The costs of abstraction

by Anthony Daniels

One of the most extraordinary episodes in the intellectual history of the twentieth century—if, indeed, something that lasted half a century or more can properly be called an episode—is the moral and sometimes material support given by much of the western intelligentsia to the Soviet tyranny, a tyranny that made all previous tyrannies seem relaxed, liberal, and almost amateurish by comparison. Men who found the slightest circumscription of their own freedom intolerable raised hosannas to the most systematic and concerted abrogation of personal liberty yet attempted; many were those who strained at gnats to swallow a camel.

No doubt the explanation for this phenomenon is psychologically and sociologically complex. A commonly cited factor that supposedly contributed to it was ignorance of the real situation obtaining in the Soviet Union: intellectuals were therefore able to project on to the Soviet Union their utopian fantasies unconstrained by any appreciation of the sordid realities. This explanation, however, is entirely false.

I mean no disrespect to the brave and colossal labors of figures such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Robert Conquest, nor do I deny the scope of their actual historical effect upon the opinions of the Western intelligentsia, when I say that they added nothing whatever of deep moral significance to the material that was readily available in the west in the 1920s and 1930s, and that could and should have enabled people to form a proper moral judgment about the Soviet Union and its “experiment,” and this at the very time when it was doing its worst. Everything about the Soviet Union was known at the time; the problem was that nothing was believed.

Let us take the Ukrainian famine as an example. The dust jacket of Robert Conquest’s book The Harvest of Sorrow, published in 1986, says that that it “will register in the public consciousness of the West a sense of the darker side of the history of this century,” and so, no doubt, it did. But more than half a century earlier, in 1934, the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who could hardly have been suspected of anti-Soviet prejudice or bias because he went to Russia actually intending to emigrate, hoping that his second child would be born a Soviet citizen, published a book called Moscow Winter.

It is a very barely fictionalized account of what Muggeridge saw in Russia: so barely fictionalized that, when he published his autobiography thirty-eight years later, he felt able to lift whole passages almost verbatim from it, save for the names of the characters. The book has not, so far as I am aware, been reissued as it was written, probably because it contains passages that are unpleasantly anti-Semitic in tone. The first chapter devoted to the Ukrainian famine begins:

The class war hung over the North Caucasus and over its population like a heavy cloud; filling the fields with weeds; killing off cattle and horses; and spreading famine and trouble everywhere. Under the direction of the OGPU, the Red Army ravaged the country. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were exiled, and thousands shot. Everything edible except some millet and potatoes was requisitioned by the government. These potatoes were counted over one by one like jewels.

Muggeridge goes on to recount the story of a peasant woman whose hut is visited by requisitioning soldiers, led by a Comrade Babel. Her husband has already been removed (along with nineteen other peasants) and presumably killed. Comrade Babel tells her that she is in arrears with her taxes, and—despite her plea that she and her children are starving—that he and his soldiers will return the following day, when she will be expected to hand over sacks of grain. This, of course, is a threat.

Muggeridge describes what happens after Comrade Babel has left:

The children had fallen asleep. There was nothing to give them when they awoke. No food, and no hope of getting food. The sack of flour that she had hoarded so carefully and used so sparingly had been taken away. She went into an outhouse and fetched an axe, a little rusty from disuse, but still in fairly good condition.

Her fingers felt along the edge of the axe, testing it; then, with well-directed strokes, she killed her three children one after the other, doing the job so skilfully that none of them awoke or uttered a cry. She tied each of the children up in a sack, and carried the sack and the axe upstairs and hid them among the rafters.

The next day, she goes to Comrade Babel and tells him that she has decided to cooperate. She persuades him to come with his soldiers to her hut; just as he is about to inspect the sacks, she fells him with the axe that she has hidden for the purpose. She is duly arrested and executed.

Muggeridge quotes the Pravda editorial on this episode (or one very like it), titled “We must increase class vigilance on the agricultural front”:

Unless we root out mercilessly all hostile elements in the villages our socialist economy is in danger of being wrecked. Traitors must be put out of the Party; our blows must fall with increasing severity on opportunists; class enemies must be made to feel the full force of our revolutionary laws; the class watchful- ness of the courts and procurators must be intensified.

A very telling, and realistic, detail is that the soldiers accompanying Comrade Babel are themselves deemed accomplices of the peasant woman and executed.

In a further chapter on the famine, Muggeridge describes how an English correspondent, Wilfred Pye, brought up on left-wing pieties—himself, in actual fact—decides to go to the Ukraine to see for himself. By sheer luck and oversight of the authorities, he succeeds in buying a third class ticket to the Ukraine. While a young man in his compartment tells him that there is no famine, Pye eats an orange and discards the peel. The other passengers suddenly fall on it and consume it at a gulp.

The following passage is self-evidently that of a man struggling to describe something so terrible that is almost beyond description:

Famine is … quite peculiar. Somehow famine goes beyond hunger, and puts on each face a kind of lewdness; a kind of grey unwholesome longing. People’s white gums and mouldering flesh suggest rather a consuming disease like leprosy than appetite. They seem diseased, even evil, rather than pathetic. Their eyes are greedy and restless, and linger greedily, it sometimes seems, on one another’s bodies. Their skin gets unnaturally dry and their breath parched and stale like air in a cellar.

Cannibalism is well-attested during the famine, incidentally, and the parched breath that Muggeridge refers to is obviously the smell of ketones that starving people give off.

Perhaps because of literary inexperience, but probably more because of the sheer power of emotion evoked by his experience, Muggeridge does not manage to maintain the fiction that he is writing fiction. He inserts the following passage in the narrative:

The famine now raging in Russia is different from any other that has hitherto happened because it is organised from within. No external cause like bad weather or a blockade can be blamed for it. People feel it to be a consequence of inward corruption. It seems to them to be innate in Bolshevism and a fruit of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. They see the Dictatorship of the Proletariat going over the country like a flight of locusts, taking away or destroying everything edible and leaving behind a barren wilderness. They hear the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, with fatuous statistical complacency, hail the locust flight as a great achievement, a sublime victory. They … see in the future only an intensification of their present misery.

He finishes by saying:

Lenin called it a struggle for bread. In fact, it is rather a struggle against than for bread. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat sent an army to conquer bread, and it destroyed bread. It spread death, famine and destruction everywhere.

Was Muggeridge a lone voice crying in the wilderness, a man whose reports were so at variance with everything else reported from the great proletarian paradise that it was only natural that other intellectuals should not have listened to him or taken him seriously? I am not sure whether the answer should be “Alas, no” or “Thank goodness, no”: on the one hand, “Alas, no” because the large part of the intelligentsia that was favorably disposed to the Soviet Union had absolutely no excuse for disbelieving Muggeridge and, on the other hand, “Thank goodness, no” because not everyone who knew, thought about, traveled to, or published work about the Soviet Union behaved as if he were a self-obsessed dupe, more concerned with the figure he would cut among the intelligentsia at home than with the reality affecting untold millions of people.

In 1936, Dr. Ewald Ammende published a book, Human Life in Russia. It was not put out by some fringe publisher, the propaganda arm of an extremist political groupuscule, but, rather, by Allen and Unwin, a mainstream publisher of serious books. Ammende was an Estonian agronomist who had studied Russian agrarian problems from before the Revolution. He had been active in attempts to alleviate the Russian famine of 1920–21.

The preface to the book, written in 1935, says, “I have been trying to solve the problem of how to bring to the attention of the world the position of millions of innocent people who have been dying in vast numbers since the collectivisation of agriculture began.” He goes on in the preface to describe how, in 1929, he had predicted the scale of the disaster and suggested to European organizations that they prepare for famine relief to Russia. In view, however, of the flattering estimates of the experiments and the general situation in the Soviet Union published by the press of the non-Communist states, this suggestion was disregarded. A short while afterward, Ammende continues:

To-day, when Stalin’s collectivisation has caused the death of millions of innocent persons, I have a right to ask whether these terrible losses of human lives … might not have been avoided if inquiry had been made into the actual food position in Russia.

In other words, the scale of the disaster was known from the beginning, virtually as it happened, in real time as it were.

The first words of Human Life in Russia are as follows, echoing exactly what Muggeridge had written:

All serious observers of conditions in Soviet Russia are of one opinion as to the causes of the Soviet famine. In their view the real cause is not to be found in any natural events, but in the fiasco of the collective system.

“All serious observers”: later in the book he demonstrates that there were many, not just him and Muggeridge. The deliberate nature of the famine was therefore fully appreciated. To give but one proof of this (there are many), Ammende quotes the speech of the Soviet leader in the Ukraine, Postyschev:

Need I waste words in pointing out how wrong the instruction [that peasants should be allowed to keep grain for their own consumption] is, which assigns a secondary position to the delivery of grain to the State, while the feeding of the community is placed first? Is it not the best possible proof that some of our district committees were influenced by consumers’ interests, thus promoting the class interests of our enemies to the detriment of the proletarian state? Can such leniency strengthen our system of collectivisation? No; the Bolshevik struggle has no room for such leniency.

Ammende points out that grain exports from Russia continued throughout the famine.

Not only the scale, but the terrible details of the famine were known to Ammende. Opening the book at random—to page 101, as it happens—I read the following: “A mother killed her sick son almost under the eyes of the other villagers in order to eat him.” And just in case verbal testimony is not sufficient, there are photographs. Again, precisely as Muggeridge had described, peasants who have fled to the cities are photographed as having died in the streets, a sight so familiar that passers-by take no notice of corpses in rags. There are also photos of emaciated naked corpses being loaded on to carts for burial; of a skeletal famine victim “in a field, stripped of clothing by passers-by”; of mass graves; “of famine victims, in such numbers that they resemble dunes”; and of—perhaps most terrible of all—a huge pile of unburied corpses, of the kind that was to be seen again only after the liberation of Belsen (the photograph is reproduced in Conquest’s book on the subject).

The exact mechanisms by which the Soviets sought to mislead the world and the way in which western intellectuals and, above all, foreign correspondents co-operated with them are laid bare in both Muggeridge’s and Ammende’s books. The latter quotes the former French Prime Minister, Edouard Herriot, who, having been misled on a visit to the Soviet Union in a fashion so gross and transparent that it would have been hilarious if it had been over something trivial, delivered himself thus in a lecture (appropriately enough, given what was to come, in the Casino at Vichy): “The Russian famine, that is used as a bogeyman, is nothing but the suspect product of Hitlerian propaganda.”

Muggeridge, in his preface, writes:

News from Russia is a joke, being either provided by men whom long residence in Moscow has made completely docile [for “journalists in Moscow work under the perpetual risk of losing their visas”], or whose particular relationship with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat puts its words into their mouths.

Muggeridge also tells us that:

I treasure as a blessed memory the spectacle [of fellow-travelers from the west] going with radiant optimism through a famished countryside; wandering in happy bands about squalid, overcrowded towns; listening with unshakable faith to the fatuous outpourings of obsequious Intourist guides; repeating, like schoolchildren a multiplication table, the bogus statistics and dreary slogans.

I myself caught a very late glimpse, Rococo to Muggeridge’s Baroque, of this phenomenon in Albania and North Korea.

But Muggeridge was very far from the first to have observed and written about it. For example, Joseph Douillet, in his Moscou sans Voiles: Neuf ans de travail au pays des Soviets, published in Paris in 1928, noticed a very similar thing. He had been Belgian consul in Russia, and had spent so long in the country that he was almost more Russian than Belgian. He says:

The Soviet government has, over the last few years, methodically pursued a campaign in workers’ circles in the West to invite them to visit Soviet Russia in groups, offering them easy visas, free transport and other attractive privileges.

The Soviets state that only a personal visit by the worker permits him to realise how mendacious and unmerited are the attacks in the capitalist press which speak of the discontent of the Russian people, of the breakdown and the poverty of the country under the Soviet regime.

The purpose of this campaign is the following: the foreign delegations are shown a series of factories, hospitals, daycare centers, retirement homes, carefully chosen and meticulously arranged in advance, with the intention of demonstrating the perfection of such institutions in the USSR.

He goes on to give examples of the fatuous credulity of the foreign visitors.

What is true of the mendacity of the Soviet regime and the Ukrainian famine—that they were well known and appreciated from the very beginning—is true also of all the other hideous aspects of the regime. To take just one further example, that of the murderousness that the Bolsheviks exhibited from the outset of their rule, it was recorded by the respected historian Sergey Petrovich Melgounov, whose book The Red Terror was published in German in 1924 and in English in 1925.

I do not claim that it was the first such exposé; it was not. But it demonstrated beyond all possible doubt that the brutality of the Bolsheviks was of several orders of magnitude greater than that of the Tsarist regime—with which, incidentally, Melgounov had had no sympathy. Even if only a tenth of what Melgounov asserted had been true (and it turns out that he under- rather than over-estimated the murderousness), it would have placed the Soviet regime on a vastly lower moral plane than that of the regime which preceded it, and which had aroused the concentrated detestation of the European intelligentsia for many years.

In a desultory kind of way, I have collected, over the years, many books about the Soviet Union published in Britain, France, and America during the 1920s and 1930s. They are not by any means overwhelmingly pro-Soviet, with titles such as Soviet Russia Fights Crime, The Protection of Women and Children in the Soviet Union, and Soviet Russia Fights Neurosis (in which, published at the height of the famine, are found the immortal words, “The greatest and most far-reaching values of the Soviet dictatorship are psychological and spiritual”); on the contrary, many of these books give the most compelling evidence of all the horrors of the Soviet Union, all of them now attested and accepted as being true.

My little collection has led me to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was valued by contemporary intellectuals not for the omelette, but for the broken eggs. They thought that if nothing great could be built without sacrifice, then so great a sacrifice must be building something great. The Soviets had the courage of their abstractions, which are often so much more important to intellectuals than living, breathing human beings.

Anthony Daniels‘s most recent book is In Praise of Prejudice (Encounter Books). Hewas born in 1949. After qualifying as a doctor, he worked in what was then Rhodesia, followed by South Africa, before returning for three years training as a psychiatrist in London’s East End. Three and a half years in the Gilbert Islands were interspersed with some South American wandering, and then between 1984 and 1986 he worked in Tanzania. His first book, Coups and Cocaine, was followed by Fool or Physician, subtitled ‘the memoirs of a sceptical doctor.’ Zanzibar to Timbuktu, his trek across Africa by public transport was published to great acclaim in 1988, and was a runner-up in the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

Este artigo faz parte do simpósio The Berlin Wall: 20 years after organizado pela The New Criterion e foi originalmente publicado em

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