A constant of life in the US has been an unrelenting diet of anti-Communism and anti-Sovietism. Even before the Big Mac, children in the US were force-fed lurid stories of Soviet horrors, labor camps, and political liquidations. Popular magazines like Coronet, Readers’ Digest, Look, and Life were a constant source of tales recounting the cruelty and inhumanity of Soviet Communism just as their modern counterparts spew scorn upon Muslims.
Academics and other intellectuals built a scholarly foundation for the popular imagery, allowing media to forego the journalistic niceties of seeking corroboration or entertaining counter-claims—the evils of Communism became articles of faith. We were only to learn later what some suspected, that the much of the academic and intellectual construction was generously funded by the CIA and other government agencies.
After the demise of the Soviet Union and a world-wide retreat from Communism, the anti-Communist campaign took a strange twist. Despite the expected triumphal chest-beating, the most hysterical, wild-eyed anti-Soviet intellectuals like Robert Conquest were thoroughly discredited by newly released archival information. Their victim number-mongering proved wildly and recklessly inflated.
Paradoxically, a new breed of scholar of Soviet history, while not necessarily endorsing the Soviet project, used the evidence to construct an account of Soviet history that cast aside the demonic caricature for a more rational, persuasive depiction of the forces shaping Soviet behavior and development. While these scholars had little influence on the popular vulgar misconceptions, they were able to carve out a significant, credible, but marginal, niche in academic circles.
Though funding for hard-core anti-Communists surely declined after the Cold War, anti-Sovietism still found a happy nest in the academy and with old Cold War publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. The latter publication even softened its hard-line support for Israel while maintaining and even intensifying both its demonizing of the Soviet Union and its hatred of China and Cuba. Perhaps it is anxiety over Eastern European opinion polls that show nostalgia for the old system; perhaps the editors fear a rebirth of Marxism in the face of the persistent global economic crisis. Whatever the motive, the NYRB happily assumed the burden of keeping anti-Soviet hysteria alive and fostering a new generation of anti-Soviet writers.
The NYRB can take much credit for promoting three figures who are twenty-first-century incarnations of the Cold War intellectual: Anne Applebaum, Orlando Figes, and Timothy Snyder. All three review and lavish praise on each others’ works; all three breath the thin air of the most elevated of public intellectuals; and all three harbor a boundless hatred of all things Soviet. Applebaum’s signature work is on the Soviet penal system, an exposition sufficiently lurid to launch an otherwise undistinguished career and earn a vaunted position as a Washington Post columnist. Her ties by marriage to Polish officialdom causes no pause to Western intellectuals who see no conflict in the long standing animus of post-Soviet Polish elites towards Russia and the Soviet era.
The latest to rise above the crowd of anti-Soviet intellectuals is Timothy Snyder, whose Bloodlands enjoys fame by paralleling Soviet “atrocities” to those of the Third Reich. Snyder both trivializes the horrors of Nazism and scandalizes the legacy of Soviet achievement by pressing equivalency between Nazi brutal and calculated inhumanity and Soviet desperate and dogged resistance. Even more than the others, Snyder tosses around victim numbers with little or no attribution, numbers that are curiously and suspiciously rounded.
But now the anti-Soviet nest has been further fouled by Orlando Figes. Of the anti-Soviet triumvirate, Figes is perhaps the most celebrated, with several books, movie and theater adaptations, and radio and television performances. His books have enjoyed translation into over twenty languages and he has won numerous literary prizes. Wide acclaim has made him arguably the most respected and authoritative of the anti-Communist Soviet experts.
Despite the acclaim, and thanks to recent revelations by Stephen F. Cohen and Peter Reddaway in The Nation magazine, Figes’ reputation has been fatally shattered (at least with those who still maintain a measure of intellectual integrity).
Reddaway and Cohen take us back some years when Figes was winning several distinguished literary prizes. At that time, a number of established scholars of Soviet history found “shortcomings,” “borrowing of words and ideas…without adequate acknowledgment,” “messed up references…,” etc. One scholar asserts that: “Factual errors and mistaken assertions strew its pages more thickly than autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa.” Of course shoddy scholarship has never stopped the anti-Soviet bandwagon once it gathers momentum.
Then there was the rather indecent matter of Figes launching anonymous attacks against books by other authors through his online reviews on Amazon while praising his own work. If that wasn’t sleazy enough, he denied doing it until forced to deliver a confession. Still, the bandwagon rolled on.
Ironically, it is his Russian sources that finally deflated his overblown reputation. Figes’ most celebrated book, The Whisperers, allegedly drew on interviews and memoirs of Soviet citizens collected by a Russian NGO, the Memorial Society. While the English language edition drew the highest praise in the gullible “tell-me-a-tale-of Soviet-perfidy” West, the book failed to find a publisher in Russia. Thanks to Cohen and Reddaway we know that the book can’t get published in Russia because it “would cause a scandal…” The Memorial Society itself reviewed the book against its primary sources and concluded that there were too many “anachronisms, incorrect interpretations, stupid mistakes and pure nonsense.” One of the leading lights of the Memorial Society noted that Figes was “a very mediocre researcher…but an energetic and talented businessman.” The fact that so many “experts” and “intellectuals” were snookered by Figes says much about the standards and biases of Soviet studies in the West.
I cannot leave this bizarre and pathetic tale without noting that one of Figes chief promoters, the New York Review of Books, published a flattering review of Figes’ latest book in its June 21 issue. Michael Scammell, one of the lesser lights in the journal’s anti-Soviet stable, devotes numerous column inches of fulsome praise for the book while concluding with a brief “caveat” outlining Figes’ sins. Scammell declares The Whisperers a “masterpiece” while noting that the Memorial Society found “dismaying discrepancies” in the book (he buries the Cohen/Reddaway charges in a footnote). One wonders if Scammell would show the same tolerance for an undergraduate student.
Yes, it's scoundrel time, again.