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Moscow, 1937 by Karl Schlogel
a book report by Miracle Jones
Oh man, the world is a horrible place. It is basically a Megadeth t-shirt made of spiders covering an oozing harvest of boils that are slowly growing digestive organs and that will eventually pop, dropping sharp little vampire teeth, and eating all of us alive. This is the world. This is what soil and the sky looks like to me. To me, rainbows are carcinogenic death rays that are beautiful reminders of god’s eternal pact: you are being watched by a higher intelligence, someday you will be killed, and you will never know why.
Which brings me to Moscow, 1937 by Karl Schlogel, which is about 700 pages long, is available from Polity press, and is translated from the original German! It is great. There is no ebook version, so NO MATTER WHAT, you must carry this book around with you on the train and look like a glorious asshole. This is a book that says: “I have many other books. This is merely one of them.” The name suggests that you might also own a book called Moscow, 1936 or Moscow, 1953 or a book called Luxembourg, 1937.
I decided that this is an important book to read for practical reasons. We are currently entering a total surveillance society where the government basically has a twisted hand in every decision that we make, and, thanks to the internet, the whole world is quickly becoming one big locked down totalitarian city. Lots of people have conflicting opinions about this. I think it is kind of neat: at the very least, it is interesting. Imagine having to be a pioneer in 1870’s Nebraska or something.
Personally, I want to know how to get by inside this new world and thrive. I don’t want to be Stalin but I do want to be Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, one of the only writers who was not taken to the Lubianka and shot to death (just to make sure), mainly because Stalin thought he was pretty charming. Also, he could always point to Bulgakov and say: “SEE I AM NOT SO BAD. THAT GUY IS STILL ALIVE AND HE SAYS TERRIBLE THINGS.” I want to be that guy. An example of the occasional benevolence of our evil masters.
Every day in America 2013, there are new show trials which are designed to teach us about the contours of our new millennial society. Zimmerman, Bradley Manning, etc. Julian Assange describes what the world looks like now in his book Cypherpunks:
an extremely confining, homogenized, postmodern transnational totalitarian structure with incredible complexity, absurdities and debasements, and within that incredible complexity a space where only the smart rats can go […] All communications will be surveilled, permanently recorded, permanently tracked, each individual in all their interactions permanently identified as that individual to this new Establishment, from birth to death […]the only people who will be able to keep the freedom that we had, say, twenty years ago,,,are those who are highly educated in the internals of this system…it will only be a high-tech rebel elite that is free, these clever rats running around the opera house.
Assange advocates mass cryptography as the solution to this alarming state of affairs. Cryptography is kind of like locks on your doors. A government that wants to make locks illegal is a government that wants to hang out in your bedroom. Locks don’t prevent people from breaking into your house: but they do let people know that you would rather that they that didn’t. It’s called a “social contract.” It isn’t a real contract, but it is the amorphous philosophical blob that powerful people must deal with when they want to build empires and torture people in garages in Saudi Arabia. It’s like how when you reach out to shake somebody’s hand, you don’t ALWAYS expect them to grab your wrist instead and break all of your fingers. But if that is how it is going to be now, it is important to know about it so you can make the switch and only do high-fives.
If you want to be able to leave your house every day with a spring in your step, fuck who you want to fuck, wage asymmetrical warfare against evil corporations, believe in cryptography as a human right, believe in international collectivism, engage in small crimes like stealing movies or dealing drugs, and not worry about getting killed by a robot from space, then it is time to admit that these days, we all live in Moscow, 1937: a pretty swinging place with lots of opportunities, if you know the rules! It doesn’t have to be so bad, but the first step is knowing where you are and what is happening.
So, I read this book as sort of a primer on “HOW TO SURVIVE IN A TOTALITARIAN REGIME WHEN THE KAKASHA HITS THE VENTILYATOR,” and to that end, I heartily recommend it. There are chapters on Soviet cinema, soviet Jazz, soviet architecture, the purges, what America looked like to Young Pioneers, Soviet science, and profiles on some of the million or so human beings who were killed right before Nazi Germany invaded Russia and made Stalin’s purges look like freeze tag.
Stalin was the luckiest psychopath in history. He was the fox who stole the chickens from the henhouse right before the farm was utterly deleted from the time-space continuum by time-traveling ninjas.
Political purges are fascinating. I have to tell you: many of you are not going to make it. You have watched too much of the wrong kind of internet porn, you have strange ideas about privacy, your facebook posts are too shrill, too explicitly political, too unambiguous. You are used to yelling whatever you want at your television. You are not used to your television recording what you say and filing it away for later, when it becomes useful to destroy you.
I intend to survive, personally. No offense: but fuck the lot of you. It’s like the joke about the two people in the woods who are suddenly attacked by a bear. One of them starts lacing up her shoes. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” asks her friend. “YOU CANNOT OUTRUN A BEAR.” “I don’t have to outrun a bear,” she says, “I just have to outrun YOU.”
I’m not going to tell you everything I learned reading Moscow, 1937. I am going to keep much of it to myself, hoarding it for future reference, as a weapon against all of you in the future. But here are a few tips. You can choose to believe me, or you may also decide that everything here is disinformation that I am spreading to maintain my comparative advantage. LET THE FUTURE BEGIN:
Rule 1: Get rid of your real name. Stalin was not his real name. Stalin means “dude who is made of steel.” Molotov, head of the Politburo, was not his real name. Molotov means “dude who is good at hammering the shit out of shit.” Gorky, the most famous writer of the Revolution, did not use his real name. “Gorky” means bitter, and his full name, Maxim Gorky, means “really really bitter.” King Lemonface! “Trotsky” was not his real name, either. He took the last name of one of his jailers. For a pretty damn good long while, Russia was run by people with internet chat room names that they chose in basically ten seconds. Why? IF YOU MAKE YOUR FAMILY LOOK BAD IN PUBLIC, THEY WILL BE THE FIRST PEOPLE TO SELL YOUR ASS OUT.
Rule 2: Go for less, not more. It seems like it would be a good idea to climb to the top in a totalitarian regime, right? It seems like what you want is the ability to dispense power, have your say, and do whatever you want. No. There is only one person at the top, and unless you are him or her, you are screwed. The higher up you are without being at the top, the worse it gets. This puts you inside a real “pressure cooker” (WHAT’S UP, NSA! YOU ARE DOING GREAT WORK!). People below you want your job, because they are ambitious and naïve, people above you are afraid that you are coming after them. Both people will be trying to kill you all the time. DOWNARD MOBILITY IS THE ANSWER. Hell yes, you are willing to take a pay cut and move to the Midwest. Hell yes, you want the smaller apartment, the shittier office. The ideal job in a totalitarian regime is the job that only one person is willing to do (you!) but that is also very bad, like the person who scrapes the failed cosmonauts out of the experimental rocket.
Rule 3: Don’t do anything brave, heroic, or for the good of humanity. The day that your Google result is higher than the Leader or the Party is the day you die.
Rule 4: If you absolutely must do science, pick a science that benefits the military. Also, you should probably try to make sure anybody else who knows stuff that you know is a foreigner that can’t be trusted. The best way to do this is to pick some science shit that ONLY foreigners know and copy all their notes and just wait. Your time will come.
Rule 5: If you absolutely must write novels, for God’s sake, don’t publish them! If you absolutely must publish them, try to make the current political leader, or anybody who even vaguely resembles the current political leader, TERRIFYING, not ridiculous. Also, try to only publish in a different language.
Rule 6: If you fuck up, if you really fuck up and get caught, PUBLICALLY CONFESS YOUR CRIMES IN AS SILLY AND MEMORABLE A WAY AS POSSIBLE. Do not go away with the nice men in suits to privately talk about the military secrets they “found” on your computer. Fucking tell the world all the terrible shit you have done, while making lots of fun jokes. Then, you have called their bluff and all they can really do is send you to prison for the rest of your life instead of making you disappear forever in the night. Everyone wants to know what happened to the blubbering crazy person who was so hilarious for ten minutes in that YouTube video. The government cannot say that person doesn’t exist anymore. The best they can do is exile you and then icepick you in the head later, if they even remember.
Rule 7: Whoever controls the doctors controls life and death. One of the very best ways to assassinate somebody is to get them a little sick, not sick enough that they die, but sick enough so that they have to be under a doctor’s care. Sick enough that everybody gets really used to the idea that they could die at any moment and that this would not be a weird thing. If you aren’t already a doctor or married to one, now is the time to start collecting blackmail information on doctors you know for later, when you need antibiotics or insulin.
Nobody remembers Moscow 1937 very fondly. But that’s mainly because there aren’t a lot of Russian human beings who survived that decade to do much remembering. And, unlike the Nazis who were very OCD about their genocide, Stalin’s purges were more like one big crazy death fiesta. It was a big drunk orgy, where later nobody remembers who slept with who, except by “sleeping with” I mean murdered in a pit.
And then, of course, came World War 2. First some fun facts:
American casualties in World War 2. About 400,000 military casualties, a little less than Yugoslavia.
Russian casualties in World War 2. About 27 million. That is three times as many casualties as Germany, the country who lost the war, the country that was not nuked by us at the end of it. Whole cities were wiped out in Russia. Big cities. Whole genomes.
One of the most extremely excellent PR wins for the West about World War 2 is the fact that it is even called World War 2 and not called: the Russian-German War. World War 2 was the time that the Soviet Union saved the world from the Nazis, mostly without weapons, mostly by absorbing bullets with their bodies faster than the Germans could manufacture them.
Soviet historians were of the opinion that Hitler became so powerful in the first place because the capitalists in the West saw him as their best bet for stopping the spread of Communism. These capitalists: presidents, kings, and heads of corporations, were willing to overlook Hitler’s insanity because he was all about God and country and responsibility and Volkswagen and Bertelsmann and European Union.
Unfortunately, he was also all about ethnic cleansing and death magic and carpetbombing England. A lot of the members of the American Ivy League had British relatives, and so shit got real.
So, we empowered a different psychopath to deal with the first psychopath. Hilariously, the second psychopath was the same psychopath we were trying to stop with the first psychopath! We didn’t trust Stalin, but we called him Uncle Joe and gave him Time’s “Person of the Year” award twice, and we started making lots of guns and jeeps for him, and he got the job done.
Then, when the war was over, in order to send a message to good old Uncle Joe, we melted a bunch of Japanese civilians with an experimental bomb and sent him REALLY DETAILED POLAROIDS. Actually, he didn’t really get the message, so his best friends Beria and Kruschkev murdered him with rat poison, everybody had a good laugh, and then we invented the internet, and they invented weaponized derivatives, and then the global economy collapsed, and then it became illegal to have strong opinions about Islam, and then the NSA.
After the war, the Russians were extremely afraid that we would leave many of the Nazis in power instead of cutting their throats in a ditch. The final German maneuvers were all just attempts to be captured by the Americans instead of the Russians.
In fact, the Russian James Bond is this guy Stierlitz, made famous by a show called “Seventeen Moments of Spring.”
He is a Russian spy in the bunker with Hitler who is also a member of the Nazi High Command. His entire mission is to sabotage peace talks between the United States and Germany so that the Nazis don’t get away with the Final Solution, giving the Russians time to dismantle Hitler’s Fascist empire before the West can buy into it.
It is worth watching the series, if only because the novels are Putin’s favorite books. We think we are the good guys when it came to World War 2, but to the Russians, the score is 27 to .4.
I know Americans are good people. We are a bunch of soft-hearted lovable hippies who invented hip-hop, and video games, and plush toys, and weed, and disco, and 30 Rock, and Community, and real football, and Madonna. But we are just as capable of evil as everybody else is capable of good. I could go on and on about the things I think are cool about the Soviet Union: free universal health care, rampant science and atheism, equal rights and equal pay for women, abortion rights, great science-fiction.
But the dream of universal communism became a nightmare a thousand times faster than the dream of universal democracy became today’s civil rights nightmare. And therefore, though the seeds are the same, the end result could be different, theoretically.
Moscow, 1937 teaches us that life goes on as usual, even in the midst of great catastrophe, but it also teaches that great catastrophe can look a lot like life going on as usual. The world is a terrible place. Rainbows. Boils with sausage-like digestive tracts attached to them. Megadeth.
But we don’t live and die in the world. We live and die in our heads. We live and die making decisions as individuals that change the story of our life, in real-time, day by day, according to insane laws of our own devising. A higher intelligence is always watching, whether you believe that higher intelligence to be Stalin, Jesus, Spock, Krishna, or your friends who will tell your story when you are gone.
On 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, detected a nuclear missile entering Soviet airspace, seemingly fired from the United States. He decided it was a computer malfunction, and he didn’t notify his superiors, which was an act of pretty severe treason. Then, after midnight, he detected four more missiles headed for Russia.
He did nothing. He sat there, knowing that if he told anybody, the Russian response would be an immediate counterattack and millions of lives would be lost, maybe every life on planet earth.
Obviously, the missiles were not real. But he didn’t know that. They certainly seemed real. But he didn’t tell anyone. He made his decision and decided to live with the consequences. To be the person who didn’t start the war. Why? Who knows? The Beatles, maybe.
Only an individual can make a decision like that. A computer can’t do it; a room full of people can’t do it. Only an individual can absorb all that panic, all that guilt, all that fear, and turn it into something like goodness, or at least into a great big “fuck you” to the State and all that it represents.
The last rule of surviving a totalitarian regime: never forget that you are an individual. Even when it isn’t true anymore.