"The Soviet Union is a great workshop constantly striving for greater progress and productivity, to ensure a better future for not only its citizens but for the whole of humanity, indeed to forge a better Man. Admittedly, mistakes have been made and debris and filth have accumulated in a few corners of this vast laboratory but it continues to thrive and labor, with sure confidence in its basic purpose and undimmed optimism, that its quest is bound to succeed"
(from the 'Soviet Diary', a travelog by SK Pottekkat, published around 1955)
"Our regime, as I have learned since 1937, is definitely a fascist regime, and it could not change by itself in any simple way. . .. I believe that while this regime exists, it is ridiculous to hope for its development into some decent thing. . .. The question about a peaceful liquidation of our regime is a question about the future of humankind. . .. Without fascism there is no
war....It is quite clear that Lenin was the first fascist.”
(statement attributed to Lev Davidovich Landau, Soviet physicist)
Let me narrate part of a story from distant memory:
"There was once a farmer in Russia. And he was rather unhappy about various things – his poor finances, poor yield from his land, (what he thought was) the inability of the Government to help him adequately.... He had heard of one Comrade Lenin who lived in Moscow and who was very great and powerful and very kind to the poor and so forth, so one day he decided to go and meet this man and ask for some serious assistance."
The farmer made a journey of several hours and reaches Kremlin, where he asks for Lenin. He is led into a big building and thru several long corridors and eventually into an office room piled with papers. A man sits at a table, poring over the papers. Being deeply immersed in work, he does not notice the farmer, who waits impatiently for the great Lenin to appear. The ‘file-porer’, after a short while, puts the papers aside and reaches for a small pot from which he starts to hurriedly eat some ‘kanji’. The farmer now begins to feel pity for this man who has so much work to do and such pathetic food to eat; but he also is eager to meet Lenin and talk business. He asks: “My good man, could you tell me where I can find Comrade Lenin?” The kanji-eater, who has noticed the visitor only now, answers, softly: “I am Lenin. What can I do for you?”
The farmer said: “Comrade Lenin, I came here to seek assistance for what I thought were my poor finances. But now I realize how fortunate I am compared to the starving millions in our country - and I deeply appreciate your working so hard and eating such simple food. I have brought some bread and ham for my own Lunch. Can you share it with me?” And Lenin says: “The kanji I eat is my rightful quota as a citizen - in view of our food supply situation. Ham is a luxury. Still, out of respect for your kind offer, I shall have a little bit.”
The last post here was primarily on Hindu and 'anti-Hindu' versions of History. Here I talk about another Religion I have been part of, unofficially but rather fundamentally - Communism. Of course, referring to Communism as a religion might raise eyebrows - and hackles - and much else...
The state-approved primary school syllabus of Kerala (during my long-gone childhood) used to served out hefty dollops of nationalism and, for variety, a dash of communist spice and flavor (the above Lenin story was from a lesson I learnt at school, at age 6). In those Cold War days, we were quite clear of the following: (1)India was always right and upright (2) the Soviets were our staunch friends in need, saving us from the machinations of the somewhat shady Americans. “The Soviets are ‘our’ friends, and they are Communists.” - things were as simple as that. Of course, I knew precious little about communism as a social system.
It was the norm to contrast the heroism of Lenin and the Bolshevik revolutionaries with the pure Evil of the 'Czarist oppression' that they overthrew. Indeed, in textbooks and popular culture, ‘Czar’ used to be synonymous with the devil (a rather bungling kind of devil at that). In a biographical textbook on Madame Curie, there were these lines: “In those days, Poland was ruled by Russia. And the Czar, the Russian Emperor, was very cruel to the Polish people”. I also remember a popular play of those days (set in Kerala); the idealistic hero reminds a sly politician: “Don't ever think you can get away with *anything*. The days of the Czar Emperors are long gone!”
At High School, I came into contact with 'Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad' (KSSP) a Science Popularization ogranization which was very active in schools. The Parishad used to publish hundreds of books and several magazines for spreading awareness of science among schoolers and also the general public. I did not know then that just as much as Science dissemination, which it doubtlessly did, the Parishad was into propagating Communism – it was pretty much a feeder organization for the Communist party.
One of the Parishad’s big projects was a series of 50 volumes titled ‘Science Cream’ which was meant to be a ‘Junior Macropedia’ of science and social studies. Along with fairly well written volumes on Outer Space, Gravitation, Genetics, Ecology,… ( Mathematics was unpardonably neglected; more on that later!) there were some *even more interesting* volumes titled: “Marx and the Capital”, “10 Days that shook the world”, “Spartacus”,…
The biography of Marx was plain hagiography. He was described as a Sage, an Acharya, a Visionary and so forth, a brave revolutionary devoted to bringing justice to millions of suffering people all over the world, a brilliant scientist who pursued his studies under grinding poverty, a devoted father and husband ….(*)
And like any religion, Communism had its mythology - and the ultimate mythical hero was 'Spartacus’, a slave turned rebel waging war against the Roman oppressors. He was cast as a proto-communist; his manifesto: “We will destroy Rome and its class structures. We will create a world where all are equal; no master, no slave. We will share the fruits of our labor equally!” His rebellion is crushed by Roman military power, Spartacus dies a martyr for the cause. One of his most trusted lieutenants, a Jewish former slave named David is caught and sentenced to death. The last chapter of the book describes the crucifixion of David. With his last breath, he defiantly yells out: “We shall return in our Millions!”.
Much later in life, I read at Wikipedia the following description of Spartacus by Marx himself: "the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history".
But among the 'Science Cream' set, it was “10 Days that Shook the World” which was by far the most interesting. Loosely based on John Reed’s chronicle(**) of the October Revolution, the Parishad version was structured thus: Ravi, an intelligent young man, is accosted by two children, Gopi and Suma, who want to hear a story. He proceeds to narrate the story of Lenin and his revolution. Here are some of the exchanges.
1. Ravi: Long ago, there was a Czar known as Peter the Great. He wanted a city built on the Neva river delta. He ordered millions of his subjects to work – to fill out the swamps, to dig the foundations, to lay out the streets and parks, to raise the palaces,… These poor people were asked to work round the clock with meager food. They had hardly any tools. With their bare hands they dug the ground and shifted the earth in their own clothes. Braving the freezing weather, and fearing the wrathful Czar, they toiled … Thousands perished. And from their sweat, blood and flesh a grand city rose. The Czar named it after himself – St. Petersburg.
Gopi: Terrible! But then, why is that fellow called ‘the Great’?
Ravi: Well, *some* people say he was great!
2. Ravi: (During the heat of the revolution in Petrograd) a group of counter revolutionary Junkers took Comrade Antonov, a Bolshevik leader, hostage. Their idea was to use Antonov as a 'human shield' to escape. But their nefarious designs were foiled when a mob of revolutionaries trapped them. The junkers now pleaded with Antonov to intercede on their behalf and to have their lives spared. Antonov did so at great personal risk and saved their lives.
Suma: But then, why did he have to save those evil fellows?
Gopi: And then, did the revolutionaries agree to spare the Junkers?
Ravi: The Junkers were taken to jail. Still people were so angry with those treacherous fellows that they killed off 5-6 of them on the way.
Gopi: Fair enough!
3.On the deposed Czar Nikolas’s fate:
Suma: And what did the revolutionaries do to the cruel Czar?
Ravi: The Czar was imprisoned for his misdeeds, with his family. Then they tried to act smart and run away and the revolutionaries caught them and finished them off.
Gopi: Good riddance!
Suma: Yes, serves them right.
4. On Aleksei Kaledin, a counter-revolutionary.
Ravi: Kaledin created plenty problems for the Bolsheviks but was finally defeated and cornered. He put a pistol to his chest and pulled the trigger.
Suma: Wow! So, Ravietta, all the villains are finished. The revolutionaries can begin governing untroubled. Peace!
5. On Kerensky, who governed Russia after the Czar’s abdication and before the Lenin and the Bolsheviks (whom he briefly and unsuccessfully resisted) took over.
Gopi: So, what did Kerensky finally do?
Ravi: He escaped, disguised as a naval officer.
Gopi: And the revolutionaries allowed him to escape after all the nonsense he did?
Ravi: Actually America helped him get away and even granted Kerensky asylum.
Suma: But why? The Russian people’s revolution is none of the Americans’ business!
Ravi: Well, the Americans are always like that. They are always opposed to the aspirations of the working class; wherever the revolution happens, they try to sabotage it.
6. And here is the end of the story:
Gopi: We are so unfortunate, India did not have a great man like Lenin!
Narrator: Even Ravi who had answered everything so far, could not console Gopi.
Tailpiece: In adulthood, I met a Russian physicist (somewhat older than self) who grew up in the Brezhnev era and later lived thru the collapse of Soviet Communism. He once told a group of us Indians: “Some people still say Lenin was great, that he was a genius,… I have absolutely no comments on that, no opinions!”
Leningrad is now St. Petersburg all over again. The 'bad' Czar Nikolas II is now a haloed martyr of a resurgent Russian Orthodox Church. An extract from Wikipedia says: "A poll of young Russians found that they felt Nicholas II had done more good than harm, and all other 20th century Russian leaders more harm than good—except Khrushchev, about whom they were evenly divided", And back home, a glam-couple from Bollywood have named their newborn son 'Czar'!
And yes, in middle age, I remain sympathetic to Socialism.
(*) - Even in 'Sarkari' textbooks of a generation ago, Marx had a larger than life presence (again, in Kerala). A couple of pages of our History textbook in class 10 was devoted to a dense summary of the Doctrines of Marx and we had to learn phrases such as 'Dialectical formula', 'Dialectical materialism, 'Mind being an 'Emanation from Matter'' and how surplus production and profit leads to a consolidation of the Capital. No other philosopher/economic theorist/political scientist of any nationaliy/inclination was even mentioned anywhere in that book. And the only seemingly heavy-handed measure due to Stalin mentioned in the same text was: "The land-owning class, known as 'kulaks' resisted collectivization; and they were totally done away with."
(**) - Here is a bit from Wikipedia on John Reed's book: Stalin was apparently very unhappy with the book because it strongly highlighted his arch-rival Trotsky's role in the revolution; Stalin himself was mentioned but twice in the book and once as just another name in a list of members of some committee. So, during the Stalin era, the book was banned in the Soviet Union, along with all of Trotsky's works.
Interestingly the Parishad condensation of Reed's book too mentions Stalin perhaps only once or maybe twice - and on both occasions, it is indeed something on the lines of "Stalin *too* was a member of the ... Council", the tone there was as if the reader already was aware of Stalin's general importance and only needed some reassurance that he too was involved big-time in the revolution. But more interestingly, in the Parishad version, Trotsky plays a very small role (even as late as 1980, mainstream Communist dogma probably had not fully rehabilitated him); he appears once to condemn some counter-revolutionaries as "ignorable entities, destined for the dust bin of History!" and that is about it!