Posts Tagged 'communism'

Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward: “A definite opinion has been established.”

I should start by explaining that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is about a cancer ward. The reviewers, like this one in the New York Times, 1968, are going to tell you that the ward symbolizes the Soviet Union, and the cancer the moral rot eating away at the souls of the Soviet people:

As “One Day [in the Life of Ivan Denisovich]” stands for the agony of all Russia under Stalin, so “The Cancer Ward” irresistibly conveys an image of the immediate post-Stalin period when both victims and executioners were confined, all equally mutilated, in the cancer ward of the nation.

…and that Solzhenitsyn was just being cagey when he told the secretariat of the Union of Soviet Writers – who had declined to approve his book for publication – that,

The fact is that the subject is specifically and literally cancer, a subject avoided in literature, but nevertheless a reality as its victims know only too well from daily experience.

alexander solzhenitsyn cancer ward

In that meeting (a transcript is included as an appendix in the Bantam paperback edition of Cancer Ward), whenever Solzhenitsyn was invited to speak he made a point of disavowing his earlier, more explicitly political play Feast of the Conquerors, which had particularly upset the bigwigs. He told them that he now regarded his play as “very dangerous”. [1] He could’ve told them to stuff it – one kind of wishes he had – but at this point he still had hopes of pestering them into greenlighting his new novel.

(They never did. They kicked him out of the union a couple years later.)

So sure, he was being cagey. But I think he meant what he said about Cancer Ward. He must have known that his subject would invite all kinds of speculation about its symbolic significance, but it really is a book about life in a cancer ward. That seems to have been a big part of what annoyed the commissars from the Union of Soviet Writers. Why cancer, comrade? Isn’t it just kind of gratuitously depressing? As a member of the secretariat named Kerbabaev put it,

Why does the author see only the black?

This line of criticism echoes one of the debates within the novel, which begins when a patient named Podduyev, a man of rude and unreflecting vitality, is given a book of short stories. To his surprise, one of the stories seems to answer a question that’s been haunting him for weeks, as he has grappled with the reality of his disease. He decides to share his revelation with the others in the cancer ward:

“Listen, here’s a story,” he announced in a loud voice. “It’s called ‘What Men Live By’.” He grinned. “Who can know a thing like that? What do men live by?”

Treating the title as a riddle, he challenges the other patients to offer their speculations. One suggests that men live by air, water, and food. Another, by their pay. Another, by their professional skill.

In the bed across from Podduyev is a self-satisfied little man called Rusanov, a person of some political influence – for instance, rather than wearing the ill-fitting pyjamas assigned by the hospital, he’s been allowed to bring in his own. Later we’ll learn that Rusanov has acquired his position through the strategic denunciation of neighbours and co-workers.

Relaxing his customary aloofness toward the other patients, Rusanov decides to settle the debate:

“There’s no difficulty about that,” he said. “Remember: people live by their ideological principles and by the interests of their society.”

Discomfited by Rusanov’s tone of certainty, Podduyev attempts to summarize the story in his own words. It’s a fable about a poor cobbler who takes as an apprentice a mysterious beggar who, it soon emerges, may have the power of prophecy.

Rusanov has no patience for such mystical nonsense. He interrupts Podduyev, demanding that he skip to the end and tell them what, in the author’s opinion, men live by.

“What do they live by?” He could not say it aloud somehow. It seemed almost indecent. “It says here, by love.”

“Love? . . . No, that’s nothing to do with our sort of morality.”

Upon being demanded to tell who wrote this sentimental tripe, Podduyev haltingly enunciates the author’s name: “Tol . . . stoy.” Not, it soon emerges, Alexei Tolstoy, winner of the Stalin Prize, but “the other one” – that old pious fraud whose ideological errors had been settled long ago by Lenin, who wrote in 1908 that,

The contradictions in Tolstoy’s works, views, doctrines, in his school, are indeed glaring. … On the one hand, the most sober realism, the tearing away of all and sundry masks; on the other, the preaching of one of the most odious things on earth, namely, religion[.]

Having reminded his listeners of these facts, Rusanov retires complacently from the debate.

But the topic comes up again some days later. Along with Podduyev and Rusanov the ward contains a romantic character called Kostoglotov, a former political prisoner subsequently exiled to a remote village in Central Asia. (The location of the hospital is never spelled out, but is presumably Tashkent, where the author was treated for cancer after his stint in prison.)

A cynic with a long scar on his cheek from a brawl with urkas in the Gulag, [2] Kostoglotov inevitably winds up at odds with the doctrinaire Rusanov. But they have in common a sermonizing bent, which one evening inspires Kostoglotov to hold forth on the healing properties of optimism:

“So I wouldn’t be surprised,” Kostoglotov continued, “if in a hundred years’ time they discover that our organism excretes some kind of cesium salt when our conscience is clear, but not when it’s burdened, and that it depends on this cesium salt whether the cells grow into a tumor or whether the tumor resolves.”

[Podduyev] sighed hoarsely. “I’ve mucked so many women about, left them with children hanging round their necks. They cried . . . mine’ll never resolve.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” [Rusanov] suddenly lost his temper. “The whole idea’s sheer religious rubbish! You’ve read too much slush, Comrade Podduyev, you’ve disarmed yourself ideologically. You keep harping on about that stupid moral perfection!”

“What’s so terrible about moral perfection?” said Kostoglotov aggressively. “Why should moral perfection give you such a pain in the belly? It can’t harm anyone – except someone who’s a moral monstrosity!”

“You . . . watch what you’re saying!”

[Rusanov] flashed his spectacles with their glinting frames; he held his head straight and rigid, as if the tumor wasn’t pushing it under the right of the jaw. “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion.”

“Why can’t I discuss them?” Kostoglotov glared at Rusanov with his large dark eyes. […]

“If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” [Rusanov] pulled his opponent up, articulating each word syllable by syllable. “The moral perfection of Leo Tolstoy and company was described once and for all by Lenin, and by Comrade Stalin, and by Gorky.”

“Excuse me,” answered Kostoglotov, restraining himself with difficulty. He stretched one arm out toward Rusanov. “No one on this earth ever says anything ‘once and for all’. If they did, life would come to a stop and succeeding generations would have nothing to say.”

[Rusanov] was taken aback. The tops of his delicate white ears turned quite red, and round red patches appeared on his cheeks.

In a realistic twist, Kostoglotov soon finds himself contradicting himself – he started out arguing for optimism and now finds himself arguing for facing up to the grim facts:

“Why stop a man from thinking? After all, what does our philosophy of life boil down to? ‘Oh, life is so good! . . . Life, I love you. Life is for happiness!’ What profound sentiments. Any animal can say as much without our help, any hen, cat, or dog.”

And as the other patients jump in with their own opinions, and Rusanov is distracted by a twinge in his tumor, the discussion veers off in another direction.


One of the ironies of this scene is that the more sympathetic figure in the quarrel is arguing for what we would now describe as some kind of holistic “alternative medicine” approach to cancer treatment – the kind that many of us, myself included, would wave off as pseudo-scientific quackery. Shortly after proclaiming his right to think and speak freely, Kostoglotov is invited by another patient to elaborate on a folk remedy to which he’d previously alluded:

“Friends!” he said, with uncharacteristic volubility. “This is an amazing tale. I heard it from a patient who came in for a checkup while I was still waiting to be admitted. I had nothing to lose, so straightaway I sent off a postcard with this hospital’s address on it for the reply. And an answer has come today, already!”

Kostoglotov’s correspondent is a country doctor near Moscow, who (the letter explains) observed that cancer was rare among the peasants he treated. Deducing that this immunity was derived from their consumption of a tea made from a birch tree fungus called chaga, the doctor now promotes the fungus as an anti-cancer remedy. His letter contains a recipe for drying the fungus and preparing the tea: Kostoglotov reads the instructions aloud, and the other patients eagerly copy it down.

The catch is that the chaga can only be found on certain birches in northern forests, far from the Central Asian plain:

“He says here there are people who call themselves suppliers, ordinary enterprising people who gather the chaga, dry it and send it to you cash on delivery. But they charge a lot, fifteen roubles a kilogram, and you need six kilograms a month.”

Rusanov is, of course, outraged by such profiteering:

“What sort of a conscience do they have, fleecing people for something that nature provides free?”

But his Communist principles don’t prevent him from joining the other patients in importuning Kostoglotov for the address of the supplier of the miracle cure. Kostoglotov, however, resolves to share the secret only with a few of his closest friends among the patients.

After this, the chaga is mentioned only in passing; one of the patients gets his hands on some, but we never find out whether it helps him.

Equally unknown is whether Solzhenitsyn tried chaga in the treatment of his own cancer – though some seem to think he did. Lately chaga, which also grows in Canadian forests, has been promoted as a “superfood”, leading to overharvesting of the rare fungus. Whether it actually does anything is open to question.

There is another herbal treatment mentioned in Cancer Ward – “the root from Issyk Kul”, an infusion of aconite in vodka. When Kostoglotov’s doctor discovers that he’s been treating himself with the highly poisonous compound, acquired from a medicine man in the country, she insists that he hand the bottle over to her. He resists:

“When I leave the clinic I’ll want the root extract to treat myself with. I don’t suppose you believe it works?”

“No, of course I don’t. It’s just a lot of dark superstition and playing games with death. I believe in systematic science, practically tested. That’s what I was taught and that’s the way all oncologists think. Give me the bottle.” […]

“Oh, I know about your sacred science,” he sighed. “If it were all so categorical, it wouldn’t be disproved every ten years!”

Former president of the American Cancer Society Vincent T. DeVita described how in the early 1970s one of his patients, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, was told by Solzhenitsyn that he credited a similar infusion – not of aconite, but of mandrake root – for the remission of his cancer.

The ambassador, suffering from advanced cancer of the pancreas, brought Dr. DeVita a handful of mandrake root and some 80-proof vodka and asked for his help preparing the medicine per the author’s recipe. DeVita declined – this wasn’t “systematic science, practically tested” – but gave the ambassador leave to try it on his own.

After the ambassador’s death – from cancer, not self-medication – his wife brought DeVita the remainder of the medicine they’d prepared, and asked him to have it analyzed:

I called the chief of our natural products branch, told him the story, and asked if he would do it. His interest was piqued. “Sure,” he said.

A month later he called me, expressing his amazement: “Vince, this stuff contained two cancer drugs we have had under development, VP-16 and alpha peltatin.” […]

“Not only that,” he continued, but the exact concentration of alcohol needed to extract the alkaloids from the roots is the concentration in 80 proof vodka. “And, you’re not going to believe this, but there is enough drug in eight grams of root to provide a therapeutic dose of VP-16,” he said. In other words, Solzhenitsyn’s root-and-vodka recipe had neatly created a version of the medication strong enough to treat cancer.


There are two ways to read Solzhenitsyn – well, there are hundreds, I suppose, but let’s stick to the two. You can read him as an uncompromising evangelist for Truth – the Truth that goes on happening while academics and bureaucrats squeak contrary pronouncements from within their clockwork models of ideological clarity. This is the reading typified by the social conservative author and blogger Rod Dreher, who has named his upcoming book Live Not By Lies after an essay Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1974 – shortly before he got kicked out of his country:

If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously to remain a servant of falsehood … or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

Whereas I tend to read Solzhenitsyn as an evangelist of Uncertainty. The last time I wrote about him I quoted this passage from The First Circle. The setting is a prison – once again, Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences formed the basis of the story – and the character being described is the prison’s security officer, Major Shikin:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

Like Major Shikin, Rusanov in Cancer Ward is secure in his own well-meaningness: he only wants to protect his fellow patients from being exposed to dangerous falsehoods. We might scoff at his statement that “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion” – and yet few of us would argue for absolute open-mindedness. The idea that Tolstoy’s supposed ideological errors, as defined by Lenin, should be one of those undiscussable questions strikes us as absurd, just as it would strike Rusanov as absurd that – well, choose your own article of contemporary dogma.

I’m afraid that if I were in that Tashkent cancer ward listening to Kostoglotov prattle on about herbal remedies, I would react much as Rusanov did: “If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” (Although I wouldn’t say it out loud.) While Kostoglotov dosed himself with mysterious rural potations, I would defer to the scientific opinions of the doctors. And if I’d been brought up believing that Lenin had scientifically settled the question of Tolstoy’s literary merit, I suppose I’d defer to that opinion too.


1. If Solzhenitsyn’s Feast of the Conquerors has ever been translated into English, it seems not to be online. Nowadays it usually goes by the name Feast of the Victors or The Victors’ Feast. Russian readers can find it here: Пир победителей.

The author made a triumphant appearance at the play’s belated world premiere in Moscow in 1995.

2. The urkas or urki were thieves (my edition of Cancer Ward translates the term as “hoods”) who, as “socially friendly” elements – enemies of private property – were given an easier ride in Soviet prison than the “politicals”. As Solzhenitsyn explains in Part III of The Gulag Archipelago:

Here is what our laws were like for thirty years – to 1947: For robbery of the state, embezzlement of state funds, a packing case from a warehouse, for three potatoes from a collective farm – ten years! (After 1947 it was as much as twenty!) But robbery of a free person? Suppose they cleaned out an apartment, carting off on a truck everything the family had acquired in a lifetime. If it was not accompanied by murder, then the sentence was up to one year, sometimes six months.

Conscious of their privileged status, the urkas would rob and tyrannize the political prisoners while the guards did nothing:

[I]t was much better for the business of oppression; the thieves carried it out much more brazenly, much more brutally, and without the least fear of responsibility before the law.

Much like convicts in American prisons who take it upon themselves to dole out extra punishment to sex offenders, the urkas regarded their abuse of the politicals as a matter of honour. Solzhenitsyn quotes an ex-convict:

I was even proud that although a thief I was not a traitor and betrayer. On every convenient occasion they tried to teach us thieves that we were not lost to our Motherland, that even if we were profligate sons, we were nevertheless sons. But there was no place for the “Fascists” on this earth.

The “Fascists” included reprobates like Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward, sentenced to eight years, followed by permanent exile to Central Asia, for participation in a non-approved university discussion group.

For more on the urkas, this undergrad thesis by Elizabeth T. Klements is worth reading: “Worse Than Guards:” Ordinary Criminals and Political Prisoners in the GULAG (1918-1950)

There must be something about that “Major Shikin” passage from The First Circle that really speaks to me. I first used it in a discussion last year of Jordan Peterson, and a few months later I trotted it out again in a critique of the movie It: Chapter Two. Having used it three times, it’s probably time for me to retire it.


A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark.

In a subplot of Kingsley Amis’s 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, an Oxford college debates whether to surrender to the Zeitgeist and admit female students. It’s mentioned that a strange alliance is forming between the more reactionary of the men’s colleges – attached to the status quo for the reasons you’d expect – and the women’s colleges, who fear losing their student base to the more prestigious, traditionally all-male institutions.

“It’s like something out of C.P. Snow,” someone observes.

For C.P. Snow’s novels are famously About Politics. I capitalize the words to emphasize that this is not the same as being Political, as the word is usually meant: when we attend an evening of Political comedy, we don’t expect a bunch of gags about coalition building, or how to swing a recalcitrant committee member to your side; we expect to be lectured about how awful the Republicans are, with (if we’re lucky) a few jokes thrown in.

I would be hard-pressed to name a book more About Politics than 1951’s The Masters, which concerns the manoeuvres leading up to a vote by the dozen or so fellows of a Cambridge college to elect a new Master from among themselves. It’s a topic that would lend itself to black humour; but however low-stakes their dissensions appear, however petty their motives, Snow never treats his characters cynically. As he wrote elsewhere, in what could serve as a thesis statement for all his fiction:

Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once – say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where – you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.

That passage comes from 1954’s The New Men, which is about British physicists working to develop the atom bomb during World War II, and subsequent efforts by the idealists among them to prevent the bomb from actually being used. It belongs, along with the better-known The Masters, to the Strangers and Brothers series: eleven novels written over a span of thirty years, collectively depicting a life and career arc roughly paralleling the author’s own. I’ve read three others:

The Affair (1960), set twenty years after The Masters and at the same Cambridge college, concerns an apparent case of academic fraud by a stridently left-wing scientist that divides the administration.

The Sleep of Reason (1968), set in a grimy corner of England during the 1960s sexual revolution, examines both sides of a sexually sadistic murder trial where the sanity of the defendants is in doubt. (It was Peter Hitchens’s review of The Sleep of Reason a few years back that inspired me to start collecting Snow’s books.)

The Light and the Dark (1947) I’ll be discussing below.

Our narrator and authorial stand-in Lewis Elliott takes an active part in the conflicts animating these stories. He’s usually aligned with the “radical” side, meaning he supports the modern progressive agenda, more or less, albeit with more central economic planning and less freaky sex stuff. But Elliott, like his creator, is a level-headed, good-humoured chap who keeps up friendships even with political foes.

But it’s not only the author’s fair-mindedness that keeps the novels from feeling propagandistic – Political in the typical sense. It’s that Snow isn’t much interested in rehashing topics that at the time would have seemed wearisomely familiar from op-eds and dinner party debates. Perhaps because he sees political beliefs as being formed by personality and social pressures rather than by reasoned-out arguments, or perhaps simply because he finds political debate dull as a subject for fiction, the content of those debates is usually skimmed over. His characters let fall acid remarks at parties, unburden their souls while strolling by the Cam, reveal too much under the influence of alcohol, but their words are always slightly askew of the main point. On occasion a key revelation will be so artfully, annoyingly lacking in specifics that you wonder if you’ve skipped a page.

c.p. snow the light and the dark

The Light and the Dark, though less About Politics than the other books mentioned above, is somewhat more Political. It’s about Lewis Elliott’s friendship with a dashing, brilliant, emotionally troubled linguist named Roy Calvert, whose specialty is the early writings of Manichaeism, the extinct faith whose name has become shorthand for black-white thinking.

The setting is Cambridge and London in the 1930s. Calvert’s researches take him frequently to Berlin, where in his naturally gregarious way he makes friends in both low and high society: among the Bohemian fringe as well as in the ruling Nazi elite.

Back home he is reproached by some of his fellow academics for his apparent Nazi sympathies, but such sentiments are not uncommon at a time when many moderate Englishmen are still eager to believe that war can be avoided. Calvert is protected by his reputation for frivolity. At the faculty dining table he amuses himself by teasing the more hawkish fellows; with a straight face he suggests that the college’s Jewish scholars be reclassified as “Welsh by statute” to remove a potential source of friction with the Germans. And yet he’s personally unprejudiced, twits his Nazi friends openly about their “mad” Jewish policy, and at some personal risk and expense helps a family of German Jews resettle in England.

Inviting the narrator to visit him in Berlin, Calvert opens up about his hopes for the regime:

The future [said Calvert] would be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance – perhaps a better chance than any other – that in time, perhaps in our life time, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

“If they succeed,” said Roy, “everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue.”

To us this sounds callous and nuts, but Calvert knows that it will be difficult for Elliott to refute without being hypocritical; it so closely parallels the arguments of their pro-Soviet friends. [1]

(As a real-life example, here’s Snow’s contemporary, the poet Stephen Spender, remembering in The God That Failed what he believed as a young Communist in 1930s England:

One ceases to be inhibited by pity for the victims of revolution. … These lives have become abstractions in an argument in which the present is the struggle, and the future is Communism – a world where everyone will, eventually, be free. … It is “humanitarian” weakness to think too much about the victims. The point is to fix one’s eyes on the goal, and then one is freed from the horror and anxiety – quite useless in any case – which inhibit the energies of the liberal mind.)

Calvert, though himself intellectually subtle and temperamentally moderate, is attracted to simple and radical solutions. He is fond of a paradox (apparently a paraphrase of a famous line of the Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon) that “the truth lies at both extremes. But never in the middle.” We see that his attraction to Nazism is connected to his religious yearnings – an atheist despite himself, he is terrified by the implications of free will, and suspects that he and others would be happier with their choices constrained. He perceives a germ of good sense at the core of the Nazi’s authoritarian philosophy which allows him to forgive their excesses.

It’s fascinating to hear such a likable character propound a tolerant view of Nazism, a view which must have been widespread in pre-war England but which now is so utterly abominated that it’s given voice only by cranks. As I’ve written before, despite its current reputation as a cesspool of drooling halfwits, had Nazism lasted longer as a governing philosophy it would inevitably, like Soviet Communism, have accumulated a vast library of subtle encomiums by anti-bourgeois intellectuals. People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness. (The question, in this as in any other age, is whether our prevailing belief system is likely to stand up to the judgement of history, or whether we too will be revealed to have been taken in by a lot of fine-sounding razzmatazz.)

Calvert never exactly renounces his sympathies; when war breaks out he falls patriotically back into line. He tries retrospectively to explain to his friend his mixed feelings:

Roy said that he had never quite been able to accept the Reich. It was a feeble simulacrum of his search for God. Yet he knew what it was like to believe in such a cause. “If they had been just a little different, they would have been the last hope.” I said that was unrealistic: by the nature of things, they could not have been different. But he turned on me:

“It’s as realistic as what you hope for. Even if [the Germans] lose, the future isn’t going the way you think. Lewis, this is where your imagination doesn’t seem to work. But you’ll live to see it. It will be dreadful.”

As usual, Snow doesn’t spell out what Calvert means. I’d guess that in his disdain for the comfortable middle way Calvert dreads the triumph of Nietzsche’s Last Man, that stunted mediocrity incapable of higher aspirations than securing the safety of his own supple and well-moisturized hide:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” – say the Last Men, and they blink.

–from Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nearly eighty years later we’re much further along the road to Last Manhood, and it’s a good bet that if Calvert had lived to see it he would have despised our culture of trigger warnings, social media mobs, and corporate thought policing. Whether the progressive Lewis Elliott would have adapted better to present-day pieties is unclear. In his broad-minded way he would no doubt have found much to praise about them; but I suspect he would have felt a twinge of compunction when he saw some so-called Nazi being harried from his career for threatening the highly-evolved sensibilities of the modern Left.


1. Update, Feb. 20, 2019. In Corridors of Power, a later entry in the Strangers and Brothers series set at the height of the Cold War, the narrator unconsciously echoes his old friend’s words. By this time, Lewis Elliott is a high-ranking civil servant in the defense bureaucracy whose anti-nuclear leanings attract suspicion from his own side’s spooks. Grilled about his youthful friendship with avowed Communists, he replies:

“I’m not emotional about the operations of politics. But about the hopes behind them, I’m deeply so. I thought it was obvious that the Revolution in Russia was going to run into some major horrors of power. I wasn’t popular with [my Communist friends] for telling them so. But that isn’t all. I always believed that the power was working two ways. They were doing good things with it, as well as bad. When once they got some insight into the horrors, then they might create a wonderful society. I now believe that, more confidently than I ever did. How it will compare with the American society, I don’t know. But as long as they both survive, I should have thought that many of the best human hopes stand an excellent chance.”

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Last year I voiced my revulsion at all the trendy talk about Nazi-punching, and more recently I expressed some sympathy for racist idiots. Nietzsche’s Last Man has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few years; witness this 2016 post about time travel, immigration, and the End of History which, I’ve come to realize, pretty much sums up everything I currently believe, making all my subsequent commentary redundant.


A while back I met up for coffee with an electrician friend who happened to be in my neighbourhood for work. Half an hour after we sat down, his work iPad beeped with a message from HQ. He apologized and gave the gadget his attention.

A minute later he chuckled. He noticed that he’d neglected to click “Save” in the program that logs his working hours, and as far as his iPad was aware he was still on the clock for that morning’s job. My friend didn’t correct his error. He seemed to think a little looseness about his hours was fair recompense for the various indignities his employers subject him to. Maybe he’s right.

alexander solzhenitsyn the gulag archipelago

There’s a useful word I picked up from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago – “tukhta”, Soviet-era slang meaning something like “padding”. This was a necessary adaptation for prisoners expected to meet quotas set by officials who had only the dimmest awareness of conditions in the Gulag:

[A]ll state work norms are the same: they are calculated not for real life on this earth, but for some kind of unearthly ideal on the moon. A human being dedicated, self-sacrificing, healthy, well nourished, and energetic is incapable of fulfilling these norms! And so what are you going to get out of a fagged-out, weak, hungry, and downtrodden convict?

To meet these impossible quotas, prison work foremen would claim fictitious output – ten percent more lumber than their teams had actually cut, say. Camp administrators were subject to the same quotas, so they’d go along with the fiction. Their higher-ups would pass along the tukhta, and so on, up to the top levels of government, who’d trumpet the unprecedented lumber yield as a triumph of socialist planning.

How were the gaps papered over? Solzhenitsyn tells the story of an educated prisoner named Vlasov, in charge of a logging camp in Siberia, who signed off on paperwork showing that during a particularly harsh winter his team had surpassed the quota by 25%, when in fact they’d fallen far short. When the missing timber was noticed, Vlasov pointed out to his supervisor that their fates were now bound together: if the discrepancy were exposed, Vlasov’s sentence could only be extended, while the supervisor, for his negligence, would be liable for a five-year term. Vlasov proposed a plan, to which the supervisor could only agree:

And the time came when the winter roads had all dissolved completely, and the summer logging trails were still impassable too. And at this point Vlasov brought the chief a detailed and watertight report for his signature, to be sent on to the administration higher-up. In it he proved that because of the highly successful timber-felling operations of the past winter it had been quite impossible to move 10,500 cubic yards out of the forests on the sledge trails. Neither could this timber be hauled out through the swampy forests. Next he gave estimates for the cost of a corduroy road to get the timber out, and he proved that the haulage would cost more than the timber was worth. So that in a year’s time, because the logs were going to be lying there in the swamp for a whole summer and autumn, they would be unsuitable for lumber and acceptable to any possible customer only for firewood. And the administration agreed with these literate conclusions, which they were not ashamed to show any other commission – and therefore the whole 10,500 cubic yards of timber were written off.

Eventually the whole Soviet economy was built on a shaky edifice of tukhta – but in the meantime, the prisoners met their quotas and received their scanty rations:

And so it was that the trees were felled, and eaten up, and written off – and stood once again erect and proud in their green coniferous garb. And in fact the state paid very reasonably for these dead cubic yards: a few hundred extra loaves of black, gluey, watery bread. The thousands of trees and the hundreds of lives which were saved were of no account on the profit-and-loss sheet.

It strikes me how the proponents of our artificially intelligent future are a bit like old-school communists in their mania for efficiency. For instance, my electrician friend is often called out to jobs in the furthest reaches of the Lower Mainland, more than an hour’s drive from his home base in Vancouver. Meanwhile competing companies are sending electricians in from Maple Ridge or Aldergrove to visit customers in Vancouver. A communist or a software engineer would say: how wasteful, all this driving to and fro! – as of course it is – and propose a central dispatching system, or a mobile app, that would match up customers with the nearest electrician, saving man-hours, reducing waiting time, conserving fuel, easing congestion, and so on.

The difference is that there’s a risk the software engineer can actually deliver on that promised efficiency – and then we discover that all the electrical work the city requires can be delivered by half as many electricians. In that case I’m not sure my friend, with his cavalier approach to timekeeping, would be among the ones to make the cut.

But I suspect humans will figure out ways to steal back a fair amount of the time the software manages to save. I hope so, because without a little tukhta there probably won’t be room in the workforce for slackers like my electrician friend – or me.


Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

In 2016 I poked fun at pundit Andrew Coyne’s optimistic belief that workers displaced by robots would find new and better jobs. Earlier this year the descriptions of Russian peasant villages in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 made me think of modern suburban sprawl. And in 2010 I read The Gulag Archipelago and discovered that Solzhenitsyn was, surprisingly, pretty funny.

The old, illogical morality: The Kindly Ones and Darkness at Noon.

Note: This is the third in a cache of old abandoned blog posts I recently recovered from a rarely-used laptop. The “project” I allude to below is the novel I’m currently wrapping up, about which more soon.

In preparation for a project I’m thinking of attempting, I’ve been doing some research on life behind the Iron Curtain. To this end I was recently reading Anne McElvoy’s The Saddled Cow: East Germany’s Life and Legacy, in which she interviews Wolfgang Leonhard, a “former comrade” of longtime East German ruler Erich Honecker. Leonhard recalls of the leader-to-be:

He had the main characteristic I would consider essential for success as a young functionary: absolutely average intelligence. In a communist party on the Stalinist model, you have to have a good memory and an ability to absorb reams of resolutions and turn them into directives, so you need a certain basic intelligence. You can’t be plain dumb, as was required under the Nazis, because the ideology is much more complicated. But you can’t be too intelligent, because people of above-average intellect have a tendency to challenge the arcana, to spot its flaws, which makes them disobedient.

Did the Nazis require their members to be “plain dumb”? To some degree we must defer to the old comrade’s experience. As a youth in the Third Reich, Leonhard must have met many Nazis, and maybe they were on the whole dumber than his Communist acquaintances – although one doubts his impartiality. Certainly Nazism and its Fascist sister-governments had their share of intelligent sympathizers, from Martin Heidegger to Robert Brasillach to Ezra Pound; and I suspect if those governments had remained on the scene longer, they would eventually have accumulated a body of Western intellectual fellow-travellers like those that forgave and justified all Communism’s “mistakes” and “excesses”. But it’s hard to say.

jonathan littell the kindly ones

Leonhard’s comment brought to mind a scene in The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s disturbing novel of World War II. Our narrator and “hero”, the intelligent and cultured SS officer Dr. Maximilian Aue, as punishment for having displeased his superior, is transferred to Stalingrad just as the Germans are losing control of that city to the Soviet counterattack. There, amid the rubble and sickness and squalor, he interviews a captured enemy politruk – a Communist Party member assigned to a Soviet army unit to build morale and ensure obedience to the party line. Their conversation runs for several pages and makes a useful crib sheet on the differences and similarities between the two totalitarianisms. Here’s how the politruk sums it up:

“[O]ur ideologies have this basic thing in common, which is that they are both essentially deterministic; racial determinism for you, economic determinism for us, but determinism all the same. We both believe that man doesn’t freely choose his fate, but that it is imposed on him by nature or history. And we both draw the conclusion that objective enemies exist, that certain categories of human beings can and must legitimately be eliminated not for what they’ve done or even thought, but for what they are. In that, we differ only in the definition of the categories: for you, the Jews, the Gypsies, the Poles, and even, I believe, the mentally ill; for us, the Kulaks, the bourgeois, the Party deviationists. At bottom, it’s the same thing; we both reject the homo economicus of the capitalists, the egotistical, individualistic man trapped in his illusion of freedom, in favor of a homo faber: Not a self-made man but a made man, you might say in English, or a man yet to be made, since communist man must still be constructed, educated, just like your perfect National Socialist. And this man-to-be-made justifies the pitiless liquidation of everything that is uneducable, and thus justifies the NKVD and the Gestapo, gardeners of the social body, who tear out the weeds and force the good plants to follow their stakes.”

This politruk, like Aue, has been sent to the front after falling out of favour with his superiors. He bears a passing resemblance to Rubashov, the main character in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a high-ranking commissar and veteran of the Revolution who is imprisoned on trumped-up charges and tried as a “Party deviationist”.

arthur koestler darkness at noon

In his diary Rubashov writes:

We [Communists] have learnt history more thoroughly than the others. We differ from all others in our logical consistency. We know that virtue does not matter to history, and that crimes remain unpunished; but that every error has its consequences and venges itself unto the seventh generation. Therefore we concentrated all our efforts on preventing error and destroying the very seeds of it. Never in history has so much power over the future of humanity been concentrated in so few hands as in our case. Each wrong idea we follow is a crime committed against future generations. Therefore we have to punish wrong ideas as others punish crimes: with death.

History put me where I stood; I have exhausted the credit which she accorded me; if I was right I have nothing to repent of, if wrong, I will pay.

Following this logic, Rubashov convinces himself of the historical necessity of his own annihilation. He willingly confesses to the absurd charges against him and abases himself at his show trial.

Just as Darkness at Noon illustrates the thought processes by which an intelligent man can arrive at the conclusion that his own life must be sacrificed to the vaunted triumph of the Classless Society, The Kindly Ones shows how an intelligent man can convince himself of the necessity of exterminating whole ethnicities deemed inconvenient to the security of the state. At one point Dr. Aue accepts an invitation to dinner at Adolf Eichmann’s apartment and finds himself instructing his host on the finer points of their shared ideology – specifically, how it can be reconciled with Kant’s categorical imperative. (At his 1961 trial in Israel, Eichmann would arouse indignation by proclaiming, as Hannah Arendt recounts in Eichmann in Jerusalem,

that he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty.

Arendt expresses surprise that Eichmann, questioned by a judge on this point, is able to supply “an approximately correct definition of the categorical imperative”.)

At his dinner party, Eichmann listens eagerly as his educated guest explains how Kant’s philosophy of individual will can be reconciled with the Führerprinzip, the principle that in the Third Reich “the Führer’s words have the force of law”:

“You have to live out your National Socialism by living your own will as if it were the Führer’s … Whoever only obeys orders like an automaton, without examining them critically to penetrate their inner necessity, does not work closer to the Führer; most of the time, he distances himself from him. … All law must rest on a foundation. Historically, this has always been a fiction or an abstraction – God, the King, or the People. Our great advance has been to base the legal concept of the Nation on something concrete and inalienable: the Volk, whose collective will is expressed by the Führer who represents it. When you say Frei sein ist Knecht sein [To be free is to be a vassal], you have to understand that the foremost vassal of all is precisely the Führer, since he is nothing but pure service. We are not serving the Führer as such, but as the representative of the Volk, we serve the Volk and must serve it as the Führer serves it, with total abnegation. That’s why, confronted with painful tasks, we have to bow down, master our feelings, and carry them out with firmness.”

It’s possible that the mental convolutions necessary to overcoming the evident contradictions of Communism and National Socialism make those ideologies more appealing to intelligent people; it is precisely their affront to common sense that makes them attractive to those, like Rubashov and Dr. Aue, who justly perceive themselves as uncommon. No particular genius is necessary to observe that mass murder is wrong. It takes a nimble mind to argue that the grand march of history dictates the necessity of submitting to this distasteful duty.

Rubashov, on the eve of his execution, begins to doubt the result to which his reasoning has led him:

For forty years he had lived strictly in accordance with the vows of his order, the Party. He had held to the rules of logical calculation. He had burnt the remains of the old, illogical morality from his consciousness with the acid of reason. … And where had it landed him? Premises of unimpeachable truth had led to a result which was completely absurd … Perhaps it was not suitable for a man to think every thought to its logical conclusion.

Perhaps not, but how are we to know when to abandon logic except by logically analyzing the problem? Some like to imagine there’s an invisible thread wound around our hearts that will, if we let it, guide us back to the light when logic leads us astray. Call this thread God, or conscience, or common humanity. But the history of the last century demonstrates that the thread, if it exists, is easy to sever, and that far from feeling lost without it, we gloat over our freedom.


Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Solzhenitsyn, funnyman.

Here’s the funny thing about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: he’s funny. You’d expect Gulag Archipelago to be a slog, but the very first lines of the preface, where the author describes some starving prisoners “flouting the higher claims of ichthyology” to wolf down a prehistoric fish they’d discovered frozen in the Siberian ice, made me laugh.

alexander solzhenitsyn the gulag archipelago

Knowing that he survived the slave-camps himself, one would expect Solzhenitsyn to be embittered, indignant, aflame with righteous rage – and he is. But above all he’s a great writer with a keen ear for absurdity and a Siberia-sized index-card file full of astounding stories about life under the Soviets. *

Here’s one. A new prisoner arrives in camp and the guard raises an eyebrow at his long sentence. “Twenty-five years! What did you do?”

“Nothing at all,” comes the sullen reply.

“You’re lying!” says the guard. “The sentence for nothing at all is ten years.”

I laughed because it has the structure of a joke – and in fact, its tidiness and rim-shot pacing suggest to me that it is a joke. But whether or not the actual words were spoken by an actual guard, the joke is true. Consider (I open Volume One randomly, to page 82) the “traitors of the Motherland”, tens of thousands of ex-soldiers slapped with prison terms at the conclusion of World War II; their crime was to have spent time in German prisoner-of-war camps. (Their real offense, Solzhenitsyn points out, was to have been “witnesses to humiliating [Soviet] defeats.”) Their sentence? Ten years.

Here’s another one. The Solovki camp, on an island near the Arctic Circle, was getting some unwelcome publicity in the West. To put a stop to rumours that Solovki was something other than a socialist paradise in the making, in 1929 Moscow sent the famous proletarian writer Maxim Gorky on a fact-finding mission to the camp. The administrators scurried about preparing for Gorky’s visit, “hid the monstrosities and polished things up for show”, but…

Only in Kem was there an oversight. On Popov Island the ship Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, when Gorky’s retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! You inventors and thinkers! Here is a worthy problem for you … a barren island, not one bush, no possible cover – and right there, at a distance of three hundred yards, Gorky’s retinue has shown up. Your solution? Where can this disgraceful spectacle – these men dressed in sacks – be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! … The work assigner ordered: “Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!” And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. “Anyone who moves will be shot!” And the former stevedore Maxim Gorky ascended the ship’s ladder and admired the landscape for a full hour till sailing time – and he didn’t notice!

Gorky stands in for all those farsighted intellectuals who praised the Soviet experiment, eyes locked on the horizon while the victims of the regime huddled half-naked under their tarps. It’s a metaphor, and it’s funny, too!


* Even Solzhenitsyn’s footnotes are funny. Consider the unlucky peasant given a ten-year sentence for stealing a spool of thread – or as the authorities grandiosely described it in their indictment, “200 meters of sewing material.”

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

So did the Red Army really singlehandedly defeat the Third Reich?

This bugs me. It’s Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing in The National Interest:

The idea that the United States was the savior of Europe in World Wars I and II is popular in some circles on both sides of the Atlantic, but is demonstrably false. Between the formal entry of the United States into the Great War in April 1917 and the last German offensive in March 1918, hundreds of thousands of Entente soldiers were killed, mainly British in the summer and autumn of 1917 after the frightful slaughter of the French army in the spring; and in that period of nearly a year, fewer than two hundred Americans died. In the course of that war, the Frenchmen killed defending their country were twice as numerous as all the Americans who have died in every foreign war taken together from 1776 until today. As a matter of historical fact, the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army and not by the Western democracies. Even though over one hundred thirty-five thousand American GIs died – a startling figure today – between D day and V-E day, more than half a million Russians were killed.

If Wheatcroft had expressed his point less categorically – if he’d written that the Third Reich was defeated primarily by the Red Army – I wouldn’t have blinked. I’ve read this before; I thought it was the conventional wisdom. But seeing it described as “a matter of historical fact” made me pause. How do we measure the “historical fact” of the Allies’ relative contributions to the victory over Nazism? [1]

According to Wheatcroft, it’s measured by counting the number of casualties each country suffered. The Soviets lost more soldiers than the Americans; therefore the Soviets deserve the larger share of the victory.

Strange, I would’ve thought the measure of military success was the number of enemy soldiers you killed.

It’s true that the Soviet Union sacrificed more to defeat Hitler than any other country. But much of that sacrifice was wasted. Millions of Soviets died through the incompetence and brutality of their own political masters. It was Stalin’s blindness to Hitler’s pre-invasion manoeuvres that allowed the Germans to occupy Russia’s industrial heartland at a stroke. Only then, with reluctance, did Stalin shift his attention from killing his own citizens to killing Germans. His tactics, if they can be dignified with that name, involved throwing masses of underequipped men virtually under the treads of invading panzers. To retreat was a crime against the motherland: in 1941 and ’42, according to the historian Dmitri Volkogonov, 157,593 men were executed for “cowardice”. [2]

(How many Americans were executed for desertion in World War II? One: Eddie Slovik. Were the Americans that much braver than their Soviet allies? Of course not – thousands in fact deserted – but the US Army was more prudent in its valuation of a soldier’s life.)

This doesn’t diminish the Soviets’ contribution to the war effort, which was vast and decisive. In fact it’s even more marvelous what they accomplished, given the handicaps imposed by their leaders. Without the Soviet contribution, the western democracies probably couldn’t have defeated Hitler’s armies on their own. But could the Soviets, fighting on their own, have defeated Hitler – say, if the democracies had capitulated after the fall of France?


Perhaps a better way to compare the effectiveness of the western and eastern armies is not to compare Allied deaths but to compare German deaths. Estimates vary widely, but since I’m looking for a ratio rather than a total, one source will do as well as another. For military deaths only:

Killed by Soviet Union Killed by other Allies [3]
2,742,909 534,683

This limited comparison (which excludes casualties among Italian and other Axis forces, as well as Germans killed in the Balkans, Scandinavia, and Germany itself [4]) suggests that the Red Army was roughly 5.5 times as lethal as the other Allied forces combined. This is a somewhat more convincing argument for Wheatcroft’s claim that “the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army and not by the Western democracies”.

However. At the end of the war, the Allied democracies held over twice as many German prisoners of war as the Soviets – 7.7 millions versus 3.1 million, according to this chart.  This makes sense, because the war in the east was far more brutal. Soviet soldiers were likelier to execute prisoners, and German soldiers were likelier to fight to the bitter end, knowing their chance of surviving Soviet captivity was slim. At the close of the war, as defeat became inevitable, German strategy was based partly on the recognition that their countrymen would be better off surrendering to the Americans or Brits.

Still, conceding that a POW has been removed from combat just as effectively as a KIA, let’s reevaluate those figures:

Killed or captured by Soviet Union Killed or captured by other Allies
5,870,289 8,201,683

By this calculation, the Allied democracies were almost one and a half times as effective at neutralizing German soldiers as their Red Army counterparts.

But those POW figures are distorted by the fact that at the end of the war, most German military units surrendered to whichever occupying power they happened to find themselves facing. Maybe a still better way to compare Soviet and Anglo-American military effectiveness would be to add up casualties and POWs taken in action.

This page offers some insight. I’ve combined the data from Tables 5 and 6:

Killed in action Missing KIA + missing
Eastern front: 1,105,987 1,018,365 2,124,352
West + southwest: 157,523 603,695 761,488

(These data omit the final months of the war, and also exclude Navy and Air Force deaths.) Note that on Germany’s eastern front the number of confirmed deaths slightly exceeds the number of missing, while in the west and southwest (i.e. western Europe, Italy, and Africa) the number of missing is almost four times the number of confirmed deaths. I interpret this to mean that the bulk of the missing in the west and southwest were taken prisoner. [5]

If that’s true, then about 26% of German ground troops were removed from action, one way or another, by the democratic Allies. Throw in naval and air casualties, most of which were sustained in western Europe and the Mediterranean, and you’ve got the western democracies responsible for perhaps 30% of German manpower losses through the end of January, 1945 – which doesn’t include the final push into Germany.


Of course, this is only one way to compare the wartime contributions of the Soviet Union and western Europe, and I recognize that it’s incomplete. Another way of looking at it would be to say, “Regardless of how many German soldiers the Soviets killed or captured, they tied up the bulk of the Third Reich’s military capacity.” It’s no great achievement to take a German bullet, but that’s one less bullet the Germans have to fire elsewhere. The Red Army held off the Germans at the critical point in the war, allowing the Americans and Brits to get organized and open up a second front.

To admit that the Nazis were defeated by the efforts of all the Allies doesn’t take anything away from the sacrifices of the Soviet Union in its Great Patriotic War. Millions of Russians died so that millions of Americans didn’t have to. But the suggestion that the United States was somehow an idle bystander in the conflict is nonsensical and offensive. [6]

Am I being too hard on Geoffrey Wheatcroft? He’s only trying to debunk the myth that American GIs dealt Nazism its greatest blow on the cliffs of Omaha Beach. The specific comment that he’s responding to comes from Pascal Bruckner in his book The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. Bruckner writes (as quoted by Wheatcroft) that

without American help in 1917, and especially in 1944, [Europe] would have been purely and simply wiped off the map […]

Obviously Bruckner is being hyperbolical here – even a Nazi-dominated Europe would still have been Europe, “purely and simply” in the geographical sense. But Bruckner doesn’t attribute the entire victory to the Americans, he only says their help staved off certain defeat. I think this is a less disputable position than the one Wheatcroft is advancing as “a matter of historical fact”.

What’s more, a peek at the original text (courtesy of Google Books) reveals that Wheatcroft is leaving a crucial clause out of Bruckner’s argument. Here’s the sentence in full (emphasis is mine):

Europe suffers, with respect to its American cousin, from the debtor’s complex. It is clearly understood, at least in Western Europe, that without American help in 1917, and especially in 1944, it would have been purely and simply wiped off the map or permanently colonized by Soviet troops.

Bruckner’s untruncated point is that a western Europe left to shift for itself in the 1940s would have been screwed either way – if not screwed by Hitler, then screwed by Stalin, like Poland and Czechoslovakia and all the other countries “liberated” by the Red Army. The presence of three and a half million American servicemen and women (and billions of dollars of aid) helped assure the survival of European freedom, in its western half at least.

It bugs me that this truth bugs Geoffrey Wheatcroft so much.


1. I’m not going to analyze Wheatcroft’s comments about World War I, because I know less about that conflict, but I suspect he’s on firmer ground there.

2 This and other details of Stalin’s ghastly war leadership can be found in Martin Amis’ Koba The Dread (pp. 195-212). See also Part I, Chapter 6 of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

3. “Killed by other Allies” includes all German deaths in France, the Low Countries, Italy, and Africa, plus those killed in the Battle of the Atlantic. “Killed by Soviets” includes figures from the eastern front only. I’ve excluded deaths in the Balkans and Scandinavia as they don’t fall neatly into either column, and anyway the numbers aren’t big enough to significantly skew the totals.

4. This is a big caveat. According to the same chart, 1,230,045 German soldiers died in the defense of their homeland in 1945. Assuming they died in the same ratio as those killed in the wider war – about 5.5 killed by Soviets for every 1 killed by the other Allies – then the totals look something like this:

Killed by Soviet Union Killed by other Allies
3,772,297 735,340
Killed or captured by Soviet Union Killed or captured by other Allies
6,899,677 8,402,340

5. It’s possible I’m misinterpreting these figures. If you can think of another explanation for the far higher rate of “missing” troops in the western and southwestern theatres, please let me know.

6. I’ve left out of this discussion the armaments, food, and other assistance supplied to the Allies by the United States under the lend-lease program. I can’t find a webpage that discusses in any but the vaguest terms what percentage of Soviet, British, and other Allied war materiel was provided by the USA. This page – the third chapter of a pamphlet called How Shall Lend-Lease Accounts Be Settled? published by the US Army in 1945 – provides an overview of lend-lease, then adds:

This does not mean that our major allies – except for the revived French army which was almost completely equipped under lend-lease – were mainly dependent on American supplies. It has been estimated that lend-lease provided only 10 percent of British war equipment, and certainly a lesser proportion of Soviet materiel.

But in 1945, for domestic political reasons, the US government had reason to downplay how much the Soviet Union’s military capabilities had been augmented by its support. According to this page, the United States provided $11 billion worth of supplies to the Soviet war effort, in the form of locomotives, tanks, aircraft, trucks, and artillery, amounting to “almost 10% of all Russian war materiel.”

Update, July 27, 2020: Reconnected a number of dead links, but some of my sources seem to have disappeared from the internet since 2010.

George Orwell is not like you or me.

Here’s George Orwell’s description of Barcelona early in the Spanish Civil War:

Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal … Almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from an hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy … Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night … I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side.

Orwell goes on to say that “There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

george orwell homage to catalonia

It’s lucky Orwell is such a compelling storyteller, or I would have been obliged to stop reading Homage To Catalonia right there. This state of affairs, this chaotic, violent, graffiti-stained shambles, a half-wrecked city lorded over by Puritans with guns who’ve driven out (or worse) the priests and the “bourgeoisie” – this Orwell sees as “worth fighting for”? I understand that he was keen to fight fascism, and that in 1936 Spain was the one front where fascists could be fought. But who could blame an idealistic young leftist for arriving in Barcelona, taking a look around at the filth and the madness and the thuggish sloganeering, and concluding, “Not my fight”?

But this was the middle of the 1930s; one of those occasions when capitalism had managed to make itself look very bad – bad enough, perhaps, that it was possible for an intelligent person to convince himself that,

It is nonsense to talk of opposing Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”. Bourgeois “democracy” is only another name for capitalism, and so is Fascism; to fight against Fascism on behalf of “democracy” is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. The only real alternative to Fascism is workers’ control.

(This is Orwell paraphrasing, semi-approvingly, the position of POUM, the Marxist faction whose militia he joined on arriving in Spain.)

Times were different. One clue is the business about the tips. (After being lectured for the sin of having tipped an elevator-boy, Orwell on his second visit to Barcelona months later, after the revolutionary fervor had faded, noticed that “[i]n a furtive indirect way the practice of tipping was coming back.”) Seventy years on, it’s hard to grasp a mindset where tipping is seen as a symbol of capitalist exploitation. I was raised to believe that in certain encounters, tipping was the correct thing to do; and I’ve always tipped waiters, taxi-drivers, and barbers, even when I was unemployed, even when, as has often been the case, the person receiving the tip was undoubtedly better off than I was. I recognise that the custom of tipping is nonsensical – why do we tip waiters in fancy restaurants but not the underpaid drones behind the counter at Wendy’s? But I can’t see how it would help the working poor if tipping were eliminated altogether; indeed, I doubt that unlucky elevator-boy at Orwell’s hotel was grateful for his manager’s intervention.

Similarly, when in my life waiters have failed to treat me as an equal, it has usually been because they saw me as beneath their station, not above it; and while many “shop-walkers” have introduced themselves to me by first name, I can’t think of any who’ve cringed before me, unless the empty politesse of greeting me with “Sir” is seen as a mark of subservience. I’m not crazy enough to say that class distinctions have disappeared, only that without benefit of revolution, we’ve reached a state in the development of our bourgeois democracy where class is far more fluid and complicated than Orwell and his contemporaries were capable of imagining.

So I’ve decided to cut Orwell some slack, as I finish off Homage To Catalonia. The world of 1936 was very different from our own, and it’s a testament to the vitality and immediacy of his writing that we can forget for a minute how very different Orwell is from us.


In May of 1937 fighting broke out in Barcelona between pro-Communist policemen and their nominal allies in the Marxist POUM and the anarchist CNT. Orwell describes an American doctor running up to him on the street:

“Come on, we must get down to the Hotel Falcón … The POUM chaps will be meeting there. The trouble’s starting. We must hang together.”

On the evidence of these lines (“chaps”, “we must hang together”), one might conclude that Orwell had never actually conversed with a living American. At any rate he had no feeling for how Americans talked. I’m guessing he rarely went to the movies.


Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

The Master and Margarita – the best translation?

In a mostly adoring essay entitled “You Don’t Know Dick”, Jonathan Lethem admits what’s obvious to anyone who’s ever cracked one of Philip K. Dick’s novels:

[Dick is] that species of great writer, the uneven-prose species: Dickens, Dreiser, and Highsmith are others. Russians will tell you Dostoyevsky is too, and that we don’t know this because translators have been covering his ass. [1]

I don’t know which Russians Lethem has been consulting, and I can’t tell whether he’s implying that Dostoyevsky’s writing is as clumsy as Dickens’ (no great shame in that) or as clumsy as Philip K. Dick’s (yikes). But now I wonder, have English readers been ill-served by these deceptively elegant translations? Are we missing something of the original homely flavour of Dostoyevsky’s sentences? Do we not deserve access to a version of The Idiot that is as badly-written as the one Russians cherish?

I was reminded of Lethem’s comment while reading The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov’s most famous novel, written in the 1930s but unpublished until 1966, has been translated into English at least six times. The best-known versions are by Mirra Ginsburg (1967), Michael Glenny (1967), Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor (1995), and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1997).

So my first task, when my book club settled on The Master and Margarita for its next meeting, was to determine which translation I wanted to read. Based on the excerpts provided on the About Last Night blog, I decided I would seek out Glenny’s. But I live in a small town, and there aren’t many copies of The Master and Margarita available in the half-dozen or so good used bookstores hereabouts. To be precise, I found one: the Penguin Classics Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. [2] It was in good shape and it cost ten bucks, and it seemed easier to just grab it rather than wait for the Glenny edition to arrive, more expensively, via Abebooks.

After our meeting, I borrowed the Glenny and Burgin-O’Connor translations from fellow book-clubbers. As a service to the reading community, here are two more versions of the opening paragraph, for comparison with the Ginsburg and Glenny versions excerpted on About Last Night:

At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers. [Pevear-Volokhonsky]

One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them – fortyish, wearing a gray summer suit – was short, dark-haired, bald on top, paunchy, and held his proper fedora in his hand; black horn-rimmed glasses of supernatural proportions adorned his well-shaven face. The other one – a broad-shouldered, reddish-haired, shaggy young man with a checked cap cocked on the back of his head – was wearing a cowboy shirt, crumpled white trousers, and black sneakers. [Burgin-O’Connor]

There doesn’t seem to be much to choose from in these samples, so let’s dig a little deeper into the book. Here’s an awkward paragraph: the demons Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth (a talking cat) have just escorted the eponymous couple downstairs and are loading them into a car chauffeured by a magical rook (“crow”, in the Glenny version). Pevear and Volokohnsky offer:

Having returned Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her and asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella exchanged smacking kisses with Margarita, the cat kissed her hand, everyone waved to the master, who collapsed lifelessly and motionlessly in the corner of the seat, waved to the rook, and at once melted into air, considering it unnecessary to take the trouble of climbing the stairs.

Granted it was late and I was sleepy, but I had to read this paragraph four or five times before I figured out that it was not the master who “waved to the rook, and at once melted into air”, but rather “everyone” – Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth. From the context this makes sense – it’s the demons, and not the master, who have demonstrated magical powers. Still, there’s no reason to muddle the reader this way, when the muddle can be avoided through taking a little more care with pronouns. Burgin and O’Connor resolve the pronoun issue but the paragraph still feels cluttered:

After returning Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said good-bye to her, asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella enthusiastically smothered Margarita with kisses, the cat kissed her hand, the group waved to the Master, who, lifeless and inert, had sunk into the corner of his seat, then they waved to the rook and immediately melted into thin air, not considering it worth the trouble to climb back up the stairs.

(Incidentally, this is the only one of the three translations that chooses to capitalize “Master”; which seems appropriate, since the character is given no other name.)

What Burgin-O’Connor and Pevear-Volokhonsky have in common is that they labour to express a complicated series of actions in one sprawling but faithful sentence. (From Burgin and O’Connor’s Translator’s Note: “[W]e have tried, as far as possible without sacrificing clarity, not to break up Bulgakov’s long sentences and to adhere to his word order.”) Glenny’s version reads more easily because he has been freer in his punctuation:

Having returned Woland’s present to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her, enquiring if she was comfortably seated; Hella gave her a smacking kiss and the cat pressed itself affectionately to her hand. With a wave to the master as he lowered himself awkwardly into his seat and a wave to the crow, the party vanished into thin air, without bothering to return indoors and walk up the staircase.

…But then, Glenny omits the information that the Master is “lifeless and inert” – for what it’s worth. Obviously he has made the editorial decision that the Master’s exhausted state is communicated well enough in surrounding paragraphs that it can be economically left out of this one.

My impression from browsing is that there’s very little to decide between the Pevear-Volokhonsky and Burgin-O’Connor versions; they say pretty much the same thing in slightly different ways. Glenny’s is the outlier. His translation seems easier to read, but the ease may come at the expense of exactitude. Personally I’m not sure how much that matters; I can live with a translation that loses a few details like “lifeless and inert”, even if Bulgakov himself might grumble. (But then, what if I’m missing something more important? – see below.)

But it’s really more a philosophical question than it is an aesthetic one: which should take priority in translation, precision or readability? Consider Shakespeare. Do his foreign-language translators deploy archaic and obsolete words to replicate the (often wearying) experience of reading Shakespeare in English? Or do they use modern words, saving foreign readers the difficulty of  following the involutions of the thought?

What is “difficulty”, anyway? Our language has an unusually large vocabulary, which makes it easier to be difficult when writing in English than in, say, French. What if you need a replacement for an obscure English word and there is no equally obscure French word available? Do you dig out your old Latin textbook and invent an entirely new but authentic-sounding word? (That’s what Shakespeare would have done.)


According to this extract from a book called The Translator in the Text by Rachel May, Michael Glenny’s translation was done from an incomplete manuscript. How incomplete?

When Bulgakov’s novel was first published in the Soviet Union in 1966, the text was heavily censored. Mirra Ginsburg’s translation was based on this censored edition. Glenny’s version came out in 1967, by which time the suppressed material was available in the West. Yet Burgin and O’Connor, in their Translator’s Note, claim that their 1995 effort is the first translation of the complete text. What was still missing from the version Glenny used? Was it just a few disputed lines here and there, of the kind that only purists and scholars quibble over? Or was it whole scenes of politically-sensitive material? Input from knowledgeable readers would be welcomed here.

Having read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “complete” translation, I’m not sure how important those politically sensitive scenes are. Even in the uncensored text, criticism of the Soviet authorities is extremely circumspect and easy to overlook. When the Master, after offending the literary world with a novel on religious themes, is taken away by the secret police, he describes the scene like this:

“[T]here came a knock at my window…”

The Master doesn’t say who knocked. Instead he leans close to his interlocutor and whispers something into his ear, which “agitate[s] him very much.” Then he resumes:

“Yes, and so in mid-January, at night, in the same coat but with the buttons torn off, I was huddled with cold in my little yard.”

The knock at the window came in October: apart from the agitating whisper, no account is given of the missing three months. From the footnotes we learn that “It was customary to remove belts, shoelaces and buttons from the apparel of those ‘held for questioning’.”

Having seen The Master and Margarita in the number two position on the Wall Street Journal‘s list of  Cold War novels, I was expecting a more sensational exposé of Stalinism than that. Does the quietness of Bulgakov’s rebellion make the inclusion of that political material more or less crucial?


If you’re wondering: though I’m not entirely sure I liked The Master and Margarita (but that might just be the fault of the translation), I think you should read it anyway.


1. “You Don’t Know Dick” can be found in Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection The Disappointment Artist.

2. I found it at Westgate Books on 8th Street, easily the best bookstore in Saskatoon.

Update, July 19 2009: I was recently alerted to a wonderfully detailed discussion of The Master and Margarita on the literary website The Valve. I’m going to point you directly to a comment by a Russian speaker named Anatoly, who describes the Pevear-Volokhonsky version as an “awful travesty” – and seems to know what he’s talking about.

Update, June 4 2016: And for further swipes at Pevear and Volokhonsky’s methods, along with a broad-ranging discussion of what constitutes a good translation anyway, check out Janet Malcolm in the New York Review of Books.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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