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Political Evils and Utopian Seductions

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Without question, one of the most moving and disturbing movies of the last several years has been Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List. Wrapped in a fascinating story about one German businessman’s successful attempt to save 1,100 Jews from the Nazi extermination machine is a visual style that captures more clearly the cold brutality of Hitler’s National Socialist totalitarianism than practically any documentary produced since the end of the Second World War. A colleague of mine at Hillsdale College, who spent time in the Jewish Ghetto in Kaunas, Lithuania, as a young boy during the war, told me that no film he has ever seen has ever captured more realistically the atmosphere and terror of that time. (He escaped from the Ghetto and was hidden on the farm of a Lithuanian Catholic family until the end of the war.)

Another movie that appeared not long ago, in 1992, also portrayed the evil essence of totalitarianism. The Inner Circle was released by Columbia Pictures and starred Tom Hulce (who played the lead role several years ago in the film Amadeus) . Filmed in Moscow in English, it captured the nature of Soviet totalitarianism during the Stalin regime. Though it never shows any explicit brutality or mass murder in the way that Shindler’s List does, from the beginning to the end, the viewer is drawn into an atmosphere of terror, fear, and death that many Russians who have seen the movie tell me describes the mood of the Stalinist period better than almost any other film they have seen.

When, at one point in the film, the main character’s wife asks him, “Who do you love more, me or Comrade Stalin?” and he answers, “Comrade Stalin, of course,” the spirit of the times is shown at its core. Not that he means it — his tone and face show that he does not. But what most American viewers might not appreciate is that his response reflected the danger of saying the opposite, because there was always the possibility that your spouse might denounce you to the secret police for disloyal sentiments — and sometimes it actually happened in that dark period. At another point in the movie, the main character, Comrade Sanshin, accidentally places a jar of jam on a front-page newspaper picture of Stalin, leaving a gooey ring around the Soviet leader’s face. The person with him says, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.” This, unfortunately, was not a joke. In the 1930s, a man was actually sent to the Gulag for doing this very thing, accused of counter-revolutionary behavior.

In another scene in the film, Sanshin is called to a meeting with a senior KGB officer who handles security at the Kremlin, where Sanshin works as a film projectionist for Stalin. The meeting is held in a room at the end of a long, dark, narrow corridor that makes up one of the secret passages below Moscow’s Revolutionary Square Metro Station. The KGB officer, sitting below a photograph of Stalin, tells him that there is a plot against Comrade Stalin’s life, a plot that even extends into the Kremlin. He says, “You know, you’re not a bad fellow, Sanshin. . . . But not once in all the years you have been in the KGB ranks have you reported any suspicious behavior or denounced anyone for counterrevolutionary activities.” When Sanshin protests that everyone he works with is also a KGB officer who has been checked and double-checked many times, the senior officer threatens him with incriminating evidence that could send him to the Gulag. The officer then says, “Luckily, your file landed on my desk. But you must justify my confidence in you. Work hard, Comrade Sanshin, work hard.”

The world that Stalin helped to build in the Soviet Union was one in which millions became informers against a multitude of others in the society out of fear, revenge, or lust for power — and their denunciations were almost always fantasies created to serve their own interests or to protect their own families from the executioner or the slow death of slave labor in the Gulag.

Actor Bob Hoskins plays Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s cruel head of the secret police from the height of the Great Purges in the 1930s until 1953, when he himself was executed following Stalin’s death. At several points in the film, when someone missteps in his words to Stalin, the camera focuses on Beria, and the look in the eyes and the faint smile on the lips show that the thought behind Beria’s face is, “Soon you will be mine to deal with.” Sanshin’s wife, who is seduced by Beria, says to him, “People are scared of you, but . . . you’re kind of funny.” And Beria replies, “Yes, and because I’m funny, women love me.” The seduction finally leads her to commit suicide. In reality, Beria would cruise the streets of Moscow at night in his official car and force attractive women into the vehicle right off the pavement. If they resisted his advances, they and their families were threatened with arrest. One of the Arab embassies in Moscow is housed in the building that was Beria’s personal residence. In the basement are still the prison cells in which he “brought his work home.” The walls of the cells are still scorched black where he used a blowtorch to torture confessions out of his victims.

Stalin’s terror machine touched everyone in the society, even tens of thousands of children. A scene in the movie shows a transit location in Moscow for children on their way to state orphanages. It is located in a former Russian Orthodox Church, in which the building has been gutted, with the murals on the walls defaced and vandalized. Each child’s head is shaved, and frontal and profile mug shots are taken of them, with a number across their chest, as if they were common criminals — and, in fact, they were viewed that way by the regime. Each is the son or daughter of an “enemy of the people,” with the sins of their fathers and mothers falling on them. One of the matrons has the children form a circle around a young boy and a song is sung in his honor; his meritorious act had been to denounce his own father for being a counterrevolutionary. Throughout the Soviet Union there were statues to Pavel Morozov, a small boy who had, in fact, denounced his own father for hoarding grain to feed his family during the forced collectivization of the land in the early 1930s. One of the other matrons in the film says, “Nothing can save any of these children, each is heading into . . . the meat grinder.”

The director of the film, Andrei Konchalovsky, also wrote a 150-page book entitled The Inner Circle: An Inside View of Soviet Life Under Stalin to accompany the release of the film, in which he summarizes the nature of the Stalinist period in Russian history, with over 150 pictures depicting Soviet life under Stalin and in the inner circle around Stalin in the Kremlin. Konchalovsky explains:

This film is made from the point of view of an “innocent believer,” a regular Russian guy, a real homo sovieticus, a person who has been voluntarily brainwashed. He, too, is a victim, of course, but he has been seduced. This is the main idea of the film, that Stalin seduced the nation. The nation went into the Terror voluntarily. There was a little resistance in the beginning, but the country was broken very quickly, and then an extraordinary enthusiasm took over. Despite the terror, the arrests, and the Gulag, Stalin was revered by the people, revered by the great majority of Russian people. . . . Emotional, spiritual violence is as devastating and as damaging as physical violence. The devil always uses his power to seduce, not to force. . . . Spiritual tragedy occurs when you realize you’ve been seduced, because you are implicated in your own victimization. And in this sense, Stalin seduced the nation.

Why were so many people seduced by Stalin and the Soviet regime, not only in Russia, but among so many Western intellectuals, as well? A clue is offered in the following passage from Russia from a Car Window, written in 1929 by Oswald Garrison Vallard, editor of The Nation, after a brief tour of the Soviet Union:

[The Soviets] are on their way. By means of dictatorial powers, by force, by the use of exiling and drastic executions, by the use of all the means of repression to which Mussolini also resorts so freely and basely. But with this difference: the Bolsheviks are working for the good of the masses of the working people. Their great aim is to give them vast opportunities for work, to give them clothes, tools, the leisure for rest and culture, the use of modern inventions, education; they seek to uplift them. . . . No sincere democrat, no progressive, no humanitarian can fail to prefer the Russian experiment of the two autocracies [the Soviet and the Fascist regimes], however much he may dissent from its cruelties and its intolerance.

Any act of terror can be excused, any horror can be rationalized, every execution can be justified, every wave of destruction can explained away — as long as it is in the name of creating a utopia. In late 1944, as German defeat was closing in, a German journalist, Hans Schadewaldt, told how bright the future could have been if only Europe had remained united under Nazi leadership: “Under the Germans, there was no unemployment, no hunger, no mass murder, no epidemics, general strikes and bloody uprisings.” If only Europe was freed from Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and other racially defective types, there could have been economic prosperity, social harmony, cultural progress under wise and superior Aryan mastership — a New Order for the good of all Europeans!

In his book Moscow Carrousel (1935), American correspondent Eugene Lyons told of a zealous Russian woman who shouted at him:

Only we communists understand that there is only one possible issue and that’s the triumph of the revolution.. . . We go full steam ahead through solid walls as if they were putty. We’ll crush the Nepmen, and the kulaks and any capitalist armies they may send against us. The revolution can’t go back. It must go forward.

Once the class enemies are destroyed, once bourgeois consciousness has been eradicated, once all notions of individuality and self have been hammered out of the people’s psyche, then all men will live in harmony, all men will be equal, with bountifulness replacing scarcity under wise and superior leadership of the Party — a New Soviet Man in a New Soviet Society for all mankind!

It is easy to feel smug about totalitarianism’s seduction of others in our century. We look in horror, but with a sense of our own superiority. But we have been seduced as well in this century. If only the state cares for our old age and medical needs, and guarantees our jobs and standard of living; if only political restrictions are placed on “bad” behavior; if only the state educates us and trains us for a proper and productive place in society; if only the state regulates and controls the “unscrupulous” behavior of other people’s actions in the marketplace (because it is always someone else, and never ourselves, who can’t be trusted to act honestly and honorably in our dealings with others); then America will have a “New Deal,” every American will receive a “Fair Deal,” we will be on our way to a “New Frontier,” and the achievement of a “Great Society,” under wise and trustworthy supervision of elected officials and an army of public-spirited civil servants — a society of Social Justice and a “level playing field” for all Americans.

We need to ask if we, too, have not been “innocent believers” — “regular American guys” — who have been “voluntarily brainwashed” and seduced by the promises of the paternalistic state. And the seduction, perhaps, has been even easier for us, because it has involved none of the trappings of dictatorship, no knocks on the door in the middle of the night, no forced participation in “spontaneous” demonstrations, no mass disappearances into the black hole of slave labor camps. The devil, to use Konchalovsky’s metaphor, has, therefore, been more subtle and persuasive in his seduction for us to surrender to the politicization and regimentation of social life, precisely because it has all been happening in the illusion of “freedom” and the “American Way.” And our escape, therefore, may be even more difficult than it has been for some in the former totalitarian states, precisely because of our willingness over several generations to participate in our own victimization of a gentler — but no less collectivist-type.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).