Episode 18: The True Believer
Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
After a few more heavy episodes, it’s once again time for us to look into the darkly humorous world of Communist satire. We will be focusing on Soviet-Russian author Vladimir Voinovich’s last major novel, “Monumental Propaganda”. Voinovich was an interesting figure, having been born in 1932 and thus lived through most of the major eras of 20th-century Russian history, starting with the Stalin years. He started writing humorous novels during the Khrushchev thaw of the 1960s, but once Brezhnev gained power and started a return to more traditional Communism, his books could no longer be published in his country. He successfully continued writing secret samizdat novels and having them published in the west, but this led to harassment by authorities and his eventual exile in 1980. He continued writing though, and returned home in 1990.
“Monumental Propaganda” focuses on a life that occurs over roughly the same time period as Voinovich’s own, but the central character is quite different from the author. Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina is a local Communist official in the small city of Dolgov, who assisted in the mass arrest of the “kulaks”, or successful farmers, and then fought in World War II. The book begins in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the war. Like many local officials, Aglaya successfully lobbies to have a large statue of Joseph Stalin put in the town square. She is totally devoted to the great leader, and completely sincere in her desire to honor him. The statue turns out to be very well designed— almost too good, to the point of frightening its viewers. Of course, nobody can actually admit they are scared of him without dire consequences:
…one day an influential member of the Politburo came to Dolgov specially to see whether it would be worth transferring the monumental masterpiece to Moscow. Upon arriving in the square accompanied by Kuzhelnikov and looking at the statue, he also experienced quite evident agitation, and when he recovered, he said: “We don’t want any of that!” And once again the matter went no further than a review of personnel: Kuzhelnikov was removed from his position and sent off as an ambassador to somewhere in Africa. But a short while later this Politburo member himself disappeared mysteriously, and precisely because of that phrase “We don’t want any of that!” The phrase was reported to Stalin, and Stalin took the words “We don’t want any of that!” as a reference to himself, not the sculpture, following which the Politburo member vanished and his name was dropped from various lists, textbooks, reference works and encyclopedias, so that now not even the historians are able to say for certain whether he ever really existed or not.
Voinovich, Vladimir. Monumental Propaganda (p. 15). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Unfortunately, after Stalin dies a few years later and Khrushchev reveals his crimes to the world, people’s attitudes towards him begin to change. Suddenly people are openly discussing what was previously only the topic of whispers, the millions of lives destroyed and the economic devastation created by Stalin’s policies. Aglaya suffers a moral conflict when she is asked to remove the great leader’s name from a propaganda poster— she simply can’t accept the change in attitude. While she has happily helped erase memories of thousands of other people imprisoned or censured by the government, Stalin lives in a category of his own:
…two loves still dwelt in her heart in perfect harmony: love for Stalin and love for the Party. But now she was being urged to commit an act that she absolutely could not justify with any theories. Now everything had been said clearly and unambiguously and she faced a stark choice: to stick with the Party or stick with Stalin. An impossible, unnatural choice. For her, Stalin was the Party, and the Party was Stalin. For her, Stalin and the Party together were the people, the honor and the conscience of the entire country, and her own conscience as well.
Along the way, Voinovich includes numerous vignettes highlighting the failures and contradictions of Soviet society. Does Communism truly eliminate social classes and make all people equal? Well, here’s how the officials reason:
…it would have been genuinely indecent for the Party’s nomenklatura workers to live in poor-quality houses, but even more indecent for them to live in communal flats. And not just because the Party’s nomenklatura workers did not know how to coexist in crowded conditions, but because then the details of their lives would have become known to simple Soviet people and that must never happen. Living apart from other citizens, the nomenklatura of those times (just like its counterpart in these times) had to appear and did appear to be a special breed of people, superior, mysterious and possessed of the entire body of human knowledge. … They understood the secrets of our being, what was and what would be, but they had no interests apart from constant concern for the good of the motherland and our well-being. And if they needed living conditions a little better than ours, then it was exclusively in order that they might think about us without being distracted by anything irrelevant.
He also has a gift for anecdotes about the minor absurdities of Soviet life, as in this stomach-churning summary of the mid-century sanitation system:
On the outskirts of town people still simply relieved themselves in the open air, but nearer the center the public was a little more civilized and made use of communal facilities designed for this purpose—in the form of little planking sheds with two separate entrances and two doors that were often torn off their hinges, one of which bore the letter M and the other the letter W. Naturally, in these little sheds (the younger generations perhaps cannot even picture this) on both the M side and the W side the wooden floor was embellished with a dozen or so large holes in a long row and soft heaps deposited haphazardly around them, as though the bombardment had not been conducted point-blank, but from long-range guns, and shots had fallen short or overshot the target…
Alexei Mikhailovich Makarov, also known as the Admiral, used to say that if it was up to him to decide what monument to erect to our Soviet era, he would not have commemorated Stalin or Lenin or anyone else, but the Unknown Soviet Man squatting like an eagle on the peak of a tall mountain (Mount Communism) deposited by himself.
These issues, of course, mean nothing to Aglaya. She never wavers in her faith in Stalin, and is horrified when the local Party committee votes to remove the statue from the town square, to be disposed of or melted down.
“Metal?” Aglaya cried indignantly. “You call this metal? It’s a monument to Comrade Stalin. We all erected it together, all the people. We put it up when folks had no bread to eat and nothing to feed their children with. We denied ourselves everything to put it up here. And you’re dragging it through the mud like some lump of pig-iron. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Rather than let the great statue of Stalin be destroyed, she insists on having it moved to her own living room. Her neighbors are a bit concerned that the giant metal statue might be too heavy for the floor to support, in addition to being creeped out by having a giant Stalin in their midst, but still she manages to get it dragged in. She then finds she has to pay a series of regular bribes to her building manager, local permitting inspectors, and similar figures to be allowed to keep it there, eventually melting away all her modest savings, but puts up with this without complaints. The statue dominates her living room for the rest of her life. She cares for the statue better than she cared for her own children:
As she washed, she spoke words that her own son had never heard from her. “Now,” she intoned, “we’ll wash your nice hair, wash your lovely eyes and nose, and then your ears, then your shoulders and your chest and back and tummy . . .” Until she reached the place where the flaps of the greatcoat were parted to reveal the lower edge of the jacket and immediately below it the spot from which the legs began. Aglaya suddenly felt embarrassed. The spot, as a matter of fact, was smooth, the way it could only have been in a being that was either female or entirely sexless. And for some reason Aglaya felt strangely perplexed by this. She suddenly wondered—and felt angry with herself for doing it, but her doubts still remained—what had the living Comrade Stalin had at this spot? She was unable to think of him as having something at that spot, but to imagine that there hadn’t been anything proved even harder. She abused herself, calling herself a fool and an old fool for having any such thoughts at all.
Despite her past willingness to destroy people’s lives for deviating from the officially dictated party line, which can change from day to day, she cannot be moved on the topic of her idol. Stalin will forever be her hero, role model, and guide. In an angry letter she berates her son Marat for accepting the new reality:
“When Stalin was alive, I can’t remember anyone ever saying there was anything about Stalin they didn’t like. Everyone said the same thing: A genius, a great commander. Our father and teacher. The luminary of all the sciences. Did they really not believe what they were saying? Were they all really lying? I don’t understand—when were these people being sincere, now or then?”
When her son visits and complains about the statue making him and his wife nervous, their relationship deteriorates even further:
“Mom, what’s wrong with you?” said Marat, trying to calm her down. He even held out his arms to give her a hug. “I’m not talking about Stalin himself, I mean that idiotic sculpture. It’s not a man, it’s an idol—” “Ah, it’s an idol!” Aglaya flared up. “How dare you! Take your hands off me! . . . How dare you say that about the man who means more to me than—” “Mom!” Marat appealed to her one more time. “I’m not your mom!” she yelled. “And you’re no son of mine! Clear out the pair of you and don’t let me ever see you again!” “Mom,” mumbled Marat. “I just don’t get it, why are you so—” “Get out!” said Aglaya, and pushed him in the chest…
“Get out!” Aglaya repeated, and pushed him in the back. Then she slammed the door shut, turned the key in the lock and went into the sitting room, prepared to cry her eyes out. But glancing by chance at the statue, she froze. Stalin was gazing at her so expressively that she had no difficulty in reading complete approval of her courageous act in his eyes.
Aglaya’s stubbornness begins to get her into trouble when a local Party meeting takes a vote to approve the condemnation of Stalin and the party’s new direction. For the first time ever, she dares to abstain from a vote of approval called by a local chairman:
Everyone immediately threw their hands up in the air and … cried out: “We approve! We approve! We wholeheartedly and absolutely approve!” “Whosagainstabstained?” Nechaev asked quickly, running the words together without waiting for any answer. He had already opened his mouth to utter the customary “Carried unanimously” when suddenly… he had already noticed a slim arm raised in the back row like a solitary blade of grass swaying in the breeze. … “You? Aglaya Stepanovna? How is this possible? Are you abst—are . . . you abstaining?”
The other party members are horrified at her actions, but in many cases, it’s not for exactly the reasons you would suspect:
…the whole business smacked of nothing less (how terrible even to utter the words!) than ideological sabotage. And all sorts of checks and purges would begin in the district. Involving the elucidation of who had stolen how much from where. Or taken a bribe from somebody. Or given somebody a poke in the face. Or taken and given. And although the delegates at the Dolgov conference were all to a man absolutely devoted to… the latest instructions from the highest levels of the Party, to claim that none of them had ever stolen anything, or given anybody a bribe, or taken a bribe from anybody or entered a fake item in the accounts, or written off an item and pocketed the money, would have been excessive. But the more a man stole, the more intransigent he was in the area of ideology.
As a result, everyone in the room begins to loudly condemn Aglaya. After this, she fully expects the police to come and carry her off to a Gulag camp or something worse. Despite having maintained for years that anyone sentenced to these harsh punishments under Stalin must have clearly deserved them for endangering the glorious future being implemented by the leadership, in her own case she suddenly sees a flaw in the system. But as a further irony, due the post-Stalin thaw, things are no longer quite that bad: while she loses her position and Party membership, she is not arrested. Yet there are still numerous consequences in her personal life: while in bed with her, her boyfriend suddenly realizes that he may be committing an ideological error, and suddenly has to loudly announce that he condemns her political position before leaving.
The novel continues to walk us through several further eras of Soviet and Russian history, all with the great statue of Stalin staring down at Aglaya in her living room. Out of favor during the post-Stalin period of reform, she suddenly finds herself again with friends and allies when Brezhnev takes over and attempts to restore more traditional communism. The Party even sends her on a luxurious vacation. Then her fortunes are again reversed in the 1980s, as the Gorbachev reforms take hold. After Communism falls, she finds herself courted by the new, supposedly democratic Communist Party as it gains popularity in local elections. They find new ways to rationalize their excuses of past crimes:
“You know, as a historian, I take an unbiased view of the figure of Stalin. Under Stalin’s leadership great mistakes were made. Mistakes, well anybody can make mistakes, but viewed against the course of the historical process, they naturally don’t appear so significant. Especially, well, you know they say Stalin killed so many millions. But we’re realists. We realize that if he hadn’t, sooner or later those millions would have died anyway.”
In the end, Aglaya and her statue die together, in an explosion caused by the wars between post-Soviet gangsters.
As always, we’ve only been able to touch on a few highlights of the story— you really need to read the book to get a full sense of the colorful and whimsical cast of Soviet neighbors who pass through the decades along with Aglaya. We hear about Party and military officials, loyalists and dissidents, and ordinary neighbors and drunks, each of whom copes in their own way with the various changes to Soviet Communism after Stalin. If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to check out Vladimir Voinovich’s “Monumental Propaganda”, as well as his other novels, for yourself.
And this has been your story of communism for today.