When Mortals Say ‘Ends Justify Means’, Do Devils Smile

From the pen of  Lev Kopalev (emphasis added):

With the rest of my generation I firmly believed that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible—to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way. And to hesitate or doubt about all this was to give in to “intellectual squeamishness” and “stupid liberalism,” the attributes of people who “could not see the forest for the trees.”

That was how I had reasoned, and everyone like me, even when I did have my doubts, when I believed what Trotsky and Bukharin were saying. I saw what “total collectivization” meant—how they ‘kulakized’ and ‘dekulakized’, how mercilessly they stripped the peasants in the winter of 1932–33. I took part in this myself, scouring the countryside, searching for hidden grain, testing the earth with an iron rod for loose spots that might lead to buried grain. With the others, I emptied out the old folks’ storage chests, stopping my ears to the children’s crying and the women’s wails. For I was convinced that I was accomplishing the great and necessary transformation of the countryside; that in the days to come the people who lived there would be better off for it; that their distress and suffering were a result of their own ignorance or the machinations of the class enemy; that those who sent me—and I myself—knew better than the peasants how they should live, what they should sow and when they should plow.

In the terrible spring of 1933 I saw people dying from hunger. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes. And corpses— corpses in ragged sheepskin coats and cheap felt boots; corpses in peasant huts, in the melting snow of old Vologda, under the bridges of Kharkov….I saw all this and did not go out of my mind or commit suicide. Nor did I curse those who had sent me to take away the peasants’ grain in the winter, and in the spring to persuade the barely walking, skeleton-thin or sickly-swollen people to go into the fields in order to “fulfill the Bolshevik sowing plan in shock-worker style.”

Nor did I lose my faith. As before, I believed because I wanted to believe. Thus from time immemorial men have believed when possessed by a desire to serve powers and values above and beyond humanity: gods, emperors, states; ideals of virtue, freedom, nation, race, class, party. . . .

Any single-minded attempt to realize these ideals exacts its toll of human sacrifice. In the name of the noblest visions promising eternal happiness to their descendants, such men bring merciless ruin on their contemporaries. Bestowing paradise on the dead, they maim and destroy the living. They become unprincipled liars and unrelenting executioners, all the while seeing themselves as virtuous and honorable militants—convinced that if they are forced into villainy, it is for the sake of future good, and that if they have to lie, it is in the name of eternal truths.

Und willst du nicht mein Bruder  sein
So schlag ich dir dein Schaedel ein.
[And if you won’t be my brother
I’ll crack your skull open.]

they sing in a Landsknecht song.

That was how we thought and acted—we, the fanatical disciples of the all-saving ideals of Communism. When we saw the base and cruel acts that were committed in the name of our exalted notions of good, and when we ourselves took part in those actions, what we feared most was to lose our heads, fall into doubt or heresy and forfeit our unbounded faith.

I was appalled by what I saw in the 1930s and was overcome by depression. But I would still my doubts the way I had learned to: ‘we made a mistake,’ ‘we went too far,’ ‘we didn’t take into consideration,’ ‘the logic of the class struggle,’ ‘objective historical need,’ ‘using barbaric means to combat barbarism’ . . . .

Good and evil, humanity and inhumanity — these seemed empty abstractions. I did not trouble myself with why ‘humanity’ should be abstract but ‘historical necessity’ and ‘class consicousness’ should be concrete.  The concepts of conscience, honor, humaneness we dismissed as idealistic prejudices, “intellectual” or “bourgeois,” and hence, perverse.

Hat tip to Ye Olde Statistician, for bringing this to my attention. Quote taken from The Maverick Philosopher.

The Maverick Philosopher goes on to quote from Mr. Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence:

‘And They Served Out of Fear’

Bill Vallicella, dba The Maverick Philosopher, tells me he is reading No Jail for Thought (trans. Anthony Austin, Secker & Warburg, 1977; Penguin, 1979), which I have not read, by Lev Kopalev (1912-1997). I know of the Soviet dissident from Anne Applebaum’s Gulag Voices: An Anthology (2011).

Kopalev was born in Kiev and as a young man was an enthusiastic communist. His first arrest came in 1929, for fraternizing with Bukharinists and Trotskyists, and he spent ten days in jail. He worked as a journalist and witnessed the confiscation of grain from Ukrainian peasants and the subsequent genocide-famine, Holomodor. He became a major in the Red Army’s Political Department, charged with maintaining the ideological purity of the troops. Kopalev’s disillusionment with communism started only at the end of World War II, when he witnessed mass murders and rapes committed by Red Army troops in East Prussia. He wrote a letter of complaint to his superiors and in 1945 was arrested. He spent nine years in a camp in the Volga region and in a Moscow prison for scientists, was “rehabilitated” in 1954 and became a writer and literary critic. He helped Solzhenitsyn publish A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).

For twelve years Kopalev taught in the Moscow Institute of Polygraphy and the Institute of History of Arts. He was fired in 1968 and expelled from the Communist Party and the Writers’ Union for publicly supporting Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and protesting Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Writers’ Union. In 1980, while on a visit to West Germany, Soviet authorities revoked his citizenship, which was restored by Gorbachev in 1990.

In her anthology, Applebaum includes an excerpt, “Informers,” from Kopalev’s memoir To Be Preserved Forever (trans. Anthony Austin, Ardis Publishers, 1975). The subject is a rich one. Applebaum refers to informers as “an intrinsic part of the Soviet system.” An informer was responsible for Osip Mandelstam’s second arrest and eventual death in a Siberian transit camp. A network of informers forming a web of mutually enforced anxiety and fear is essential to the ongoing existence of any totalitarian regime. One scholar estimates that 11 million informers, or one out of every eighteen adults, were formally employed in the Soviet Union when Yuri Andropov headed the KGB (1967-82). We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves too quickly. Twitter suggests a certain enthusiastic ripeness in the U.S. for trading in rumors and slander, and denouncing one’s fellow citizens. Kopalev writes:

“In prison we used to be afraid of informers and talked about them in whispers. Here in the camp we spoke of them out loud. The lowest of all the minions of the mighty state, as helpless and humiliated as the rest of us, and often as falsely accused and as unfairly sentenced, they were nevertheless the indispensable cogs of the cruel punitive machine. They served for the little handouts the machine threw their way, and they served out of fear.”