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Please Tell Comrade Stalin!
The story is told of a man who has been sentenced to time in the gulag. The prisoner cannot make sense of it all, but he still believes the propaganda that has filled his life. “Please!” he begs everyone he meets, “Please tell Comrade Stalin! I am sure he would free me if only he knew!”
The prisoner cannot wrap his head around the fact that it was Stalin himself, not some uninformed apparatchnik, who was ultimately responsible for sending people to the gulag. And the victim is entirely resigned — committed — to the ideology that has made him who he is, and that now dooms him. There are no facts that will make him stop believing in Comrade Stalin. Entertaining the mere possibility of that mental dissonance would be his undoing.
I was thinking about how every liberal I know has no problem complaining about some government-run outfit or another – from the DMV to TSA – and yet their complaints make no impression whatsoever on their underlying belief system. Sure, the TSA may be useless at best – but the government is still there to protect us! It would be silly, of course, to throw out an entire belief system just because some middlemen made some errors in execution.
What intrigues me is how closely this way of thinking hews to a slave mentality. There is a biblical example that is very much like that of our unfortunate Russian: Pharaoh, annoyed by Moses’ petition to let the people go, orders the taskmasters to no longer provide straw for bricks to the Israelite slaves. He instructs, “Let them go and gather straw for themselves.”
What do the slaves, a broken people, do? They think there must be some kind of mistake! And they go right back to Comrade Stalin!
Then the overseers of the Israelites came to Pharaoh and cried: “Why do you deal thus with your servants? No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: Make bricks! Thus, your servants are being beaten, when the fault is with your own people.”
They cannot believe that Pharaoh, the all-powerful ruler, could possibly mean for them to suffer! Surely, if he was just informed, then the disloyal bureaucrats would be punished, and all would be right with the world. The more things change…
The Israelites share the very same worldview as the gulag-bound prisoner. They know they are mere flotsam in this world, and they put their faith in the Great Man to save them.
In the Torah, believing only in great men for salvation is the sign of an enslaved and ultimately broken people. When we fail to rise to a challenge, and instead only passively wait to be saved by heroes, then we are no longer free.
But wait: what is the difference between believing in Comrade Stalin/Chairman Mao/Pharoah and believing in G-d?
One can argue from results, of course. Judeo-Christianity created Western Civilization while Mao and Stalin and Pol Pot killed 100 million people. Yet this does not prove that our belief is right – merely that it is useful.
The real difference, as I see it, is found in our sense of responsibility: whether we see ourselves as victims or not. In a world dominated by powerful warlords and heroes of various kinds, everyone else is merely a pawn, if they are even on the board at all. But with the G-d of the Torah, we are called to be partners, not merely subjects. We are responsible for ourselves, and our actions actually matter. The Torah makes this abundantly clear: we can have leaders, and even heroes. But heroes or no heroes, we remain individually responsible for our own choices.
More than this: we are only helpless flotsam if we see ourselves that way. And if we believe that we are capable of agency, then we can consciously choose whether we are active agents, mere bystanders, or collateral damage in the goings-on of the world.
The tragedy of the gulag prisoner is not merely that he is simply unable to accept that Comrade Stalin is the cause of his suffering, not the source of his salvation. That is bad enough. But the far greater tragedy is that he is no longer a capable person, adult enough to make choices, take responsibility for those choices, and grow: he has surrendered his divinely-gifted ability to effect change on himself and his world.
Ultimately this is a core difference between freedom-loving societies and the communism/socialism/fascism that oppress the individual: the enemies of freedom attack the power we have to become more than our mere nature and nurture, DNA and upbringing. And victimhood seems inexorably tied to loss of liberty: the condition is essentially circular and self-perpetuating. In the Torah claiming victimhood (from Adam and Eve through to the Israelites in the wilderness) always earned a strong divine response. G-d does not want us to be passive.
The enemies of liberty seek for us to return to serfdom, to believe in the State as the source of security. Comrade Stalin, Pharaoh, or the instruments of the State surely always have our best interests at heart.
It is on us to break off those shackles, the mental prison in which we put ourselves whenever we believe that we are mere victims. It hardly matters whether we claim to be victims of our own natural limitations or circumstances of birth or upbringing, or whether we claim to be oppressed by others. The result is the same: the hopelessly oppressed and unfree invariably look outside, not inside, for their salvation. Comrade Stalin is not going to help.
[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]Published in General
I can attest to the story that frames the OP: in the USSR there had to have been hundreds of thousands of tales of people who, even as they were swallowed up in the Gulags, believed up until the end that this was all a mistake that surely the Party would correct.
They are still doing it. There are a number of videos of Russian conscripts complaining about shortages of food, adequate clothing, equipment, and ammunition. They think the problem lies between them and the upper echelon.
That was one of the biggest things that struck me while reading the Gulag Archipelago and looking around at my fellow human beings.
I recently had a discussion with a liberal friend where I attempted to pinpoint a philosophical source of our myriad disagreements. I observed that he believes man to be constantly evolving, getting better, to be quite different from his ancestors 100, 1000 years ago; whereas I believe that man was created by God and is unchanging. The sin that stains us today is the same that stained the slaves of pharaoh.
There is no “this time it will be different,” nor could there ever be.
Speaking of Russians, I saw a headline – something to the effect of blaming war failures on one man’s “treason.” Surely he could appeal to Putin directly?!
Before Lenin, it was “If only the Tsar knew!”
Insert picture of Morgan Freeman agreeing: “He’s Right, You Know”.
Apparently, the same thing happened in Nazi Germany: “If Hitler knew…”
Does the Czar know?
How many of us got a kick out of George McGovern when he retired from politics to run a hotel in Connecticut and noticed what a pain it was for a business to comply with regulatory and tax burdens: “I … wish that during the years I was in public office I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.”
Liberals simply cannot identify with other humans unlike themselves in any way. Even their “compassion” is generally based on caricatured, cartoonish images of the victim classes. And like the villains in an Ayn Rand novel, they have only contempt for the actual producers of goods and services except when they want a photo op with “real” Americans.
They think government is just only when (and because) it exists in their image and likeness. Any harm that accrues to others is irrelevant or deserved.
I see no inconsistency, unless you’re an anarchist. Which you probably would be, iWe, as would most libertarians, if they had the courage of their convictions.
There’s always going to be a prison system, unless we live in some sort of anarchist utopia, which doesn’t exist. Since such a system will be operated by flawed humans, there will always be some unjust convictions.
Obviously, then, you cannot determine that an entire system is illegitimate based on a single unjust conviction. Yet this is precisely the argument that you make, iWe. It’s a weak and flawed argument.
I do not write this to defend the Stalinist system. I write it to oppose the sort of simplistic opposition to the Stalinist system reflected in the OP, which leads to a utopian anarchism, which we all know doesn’t work.
The truth, I think, is a balance between liberty and authority. There are dangers of excesses on both sides. Too many people seem to only see the danger on the authority side. Personally, I think that this has led us to our current mess, in which the biggest problems, in my view, are an excess of “liberty.”
It helps to explain the many show trial confessions.
The protagonist of Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ is an Old Bolshevik who has been arrested by the Stalinist regime. He is having doubts about the whole system, which grow during his imprisonment and interrogation…yet, at the end, he accepts that he must die–and confess to crimes that are totally imaginary–for the sake of the Party.
You are correct – Look how the quick all of the minor bureaucrats became dictators during Covid.
In our county it has been difficult to claw back power from the lefty health department.
I’m reading the Bible straight through this year and just last night got to the Israelites begging their judge Samuel to ask God for a king, like all the other nations have. “Why the heck do you want that?” Samuel answered. “Right now you are free to do and act as you wish within God’s laws. A king would take your sons as cannon fodder, your daughters as concubines, your crops as taxes, and your wealth to support himself. What use is a king?” (Heavily paraphrased, of course.) But the Israelites just HAD to have one.
So is this idiocy just human nature? Do we tend to seek out strongmen?
No, it’s not.
Yes, it would be.
I think so. For thousands of years we seek the illusion of protection that we get from being ruled by strongmen.
I point to the Bible as my primary evidence that it is unlikely that any human institution or effort is likely to change human nature. It is beyond dispute that the basic content of the Bible is very old (thousands of years). So even a person who doesn’t believe the Bible is the word of God, or even that there is a God, should see that we are still dealing with the same human nature societies were dealing with thousands of years ago. Jealousy, envy, wealth, power, sex, status, self-importance, etc.
“simplistic opposition to the Stalinist system”…
The theory is that your strongman has a vested interest in taking less from you than the strongmen threatening to ride in and take it all. There are plenty examples of that in history too.
Or at least that the strongman will take more from the other guy than he takes from you, so you still get to “win.” See ation:tax.
I wrote a few essays about that … I think a couple of years ago. A very good representation of human nature.
Yeah, we wouldn’t want that, now. Especially after he murdered 20 million people.
That’s a great insight, Jamie K., regarding our tendency “to seek out strongmen.” Those moments when we are truly in touch with God, we have no worries about who is governing us in the material world down here. In those moments, we know that our obligations and love are meant for a Higher Authority, not for some some pipsqueak president or other potentate. It reminds me of those who think (or should I say believe) that Trump or DeSantis is going to make a huge difference regarding our future. I am continually reminded of Breitbart’s statement that “politics is downstream from culture.” And is the culture embraced by those on the right all that different from the culture embraced by the left? Is the culture of the characters on “The Five” so much different from the culture of the characters on “The View?” Sure, they have different ideas about certain things, but I doubt they have differing opinions on the idea of pre-marital sex, for example, a practice that was rare until the advent of the birth control pill. The permissiveness in this area has had a horribly damaging effect on relationships between men and women and has rendered a hedonistic lifestyle acceptable to the masses, regardless of politics. Cynicism (see Jesse Watters’ permanent smirk) is also rampant in the media, whether on the left or the right, and this has a corrosive and coarsening influence on those who are watching and listening. Most distressingly, I think the roots of leftism are in permissiveness and cynicism.
“Hidden” might be a better word than “rare” in that context.
In any case, I think that the openness of this practice today has a debilitating effect on the culture. And is it not true that permissiveness brings about a culture where God has no place? As Dostoevsky wrote: “Where there is no God, everything is permitted” or, to reverse the equation, “Where everything is permitted, there is no God.”
All I know is, there’s an old joke, that babies take 9 months, except the first one after a marriage takes less time.
For example, my grandparents were married in late June 1925, and my father was born the following February…
And a morning Radio show host I listen to said that the exact words of his proposal to his wife were “Well I guess we’d better get married then.”
But your grandparents and those “we’d better get married” folks stand by the tried and true morality based on responsibility and commitment. Your radio show host probably has some sort of a realtionship with God. I do not think there are too many “we’d better get married” people still around given the instant abortion pill that is widely available.
Shades of blaming Soviet failures on “hoarders” and “wreckers” and “kulaks”.
In fact, the problem lies all along that road: Gross corruption exists at every level of the military and government from generals down to new recruits.