The Magazine

The Morning After

Intellectuals and the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Hollander's discussion suggests that, for many in the West, being true to your early ideals--however deeply flawed--deserves praise and support, while to become disillusioned merits only disdain and hostility. Those who did not have the chance to believe in the workers' paradise were those who actually lived in the midst of "really existing socialism," the reality being so far from the promise that it could not but affect the belief systems of honest intellectuals. Meanwhile, those living in the West enjoyed the benefit of the freedoms of their societies, and the tolerance of those who disagreed with them, and were insulated from the stark reality of life in Communist regimes.

Hollander catalogues a long list of the defectors and the disillusioned, among others, such early defectors as Alexander Orlov and Victor Kravchenko, the latter-day dissident Lev Kopelev, and the onetime high-ranking Soviet official, Alexander Yakovlev. In all their cases, the discrepancy between appearance and reality was too much to handle. These were men of high moral values, whose despair at what they were doing in the system overrode their human desire for material well-being. Others who declined to follow their path knew the truth, but preferred the various perks given to apparatchiks who played the game.

When Hollander shifts his focus to Third World socialism, readers learn how the duplicity and deception of the Communist regimes in Vietnam and China led to brave decisions to resist. In those places, acknowledging the truth meant not only deprivation, in the form of loss of access to special goods, food stores, and homes, but sometimes imprisonment under the harshest of circumstances.

Most interesting is the incredible story of Sidney Rittenberg, born in 1921 and now living the good life, where he serves as a consultant to American corporations that seek to do business with China. An American GI during World War II who served in China and stayed there to join the ranks of Mao's troops, Rittenberg ended up being arrested twice as an American spy.

His first arrest came in 1949, when he was put into prison and subject to
"re-education" until 1955, when he was released and told his arrest had been a mistake. Rather than leave and return home, his release reaffirmed Rittenberg's belief in communism, and he proceeded to rise in the ranks of Mao's hierarchy, becoming a top propagandist for the regime with a good home, car, and driver.

His single goal was to prove himself Redder than Red, to show the Chinese that he was a loyal Communist. It didn't work. Supporting both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg soon found himself one of its chief victims. In 1968, he was arrested in the middle of the night, and thrown into solitary confinement for 10 long years, only to be rehabilitated and released after Mao's death. A quintessential true believer, Rittenberg finally acknowledged that power had corrupted his beloved Chinese Communists. But history has its ironies. In Rittenberg's own words, he now makes a lot of money as "a sage and guide to the capitalist class," living in "relative splendor" in a beautiful home with a hot tub and gazebo in Seattle's finest neighborhood.

In Cuba and Nicaragua, Hollander tells the story of dissidents like Carlos Franqui and Heberto Padilla, the high-ranking defector Rafael del Pino, and the Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli, all of whom began by believing the myth of revolution, quickly learned that the reality was political repression enforced by the Communist leadership, and who saw firsthand that men like Fidel Castro were not selfless saints but megalomaniacal leaders who brooked no dissent and demanded total control over all aspects of personal and social life.

Turning to America and the West, Hollander produces the most satisfying section of his study. One might assume that the West would have had many more people who were disillusioned than those who were born into Communist states and for whom rejection of the system bore a greater price. But precisely because they lived in countries like the United States or Britain, the opposite was true: Living in prosperous democracies allowed these true believers to hold onto their illusions, given that the reality of "really existing socialism" existed only in their own minds.