Cover of Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Soviet gulags just not sexy enough for the zeitgeist

Last updated on March 21, 2022

I just finished reading Purge by Sofi Oksanen, recently translated into English from Finnish. I’ve been slowly reading for about a week now, but then halfway through, I suddenly got much more into it, and finished the entire book in a night. It’s not a book to read before bed, in case you also plan to stay up until 2 am. There are some stomach-turning scenes. They involve children. ‘Nuff said.

Set in a small Estonian village, the story spans the German and Soviet occupations of Estonia from the late 1930s and into present-day independence, taking on Soviet-style torture and interrogation right through to post-Soviet sex trafficking. At its core lies an unbearable human pettiness, but the book is ultimately concerned with how the vagaries of politics, war and history play out upon individual lives, what it takes to survive such a system, and how women’s bodies are used and passed from one regime to another. Cheery reading, no?

When I was a child, the Cold War was the biggest thing going on in the world; the transition from Cold War espionage to terrorists and jihad took place somewhere between high school and university. Now that I’m doing my own research into the Soviet Union and Jewish immigration, I’ve realized just how much that era has fallen off the radar. It’s simply no longer part of the conversation. Hitler, though, has managed to remain very of-the-moment. (Stalin must be spinning in his grave. Or hell. Whichever you prefer.) Maybe we’ll know Stalin has truly come into his own as a symbol of evil personified when he too becomes a YouTube parody. Or perhaps a pink Stalin? Or a soup Stalin?

After finishing Purge, I came across the same sentiment about our relative indifference to the Soviet Union in two different places. One was from the New York Times Ideas of the Day blog, which ran a post last week, “Soviet Evil, Hidden in Plain Sight.”

Today’s idea: Why do the world’s scholars ignore vast, unread troves of Soviet archives? A journalist says lingering leftist sympathies help explain the failure to unearth the evils of Communism the way those of the Nazis were laid bare.

I won’t get into lengthy political or academic analysis here, but it does seem to me that Nazism has always been an easier evil to identify because it didn’t pretend to be anything else. It never made utopian claims for anyone but its master race. Communism in general, and especially Soviet communism, has always cloaked itself in utopian ideals. Those ideals have failed time and again, but the goal is laudable and hard for people to let go of. I mean, aren’t the good guys supposed to be striving for utopia?

Since my own interest is less in the politics and more in the individual stories and horrors of history writ small, I was pleased to read a similar analysis about Purge in an NPR review by Oscar Villalon, a writer and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle (“Surviving Human Trafficking: A Noir Fairy Tale“). He references Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread that “the enormity committed by the Soviets during (and before and just after) World War II somehow didn’t get the deep traction in the consciousness of the West that the inhuman crimes of Nazi Germany did.” On his blog, Villalon expands on the point:

The other point I would have expanded upon is how controversial it is to so say that the crimes of the Nazis—genocide, being the main one—have eclipsed the crimes of the Soviets—the gulags, in particular—in the minds of Westerners. The point is not to diminish the enormity of the Holocaust, but to suggest that the horrors committed by Stalin are worth remembering, too. They are another set of examples of how power and perversity combine, and certainly worth examining, if only to learn of the political and social machinery that made it possible for so many millions to die.

Hmm, I didn’t know that was a controversial point to make, especially when it’s just plain accurate. Although the brief foray I made into the comments section of the Idea of the Day post points strongly towards Controversy. Communism and socialism have been so politicized that it’s hard to talk just the facts about Soviet archives.

I would also add that time is a factor here. The Second World War ended 65 years ago; the Berlin Wall, just 21 years. WWII was an event, with a start and end date, with many victims who now live in the west. The Soviet Union swallowed up WWII in eastern Europe and became an ongoing sate of affairs, a lingering tragedy with no simple moment to pinpoint, and no specific agenda either. Its purges and gulags have not produced a body of survivor testimonies or calls to bear witness such as the Holocaust did.

That will likely never happen with Soviet atrocities—most of the victims and witnesses are dead. Those who survived didn’t often leave the country (umm, they couldn’t). However, I do think we’ll see more literature dealing with the Soviet period in the next while. You know, the kind that doesn’t involve 007. There have been a few dribbles just in the last few years, such as Simon Montefiore’s Sashenka, which is technically accurate but somewhat sensationalist (and still manages to leave chills down your spine). Edward Docx brings us Pravda, light on torture and gulags and far more interested in the personal travails of a British diplomat’s family and their Russian matriarch-in-exile. The immigrant literati is also making itself heard—Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar—though they are more concerned with exploring immigration and identity than the trove of horrors hanging out in the KGB archives.

For now, go read Purge. Just not at night.

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