There is something nostalgic and haunting about soviet literature. I often wonder why that is…? How did writers participating in a project as wicked as that one harness the written word to such a degree as to be able to make their collective enslavement sound even beautiful? And conversely why does so much literature that emerges from the prosperous West sound anemic and sickly?
Of course these are epic generalizations. W. Somerset Maugham; J.R.R. Tolkien; Oscar Wilde; John Steinbeck – the list goes on. New literature, like Pacific Viking – the only novel by Barnaby Allen before he died; selling maybe a dozen copies though it blows anything by Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler out of the water (to say nothing of the disgusting self-dealing self-promoting books by this or that politician making up stories about themselves being somehow important; “I want to be famous” like an elementary schoolboy says when asked what they want to do when they grow up). Yes we have good stories too – though most of them also come from a place of pain and suffering.
Which brings me back to my question, because I want to answer it; so here goes. Any good writing comes from a place of vulnerability and sadness and tension and conflict. People sitting thick and rich beside a pond somewhere in New England cannot write a good story. Oh they might write one that sells many copies; marketed to others simple and without nuance looking for a “thriller” to distract them from themselves. But they cannot write literature. Full stop. This even goes for the “great” writers like Stephen King – replacing gore for sophistication as he plays for the crowd difficult-to-scare, anxious to fill their nihilism with a sense of fear product of a cheap thrill. This – conflict that is, sadness and suffering and struggle, Russia (and her satellite states) has had in spades. War, after war after war – slavery of their tsars; poverty product of a feudalism that never-ended, perpetuated into eternity by kings who would hear of no other way. Ushering me onward toward my second point; why would so many people put their magnificent talent to the service of such a project as was communism? I am slowly learning the answer – I think – realizing that I have been looking at things the wrong way.
Coming as I do from the United States, where the communists in our midst offer us slavery, their minions wailing to the sky, “Who will save us from so great a prosperity as we have known?” Camus’ gentle existentialism becoming violent Nietzsche nihilism as the holes in their spirits are rent ever wider. So too was Venezuela; behind a banana curtain – or Cuba, destroyed through envy not because one’s life was not better than before (compared with parents and grandparents) but because the germ of greed and jealousy always caught one looking up the ladder into the pent-houses of the rich, sickly green blood boiling. “Burn it all” they say, “even what we have; their suffering more than makes up for my own!” A fools choice offered by death eaters demanding human sacrifices to fill the voids within their souls.
But this was not what was happening 100 years ago in Russia. There, suffering under so great a yoke as the tsars had imposed, the idea of collective property – of collective ownership – of a chance to be free of THEM once and for all must have seemed appealing. A political project which offered – not freedom (which they had never had anyway) – but education and food and a job and a house and entertainment, literature and a weekly pass to the opera. For they who suffered under totality, this must have seemed less total, marginally more free – heck, it must have simply chimed with opportunity like a church bell cuts through the silence of a village on the Volga on a crisp winter morning.
Now, we know that the price of this ‘freedom’ was blood and famine. Yes, we know this now, which is why the calls to socialism in the west are less a call to command economies (wherein the math will never work) and more the perpetual whines of the spoiled (and yes, spoiled people can really muck things up – Venezuela being the best example). But its also why the modern socialists will fail; for they make nothing beautiful to draw nations to themselves. They do not write out of hope emerging from tyranny and the desperate desire to be free; theirs is a temper tantrum put to paper or a film strip or enacted live upon the stage at a comedy club. It does not inspire, and just for this reason: it does not call to us from the great places wherein lay hearts that beat.
I just finished “The October Storm and After” – a propaganda book published by Moscow Progress Publishers in the Soviet Union. A collection of stories and essays by people close to the October Revolution and Lenin, compiled for the English-speaking reader to tell the story of the energy and purpose of those heady days of revolution. It is an extraordinary book, well written, beautiful even conveying the spirit of men and women throwing off the yoke of tyranny. Yes, I know, they were embracing a new, if not worse at least just as bad tyranny. But isn’t that the story of humanity? We seek protection in herds from one another, giving those we trust the keys to our well-being only to find them corruptible and oh so wicked. And isn’t the moral of this tale that of limited government and separation of powers and federalism, which the socialists have made boring and yokelish? “Aw shucks,” they have us saying to each other, “if only the 10th Amendment were respected” to the chewing of tobacco and the mooing of cows.
Its all very complicated, and frankly very annoying which is why I rarely watch TV anymore and have no social media accounts; nor do I enter into debates with friends or enemies. I prefer to read, and listen, and write – and in doing so I choose stories emerging from poverty and desperation, stories which do not have the ‘punch’ of a thriller but instead the hearty goodness of “The October Storm”.
Thanks! Strong words! You have roused my interest in the October book. Sharing too…
Seems expensive and even unavailable… so library then… Where did you get your copy?
Alas, I found a copy for like $1.50 piled high and dusty in a used book tent in a former soviet republic – I am after all the king of lost places 🙂
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