Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Soviet Story (Labvakar/Perry Street Advisors, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I also watched a chilling if overwrought documentary recently shown on PBS: The Soviet Story, a production from a Latvian company called Labvakar, directed and written by Edvins Snore, whose movie would be a good deal more moving if he had just stuck to the facts he could document and not placed them in a hard-Right ideological, philosophical and propagandist context designed to discredit all forms of socialism, liberalism and any other political-economic philosophy but lassiez-faire capitalism and worship of “The Market.” The basic thesis (if I can borrow a word from dialectic terminology whose use in connection with his film Mr. — or is it Ms.? — Snore would probably detest) of The Soviet Story is that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler were virtually identical; all sought to create a socialist society of one form or another, and all called for mass murders of anyone whose existence they considered an obstacle to their foredoomed attempts to remake human nature.

Snore’s ideological purpose is to trash any and all of the myths and legends by which modern-day socialists (or, for that matter, modern-day liberals and progressives) attempt to dissociate themselves and their goals from the horrors of Communism and Nazism, though his case against Marx and Engels rests mainly on the appearance of one word, “Völkerabfälle,” in the Communist Manifesto. Snore translates this as “racial trash” and explains in his narration (he wrote the film, though in the English version the narration is delivered by Jon Strickland in a quiet, calm, matter-of-fact way that only makes the film more chilling) that this meant that people whose societies hadn’t yet experienced the capitalist transformation (he apparently cited the Basques and the Scottish Highlanders as examples) would have to be exterminated before the transition from capitalism to socialism could be completed. (Ironically, the first socialist revolution occurred in a society that was still largely feudal — indeed, the ideological battle between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks was based largely on this very point: could you make a socialist revolution in a society that hadn’t even finished the transition to capitalism yet? — but this is just one of the many real-life complexities that aren’t in Snore’s film because they don’t fit his ideological schema.)

Snore makes some pretty wild leaps and instances of guilt by association (a favorite tactic of the Right) to establish ideological and inspirational connections between Nazism and Communism, going so far as to claim that the Nazis were really Leftists because they had the word “socialist” in their name and they shared a belief in exterminating enemies of the state — only the Nazis’ targets were based on race while the Soviets’ targets were based on class. Snore includes a montage sequence comparing Nazi German posters on the left side of the screen with Soviet Russian posters on the right (shouldn’t it have been the other way around?) in an effort to depict the similarities of the regimes — though all his montage really proves is that these two despotisms sold themselves to their people in similar ways (it’s really more a commonality of marketing than of ideology). He also dredges up footage of George Bernard Shaw (I presume from his famous Movietone newsreel of 1928) claiming that certain “undesirable” people should be made to justify their existence and (he leaves this unspoken but this is a legitimate inference from what he said) got rid of if they can’t prove they add more value to the world than they take from it in their support. The idea is to tie West European socialism to both the Soviets and the Nazis (and indeed Shaw did say in the 1930’s that democracy was proving inadequate to the economic crisis and maybe the future lay with dictatorships, which is more an embarrassment to Shaw and proof of how far a great mind can go off the rails than the blanket condemnation of all socialism and progressivism Snore wants to paint it as) and to argue that humankind’s only choices are capitalism or barbarism.

I’ll concede one important point to Snore: liberals, progressives and Leftists in general have been considerably softer in their criticisms of Communist atrocities than of fascist ones, and I agree with him that the reason for that is that the fascists, especially the Nazis, committed their crimes against humanity in the name of an ideal of “racial purity” that appalls us as much as the crimes themselves do, while the Soviets committed theirs in the name of human equality, economic freedom (in the Rooseveltian sense of “freedom from want and freedom from fear”) and a classless society, so there’s a definite tendency on the Left towards apologizing for the Communists because we like their stated ideals even if we abhor their policies and tactics. (I’ll even admit that in nit-picking Snore’s film I’m probably at least partially guilty of this myself.)

The real unfortunate aspect of Snore’s film is that his ideological purpose gets in the way of the real meat of his movie: his dramatization of the Soviet evil (he estimates that “at least 20 million” people were killed by the Soviet regime throughout its existence — about 3 1/2 times the total toll of the Nazi Holocaust) and his retellings of classic stories about the brutality and mass murders committed under the Soviet regime: the so-called “genocide by hunger” in Ukraine in 1932-33 (which I already read about in Miron Dolot’s book Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust — a vivid and well documented account that worked for me more than this film did precisely because Dolot did not have the kinds of historical axes to grind that Snore did; by refusing to underscore the story as a condemnation of all attempts to rein in the private sector Dolot made me rethink my attitude towards the Soviet Union in ways this film did not), the massacre of Poles in Katyn Forest in 1940 and the Soviets’ return of German Jews (and, even more inexplicably, German Communists) who had fled the Nazi persecution in 1940-41 so the Germans could send them to concentration camps and kill them as part of the Holocaust. The film also makes clear that the Nazi-Soviet alliance from August 1939 to June 1941 was not a mere “non-aggression pact” but an actual, active military partnership (though, true to form, in depicting the partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as “evidence” of the identity between the two he ignores the long history of German and Russian governments dividing up Poland between them, which predated both the Nazis and the Soviets by more than a century).

Had Snore just stuck to the historical facts and not attempted to condemn all Left-of-center politics by association — and in particular had he avoided his bizarre attempts to cite the Soviets as Hitler’s inspiration (he says it was the Soviet success at mass murder that inspired Hitler to order the Holocaust, and uses Joseph Goebbels’ publicly expressed admiration of Lenin to tie the Soviets and the Nazis ideologically — ignoring the fact that when Goebbels said those things he was part of a Left-wing movement within the Nazi party that Hitler subsequently purged, though he kept Goebbels on when he renounced the Left-wing variant of Nazism and convinced Hitler of his personal loyalty) and his bizarre attempt to recast Nazism as a movement of the Left and not the Right. Snore’s present-day ideological purpose is revealed at the end, in which he issues a sweeping condemnation of all the governments of the present-day European Union for still commemorating the Soviet Union (Strickland speaks this part of the narration over an image of a couple of statues meant to represent Lenin and Stalin — though they’re not actually very good likenesses — without any clue as to where they are, which would seem relevant if the idea is to critique the governments of Western Europe for not adopting his view of the Soviet Union, its history and its crimes) — and his film seems aimed particularly at modern-day Russia, where there’s a good deal of nostalgia for the Communist years (associated in many modern Russians’ minds not with atrocities but with relative plenty and social equality as opposed to the corrupt buccaneer capitalism which replaced it) and Vladimir Putin, first as president and then as prime minister, has become the latest in a long line of autocrats in Russian history that, contrary to Snore, well pre-dated Communist ideology or the Soviet Union — including Stalin’s role models Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great as well as Lenin and Stalin himself.

In fairness to The Soviet Story, I must point out that I saw it under adverse circumstances, in a 56-minute TV version cut down from Snore’s 86-minute original and in a badly framed edition (probably a glitch from the conversion from analog TV, with its 1.33-1 screen ratio, to digital’s 1.78-1) that cut off much of the subtitles so it was difficult to discern much of what Snore’s non-English-speaking interviewees were actually saying.