As I work on and think about the last book in my Cold War series, wherein 1989 ushers in the demise of socialism in Eastern Europe, I find I’m most concerned about the one true communist character in the book, Brano Sev.
Since the first book, set in 1948, Brano has been the one true devotee. He’s a spy who does what he believes needs to be done to keep this “Great Experiment” (as he calls it) afloat. Unlike his associates in the Ministry for State Security, he doesn’t use the system for his own gain, and in this way he’s a true innocent. But he’s no fool either, and once Gorbachev starts instituting changes, he’s able to see where they’re headed. In this book, Brano’s a man in mourning for what could have been.
This kind of situation has always appealed to me: a character within a culture that is ending—that, by ending, proves its falsity. Not just culture, but belief. The realization that the belief that defines you is simply not correct. (Think of it as a midlife crisis to the nth power.)
A few years ago I took notes for one of the unwritten stories that fill my hard drive. It was to be about a master phrenologist, a specialist in measuing bumps on the skull to infer personality traits, who faces the realization that his entire career, and life, has been a sham.
What does that feel like? How does it feel to learn that all your aspirations were unfounded, and to be there to witness its public downfall?
On the larger scale, one obvious example is Nazi Germany. It lasted from 1933 and 1945, a mere 12 years, but the kind of devotion it achieved was intense. Once the war ended, Europe (and Argentina) was littered with men and women who were faced with the death of their dream. The occupying Allies joked that it was amazing Hitler lasted as long as he did, because they hadn’t met a single Nazi since the shooting had stopped. But of course most of those broken people lining up for de-Nazification certificates were, years before, thrilled by the rise of their enigmatic, charming and vitriolic leader. The man had, at one time, filled them with hope.While not the predicted thousand years, twelve years is still a long time. It can be a third of an adult’s life. It’s long enough to establish the basic belief systems of a child into adulthood. It’s long enough to build up a country based on a new ideal. Long enough, that is, to produce true believers who can predict their devotion lasting through to their old and peaceful deaths.
This point was driven home when I visited a church in Hallstatt, Austria. Its cemetery is limited, so after a few years they’d dig up the bones of the dead, clean and transfer them to the church, where, in a special room, they were separated and stacked in a kind of macabre art. Along the front were numerous skulls, most of them tattooed with crosses or other symbols, and one of them caught my attention. On its white forehead was a perfectly painted swastika.
My assumption is that this was in the dead person’s will. That when he was dug up, the symbol would show for eternity that he was a true devotee. I wondered if this person died before or after 1945.
So among the hungry hordes of postwar Germany, among the devotees whose dreams had been crushed, they tried to figure out what had happened. I imagine many felt the aggressive Allies had ruined what could have been a glorious thousand-year Reich. Others, particularly after watching the newsreels of, or being forced to visit, the death camps, were faced with the horror of what their beloved Reich was doing in their name. What their belief system really meant, once it was pushed to the extreme.
I wonder, then, how that feels.
Like in postwar Germany, in post-Cold War Eastern Europe, you seldom find a communist. Or, you seldom find someone who admits to being a devotee of communism. When you do, it’s often a pensioner who, in the unpredictable world of capitalism, longs for the security—the lack of violent crime and the steady, predictable pension checks—of communism. They’re too old to give much of a damn about freedom of speech; they only want to live their quiet lives with a little comfort. But among those still of working age, it’s as if the communists rose into the sky in 1989 like the Good on Judgment Day.
But of course that’s not true, and my character, Brano Sev, will not succumb to this sudden political amnesia. As I’ve written it so far, he still believes in the promise of communist equality, but when he looks back finds scapegoats everywhere. The steady and destructive economic and military stranglehold of the West, and, more importantly, the steady rot of opportunists who, unlike him, use the system to accumulate as much wealth as possible without regard for the glorious possible future.
Forget the gulags for a moment, the bread lines and oppression. Remember that for Marxists, true communism never got around to happening. What we saw in Russia and Eastern Europe was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the phase of restructuring before the institution of communism. Of course, the problem with this phase is that those in control never want to say, “OK, it’s time for me to step down.”
Unlike Nazi Germany, the People’s Democracies had forty good years. OK, not good, but forty years to seed, cultivate and grow their own cultural values. They rebuilt cities to these specifications, taught children who became adults in this system, spread their values to new countries, and were taken seriously across the globe as a real, viable way of living. As a viable truth.
This is why I’ve been so interested in the socialist world the last few years. For an artificial system with Moscow-imposed values, it lasted a remarkably long time. For a system so rife in waste and corruption it sustained itself (albeit with subsidies) remarkably well.
In 1989, at the very cusp of the end, I remember arguing in Zagreb with a Croatian economics student the validity of communist economics. He believed capitalist economies were too volatile and would eat themselves up, while the socialist centralized economy was stable and steady. And looking at the general prosperity of Yugoslavs at that time, it was hard to convince him otherwise, though I tried. If I’d known then just how much of Yugoslavia’s economy was propped up by money from the West, I’d have made a better argument.
I sometimes wonder about that student now, whose whole education was based on something that proved to be inherently flawed—or, at the very least, useless for his career. (Marxist economics students and professors all over the Eastern Bloc suddenly found themselves without careers.) Sadly for him, the additional insult was that his country was ripped apart by war, turning a beautiful, multiethnic and paper-wealthy country into a third-world wasteland.
In the West, it’s easy to see these 20th century socialist systems as entirely artificial, kept in check by Soviet money and Soviet troops. It’s easy to see it all as a kind of bleak joke. But it wasn’t a joke, and for many (though certainly not all) it represented the highest truth. Then, one day, their highest truth became the joke of the world, surviving only in certain Western university campuses, and in Cuba, China and North Korea.
What does that feel like? For the believer, it must feel like the world has just ended. No—it must feel like she or he has ended. That’s what I’m trying to come to terms with as I write this last book. It’s not a simple thing to grasp.