How the Future Worked: Russia through the eyes of a young non-person by Alexander Boot. (RoperPenberthy £12.99 ISBN 978-1-903905-82-1)
Winston Churchill described Russia as, “a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma.” But Churchill only visited Uncle Joe; Alexander Boot was born and brought up there in the middle of the last century and his depiction of the place is put less politely. He reveals it as an institutionalised kleptocracy, part social cesspit, part concentration camp and part open-air lunatic asylum for fornicating, pugilistic drunks. To this disturbing mix, he adds a universal paranoia in which the customary mode of speech takes the form of telling lies and everyone snitches on everyone else to the KGB. Bribery and corruption – it almost goes without saying – are endemic and are the only means by which a Soviet citizen could obtain housing marginally above the uninhabitable, a pathetically rudimentary schooling and the most hit-and-miss health care.
I used the word “paranoia,” but I was wrong. Paranoia is irrational fear, but anyone not living in perpetual fear in Soviet Russia would be insane. In this communist paradise, a slum flat – and I am talking about the higher class of slum flat – had one gas ring per family and an outside loo to be queued for and squabbled over among a score of people in temperatures of minus 25. I mentioned education, but this was all lies too. For example, the physics textbooks in schools were still defining the atom as the smallest and unsplittable particle 35 years after Rutherford had split it and while Soviet weapons scientists were splitting atoms like crazy every day in the production of hydrogen bombs. In the land where Marx was god and Comrades Lenin and Stalin his prophets, all the great scientific discoveries were declared to have been made by heroes of the revolution.
All great literature too was alleged to have been written by Russians, but even such undoubted luminaries as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov were interpreted only as participants in the sacred Marxian class struggle. Likewise the greatest composer anywhere, anytime was Tchaikovsky. On this matter of the class struggle, there were the most delicious ironies and hyperboles: while the educational and other propaganda authorities relentlessly condemned the West for its class system and attendant inequalities, the USSR was probably the most strictly hierarchical society there has ever been with a bloated and gorged nomenclature creaming off everything of quality and everyone else fighting over the scraps. Stalin made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.
Those in positions of power lived high on the hog with caviar, the best beef and fine wines, while the masses lived on slops and drowned their sorrows in gallons of industrially produced vodka mingled with chemicals so gut-rottingly foul that by the side of which a glass of meths would have seemed like a nice drop of claret. In the overcrowded communal flats, the socially and culturally deprived citizenry went in for promiscuous sex on the grand scale. You might say there was f*** all else to do. The preferred method of contraception was abortion, practised by most women – some having twenty or more.
Lies, damn lies and then Soviet education in which, for instance, the kids were told back in 1961 that the Berlin Wall had been erected to stop the flood of envious capitalists trying to get into the better life which was to be had in the Eastern Bloc. This, even while border guards were shooting wholesale hapless East Germans who tried to flee in a westerly direction. What we refer to as The Second World War, the Soviets call the Great Patriotic War. This is the patriotism in which Stalin regularly ordered a second battalion behind the first battalion advancing to shoot dead any of the ill-equipped and ill-clad, freezing forward troops who might be showing less than complete enthusiasm for the fight.
The central myth by which this terrifying dystopia authenticated itself was the glorious Bolshevik revolution of 1917 which issued in a heaven on earth first under Lenin and then Stalin. And surely the revolution was a jolly good thing for having dethroned all those terrible Tsars? Boot puts this into perspective:
“We weren’t told that throughout the turbulent 19th century, the bestial Tsars executed all of 997 criminals, including murderers. By contrast, during the five-year reign of Lenin, 1,861,568 were judicially shot by the Cheka – on top of the millions murdered extra-judicially. This before the advent of Stalin whose monstrosities Khrushchev had just exposed in his ‘secret session’ of 1956.”
Stalin slaughtered as many as 40million in his sequential purges, gulags and the collectivisation of farming, the destruction of the peasantry and the consequent impoverishment and mass-starvation of the people.
The wonder is that so many in the West, fellow-travellers – Stalin’s “useful idiots” – actually believed that the USSR was a far better place – “the future that works.” It wasn’t merely the colossally naïve such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb or that self-regarding, overblown mediocrity George Bernard Shaw who regarded the USSR as heaven on earth: many others were and are still in thrall – Stafford-Cripps, Herbert Morrison, Eric Hobsbawm and the so-called Red Dean of Canterbury along with more than a few in the Anglican hierarchy.
This book is not only ferociously and beautifully composed, scintillating in its depth and breadth and allegro molto in pace: it is also, miraculously, extremely funny. Boot combines a Rabelaisian heartiness and an eye for the scurrilous detail with the ineffable comic and satiric touch of Jonathan Swift. Amid all the horrors, I frequently laughed out loud. And once I cried. For Alexander Boot describes a great tenderness that exists in the Russian character and particularly between Russian men:
“In Russia, ‘droog’ means someone with whom I can share my innermost feelings, the last rouble, the last drop of vodka, the last girl. ‘Droog’ is someone I’d give my life for…To a Westerner, ‘friend’ essentially means nothing more than ‘someone I see occasionally who has done me no harm.’ Even ‘my dearest and best friend’ comes nowhere near the voluminous concept of a Russian ‘droog.’ That word, therefore, is not in its true sense translatable into English. Can it be that it’s not needed? I think so, for the English tend to operate within a much narrower emotional band than the Russians.”
This was new to me, surprising and deeply affecting. In the midst of such squalor and horror, such love!
As Churchill used to bawl, “Action this day!” Get yourself a copy of Alexander Boot’s wonderful book, open it up and start to read. You won’t close it again until the last page.