Reflections on Revolution—the Russian and the one to come
In this July 7, 1980 file photo, a woman walks past a huge portrait of Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev that dwarfs the symbol of the upcoming XXII Summer Olympics right behind, in Moscow. | AP

New People’s World series—The Centennial of the Russian Revolution

November 7, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the world’s first socialist state. To commemorate the occasion, People’s World is launching a series of articles that present wide-angled assessments of the revolution’s legacy, the Soviet Union and world communist movement which were born out of it, and the revolution’s relevance to radical politics today. Proposals for contributions are welcome and should be emailed to cjatkins@peoplesworld.org. Other articles in the series can be read here.

By the time I visited the Soviet Union for three weeks, my one and only time, it was late summer of 1980, immediately after the Summer Olympics. The Revolution would celebrate its 63rd anniversary that November. It lasted another decade, but did not live to see its 75th.

I was identifying as an anarchist then, fed up with the authoritarianism of every nation-state. I liked the sassiness of slogans like “Don’t vote, it only encourages them,” and “U.S. Out of North America,” but I guess I was a “reform” anarchist in the sense that I always voted in elections, believing that given the choice, I would help elect the better candidate for what it was worth. Really terrible people have gotten into office on the slimmest of margins.

I was a squishy anarchist in this sense, too: I had family and friends who had been Communists and I admired the audacity of the Russian Revolution, especially its first, radical decade. After that, I felt, the Revolution got quite bureaucratized; but nevertheless the Soviets saved the world from fascism at an unspeakably high cost. And as they recuperated from the ravages of war, they nevertheless also helped the emerging nations gain independence, train their new professional leadership, build their industries, and in some cases militarily fight and defeat the European colonial powers in independence wars.

How would we peacenik Americans be received in the USSR that summer after Pres. Jimmy Carter canceled U.S. participation in the Olympics over the Afghanistan issue? Could we really experience a candid exchange of views about our respective governments and their policies? I was also interested to learn about the status of gays in Russia, and whether the reports of Soviet anti-Semitism were true, or exaggerated by Western anti-communist propaganda.

After these observations on what I experienced in the USSR, I’ll conclude with some current thoughts about the socialist revolution I envision.

I was planning to write a travelogue for publication upon my return, so I brought a journal in which to record my impressions. At Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, the woman from customs who rummaged through my suitcase examined every scrap of paper with me. As the bus pulled out of the airport, a giant mural loomed up of a husky proletarian bursting the bonds of slavery in the glorious light of 1917. Squared-off shoulders and intently locked jaws set the style of such messages in art. Posters and billboards hailed “Glory to the XXVI Party Congress,” which would meet early the next year to set goals for the next five years. Many Soviets expected Leonid Brezhnev, then Communist Party leader and Soviet president, to retire at that congress.

On our first day, we entered a great hall where our guide showed us a giant wall map of the Soviet Union, some 60-feet-long, created out of different-colored marble for each constituent republic, and semi-precious gemstones for each capital city. She told us this was the mural displayed in the Soviet pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I piped up, “But not this exact map.” She said, “Yes, this very same, exact map. Why are you questioning me?” “That can’t be,” I stated. “The map shows Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as Soviet republics, but they were not taken into the USSR until 1940.” “Oh, yes, that’s true. The map was brought up to date after that.”

The guide obviously took my comment in the way I intended it—a little snotty, I admit. Doubtlessly our Intourist guides were obliged to report any behavior they found questionable, but being true to my freethinking sensibilities, I felt I had to express myself with candor. “Minders” seated at little desks on every floor of Soviet hotels served something of the same function. I was earning something of a reputation as a possible troublemaker, which may also account for this curious phenomenon: A couple of times, just minutes after I had checked into my hotel room, the phone rang, and a dusky woman’s voice on the other end asked if I needed anything, and could she come up? I can’t entirely be sure what that might have been about, but given some stories of romantic entrapment that I had heard, I inferred the worst and promptly hung up.

Our sponsoring group, Promoting Enduring Peace, set up meetings with the local Committees for the Defense of Peace, mostly academics and journalists, with 130 branches throughout the country. Their work was supported by contributions from individual workers, factories, churches, and by the state’s provision of buildings and supplies. At first we Americans, representing dozens of separate peace groups, believed we were meeting with our direct counterparts in the USSR, but it soon became apparent that these Committees spoke with the voice of the government, hewing closely to official positions on issues of war and peace. We wondered to what extent it was possible in the Soviet Union for private citizens to press for a reduced military budget.

Some of us extended our questioning, either in these public sessions with the Peace Committees, with church groups we met with, or privately in conversations we people we felt we could speak with frankly, to cover human rights, conscientious objection to military service, nuclear power, the Soviet military buildup on the Chinese border, freedom of expression, the situation of gay people, and other sensitive subjects. We often felt crushed by the time-wasting formalities and the general unanimity of responses. How did anyone in a society like this show real initiative, level criticism, make change, other than through a maze of “proper channels”?

In Odessa on the Black Sea, we visited the beach, where I became gradually aware of a blond, bearded man of about 25 actively cruising me. Fearing harsh Soviet penalties for such things (what a set-up!), I tried to ignore him. But when he directly faced me making an unmistakable movement of his tongue over his teeth and upper lip I winked back and started talking with his limited English. He asked if our group were members of the American Communist Party, for such groups had come through before. I replied that we represented a broader range of the peace movement than that: religious groups, pacifists, women’s groups, anarchists.

At that last word he lit up and volunteered that he, too, was an anarchist. I knew how methodically the Soviets had suppressed the Russian anarchist movement and its ideas, so I was naturally interested to know how he arrived at that definition. Mostly, it seems, from a sense of dissatisfaction that official state policy was all that remained of the idea of the left. From encyclopedia articles he knew something of Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Alexander Berkman, though he did not recognize Emma Goldman’s name. He had never read any anarchist literature per se, and was certainly unfamiliar with any contemporary anarchist thinkers. Perhaps some local tradition survived, so I asked about Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainian fighter against the White armies during the Civil War following the Revolution, later betrayed by Trotsky and the Red Army. Yes, he says he saw a film about Makhno. “Did they call him a bandit?” I asked. Yes, that is just the word they used, but he was able to read between the lines and conclude that Makhno must have been okay. Our chat ended when our bus returned to the hotel.

Religion under Soviet socialism

When I visited a synagogue in Kiev, I found old men constrained to say only positive things about the religious freedom they enjoyed. One young man waited for us outside to speak his heart: The “official” Jews with whom we had been speaking are “Kof Gimel Beit,” using the Hebrew letters for KGB. He had been studying Hebrew in a private circle of friends for some years, and for his pains had been called in for questioning: Was he an Israeli agent? Did he work for the Jewish lobby in the West? What books did he receive from visitors? In his efforts to reconnect with his Jewish roots, he received no support from the men at the synagogue; he suspected they reported regularly to the authorities. Yes, he would emigrate to Israel “to help build up the land,” but by applying to do so he would not only lose his own job as a technician, but thereby cost his father his job and his sister her place at the Institute.

Two more encounters with religion just an hour or so apart gave me deeper insight into the role of religion in the USSR. In Volgograd, we visited a Baptist church built entirely by the community of believers. Are there areas of incompatibility between Marxism-Leninism and the Gospel of Jesus Christ? we asked. Brother Karpov: “The Gospel says every power is given by God. Our country’s legislation holds for us as well as for other citizens. If it rarely happens that a believer is persecuted at work or elsewhere, they appeal to the authorities, who stop such persecution. Our country does not permit prosecution for belief.”

But suppose a young man from the congregation, according to his reading of the Bible and the commandment against killing, chooses to be a conscientious objector. What would your minister advise him? “Like all citizens of the Soviet Union, we also go to military service,” said Karpov. “We say behave well, obey your commanders, be a model for everyone, don’t conceal being a Baptist. We obey the Constitution and the law of our country. Recently a member of our community returned home from military service with a medal for good conduct. We don’t criticize others; we look into ourselves and hope for life in Heaven after death.” I can forgive the evasive answer under the circumstances, but the question still stands: Was there a place for religious non-conformism with the laws of the state?

From there we proceeded to the Kazan Cathedral, where the Russian Orthodox Church service that Thursday evening was in progress. What a contrast to the Baptists’ simplicity! The walls were covered with icons and frescoes, the air prickly with incense, and liturgical music alternated with the centuries-old Slavonic recitations by the aged women, standing with bowed posture, heads covered before God. Half a dozen priests led the rituals. After about 40 minutes, we were asked to step into the parish house next door for a welcome “snack,” which turned out to be a bountiful feast. Cold cuts and cheeses, fresh breads, fruits at their peak, slabs of caviar that would cost several dollars apiece at home (and weren’t much cheaper here), rich chocolate candies, and free-flowing Armenian cognac and Soviet champagne, a bottle of each for every four of us at the table. Father Alexei pointed to the Ararat label on the cognac and invited us to “emulate Noah” and get drunk.

The evening passed with speeches of mutual greeting, distribution of souvenirs, and progressive intoxication. All in the spirit of mir i druzhba—peace and friendship. Afterward, some of us privately muttered shocked distress at this flagrant debauchery next door to the huddled babushkas, wondering out of whose coffers came this largesse, but we were too compromised ourselves to raise the issue, and with whom would we raise it anyway? The good fathers saw fit to entertain us in a manner far exceeding the occasion, perhaps the only way they knew to express their hopes for our peaceful mission—and avoid serious conversation. I can imagine them today hosting American visitors from Focus on the Family getting plastered over their mutual objection to LGBTQ rights.

Our excursions to visit the faithful reconfirmed my belief that, as a general rule, religious conviction fundamentally dovetails with the prevailing social system, whatever it is. At the edges of respectability, both right and left (say, refusal to sanction same-gender marriage, refusal to serve in the armed forces or pay war taxes, or wishing to study Hebrew), I would hope that my socialism would deal humanely with sincere moral conviction, and also attempt to identify any political agenda connected to it. Public opinion and peer pressure, I feel, will be the main stabilizers.

Along our way, we saw a number of statues honoring Felix Dzerzhinsky, who had founded much-needed orphanages in the wake of the Revolution. But I reminded some of my tour companions of Dzerzhinsky’s role as head of the oppressive Cheka, the secret police and forerunner of the KGB. One of our tour leaders took me to task for this, calling it obstructive and only contributing to people’s thinking of the USSR as a police state. “We forget that there really was a terrific counter-revolutionary movement the Soviets had to fight.” “Yes, I know that,” I responded, “but we mustn’t forget either that thousands of honest revolutionaries lost their lives under the Bolsheviks—to do so would be utterly naïve.”

The square outside the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, 1980. | Wikimedia Commons

An international gay troika

I felt obliged to report something back home on gay life in the Soviet Union. In Moscow, final stop on our five-city tour, I strolled over to the Bolshoi Theater, having heard that the square in front of it was the principal gay cruising park in the city, and perhaps the whole country. Bingo!

After a few modestly successful approaches at conversation, I fell in with two suitable informants for my investigations, and I would spend the better part of the next two days with these two lovers. I spoke through Anatoly, who knew English well, 24, a Jewish doctor from Kishinev, Moldavia, in his last year of medical school. He flew to Moscow every six or eight weeks (airfare in the USSR was quite cheap by our standards) to be with Serge, 25, a Tatar with high cheekbones who settled in Moscow after finishing his tour with the army on the Chinese frontier. A construction worker, he “came out” here in Moscow. They met a year ago on the Bolshoi Square, and tonight were revisiting the spot. I insisted that I did not want to interfere with their plans for the evening, but they, too, recognized a good “find” in me, as opportunities for such contacts with foreigners—an American, no less—were scarce.

After a Turkish coffee at a restaurant that attracted a gay clientele, we bought tickets to see a new movie, Petrovka, 38. The title was the address of the Moscow militzia. Throughout the movie Anatoly had his arm hooked around mine to whisper details of the plot: Petrovka, 38 was also the headquarters of the Homo Squad, though he had never had personal experience with its agents. When the movie let out we wandered around making plans for the next day, the three of us walking like a troika with our arms connected: For the Soviets, like most civilized peoples of the world, did not interpret human touch as inherently sexual and suspect. In many American cities we might well have got beaten up for such behavior.

The next day we had a little farewell party at the communal apartment—hostel might be the better term—where Serge lived, in one of the sad, isolated blocks of gray that were home for so many of Moscow’s working class. There we talked about ourselves more, discovering how much in common there is in life and love despite our vexatious nationalities: coming out, meeting people, straight friends, lovers, what to tell the family, jealousy, jokes. I was reminded of our meeting with the Jews of Kiev: Our questions implied they might not have what we considered vital to Jewish life, and they seemed unconcerned to have more than they do. What would Anatoly and Serge do with “liberation” if they had it? What we knew as the principal markers of gay lib—history books, newsmagazines and literature, porn, bars, discos, churches, and for many the possibility of living openly with a lover—all these were unimaginable in this society. Gay liberation was quite beyond conception if put in our terms. The permissive attitude that prevailed right after the Revolution, hailed by gay activists in Germany and elsewhere in the 1920s, then stifled under Stalin, had been effectively buried.

I did recall to them a touching point that our tourguide in Kiev brought out. We visited the catacombs in the cathedral, and she took great pains to identify a particular crypt where a certain monk had been entombed, and then, some years later, his dear friend and fellow monk with him, the only instance of double burial there. A curiosity, to be sure, but one with much resonance for me. I wondered, was that her way of carving out a little corner of “gay space” in a society that had so few?

The young man who approached us outside the synagogue in Kiev likely made his way to Israel. I did stay in touch with my Bolshoi lovers for a few years (writing to the English-speaking Anatoly), relating our travels, our working lives, and love affairs (he broke up with Serge). Then, when it became possible, Anatoly also left for Israel. As soon as he arrived in the Promised Land, his letters started spilling over with such murderous hatred for Arabs and Palestinians that I felt soiled merely reading them, and either I stopped writing or he did, I forget which. I tried locating him in 1993, when I first visited Israel, but he was not to be found. Perhaps he had changed his name to something more Israeli-sounding, or maybe he was dead.

Building Communism

On our final morning in Moscow I visited the famed Tretyakov Gallery, repository of the best Russian and Soviet art in the country. In the entrance foyer, one 1975 canvas probably eight-feet-high portrayed Brezhnev against the background of a blurry but enthusiastically applauding Presidium. The title was “How We Build Communism”—not quite what I might have conceived on such a theme. I would hate to think of art in my socialism being anywhere near this sycophantic. I would tend to leave the arts pretty much alone—and yet: Must we support work that is explicitly reactionary or racist or sexist or homophobic, etc.? Many people might interpret my hesitation to uphold such “art” as not in substance different from the censors of our own time, governmental or unofficial, who decide what is acceptable for Americans to see and hear. This is a problem for which the socialism of the future will have to come up with a widely agreed-upon methodology.

At customs, I was the last of our group to be let through. The officer opened every package, envelope, and book in my luggage. What was she looking for? Rubles? Smuggled documents? My notebooks got by unread, but she seemed dumbfounded by the Soviets’ own propaganda booklets freely available in hotel lobbies and airport lounges: “Socialism: Theory and Practice,” “China Swallow Asia?” “The Truth About Afghanistan.”

Our plane to the West made a half-hour stopover at the Warsaw airport on Friday, September 5. We noticed nothing unusual. Only when we read capitalist newspapers in Zurich did we learn that the Polish working class had been striking, scoring dramatic democratic gains, and that the Polish government was falling. Of all this there had been no mention in the Soviet press.

We also read that the AFL-CIO had been funneling monies in to “help” the Polish workers of the Solidarnosc movement. Did American workers intend to provoke the Soviets into a Polish occupation, provide more evidence of “Communist aggression,” more arguments for tough-talking candidates in the decisive general election that November of 1980, more excuse for nuclear buildup, and more surely than ever, reason for war?

As to “The Truth About Afghanistan,” I am fundamentally inclined toward the Soviet position. That country represented no threat to the U.S. As the Soviets saw things along their border, Afghanistan had been more or less in the Soviet sphere of influence since the beginning of the 20th century. A revolution took place there in April 1978 for land reform, literacy, women’s progress, democratic advances, and higher education. The rebels stood for the old feudal system, and the U.S. and other Western powers started to arm them. The Afghan situation would have normalized long before had it not been for other foreign intervention. Claiming that Soviet military assistance had been invited in by the reform government, the Soviets believed that if they had not gone in, a bloodbath would have occurred there, as had happened in Chile in 1973.

By 1980, the Soviets let us know they were seeking a way to get out: This war already had the reputation of being “their Vietnam,” but they did not feel they could abandon the enterprise, which, after all, sat at their national border. But Western arms kept coming in to the mujahedin. In the meantime, burials and deaths of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan were kept secret so as not to cause embarrassment to the government.

If Afghanistan meant so little to the U.S. in terms of our national interest (and by contrast so much to the Soviets with their Muslim populations in the Central Asian republics), I can only conclude that our right-wing that opposed détente at every turn used or even created the Afghan crisis in order to dash all kinds of other Soviet-American cooperation in nuclear, economic, agricultural, and hundreds of other fields. As soon as the mujahedin won, and the Soviets withdrew with their tails between their legs—one of a number of contributory factors in the crash of the whole Soviet system—the U.S. left the rebels to their own devices, until, voilà, the Taliban!

And now, since 2001, the shoe is on the other foot. We are embroiled in an endless, feckless war against a feudal movement that we essentially created to begin with. I am writing this as Pres. Trump has just committed our country to “winning” in Afghanistan, with no timetable set, nor limit to the number of deaths and tragedies that will ensue. I can only imagine the Russians smiling with grim gallows humor at our hubris of making the same historical, military, and cultural mistake that they did in the 1980s.

Soviet strengths and weaknesses

As a more-or-less anarchist I certainly did not expect to find perfection in the USSR any more than I found at home. But I did see much to admire. We saw so much less violence there than in the U.S., perhaps because of the more egalitarian class structure there. And curiously, I thought, the USSR was in some ways more decentralized than the U.S.: In agriculture, for example, they had state and collective farms all over the country, and we have monoculture that dominates many of our states, where traditional family truck farming has all but disappeared.

From the Soviets themselves we learned the main strengths of their society—organization and education. Their main weakness was the legacy of the past: The country sorely needed major improvement in many sectors, and still the USSR had vast, undeveloped rural areas. At the same time, the Soviets asked us peaceniks, “Isn’t your work difficult without organization at the federal level?” Good question.

In a society with such a controlled press, as we saw concerning the unreported Polish Solidarity movement, I frankly wondered how anyone could make independent judgments about anything. All news seemed didactic and heavily editorialized, as if the readership or viewership could not be trusted with anything else. And how could ordinary teachers or average citizens raise their voices to say, We can do better?

But the Soviets felt they had organized the activity of millions of people and produced enduring public works and institutions. Could a capitalist enterprise system conceivably have rebuilt Soviet cities after World War II? And if so, would they look like Disneyworlds or Hershey, Pennsylvanias? As we saw with some of the hotels we stayed in, the Soviets appeared to be saying yes to capitalist investment, but with Soviet control. In sum, both our systems limited the freedoms of their citizens, but which over the long haul would deliver the optimal measure of social health?

A pro-Soviet anarchist

I returned confirmed in my anarchism, but not with the anti-Sovietism of Emma Goldman and every other anarchist I knew. I guess I was a “revisionist” anarchist. My whole network of old friendships, as well as my scholarly research into Communist-influenced American culture of the 1930s and beyond, kept me from despising and disparaging all things Soviet. But in addition, now I had seen the place for myself. I developed a kind of contempt for those writers and theoretical gurus on the “anti-revisionist” left who really knew so little about actual life in the socialist countries.

If I believed that Western capitalism were so completely successful, I would have seen every fault and weakness in the Soviet system. But I had to admit that in many important ways, the Soviets were delivering a modest, but reasonably egalitarian life for most of their people despite enormous challenges. I felt more warmly toward the people than to their system, and yet it was the system that organized whatever success the people enjoyed. On the personal, libertarian level, as a gay person and as a freethinking writer, of course I saw they had a long, long way to go.

In fairly short order I joined the New York Association for American-Soviet Friendship, which a number of Communists were active in, but of course it served a larger purpose—peace, productive relations, cultural exchanges, hosting visitors, and the like. I even started writing critical reviews for the Daily World under cultural editor Adelaide Bean.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since those days, and I’m in a very different place now. So is the Communist Party now that the USSR is no more. Now I’m the cultural editor of the People’s World!

I recently came across this reflection by Fidel Castro: “We made the revolution we could, not the revolution we wanted.”

I like to think I learned something from Cheddi Jagan, longtime people’s leader in the South American nation of Guyana, who once wrote to me, in the midst of my “anti-revisionist” phase, “You can’t fight capitalism and socialism at the same time.”

In other words, whatever the faults and weaknesses—even crimes!—of the socialist movements and countries, we cannot afford the existential vanity of crying pox on both houses and exposing the socialist flank to the imperialist hyenas.

As so many valiant attempts at “socialism with a human face” have demonstrated—Salvador Allende in Chile, for example—or left-wing democratic experiments such as Venezuela’s Bolivarian movement, Honduras, Brazil, Guyana, or South Africa, building an authentic democratic socialism is not child’s play in this world of multinational corporations and a power-crazed U.S. with a thousand military bases around the globe. Even where the left has won elections, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or El Salvador’s FMLN, those who occupy government offices may not be structurally the people in power. They too must trim their sails for “the revolution they can make, not the revolution they want.”

For many years now the Communist Party USA has voiced the slogan for a “Bill of Rights socialism.” As I age and look around, I am torn between my ideal of freedom and my desire for socialism as the most good for the most people even if at the expense of certain—can I say?—“luxuries” like freedom of speech, freedom of association, including the right of Nazis to demonstrate publicly and publish their hate-filled screeds, the right of religious media to evangelize contempt for women and LGBTQ folk, the right of newspapers to editorialize for war and the right of business to promote ecological desecration.

I feel some shame saying it, but I’m afraid the human race is very far from the kind of socialism that would permit exactly the kinds of freedom the Soviets abused. Because global capitalism, with its influence, agility and resilience, not to mention military might, is so devious that such a socialism could not last. Either strict limits on what are sometimes called “bourgeois” rights would have to be imposed—I never believed I’d fall into the camp of authoritarian socialism!—or, better, there would have to be a worldwide socialist revolution.

Maybe I am just older and wiser, sadder and more cynical. But there will never be a perfect system. Perhaps if the Soviet model had been allowed to continue to the point where they were dismounting statues to Dzerzhinsky it might have come closer.

One thing is for sure: We need to clear out all the cobwebs of received opinion, and soberly, dispassionately reassess the Russian Revolution and its aftermath if we are ever to create a socialism worthy of the name.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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