The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism 
by J. Hoberman.
Temple, 315 pp., £27.95, November 1998, 1 56639 643 3
Show More
Show More

J. Hoberman’s book, appropriately enough, is a cinematic montage of reflections on the long-drawn-out demise of the former Soviet Union, seen through the eyes of a New York journalist and film critic: a process that began with the death of Stalin and ended with the sale of chunks of the Berlin Wall in Bloomingdale’s. Hoberman chronicles these events from the point of view of three related personae: the thoughtful Jewish New Yorker, reading the novels of Victor Serge or reconsidering the Rosenberg case; the compulsive film aficionado, intrigued by the representation of the Communist world in Soviet films, Hollywood movies and the work of the East European New Wave directors, such as Gyula Gazdag or Dusan Makavejev; and then the cultural historian, provoked by the appearance in a New York gallery of Sots Art, an ironic appropriation of ‘socialist’ art by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, into trying to understand the deeper significance of Socialist Realism. This fascinating book swoops and lurches from topic to topic, but the reader’s feeling of disorientation is more than compensated for by the exhilaration of the ride, which ends in a nightmare dream-sequence, a crazy amalgam of Hellzapoppin’ and October (‘an imaginary documentary projected on actual locations’) with the Rosenbergs cast as ‘the Lone Ranger and Tonto of Knickerbocker village’. In other words, a provocatively chaotic and hilarious book about a rigorously controlled and tragic era.

The most extraordinary section deals with the Soviet region of Birobidzhan, created by Stalin as a new Jewish homeland and located in the far east of Siberia, on the north bank of the Amur River. Established in May 1934, Birobidzhan was supposed to provide a shining alternative to Palestine, Yiddish-speaking and playing a positive part in the construction of socialism. Supported largely by fund-raising abroad – especially in New York – the dream project never attracted more than a few thousand Jews, only 20 per cent of the population by 1939, less than 5 per cent fifty years later, although a Yiddish newspaper and radio programme still plodded bravely on. Birobidzhan had been the victor in a struggle within the Jewish Section (yevsektsia) of the Bolshevik Party in the Twenties between the Far East, Belorussia and the Crimea as contending sites for a homeland for the Jewish nationality, in which the diaspora could gather and share joyfully in the task of constructing socialism, just like all the other nationalities – Georgians, Armenians, Chechen-Ingush and so on.

Stalin, it should be remembered, cut his teeth as a Party theorist on the conundrums of what was called ‘the nationalities question’ and was eager to try his hand at solving the Jewish problem once and for all in the real world of socialist construction, funded, to a considerable extent, by gullible comrades in America. Besides which, Birobidzhan was a long way from anywhere and might even serve as a bastion against Japanese expansion into Manchuria – two birds with one stone. For Hoberman the whole doomed experiment, a utopian scheme for modernisation and kolkhozisation of the luftmensh, was just another exemplary twist on Jewish Luck, the title of a strange Yiddish-language Soviet film of the Twenties, which shows the pathetic adventures of a down-at-heel marriage-broker, whose misfortunes in the Pale of Settlement should have led him to embark on the long journey to the banks of the River Amur, had Stalin already had his brainwave: instead, he ends his days in squalor, humiliation and defeat in the waterfront district of Odessa. The main part in the film was played by the great Jewish actor, Solomon Mikhoels, whose murder marked the beginning of Stalin’s anti-semitic campaign (‘rootless cosmopolitans’) after the end of the Second World War.

At the very end of his life, Stalin turned his mind once again to the ever-irritating Jewish Question. He planned to unmask yet another great conspiracy engineered, of course, by ‘Joint’, the sinister Jewish organisation which masterminded foreign plots, medical murders and so on, in the interests of American imperialism. Solomon Mikhoels had worked for ‘Joint’ and now, it seemed, Molotov’s Jewish wife, Zhemchuzina, was involved as well. She must be arrested and interrogated, to reveal her husband’s complicity. Then there was Slansky in Czechoslovakia. But that was only the beginning. Stalin had decided that the Jewish people should be rounded up en masse and resettled in Siberia, a process he had pioneered during the war with the Chechens, Crimean Tatars and other untrustworthy nationalities. In March 1953, before these plans could be brought to fruition, he was found by his guards (his Chekists) sprawled on the floor of the bedroom in his dacha, making incoherent noises, his watch and a copy of Pravda lying on the floor beside him. Two days later, he was dead.

There is a painting by Komar and Melamid entitled Stroke (c.3 March 1953). It was painted in New York thirty years after the event and commemorates the fateful moment in Socialist Realist style. Another canvas by Komar and Melamid, Thirty Years Ago, shows an exhilarated young woman leaping into the arms of her lover to kiss him, while a stern portrait of the deceased leader glares down at them from the wall. It was seeing these paintings and others in the same series that led Hoberman to research the history of socialist art and try to understand its cultural meanings. He was especially fascinated by The Birth of Socialist Realism, a canvas which shows a Neoclassical muse, her flowing red hair lit by a flaming oil-lamp, drawing the outline of Stalin’s silhouetted shadow on the wall, while with her left hand she holds his chin up to make sure the angle is right. Above him hangs a huge red curtain and the whole painting is bathed in a warm red glow. What was its origin, what was the meaning of this projection of Stalin as the central figure in a whole nation’s art?

Among the things I read in order to find a way into this wide-ranging and eccentric book, I was particularly struck by three anecdotes about Stalin, which may or may not be true. First, there was a story about the leader’s library, told by Edvard Radzinsky in his biography, Stalin:

When Stalin died he left behind thousands of books in his Kremlin apartment and at his dacha in Kuntsevo. There was émigré, White Guard literature, and there were works by old acquaintances whom he had killed: Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin. Their books, confiscated everywhere else in the country, lived on in his library. In the Khrushchev period the library was broken up, and only books annotated by Stalin were left behind. The laconic Koba had left a great number of marginal notes in his books, and these jottings offer a curious way into the Great Conspirator’s private thoughts. In the Party Archive I leafed through two of his books, both about terror. The first was Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism (1920). Wherever Trotsky extolled terror and revolutionary violence Koba made an enthusiastic note: ‘Right!’ ‘Well said!’ ‘Yes!’

The second book was Terrorism and Communism (1919) by the German Social Democrat, Karl Kautsky. ‘The leaders of the proletariat,’ Kautsky wrote, ‘have begun to resort to extreme measures, bloody measures – to terror.’ Koba has ringed these words, and written ‘ha-ha’ in the margin.

These off-the-cuff reactions are scarcely surprising: it was obvious that Stalin would defend the Bolshevik terror, launched under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, and even more obvious that he would stroke his cockroach whiskers and chuckle knowingly at the renegade Kautsky’s lack of appetite for blood. But they confirm the extent to which the framework for Stalin’s own decisions as leader was created by the decisions of the Bolshevik leadership in the first flush of the Revolution: the abolition of democratic elections, the armed suppression of the Kronstadt uprising and, above all, the creation of the Cheka. Hoberman puts Victor Serge, who clearly and forcefully expressed this view, at the centre of his extraordinary book. He charts the course of Serge’s relationship with Trotsky from reconciliation to final disillusion when the ‘Old Man’, faced with yet another summary execution, another Kronstadt, this time in Barcelona, refused to defend Andres Nin, the leader of the Marxist but non-Communist POUM. Serge wanted to persuade Trotsky. He tried very hard. He reminded him of words he himself had written – ‘Bolshevism may well be an excellent instrument for the conquest of power, but after that it will reveal its counter-revolutionary aspects’ – and he mourned when Trotsky met the same fate as Nin, murdered by a Stalinist assassin.

If Trotsky would not renounce revolutionary terror, how much less would Stalin, who enjoyed his own personal appropriation of Bolshevik power and felt no doubts at all about the way in which it was exercised. At the same time, Stalin had a personal trait which, to a cinéphile like myself, might almost seem a redeeming feature – he loved the movies. In fact, he seems to have seen even more films than Hoberman and, like Hoberman, he pondered the political implications of them all. In this context, however, a story told by the great Soviet film director, Leonid Trauberg – The New Babylon, the Maxim Trilogy – casts Stalin as something of a sentimentalist at heart and at the same time, a connoisseur of screen violence. In an interview with Theodore Van Houten, published in Van Houten’s book on Trauberg, the veteran director asked his interlocutor:

‘But do you know what Stalin’s favourite film was?’

The Youth of Maxim ?’

‘No, no, it was a very famous film. A very good film. A very good film, with Spencer Tracy – Boys’ Town. Stalin saw it 25 times. There is a sequence in the film where the boys are fighting. At that moment Stalin would grab the arm of the person sitting next to him, he would squeeze and say: ‘Look at that, look at that …’ The projectionist told me personally.’

Boys’ Town was a 1938 Hollywood movie, directed by Norman Taurog and admired for Spencer Tracy’s performance as a priest who rehabilitates juvenile delinquents in a kind of camp, through what we might call ‘tough love’, but not a film that would normally be considered a masterpiece. I imagine it must have suggested to Stalin that his own camps and re-education programmes could be seen in a sweetly beneficent light. Trauberg’s story rings true, because we also have Milovan Djilas’s record of his experience as a patron of the Kremlin cinema. He was visiting Moscow, in April 1945, in order to sign the Treaty of Alliance between the new Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. After the signing there was a dinner, with toasts, of course, and after the dinner, there were screenings:

Because of Stalin’s remark that he was tired of gunfire, they put on, not a war film, but a shallow, happy collective-farm movie. Throughout the performance, Stalin made comments – reactions to what was going on, in the manner of uneducated people who mistake artistic reality for actuality. The second film was a prewar one on a war theme: If War Comes Tomorrow. The war in that film was waged with the help of poison gas, while at the rear of the invaders – the Germans – rebellious elements of the proletariat were breaking out. At the end of the film Stalin calmly remarked: ‘Not much different from what actually happened, only there was no poison gas and the German proletariat did not rebel.’

Djilas’s apparently innocuous phrase, ‘people who mistake artistic reality for actuality’, seems to carry within it the secret that underlay Socialist Realism, in art as in life. Stalin not only mixed up actuality with artistic reality himself, but he sought to impose the same confusion on everybody else, compressing together document and reverie so that everyday existence and wish-fulfilment were magically combined. In the terms of this amalgam, ‘socialist’ represented the reverie, ‘realism’ the impression of actuality. The reverie, of course, was articulated in the first instance by Stalin himself as he imagined what the Soviet Union would be like, if only . . . if only . . . Millions were punished – exiled, put in camps, tortured, shot – for their failure to fill in those dots, so to speak, so that the happy coincidence of life and dream was endlessly delayed, only to be realised in films and paintings and novels. Meanwhile, in an effort to capture that troublesome ‘if only’, revolutionary violence was normalised and generalised until it produced a society of informers, torturers and cronies, each of whom wondered in his private moments when he would awaken to the rapping on the door.

Hoberman, however, adopts a view of Socialist Realism which originates in Boris Groys’s slim but systematic volume, The Total Art [Gesamtkunstwerk] of Stalinism (1988). In particular, he seizes on Groys’s comparison of Socialist Realism with Surrealism:

This ‘self-staging’ of the avant-garde demiurge is also characteristic of other artistic currents of the Thirties and Forties, particularly Surrealism, with which, as with the art of Nazi Germany, Socialist Realism has a great deal in common. All that distinguishes Surrealism or magic realism from the totalitarian art of the time is the ‘individual’ nature of its staging, which was confined to ‘art’, whereas in Germany or Russia the predicates of the Surrealistic artist-demiurge were transferred to the political Leader. The kinship of these tendencies is also apparent in the conversion of a number of French Surrealists to Socialist Realism and Fascism, Salvador Dalí’s interest in the figures of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler.

Breton must have turned in his grave, at the accusation of unwitting complicity with Stalin. To begin with, Breton never considered Surrealism as confined simply to art, although that, I suppose, is to deepen the complicity. More obviously and emphatically, Breton’s concept of Surrealism presumed that artists would be medium-like vehicles for unconscious desires, rather than deliberate, programmatic ‘engineers of the human soul’, as Stalin required his painters and filmmakers to be. It is true, as Groys noted earlier in his book, that ‘the turn toward Socialist Realism was part of the overall evolution of the European avant-garde in those years’ and that ‘it has parallels . . . in the art of Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany’ and even in Hollywood films – but these are stylistic similarities, running the gamut from New Deal to Nazism, intriguing but not indicative of any particular ideological identity. Arguably, all of them can be situated as after-effects of the great Crash and the Depression, but that is as far as the analogy takes us.

In fact, Hoberman’s own adaptation of Groys’s thesis is rather more convincing than its source:

It is thus as a rival of Surrealism – a state Surrealism – that we should consider Socialist Realism. Surrealism, too, was more than mere art, not so much a new avant-garde movement as a means of knowledge – not to be written or painted so much as lived. Like its near namesake, Surrealism was a revolutionary romanticism complete with a pseudoscientific ideology and a radical programme.

Leaving aside the question of what is ‘pseudoscientific’ and what is not, it seems to me that the concerns of the author of The Interpretation of Dreams might provide a more obvious foundation for an art movement than the theory of capitalism outlined in the works of Marx. It is strange that Hoberman should take such an uncompromising stand against Breton when, only a little later on, he notes approvingly that his hero Victor Serge shared a house with Breton in the South of France as they both fled the Nazis, explaining that the two writers were working together in the French section of the anti-Stalinist International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Artists.

Hoberman’s provocative, entertaining and informative book veers wildly between a parody of mourning for the demise of the dream-image of the Soviet Union and its European client states and a burlesque history inspired by its successor, Sots Art – and is given a frantic transatlantic twist. It is written from an idiosyncratic point of view, filtered through a sardonic web of allusions to Jewish Communist culture in New York, as incarnate, for example, in the schizophrenic social world of the Rosenbergs, who figure prominently in Hoberman’s virtuoso dream narrative of the young couple visiting the World’s Fair in Queens to admire the Soviet Pavilion and Julius’s ensuing energetic discussion of the political meaning of the key Hollywood movies of 1939, such as Ninotchka (Lubitsch; reactionary, slanderous), The Wizard of Oz (Fleming; exaggerated, unreal) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Capra; sickening, meaningless) as he strives to live an everyday American life while observing the prescriptions and instructions conveyed from Moscow. The Potemkin steams up the East River, the masses dance in Union Square on May Day and Delancey Street is renamed Dzerzhinsky Street, while the FBI prepares its case against the Rosenbergs.

I enjoyed all this immensely but, of course, I couldn’t help knowing that it wasn’t all a dream, as in a George Landow film, from which the audience would awake with a jolt at the end of the last reel. I felt that it wasn’t enough to say it was all over now, that Atlantis had finally sunk beneath the sea, carrying with it a utopia which, as Hoberman observes, never really existed in the first place. After all, it wasn’t just a dream: it was a reality, perhaps the central reality of the 20th century, whose history makes no sense at all without the story of the Soviet Union, where the ludicrous was so entangled with the dreadful. As the secret files have now been opened, we are beginning to learn what was concealed behind the façade. We know now, for instance, what the Venona transcripts have to tell about Ethel Rosenberg:

Your 5356. Information on liberal’s wife. Surname that of her husband, first name ethel, 29 years old. Married five years. Finished secondary school. A fellow-countryman [Party member] since 1938. Sufficiently well-developed politically. Knows about her husband’s work and the role of meter [Joel Barr, who filmed materials for Julius] and nil [unidentified, but not Fuchs or Greenglass]. In view of delicate health does not work. Is characterised positively and as a devoted person.

Enough to establish a degree of guilt perhaps, although it couldn’t be used in court, for security reasons, but hardly enough to send her to the chair.

It is worth checking out what lay behind some of the other names that appear in Hoberman’s mind-boggling index. Let’s take a look for instance at Utyosov, Leonid, page 156. Utyosov is mentioned because Grigory Alexandrov’s film Jolly Fellows, 1934 (better known in translation as The Happy Guys, but released in America as Moscow Laughs), was ‘a vehicle for the reigning Soviet jazzman, Leonid Utyosov’. When it was completed, The Happy Guys was criticised in the Soviet press as a ‘vulgar mistake’ and an ‘unsuccessful experiment’ but after a screening in the Kremlin for Stalin and his henchmen, who loved it, the film was endorsed by Pravda and the director awarded the Order of the Red Star. The chief ordered it back again and again. Stalin, Hoberman recounts, told Alexandrov that he was ‘a brave man to do a humorous picture’, but then, he also notes, ‘this courage notwithstanding, playwright Nikolai Erdman was arrested while working on the screenplay’ and dropped from the credits. What could have happened?

Erdman, originally a cabaret writer, had already had problems with the authorities. His play Mandate had somehow been staged in Meyerhold’s theatre shortly before the movie was made (but after a previous project, Suicide, had been denounced and forbidden) and had come under considerable attack, although it was vigorously defended by Lunacharsky, once commissar in charge of the arts but now a simple pundit. Unfortunately, Stalin subsequently visited the set of The Happy Guys himself, where, even more unfortunately, he heard a crew member recounting one of Erdman’s satirical fables, or possibly a fable written by his screenwriting partner, Mass. In any case, both writers were promptly arrested and exiled to Siberia, although after a while Erdman was released and sent into internal exile at Kalinin, about a hundred kilometres outside Moscow. In 1936 Stalin instructed Alexandrov to make another film comedy, but this time ‘without any romantic or melodramatic distractions’. Alexandrov turned once again to Erdman, who wrote the screenplay of Volga, Volga. Once again, there were soon problems – the cinematographer and the production manager were arrested during the filming and had to be replaced.

When it was completed, the film studio’s Party watchdog complained that ‘the artistic level is not high enough. It is too drawn out. There are many trite comic scenes.’ He demanded cuts, some of which Alexandrov acceded to and some of which he evaded – among them, ‘the scene in which the Captain pulls Strelka’s pants down’ and ‘the whole scene of love being declared between Strelka and Alosha that takes place under the table, the table collapsing’. Luckily for Alexandrov, Stalin loved the film, collapsing table and all. The gamble had come off. According to Erdman, Alexandrov immediately ‘came to Kalinin where I was serving my exile and he told me: “You see, Kolya, our film has become the leader’s favourite comedy. And of course you understand that it will be a lot better for you if your name does not appear in the credits. Do you understand?” And I said: “I understand.”’ The film, incidentally, is about an amateur song-and-dance troupe from the provinces (Kalinin?) who believe in the People’s Song movement but are disappointed when a local symphony orchestra is nominated to go to Moscow and compete in an amateur music festival. The troupe take off for the capital on their own initiative, storm in, cavort, vocalise and triumph with their popular slogan, ‘Laughter conquers evil.’ No wonder the leader chuckled.

Cut back to Utyosov, the other key figure in Alexandrov’s triumphant career. Leonid Utyosov was a Jewish musician from Odessa who became the leader of the Soviet Union’s most successful jazz band. ‘Like Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer,’ Frederick Starr observed in Red and Hot, his wonderful history of Soviet jazz, Utyosov ‘seized on the new American music as a means of establishing a niche for himself in the non-Jewish world’. In fact, according to a visiting British journalist, he eventually succeeded so well that he became the richest man in the Soviet Union. He somehow managed to survive an anti-American campaign by adding a skit to his show which showed the invention of jazz in Odessa by street musicians playing at a rowdy Jewish wedding. Utyosov deliberately aimed for a working-class audience, taking his band into factories to play during lunch-breaks and accommodating popular taste by adapting traditional folk songs to his jazz repertoire. On a European tour in the Twenties he had been especially impressed by the American band of Ted (‘Is everybody happy?’) Lewis, as well as by the famous British band led by Jack Hylton – light, happy, swinging big-band jazz, now given a Russian accent.

The idea of The Happy Guys had originally come from Boris Shumiatsky, then deputy president of the State Committee on Art Affairs, but soon promoted to become the much-feared supremo of the film industry. Shumiatsky had enjoyed The Music Store, a jazz revue put on by Utyosov in the early Thirties, which centred on a day’s events in a musical instrument shop, with a comic parody of American jazz designed to play to his strengths while sidestepping a new wave of criticism from the Association of Proletarian Musicians, who denounced his repertoire of American pop tunes mixed in with Rimsky-Korsakov as ‘musical rubbish’ and ‘music from the era of the New Economic Policy’. Utyosov was up against the wall and The Happy Guys proved to be his salvation. Alexandrov, who had recently returned to Russia from a protracted visit to Hollywood with Eisenstein, managed to pull the chestnuts out of the fire.

The Happy Guys was loosely based on Universal’s The King of Jazz, starring Paul Whiteman (Starr’s view) and/or on Paramount’s Love Me Tonight (Hoberman’s view), both of which were released during Alexandrov’s time in America. It tells the story of a simple shepherd from the shores of the Black Sea who overcomes all obstacles and rises to stardom as leader of the Happy Guys jazz band, eventually triumphing at the Bolshoi Theatre itself. As Starr describes it, on their way to the Bolshoi Utyosov’s musicians

participate in a rain-soaked New-Orleans-style funeral, complete with hearse and dirge. With their instruments filled with water, the Happy Guys finally burst onto the stage at the venerable Bolshoi. Chaos ensues, and the musicians, unable to play their sodden horns, bring down the house by rendering the film’s theme song in a hot scat vocal style borrowed directly and successfully from 1932 recordings by the Boswell Sisters.

This theme song, incidentally, was a rip-off of the famous Mexican song, ‘Adelita’, which, as Starr notes, was either ‘picked up’ by Alexandrov in the ‘Mexican districts of Los Angeles or, as one Soviet writer charged, stolen wholesale from the sound track of Jack Conway’s 1931 film, Pancho Villa.

Utyosov and Alexandrov were saved from criticism thanks to Stalin’s personal indulgence and the popular success of their film among working-class youth. It seemed better to channel this enthusiasm, under careful supervision, of course, rather than attempt to suppress it. The Soviet Union, after all, was supposed to be a glorious and joyful place, and both Utyosov and Alexandrov well understood how best to take advantage of the ground-rules. It was not until 1936 that jazz came under serious attack. Light classical and Gypsy musicians had seen their bastions in hotels, spas and sanatoriums fall before the advancing power of jazz. They anxiously awaited their moment to strike back. Jazz sidemen could now earn as much as five thousand rubles a month, band-leaders tens of thousands, while classically trained musicians were lucky if they reached the low hundreds. In 1933, when the United States recognised the Soviet Union, Shumiatsky himself visited Hollywood and came back full of praise for American films and music, but by 1936 the climate had changed completely.

Alexandrov’s film The Circus, made in the same year, was explicitly anti-American – the black heroine leaves the racist and uncultured (i.e. jazz-loving) shores of the United States and emigrates to the Soviet Union, where there is no racism and a more elevated culture. This was the year Shostakovich was chastised for borrowing from jazz. A great debate took place between Pravda (for jazz) and Izvestia (against). Eventually the head of the State Committee on Art Affairs himself published a cautious defence of jazz in the pages of Pravda. Izvestia responded with another attack (Bukharin was still cited as editor on Izvestia’s masthead, but in reality he had been removed from power and banned from the premises). Shumiatsky rallied to Utyosov’s defence and supported the singing in public of the ‘Adelita’ theme song from The Happy Guys, after Party officials tried to ban it. Another broadside from Pravda hinted that Bukharin should be held responsible for Izvestia’s attacks – which should have settled the matter. Instead, Izvestia launched yet another tirade against Shumiatsky for hiring jazz bands to play in cinemas. Soon afterwards the paper’s entire editorial board was purged, most of its members never to be heard from again. Jazz, Shumiatsky, Alexandrov and Utyosov were all saved. Bukharin was sent to prison for interrogation, trial and execution.

At the same time, jazz was toned down. As Starr put it, Utyosov made ‘timely concessions’, waiting for jazz to come back into favour – a moment which arrived with the outbreak of war, when he was enlisted to entertain the troops. After the victory, jazz came under attack again. Musicians started to disappear. Utyosov dropped his plans for an elaborate jazz revue and switched again to using jazz as a vehicle for anti-American lampoon. It was not until Stalin had died that he could relaunch his career with a call for the ban on the saxophone to be lifted and music to be permitted which ‘corresponds to the moods of our marvellous youth’. The jazz musical, as Hoberman notes, threw a very strange light on the concept of Socialist Realism. It showed how elastic it could be, in the face of popular demand, provided careful concessions were made. Yet, however joyous, jazz was always vulnerable, because of its American and Jewish backgrounds. It was popular demand that ensured its survival, despite Stalin’s wavering – one foot tapping to the beat and the other preparing a vicious kick.

When the US entered the war, Washington became almost as eager as the Kremlin to encourage the production of films that idealised the Soviet Union. This fascinates Hoberman. In 1943, as he notes, we find Michael Curtiz’s Mission to Moscow, made to celebrate Ambassador Joseph Davies’s journey of friendship to Russia in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Earlier, of course, Russia had been quarantined by America: in the late Thirties, Stalin had appealed to the US to build and sell him a battleship, cash down, noting that it would provide plenty of jobs for American workers. No luck at all. But in Mission to Moscow, a pack of Trotskyist traitors are unmasked in a single grand show trial, just as they were in real life – although torture scenes were avoided. Stalin, in Hoberman’s words, was ‘depicted as a kind of Slavic leprechaun’, while the Ambassador’s wife is told by Polina Molotova, the ‘commissar for cosmetics’ that, Ninotchka notwithstanding, ‘feminine beauty is not a luxury.’

It was only seven years later that Molotov’s wife was arrested. Perhaps her basic fault, besides being Jewish, was that long ago she had been Stalin’s own wife’s comforter on the dreadful drunken evening when Stalin threw the bread-ball flirtatiously at Yegorova and Alliluyeva went home and shot herself with the little Walther pistol, a present from her brother. Or perhaps it was because of her work with Mikhoels on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee or her behaviour at the reception for Golda Meir, only a few months after Mikhoels was murdered, when she addressed Golda in Yiddish. Molotov felt his knees knocking when Stalin revealed to the Politburo that he had been informed that she spoke to Golda about the possibility of an autonomous Jewish republic in the Crimea. At first he refused to vote for her arrest, but in the end, of course, old trouper that he was, he broke down and disowned her. He had been close to Stalin since before the Revolution and he knew what was expected of him. Molotov, by the way, had studied the tango and the rumba in the mid-Thirties, soon after the release of The Happy Guys. He must have tangoed with Polina. Doubtless, just as in Komar and Melamid’s scenes of Moscow life under the ancien regime, there was a portrait of Stalin looking down on them as they danced, a benevolent twinkle in his ever-observant eye.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 22 No. 1 · 6 January 2000

In his review of J. Hoberman’s book The Red Atlantis, Peter Wollen (LRB, 25 November 1999) states that Trotsky refused to defend the POUM leader Andres Nin and draws an analogy between Trotsky’s position on the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 – his support of armed suppression – and his position on the murder of Nin in 1937. This grossly misrepresents important – and well-known – historical facts. In brief, Trotsky was totally on Nin’s side, speaking of him later as ‘an old and incorruptible revolutionary’ who had been murdered because he was incorruptible. Wollen also cites the revolutionary novelist Victor Serge as someone who ‘clearly and forcefully’ expressed the view that Lenin led to Stalin. Quite the contrary. In his 1937 book From Lenin to Stalin, Serge argues that ‘everything has changed’: the aims of the Revolution, the Party, the climate of daily life – everything had changed under Stalin.

Mike Eaude

Vol. 22 No. 3 · 3 February 2000

Mike Eaude (Letters, 6 January) takes me to task for my remarks on the relationships between Andres Nin, Victor Serge and Trotsky. Eaude writes that ‘Trotsky was totally on Nin’s side’: in fact, Trotsky repeatedly criticised Nin, then leader of the POUM, throughout the months prior to his murder by Stalin’s agents in 1937. For example, in January of that year, Serge wrote to Lev Sedov, regretting that the POUM was forced to defend itself against ‘a fierce campaign’ launched against it by Trotsky’s Fourth International. In March, Trotsky himself wrote that ‘everyone who defended Nin’s policies against us today carries a share of the responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish revolution’ – if the revolution were to fail, as, of course, it did.

In May 1937, Trotsky continued to denounce the POUM for ‘its indecision, its equivocation, its hesitations, its lack of clear programme’, concluding with a condemnation of ‘the tragic and criminal mistakes of the leadership’. In June, immediately after Nin’s murder, Trotsky wrote of ‘the leaders of the POUM’ that they ‘could only be accused of opportunism and lack of resoluteness toward Stalinist reaction’. In September, after praising Nin’s ‘integrity’ and condemning his executioners, he said: ‘we openly criticised Nin’s policies when he was alive. We did not alter our evaluation of him after he died.’

Eaude also contests my observation that Serge believed the roots of Stalinism could be found in Lenin and Trotsky’s own early policies. However, Serge wrote in his article ‘Marxism in Our Time’, published in the Partisan Review in 1938:

after victory had been won in the Civil War, the socialist solution of the problems of the new society should have been sought in workers’ democracy, the stimulation of initiative, freedom of thought, freedom for working-class groups and not, as it was, in

centralisation of power, repression of heresies, the monolithic single-party system, the narrow orthodoxy of an official school of thought … By the time Lenin and Trotsky realised the danger and wished to retrace their steps … it was too late.

The two major issues about which Serge and Trotsky disagreed were the Kronstadt uprising and the role of Nin, topics which recur repeatedly in their dialogue. I find myself puzzled by Trotsky’s apparent inability to see any parallel between the armed suppression of the Kronstadt rising and the armed suppression of Nin and the POUM. If, as Trotsky clearly stated, killing Nin and his comrades was wrong, then surely the armed suppression of the Kronstadt sailors was wrong, too. Yet in August 1938 Trotsky still wrote, on the subject of Kronstadt:

I don’t know if there were unnecessary victims. On this point, I trust Dzerzhinsky rather than his belated critics … Victor Serge’s conclusions on this point – at third hand – have no value in my view. But I am ready to accept that civil war is not a school of humanism. Idealists and pacifists always accuse the revolution of committing ‘excesses’. But the fundamental point is that ‘excesses’ stem from the very nature of revolution, which in itself is only an ‘excess’ of history. On this basis whoever wants to can reject (in little articles) revolution in general. I do not reject it. In this sense, I accept full and entire responsibility for the repression of the Kronstadt revolt.

Peter Wollen
Los Angeles

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences