ESSAY: Taking Up the Tussle of the Fat and the Lean
- By Anatoly Korolyov
- Oct. 14 1998 00:00
Recently, an old friend of mine, a Frenchman whom I'd always taken for someone of very liberal views, suddenly decided to join the French Communist Party.
I was stunned. When he next came to Moscow, I pounced upon him.
"You visited Russia several times during the era of Brezhnev's senility. You saw exactly how we lived and what worm-ridden fruit of progress our beloved party used to feed to us f empty shops, and whole regions with no sausage," I put to him. "And you remember how my electric iron burned out and how I had to do some fancy footwork to get a new one," I added, recollecting how my friend had followed that particular affair. (I eventually went to the director of a store that sold electric appliances with a letter from the writers' union confirming I had nothing to iron my shirts with. The director took pity on me and put me on the priority waiting list with all the war veterans. After a year doing my laundry using a cast-iron iron heated directly from the gas ring, I eventually got a postcard saying I could now go and buy an electric one.)
"The communists handicapped every tiny detail of life, every molecule of Russian existence. Knowing this, why on earth would you become one yourself?"
He didn't falter. "I became a communist because I finally got fed up with capitalism. The market economy is basically geared to satisfy the needs of no more than 5 percent of society. All power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny knot of people and all the rest have no chance of getting on in life."
"So you're against private property?"
"Yes. The oligarchs, banks and transnational corporations do no more than turn people's lives into raw material for their benefit."
"Nonsense," I objected. "It is by dividing up property that society develops normally. That's how you divide power and let all the mice get a piece of the cheese. I don't envy billionaires. I say to myself, let them have their yachts and liners, islands and villas if it means I can buy bananas from shops in wintertime and write without a censor reading over my shoulder. In fact, I'll go without the bananas and a lot more besides if it means no one has the right to delve into my thoughts and forbid my feelings. In short, I see the inadequacies of the new order, but humanity hasn't thought of anything better yet."
"Don't generalize about freedoms under capitalism. It has its own tough taboos that are not so visible but exist nonetheless. What about political correctness? That's a form of fascism if ever I saw one. One wrong word about some marginalized group or a flirt with a pretty woman at work and you're off to court or facing dismissal. Western society is snarled in a fine mesh of limitations, and its people thrash around inside it like mosquitoes."
Hmm. "The Chinese have an ancient proverb that says something like 'There should be a little dirt inside every man,'" I came back. "The world should be a little imperfect, since absolute perfection is the refuge of death. In small doses, snake venom is medicinal, in large ones, deadly. Each society has to work out the tolerable level of evil, and any attempt to completely eradicate the evil from people and society will end in Pol Pot-style horror. The idealist of your own French Revolution, Robespierre, unleashed the most dreadful terror in the name of such noble causes as 'let's make ever one beautiful, clever, kind, equal.' No, my dear friend, let people remain ugly, if maybe their ugliness won't cripple others. The West has the right to that 'maybe.'"
Now my friend really began to seethe. "How can the stratification of society in Russia now gratify a writer who calls himself a humanist?"
"You won't believe me, but for the time being, at least, I am actually enjoying this inequality of possibilities. My friends can go on vacation to Cyprus and Malta; I can't yet, and perhaps I never will be able to. But that's still better than blanket equality in a state-run canteen where you get your food on metal trays like a dog. This equality is incapable of producing masterpieces. For 70 years not one beautiful building went up in Russia, not one fine novel was penned ? Pasternak? Bulgakov? Nabokov? They were all born before the Revolution and were children of privilege."
"I now feel that you suspect me of being envious, that I joined the party out of an unrequited longing for a Mercedes and a villa," said my friend. "But I grew up in a well-off family, and it was conscience that motivated me to become a communist. I'm convinced we can avoid the Russian perversion of communism and can create some middle path of development on the basis of the good points of the market economy and the ideals of collectivism. And the new society will be more just."
Now I started rising to the bait. "There is no Russian and Cambodian distortion f national peculiarities have nothing to do with it. There is only global distortion of the Marxist discourse which presupposes that it is possible to create a new type of person by political means. You saw how we did this. There was no socialism in Russia, just a psychological, virtual-reality communism where everyone was equal in word alone and happy only in our dreams. It was a subtle mechanism of self-hypnosis and mass self-delusion in society, where people fed off the gargoyle-like images that haunted their imagination. As a boy I always thought that in America the sun never rises, that it's always dark there and the lights of Wall Street shine in that darkness. I was by no means a stupid boy, but I enjoyed this particular gargoyle. We all suffered a mass poisoning with notions of supposed justice, and you were lucky never to experience this nightmare."
"You haven't lived under capitalism," sighed my friend. "You have too little experience in your soul to understand how unserviceable it is in history."
"I'm not standing up for capitalism but for the inviolability of man, his right to be free from any society if that's what he wants," I said.
And at this point we went our separate ways. I don't know if our friendship will get over this particular exchange of views.
A little while later another friend, a German woman, showed me the program of the National Bolshevist Party, given to her personally by its leader, Eduard Limonov. Apart from a ban on abortion and a number of other things, it contained proposals to introduce a tax on fat people, who, it maintained, blight the landscape of life with their outsized stomachs and numerous chins. A real Russian should walk proudly, upright, watch his or her weight and physicalform, and if not, then pay up!
If things go on this way for much longer, I will create a party of fat people and gluttons. After all, a person has a right to be that shape, or any other, without there being a price on it.
Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose works include "Eron." He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.