Koestler’s observations of Soviet totalitarianism

In honor of the remembrance of the ninetieth anniversary of the Holodomor, it is worth recalling Arthur Koestler’s first-hand observations of the devastation of 1932-33 in Ukraine.

In 1932 Koestler undertook a tour of the Soviet Union as a journalist, under the sponsorship of the Comintern. What he witnessed during these months of travel led to a lifetime rejection of Soviet Communism, and an honest recognition of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. Among the most horrific of those crimes was Stalin’s war of starvation against the people of Ukraine, the Holodomor (link). Today is the day of remembrance marking the ninetieth anniversary of the Holodomor, so it is relevant to begin there in his recollections in his autobiography of the period, The Invisible Writing.

Here is how Koestler’s travels begin:

My first destination was not Moscow but Kharkov, then capital of the Soviet Ukraine. I had friends living in that town, who had invited me to stay with them until I found my feet in the new world…. My idea of Russia had been formed entirely by Soviet propaganda. It was the image of a super-America, engaged in the most gigantic enterprise in history, buzzing with activity, efficiency, enthusiasm…. Only slowly does the newcomer learn to think in contradictions; to distinguish, underneath a chaotic surface, the shape of things to come; to realise that in Sovietland the present is a fiction, a quivering membrane stretched between the past and the future. . . . (Part Two, section IV)

Holodomor

Here is Koestler’s first exposure to the Ukraine famine, the Holodomor:

The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe. It stopped frequently. At every station there was a crowd of peasants in rags, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a loaf of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows — infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims. Its ravages are now officially admitted, but at the time they were kept secret from the world. The scenes at the railway-stations all along our journey gave me an inkling of the disaster, but no understanding of its causes and extent. My Russian travelling companions took pains to explain to me that these wretched crowds were kulaks — rich peasants who had resisted the collectivisation of the land and whom it had therefore been necessary to evict from their farms.

Another incident was so slight that I only registered it half-consciously. As our train was approaching a river across which a bridge was being built, the conductor came walking down the corridor with an armful of square pieces of cardboard and blocked up all the windows. When I asked why this was done, my travelling companions explained with smiles that bridges were military objectives, and that this precaution was necessary to prevent anybody from photographing them. It was the first of a series of equally grotesque experiences which I put down as examples of revolutionary vigilance. (Part Two, section IV)

And the signs of famine and horrendous suffering were evident in the Kharkov bazaar:

The goods ranged from a handful of rusty nails to a tattered quilt, or a pot of sour milk sold by the spoon, flies included. You could see an old woman sitting for hours with one painted Easter egg or one small piece of dried-up goat’s cheese before her. Or an old man, his bare feet covered with sores, trying to barter his tom boots for a kilo of black bread and a packet of mahorka tobacco. Hemp slippers, and even soles and heels torn off from boots and replaced by a bandage of rags, were frequent items for barter. Some old men had nothing to sell; they sang Ukrainian ballads and were rewarded by an occasional kopeck. Some of the women had babies lying beside them on the pavement or in their laps, feeding; the fly-ridden infant’s lips were fastened to the leathery udder from which it seemed to suck bile instead of milk. A surprising number of men had something wrong with their eyes: a squint, or one pupil gone opaque and milky, or one entire eyeball missing. Most of them had swollen hands and feet; their faces, too, were puffed rather than emaciated, and of that peculiar colour which Tolstoy, talking of a prisoner, describes as ‘the hue of shoots sprouting from potatoes in a cellar’. … Officially, these men and women were all kulaks who had been expropriated as a punitive measure. In reality, as I was gradually to find out, they were ordinary peasants who had been forced to abandon their villages in the famine-stricken regions. In last year’s harvest-collecting campaign the local Party officials, anxious to deliver their quota, had confiscated not only the harvest but also the seed reserves, and the newly established collective farms had nothing to sow with. … Officially the famine did not exist. (Part Two, section IV)

Police state

Koestler was able to visit a number of friends in Kharkov and various other cities, and through them he gained a fairly direct perception of the conditions of repression under which Soviet citizens lived in the 1930s: bureaucracy, censorship, fear, arrest, and imprisonment.

When conditions become insupportable, men react according to their temperament in roughly three ways: — by rebellion, apathy or self-deception. The Soviet citizen knows that rebellion against the largest and most perfect police machinery in history amounts to suicide. So the majority lives in a state of outward apathy and inner cynicism; while the minority lives by self-deception. (Part Two, section IV)

And he makes an important point about the role of the GPU, the omnipresent security police:

It is not the Terror, but the existence of this ubiquitous organisation without which nothing can be done, and which alone is capable of getting things done, that defines the structure of the totalitarian police state.

A Communist writer — a woman whom I greatly admired — once made an unguarded remark that has stuck in my memory. She was telling us, a small circle of Party members, about a clandestine meeting of her with a comrade in a forest in Austria. It had been spring, and despite the circumstances she greatly enjoyed her walk in the woods. When she met the other person, a Party official, he had launched at once into an ‘analysis of the difficulties confronting the movement and the means of overcoming them’. From that moment it had seemed to her that the birds had become silent, and the air had lost its fragrance. She was and is a devoted Communist, and this experience greatly disturbed her. ‘Why,’ she asked pathetically, ‘why is it that the leaves die wherever we go?’ (Part Two, section V)

Travels past the Caucasus

Koestler’s account of his travels through the Caucasus and the Asian expanses of the Soviet Union are equally absorbing. He encounters Langston Hughes in a wretched GPU billet in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan.

[Hughes] offered me some vodka and camel sausage (which, together with sweet Turkestan melon, was to replace in Asia my former staple diet of red caviar), and over these delicatessen he told me the tragi-comic story of how he had come to be stranded in Ashkhabad. He had arrived in the Soviet Union several months before, together with a troupe of some forty American Negro actors and singers. They had been invited by MESHRABPOM, the leading Soviet film trust, to make a film on the persecution of the Negroes. Hughes was to write the script. But by the time they arrived in Moscow a political rapprochement had begun between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. which was eventually to lead to the official recognition of the Soviet regime by America in 1933. One of the American conditions for resuming normal diplomatic relations was that Russia should renounce its propaganda campaign among the American Negroes. Accordingly, MESHRABPOM overnight dropped the project of the film. … Stranded in Ashkhabad, Hughes had kept sending wires to MESHRABPOM which were never answered. For the last three weeks he had lived as a kind of pensionnaire of the Ashkhabad G.P.U. in the dom sovietov getting what food was available in the G.P.U.’s canteen and co-operative stores on tick. He told me all this as a kind of shaggy-dog story— one of those funny things that inevitably happen in a country which has embarked on a great revolution. Later in the evening, more people arrived in Hughes’s room, and I discovered that we were not the only intellectuals in Ashkhabad. First to arrive was a timid little mouse of a man with a wizened Tartar face, who hardly ever spoke but listened to everything that was said with an immutably admiring smile. He was Shaarieh Kikiloff, the President of the Turkoman Writers’ Federation. What he wrote, neither Hughes nor I were ever able to find out, though we travelled together for about a fortnight. Nor did we ever discover whether he was married, where he lived and how he lived. (Part Two, section X)

Eventually Koestler and Hughes traveled on to Uzbekistan together. But while still in Ashkhabad Koestler witnessed a premonition of Stalinist terror to come, in the form of an extended political trial:

By a strange hazard I stumbled on the first great show trial in Central Asia — a foretaste of things to come.

The only sizeable building in Ashkhabad was the City Soviet, the equivalent of a Town Hall. I had walked past it several times with Kikiloff and wanted to have a look inside, but the smiling little man had each time side-tracked me with a vague ‘They are very busy there’ or It is not a good time’. Puzzled by his manner, I at last insisted and simply walked into the building with the anxious Kikiloff in tow. Inside, there was a courtyard from which a staircase led to the offices; and opposite the gate there was a large door, with red draperies over it, leading into the City Hall. People were drifting in and out of that hall; it looked as if a meeting were in progress there. I walked in and sat down in the last row, Kikiloff unhappily huddled beside me.

The charges were political — sabotage and counter-revolutionary conspiracy — and the trial went on for weeks.

Gradually, through Changildi’s testimony, and through the reports in the local newspaper during the following days, I got the hang of the affair. The trial had been on for several weeks. It was expected that it would last for another number of weeks. The City Hall was the only large public meeting place in Ashkhabad; whenever it was needed for a meeting or a theatre performance, the trial was adjourned. The twenty-nine defendants were accused of Sabotage and Counter-revolutionary Conspiracy.

Attakurdov had been the leading personality in the young Turkmen Soviet Republic. He had been chairman of the Ashkhabad Soviet; his brother-in-law, Ovez Kouhev, chairman of the District R.D.I.; another of his in-laws had been editor of the official Party paper. They were now all in the dock. It looked as if Attakurdov and his clan had been running the Republic, and were responsible for all the troubles that had befallen it.

Changildi’s testimony provided a revealing glimpse into the nature of these troubles. An entire kolkhoz had been disbanded because of a hundred and fifty melons. Moreover, private property of the collectivised land had been restored to its former owners, against the policy and law of the Government. Neither the Judge nor the Public Prosecutor had commented on this unheard-of event. When I asked Kikiloff about it, he shrugged and smiled: ‘There are difficulties’. But if such an event was possible, and accepted as a matter of course, the collectivisation programme in Turkmenistan must be in a state of chaos. I did not draw these conclusions; but I vaguely guessed them. I did not doubt that Attakurdov and his people were bad, guilty men; but the eerie unreality pervading the courtroom made me at the same time feel that they were being used as scapegoats. (Part Two, section X)

As a distinguished international visitor, Koestler was asked to sit with the officials on the stage, and Koestler drew an important conclusion from this experience:

The German Communist Party had a motto which used to appear every day on the top right corner of the official Party paper: ‘Wo es Stdrkere gibt, immer auf der Seite der Schto decker en — ‘Where there is Power we are on the side of the Powerless’. On that platform I was obviously on the wrong side. It gave me the same guilty feeling that I had experienced towards the Ukrainian peasant girl in the sleeping-car to Erivan. And again, on a different level, towards Nadeshda. And again in my daily contacts with the common people who had no access to privileged co-operative stores, no priorities for food, housing, clothing and living. They were the powerless and I was on the side of the Power, and so it went on wherever I turned in Russia. A revolutionary can identify himself with Power, a rebel cannot; but I was a rebel, not a revolutionary. (Part Two, section X)

What is striking about Koestler’s writings is his willingness to be honest about a political system to which he had been ideologically committed, and to describe in detail the social and political circumstances that he observed. Like his Spanish civil war prison memoir, Dialogue with DeathThe Invisible Writing provides the reader with a very direct and vivid glimpse of the terrible events of the twentieth century that he witnessed.

Ninety years after Stalin’s deliberate war of starvation against the Ukrainian people, another dictator is waging merciless war against Ukraine’s civilian population. Putin’s aggressive war against Ukraine, and the means of civilian terror he has turned to after the complete military failure of Russian conventional forces, are crimes against humanity, and they must end.

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