COLUMN

A dangerous post-Communist vacuum

When ultranationalists beat members of the Soviet Writers Union, that was not a pogrom, says Sharansky, ‘but pogrom is in the air’

BARBARA AMIEL February 19 1990
COLUMN

A dangerous post-Communist vacuum

When ultranationalists beat members of the Soviet Writers Union, that was not a pogrom, says Sharansky, ‘but pogrom is in the air’

BARBARA AMIEL February 19 1990

As I watched the dour-faced Soviet marshals in their peaked caps and smart grey uniforms stride in and out of the Kremlin on television last week, I felt a chill of fear. There is such elation at seeing that vile tyranny crumble in upon itself, but what, one wonders, will fill the vacuum left by the collapse of communism? Evil in the world did not disappear with the death of Adolf Hitler. Is the door now open to a virulent new Russian nationalism or theocracy?

It took nearly 35 years to undo this regime, if you date the first cracks back to the 20th party congress in 1956 when Khrushchev began his de-Stalinization program. Thirty-five years is not an overnight wonder, and one thinks of all the little cracks that came first. Not much attention has been paid to Wladyslaw Gomulka in Poland, whose halfhearted reforms prefigured both the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and then, when he tried once more in 1969, the Solidarity movement by a good 10 years. At one time or another, the Czechoslovaks, Hungarians and East Germans have all taken to the streets in protest. Now, the Soviet people may be free of communism, but free for what?

It happened that I chatted in London last week with Natan Sharansky, the human rights activist who was released in 1986 after nine years in the gulag. We sat overlooking the green park outside his hotel room, musing on this single question—what will it be? Sharansky had been denied a visa to return to Moscow for Andrei Sakharov’s funeral. “I am not at all nostalgic to go back there,” he told me, “but you know Sakharov had been with me and my family at the most difficult moments in my family’s life and I wanted to be with Elena Bonner [Sakharov’s wife].” In Sharansky’s view, it is very unlikely that a multiparty democracy can replace communism. He sees a period of a very strong Russian nationalism and all the concomitant problems that brings.

Sharansky’s immediate concern, of course, is the surge of anti-Semitism within the Soviet Union. When a state exercises total control over people, all things, including crime and pogroms, are nationalized. There is no private initiative in good things, of course, but neither is there private wickedness or evil. The state may unleash evil—as, for example, a pogrom—from time to time for its own ends as it sees fit. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was virulently anti-Semitic and its people were fed a steady diet of anti-Semitism. But even at the height of Stalin’s anti-Semitism, when Jewish intellectuals were being rounded up and there were the doctors’ trials, pogroms were not allowed. All that appears to be changing, and Sharansky sees it as a direct consequence of the Soviet people finding out about their own history.

“Today,” explains Sharansky, “except for some intellectuals in the political science departments of the universities of the Western world, no one believes in communism. It is entirely discredited. And the Soviet people hear from their own historians every day on television of how their culture and institutions were destroyed. Every day, new graves are discovered. They hear how 40 million of their own people were murdered, and this is not said by Solzhenitsyn, who everyone knew disliked the authorities, but by conservative Soviet historians. And they realize that they have an awful history. They need a scapegoat, and the Jews are natural. But we don’t see anti-Semitism in the national movements of the Ukraine, Lithuania or Latvia, though traditionally there was strong anti-Semitism there.”

The reason for that, explains Sharansky, is straightforward. The Baltic republics and the Ukraine have national movements that are homogenous and absolutely united in their dislike of both the Kremlin and the Russians. They mirror the phenomenon that has haunted history when an absolute monarchy has ruled multinational peoples—as in the Hapsburg Empire. In those cases, a dislike of the monarch coincides with the dislike of the ruling people.

In the Soviet Union, the problem arises among the Russian people themselves, the core of the empire, who are the rulers. They dislike communism, but who can they blame? Not the Armenians, the Azerbaijanis, the Baltic peoples, the Ossets or Cheremis, among others—all of whom they either conquered or absorbed. The Russians are faced with their awful history and have, to some extent, only themselves to blame.

“So,” says Sharansky, “they blame the ‘Masonic Jews’ who sell them vodka and try to corrupt and destroy mother Russia. Then someone says that Lenin had a Jewish grandfather and who was Marx? [A Jew.] Then they say that it was in fact Trotsky [a Jew] who destroyed all Lenin’s ideology and it was Kaganovich [a Jew] who was dictating to Stalin what to do and they find some Jewish names among the leaders of the KGB and, voilà! And of course, you can find this because there were also Jews who believed in Bolshevism just like Russians did.”

One can, in a sense, understand the plight of Russians. It must be a national trauma to listen day and night to the recitation of details proving only that your society has been a murderous, drunken abomination. I often have wondered in the past quite how we expected Germans born after the Second World War to cope with the fact drummed into them eternally that their parents were complicit in the most sadistical regime modern history has ever seen. The psychological scars must be terrifying.

Now, in the Soviet Union. Pamyat (the ultranationalist right-wing organization) has, according to Sharansky, called for a pogrom against the Jews on May 5. “This was seriously discussed on Soviet television two weeks ago,” says Sharansky. Recently, Pamyat supporters beat up members of the Soviet Writers Union when it passed a resolution that Russian nationalism was incompatible with anti-Semitism. That is not a pogrom, Sharansky says, “but pogrom is in the air.”

A Soviet Union reduced to a shadow of its former self may be able to use the spectre of anti-Semitic pogroms and ethnic unrest as a pretext to keep the troops on the streets and retain unwilling members of the empire. Gorbachev will be seen as a peacemaker, a man preventing bloodshed, and the army will remain in control. Who knows which way the blood will run? All we know is that, should it happen, the death of communism notwithstanding, it will still be bright red.