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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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State repression and the short straight lines

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WHY does the death-rattle of our Western democracies seem to go unheard by the majority of the younger public? Why, for instance, are today’s marches against tyranny mostly a sea of grey heads, missing those to whom the stark coming dilemma of blood-or-serfdom matters most? The answer, I suspect, is ‘history’.

People of my generation (born at the time of or before the Cuban Missile Crisis) were saturated with the stories of how social surroundings can go to hell, because, dear Young Person, the world went very badly to hell through the 20th century. The 1968 youthquakes of Germany and France were driven partly by the ominous what-did-you-do-in-the-war-Daddy? question. The Iberian peninsula renewed and perpetuated its pre-modern traditions of military-ecclesiastical dictatorship until the mid-1970s (‘last week’ to me and my peers); Eastern Europe was homicidally totalitarian all the way through to the February 1989 shooting deaths of three young men swimming to freedom across the Spree canal in Berlin (if they’d only waited nine months!) The implacable Soviet Union still sat in the corner as a readily-consultable compendium of everything our liberal democratic republics were supposed to provide a haven from. Witnesses of 20th century hell forced their stories into the Zeitgeist of my generation’s formative years.

We all read accounts of the banal-becoming-evil because we couldn’t avoid them. No educated person could be unacquainted with Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Kafka’s The Trial or Picasso’s Guernica. Or Anne Frank’s diary entries of what it feels like to be human prey hunted down in the middle of civilisation-gone-feral. To this day Americans d’un certain age hear the mee-maw-mee-maw of continental European police sirens as meaning one thing only: that your neighbours have ratted you out, that you and your loved ones are doomed, so come out of that backstairs closet and get into the van (all the more blood-curdling given that the rest of society is blithely getting on with its business).

All these stories floating about were our lessons by osmosis. Lessons in cause and effect, containing, so to speak, a fold-out map of the fiendishly short straight lines that led from a normal ‘now’ to a terrible ‘and then . . .’

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle follows the path of a gulag inmate from his initial misstep of contacting an acquaintance who had fallen from grace with the Regime. From the burr and click of a telephone connection, we are trained to intuit the line that leads directly from that number dialled (anonymously and innocently) in a telephone-booth to starving frozen oblivion. We feel – as a chill in our own guts – the heart-stopping inevitability of an all-powerful regime’s will brought to bear on the puny individual whom it chooses to pronounce an ‘enemy’. The vaporous cloud of ‘association’ throws wide the regime’s net.

To my generation’s general knowledge, experience allows me to add a lot. But respecting space limitations, how about we start with a little? As a junior US diplomat in Moscow in the early 1990s, I befriended a group of American grad students, genial cynics who spent their days rummaging in the archives of the Lenin Library for records of the fledgling Soviet state. I crossed paths with one of these students regularly. He researched the education system built to create homo sovieticus in the 1920s and 30s. His focus was a group of idealists who called themselves ‘pedalogists’, to distinguish themselves from ‘pedagogists’ in the nuanced, hair-splitty way that academics relish. My friend came to know his long-gone subjects with a historian’s intimacy and affection.

One afternoon he emerged from the archives shaken and grey-faced. What had happened? ‘Well, I’ve just gotten to the records of the conference where the pedalogists have been noticed by the Party.’ It was obvious to my friend and me what this meant, because we were versed in the 20th century’s lessons of short straight lines. ‘They’re done for?’ My friend didn’t respond, because it wasn’t really a question. Anyway, he’d already known their story, approximately. But seeing it play out, frame by frame, in the records of conference proceedings slapped his face with the Party-determined downfall ofliving and blameless people. In a sense, he was watching friends being executed. For a difference of opinion.

Visiting a colleague’s extended family in Tula, I learned that her grandmother, like my own mother, was a teacher. But unlike my mother, she saw her students in the WWII years go straight from graduation ceremonies to the front. Having survived German tanks and machine guns was no guarantee of safety; the grandmother and an aunt quietly murmured to each other over a class photo, pointing to boy after boy: ‘Yevó posadili, yevó posadili, yevó posadili . . .’ (‘they sent that one to the gulag, and that one, and that one . . .’)

My diplomatic assignment prior to Moscow had been Berlin, starting in January 1991. My assigned flat was in a ‘dip-corpus’ building on the wrong side of the newly-removed Wall, in east Berlin, just yards from Goering’s Air Ministry, the ghostly Potsdamer Platz metro station still half-buried in the empty stretch of ‘Niemandsland’ and Checkpoint Charlie.

Eastern Bloc diplomatic housing was presumed to be bugged. I do not recall any embassy briefing on this; it was just a sort of surreal certainty that people joked about: ‘Go ahead and listen, suckers.’ I had no blackmailable secret life.

One morning I was rushing to work, and a little peeved to find the lift out of service. Racing down several flights to the ground floor, I twisted the door handle out of the stairwell. It was locked. In that single instant, several realisations ­­­hit me simultaneously. Firstly, that I had not reached the ground floor, but was on the ‘second’ floor. Next, that the second floor was the one on which listening equipment and personnel were rumoured to be lodged. Finally, I was quite surprised to find myself instantly boiling with rage.

Who the hell do these faceless bastards think they are? By what right or principle do they make me their unwitting victim?  Only when faced with the physical reality that someone would sit in the dark with an earpiece and blithely violate my privacy did I perceive the idea as no longer unimaginably daft but malignant and outrageous. 

A colleague, whose (Jewish) grandmother was shot in the head by Stalin’s goons for having the cheek to belong to an anti-fascist group in post-WWII Moscow, told me once, related to that death, ‘you hate what you destroy’ meaning that hatred anaesthetises the evil-doer so that he may do evil. This works with ‘love’ too: whom we can be convinced we ‘love’, we will permit and excuse nearly anything.

In sum: the totalitarian nightmares of Bolshevik or Nazi typology were essentially the state reverting to a pre-Enlightenment form of completely unprincipled power-seeking predator to whom the ‘rights of Man’ mean nothing.

And when dinosaurs of my vintage see states officially vilify rational viewpoints as bizarre new forms of crime (‘spreading misinformation’ or being ‘X-deniers’), or openly populate the near -infinite surveillance architecture of social media (see Matt Taibbi’s #Twitterfiles or Alan MacLeod’s work), we see short straight lines.

When we see states using not logic but an emotionalised rhetorical pretence of logic, and not law but a pretence of law, to smear, isolate and destroy their targets while discouraging bystanders from any thought of solidarity; when we see states instilling and then leveraging hate (against cartoonified Trump, Putin, anti-vaxxers, climate/election-deniers) and love (e.g., for Zelensky, Fauci, ‘Love Gov’ Cuomo, Hollywood icons, media influencers) to motivate the public to do evil and to acquiesce to evil being done all around them, we recognise the 20th century arsenal being adapted for the 21st.

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Amy Boone
Amy Boone
Amy Boone is a London-based housewife, mother of three, Harvard political science graduate and former US diplomat (Lagos, Berlin, Kiev, Moscow).

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