‘I’m Still Waiting for Someone to Come up with Communism 2.0’

Posted on in Governance Debates

TheTyee.ca – Culture – Stan Persky, author of ‘Post-Communist Stories,’ talks to The Tyee.
15 Nov 2014.   By Tom Sandborn

Author Persky: ‘The failure of communism (or Stalinism, or Soviet-style communism, if you prefer) raises the profoundest questions for a socialist like me.’

[Editor’s note: As you’ve no doubt been reminded this week, the Berlin Wall fell just about 25 years ago, ushering in an era that philosopher and writer Stan Persky, who splits his time between Vancouver and Berlin, reflects upon in his new book Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires. An excerpt runs today on The Tyee. And Persky’s old friend Tom Sandborn caught up with him to have the conversation below.]

Tyee: This book is based on your 1995 release Then We Take Berlin. Although you have added lots of new material reflecting your experiences and observations in Eastern Europe over the quarter century since the Wall fell and revised and updated the material that first appeared in 1995, you must have had a reason to revisit your earlier work rather than write an entirely new text. Tell us about the process that led to this book’s creation.

Stan Persky: The obvious reason for putting together a book of both new and revised writings about post-communist Europe is that this year is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the emblematic image of the Cold War. I was worried that people wouldn’t remember what had happened.

Many of the students I teach in university today have never heard of the events of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe. Many of them have never heard of the Soviet Union, whose dissolution occurred in 1991, shortly before they were born. In fact, many of them have never even heard of communism.

It turns out that 2014 is a year of many historic anniversaries. In addition to being the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, it’s also the 25th anniversary of the popular uprising in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China that was crushed by the Chinese Communist Party’s army, and then erased from people’s memories by methods described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It’s also the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I in 1914, and the 75th anniversary of the joint Soviet-Nazi attack on Poland that began World War II in 1939. And, for those keeping track of such things, it’s the quarter-century mark for the introduction of the World Wide Web, the now-ubiquitous www.whatever that takes us everywhere and nowhere. As someone who writes “for the record,” I see it as part of my job to prevent forgetting, and to not only remind fellow citizens of what happened in our past, but to try and figure out what it meant so that we won’t be doomed to repeat our historical mistakes.

Second, as a writer, I want to show the connections between the past and the present. By coincidence, 2014 also is the year in which the majority of the people of Ukraine overthrew their corrupt, Russian-dominated government in order to try to establish a society that’s moving closer to the European Union, the rule of law, and a decent standard of living, and away from the influence of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian Russia.

I happened to be in Prague for the May Day weekend this year, and while I was sitting in the coffeehouse of the Lucerna Palace, the building where much of the Czechoslovakian “Velvet Revolution” of November 1989 unfolded, I felt the urge to again say something about what I had seen in Europe 25 years ago, and how it connected to contemporary events, like those in Ukraine.

The aspirations of Ukrainians, especially the younger, college-educated segment of the population, are quite similar to the hopes of many other Europeans in 1989, who overthrew communist regimes. Further, the aspirations of young Ukrainians who gathered in the Maidan, the main square of Kiev, are not that different from the dreams of young people who demonstrated in recent years in the main gathering places of Cairo, Tehran, Istanbul, and this year, in the streets of Hong Kong.

Finally, I had a personal writer’s reason for wanting to not only write new material, but to revisit and try to improve my earlier writing. I’ve never been entirely satisfied by the older versions of my writing about the fall of communism. At the time, I was experimenting with the genre of political travelogue. I thought the typical narrators of such books tended to be invisible ciphers, and I wanted a storyteller (i.e., myself) who would be a real person in the making of such stories, someone with his own thoughts and desires. At that moment, it made a certain kind of sense to juxtapose the events of 1989 in Europe with my own adventures, especially since my perspective emphasized a gay sensibility at a time when the AIDS crisis was at its height.

But looking at my writing retrospectively, while I still admire my notion about narrators and politics, it seemed to me that it didn’t quite work because the stories simply had too much of me, too much of my interests and desires, just TMI about me, to the point where it was getting in the way of the main subject, the events of 1989. So, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall presented an opportunity to try to ”get it right” this time.

Tyee: You are obviously intrigued by Eastern European politics, literature and culture. Your first book about the region that was then made up of Soviet satellite states, At The Lenin Shipyard, was published in 1981. What is it about the region and its culture that has fascinated you so? What are the most significant changes you have seen on your many return visits- economic, political and literary? And which of the writers who emerged during and after Soviet domination in that region are the most important to you?

SP: Being in Gdansk, Poland in 1981, it was clear that communism had failed, and the real workers at the Lenin shipyard and elsewhere who formed the Solidarity movement had once and for all rejected the communist form of the ”workers’ state” as oppressive and authoritarian. That was a pivotal moment for me, as a socialist leftist, in my political education.

Ever since then, I’ve studied European political developments. All of Europe is the poignant site of dreams and horrors: the dream of human flourishing that was once the goal of communism; the Nazi terror that slaughtered six million Jews and many millions of others; the social-democratic successes in countries that stringently regulated the capitalist market while ensuring an educated, democratic public realm; and the recurrent and lengthy struggles in places like Albania, former Yugoslavia, and today, Ukraine.

From the liberty, equality, fraternity of the French Revolution to the depths of evil under Hitler and Stalin, to the present uncertainties of politics and ecology, the region exerts a remarkable fascination. The failure of communism (or Stalinism, or Soviet-style communism, if you prefer) raises the profoundest questions for a socialist like me.

Tyee: In your haunting chapter “The Dead at Vilnius,” you record your visit to Lithuania, the Baltic state where your father was born (or perhaps not, given the ongoing family debate about that and many other points you remember fondly in the opening of that chapter). In the chapter, you write about the murderous Nazi impact on Vilnius and Lithuania. Your thoughts about how the Holocaust shaped the history of the Eastern European states in what the historian Timothy Snyder has memorably dubbed the Bloodlands?

SP: As a boy in Chicago, where I was born into a Jewish family from Eastern Europe and Russia, I grew up with stories of relatives who had perished in the Holocaust or who had miraculously escaped on ”the last boat” out of Europe, so I entered a world where I already had a personal stake in history.

A half-century later, the woman who guided me around Vilnius, after we visited the forest outside the city where thousands of Jews had been shot to death and dumped into unmarked mass graves, wondered aloud, ”But why did they hate the Jews so much?” That almost unanswerable puzzle remains with us today, not only in anti-Semitism but in ethnic hatred and discrimination against women and others.

Maybe one day after global warming destroys much of life on Earth, someone will ask, ”But why did humans hate the Earth so much?”

These are the mysteries of human being that remain with us. Even today, you can find open, irrational hatred of Jews and other minorities in countries from ultra-rightwing Hungary, to peaceful Poland, to a half-dozen other European societies that have never come to terms with their murderous, fascist pasts. I often think that the only European country that actually learned something from World War II is Germany itself, the most consciously anti-fascist nation on the continent.

Tyee: Your book is called Post-Communist Stories. It’s your thoughts about how Marxist theory and Soviet practise affected the region, and how that background has affected Eastern Europe during its re-integration into the world capitalist economy. One of the Tyee’s unreconstructed Marxist friends here in town still has a button that declares “I Miss Brezhnev.” Do you?

Stan Persky: No, I don’t miss Stalin, Brezhnev, or the rest of the Soviet nightmare. Though I don’t even miss Trotsky, historically speaking. I would have preferred him to Stalin. In the present, I certainly don’t need any more of Vladimir Putin, although some of my ultra-leftist acquaintances, incredibly enough, supported him and parroted his propaganda during recent events in Ukraine. Those ulta-leftists would probably have done better to join Scientology rather than the leftist cult groups that many of them still long for. I do regret that Mikhail Gorbachev is something of a forgotten figure, since he was one of the crucial figures in ending Soviet communism.

Looking back at the events symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, the record is mixed. Some of the countries that emerged from Soviet communism have become ”normal” democratic capitalist nations, with all the freedoms and problems of democratic capitalism. Others, like Hungary, have slithered back toward a fascist, irredentist past. Others, like Poland, are still engaged in a struggle between democracy and the authoritarianism of the Catholic church. As one of the characters in my non-fiction stories says, ”I am glad to have seen the end of Communism.” But I’m also troubled in many cases by what has succeeded Soviet communism.

What I miss is the dream of communism, one of the great dreams of the 2oth century, one that never came into existence, except as a cruel parody. It’s clear that global capitalism, while it has produced a relatively rich material life for many Canadians, is not the solution to our search for a meaningful life.

Naomi Klein’s recent book, This Changes Everything, details capitalism’s role in destroying the environment. Even beyond that, it has produced a culture that reproduces ignorance and drugs people with distractions, trivia and ”entertainment.” There ought to be another, better world possible, with a fairer economic system, one that doesn’t dominate all our values. While wrestling with iPhone 6, Windows 10, and www 3, I’m still waiting for someone to come up with communism 2.0.

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