Red Century

Soviet Breads, 1936. By Ilya Mashkov

By Vicki Boykis

I’m a little worried about the New York Times. I know, I know, it’s been hard for them lately. They’ve been busy as the newspaper that delivers the most truth to the American people. They’ve been so preoccupied with covering the truth about butter and crafting the best out-of-office reply that they’ve been stretched too thin and have let a couple minor things slip through the cracks.

Here I’m specifically referring to the recent series of essays they’ve been publishing, called Red Century, which aims to “explore the history and legacy of Communism, 100 years after the Russian Revolution.”

The series is written by a mix of scholars and observers, most of whom have not actually experienced what it was like to actually live in the Soviet Union, and many of who wax nostalgic about communism or flutter excitedly at the prospect of future communist states.

Take the article, “When the Harlem Renaissance Went to Communist Moscow,” where the Times describes how African-American artists were welcomed to the Soviet Union, starting in the 1930s. Many came, disillusioned and devastated at being treated like second-class citizens in their native United States, and the Times describes how they were feted at parties and treated like first-class intellectuals:

“In the Soviet Union, racial equality was not merely incidental but a state project. Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, saw in the development of a black proletarian consciousness the greatest potential for revolution in America. ”

All of this is true, in the same way that Potemkin villages are true. But in its eagerness, the Times has forgotten to fact-check that the Soviet Union was one of the most racist places in the world, a place where people from the Caucasus with dark hair and eyes are routinely called racial slurs on national television, a place where numerous minorities changed their names to sound more Russian, a place where outsiders are routinely pushed to the bottom of the heap. Black Americans may have been officially used as propaganda by the government, but behind closed doors, they were strange, exotic animals.

In another article, titled “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors,” the author wonders, “How did Russia — hardly considered a cradle of environmentalism, given Joseph Stalin’s crash program of industrialization — become a global pioneer in conservation?”, evidently never having been to Russia, where everyone pisses in the street near apartment buildings, in apartment buildings, and where littering in national parks and squares is a national sport, a country where gangs of feral dogs roam near high-rises looking for bags of potato chips, a country that managed to decimate an entire sea, and mutilate hundreds of thousands of people.

In a final article, “When Communism Inspired Americans,” the author expounds nostalgically on the memories of the Communist party of her youth.

“In my childhood, these distinctions did not exist for me. The people who came to our Bronx apartment or were present at the fund-raising parties we attended, the rallies we went to, and the May Day parades we marched in were all simply progressives. At the kitchen table they drank tea, ate black bread and herring, and talked “issues.” I understood nothing of what they said, but I was always excited by the richness of their rhetoric, the intensity of their arguments, the urgency and longing behind that hot river of words that came pouring ceaselessly from them.”

She later denounces Stalin’s crimes, but throughout the whole article, there is an undercurrent of nostalgia and sense of exaltation of the party.

But, as immersed as these Red Century scholars and journalists are in the history of Communism, they never once deign to interview a person who survived the Soviet Union. Like the many who lived through Chernobyl, some struck down by cancer, or suffering quietly with thyroid diseases. Or someone like my grandfather, who survived starvation as part of his evacuation to Uzbekistan during World War II. Or like my mom, who didn’t have a washing machine and had to wash all of our clothes by hand, including boiling my diapers, until 1991, when we emigrated. Or me, who had my tonsils taken out without anesthesia, when I was five.

The closest the New York Times gets to acknowledging this reality is an essay in the series by Anastasia Edel. She writes,

“My mother’s job as a senior piano teacher paid 180 rubles a month; the alimony from my father, also a teacher, added 30 rubles. Almost all of that went toward food. The money for clothes and basic necessities came from the dresses that she sewed at night — secretly, because it was incompatible with her job in the “ideological institute.” To earn more by teaching music elsewhere was prohibited by a labor law banning additional employment.”

This comes the closest to the Soviet Union I know.  Everyone who’s been through the Soviet Union has their scars, and everyone has a real, true story about what life was really like under communism. No one remained unscathed. And we should do everything in our power to show it as it truly was, not as scholars who have understood it through books and from across the ocean, and now, in the pages of the New York Times.

So, NYT, how about it? Are you down for writing more of the real truth about communism? You can start by reading Ironed Curtains.

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