Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Five notable memoirs of Communism

A columnist for the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum is the author of Gulag: A History, an acclaimed historical account of the Soviet concentration camp system that won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

One of the five top memoirs of Communism she discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz

Tell us about Miłosz’s book The Captive Mind, to begin with.

The Captive Mind isn’t a straight memoir. Although Milosz is writing about his own life and his past, he is also grappling with a larger subject: How his generation of liberal intellectuals came to collaborate with, and work alongside, the Communist party. And he is trying to understand his own behaviour: Why did I act that way?

To explain, he uses an extended metaphor: “It’s as if we all took a magic pill, became temporarily enchanted and went along with this ridiculous thing.” Then he goes through some “case studies” of individuals’ behaviour – even though they’re not named in the book, we know who he was writing about – and tries to explain why people collaborated or opposed the regime. In essence, the book is about the mentality of collaboration with communism.

In a nutshell, what is that mentality? Why did people go along with it?

He gives a lot of reasons. He explains the shattering effect of the war in that part of the world, where the fighting was far more brutal than anything in Western Europe. Between 1939 and 1945, it was normal, in Warsaw, to see a corpse lying in the street. Moral norms were shattered, as all sorts of illegal activity became normal too. Good people robbed banks and planted bombs, on behalf of the Underground.

After the war, many people felt they couldn’t just go back to the way things were before. They couldn’t just reconstruct 1920s or 1930s Poland, many felt: everything has been changed by this war and we need to start from scratch. Miłosz also talks about people who wanted their books published or their careers advance, people who collaborated in order to get ahead and join the new literary establishment.

He is important to read because he’s simultaneously critical of his characters and sympathetic to them. It’s very difficult, now, to think back into that time, when people had very limited choices. If you chose to oppose the regime, that might mean you couldn’t get medicine for your sick mother, your children couldn’t go to school and you might get kicked out of your apartment. We don’t have to face those choices. Miłosz is very good at explaining them.
Read about the other books Applebaum tagged at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue