Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Monday, January 13, 2003
Scenes we'd like to see. Last night we went to see Russian Ark. This film is getting a lot of hype from the critics. And as a technical and logistical achievement, it is indeed amazing. One continuous 87 minute shot wandering around the Hermitage with a cast of costumed thousands bringing the place to life. As pageantry, it's amazing. But pageantry isn't really enough to keep you going for 87 minutes, and while they promise you more than that, they don't really deliver. The first person narrator starts some desultory conversation with a time-travelling European ex-diplomat as they wander through about two centuries of Russian history, but aside from a few provocative throw-away assertions this conceit really doesn't add any intellectual tension that might give the film direction. Not only is there no plot, there's no discernible train of thought. I'd be hesitant to render such a judgment on my own, given that I might well simply be missing implications of things I lack the background knowledge to appreciate. But we saw it with a couple of screenwriters, one of whom is a Russian emigre who most definitely does have the background knowledge. She hated it.

Before going to the film, I had an interesting conversation with this woman. She was talking about the Pianist, and saying how tired she is of seeing graphic recreations of Nazi brutality toward the Jews. Of course, upon hearing a statement like this my antennae immediately go up for latent anti-semitism, but on talking to her further I concluded that this wasn't about that for her at least. She wasn't expressing disparagement of the importance or truth of that story, but rather frustration that while there are plenty of good films about it, the equally brutal story of her own country's suffering during WWII hasn't been told. And she has a point. The civilian Russian death toll from WWII is 18 million. And whether you look at it as a tale of suffering or as an inspiring tale of winning against incredible odds, the Russian experience during WWII ought to be a goldmine of amazing films.

We Americans tend to have a thoughtlessly complacent view of WWII, as though we'd gone over there and singlehandedly defeated Hitler. In fact, the lion's share of the work of rolling back Germany was done by the Red Army. (Which of course is why eastern Europe wound up behind the iron curtain.) This Russian friend went so far as to assert that they would have defeated Germany even if we had never shown up at all, that we came on the scene two years too late to make a difference in outcome. There I have to demur. She's discounting all the material we sent both them and England to keep them afloat, the fact that if Hitler hadn't had to worry about us invading he'd have been able to throw a lot more at Russia (including the Luftwaffe--which as Steven Den Beste reminded me in a helpful email response to my query, was too tied up battling the RAF and 8th Air Force to provide any support against the Russians), the fact that we were also doing the lion's share of fighting Japan... Still, she's right that the bulk of the bloody work in Europe was done by Russia. And of course in some sense Russia had itself to blame for that because of the Stalin-Hitler pact, but that's not the point here. The point is that the Russian people went through mindboggling suffering and achieved an incredible victory. That 18 million civilian casualty figure surely includes who-knows-how-many millions that died because of Stalin rather than Hitler. Which makes the story even more striking. They did everything they did knowing they weren't even really fighting for liberty. They were caught between one regime more brutal than another--in fact, some of them actually did welcome the Nazis as liberators. At first. You know you're in bad shape when Hitler looks like the lesser of two evils.

So how come Hollywood has never told us these stories? (Enemy At The Gates is the only one I can think of, and it's not a serious historical dramatization.) Well, one obvious reason is that during the cold war no one was going to make films glorifying the people of the Soviet Union. Which is a shame. But the other shame--and perhaps the less forgivable one--is that at the same time the intellectual climate among Hollywood intelligentsia was such--still is such?--that no one was interested in making films dramatizing the horrors of Stalinist Russia. Hollywood has built up the McCarthy era into this horrific oppressive purge (those poor people who wound up having to work under pseudonyms), and said nothing about the real purges that Stalin was carrying out in the USSR (those poor people who got show trials and bullets to the skull). By any objective measure--if such things can meaningfully be measured--Stalin was many times worse than Hitler, but there is no endless slew of films dramatizing and documenting this. Only one saying how evil and oppressive were the people in this country who persecuted Stalin's supporters and apologists.

Update: Lest I be misunderstood, I'm not condoning McCarthyist tactics or saying we shouldn't be critical of them. We should. I do object to the way that his hamhanded bullying has been used to serve up the package deal called "anti-communist hysteria," which implies that opposition to communism was--still is--nothing more than reactionary hysteria. And confers a mantle of martyrdom and moral superiority on the Stalinists. FDR conducted similar campaigns of smearing and intimidation against the pre-Pearl-Harbor antiwar movement, and we haven't turned them into heroes.

Again, it's the problem of keeping our shortcomings under the microscope without losing perspective on them. In saying we should focus on Stalin's show trials, I'm not saying that we should be complacent about anything that happens here as long it falls short of that. Perish the thought. When we are defending principles against encroachment, we necessarily tend to exaggerate the magnitude of the encroachment as though it were indistinguishable from utter abrogation. And that's as it must be. As Cyrano said, "He bien oui j'exagere!" "Very well then, I exaggerate! For principle, and as an example to others, there are things a man does well to take to extremes." An encroachment of small immediate practical effect may indeed be indistinguishable in principle from an outright abrogation. And it must be analyzed and criticized as such, because precedents tend to get followed to their logical conclusions. But ultimately when it comes down to making moral comparisons and judgments, we have to factor the practice back in and look at what has actually happened. So I'm all for raking McCarthy over the coals. It's an important task, not least because he did so much to harm the very cause he espoused. But let's also not forget that McCarthy was a model of democratic virtue compared to the guy his victims were working for. Or that the martyrs McCarthy created were working toward the absolute destruction, in both principle and practice, of all the values that we seek to protect by condemning him. I think the same dual perspective is required as we continue to assess and deal with Ashcroft's moves in the present situation.

P.P.S.: I went back to check, and I got that number slightly wrong. Circa 16 million Russian civilian casualties during WWII, on top of 8.7 million military. My source is John Pimlott, The Historical Atlas of World War II. I don't doubt that you could argue over the number depending on how you decide to count it.

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