The homo sovieticus

Svetlena Aleksiévich received the Nobel Prize as a journalist, and was the first writer to achieve that award for her books, in which she originally practiced this function. Some time ago I commented on her book on Chernobyl, which seemed to me a model and, now that I have just read it, I would like to talk about that magnificent report that is “The end of Homo Sovietus”. It is a book of nearly seven hundred pages in which, through interviews with different people, the author describes the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time and later, when there was a very large division in the USSR after the that Gorbachev raised a critical voice about what had happened in the time of Lenin and Stalin, and Yeltsin defended a line more directly linked to the beginning of the Revolution.

Svetlena Aleksiévich, to draw this x-ray of the USSR, interviews hundreds of people, from very different situations, throughout that immense country and what she achieves is a quite diverse picture of the different reactions shown among the inhabitants of that complex and diverse nation that is the Soviet Union. There are generals there who commit suicide because they feel that life is not possible without Stalin, and innocents who have spent ten or twenty years in the Gulag from which they are released in as surprising and mysterious a way as their sentence in the Siberian camps. The least that can be said is that nobody would like to spend time in that country that, with the endless brutalities of the first Soviet leaders, was able to defeat the Nazi forces with which Hitler tried to finish him off.

The interviews cover a vast section of Russian society, ranging from proud Stalinist leaders who blaspheme against any attempt to modernize and democratize that society, to army officers and pilots who have been elevated socially by rigid education from that country where there was no private society or the possibility of assembling a personal fortune. What Stalin’s supporters were complaining about was not the extremely severe punishments that were imposed at that time and that revolved around strict social discipline, but rather the indications that the harsh and implacable society that had been built by the pioneers of the revolution, was “degenerating”, that is, becoming an individualistic society, in which money seemed to be the great incentive of the people, following the American model.

The book is quite dramatic, especially when it moves away from the cities and the villages appear, with their peasant inhabitants who had received almost no education, and remained ignorant and marginal to all the attractions of life: banquets, a job of hours and days, and the gigantic distances that separated them from life in the cities, where people lived much better, although many of those interviewed proudly claimed their peasant origins. Undoubtedly, for a country of such contrasts, the regime imposed by Lenin and Stalin was inhuman as well as the only one possible to standardize society within that system that we would call military, if it were not plagued with immense injustices. , that is to say, of the precariousness of a life in which any carelessness or mistake could send a person to Siberia for long years. Perhaps the most painful thing about the book is the number of children that circulate through its pages, always starving, taken from their parents by a system in which Spartan education, according to a supposed model established by Lenin and Stalin, educated millions for serve the State, regardless of family and closest friends.

Svetlena Alexievich’s book leaves her readers baffled and impatient: how can one live in a country where children are taken from their parents and sent to a school from which, on the other hand, they graduate as doctors, or laboratory technicians, or officers of the armed forces, that is to say, of a rise in living standards which, however, costs a great deal to society as a whole and, above all, entails immense suffering. But the truth is that many defend it, they are proud to be “Stalinists” and they hate the new system in which the incentive is money and in which, as a result, society is divided among those who have everything. and those who have nothing. That is, to return to the principles of that society, which illusion and fantasy called revolutionary.

I believe that the system that Svetlena Aleksiévich uses is very fair and presents us with a complex population, subject to great crises, and in which it cannot be guaranteed that everyone will react in the same way. There are square militants who carry Stalinism to its ultimate consequences, including betrayals of their children and friends, and the leaders who favor some while sending others to the front, in conditions in which they will be the privileged victims. But there is a rigidity and intolerance that prevails as this society raises its living standards to the point of defeating a much more integrated country like Germany, but that, in all the towns that these well-dressed and educated people were occupying, They dedicated themselves, first of all, to persecuting the Jews and killing them in merciless bonfires. It is very difficult to pronounce on it.

Surely, the high standards of living that the Soviet Union reached would have been possible without a rigidity that sacrificed the weakest and least related, and these were not only hundreds but thousands of citizens, while privileging select few. thanks to friendship, to the ideological community and, also sometimes, to the simple society of thugs. And the victims, who numbered in the tens of thousands at any given time, harmed in the long run the collectivist system that many – and the pages of the book are decisive testimony to this – rejected with all their might.

I do not think that the countries of Latin America, where there are sometimes such enormous differences as there were in the Soviet Union, would choose a system similar to the one created by Lenin and Stalin, at least in the version that this book gives us. That is to say, an implicit violence that, after squeezing society excessively, raises its standard of living and establishes a system in which no one dies of hunger and everyone has a job. My impression is that, given the choice, Latin Americans would opt for a system that is less violent and not subject to so many injustices, that is, one in which the margin of choice would still be possible, and in which there would not be as many victims as in the system communist. But, without a doubt, something must be done with these gigantic inequalities, which today are the heritage of Latin America, so that they gradually diminish, without the victims being sacrificed in this systematic and brutal way.

Svetlena Alexievich has written a great book, which is bitter to read, but enormously beneficial, in the long run, for her readers.

©Mario Vargas Llosa / Press rights in all languages ​​reserved to Ediciones El País SL 2022

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The homo sovieticus