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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Confronting the Great Lie

On my way back from Istanbul not long ago, I passed to London, where I attended a meeting of an extraordinary little discussion club. Every month or so, this club meets for lunch in an upstairs room at a famous Hungarian restaurant and invites along a guest speaker to address some weighty issue of the day.


Now, the first reason that this luncheon club is extraordinary is that its members are in their 60s, 70s and 80s -- there's even a doyen of 95. And the second reason is that they're all, to a man and woman, at the least fellow-travelers -- in fact, a majority of them were members of the Communist Party, most of them resigning over the invasion of Hungary in 1956. They're also, many of them -- though this is by-the-by -- Jewish, with parents or grandparents from the old Russian Pale of Settlement.


Today, in retirement, these people are comfortably off; they made good in various ways: in the travel business, the printing trade, the movies. But they all remember a time when they were poor. And they also remember, in their different ways, fighting the British Fascists in the east end of London, supporting the Labour movement, the trade unions, the anti-Franco war in Spain. They recall the divisions caused by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the day that Hitler invaded Russia. For them, for much of their lives, the Soviet Union was an exemplar, an inspiration; and Stalin -- in the Kremlin -- was something of a god.


Now, I should immediately stress that this is no group of cobwebby, old has-beens. These are serious (though often very funny) people whose gatherings crackle with passion and the wide-ranging learning of the passionately self-taught. Their meetings, one way or another, hinge on the future of socialism: democratic, international, Marxist and Blairite. And their guest speakers have included historians, economists, leading journalists and a number of MPs. On the day I was there, the guest speaker was the ex-Israeli ambassador to Russia, though he wasn't in fact the main event.


The main event was my friend Sidney, who years ago organized the first package tours to the Soviet Union (as he did to many other countries). In retirement, he's been busy: He helped start up the first bed-and-breakfast apartments in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and he's hosted any number of visits to London by Russian businessmen. He's also spent time traveling, through Odessa and environs, for example, in an attempt to track down his parents' families. He's made it his business to read and meet anyone who can tell him anything about what's going on in Russia.


Russia was Sidney's subject that day, and very good he was indeed. He did macroeconomics and politics, overviews and anecdotes, and certainly succeeded in holding the floor. But one of his main points was on history: the hijacking of history by the Communist Party and the failure of Russians to confront their past. He suggested that until Russians collectively faced up to such things as the pre-World War I boom years, the liquidations, the camps, industrialization-via-slave-labor, then they would never be able to go forward as a nation.


Buried in all this -- to Sidney's great credit, not to mention honesty -- was the corollary that it was also time for fellow-travelers and Western communists to face the extent to which they had been duped. And that -- immediately -- was what his audience homed in on. Many of them, I have to say, were outraged. They said Sidney had painted an intolerably black picture. They invoked the siege of Stalingrad and the battle of Bratsk, the way the Soviet Union had effectively won World War II. They cited the success of the Five-Year Plans, which had successfully industrialized a backward, peasant country. They talked about the Spanish Civil War, about education, science -- even about the help the Soviet Union had given Westerners by sending medicines to the people of North Vietnam. They spoke of the massive enmity of the West, which had driven the Revolution down unfortunate paths that were not of its own choosing.


Now these are exactly the same arguments I've heard over the years from the ex-soldiers and Communist Party members of my Russian stepfather's generation. And they proved once more how difficult and painful it is to accept that a bet you made with your life may have been based on a great lie. They also, in a sense, exactly proved Sidney's point: Until history is confronted and accepted -- and becomes something other than a virulent taking of sides -- the future can never really be entered. It remains a battleground on which the weapons of the past are still deployed -- the same sort of unattainable New Jerusalem, in the name of which crimes against humanity were so blithely committed.