In 1990, following the opening of Soviet archives, the Oxford-educated historian Robert Conquest was asked by his publisher to suggest a new title for a revised version of his 1968 book The Great Terror. The book chronicles the oppression, internment, and murder of millions in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, and was denounced by scores of Western intellectuals as fascist propaganda.
“How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?” Conquest suggested. Because by 1990 even fools could not deny the truth of what Conquest had written.
What then to make of Rick Salutin’s deeply creepy column in today’s Globe and Mail? Salutin pines for the 1930s, when the “Soviet Union was socialist and the bloom wasn’t yet off that rose. Visitors from the West often returned with accounts of how well it worked.”
It is true that the Soviet Union was not a closed or secret society during the 1930s. Salutin at least denies himself the familiar plaintive refrain: “We didn’t know.” We did know, even in the 1930s, about the forced labour camps, collectivization, and the famines that starved millions to madness, cannibalism, and death. The ludicrous Moscow Show Trails of 1936 to 1938 welcomed foreign journalists and observers. And in 1935 Pravda, the ironically-named mouthpiece of the Soviet state, published on its front page a decree that children over 12 would henceforth be subject to “all measures of criminal punishment,” including death. As Martin Amis notes in his book Koba the Dread, this prompted the French Communist Party to explain that children under socialism become grownups very quickly.
So, yes, there were ample opportunities for visitors to the West to document how everything worked in Soviet Union. But perhaps it isn’t the slave labour, the starvation, and the murder that Salutin refers to? Actually, it is – at least murder in the context of a purge.
Salutin laments that today bankers in their office towers are not held accountable for the current financial mess. “No matter how often the economy crashers and shatters,” he writes, “they have no fear of being tried and executed for ‘economic crimes’ – a rare feature of Soviet communism that one can actually feel nostalgic for.”
I’m not sure how rare were state-sanctioned murders for so-called economic crimes during the Soviet era. Perhaps the number of people purged for economic crimes indeed paled next to those purged because they were “anti-Soviet elements,” or land-owning peasant “kulaks,” or “Trotskyists,” or “spies,” or “wreckers,” or “saboteurs,” or Poles, or Ukrainians, or any one of the many ethnic minorities who fell under suspicion, or simply because they had been denounced by colleagues, friends and family who feared they themselves would be purged if they were not sufficiently energetic in their denunciations.
That’s the thing about the murder of millions. The murder of a few hundred, or thousand, or tens of thousands, within those millions can indeed be counted as rare – if they count at all. Stalin once quipped that the death of one person is a tragedy, while the death of a million is a statistic.
But, says Salutin, the Soviet Union offered a different model. Surely this must also count for something. It doesn’t. I’m reminded of a conversation Amis recalls between his father, Kingsley, and the British philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer during the mid-1960s:
“In the USSR, at least they are trying to forge something positive.”
“But it doesn’t matter what they’re trying to forge, because they’ve already killed five million people.”
“You keep going back to the five million.”
“If you’re tired of that five million, then I’m sure I can find you another five million.”
I never knew any of the five million, or the millions more. But I regret their deaths. I sure as hell don’t miss the system that killed them.