After the Fall


There is considerable irony in Hollywood's failure to find subjects in the century-long grotesque of collectivism. After all, capitalist movies, along with popular music and fashion, are often cited as important factors in undermining the credibility of communist regimes among their own populations. A lively black market in VCRs and Hollywood videotapes reportedly flourished throughout the Eastern Bloc during Late Communism, with audiences gathering by the roomful for evenings of cheap thrills and consumerist fantasy; the James Bond films were said to be particular black-market favorites.

Of course, consumerism and sensationalism are precisely the elements of "mass culture" that have been decried by Western critics since the first puff of industrialist steam signaled the start of the mass-culture age. Yet while totalist regimes have found it both possible and useful to manage such elite cultural forms as classical music, ballet, and the art-house film, they have never been able to subdue the "popular" culture of an open system. As scholar Gilles Lipovetsky has noted, movies, songs, clothes, etc., are really tools of "personal" culture, because their fans use them to individual ends. Iran, which in April legalized the private possession of "corrupt" musical recordings, is the latest regime to bend under the futility of cultural suppression.

In other words, Hollywood's daily work addresses the desires and fantasies that have reshaped the West and that are now remaking the rest of the world. That the film industry cannot find a narrative about the foundation of its own wealth, power, and influence is perhaps the West's most bizarre cultural paradox.

But it is not the only one. Although the distortions of culture and the problems of daily life under communism have long been documented, such subjects did not often attract the interest of the anti-anti-communist cultural elite. That has been changing. Biography by biography, stage production by stage production, film by film, and study by study, it's the traditional elite that is finding narratives amid the wreckage of communist culture, and that is attempting to cope with a century of wasted time and ruined lives.

For example, the performance piece The Noise of Time by Simon McBurney, which opened in New York in March, features the work of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich while pondering his life. Shostakovich worked during the Stalin era, and his relationship to the tyrant–and the compromises he may have been forced to make in order to survive and keep working–remain matters of debate among scholars. But one can contemplate neither the composer nor, for that matter, 20th century Russian music, without attempting to address the repression that surrounded its creation. Stalin is thus a necessary presence in the piece, if an undefined one. McBurney has included a suggestive description of the composer on the telephone, waiting for Stalin to come on the line.

A torrent of material about the cultural deformations of this era is becoming available, much of it from Russian authors who began their investigations during the glasnost era. Particularly engrossing is Anatoly Smeliansky's Is Comrade Bulgakov Dead? (1993), a study of novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, best known in the West for his novel The Master and Margarita. Stalin allowed Bulgakov to remain at the Moscow Art Theater, but amused himself by thwarting the writer's attempts to create or stage almost anything. Another Russian author, Vitaly Shentalinsky, is currently devoting his energy to searching for the unpublished poetry and prose that was confiscated by the police and which may still exist in the vast state archives that constitute the cultural catacomb of a nation. Reconsiderations of the wrecked careers of painters, architects, filmmakers, and other creators are being published regularly, often by university presses.

Of course, there is more to this story than martyrology. A wave of biographical debunking is under way, puncturing the reputations of ideological celebrities ranging from Mao (an utterly debauched monster, according to his personal physician) to playwright Bertolt Brecht (a woman-abusing plagiarist, claims one recent biography) to the whole of France's Stalinist post-war intellectual establishment, thanks to the withering pen of American scholar Tony Judt.

Elite culture itself is being reexamined. German professor Boris Groys has argued in The Total Art of Stalinism (English translation, 1992), that the Russian totalist vision is in part indebted to that nation's avant-garde artists. Groys charges that the modernist conceit that art should transform life, and not merely reflect it, was one source of the catastrophe to come. Moreover, the British film scholar Richard Taylor has argued that Russia's famous art films of the 1920s were unintelligible to their intended home audiences, and that early Stalinist films were more effective because they copied Hollywood's entertainment values.

If Hollywood has been tongue-tied about life under communism, foreign directors have not. Remarkable dramas and allegories have emerged from Russia (The Burglar), China (To Live, The Sent Down Girl), ex-Yugoslavia (When Father Was Away on Business), and other once-communist nations examining the system's empty promises and wasted years. Indeed, China is particularly rich in prose narratives of personal tragedy, having developed an entire genre of memoir and fiction (the "literature of tears") dealing with the Cultural Revolution. A good deal of this material has been translated for an interested but small English-speaking audience. There is seemingly no end to the horror under Mao, with at least two recent studies–Zheng Yi's 1996 Scarlet Memorial and Jasper Becker's 1997 Hungry Ghosts–addressing the descent, in some regions, into periods of cannibalism.

Of course, the major reconsideration of the costs of revolution to emerge from the intellectual world is France's Black Book of Communism, which argues that communist hands are even bloodier than those of fascists. That such a work has come out of France is only one sign of the revisionary turmoil among that nation's intellectuals. Another is the fate in France of Eric Hobsbawm's 1996 history, The Age of Extremes, written from Hobsbawm's left-of-center but non-Stalinist perspective, which received praise from British and American reviewers, but languished four years before a French publisher released it.

On the other hand, the anti-anti-communism that dominated elite Western culture throughout the Cold War hasn't entirely gone away, either. Just last December, an opera titled Defendants Rosenberg, written by an American expatriate named Ari Benjamin Meyers, debuted in Germany. According to the German press, the work focuses on "the personal tragedy that unfolded as the Rosenbergs' lives were destroyed because of the hysterical anti-communism that ran amok in the United States in the early 1950s." Of course, no one any longer denies that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy. Maybe composer Meyers should shop his libretto around Hollywood.

Charles Paul Freund is a REASON senior editor.