Dead Souls

The Weekly Standard, Books & Arts December 13, 1999/Volume 5, Number 13 Dead Souls

Its pages were yellowed, its cheap binding broken, its typeface uneven: There was nothing imposing about the copy of Un Bagne en Russie Rouge—“A Prison in Red Russia”—someone once handed me as a curiosity. Nevertheless, the book, published in Paris in 1927, was one of the first to describe the Soviet Union’s political prisons on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. Quoting survivors, escapees, and what little information had been published in the Soviet press, the author Raymond Duguet accurately described the geography of the islands, the barracks within a former monastery, the lack of food, the mass executions. He correctly named prisoners and several guards. He mentioned the mosquitoes. For sixty years, Duguet’s book was the most complete source on Solovetsky in the French language.

But Un Bagne en Russie Rouge was a failure. Its author was not famous, and its literary value was minimal. Worse, the book was mistimed. Because it appeared at the end of the 1920s, when the bloodiness of the Russian revolution was already fading into memory, it was easily outshone by volumes like L’Amour en Russie and Ma Petite BolchÈvique, which described the romance and excitement of Soviet Russia. In C’est la Lutte Finale, Magdeleine Marx, a French leftist who traveled to Russia in the late 1920s, wrote: “Such boutiques there are! The happy crowds promenade beneath the trees with an air of well-being.” Stories of dismal Russian prisons were not popular, and in any case, they could be countered by better stories told by the distinguished French Communists who had visited Russian prisons prepared for that purpose.

All of which is a way of explaining the surprising success of The Black Book of Communism when it was published in France in 1997. A serious, scholarly history of Communist crimes in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Africa, and Latin America, the Black Book did not look like a candidate for the bestseller list: 846 pages in the French edition—1,120 pages in the new American edition, translated by Mark Kramer and Jonathan Murphy—of torture, murder, repression, famine, and terror.

Nor were its authors the sort usually thought to have mass-market appeal: The Black Book was edited by Stephane Courtois, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, together with five other scholars—ranging from a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences to a specialist in the history of Southeast Asia at the University of Provence—and a handful of collaborators.

The contents of the Black Book were not even very original. The crimes of communism had been described before. In the 1930s, French newspapers reported the Moscow show trials. In 1947, Viktor Kravchenko’s book on life in Soviet Russia, I Choose Freedom, so shocked the French Left that one Communist journal accused him of inventing it, and a spectacular libel trial followed. In the 1970s, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago had an impact in Paris comparable only to its impact in Moscow: Articles were written, hands were wrung, and Marxism was pub licly renounced by many Marxists. It certainly didn’t seem, in 1997, that the French could be shocked by more accounts of Communist repression.

Yet something always seemed to in tervene to prevent the wider public from appreciating the scale of Com munist terror. After the revelations of the 1930s came the war: Stalin, the conqueror of Hitler, loomed larger than Stalin, the back-stabbing despot. After the Kravchenko trial came 1968: Mao, the revolutionary voice of French youth, triumphed over Mao, the man re sponsible for the greatest famine in world history. Solzhenitsyn was slowly discredited, in the anti-American, anti-Reagan France of the 1980s, as an author itarian, a nationalist, even a fascist. One way or another, in French political and intellectual life, anti-anti-communism always managed to triumph.

The Black Book’s editor, Stephane Courtois, intended to break this cycle. In his introduction, Courtois, a historian of the French Communist party and an ex-Trotskyite, produced a list of the casualties of Stalin, Mao, and other Communist leaders and concluded that Communist repression was responsible for the deaths of a hundred million people in this century. He denounced the “cupidity, spinelessness, vanity, fascination with power, violence, and revolutionary fervor” that motivated several generations of Western, and particularly French, intellectuals to ignore or “cover up” these deaths. Most important, he asked why they were so regularly and popularly played down in comparison with the crimes of Hitler. “A French government agency, the National Lottery, was crazy enough to use Stalin and Mao in one of its advertising campaigns,” Courtois observes. “Would anyone even dare to come up with the idea of featuring Hitler or Goebbels in its commercials?”

Courtois’s real aim was not to re-shape historiography; the comparison of Hitler and Stalin has been made, after all, by historians and political philosophers from Hannah Arendt to Alan Bullock. Rather, Courtois wanted to push the memory of Communist crimes back into the cultural mainstream. His language was perfectly calculated to irritate and embarrass the French Left, which has always been far happier to dwell upon its opposition to Hitler than its links to Soviet communism.

At this he succeeded, not least because he topped off his scholarship with a series of combative television appearances. Courtois told me that he prepared for one show, in which he was to debate the former editor of L’HumanitÈ, the French Communist newspaper, by digging out the edition from the day of Stalin’s death. When the editor began, predictably, to deny that his paper had ever supported the Russian dictator, Courtois pulled out the paper, which featured a large portrait of Stalin surrounded by a thick black border of mourning, and waved it dramatically in front of his nose.

Unlike Raymond Duguet, Courtois had political timing on his side. In 1997, France was under a Socialist government, and the immediate result of this attack on the Left was a sort of collective howl, well described in the foreward to the American edition by Martin Malia, emeritus professor at Berkeley and a scholar of Soviet history. Le Monde ran a front-page headline declaring “A Book Has Relaunched the Debate on the Crimes of Communism,” with pages of commentary following for weeks. Two of Courtois’s co-editors denounced his comparison of Nazism and communism and disassociated themselves from the book. A group of right-wing politicians, citing the Black Book, attacked the new prime minister, Lionel Jospin, for including the Communist party with its “criminal past” in his ruling coalition. Jospin replied that the Revolution of 1917 was “one of the great events of this century” and said he was “proud” to have Communists in his government; the right-wing politicians walked out of the National Assembly in protest. The book became a publishing sensation, not only in France, where it sold fifty thousand copies within the first two weeks, but in Germany and Italy, where the reaction of the Italian Left was almost as dramatic as that of the French.

Yet for a volume whose publication was surrounded by so much politics, the Black Book is for the most part apolitical. Because it covers so many places over such a long period, it is of necessity condensed, and reads at times like a martyrology. Trotsky’s death is dispensed with in a paragraph; more than three hundred thousand Poles are deported to Siberia in a page and a half. Fascinating stories are told only in briefest outline: the tale of the twenty-eight thousand children kidnapped during the Greek civil war by Greek Communists and deported across the border to Albania and Bulgaria, on the grounds that they would have a more humanitarian upbringing in Communist countries, for instance. Or the thousands of idealistic Finnish-Americans who emigrated to Karelia, the Finnish-speaking region of the Soviet Union, only to be arrested as spies, sometimes within days of arrival, and shot or deported to concentration camps.

In fact, the Black Book’s polemics are confined to the introduction, written specifically to irritate the French. Although some of Courtois’s comments will annoy the English-speaking academic world (we too have our historians and journalists who were less than forthcoming about Communist crimes, and who will be less than pleased to see Hitler and Stalin mentioned in the same breath), it’s hard to see Bill Clinton or Tony Blair getting worked up about it. The English language edition is unlikely to have any mainstream political impact.

But even though Europeans bought it primarily because of the controversy surrounding it, the Black Book does indeed surpass many of its predecessors in conveying the grand scale of the Communist tragedy, thanks to its authors’ extensive use of the newly opened archives of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

When those archives first became accessible to Western scholars a decade ago, some material was released, some was not; in Russia and Eastern Europe today, certain collections remain closed to some people and opened to others, or simply closed altogether, which leads many to suspect that the most sensational documents have not yet been released. In fact, the relative dearth of sensational revelations has been a disappointment to those who hoped the opening of archives would dramatically alter our knowledge of Soviet history.

Yet this is to miss the point. What is available is often quite ordinary: the day-to-day records of the Gulag administration, for example, with inspectors’ reports, financial accounts, letters from camp directors to their supervisors in Moscow. And it is the very ordinariness of such documents that matters. They may not tell us anything very new; we’ve known about the existence of Soviet concentration camps since the early 1920s. But the documents make the camps seem real. To tell their history, we no longer have to compare survivors’ memoirs to the depiction of camps in propaganda films, no longer have to contrast Raymond Duguet on prisons with Magdeleine Marx on Soviet boutiques. The words of the camp guards themselves can be used to describe what happened.

Here, for example, is how Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago describes the kulak deportations in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a period when richer peasants were removed from collectivized farms and sent to the far North to work as forced laborers. This wave of repression, he writes, drove a mere fifteen million peasants, maybe even more, out into the taiga and the tundra. . . . This wave poured forth, sank down into the permafrost, and even our most active minds recall hardly a thing about it. It is as if it had not even scarred the Russian conscience. And yet Stalin (and you and I as well) committed no crime more heinous than this.

By contrast, Nicolas Werth, who wrote the chapter on the same period in the Black Book, is able to quote from an official document from the archives in Novosibirsk. Signed by an instructor of the party committee in Narym, Western Siberia, and sent to the attention of Stalin in May 1933, it precisely describes the arrival of a group of deported peasants—labeled “outdated elements”—on the island of Nazino in the Ob river:

The first convoy contained 5,070 people, and the second 1,044; 6,114 in all. The transport conditions were appalling: the little food that was available was inedible and the deportees were cramped into nearly airtight spaces. . . . The result was a daily mortality rate of 35-40 people. These living conditions, however, proved to be luxurious in comparison to what awaited the deportees on the island of Nazino. . . . There were no tools, no grain, and no food. That is how their new life began. The day after the arrival of the first convoy, on 19 May, snow began to fall again, and the wind picked up. Starving, emaciated from months of insufficient food, without shelter and without tools, . . . they were trapped. They weren’t even able to light fires to ward off the cold. By August 20, three months later, only 2,200 of 6,114 people were still alive, and those partly thanks to cannibalism. No appeals to the Russian conscience are necessary to convey the tragedy, no attacks on Stalin or Soviet society, no “you and I as well,” are needed to heighten the drama. That we know this information comes from a document written by an ordinary party worker, expressly for Stalin’s eyes, is enough.

Unfortunately, the enormous im pact of archives on the accounting of Communist crimes also makes the Black Book somewhat lopsided. With the exception of Cambodia, the chapters on Asia cannot stand up to the chapters on the Soviet Union and Central Europe, since the Communist regimes in Asia are still in power and have not opened their records. In some countries, China included, re searchers have been able to do field work, and there are excellent secondary sources. In others, such as North Korea, all information must still be couched in language like “it is estimated” or “there is no way of knowing exactly.”

Some of the Black Book’s French critics attacked the book’s wide geographical scope for other reasons. Accusing the authors of ignoring the importance of cultural differences, they argued that the history of so many countries could not be told in one volume. Nevertheless, Courtois and his publishers (he credits them with the idea) were right to include non-European Communist movements. For this is the other aspect of the Black Book that makes it different from its predecessors: Now, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it makes sense to look back at the evolution of Communist terror as a single phenomenon, to trace the direct lines of influence, ideological and financial, from Lenin to Stalin to Mao Zedong to Ho Chi-Minh to Pol Pot, from Castro to the MPLA in Angola—to examine the spread of concentration camps from Russia to China to North Korea, and the export of the Soviet model of secret police to Cuba and East Germany.

Many of the authors in the Black Book attempt to put Communist movements into their cultural contexts, discussing the legacy of peasant rebellion in Russia or of slavery in Cambodia. But because communism was an anti-traditional ideology that deliberately destroyed older ways of life, the cultural differences between various national Communist parties are not, in the end, nearly as striking as their extraordinary similarities. What Jean-Louis Margolin, in his chapter on Cambodia, calls the “mania for classification and elimination of different elements of society” turns out to have been characteristic of nearly all Communist regimes: In Russia they were the “former people” or the “enemies of the people,” in China they were the “blacks” as opposed to the “reds,” in Cambodia they were the “75’ers,” who had been expelled from cities in 1975.

From Prague to Phnom Penh, the same kind of language was used to dehumanize these enemies—“poisonous weeds,” “insects”—and the same kind of fate awaited them and their families, in massacres, camps, and exile. Words and phrases invented by Lenin and his chief of secret police, Felix Dzherzhinsky, were repeated all over the world, in the most unlikely of places. As late as 1977, Mengistu launched a “Red Terror” in Ethiopia.

In the end, the very repetitiveness of these accounts produces their powerful effect. Over the past hundred years, human beings of extremely varied ethnic and political backgrounds have humiliated, imprisoned, and murdered one another in the name of various higher ideals and causes, using an ever-increasing degree of organization and technology. Each mass murderer learned from his predecessors. Each had his claque of supportive intellectuals. Each had his following among his soldiers, police, and fellow citizens. The real moral problem posed by the Black Book is not simply whether Stalin was as bad as Hitler. It is rather whether the history of the twentieth century hasn’t given us objective and final proof of what the philosophers and theologians of a much earlier era often claimed: that human nature itself is fallen and twisted at its core—and that utopian ideologies of “liberation” which deny this fact end by causing murder on an unprece dented

Anne Applebaum