Exploiting a Tragedy, or Le Rouge en Noir | The Nation


Exploiting a Tragedy, or Le Rouge en Noir

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The author of this review is the son of a zek: My father barely survived his deportation to a Siberian camp in Vorkuta. This, incidentally, adds nothing to the wisdom, or stupidity, of my views on the subject. At most, it suggests that I am not one of those latter-day Columbuses who discovered the gulag in Solzhenitsyn. I mention this fact merely to avoid misunderstandings and superfluous accusations. If you oppose the new orthodoxy, in which the red is painted in black or brown, you are branded as shamefully oblivious to Stalinist--or, to be really in tune, "Bolshevik"--crimes.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

"Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins," wrote Walter Benjamin; a Polish wit added that we don't know yet what our past is going to be. The recent past is now being rewritten at a fast pace. In the revised version Lenin equals Stalin, Communism equals Nazism and Marx is responsible for the concentration camps. All this is needed to prop up the doctrine, erected on the ruins of the Berlin wall, that socialism is dead and buried while capitalism will live forever. My objection to the corpse-counting historians is not that they tell a horrible story. It is that they are reducing a major tragedy--a revolution in a backward country failing to spread and the terrible result then presented to the world as a model--to a grand guignol. And these historians are not doing it to prevent the repetition of horrors in future transformations. They are doing it to destroy the very idea of radical change. They are painting the East in black to whitewash the West.

The opening, still incomplete, of the Soviet archives will not alter our vision fundamentally. We know too much for that. But it should allow us to fill some very important gaps and make it possible to add shading to this dark picture. While serious historians are already busy at it, the books that have hit the headlines are of a different nature. They are either potboilers, spy stories naming names of alleged Soviet agents or propaganda pieces describing the evil of our former enemy to boost both our past and present positions. The Sword and the Shield belongs to the first category. For professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge, England, this is not the first collaboration with a Soviet defector, but this time his partner is particularly strange. We are told that Vasili Mitrokhin, an officer in the external services of the KGB, drew the conclusion from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that his country was unreformable. He therefore took advantage of his position as caretaker of the archives and, between 1972 and his retirement a dozen years later, took notes on the innumerable documents at his disposal, smuggled the notes out and concealed them in his dacha. But it was only in 1992, after the dreaded regime had collapsed, that he contacted the British and then joined them with his treasure.

Thus this book is based not on original documents but on secondhand notes. True, Andrew gives his sources in the footnotes; and so we learn, incidentally, that there is nothing in the "Mitrokhin archive" directly connected with the big stories--the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss or the attempt to assassinate the Pope. But, as Andrew writes about everything, drawing on his own books and indiscriminately from anti-Communist literature, it is all rather confusing. In addition, Andrew uses code names rather than real ones (prudent, given that Oleg Gordievsky, a onetime collaborator, cost publishers damages in an unrelated project for asserting that British Labor leader Michael Foot was a Soviet agent). Even the careful reader, consulting the many footnotes, will have difficulty distinguishing truth from half-truth or innuendo, fact from fiction.

The other drawback is that the really interesting period of the Soviet secret services is the early, heroic one, when foreigners thought they were helping world revolution. Strange as it may seem, this feeling persisted in Stalin's time. But Professor Andrew has little new to tell us about Richard Sorge, who gave Stalin the unheeded message about the German invasion, or about Britain's well-known famous Cambridge Five, "traitors to class and country." Thereafter, when the motives were mercenary, the KGB was not very different from its Western counterparts (naturally, we are talking here about its external, not its domestic, role).

For all its tales, details and secrets, and despite the fact that spying is increasingly economic, The Sword and the Shield leaves one with the impression that cloak-and-dagger stories are splendid stuff for thriller writers but only a marginal tool for the historian. It strengthened my conviction that our writing on the cold war remains terribly slanted. Thus we learn in passing that in the 1948 Italian election, the CIA helped the Christian Democrats against the Communists by "laundering over 10 million dollars from captured Axis funds for use in the campaign." The authors do not find this shocking: Only Russian gold stinks, the American dollar being Chanel No. 5. The Italian journalists working for a leftish evening paper are supposed to feel ashamed because their publication is alleged to have received some Russian money, whereas the contributors to Encounter, Monat and Preuves, whose checks were cut by the CIA, can proudly parade as champions of cultural freedom. This is consistent with most writing on the cold war, which does not declare a plague on both their houses but poses the struggle as one between Good and Evil.

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