Our lives no longer feel ground under them.At ten paces you can’t hear our words. But whenever there’s a snatch of talk it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer, The ten thick worms his fingers,his words like measures of weight, The huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,the glitter of his boot-rims. Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses he toys with the tributes of half-men. One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye. He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.
The Stalin Epigram,
Translated by WS Merwin
Mandelstam also wrote: “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?
Sent into multiple exiles and finally condemned to the concentration camps and hard labour of frozen Siberia, with Stalin taking ‘personal interest’ in his fate, poet Mandelstam sneaked out a note to his wife Nadezhda, asking for warm clothes. No one knows what happened to the note. He never got anything. Mandelstam, literally, disappeared.
“Even those outside Soviet Russia were not spared. Leon Trotsky, the great, non-dogmatic organiser of the Russian revolution with Lenin, in forced exile, was murdered in Mexico. And this spate of organised terror was always done in the ‘defence of communism’. They thought if they can kill a man, they can kill the idea also.”
He died, perhaps impoverished, invisible, tortured and brutalised, cold to the bone of his skin, invisible and suffering from an unspecified illness, on December 27, 1938, without a pen to write four lines. Perhaps he was killed in cold blood. This was the fate meted out to one of the greatest Russian poets of all time, once an ardent supporter of the Bolshevik revolution, later a critic of Stalin’s totalitarianism, a legend across the literary and political spectrum and a friend of another great poet Anna Akhmatova, who was equally hounded, exiled, demonised, with repeated attacks of character assassination; but she survived, unlike the man who died in Stalin’s Siberia.
Young Bolshevik and then non-conformist, futuristic poet and icon, Vladimir Mayakovski, committed suicide, completely disillusioned by the Kafkasque nightmare of the Stalinist bureaucracy. When he was younger, he would write about the revolution in flying, luminescent prose. For him, dying and death was part of the resistance and the revolution, it was not a metaphor for suicide. Later, he was asked to write about tractors, wheels and agriculture, the great progress under Stalin’s purges, his freedom of conscience and imagination shackled, compelled to be trapped in a rat trap of censored terror. In his suicide note, he wrote in the Unfinished
And so they say
“the incident dissolved”
the love boat smashed up
on the dreary routine.
I’m through with life
and [we] should absolve
from mutual hurts, afflictions and spleen…
There were others too. Writers and poets, their heart and soul with the revolution, embedded with eternal sacrifices and dreams, crafting new verse and prose of a new idealism, a new society carved by a new manifesto of equality, freedom, justice. But they only found a different dispensation, a negation of the Communist Manifesto, where comrades kill comrades without a moment of remorse, and the night of long knives is forever.
Poet Yesenin committed suicide. Boris A Pilnyak (1894-1942) defied the organised terror of the Stalinist regime. He wrote a novel: the covert story of a Red Army leader who was murdered — Tale of the Unextinguished Moon. The Murder of an Army Commander. Pilnyak was picked up in 1937, falsely charged with being a spy working for the Japanese. This was a brazen lie, part of a pattern. He was shot dead in April 1938, one of the many Soviet writers and poets who were systematically eliminated in Stalin’s Great Terror of 1938-39.
The Great Terror was not restricted to these two peak years only. It transcended all logic of inhumanity, time and space, geography, ideology, demography and ethnicity. Top commanders of the Red Army, top leaders of the communist party, veteran Bolshevik revolutionaries, including close comrades of Lenin, key catalysts who were in the vanguard of the October revolution, Stalin’s closest aides, ordinary members, wives, sisters and relatives, regional leaders, communists in East Europe, soldiers and members of ethnic communities, Poles and Jews, even those who returned after the great victory against fascism and the capture of Berlin, were killed en masse. Sometimes thousands were massacred in one collective exercise. Dissidents disappeared.
Otherwise, they would be taken to Stalin’s personal auditorium and then eliminated after a movie show. Others were accused of being conspirators against the party, against communism and Soviet Russia, a Trotsky loyalist, including those who killed and conspired for Stalin himself. All walls had ears. All whispers had sinister forebodings. All eliminations were inevitable.
The man who would preside over a massacre would be eliminated. The army commander who lost in a front, would be eliminated. The poet who wrote a subversive poem, was also eliminated.
So much so, Marshal Zukov, the legendary commander who led from the front and won several epic battles for the Red Army, the man who was the leader of the forces which defended Leningrad against Hitler’s forces, and captured Hitler’s Berlin, after defeating the fascists; the man who rode a white stallion at the Red Square in Moscow to mark the celebrations of the great victory against fascism; a close confidant of Stalin, Zukov met a ghastly fate. He was hounded, humiliated and banished, under the sinister gaze of Beria, the head of Stalin’s multiple octopus machinery, falsely accused of theft, ideological confusion, betrayal. This was because Stalin feared his popularity, and saw him as a rival. Several of Zukov’s top commanders were jailed, tortured, killed.
Even those outside Soviet Russia were not spared. Leon Trotsky, the great, non-dogmatic organiser of the Russian revolution with Lenin, in forced exile, was murdered in Mexico. And this spate of organised terror was always done in the ‘defence of communism’. They thought if they can kill a man, they can kill the idea also. Elimination of comrades or intellectuals, of a body of work in politics or aesthetics, became the elimination of a certain history, a moment of truth, a revelation, a note of dissent. This, often, does not work. Because, ideas cannot be killed by the elimination of human beings or ideas. They will be born again, in strange, unpredictable circumstances, across the full moon, on a full tide night. Like a banned poem rolling under the tongue.
They banned or censored Dostoevysky, Akhmatova, Pushkin and Tolstoy, books written for children, films of Eisenstein, later Tarkovsky, the writings of Bakhtin, western classical music, but the ban only resurrected all the ‘bad ideas’ into the domain of the underground, across eternity. It never worked in Russia or in China during the Cultural Revolution. If they had a chance, indeed, they would ban Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin also, if not Mao himself in China, as they did with Beethhoven’s Ode to Joy at Tiananmen Square in June 1984.
As they do with writers, artists, bloggers, filmmakers, human rights activists in contemporary, totalitarian, capitalist-communist China; they disappear, or are shot in cold blood, or vanish into torture chambers of Chinese prisons, their screams unheard, their ideas blocked.
Exactly like the Guantanamo Bay. Exactly like Ahmednijad’s Islamist-fundamentalists society, with hundreds tortured, jailed, raped in prisons. Like great filmmaker and pro-democracy activist Jafar Panahi, still in jail, despite international outrage.
More than Stalin, this is the Stalinism of ideologies which share an uncanny chord. This becomes a universal principle. There is no self criticism, no collective awareness, so stream of consiousness. There is no tolerance of dissent, no alternative world-views, no difference of opinion or paradigm shifts. There is no flight of imagination. Everything is one-dimensional and dogmatic. The dialectic is dead. There is no movement of the opposites. All contrary opinions are conjectures for declaring you as an enemy. If there is no enemy, you create one. If there is no dissidence, you create dissidence. If there is life, create death.
If this is not a negation of Marxism and humanism, what is? If this is not a reductionist perversion of communism, what is? If this is the utopia for a revolution, we don’t want this revolution.
That 22 million Russians died in the war against fascism, is forgotten. Great sacrifices of great revolutionaries are buried to the ground. The imagined idealism of an utopian world of equality, justice and freedom, and the infinite struggles and sufferings to achieve that, are lost in the twilight zone. What remains is this new dictatorship of terror, where a whispered word, or an imagined idea, or a note of symphony, can lead you to the gallows, or simply, with a bullet between your eyes.
This is the legacy of all totalitarian regimes. And yet, this is not the legacy of true, authentic, meaningful communism. This is not the legacy of Karl Marx or Che Guevara. This is a perversion in the name of communism. This is the black hole of Marxism-Leninism. This is anti-Marx, anti-Lenin, anti-Che. This is Pol Pot’s poetry against the poetry of Mayakovsky and Mandelstam. These are the killing fields, against the wild meadows of beautiful Russia. This is the counter revolution against the original revolution. The destruction of a dream.
Or else, the history of the world would have been written with a different colour of revolution. Not like Orhan Pamuk’s snow turning Red. But like the great communist song, Internationale, sung in a chorus, lifting into the sunshine and smell of summer, full of hope and possibilities, becoming the song of liberation, struggle and joy, on a typical May Day.