Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Secret Speech

Former Communist Secret Police Headquarters, now The Terror Museum, Buadpest,
a few blocks from the magnificent Opera House, and below, book cover (yahoo image).
I finished reading Tom Rob Smith’s The Secret Speech (2010), and sent it on to my RPCV friend Jud.  It was slow going.  A sad book. This painful story, about the unraveling of Soviet Stalinist society, went on and on, endlessly, without pause, without respite. Relentless agony to the very end.

The novel, the second in a planned trilogy, is based on the titanic social, political, and  personal  impact of the Stalin years and their aftermath.  Its symbolic force is the speech Nikita Kruschev gave to the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1960 exposing and condemning the “Cult of Stalin” and its “perversion” of Communist principles.  That's when all hell broke lose, when Soviet society started to crumble, leaving no one unscathed, an unstoppable blood-letting.

Kruschev’s speech didn’t remain secret for long, and that's the heart of Smith's story.   Its message spread immediately throughout every level of Soviet society, from the cities to the farms, from the schools to the gulags, from the highest ranks of Soviet society to the lowest, like wildfire on dry timber.  The speech ignited the long, fiery road to “perestroika” and the dissolution of the USSR, but along the way, along the tumultuous path, a whole society twisted in the wind, blowing people apart, literally and figuratively.

This is a story of revenge, self-loathing, guilt, betrayal, murder.  It's about the enduring effects of vicious totalitarianism on the human spirit: a whole society in the throes of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. 

A NYT review of the book was titled “Inner Gulag,” an appropriate image for this story about the inner turmoil and shame that afflicted Soviet citizens who were either former participants in Stalin's  reign of terror or its victims.  The main characters, Fraera and Leo embody both.  Forged in tragedy, these characters survive to get revenge or redemption against the black and bleak backdrops of a painfully changing Moscow, the gulags, and Budapest, Hungary during the Revolution.  The birth of freedom there was as tortured as the birth of freedom anywhere in the world, in any country, in all forms, throughout the ages. 

I can’t help but think of Ukraine, and the pain, and the lingering effects, and of Buda and Pest, the scenes of unbelievable misery and destruction.  I visited the Terror Museum, the former home of the Communist Secret Service, full of painful stories, and walked the whole area around the Opera House, once so murderous, now so beautiful. I  wasn’t aware of the depth of despair these streets witnessed, the struggle, the raw scabs opened and bleeding from every pore. The beautiful city of Budapest blown apart, before it was rebuilt in freedom.

Former secret police like the main character Leo, who routinely betrayed family and friends, are raked with guilt, their psyche’s permanently damaged. One character, shameful of his part in the purges. says what haunts him is “the blood.  My arms are covered to my elbows in blood.  That is the most terrible thing that lies in my soul.”   Survivers become reformers, like Leo, or criminals, like Fraera, but their wounds are the same.  The victims themselves grow twisted and unforgiving, giving rise to the vory, a gang whose members are as ruthless as their betrayers, maybe the birth of the Russian Mafia, using the survival skills they learned in the gulags to exact revenge. No one is more unforgiving, more treacherous than Fraera, who lost her soul and sane sensibilities when she lost her priest husband and her former life to betrayal and terror. 

Tom Smith’s book is in a formidable tradition that includes Alexander Solshenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denicovich” and “The Gulag Archipeligo,“ which won the Nobel prize in literature in 1970.    Since then an extensive body of scholarship and literature have emerged on the Gulags and their tragic impact, and documentation about the horror's of the Stalin era continue to be unearthed and, sometimes reluctantly, made public.

My daughter’s friend Laura Kline, who teaches Russian language and literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, is one such scholar.  Laura’s research focused on Varlama Shalamov, who, along with Andrei Platonev, was an early anti-Gulag exposer and writer. Shalamov died in poverty and obscurity in 1951, his work eventually translated by Robert Chandler and his story retold through Laura's study.    

The repugnant stories these writers and scholars uncover are not make-believe; they are grounded in the monstrous realities of an injured society and the broken spirits of ordinary and extraordinary people, like Tom Rob Smith's novel.  The saddest part is that the demons are not yet fully exorcised. They live in the present, in Russia, in the former Soviet republics, in the complex mosaic of modern post-Soviet life.  The struggle continues.   

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