:: Article

The Perverted Logic of High Stalinism

By Andrew Coates.


David Szalay, The Innocent, Jonathan Cape, 2009

Novels about the former Soviet Union are often hard graft. To read, to write, no doubt, as well. Martin Amis wrote his worst book, Koba, the Dread (2002), personifying Stalin, and studded it with inane profundities. We learnt that the Man of Steel was barking. But a lot, too much, about Amis. David Szalay puts that approach to one side. The Innocent is not about pure evil. It’s about a misguided intelligence officer, the sane Aleksandr, and the ruins he left behind him. Looking back on a life shaped and trapped in the perverted logic of High Stalinism. To the twists of career and marriages. Not from the time when Official Communism began to break down, but from the years of its lingering glory. The present, the 1972 Munich Olympics where Soviet athletes showed off their prowess to compete against the West. A time historian David Caute described in The Dancer Defects, when the Russian state tried to compete with the West, in sport, in science, and presented a façade of stable progress. The past, back to 1930 when The Head of the OGPU (State Political Directorate) lectures on the Rightist conspiracies, “wrecking, murder, terrorism.” The Ruitin conspiracy, the Eismont-Tolmachev-Smirnov conspiracy – and, naturally Trotsky’s. With all that follows in Aleksandr’s fight for the plotters’ downfall…

To convey this Szalay’s narrative switches between Aleksandr’s type-written memoir and third person in the unfolding present. The former relocates us in the Stalinist period, and its aftermath. To the purges, the manoeuvres, and the making and breaking of marriages, bounded by a country he never leaves. It begins when the earlier Bolshevik battles have been settled and state building, purging and personal advance rule. At a time in the 1930s when he joined the Feliks Dzerzhinsky OGPU Higher School in Moscow. Then the “making of Communism was something sacred for us.” Marxism, for these enthusiasts, was close to a “language of faith” of a “new heaven.” This jarring description – to say the Author knows that Marxism-Leninism was a cover for a religious commitment – reinforces an equally heavy-handed justification of killing for political, or rather millennialist, ends.

The meat lies elsewhere. In more credible events. Aleksander recalls a certain Antolony Yudin. A very famous pianist, believed, publicly, dead. Fast forward to the late ‘forties and the conclusion of the great patriotic War. Yudin, this former musician, is being held in a psychiatric hospital, out in the endless Russian forests. Injured during his detention as a traitor, his brain is so affected his short-term memory is awry. His past? A philo-germanic, (music, culture) he attempted to keep his contacts with country alive as war loomed and broke out. Who wrote to a German musicologist in 1942 asking if it were possible for him to go to Germany? Arrested… Hold on. Like the mystical communism this jars. Arrested after writing? Anyone, above all anyone well-known, with the remotest connection with Germany at this time would have already been under intense suspicion, most likely already sent to Gulag, and probably shot. With their relatives and friends. What need of a cover up of a botched shooting and false, not genuine, obituaries when there was actual proof for once? Kept alive for the sake of Doctor Lozovsky’s research into brain injuries… I think not. And I am only criticising this because a novel with realistic ambitions has to suffer some judgements in terms of its realism.

Fortunately there is a lot better writing at work. The intricate plot rests upon Aleksandr’s steadily rising career, with its set-backs, in the Soviet Intelligence section. But only for a few minutes are it banal, roughly tumbling through marriage, relationships, and accumulating posts and possessions. Most of the time there are reminders of a darker backdrop, the high hopes of the Kosmonol youngster. Meeting with a fervent Communist, with a hidden alien class origin, a series of edgy contacts with the sharp needles that stuck out all over the Stalinist system. Periodic purges, anti-semitism (Lovosky is one of “our long-nosed friends”), wives, lovers, and a settled routines existence as a functionary, pass along. The purging of Lovosky is, with the coming of Khrushchev, now a fault, and a period of unset menaces this steady progress. Aleksander considers him, retrospectively in 1960, in some way not innocent. Overshadowed: in 1960 he has his own worries about getting shot. But isn’t

Living on Aleksander watches events in the Fisher Iceland Chess Match and then the Munich Olympic Black September terrorist atrocity take place. More flashbacks to the threats against the Stalinist regime, hidden whites, Trotskyists. Late middle-aged comfort. To what? Perhaps I got lost as to where The Innocent was going. Or enjoyed myself on the journey – there is plenty of fine reflection on the way.

Reading I found myself constantly thinking of the raft of books that have appeared about everyday Stalinism over the last decade. Many of the best are listed at the back of the The Innocent. But what I felt a lack of was a feeling that one could see what was happening. A cinematic input. Something in the genre of Burnt by the Sun or The Inner Circle. But more down to earth. Even so, the novel keeps your attention, and brings with it its own shafts of light into a world of everyday darkness.

Andrew Coates
is long-standing socialist and trade union activist who lives in Ipswich, near the Sunshine Suffolk Coast. He owns one of the best collections of sectarian left literature in East Anglia and 540 Everyman Classics. To while away the long-days he posts incessantly on the Web, pursuing vendettas and the line of his international organisation, Tendance Coatesy. His pastimes include putting slug pellets down on his allotment and watching the creatures die.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 17th, 2009.