I was recently re-reading John Gross’s marvelously entertaining Oxford Book of Parodies when I came across a 1938 passage from George Orwell that attempts to explain the strangeness of the Moscow show trials. This needed doing. Because the trials were taking place behind a curtain of foreignness, parochial British readers might have thought that such things as old Bolsheviks confessing to having been Trotskyite saboteurs all along were inexplicable Russian oddities rather than the Big Lies characteristic of all totalitarianisms. So Orwell translates the trials into the terms of British political life of 1938 (when Neville Chamberlain was Tory prime minister and Winston Churchill a rebellious Conservative backbencher.) The result is as follows:
Mr. Winston Churchill, now in exile in Portugal, is plotting to overthrow the British Empire and establish communism in England. By the use of unlimited Russian money he has succeeded in building up a huge Churchillite organization which includes members of Parliament, factory managers, Roman Catholic bishops, and practically the whole of the Primrose League [a highly respectable organization of Conservative ladies.] Almost every day some dastardly act of sabotage is laid bare — sometimes a plot to blow up the House of Lords, sometimes an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the Royal racing stables. Eighty percent of the Beefeaters in the Tower [of London] are discovered to be agents of the Comintern. . . . And meanwhile the Churchillites . . . never cease from proclaiming that it is they who are the real defenders of Capitalism and that Chamberlain and the rest of his gang are no more than a set of Bolsheviks in disguise.
Reading this 70 years later, one feels that this hilarious satire must be overdrawn. But reality was even stranger than Orwell’s ingenious transpositions. My bedside book at present is Norman Stone’s history of the Cold War: The Atlantic and Its Enemies. This is history with a grand sweep, but Stone finds space for witty aphorisms and illustrative absurdities on every page. A passage on the Moscow purges and the Gulag includes the story that the director of the Leningrad zoo was accused of forcing the local corps de ballet to perform at night in front of the monkeys’ cages in order to drive the monkeys mad. What is more he confessed to the crime and was given a long sentence.
Stone speculates that he and others confessed to impossible crimes because they knew they would be convicted anyway but calculated that the more absurd their convictions, the more likely their release when common sense was restored to Soviet life. This kind of realism existed in the camps themselves where one joke went as follows:
“How long is your sentence?”
“What did they get you for?”
“Liar! You only get ten years for that.”
Some understanding of the extent of the Potemkin dissimulation of Soviet life existed within the Soviet Union too. Quite sophisticated people, such as Pasternak, would sometimes remark: “If only Stalin knew.” That may demonstrate a naïveté about Stalin, but it reveals a knowledge that something was seriously amiss.
It was in the West that the most extravagant lies of Stalinism were believed most strenuously — and not by ordinary citizens but by the intellectuals who embraced or even merely flirted with Soviet totalitarianism. Some very clever people on the left swallowed the Moscow show trials whole and the myths of the Gulag as reformist prisons whole. French intellectuals continued to do so as late as the 1970s when Solzhenitsyn arrived in the West and finally made them ashamed of their willed gullibility.
As the Soviet experience fades into history, we should probably expect that its crimes will be increasingly denied or marginalized by people sympathetic to its, er, ideals.