As Mikhail Gorbachev moves forward in his role as the new Vozhd of the USSR, he must take pride in a unique achievement. In a few years, he has managed to internationalize a Russian word—glasnost—and by its repeated use at home and abroad has dazzled the world with miracles that have yet to materialize. Whatever great reforms he pulls out of his hat, however, liberation of memory is the one which the ruling Soviet ideology cannot tolerate, for the power of memory is the human attribute most dangerous to a totalitarian rulership. For Soviet satraps, the safest and most useful human condition is amnesia. True, there is a certain process of recall which vegetates between real memory and amnesia: It is selective memory by which Homo sovieticus accepts what the party wants remembered.
Soviet man lives constantly racked between memories. He must be prepared to blank out—in an instant—one memory—something he has actually seen with his own eyes or heard with his own ears or read in a newspaper or book—to reregister another memory of a pseudo-event, which he has not seen, read, or heard and which likely never happened. “A” can become “non-A” in a twinkling.
Freedom of memory—the choice to remember or not remember—is perilous to the Politburo and to the Central Committee, because it threatens the structure of The Single Lie which props the Soviet Union within and makes it acceptable beyond its borders as a perfectly normal, everyday nation-state. Freedom of memory demands civil freedoms and a civil society; it is the enemy of comprehensive, redemptive, yet implausible doctrines such as “liberation” and “scientific socialism.”
To ensure the success of The Single Lie, everybody in the USSR from Gorbachev down must believe in it, even when pretending not to. Every Soviet action, every Soviet diplomatic initiative, every treaty they sign, their every statistic, decree, and communiqué are lies. There is only one truth: a successful Soviet citizen must remember not to remember, and his memory must tell him not to have one. What happened yesterday happened tomorrow; what will happen tomorrow took place yesterday.
Now The Single Lie is not an everyday phenomenon or form of hypocrisy or propaganda or “disinformation.” The USSR is the first state since 1917 which, from its founding to this very day, 70 years later, totally depends on The Single Lie for its legitimacy—in contrast with democratic countries which seek theirs through a constitution, written or unwritten. Whereas The Single Lie provides unlimited power for the Politburo, democratic constitutions limit the power of elected officials. The Single Lie means that nothing in the USSR, except The Lie itself, is ever fixed, or permanent. No value has consistency, no fact remains fact, an event can become a nonevent, and defeat a victory. In his broadcast on V-J Day in 1945, Stalin declared: “The defeat of the Russian troops [by the Japanese] in 1904 left a grave imprint on the minds of our people. It was a black stain in the history of our country. Our people were confident and awaited the day when Japan would be routed and this dark blot be wiped out. We men of the older generation have awaited this day for forty years, and now it has come.” No Bolshevik would have said this in 1917. The Bolsheviks had always referred to the Japanese victory approvingly because it had weakened Tsarism; but by 1945 there seemed nothing unnatural about it.
A free memory, individually owned rather than collectivized or nationalized, would question the infallibility of the Party-State which, according to Marxism-Leninism, is an unchallengeable, supra-human institution, created by history. Memory must belong to the Party-State, which rules by memory control, or mnemocracy, and which alone has the right to create history as The Single Lie, and to continuously reorder the truth.
Sometimes the switch is accomplished with alarming speed. Overnight, in September 1932, Stalin first altered the image of Hitler from Fascist monster to heroic ally and then 21 months later, in June 1941, back to the Fascist monster. As World War II was ending, a further miraculous change was affected in the Soviet historiography: the United States, in official rhetoric, became Hitler’s ally along with the “Zionists.” Today, Fred Hechinger in the New York Times (21 January 86) points out that Soviet high school history textbooks apply the term “imperialist,” without distinction, to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, imperial Japan, and the United States. The U.S. role in defeating Fascism is downplayed and distorted and the Japanese are said to have surrendered in response to the 1945 Soviet entry into the war. In his V-E Day anniversary speech, Mikhail Gorbachev minimized Allied military aid to the USSR saying that this assistance was “not as great as they in the West like to say.”
To understand the meaning of the Party-State’s monopoly of memory better, it may be useful to examine the pathology of induced memory loss. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine defines memory as “the retention of learned experiences.” For this retention, according to the accepted medical knowledge, certain ordered mental processes are necessary. First, the perceived experiences must become a part of the brain’s mental activities. This, then, must be followed by the process of “mnemonic integration and retention.” Third comes recall, followed, last, by “replay” of the experience. This is a paradigm of the normal condition when memory belongs to a free individual, a Homo sapiens. In totalitarian society, the pattern is quite different. Memory, by command, becomes “unlearned” and supplanted by “relearned” nonexperiences. Homo sovieticus can never say, “But I remember it differently.” Homo sovieticus may know differently, but may not remember differently. The consequences of such public dissent, i.e., of remembering “differently,” can be severe. Since the USSR is not governed by rule of law, punishment is unpredictable.
To safeguard himself and his family. Homo sovieticus must create for himself a transient historical memory and instill the same failing, with the help of schooling, in his children. For example, according to the New York Times, the Soviet high school history syllabus shows mnemocracy at work: “The teaching of history is given the task of forming in youth a Marxist-Leninist world view, deep ideological convictions, a clear, class-oriented approach to phenomena of social life, Soviet patriotism, loyalty to proletarian internationalism, devotion to the party’s cause, the task of developing a Communist attitude toward work, a feeling of duty and discipline and irreconcilability to bourgeois ideology.” In other words, registering and assimilating unauthorized experience must fail to happen. Yet it is sometimes difficult to create this failure because of circumstances outside total Politburo control: street gossip, things heard accidentally over Radio Liberty or the BBC, conversations with foreign visitors, or overseas travel. Still, the KGB takes care of the street gossip, jamming may hinder the memory-restoring Western broadcasts, conversations with foreigners are discouraged, and travel everywhere is tightly controlled.
What may then happen is that the newly presented material does register but Homo sovieticus cannot retain it for more than a few minutes. Access to such memory is denied because it no longer exists. What he has seen, heard, or read contrary to The Single Lie simply disappears. Only the last and latest officially promulgated memory is true and becomes a will-o-the-wisp Single Truth. The result is a severe perceptual dislocation of space and time. This is followed by an acceptance or creation of “false and fabricated accounts of recent events,” which coincide with the medical definition of confabulation, the concomitant symptom of Korsakoff’s psychosis, defined in Harrison’s as “an amnesic confabulatory psychosis.”
Korsakoff’s psychosis is the behavior norm of Soviet man except, perhaps, for a handful at the top of the nomenklatura. Without memory, there can be no fixed chain of events, or causality, no criteria for examining human behavior, and no possible moral judgment. It becomes impossible and dangerous, even for members of the nomenklatura, to form lasting moral judgments. For Homo sovieticus, everything is de novo.
Public life in the USSR astonishingly resembles the set of pathological symptoms described medically as “confusional states.” Medical authorities define “confusion” as a general term “denoting an incapacity of the patient to think with customary speed and clarity . . . a derangement of the intellectual function, i.e., an inability to learn, remember, calculate, reason abstractly, etc.” Amnesia is defined by them as “loss of the ability to form memories despite an alert state of mind. It presupposes an ability to grasp the problem, to use language normally and to maintain adequate motivation. The failure is mainly one of retention, recall, and reproduction.”
“Dementia,” on the other hand, is “loss of reason, or more particularly, a deterioration of all intellectual or cognitive functions, without clouding or disturbances of perception. Implied in the word is the idea of a gradual enfeeblement of mental powers in a person who formerly possessed a normal mind.” The cure for the Soviet version of Korsakoff’s psychosis is often simple: exile or escape from the USSR. In cases of emigres or defectors, total recall is usually instantaneous. Korsakoff’s psychosis subsumes a memory “deranged out of all proportion to all other components of mentation and behavior.” It can create what is called “retrograde amnesia,” specifically, “an impaired ability to recall events and other information that had been recorded in the mind before the onset of the disease.” It can also create “an impaired ability to acquire new information, i.e., to learn or to form new memories.” This is called “anterograde amnesia.” The victim is said to be “lacking in initiative and spontaneity.” (Anyone who has read V.I, Lenin’s canonical writings, especially What Is to Be Done? knows how violently he warned against “spontaneity.”)
Now there are, from a democratic standpoint, certain disadvantages when a Party-State prevents freedom of memory. For example, there can be no such intellectual discipline as history in the Soviet Union because it could endanger the legitimacy of The Single Lie system. Yegor K. Ligachev, No. 2 man in the Soviet hierarchy is reported by the New York Times (24 March 1987) as saying that Soviet history “should not focus solely on mistakes and disappointments.” Yet, though various historians in nontotalitarian societies interpret the same events differently, they still all agree that they happened. Such minimal agreement, let alone differences of interpretation, is impossible among Soviet historians unless they are permitted to remember a specific event or a specific personality. No Soviet historian could—without permission—publicly remember the very existence of Leon Trotsky, let alone discuss his major contributions to the Russian Revolution. It is not that Trotsky is just another Soviet “un-person”—for Soviet historians, V.I. Lenin is the only revolutionary historical personage they may safely remember. Stalin, on the other hand, pops in and out of official Soviet historical consciousness, like his successors. (There is a quip in Soviet academic circles that a Soviet historian is a man who can predict the past.)
Under the Soviet Single Lie, there is nothing in the Soviet annals and archives about Trotsky anyone may remember or investigate because such files simply don’t exist, except for those Soviet officials who decide when a new “memory” is to be created. Despite protestations and actions of the American Political Science Association, there can be no political science in the Soviet Union—after all, political science from Aristotle to the present is intended to question and empirically test findings, conclusions, theories, and propositions regardless of the authority behind them. Such political science depends on freedom of memory, a state of affairs which cannot exist in a Party-State which has expropriated personal memory.
Almost half a century ago, Soviet Marshal Tukhachevsky and seven Soviet generals were executed at Stalin’s command. On 13 June 1937, all Soviet newspapers published a “command to the Army” signed by Marshal Voroshilov, then war commissar, charging those executed with having been Nazi spies and conspirator-wreckers who had tried to provoke war against the USSR.
In 1958, Tukhachevsky and some of the generals were, at the instigation of Nikita Khrushchev, given a posthumous rehabilitation. (Six years later, in October 1964, Khrushchev himself was given the heave-ho and anathematized as a “harebrained schemer.”) So we have: from one memory— Stalin’s extermination of the Soviet General Staff—to another memory—the rehabilitation of some members of the same staff—to a third memory: the rehabilitation of Stalin himself Who knows what the fourth memory will be?
In Khrushchev’s “secret” anti-Stalin speech of 1956, Stalin was described in language which might have put to shame even some anti-Communist rhetoricians. Khrushchev accused Stalin of mass murder, exterminations, megalomania, torture of even his closest collaborators, failure as war leader, cowardice, hysteria, caprice, and despotism. Such a memory—anti-Stalinist in content but not, of course, anti-Leninist—was permitted only to the top Soviet leadership, since the speech has been published only in the West, though its contents were known to party members. For a while, the new memory was allowed even some lesser personages, like Solzhenitsyn (who, during the so-called thaw, published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). But Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin speech as a part of The Single Lie was no different from Stalin’s volte face about Hitler between 1939 and 1941.
With Khrushchev’s ouster, what little was left of the anti-Stalin memory was replaced with new versions under Khrushchev’s successors, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and now Mikhail Gorbachev. In keeping with their mnemocratic policies, Soviets today act as if Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin speech at the 20th Communist Party Congress had never been heard, because it was never made. The new memory demands the rehabilitation of Stalin.
It is worth examining Gorbachev’s V-E anniversary speech of May 8, 1985, from the standpoint of memory control. Gorbachev blamed “imperialism” and its Munich appeasement policies for World War II. He ignored the shocking Soviet-Nazi collusion which began with the signing of the nonaggression pact of August 1939, which, at the very least, made it possible for Hitler to start the world war. He paid special tribute to Stalin’s command economy, which, he said, had “proved its viability” and “superiority,” while he ignored Stalin’s inhumanities and his 1919-1939 reign of terror.
Then Gorbachev, following the example of previous party leaders, praised Stalin’s role as wartime commander in chief Said Gorbachev:
The gigantic work at the front and in the rear was guided by the Party, its Central Committee and the State Defense Committee headed by the general secretary of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.
According to press reports, this part of Gorbachev’s speech was received with prolonged applause in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, by an audience of 6,000 war veterans, army officers, party members, and workers. These then were 6,000 Soviet citizens who fit the Korsakoff psychosis. They accepted “false and fabricated accounts of recent events,” illustrating the amnesiac confabulatory disorder described earlier. For them it was perfectly normal behavior. That the number of Stalin’s victims is conservatively estimated at 20 million at least (coinciding with the USSR’s total war losses as cited by Gorbachev) was overlooked by both Gorbachev and the Soviet media. As far as Soviet memory is concerned, there were no years of terror during the Stalin era.
On Soviet television a special drama series, Strategy of Victory, recently emphasized Stalin’s wisdom. Forgotten was the de-Stalinization undertaken by Khrushchev, who, for example, in 1961 renamed Stalingrad as Volgograd. Now it may become Stalingrad again because a veterans’ association in Volgograd has asked the Soviet Party Central Committee to restore the city’s earlier name.
In a recent Soviet film, Red Bells (it deals with John Reed, of the Reds fame), Stalin emerges as Lenin’s closest collaborator, which is pure fiction. Stalin is shown urging Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Trotsky to seize the Winter Palace. Says Stalin: “If we do not attack, we shall lose everything.” How true that was. All three did, indeed, lose everything at Stalin’s hands, including their lives. Soviet mnemocracy does not recall such events. But this mnemocratic spirit may be a continuous feature of Russian history. In 1938, the Marquis de Custine described a tragic accident in the Gulf of Finland when a sudden squall sank many boatloads of people sailing from Petersburg to a royal gala at Peterhof. There was no mention of the tragedy in newspapers, it was not discussed—it simply hadn’t happened. As Custine observed:
In Russia history forms part of the domain of the crown; it is the moral property of the prince, just as the people and the land are his material property; it is kept in the storeroom along with the imperial treasures, and only that part of it which the ruler wishes to make known is displayed. The memory of what happened yesterday [the accident on the Gulf of Finland] is the property of the Czar; he alters the annals of the country according to his own good pleasures and dispenses, each day, to his people the historic truths which accord with the fiction of the moment.
Case histories of Soviet memory control are infinite since the story of the Soviet Union is first of all memory control. From this mnemocratic system comes The Single Lie/ Single Truth system which means that everything said, published, broadcast, or otherwise disseminated by the USSR, inside and outside its borders, is simultaneously both a truth and a lie. Nothing held as true today will necessarily be true tomorrow. Moreover, it is assumed it will not be true tomorrow.
Nothing so exemplifies The Single Lie/Single Truth system as the Soviet constitution, whether Stalin’s or Brezhnev’s. It is rare one can say of any text that virtually every word in it is a lie including “and” and “the.” From the constitution’s preamble and chapters I to IX (with the exception of chapter VIII, which, not altogether truthfully, describes the emblem, flag, anthem, and capital of the USSR) every word in it is false, including the famous Article 72 (“Each Union Republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR”).
Alain Besangon, the French historian, says that the Soviet lie “is not a lie. It is a false pretense of a lie, a lying lie, a pseudo lie. In that country everything is false, even the lie”:
[W]hen Brezhnev, after Lenin, declares that the Soviet citizen is the freest in the world, he is not lying. He is basing his statement upon pseudo reality, where words receive a new and very specific meaning. According to that same ideological reality, the Swiss citizen does not enjoy freedom. The opposite of the lie is truth, which is given a different name. Within ordinary reality, the opposite of freedom is slavery. If two people in a conversation agree upon the same word, but not upon the reality to which it refers, that same word will mean two different things. And so the opposite of freedom, in the Soviet sense, is what we call freedom. The opposite of detente is detente. The opposite of the defense of peace is the defense of peace. Contrary to the accepted idea, the Soviet world is characterized not by double-talk but by single-talk/single-talk within duplicate realities. One word, two realities.
The tragedy of the Soviet people (the people of East Europe do not suffer to the same degree from Korsakoff’s syndrome) is that they must, though physically healthy, behave among themselves as victims of Korsakoff’s syndrome. Since they must be pro-Stalin one day, anti-Stalin the next week, pro-Stalin the following month, anti-Stalin a year later and then pro-Stalin still another year thence, there is nothing for them to do but lapse into anterograde amnesia—that is, an impaired ability to acquire new information, to learn, or to form new memories. For example, a geneticist might one day be required to believe in Lysenko and another day in Vavilov, and any mistake in his timing might cost him his career or freedom or even his life. The effects of such a mental state might be described as an acceptance of unlimited restrictions on thought and action since everything might be forbidden in the future or it might already have been forbidden but not publicized and, moreover, be retroactively punishable. Also, some things may be forbidden to some but not to others. The question to be asked, then, is this: If he is behaving like a confabulatory amnesiac every moment of his waking life, can Homo sovieticus be a truly normal human being?
The psychological and even physical consequences of constantly living falsely were once summed up by Boris Pasternak:
The great majority of us are required to live a life of systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune.
While the Korsakoff syndrome may affect millions of people in the USSR, there are tens of thousands of others, primarily intellectuals, living in democratic societies, who seem to be victims of this malady as well. As Alexander Zinoviev has written:
It is the intellectuals who are now the real bearers of the communist tendency in the West, not workers and peasants. The communist system is a kind of paradise for intellectuals. A shabby and dirty paradise, but paradise all the same.
These willing and witting Western political pilgrims see the USSR as an aberrant Utopia, arguing that if the USSR is bad, the U.S. is worse; yet who controls their memory? Nicola Chiaramonte, the Italian political philosopher, once raised this question in Survey: How could a great physicist like Paul Langevin, “who would not have accepted the smallest mathematical or physical proposition without a long series of proofs and counter-checks, when faced with the prosecutor [Andrei] Vishinsky’s charge claiming to have proved Trotsky’s intention to sell the Soviet fatherland to international capitalism, agree without question to support the condemnation of the ‘traitors'”?
What is it that distorts the sense of reality of the moral equivocators, the anti-anti-Communists, the fellow travelers, the Marxist academics and their acolytes, the neutralists, and the Korsakoff neurotics in our pluralistic societies? Or of a fool like Phil Donahue who really believes that the Soviet citizens he put on one of his television shows are free to speak their minds like their American counterparts?
The great peril which endangers world peace and freedom is the Soviet power over its people’s memory. A dictator who was far worse than Hitler, if only because he lived and lasted longer, is being turned into a folk hero by his successors. Can there be genuine peace in freedom when hundreds of millions of Soviet peoples must live degraded by a system of memory control never before seen anywhere?
More than ever before, the Western nations must endeavor to restore and expand the remembrance of things past among the exploited and downtrodden people of the USSR. The Single Lie can only survive in a world of willing or unwilling amnesiacs. Free societies can restore the human balance which The Single Lie/Single Truth system seeks to destroy. But only if they themselves grow militarily strong, remain morally free and united, and refuse to accept every abomination in the name of survival.