Reflections on a spawn of hell

ο σπουδαίος Ρώσος ποιητής και στοχαστής Γιόζεφ Μπρόντσκι

I doubt that in the whole history of the world there has ever been a murderer whose death was wept over by so many people, and so sincerely, as was Josef Stalin’s 20 years ago. While it may be easy to explain the number of weepers by the size of the population and the power of the communications media (in which case, Mao, if he dies, will hold first place), it is extremely difficult to explain the quality of these tears.

Twenty years ago I was 13. I was in school; they herded us all into the assembly hall, ordered us to get down on our knees, and the Secretary of the Party Organization—a masculine female with cluster of medals on her chest—wrung her hands and screamed to us from the stage, “Weep children, weep! Stalin has died!” And she herself was first to begin wailing in lamentation. There was no way around it—Ne sniffled our noses, and then, little by little, even began to howl for real. The hall wept, the presidium wept, parents wept, neighbors wept; from the radio came Chopin’s “Marche Funebre” and something from Beethoven. In general, it seems, nothing but funeral music was broadcast on the radio for five days. As for me (then to my shame, now to my pride), i did not weep, although I knelt and sniffled like everyone else. Most likely it was because not long before this I discovered in a German grammar borrowed from a friend that the German for “leader” was “Fiihrer.” A section was even called that: “Unser Fiihrer Stalin.” I would not weep for a Fuhrer.

It is also possible that my family’s preparations to move had an influence. For it had become known that as a result of the Doctors’ Plot (and there was no need for the result to be in doubt), all Jews would be resettled in the Far East, in order to pay with hard labor for the guilt of their fellow people —the wrecker‐doctors—for the good of the Socialist fatherland. We had sold our piano, which I could not play anyhow. It would have been stupid to drag it across a whole country—even if they would allow it. They discharged my father from the army, where he had served all during the war, and they would not hire him for any job anywhere; only my mother was working, but her job hung by a hair too. We lived on her salary and prepared for deportation; from hand to hand passed a letter signed by Ehrenburg, Botvinnik and other notable Soviet Jews; told of the guilt of the Jews before Soviet power, and it was supposed to appear in Pravda any day.

But in Pravda appeared the communiqué about the death of Stalin and how his death meant grief and woe for all people. And people began to weep. And they wept, I think, not because they wanted to please Pravda, but because an entire epoch was tied to Stalin (or, more precisely, because Stalin had tied himself to an entire epoch). Five‐Year Plans, the Constitution, victory in the war, postwar construction, the idea of order—no matter how nightmarish it had been, Russia had lived under Stalin for almost 30 years; his portrait hung in virtually every room; he became a category of consciousness, a part of everyday life; we were used to his mustache, to the profile (considered “aquiline”), to the postwar officer’s jacket he wore (meaning it was neither peacetime nor wartime), and to the patriarchal pipe. We were used to them as people get used to the portrait of a relative or to an old lamp. In our antireligious state the Byzantine idea that all power comes from God was transformed into the idea of the interconnection of power and nature, into a feeling of his power being as inevitable as the four seasons of the year. People grew up, got married, got divorced, had children, got old and and all the time the portrait of Stalin hung over their heads. There was some reason to weep.

The question arose of how to live without Stalin. No one knew the answer. It was pointless to expect it from anyone in the Kremlin. For in the Kremlin—it’s that kind of place—they always talk about absoluteness of power, and therefore, for men in the Kremlin Stalin is, if not flesh, at least more than a ghost. We all followed with interest the vicissitudes of his corpse. First the corpse was put in the Mausoleum. After the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 it was removed, subjected to cremation, and the urn filled with his ashes installed in the Kremlin wall, where it is now located. Then—a comparatively short time ago—they raised a rather modest (judging by the standards of our time) bust alongside the urn. If one seeks the symbolic meaning of all these transformations — and there has to be one; otherwise why did they alt occur?—one might say that at first the intention to preserve the status quo dominated in the Kremlin; next a desire to condemn the status quo (only partly, it is true) became dominant; next it was decided to retract—also. partially—the condemnation. All this created the impression that no one knew what to do with the dead man. Or was he a dead man? Physically he was, of course. But psychologically? At this point it is quite easy to launch into discussions about how the thing is not Stalin but the system he cre ated or that created him; how although Russia needed her Nuremberg Trial, it is even better that there was none, because forgiveness is higher than the idea of. “an eye for an eye” (especially if it is unconscious); how sooner or later technical progress will put everything in its proper place, for even a totalitarian system, if it wants to last, must grow into a technocracy; how a general convergence awaits us. All right. But in the case at hand, it is not archaic or progressive systems and their fates that interest me. The “secrets of the court of Madrid” and the psychology of “the strong of this world” do not interest me either. I am interested in the moral effect of Stalinism, and more precisely in that pogrom it caused in the minds of my fellow countrymen and in the consciousness of this century. For from my point of view Stalinism is above all a system of thinking, and only afterward a technology of power, of methods of ruling. For—I fear—archaic systems of thinking do not exist.

For almost 30 years a country with a population of almost 200 million was ruled by a man whom some considered a criminal, others a paranoiac, others an Eastern despot who in essence might still be re‐educated—but all of these categories of people sat down at the same table to eat with him, conducted talks with him and shook his hand. The man did not know a single„Joreign language—including Russian, which he wrote with monstrous grammatical errors. But in bookstores virtually all over the world one can find collections of his works written for him by people who were exterminated because they performed this task, or who remained alive for the same reason. This man had the foggiest notions about history (apart from Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” which was his bedside book), geography, physics, chemistry; but his scientists, sitting under lock and key, nevertheless managed to create atomic and hydrogen bombs that in quality were by no means inferior to their sisters born in a place called the free world. This man, who had no experience running corporations, nevertheless created a secret police agency unique in its magnitude, one that terrified equally the schoolboy—who noticed a bedbug crawling across the portrait of the leader hanging above his bed and broke into a cold sweat at the thought that his schoolteacher might see this— and the former Comintern member writing his memoirs somewhere in the back areas of South America.

He ruled the country for almost 30 years and all that time he kept murdering. He murdered his helpers (which was not so unjust, for they were murderers themselves), and he murdered those who murdered his helpers. He murdered both the victims and their executioners. Then he began to murder whole categories of people—or, to use his term, classes. Then he devoted himself to genocide. The number of people who perished in his camps cannot be calculated exactly, nor can the number of the camps themselves, but surely the total surpassed the number of camps in the Third Reich by a figure proportionate to the difference in size between the U.S.S.R. and Germany. At the end of the fifties I myself worked in the Far East, and I shot crazed wild bears that had gotten used to feeding on the corpses from labor‐camp graves and were now dying off because they could not return to normal food. And all the time that he was murdering, he was building. Labor camps, hospitals, hydroelectric stations, giant metallurgical complexes, canals, cities, etc., including monuments to himself. And gradually everything got confused in that vast country. One could not comprehend who was murdering and who was building. One could not comprehend whom to love and whom to fear, who was doing evil and who good. One was left to the conclusion that it was all the same. Living was possible, but living became senseless. It was then, from our moral soil, abundantly fertilized by the idea of the ambivalence of everything and everyone, that Doublethink into being.

“In this lies the reason for the success of totalitarian systems: They answer the basic need of the human race to be free of any responsibility.”

By Doublethink I do not mean simply “I‐ say ‐ one thing‐I‐do‐another” and vice versa. Nor do I mean what Orwell described in “1984.” I mean the rejection of a moral hierarchy, rejection not for the sake of another hierarchy but for the sake of nothing. I mean that state of mind characterized by the formula “it’s‐bad‐but‐in‐generalit’s‐good” (and, more rarely, vice versa). I mean the loss of not only an absolute but even a relative moral criterion. I mean not the mutual destruction of the two basic hu man categories—good and evil —as a result of the struggle between them, but their mutual decomposition as a result of coexistence. Putting it more precisely, I mean their convergence. However, it would be going too far to say that this process took place quite consciously. When one is talking about human beings, in general it is better, if possible, to avoid any generalizations, and if I permit myself to use them, it is because at the time in question human destinies were maximally generalized. For the majority the advent of a double mentality occurred not on an abstract level, not on the level of conceptualization, but on the instinctive level, on the level of needlefine sensations, the kind of guessing that goes on in dreams. For the majority, of course, everything was clear; the poet who fulfilled the social order to glorify the leader thought through his task and picked out the words—therefore he was making a choice. The official whose hide depended on his attitude to things was also making a choice. And so forth. Of course, in order to make the correct choice and create this converged evil (or good) an impulse of the will was needed; and to this end official propaganda came to a person’s aid with its positive vocabulary and philosophy of the rightness of the majority; but if he did not believe in it —then simple terror came. What happened on the level of thought was reinforced on the level of instinct, and vice versa.

σκηνή από την ταινία Hands Up! (1981) του Πολωνού Jerzy Skolimowski, την οποία η λογοκρισία είχε απαγορεύσει.

σκηνή από την ταινία Hands Up! (1981) του Πολωνού Jerzy Skolimowski, την οποία η λογοκρισία είχε απαγορεύσει.

I think that I understand how all this happened. When God’ stands behind good and the Devil behind evil, there at least exists a purely terminological difference between the two concepts. But in the modern world approximately the same thing stands behind both good and evil: matter. Matter, as we know, does not have its own moral categories. In other words, both good and evil are in the same state as a stone. The tendency to the embodiment of the ideal, to its materialization, has gone too far—namely, to the idealization of material. This is the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, but from my point of view there is something ominous in animated stone.

Perhaps it can be expressed even more precisely. As a result of the secularization of consciousness that has taken place on a global scale, man’s heritage from the Christianity he has renounced is a vocabulary that he does not know how to use, and therefore he is forced to improvise. Absolute concepts have degenerated simply into words that have become objects of personal interpretation, if not mere questions of pronunciation. In other words, arbitrary categories at best. With the transformation of absolute concepts into arbitrary categories, little by little the idea ence has taken This in our consciousness. This idea is very dear to human nature, for it excuses everyone and everything from any responsibility whatsoever. In this lies the reason for the success of totalitarian systems: They answer the basic need of the human race to be free of any responsibility. And the fact that in this age of incredible. “For 30 years he murdered. He murdered his helpers, and those who murdered his helpers.” catastrophes we have not been able to find an adequate reaction—for it, too, would have to be incredible — to these catastrophes suggests that we have drawn near to the realization of this utopia.

I think that we live in the post‐Christian age. I don’t know when it began. The Soviet writer Leonid Leonov proposed (as a present for one of Stalin’s birthdays) beginning new system of measuring time: from the day of Dzhugashvili’s (Stalin’s) birth. I don’t know why this proposal was not accepted. Perhaps because Hitler was younger. But he captured the spirit of the time correctly. For precisely these two spawn of hell took the first steps toward the embodiment of the new goal: moral nonexistence. It was not they, of course, who began murdering in order to build and building in order to murder; but precisely they ran this business on such a gigantic scale that they completely overshadowed their predecessors and cut off their followers’—and humanity’s in general—paths of retreat. In a sense they burned all moral bridges. The extermination of 10 million or more is not a reality for human perception, but something relative and arbitrary, just as the goal of this extermination is relative and arbitrary. The maximal reaction possible and desirable (because of the instinct for self‐preservation) to such situation is: shock, a blank mind. Stalin and Hitler conducted the first sessions of this kind of therapy, but just as thieves steal not for yesterday, the tracks of their crimes lead into the future.

I do not want to draw an apocalyptic picture; but if in the future the murders are going to go on and the building be continued, the convergence of moral criteria plus the astronomical quantity of victims will transform us and our descendants, the main thing, into moral corpses from the Christian point of view, and the happiest of mortals from their own. As the philosopher said, they will find themselves on the far side of good and evil. But—why make it so complex? Simply on the far side of good.

In this sense I do not believe in de‐Stalinization. I do believe in it as in a change of methods of ruling—independerit of the indubitable circumstance that relapses will occur and one can anticipate not only the restoration of 100‐foot‐high monuments, but even something flashier. To the honor of the current Kremlin administration one can say that it is not too carried away by the idea of Frankensteinian electrification of the corpse. Stalin appears in quasi‐historical films and in the homes of Georgians—who suffered no less, if not more, than any national minority in the U.S.S.R., but who in this way (for lack of a better way) cultivate their nationalism. The retired secret police agent or the former officer, the taxi driver or bureaucrat on pension will tell you, of course, that under Stalin “there was more order.” But they all miss not so much the “iron Ordnung” as their own past youth or maturity. In principle neither the basic mass of the people nor the party utters the leader’s name in vain. There are too many essential problems to spend one’s time in retrospection. The name can still be used as a banner by some right‐wing group inside the party returning to its trough; but I think that even in the event of a successful beginning, this banner will be returned to obscurity rather quickly. Stalinism as a method of governing a state, in my opinion, has no future.

Therefore, it is all the stranger to see these aquiline features in a bookstore window near The London School of Economics, in the Latin Quarter in Paris or in a shop on some American campus, where they decorate the shelves beside Lenin, Trotsky, Che Guevara, Mao, etc.—all the small‐time and big‐time murderers who, apart from the difference of their ideals, have one common characteristic: They all committed murder. No matter what their numerator is, their denominator is common; and the sum of these fractions would produce a number that would confuse even a computer. I. don’t know what all the young people are looking for in these books, but if they really can find something there for themselves, it means only one thing: that the process of moral castration of Homo sapiens, begun by force, is continuing voluntarily, and that Stalinism, as a system of thinking, is conquering.

Η πραγματεία του Γιόζεφ Μπρόντσκι «Reflections on a spawn of hell» δημοσιεύτηκε στο The New York Times Magazine της 4ης Μαρτίου 1973. Η ρωσική εκδοχή της πραγματείας φυλάσσεται στο αρχείο του Ρώσου ποιητή. Είναι ένα από τα πιο αιχμηρά γραπτά του Μπρόντσκι που μπορεί κανείς να βρει διαθέσιμα μέσω διαδικτύου, άκρως δηλωτικά του φιλελεύθερου πνεύματος που διακατείχε τον δημιουργό. Ο τρόπος με τον οποίο προσεγγίζει το φαινόμενο του σταλινισμού «Ο άνθρωπος αυτός που δεν είχε καμία πείρα στην διοίκηση επιχειρήσεων, κατάφερε και δημιούργησε έναν μοναδικό σε μέγεθος μηχανισμό μυστικής αστυνομίας, που προκαλούσε τον ίδιο τρόμο στο μαθητή που έβλεπε έναν κοριό να περπατά πάνω στο πορτραίτο του αρχηγού στον τοίχο και ένιωθε κρύο ιδρώτα στη σκέψη πως θα μπορούσε να το δει αυτό ο δάσκαλος του, όσο και στο πρώην στέλεχος της Κομιντέρν που έγραφε τα απομνημονεύματά του σε κάποια ζούγκλα της Νοτίου Αμερικής», η σκιαγράφηση της πραγματικότητας που φανερώνει το μέγεθος του Κακού «Ο αριθμός των ανθρώπων που πέθαναν στα στρατόπεδά του είναι ανυπολόγιστος, όπως ανυπολόγιστος είναι και ο αριθμός των ίδιων των στρατοπέδων, που σε αναλογία με την έκταση της Γερμανίας σε σχέση με την έκταση της ΕΣΣΔ, ξεπερνούσε τον αριθμό των στρατοπέδων του Τρίτου Ράιχ. Στο τέλος της δεκαετίας του 1950 δούλευα ο ίδιος στην Άπω Ανατολή, πυροβολώντας αρκούδες που είχαν συνηθίσει να τρέφονται με τα πτώματα απ’ τους τάφους των στρατοπέδων και τώρα πέθαιναν επειδή δεν μπορούσαν να επιστρέψουν στην κανονική τους τροφή» και η φιλοσοφική θεώρηση της δράσης των γεννητόρων, Χίτλερ και Στάλιν, των δυο φονικών ολοκληρωτισμών του περασμένου αιώνα «και τα δυο αυτά τέκνα του Άδη είχαν κάνει το πρώτο βήμα προς την επίτευξη του στόχου της ηθικής ανυπαρξίας. Το να δολοφονεί κανείς για να χτίζει και να χτίζει για να δολοφονεί δεν το είχαν εγκαινιάσει αυτοί, αλλά αυτοί έδωσαν στην επιχείρηση αυτή γιγάντιες διαστάσεις, ξεπερνώντας τους προγενέστερους και αποκόπτοντας τους μεταγενέστερους από το δρόμο της ανάκαμψης. Κατά κάποιον τρόπο έκαψαν τις γέφυρες της ηθικής», συνιστούν την πραγματεία του Μπρόντσκι, απαραίτητο ανάγνωσμα για όσους ενδιαφέρονται για το φαινόμενο του σταλινισμού, αλλά και για τους θιασώτες του γραπτού λόγου και της στοχαστικής δύναμης του μεγάλου Ρώσου ποιητή.

Ο Γιόζεφ Μπρόντσκι γεννήθηκε στο Λένινγκραντ το 1940, πέθανε εξόριστος το 1996 στο Μπρούκλιν της Νέας Υόρκης και ο τάφος του φιλοξενείται στη Βενετία. Το 1987 τιμήθηκε με το βραβείο Νομπέλ Λογοτεχνίας. Θεωρείται από τους μαθητές μιας εξέχουσας μορφής των ρωσικών γραμμάτων, της Άννας Αχμάτοβα, την οποία και γνώρισε το 1961. Επί μια εικοσαετία αφιέρωνε το μεγαλύτερο μέρος των ποιημάτων του στη σύντροφό του, την ζωγράφο Μαριάννα Μπασμάνοβα. Ο Μπρόντσκι ήρθε αντιμέτωπος με πλήθος πολιτικών διώξεων κατά τη διάρκεια της ζωής του, με την πρώτη να ξεκινά το 1963, όταν και κατηγορήθηκε για «παρασιτισμό». Ακολούθησε η σύλληψη του ποιητή, εγκλεισμός σε ψυχιατρείο, καταδίκη και εξορία. Κατά τη διάρκεια της εξορίας του στον ρωσικό βορρά, αφιερώθηκε στην αγγλική ποίηση και ειδικότερα στον ποιητή Ώντεν. Η περιπέτεια του Μπρόντσκι είχε μεγάλο αντίκτυπο στην ευρωπαϊκή κοινή γνώμη καθώς και στους λογοτεχνικούς κύκλους, και μετά την συλλογή υπογραφών προς υπεράσπιση της ελευθερίας του Ρώσου δημιουργού, και την έκκληση του Ζαν-Πωλ Σαρτρ προς τη σοβιετική κυβέρνηση, η ποινή του μειώθηκε και δρομολογήθηκε η επιστροφή του στο Λένινγκραντ. Οι πιέσεις του καθεστώτος δεν σταμάτησαν, θέτοντας αξεπέραστα εμπόδια στον ποιητή, και τον Ιούλιο του 1972, διωγμένος από την πατρίδα του, εγκαταστάθηκε στις ΗΠΑ, διδάσκοντας ιστορία της ρωσικής λογοτεχνίας και ποίηση στο Πανεπιστήμιο του Μίσιγκαν. Έζησε στη Νέα Υόρκη μέχρι και το 1996, όπου και πέθανε ξαφνικά χτυπημένος από καρδιακή προσβολή. Στη χώρα μας κυκλοφορούν: η συλλογή δοκιμίων «Το τραγούδι του εκκρεμούς» (Καστανιώτης), η μελέτη «Υπερασπίζοντας τον Καβάφη» (Άγκυρα), η συλλογή ποιημάτων «Τα ποιήματα της Θείας γέννησης» (Καστανιώτης) και το εξαιρετικό πεζογράφημα «Υδατογράφημα» (Καστανιώτης).