him, but only 12 cartridges. So he shot the first twelve birds, then walked home with the bodies, collected 12 more cartridges, walked back to the tree to find the other 12 partridges sitting there peacefully and shot them too. The Politburo listened in stunned silence. Only after the meeting had ended and they all went to the loo, while Stalin went off to his private room, did the Politburo burst out in guffaws of outraged laughter at Stalin’s outrageous lies.

We know the story because it is told in Khruschev’s memoirs which Charles owns a copy of. On another occasion Charles explains why the Russians renamed Koenigsberg Kaliningrad. It’s because of a Politburo member Kalinin, in fact president of the Supreme Soviet, who had a particularly weak bladder, and Stalin liked to keep waiting or late at meetings until he wet  his pants. Naming a city after this man was the whim of a dictator who felt something like genuine affection for this poor weak man.

Part three – Alain and Charles often think about their mothers

Alain, still thinking about girls’ navels, has a memory of being ten, of his mother paying a rare visit to the family home, of him climbing out of the family swimming pool and going over to where she’s sitting, and of her reaching out and touching  his navel.

There is an unexplained cut to an unnamed woman who drives to a bridge over a river and jumps in, attempting to drown. She hears a man’s voice, a man dives in and swims out to rescue her. Vengefully she drags the man down under the surface, lying athwart his body till he is still, then swimming up to the surface, walking wetfoot to her car, driving off…

On his way to his apartment, Alain is jostled by a brisk young woman who calls him an idiot. He phones Charles who tells him about his sick mother. Alain for some reason imagines her as an angel, and this leads to a brief consideration of angels, and a mild comparison of Alain, who’s mother left him when he was a baby, and Charles’s mother, who he’s known all his life and is now old and frail and a burden.

Part four – They are all in search of a good mood

Caliban the unemployed actor decided that, if he was going to work as a waiter for Charles, it would be fun to act a role, and so pretends to be from Pakistan. They get dressed up in waiter costume and drive to Madame D’Ardelo’s, unpack food and drink, get it ready to be presented etc. There’s a Portuguese waitress there (who hates speaking French) and, somehow, she gets into speaking to him in Portuguese while he replies to her in (largely made-up) Pakistani. Despite talking at complete cross-purposes (as so many Kundera characters do) they sort of fall in love.

Meanwhile, Alain is in his apartment which is decorated with just one photo, of the mother who didn’t want to have him. She told his father to be careful when making love but he came inside her nonetheless (making the modern reader realise this act of love happened before the coil or the pill i.e. in another universe).

She, we now learn, is the young woman who jumped into the river, because she was pregnant and didn’t want it. The drowning of the man is just one of the many fantasies Alain projects onto the mother he never knew. He talks to the photo and, in a mild outbreak of magical realism, she talks back. He reflects that, being gentle and weak, and yet an intruder into his life, he was born to be an Apologiser.

Ramon arrives at the party. He hates these posh people. He’s retired i.e. older than D’Ardelo. He watches an amusing scene in which some grande dame, Madame Franck (whose husband recently died) stuffs a canapé in her face while rudely ignoring the pushy, social-climbing daughter of M and Mme D’Ardelo.

Alain is pleased to bump into his old friend, Quaquelique, on the scout, as ever, for a new girlfriend. Alain bumps into a woman he knows, Julie, who flirts with him, then walks away waggling her bottom.

Part five – A little feather floats beneath the ceiling

The narrative becomes slowly more fantastical. Charles the bartender is looking up at a tiny feather drifting down from the ceiling. Remember the conversation earlier about angels? He wonders if this is a tiny token of an angel. Madame Franck notices it too and holds out her finger for it to land on.

Somehow this scene morphs into the Politburo standing round while Stalin calls them to order and then laughs at his own joke of renaming Koenigsberg after pitiful comrade Kalinin.

Ramon engages in conversation with Caliban, agreeing that their tactic of speaking in ridiculous languages does, to some extent, mollify the humiliation of making their living by being lackeys at parties of the rich.

We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. (p.75)

But now he wonders if we are in a post-joke era. As if to confirm it they both notice a man who appears to be eavesdropping on them, on Caliban. Suddenly he is seized with anxiety: what happens if a French security man or policeman realises he is a Frenchman masquerading as Pakistani? Arrest. Interrogation. Prison, Deportation. (This seems to me a bit weak; if Kundera wanted to raise the spectre of 9/11 and the war on terror, why not have a Muslim or Arab character?)

Which leads Ramon to remind them of the story of Stalin and the partridges. One way of interpreting it is that Stalin didn’t expect to be believed, he was telling a joke, but the Politburo didn’t get it because they were too sacred. Ramon grandly announces that this moment symbolised the start of the Post-Joke Age (p.77). This is such palpable bollocks it barely seems worth engaging with. Do you think we live in a Post-Joke Age?

Madame Franck finally catches the feather on her finger and announces it is a symbol. Ramon slips out the door and hails a taxi in the street. Alain’s mother speaks to him from her photo, describing an enormous fantasy in which all humanity is still connected via their umbilical cords back to their mothers who are connected back to their mothers and so on in a vast tree back to Eve. Alain’s mother wanted to destroy the tree and wipe out the memory of humanity.

Part six – Angels falling

The party is over. Charles and Caliban change back into their ordinary clothes. The young waitress, whose name is Mariana, adores Caliban even more. She intercedes with Charles to speak on her behalf, but then Caliban walks over and kisses her. But she remains chaste and rushes off. The two men reflect on chastity.

Caliban wants to go see their friend Alain and drink to chastity. They call up from the street, Alain lets them in, Caliban teeters on a chair to reach the bottle of vintage Armagnac brandy Alain has placed high on his armoire, but the chair breaks and Caliban topples to the floor, mashing the brandy.

Meanwhile, the narrative cuts back to an extended sequence with Stalin and Politburo. First of all he asks them if they know what Kant’s great idea was: It was the Ding an sich, the notion that there is a reality out there, but we can never know it. Against this he describes the central idea of Schopenhauer, namely that the world is made of Will and Representation. Everyone in the world has their different representations of it. Which ones triumph depends on the force of will. And he, Stalin, has done more than any man in history to impose his Will, and his Idea, on humanity.

But now he feels tired and, looking round at the imbeciles in the Politburo, he wonders what he sacrificed his life to. He thumps the table which shakes.

That thump coincides with Caliban falling off the chair in Alain’s flat with a bump.

And the door closing in Julie’s flat. Without quite understanding how, she seems to have left the party with Quaquelique and to have slept with him.

But the Politburo are distracted by an amazing sight. Outside the Kremlin window, from high in the air, angels are falling. What does it mean? While they are distracted Stalin changes into his hunting gear, grabs his shotgun, and goes stalking off down the Kremlin corridors.

Part seven – The festival of insignificance

It gets weirder and weirder, and more fantastical and inconsequential.

It’s the morning after the party. Alain gets on his motorbike and feels the presence behind him of the mother he’s never known. She now reads him a bitter lecture about people, humans and the way none of us asked to be born, the way we have our existence, our gender, our physical characteristics, and the era we’re born into, thrust on us. After all that how can there be a thing called ‘freedom’?

Alain arrives at the Luxembourg Gardens to meet Ramon. They had planned to go the Chagall exhibition at the museum but, once again, the queue is too long and puts Alain off. Instead they stroll, and Alain takes the opportunity to expand on his theories about the navel. Previously, he said, women’s bodies had three distinct erogenous zones, the breast, buttocks and thighs. These were individual and distinctive. Now, Alain claims, we live in the era of the navel (two young women walk past displaying their navels as he speaks) and the navel is anonymous and identical. We live in an era of uniformity. Everyone must conform to the same values and music and fashion. We live in a culture which promotes all the values of ‘individuality’ and yet… there is no individuality left.

In the past, love was a celebration of the individual, of the inimitable, the tribute to a unique thing, a thing impossible to replicate. But not only does the navel not revolt against repetition, it is a call for repetitions. And in our millennium we are going to live under the sign of the navel. (p.107, italics added)

I think he means endless pointless reproduction, and mass uniformity.

D’Ardelo arrives and he and Ramon greet each other warily. All three are interrupted by two events. One is a flood of children streaming into the gardens who arrange themselves in a circle to take part in some kind of musical performance.

Much more striking is the arrival of Stalin in his hunting gear. Yes. Josef Stalin runs into the scene, looking manly and virile.

All around people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. (p.110)

His appearance is that of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer. The morning crowds in the Luxembourg warm to this fellow (is this satire? on how the conformity of the modern world is preparing the way for new dictators? or whimsy?).

He takes up his shotgun and fires at one of the many statues of French queens in the park, blowing the nose off Marie de Medici. Why? Because Kalinin – remember him of the weak bladder – is having a pee behind it. Stalin explains that pissing in the park is illegal and roars a great Georgian laugh and the crowd warms to his honest, free-spirited hi jinks.

He bursts into laughter, and his laugh is so gay, so free, so innocent, so rustic, so brotherly, so contagious, that everyone around, as if relieved, starts laughing as well. (p.111)

From time to time the narrative has told us that Charles dreams of putting on a play, maybe a play performed by marionettes. Now Ramon turns to Alain and says, ‘Does the hunter remind you of anyone?’ Yes, Charles.

‘Yes. Charles is here with us. It’s the last act of his piece.’ (p.112)

‘His piece’? What piece? Is the implication that some or more of the text is part of Charles’s ‘play’? Surely not. So is it really Charles or really Stalin? Charles, apparently. Both men conclude the Stalin and the Kalinin are the high jinks you’d expect of two actors trying to keep in practice.

Then Ramon delivers a long speech about the subject of the novel:

‘Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence. It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in horror, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters. It often takes courage to acknowledge it in such dramatic situations, and to call it by name. But it is not only a matter of acknowledging it, we must love insignificance, we must learn to love it. Right here, in this park, before us – look, my friend, it is present here in all its obviousness, all its innocence, in all its beauty. Yes, its beauty. As you yourself said, the perfect performance [referring to the actors dressed as Stalin and Kalinin]… and utterly useless, the children laughing… without knowing why, isn’t that beautiful? Breathe, D’Ardelo, my friend, inhale this insignificance that’s all around us, it is the key to wisdom, it is the key to a good mood…’ (p.113)

Alain’s mother whispers in his ear that she is truly happy. Ramon sees that his speech about insignificance has not pleased D’Ardelo, a man who is more attracted by the weighty and the significant. So he changes tack and flatters him by telling him he saw how much Madame Franck was eyeing him at the party last night: surely they must be secret lovers – which sends D’Ardelo off with a spring in his step.

And an old-fashioned horse and carriage draws up, and ‘Stalin’ and ‘Kalinin’ climb into it, waving to the crowd, as the children’s choir strikes up a rendition of La Marseillaise.

Thoughts

By the end I think you’re meant to have realised that the entire book is a festival of insignificance. To use the comparison explained by Ramon back at the start, it avoids the off-putting brilliance of a D’Ardelo, and adopts the steady unobtrusive burbling of a Quaquelique, and wins the pretty girl in the end.

But no, that can’t be right. Because the whole short narrative is far from unobtrusive burbling: it is made up of bravura displays and performances – the sudden unexplained story of the woman who tries to drown herself but drowns her would-be rescuer – the story of Stalin terrifying the Politburo – Caliban’s jokey adoption of Pakistani – the way Alain’s photo of his mother regularly talks to him and holds conversations. And from time to time the characters mention their Master, who I didn’t immediately understand meant the author, the man who dreamed them up and is manipulating them as they speak and act.

These are not quiet and unobtrusive events, they are surreal or magical realist tokens: they strike me as being displays of whimsical narratorial brilliance.

But why? Why choose Stalin to be a central figure in his last novel? Why not some figure from Czech history? Is it a poke in the eye at all the people who expect him to write about Czech history and issues, who expect him to conform to what their idea of a political writer or an émigré writer should be (as the Czech émigré Irena is irritated by all the French people telling her how much she ought to be caring about her homeland when communism collapses in 1989)?

Is he demonstrating the complete freedom of the novelist to write about whatever takes his fancy? Is the insignificance of the entire story part of its resistance to the forces of Kitsch and earnest conformity, which he identifies in his earlier novels?

Maybe. But I can’t help feeling there’s a quality of disappointment about these later novels. I mean that, when you hand over your time and effort to a writer, you expect, to some extent, a kind of rounded experience, one with a beginning, middle and an end.

That sounds crude, but what I’m driving at is the way this book, like Slowness and Identity, starts off with high hopes and expectations, with promising and interesting characters and immediately hits you with some of his trademark meditations about ideas and notions about the meaning of life and memory and love and so on…. but then, somehow, lose their way, fails to deliver, fizzle out – as Slowness leads up to Vincent’s frustrated copulation by the pool of the hotel and the last third of Identity, even worse, turns out all to have been a dream.

Somehow the cleverness of the meditations and digressions, and of many of the incidents, is not, ultimately, matched by a cleverness of form or shape. That’s what I mean by disappointing. They don’t quite deliver the intellectual or imaginative punch they start out promising.

But maybe, again, he is reacting against giving the audience what is expects. If that’s what we want, maybe we should go watch a Hollywood movie. Fiction does something different. It intrigues and beguiles. And puzzles… Maybe this book is intended to be an entertainment, a beguilement and a puzzle… Pretty obviously it is saying: ‘If you want a serious message… my serious message is… that nothing is serious :)’

Credit

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2015. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or ‘gulags’. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


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