Communism and Fascism

Posted 26th February 2000

Peter McNelly's post about the parallels drawn between Nazism and Communism in Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate raises an issue much-discussed among the Soviet-period intelligentsia, whose extension of the term "fascist" to include their Communist masters became a standard ingredient of post-Stalin dissidence (e.g., the writings of Vladimir Bukovsky and the "anti-fascist" placards raised against the attempted Old Guard coup of August 1991, referred to by Yevgeny Yevtushenko as a "fascist putsch"). Nor were the Soviet intelligenty unusual in drawing this parallel. In the West, the similarities between the two systems were virtually a commonplace of intellectual life during the 1930s, notably in the work of economist Peter Drucker who foresaw the Hitler-Stalin Pact (see Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters, III, p. 137). During the 1940s, such perceptions were assimilated by James Burnham into his theory of Managerialism, a significant influence on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four. Likewise, those who follow the academic study of Fascism, paradigmatic and otherwise, will be aware of similar theses advanced in the last twenty-five years by scholars like Zeev Sternhell and A. James Gregor (not to mention Alan Bullock's monumental comparison of Hitler and Stalin). In short, the theoretical equation of Fascism and Communism was well-established in Western historiography for most of the twentieth century.

Of course, one has to take an interest in the subject to know about this, something which David Fanning, for example, clearly does not. Replying (AMS meeting, Boston 31/10/1998) to my colleague Dmitry Feofanov's contentions along these lines, Fanning professed to be "disconcerted": "I'm worried about equating practice with principles. International Socialism and National Socialism are significantly different as ideologies, aren't they?" (DSCH Journal 11 [Summer 1999], p. 39) Once again, one is surprised by the casual historical vagueness current in musicology. It is as if other disciplines -- historical, sociological, literary, cultural -- barely exist so far as contemporary musicologists are concerned.

There is no doubt that, owing to such unfamiliarity with the common features of Fascism and Communism, the Soviet Communist regime has got off relatively lightly in the general Western intellectual purview compared with Hitler. However, much of this blindness to fact has been, and continues to be, a matter of deliberate policy. The Western left-liberal intelligentsia has a lot to answer for in terms of averting its eyes from anything incompatible with its idealised vision of the Soviet Union -- most egregiously in the Brezhnev era, after the Thaw had openly exposed to Western discernment the repressive nature of Soviet rule. I remember going into the leftwing bookshop Colletts in Charing Cross Road in 1978 to buy The Gulag Archipelago. Failing to find the book in the shop's basement History department, I was dismissively informed by a shop assistant that it was "upstairs... in Fiction". In other words, a 2000-page history of the Soviet labour-camp system was so inconvenient to the worldview of those in charge of Collett's History department that they refused it shelf-space alongside the complete works of Lenin -- the man who founded the Gulag in 1918.

Forever Flowing, Vasily Grossman's most explicit contention that Lenin was Stalin's progenitor, was written alongside Life and Fate during 1954-64. Refused Soviet publication, it was first published in Frankfurt in 1970 and translated into English two years later. The Western left-liberal constituency entirely ignored it. Only after the novel was published in the USSR in 1989 -- accompanied by what Grossman scholar Frank Ellis calls "an article bearing the unmistakable stamp of the CPSU's Central Committee: a discursive and tortuous apologia which desperately attempted to dissociate Lenin from Stalin, and thus preserve Leninist hagiography intact" -- did Grossman's critique even begin to be acknowledged by Western left-liberal intellectuals.

It was for the milder contentions about Lenin and Stalin in Life and Fate that the KGB "arrested" the manuscript of Grossman's novel in 1961 -- the only time in history a book has been taken into custody. Further to Peter McNelly's observations on the overlaps between Life and Fate and Shaporina's diary, it's worth adding that Grossman's second wife, Olga Mikhailovna, was among the arrested of 1937 (probably because her first husband, Boris Guber, had been a member of the Pereval literary group [see Shaporina's diary]). Grossman wrote to Yezhov, begging for her release and Olga was let out in 1938. Almost certainly his plea was allowed because of the contemporary success of his novel Kolchugin's Youth, journal-published during 1937-40; indeed, it was nominated for a Stalin Prize. This, though, was personally vetoed by Stalin in 1940, who condemned the book's political slant, calling its author a "Menshevist". Luckily for Grossman, the Terror was by then winding down and he soon found an opportunity to justify his existence by means of his front-line war correspondence.

Returning to Shostakovich, another novel worth reading in connection with his symphonies of the Terror is Lidiya Chukovskaya's Sofya Petrovna. Chukovskaya, then an editor of children's books under Samuil Marshak in Leningrad, lost her husband, the astrophysicist Matvei Bronshtein, to the NKVD (who arrested him and shot him in jail in 1937). Grief- stricken yet resolute, she stood with her friend Akhmatova in the city's prison queues. While Akhmatova was writing Requiem, Chukovskaya wrote Sofya Petrovna, a touching portrayal of the slow breakdown of an honest but self- deceiving woman whom fate gradually forces to confront the reality of the Terror. As with Grossman's Life and Fate, the manuscript of Chukovskaya's acutely atmospheric novel was sought for by the NKVD, but the outbreak of war saved the author, and the exercise book containing Sofya Petrovna survived in the care of some friends (who themselves perished during the siege of Leningrad).

--Ian MacDonald

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