Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Winking at the Apocalypse

In the Richmond District of San Francisco, there is a seemingly impossible commingling of disparate immigrant cultures, particularly Russian and Chinese---along with Vietnamese, Korean, Irish and a smattering of Italian. Among these groups, the Russians have taken a dominant hold of much of the area known as 'The Avenues'---a fog-shrouded grid of long, treeless streets that stretch out towards The Great Highway, and the pounding surf of the Pacific. This blogger spent the better part of his adult life a mile or so from the surf, tucked beneath the restless fog, blaring the furnace twelve months of the year, lulled to sleep at night by omnipresent foghorns.

A curious acceptance of the flagitious Soviet past can be found in The Richmond District.

Many friendships made in The Richmond are Russian. There's a wonderfully displaced, quiet distress among them; the kind of people who sit by ponds in Golden Gate Park, playing chess and smoking noxious tobacco tanned in the center of the old country, pontificating about life. Even the most rudimentary Russian language skills will draw one into the badinage of a displaced people, glad to be in a new, free country, but yearning for the comforts of old haunts.

Novelty stores sell everything that is imaginable, including a multitude of products that wink and smirk at the Soviet past that echo throughout the Russian expatriate community. It is curious---there are many products made in the C.I.S. that have Lenin or Brezhnev's likeness on them, and plenty more with the omnipresent hammer and sickle. It is possible to buy cooking oil deliberately branded to look like it was the product of a state factory run by Stalinists. Packaged sets of miniature vodka bottles branded with Brezhnev can be had for the drinking. Communist posters are for sale, hanging mutely as reminders of an inglorious past, somehow revered. Surely, there is a sense of loss among these people who resurrect the symbols of a potent past, gone to ash.

This blogger received a gag gift from a Ukrainian friend. It was a Lenin shirt, blazed with large Cyrillic letters proclaiming: 'Work. Drink. Die---Drink.' The back of the shirt had a giant hammer and sickle surrounded by vodka bottles, and could be worn in complete safety in the Russian expatriate community of The Richmond. It is hard to call this shirt reverent towards Lenin. But neither is it irreverent.

But why? Imagine slipping on a t-shirt with Hitler's likeness on the front, and perhaps adding some German saying 'arbeit macht frei' with a big swastika on the back. One would reasonably expect to be shot within five minutes of publicly donning of such a garment. But not Stalin or Lenin shirts. Or Mao.

An interesting website that can take days to absorb is Matthew White's Homepage. The site contains visual historical-geographic and statistical information. It's a marvel to study. One page is entitled Who was the Bloodiest Tyrant of the 20th Century?'and compares raw numbers of murdered millions at the hands of various tyrants. The top three are Hilter, Stalin and Mao---not necessarily in that order. Depending on how you sift the numbers, each of the three takes homicidal first place.

The most general accounting ranks the three as follows:

Mao: 40M deaths
Hitler: 34M deaths
Stalin: 20M deaths

Go there for yourself and see how the numbers can be interpreted. (Also, some fascinating maps)

This essay was inspired by Mr. Katzman's linking to Lamech, the blogger who questions the flying of confederate flags, seeing them as an insult to the true message of Christianity, and of course to the victims of Dixie. It is truly strange how culture can assign varied levels of reprehension onto historical monsters. Why is it that Stalin is 'OK' (even though we all know he wasn't), but Hitler is absolutely heinous (which we all know he was).

For that matter, there seems to be in our culture a softness exhibited towards the Communists in general---as though they meant well but had the wrong system in place. Why is this? Is it because the Communists won World War II along with the Allies? Is it because some of the central tenets of Communism found fertile ground as Socialism in Europe and in the Left on the American continent? Is it because there are enough rough parallels between FDR's New Deal and a communist system to elicit a few nods of appreciation?

Consider all the Holocaust movies and books that have been made. Certainly there is no equivalent profusion of media about the gulags or Stalin's purges. The Ukrainian famine of the 1930s created by Stalin is news to a lot of people---including Russians. Whereas the Nazis were proud of their murderous deeds, the Soviets were quite secretive about their death mills. They continued grinding bone and flesh for decades, silently. Hilter's death machine went out with a bang, with liberators opening the gates of Dachau and Treblinka. The Soviet system just faded away, quietly. The liberators were the jailers themselves.

Perhaps our softness on Communist evil is a lesson about the importance of winning decisively. The softness and conditional outrage towards the Soviet death machine is a product of a war that didn't entirely end in defeat. 1991 saw the end of the Soviet system, but there was no admission of guilt---no Nuremburg trials, no hanging of the gulag commanders. Reading Lamech's essay on the Stars and Bars reveals a similar phenomenon: although the Confederacy signed a truce, many of the ideals and culture of the racist slave-holding South went without repent, reabsorbing into the Union. Racism would remain in place for decades after 1865.

All of this takes us back to the present war. Winning must be decisive. The symbols of oppression must be revealed---and reviled. Who are we blinking at today? Who do we tacitly nod at while feigning disapproval? Can wars be won when the symbols of oppression are debatable and not obvious?