In my college – one of 31 colleges in the University of Cambridge – we have a beautiful Graduate Suite. Accessible only to grad students, it used to house E.M.Forster, and still sports a black-and-white photograph of this famous writer sitting in one of its rooms.
Among all its various purposes, our Grad Suite is home to a casual Sunday night film club, which was started quite recently by one of my fellow graduates. A few weeks ago, we screened “The Lives of Others”. I liked this film so much that, upon getting home that evening, I googled articles and reviews that could provide some additional perspectives on it. But this blog post is not about “The Lives of Others” per se. It’s more of a response to a quote I came upon that night. I have heard the words before, and I am aware that they’re quite well-known. I re-discovered them in the relevant Wikipedia article, in the form of a critique of “The Lives of Others” by Slavoj Žižek:
One cannot but recall here a witty formula of life under a hard Communist regime: Of the three features — personal honesty, sincere support of the regime and intelligence — it was possible to combine only two, never all three.
With all due respect, Dr. Žižek, I beg to differ. These words are, indeed, more witty than accurate. One of the deepest tragedies of the Soviet past, I think, it precisely the fact that all three were possible – that many of the intelligent and honest victims believed in the hand that struck them down. By denying honesty, sincerity or intelligence to those who support a political system, we blur the line between a theoretical framework and the regime which was built on top of it (although the links between the two are, doubtlessly, many). This blurring can make the human dimensions involved appear ever more shallow. I wonder whether understanding communism in Eastern Europe, where it was an import, shouldn’t rely on different terms than understanding it (as an indigenous process) in Russia.
When one reaches – and steps beyond – a certain utmost circle of personal hell, an astute academic mind is no longer enough to comprehend the full force and extent of what happened between 1917 and 1991. No less important for this task is … compassion. I have seen few people as blind as those who lack compassion when approaching human tragedies. One of the main tools a historian needs, it seems, is nothing other than a heart. We can cover much ground with our minds – and many do – but the heart is our most reliable shovel for digging deep. The more I think about the trauma of the Soviet past, the more I am astounded by the multitude of levels on which it delivered its blows.
So, as I wish a happy new year to all who are reading these lines – and to all who never will – I have but one hope: in 2011, may we find compassion. In ourselves and in others.
All else will come in due course.
С новым 2011-ым годом!