History as Back Catalogue II: Liquidation Sale, Research Time, 01/09/2017

When I said “no tolerance” was I ever right. Perry Anderson, in the early chapters of that first book he wrote on the history of marxist theory, describes the intellectuals and theorists working in western European communist parties in the 1930s.

Back then, those communist parties were getting their doctrinal and policy marching orders from the Soviet Union. Essentially, I’m going to stare that libertarian / new liberal message setting Stalinist communism as the necessary endpoint of all socialist democratic politics.

Igor Gouzenko reads one of the first editions of his novel to two
marginally interested bystanders. The Fall of a Titan is a terse drama
about the fateful assignment of a young historian and university
administrator – who has also been a top-quality NKVD spy since
joining the Bolshevik side of the Russian Civil War at age 19 – and
the fiery and frightened community of people wrapped up in what
amounts to a secret police public relations job.
Let’s start in the moment, with a voice who lived that moment. Lately, I’ve been reading The Fall of a Titan, the one novel of Igor Gouzenko. Gouzenko defected to Canada from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa. He came with piles of evidence of Soviet spying on Canada, the United States, Britain, and many of its other ostensible allies against Germany.

This was only a few days after the official end of the Second World War. For the rest of his life, he and his wife Svetlana* lived relatively quietly in Mississauga for the rest of their lives.

* Svetlana usually went by Anna after defecting, so her name at least wasn’t nearly as ridiculous as Igor’s – George Brown.

Igor would sometimes appear on television as a pundit expert on Soviet culture and spying. He would also do it with a bag over his head to protect his face from being seen by KGB monitors.

Gouzenko lived his young adult life in the Soviet Union at the highest intensity of Stalin’s purges. Year after year, Stalin would prepare another edit of the official history of the Soviet Union. Accompanying this, Stalin would have hundreds of thousands of people killed.

Gouzenko starts one chapter with a common, but sly – and for me, informative – joke. “People go to banquets for different reasons: the Frenchman to shock people with the low neckline of his lovely wife, the American to tell his neighbour a couple of spicy jokes, the Russia to prove to his comrades that he is not yet liquidated.”

This was the atmosphere in Russia all through the 1930s – a country whose religion was no longer Christianity and not even communism, but anxious fearful submission to the NKVD. That same violence came upon the communist parties of Europe before the war broke out.

NKVD agents were at conferences and gatherings of the Communist International, giving the parties of neighbouring countries their doctrinal marching orders. Most importantly, they were reporting which Comintern members seemed skeptical or hesitant about those orders.

Such skeptics would occasionally have some unfortunate accidents shortly after enough time had passed for such a report to wander through an NKVD management committee. Funny, that.

So Stalin’s secret police was crushing any doctrinal creativity in the communist parties of Europe at the height of the NKVD’s power. Even after the NKVD was purged out of existence and Stalin had his convenient heart attack, the relationship continued.

Anyone with a hint of theoretical or philosophical creativity wouldn’t have been welcome as an active member of the communist party. But after most of their truly restless intellectuals settled into university positions, the university turned out to be a great place to be if you were a truly open-minded intellectual.

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