New poems, old stories: Robert Conquest balances “the inhuman reign of the lie” with naughty verse

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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.

No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts.  But there’s plenty else that is public.

Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May.  You can read them here.

Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me.  I’ve never, really, seen the point.  But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, the Daily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.

The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.”  It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:

Honored in 2009

After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.

When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:

Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)

Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.

So what’s changed in 2011?  As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:

Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.

Read it all here.

 


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