The Magazine

The Paranoid State

Suspicion and betrayal and the Soviet way of life.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By JAMES C. BANKS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The paranoia spread deeper and broke stronger bonds than those between managers and workers. Family ties, friendships, and romantic relations were all severed. The court records allow Goldman to give detailed case studies of interrogations and trials: S. Mironov denounces his friend and supervisor after the shop head is tied, perhaps falsely, to “rightists”; Gringauz, a party member, is expelled for helping his accused brother-in-law find work (but only after attempting to save himself by endorsing the party’s view that his brother-in-law was a spy); Aleksandr Somov, head of a steel plant’s party committee, loses his membership for allegedly having an affair with a Polish woman who had been arrested as a “spy.”

The concluding chapter—“A History without Heroes”—is aptly titled:

The party meetings of 1937 and 1938 are long over. Only ghosts now roam the shuttered shops and halls where hundreds of people once gathered to judge their comrades. Party members put central directives into action and thereby created a process driven by its own self-generating dynamic, which devoured victims and perpetrators indiscriminately.

Not until Stalin’s death did the party admit any culpability for encouraging a culture of suspicion. 

The onetime Eastern Bloc still has a long way to go to develop the sustainable institutions of democracy, but the Soviet Union is more than dead: It is beyond resurrection. Vladimir Putin may lament the loss of empire, but few believe that the Soviet Union was a model of statecraft. The totalitarian mind is still a force to be reckoned with, but its ideologies tend to be primitive and inchoate: Sayyid Qutb was no Marx, and Osama bin Laden was no Lenin. 

But this is an important book because it reminds readers that many of totalitarianism’s enablers are not ideologues. Instead, the men and women Wendy Goldman depicts call to mind the psychological profiles outlined in Czeslaw Milosz’s Captive Mind. Writing just after being granted asylum in the West in 1951, Milosz described the people of the Eastern Bloc as a company of perpetual actors:

one does not perform on the theater stage but in the street, office, factory, meeting hall, or even the room one lives in. Such acting .  .  . places a premium upon mental alertness. Before it leaves the lips, every word must be evaluated as to its consequences. A smile that appears at the wrong moment, a glance that is not all it should be can occasion dangerous suspicions and accusations.

James C. Banks is a contributor to the American Interest.