Moscow Hangover: Soviet Communism No Longer Enslaves Russia, but the West Has Yet to Exorcise Lenin's Ghost

By Hitchens, Peter | The American Conservative, June 16, 2008 | Go to article overview

Moscow Hangover: Soviet Communism No Longer Enslaves Russia, but the West Has Yet to Exorcise Lenin's Ghost


Hitchens, Peter, The American Conservative


WHAT A PITY it is that there will be no new Cold War. How useful it would be for the cause of freedom if we could once again hang the Kremlin and the Gulag round the radical Left's neck. But we cannot. The Kremlin is now swept clean of dogma, the Gulag is gone, and Russia is just another sordid despotism.

And so, freed from embarrassing associations with Lenin, Stalin, five-year-plans, purges, famines, and the KGB, the world's radical reformers are far stronger, and far harder to resist, than they used to be. As long as the words "progressive," "Communist," and "Socialist" brought to mind images of Soviet oppression, Soviet shortages, and Soviet intolerance, millions of people were inoculated against them.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn used to complain that the Iron Curtain kept everything out of Russia except what he called the "liquid manure" of Western trash culture, which somehow seeped beneath the barriers. In a strange and subtle way, it also prevented the spread of revolution in the advanced world.

It is an interesting lesson in real power to see how much mightier leftwing ideas and movements have become since they lost the support of all those Russian tanks. Far from helping the revolutionary cause, the columns of T-72s showed to the dimmest observer that socialism is not a gentle, kindly thing but an arrogant, ironclad, goose-stepping bully, which answers doubts with bayonets as soon as it has the power to do so. There was never any need to ask how many divisions the Communist Party had because it was so anxious to show them to us.

I watched the last proper Soviet tank parade as it thundered across Red Square on Nov. 7, 1990. There were red flags, rigid salutes, slanted faces, jackboots, and lush, totalitarian music. Just behind me and to my right, a shifty and diffident Politburo huddled on top of Lenin's tomb in the harsh wind. The thing they were uncertainly celebrating was called the Glorious October Socialist Revolution, that colossal failure that would have killed idealism off for good if we ever actually learned anything from history.

They were not enjoying themselves much because they knew just how bad everything was and suspected their days were almost over. I was enjoying it immensely because, in those days, I harbored the vain idea that the world might learn something useful from the unmitigated disaster of the Soviet Utopia. For thousands of miles in every direction, undeniable and no longer denied, lay the rusting, leaking, sagging evidence that this revolution had failed and that international socialism was a discredited, bankrupt idea.

A couple of months later, I saw some of the same tanks snarling down a midnight highway in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, which was then battling to regain independence from Moscow. I was in a group of journalists following them, until they swung their barrels toward our taxi in a way that seemed to lack a sense of humor. Earlier that day, Soviet soldiers had opened fire on civilians, so we thought it wise to drop back. We caught up with them later and also with the corpses they had caused, officially classified as "traffic accidents." They were part of a little known and failed attempt by Mikhail Gorbachev to seize control of the city while the world was distracted by the first phase of the recapture of Kuwait.

I saw the tanks for the last time in August 1991, when a squadron of them trundled up my Moscow street in the early morning sunshine, part of a fumbled KGB putsch against Gorbachev. The drunken collapse of this coup ended the Soviet Communist Party forever. All over Moscow, the trashcans were full of half-burned Communist Party membership cards. This was not a temporary setback but the death of an ideology. Soviet Communism had made a fool of itself and had gone. After that, of course, there could be no more Red Square parades, no more anniversaries of Glorious October, though they had one more excursion, in 1993, shelling the Russian parliament on behalf of Boris Yeltsin. …

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