“Social justice” culture: the actual Stalinist version

The other day, I was re-reading Pretender to the Throne, the second book in the Ivan Chonkin trilogy by Vladimir Voinovich (the brilliant Russian writer I interviewed recently for The Daily Beast) and was particularly struck by one scene that I thought bore an uncanny resemblance to the online gang-ups on accused transgressors against political correctness that have become a common feature of the “social justice” community. The tragicomic scene, which takes place in a provincial Soviet town in the fall of 1941, shows a meeting of the district Communist Party committee which holds hearings on several cases of alleged violations of the Party code of conduct. It’s all here: the casual, innocuous remark interpreted as offensive; the demand for confession and repentance; the notion that maintaining one’s innocence or trying to minimize the “offense” compounds guilt; the escalating, absurdly ballooning accusations in which everything the accused says or does is taken as further proof of guilt; the pressure on members of the community to join the mob to demonstrate their own allegiance to the One True Ideology; the lack of human sympathy elevated to a virtue; the notion that proper “humanism” is not manifested in compassion but in “relentless war on all manifestations of hostile ideas.”

I decided to translate and post this passage (for various reasons, I wasn’t too happy with the version in the published English translation of the book) because I think it’s a remarkable demonstration of the ideological continuity between the Soviet/Stalinist version of the far left and today’s “progressive” Western version. Thankfully, minus the power to send people to the gulag.

A few explanatory notes. The action takes place several months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. A secondary character in the novel, collective farm chairman Ivan Golubev, attends a local Communist Party meeting for a hearing on charge of violating Party discipline. Before his own case comes up, he gets to witness the “trial” of another accused man, Shevchuk, a schoolteacher in his fifties. Presiding over the meeting is district Party chief Andrei Revkin.

Other explanatory notes are included in the text in brackets where necessary.

Vladimir Voinovich, Pretender to the Throne. Chapter 35.

“So, comrades,” said Revkin, “we still have two personal cases to hear: Golubev and Shevchuk. Is Comrade Shevchuk here?”

“Here!” Shevchuk leaped to his feet.

“We have a report on this case from … Comrade Babtsova?”

“Yes,” said Babtsova, a stout woman in a navy blue jacket. She was the secretary of the Party organization at the school where Shevchuk was employed.

She came up to Revkin’s desk and, standing next to him, read the report on Shevchuk’s offense.

On June 22, during the festivities at his daughter’s wedding, upon hearing the news of Nazi Germany’s attack on our country, Shevchuk permitted himself a politically ignorant remark. Comrades from the school’s Party organization, taking into account Comrade Shevchuk’s past conscientious work, suggested that he should compose an explanatory note and denounce his statement in writing. Thus, the comrades showed sensitivity and tolerance toward a member of their Party organization. However, Shevchuk pushed away the proffered hand and refused to write an explanation. In spite of themselves, the comrades began to suspect that Shevchuk’s statement had not resulted from simple political ignorance but from a deliberate stance. Nonetheless, at the next Party meeting, in a display of humanity and comradeship, Shevchuk’s colleagues gave him yet another chance to confess his error and recognize that while his statement may not have been an intentional provocation, it nonetheless objectively provides grist for the mill of our enemies. It should be said that under pressure from his comrades, Shevchuk softened his stance somewhat. But for the most part he continued to persist in his errors, maintaining that he didn’t, as he put it, say anything that bad. On the basis of all of the above, the Party organization concludes that Comrade Shevchuk has not disarmed himself before the Party and cannot continue to bear the lofty title of Communist. It has made the decision to expel Com. Shevchuk from the ranks of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks and asks the district committee to affirm this decision.

“That’s it?” asked Revkin.

“That’s it,” said Babtsova, folding her glasses.

There was a silence. One could hear the secretary’s pen squeak as she took down the minutes. Revkin waited until she was done writing, then turned toward the accused.

“Shevchuk, anything you’d like to explain or add?”

“Yes,” said Shevchuk, barely moving his stiff lips. “I … as a matter of fact … while I fully admit that I made a mistake, I would nonetheless like to draw the comrades’ attention to the fact that my statement did not contain any hostile intent.”

“What do you mean, did not contain?” pounced Borisov [Revkin’s deputy, vice chairman of the district Party committee]. “So you’re saying that maybe the collective of your Party organization is wrong?”

“What did he say?” asked a voice from the floor.

“What did he say?” repeated another voice.

“Yes, what did he say?” insisted a third voice, too.

“Let him repeat it!”

“Well—as a matter of fact, it really wasn’t much…”

“What do you mean, wasn’t much? Go ahead, repeat it!”

“All right, comrades—when I heard about the attack by Germany….”

Fascist Germany,” someone corrected him from the floor.

“Yes—yes, of course, fascist Germany, exactly. When I heard about it, I said, ‘Well, granny, there goes Yuri’s Day!’ And that’s all.”

[The phrase is a Russian colloquialism conveying surprise and disappointment. It refers to the abolition, in 1590, of a tradition allowing serfs on feudal estates to move from one landowner to another during a two-week window around St. George’s Day or “Yuri’s Day” (December 9).]

“Not much, he tells us.” Neuzhelev, the lecturer, shook his head.

“I’ll say,” agreed military commissar Kurdyumov, sitting next to him.

“So you think you didn’t say much?” asked Borisov. “Should’ve said more, huh?” He winked slyly at Shevchuk.

“No, of course not!” Shevchuk pressed a hand to his heart. “I didn’t mean it in that sense.”

“Sure you didn’t,” Borisov said skeptically. “What, you think you’re talking to kids from kindergarten? No, pal, we’ve all been around the block a few times, we know what’s what. And each of us understands perfectly well what you were trying to say with that comment. You wanted to say that our country entered the war unprepared, you wanted to cast aspersion on the wise policies of our Party and disparage the personal merits of Comrade Stalin. And now you’re going to tell us fairy tales—not in that sense, he says!”

“By the way,” chimed in the commissar, “if I am not mistaken, the saying about Yuri’s Day is related to the establishment of full serfdom.”

“That’s true,” confirmed Neuzhelev, the lecturer.

“So you were hinting at that too, were you? Trying to say that we’ve got serfdom?”

“I wasn’t! I mean… all I said—”

“Comrade Borisov,” interrupted Revkin, “I take it the comments you have made can be counted as your official statement?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Borisov.

“Comrades, let’s do this in order. Any other opinions?”

“Allow me.” Yevpraksein, the district prosecutor, rose to his feet. Staring off into the distance, he began speaking unhurriedly. “Comrades, everyone knows that our social system is the most humane in the world. But our humanism is of the militant and activist kind. It is not expressed in mawkish sentiment and universal forgiveness, but in a ruthless war on all manifestations of hostile ideas. Right now, for instance, we have standing before us a pathetic man who is mumbling something, and it would be a natural human impulse to take pity on him, to feel compassion. But think about it: he felt no compassion for us. He felt no compassion for his motherland. Please take note, comrades, that he made this comment, which I cannot bring myself to repeat, not on just any day, not on June the twenty-first or June the twenty-third, but precisely on the twenty-second, at the very time when our people learned with profound indignation of Fascist Germany’s attack on our country. I don’t believe, comrades, that this can be regarded as a mere coincidence. No! It was a precisely calculated strike at a precisely calculated time when this strike could do maximum damage.” The prosecutor paused, reflected a moment, and continued sorrowfully, “Very well, comrades, this is not the first time we’ve had to repel assaults from our enemies. We defeated the White Army, we survived in an unequal battle against the Entente, we liquidated the kulaks and smashed the Trotskyite gang. We are full of resolve to win our battle against fascism. Surely we can handle Shevchuk, too?”

A murmur ran through the audience, as if to say: Yes, it won’t be easy, but we can handle him.

While the prosecutor was making his speech, Yermolkin was twitching and fidgeting on his chair. It seemed to him that everyone, including Khudobchenko, Revkin, and Filippov, was periodically casting scrutinizing glances in his direction to see how he felt about the proceedings and whether he might sympathize with Shevchuk as a possible ally. [Boris Yevgenievich Yermolkin is the editor of the local newspaper, Bolshevist Tempos, who has lived in terror of being branded an enemy of the people ever since a typo insulting to Stalin got past him into print. Khudobchenko is the head of the regional Party committee; Filippov is the local chief of the NKVD, the KGB’s predecssor.]

Before the prosecutor could even sit down, Yermolkin bolted to his feet and started speaking without permission. Apparently, he too wanted to make a worthy speech so that those present could judge how correct and steadfast he was in his convictions.

“The laborers of our district showed a great surge of enthusiasm…” he began; but then, probably due to agitation, he stumbled, lost his train of thought, became hysterical and started shouting something about a three-and-a-half-year-old boy whom Shevchuk had evidently wanted to either kill or cut up, but didn’t finish that either and started twitching even more and shouting “bastard” and “scum.” He was convulsing and spraying spit. [The “laborers of our district” line is a running joke—it’s such a staple of Yermolkin’s editorials that it pops up every time he tries to make a statement.]

“Boris Yevgenievich, what’s wrong?” Revkin asked, worried.

“Scum!” Yermolkin was still shaking violently. “Bastard! My son… he’s three and a half years old…”

“Borya! Borya!” Neuzhelev rushed toward him. “I beg you, calm down. Have some water. I know you feel hurt. We all feel hurt. The most sacred things… everything we fought for… the things for which we’re shedding blood on the frontlines… But I promise you, Borya, we will stand up and protect our Soviet power from any such Shevchuk.”

Yermolkin was handed a glass of water, and everyone waited for him to compose himself.

“Let’s continue, comrades,” said Revkin, picking up where they’d left off. “Boris Yevgenievich here spoke a little too heatedly, perhaps, but essentially, he is correct. And as far as I’m concerned, this matter is entirely clear.”

“Clear as day,” seconded Borisov.

“It’s not clear to me!”

A chair clattered in the back of the room as Veniamin Petrovich Parnishchev, a grain elevator manager, rose to his feet. He was a giant of a man, with broad shoulders and curly hair that fell on his forehead.

“What do you mean, not clear!” Borisov said, alarmed. Once could sense the shock in his voice, as well as concern that the proceedings might take some unexpected turn—and a veiled threat that if it isn’t clear to someone, we can most certainly explain.

“It’s not clear to me!” Parnishchev repeated, ignoring the threat. “Comrade Borisov here, maybe he’s smart, maybe he understands everything right away, and me, I’m stupid, I need a little more time to understand. And here’s what I’m going to say. I see we got some folks here who are a little too excitable and want to rush things. We got folks pitching a fit and starting a frenzy. And bear in mind, we’re not talking about just anything here. We’re talking about the fate of a human being. A hu-man be-ing!” Parnishchev repeated, stressing each syllable and jabbing his index finger in the air over his head. “And we cannot decide this fate until we’ve got it all sorted out. Let me tell you, comrades—I don’t even know this… what’s your name again?”

“Shevchuk,” the schoolteacher readily reminded him.

“There you go—I personally don’t know this Shevchuk at all. Well, maybe we’ve run into each other once or twice, in the street, at the movies, I don’t remember. So until today I didn’t give, excuse my language, a rat’s fart whether this Shevchuk even existed or not. But now I’ve been listening to this whole matter, and here’s what I don’t get.” He turned to Shevchuk. “You’re a Soviet man, aren’t you?”

“Yes, a Soviet man,” Shevchuk eagerly agreed.

“A communist?”

“A communist,” Shevchuk confirmed.

“Then how could you have done such a thing?” Parnishchev thundered.

“Done what?” Shevchuk asked timidly. He was obviously taken aback; he thought Parnishchev was trying to defend him in some clever way and wanted to play along but didn’t know how.

“Listen up, Shevchuk, why don’t you quit playing the virgin, pardon the expression. You’ve got your comrades sitting here who are concerned about your fate. You look around, we’ve got almost every district leader in this room. Even Comrade Khudobchenko has come in person. They’ve all set aside all sorts of important business just to hear you out, and you, you—”

Parnishchev had turned crimson, his eyes were bulging and he was singing like a nightingale. Shevchuk stared at him, wide-eyed, but still couldn’t figure out if Parnishchev was trying to rescue him or sink him.

“But I—” Shevchuk began, but Parnishchev waved him aside.

“Hold on with your ‘but I.’ I this, I that. All right, I understand, so you don’t want to be a communist, you don’t want to be a Soviet man…”

“I do!” Shevchuk said passionately, pressing his hands to his chest.

“But right now,” continued Parnishchev, not listening, “when our country is facing such terrible danger, you could have at least remembered that you’re a Russian! You know, comrades,” here, Parnishchev’s tone turned elegiac, “I read something in the paper the other day about some count or prince, one of the White Guard lot that got away alive, who is now living in Paris. And this man, who harbored a vicious hatred toward the Soviet state, has now staunchly refused to cooperate with the Germans. ‘At this time,’ he said, ‘when a black cloud hangs over my motherland, I am not a count, I am not an anti-Bolshevik, today I am first and foremost a Russian!’”

There was applause from the audience. It was obvious to all that Shevchuk ranked far below this count on the moral scale.

“Look here, Shevchuk,” Parnishchev went on. “You committed a vile and reprehensible act. So have the courage to admit it, and I will be the first to embrace you like a brother.” At this, Parnishchev spread his arms wide and actually took a step toward Shevchuk, but at once returned to his seat and sat down. “That’s all I’ve got, comrades,” he said quietly.

In the silence that followed, everyone watched Shevchuk. He stood shifting from foot to foot, crumpling in his hand his well-worn cavalry cap with one earlap.

“All right, comrades,” said Revkin, “we’ve let Shevchuk have his say. You’ve all heard what he had to say for himself. He won’t admit the error of his statements…”

“I will! I will!” Shevchuk shouted out, almost sobbing.

“Oh, you will!” Revkin said, surprised. “Very well then, comrades, let’s listen.”

Shevchuk rose, came up to the table and clutched at the tablecloth.

“Well?” Revkin encouraged him.

“Comrades!” Shevchuk began in an unexpectedly clear voice. “I committed a shameful act unworthy of a communist. On the first day of the war, when I was in shock from the news, I had a moment of weakness and blurted out the words of a well-known Russian saying: ‘Well, granny, there goes Yuri’s Day!’ It was a misguided, politically ignorant statement. I understand that in that specific context, some comrades could have perceived my statement as hostile…”

“What’s this ‘could have perceived’?” interrupted the military commissar.

“Well, I’m trying to say that objectively, my statement might have seemed… but I didn’t want to…”

“He didn’t want to.” Neuzhelev gave a skeptical headshake.

“Sure he didn’t,” said Kurdyumov.

“Now look here, Shevchuk,” Borisov said with seeming benevolence. “If you’re going to confess, quit wriggling around. We’re all friends here, we’ve heard it all, go ahead and just tell it like it is. Enough of this ‘want to, don’t want to.’ People want lots of things. Maybe I want to be cavorting with a girl on a nice feather bed right now, but instead I have to sit here sorting out this business with you. Wanted, didn’t want—who cares? We’ve got all these other people waiting, and here you are blowing smoke. If you’ve started talking, then go ahead and say it: My statement was politically ignorant, slanderous, and objectively directed against the Party. Right?”

“Right,” Shevchuk confirmed, his voice barely audible.

“Well, now,” Borisov turned to the other bureau members, “you see, comrades, Shevchuk has admitted everything. And to think that we had a few tender-hearted, gentle souls in our midst that would have let him off with a reprimand. How can there be any talk of a reprimand, comrades, when this whole business reeks of a hostile attack, a political provocation. And I’ll be frank, it’s not us that ought to be dealing with Shevchuk but Comrade Filippov over there.” [i.e. the NKVD secret police]

Borisov sat down. Shevchuk was still standing, white as a sheet. He looked back at Parnishchev, but the latter was in no rush to clasp him in a brotherly embrace.

“All right,” Revkin said quietly after exchanging a quick look with Khudobchenko. “Who should be turned over to Comrade Filippov is a question we’ll leave for another time. For now, we’ll use our own authority to punish Shevchuk. I believe that after everything that’s been said, it would be appropriate to affirm the decision of the school’s communist collective to expel Shevchuk from the Party.”

“What do you mean, affirm the decision?” Raisa Semyonovna Gurvich, head doctor at the local hospital, spoke up suddenly. “May I say a couple of words?” she asked, rising to her feet.

She was granted permission to speak.

“Comrades,” she said, agitated, “I am simply horrified by what I have heard here. My hair is literally standing on ends. I don’t understand. My daughter Svetlana is in seventh grade at the same school where this comrade, or citizen, I don’t know what to call him, was a teacher. My husband and I have always raised our darling Sveta in the spirit of our ideas, have done everything we can to teach her love for the Motherland, for the Party, for Comrade Stalin. We believed that the educators were teaching our little girl the same things. And now I see that this is the kind of person who’s been teaching her. Comrades, I don’t understand—how could a man like this have been trusted with our children’s education? How could someone with such views have wormed his way into one of our Soviet schools? And who helped him? After all, if he could say that”—her voice rose to a shout—“on a day when all Soviet people… what sort of things was he saying before? No, comrades, expelling Shevchuk is easy, but it’s not enough. Not enough! We have to investigate the entire teaching staff and the school administrators, we need to find out how the school could have allowed an unhealthy environment to thrive in which this Shevchuk could operate with impunity. I think, comrades, that we need to send a Party commission to the school. And to identify all the unhealthy elements that may be present. Because until then, I personally, as a mother, simply cannot allow my daughter to go to school. It’s better for her to have no education at all than to have… than to have… I’m sorry, I can’t,” Raisa Semyonovna said tearfully and sat down, burying her face in her hands.

Raisa Semyonovna’s speech made quite an impression; there was a general murmur in the room. Revkin tapped his pencil on the carafe.

“Raisa Semyonovna is undoubtedly correct,” said Revkin. “It seems that there was, indeed, quite an unwholesome atmosphere at the school where Shevchuk taught. The school’s top administrators had apparently lost all vigilance. And this has to be of concern to us. After all, school is the institution entrusted with bringing up the next generation. It is school that lays the moral foundation for a new type of man. And we cannot remain indifferent to the question of who lays that foundation. So we will return to this in the very near future. But for now, comrades, let’s stay focused and conclude this matter. There is a motion to affirm Shevchuk’s expulsion from the Party. Any other opinions? No? Then let’s take a vote, bureau members only. Who’s for? Who’s against? Any abstentions? The motion is carried unanimously. Comrade Shevchuk, have you got your Party card on you?”

Shevchuk was silent, staring straight ahead, his fingers clutching at the tablecloth.

“Shevchuk, I’m talking to you!” Revkin raised his voice. “Lay down your card on the table.”

Shevchuk’s eyes bulged suddenly; he rose up on his tiptoes, sucked in the air with a strange whistling or even rumbling noise and started backing away, pulling after him the tablecloth with all the carafes, glasses, ashtrays and inkwells on it.

“Comrade Shevchuk!” shouted Revkin. “What do you think you’re doing? Stop this!”

But Shevchuk’s face had acquired a distant and nasty expression. He was still taking small backward steps, at the same time leaning further and further back while a pinkish foam bubbled up on his lips. Someone leaped up. Someone else, at the far end of the table, grabbed at the tablecloth trying to hold it in place. The tablecloth ripped. A carafe fell to the floor and shattered. And then Shevchuk, a scrap of tablecloth clutched in his hands, suddenly toppled on his back stiff as a post, without bending his knees. There was a loud crunch as the back of his head hit the floor.

The bureau members jumped out of their seats and craned their necks, looking at the pitiful prostrate body. Shevchuk lay still; with both hands, he held in front of him the scrap of cloth and the cavalry cap, as if offering them for sale.

“Are there any medics here?” Revkin asked, perplexed. “Raisa Semyonovna?”

Raisa Semyonovna leaned over the body, and those standing behind her could see her fat thighs tightly encased in knit blue leggings.

With an effort, Raisa Semyonovna stood up straight. “No pulse,” she said.


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