In the run-up to Theresa May’s speech on Brexit in Florence, there was one of those minor kerfuffles that tell us in passing some odd little truth about the modern world and how we are governed. It began as a standard political correspondent’s report of a change in Whitehall and its significance: The senior civil servant in the Department for Exiting the European Union, or DEXEU, one Olly Robbins, had left the ministry to become the full-time adviser on Brexit to the prime minister in Downing Street.
“Full time”? Well, Mr. Robbins was already splitting his time between DEXEU and Number 10. His departure was therefore written up as a sign that DEXEU and its secretary of state, David Davis, were losing influence on the direction of Brexit policy and going down a few rungs in the Whitehall pecking order. One down for Davis, it appeared.
Next day, however, the departure of Robbins suddenly looked less embarrassing to Davis. Maybe it had even given him a modest fillip or at least saved him from a real embarrassment. For the conservative blogger Guido Fawkes had uncovered an article that Robbins had written in the 1990s, when he was a student at Oxford, praising the Soviet Union and expressing some regret that it had collapsed a few years before.
Naturally, he did so in a properly cautious and measured way: “I would never disagree that some of the deeds done in the name of Communism were evil, but it is as well to look at the era’s aims and achievements.”
Those evil deeds, incidentally, include the forced famine in Ukraine that murdered millions in a particularly horrible fashion; starting the Second World War jointly with Hitler by agreeing in the Nazi–Soviet Pact to invade Poland and the Baltic states; the Gulag in which millions more perished; and much more. So it’s good that he’s on the record disapproving of them.
That done, Robbins got down to listing the Soviet achievements. Here his judgments are less armored against criticism. Let’s go down an abbreviated list:
The truth of the matter is that the West never confronted the radical evil of Communism as it confronted that of Nazism. Both Left and Right had their reasons for forgetting the past as Communism imploded in front of them: The Right wanted a smooth diplomatic resolution of the Cold War and therefore avoided anything that smacked of Nuremberg, crimes against humanity, justice, or, as the smooth diplomatic evasion had it, Western “triumphalism.” The Left needed to throw a cloak over its own underlying sympathy and occasional support for the Soviet experiment and over the family resemblances between democratic socialism and “really existing socialism.”
Coverage of the discovery of the mass graves in the early 1990s, for instance, was sketchy, perfunctory and quickly consigned to Orwell’s memory hole. And as memories fade further, so there is a greater willingness to look on the brighter side of totalitarianism. A recent series in the New York Times has treated Communism as — yes, you guessed it — a noble experiment conducted in less than ideal conditions. With the recent upsurge of quasi-revolutionary socialist politics in Britain, the Labour party now boasts leaders who have a relatively rosy view of the 1917 Revolution. Jeremy Corbyn’s senior aide, Seamus Milne, is on record as giving a low estimate that the USSR executed 799,455 people and going on to conclude: “For all its brutalities and failures, Communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialization, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality.” Celebrations of the two 1917 Revolutions in London, now Londongrad as much as Londonistan, have an ambiguous flavor combining modernist sculptures, concerts of Russian revolutionary music, and special vodka cocktails with lectures on Bolshevism by the remaining true believers. It’s even possible that the celebrations in London and other European capitals will be more positive than those in Russia. “It is going to be very interesting to see how the official narrative explains the events of 1917,” Gleb Pavlovsky, one of Putin’s former “political technologists,” told the Guardian. “It will be portrayed simultaneously as a great event and a terrible tragedy.”
And the victims of Communism? They risk being airbrushed out of history again in much the same way as the Bolshevik leaders whom Stalin purged were “non-personed” out of earlier photographs. The mass murders carried out by Communist regimes — around the world but especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe — have caused only a handful of Communist leaders in the Soviet bloc (and some small fry such as border guards who shot escapers) to face punishment for committing or assisting one of the greatest crimes in human history. Most former apparatchiks live far better lives today than those of the people they once misgoverned and oppressed. And their sympathizers in the West, mostly but not entirely on the left, seek to smother any interest in this crime by, among other tactics, arguing that those raising it are prompted by a desire to “relativize the Holocaust.” Of course, neither the Holocaust nor the Gulag should be cited to relativize the other; each is a unique historical crime; but both deserve to be remembered and their victims mourned.