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Ian H. Birchall

Shipwreck of a Generation

(April 1972)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.51, April-June 1972, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Shipwreck of a generation
Joseph Berger
Harvill, £2.50

Under Stalin the Russian revolution was transformed into its opposite. A mass terror cast thousands upon thousands of men and women into prison. Men like Nikolay Yemelyanov, who had helped Lenin escape from Russia when Kerensky ordered his arrest in July 1917. Men like the Old Bolshevik metal worker Belousov who had been in Tsarist prisons, and found it difficult to remember to call the guard ‘comrade’ instead of ‘Your Honour’.

These are just two of the many characters who appear in the memoirs of Joseph Berger, a veteran Communist and one of the founders of the Communist Party of Palestine, who spent the years from 1935 to 1956 in various Russian prisons and camps, and is one of the few to survive such an experience.

Though Berger himself now has a jaundiced view of revolutionary politics, he gives us some valuable insights into the life of the camps under Stalin. It is not the physical horror of the camps that were their dominant feature, though some grotesque features emerge. For example, each camp had its ‘mortality quota’; as long as the death rate did not go above a certain figure, no-one worried, but when it rose too high, there was an investigation. Yet despite the abolition of privileges for political prisoners the camps, filled with oppositionists as well as purged loyalists, were hotbeds of the most sophisticated political discussion. How did Stalin bring it off? How did he break the spirit of militants like the Ivanovo district Party officials who in 1932 showed their solidarity with strikers by boycotting the special party shops, wearing workers’ clothes and standing in the food-queues? Not by force alone. No state machine, no police force is strong enough to do that. But because he was able to present himself as the heir to the October revolution, he won a victory in the battle of ideas. The Russian revolutionaries who had studied the failure of earlier revolutionaries, saw that they were defeated by disunity and lack of ruthlessness. Stalin’s monolithic ruthlessness could be made to seem the embodiment of revolutionary necessity. The cultivated arbitrariness and irrationality in the dispensing of ‘justice’ helped to encourage a sense of fatalism.

Berger shows how all this worked on the psychology of the prisoners. Almost all believed the regime to be basically just, and hence saw their own cases simply as ‘mistakes’ that would soon be corrected. When the war came they were almost all loyal, and actually believed Stalin would now turn to them for help. He tells the pathetic story of one prisoner who had so impressed on his wife the need to accept all that was done in the name of state security, that when he himself was arrested, he was unable to convince her of his innocence.

Berger’s memoirs are often scrappy in form, and lack the illuminating power of Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev or Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle. Nonetheless, they are a useful document to help the understanding of the greatest tragedy of this century.

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Last updated: 9.8.2007