Red century

The Brooklyn-born playwright and critic Lionel Abel, who cut his political teeth in left-wing circles in Greenwich Village in the 1930s, remarked in his memoirs that during the Depression years, New York City “went to Russia and spent most of the decade there.” Leaving aside Mr. Abel’s taste for the mordant, he had a point.

For a few decades — from the 1930s until Communism’s demise as an effective political force in the 1950s — New York City was the one place where American communists came close to enjoying the status of a mass movement. Party members could live in a milieu where co-workers, neighbors and the family dentist were fellow Communists; they bought life insurance policies (excellent value for money) from party-controlled fraternal organizations; they could even spend their evenings out in night clubs run by Communist sympathizers (like the ironically named Café Society on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, a showcase for up-and-coming black performers like Billie Holliday).…  Seguir leyendo »

What Punk Rock Meant to Communist Yugoslavia

In Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, during the 1984 Winter Olympics, Elvis J. Kurtovic and his Meteors were performing a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” in a stifling little basement hall before 300 wild punk rock fans. But it wasn’t Dylan’s rendition they were playing, it was their own, a deliberate extension that ostensibly was about Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of Britain. But actually, Elvis J. Kurtovic and his Meteors were singing about — in an extremely brutal way that should have been unacceptable to the Communist authorities — Yugoslavia’s own prime minister, Milka Planinc.

It was a brilliant trading of identities that mocked the Yugoslav regime and its ideology while playing with the form and content of a three-minute punk song.…  Seguir leyendo »

I am a grandchild of the revolution. My grandfather, Anatoly Alexandrov, was a Communist who spent his life building the Soviet Union. He traveled a path from working as an unskilled laborer at a locomotive assembly plant in Rostov-on-Don, a large industrial city in southern Russia, to becoming the head of military transportations for the strategic North Caucasian Railroad.

When war with Germany came, he found himself responsible for the evacuation of plants and factories from the rapidly collapsing front lines. Saving Soviet industrial capacity turned out to be one of the few success stories in the otherwise disastrous first months of the war.…  Seguir leyendo »

The Cold War as a system of states ended on a cold and gray December day in Moscow in 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Soviet Union out of existence. Communism itself, in its Marxist-Leninist form, had ceased to exist as a practical ideal for how to organize society.

“If I had to do it over again, I would not even be a Communist,” Bulgaria’s deposed Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, had said the year before. “And if Lenin were alive today, he would say the same thing. I must now admit that we started from the wrong basis, from the wrong premise.…  Seguir leyendo »

Fifty years ago this weekend broke out what arguably remains the most violent and most traumatic incident in the city’s history since World War II. On May 6, 1967, a labor dispute at a factory producing plastic flowers in the district of Kowloon triggered an eight-month crisis that killed 51 people and injured 832, and momentarily brought the Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong.

Both internal and external factors contributed to the crisis. The policies of the British colonial government had heightened disparities between the bourgeois and the working class, and the poor faced even greater poverty after an influx of refugees fleeing communist China.…  Seguir leyendo »

“¡Hurra! ¡Hurra! ¡Hurra!”. Recuerdo vívidamente el fuerte sonido emitido por los serios soldados en uniforme gris al escuchar el saludo de su comandante: “¡Felicidades por el 70 aniversario de la Gran Revolución Socialista de Octubre!”.

Como estudiante de intercambio en Moscú en 1987, había asistido a la calle Gorky esa fría mañana de noviembre para ver el desfile militar en su camino hacia la Plaza Roja. Una fila de dignatarios soviéticos y extranjeros reunidos presidía mientras los jóvenes soldados rendían tributo en el Mausoleo de Lenin. Este aparentemente impresionante despliegue buscaba mostrar la perdurable energía revolucionaria del comunismo y su alcance internacional.…  Seguir leyendo »

In the summer of 1990, at a fulcrum moment when his country was tipping from reform to dissolution, Mikhail S. Gorbachev spoke to Time magazine and declared, “I detest lies.” It was a revolutionary statement only because it came from the mouth of a Soviet leader.

On the surface, he was simply embracing his own policy of glasnost, the new openness introduced alongside perestroika, the restructuring of the Soviet Union’s command economy that was meant to rescue the country from geopolitical free-fall. Mr. Gorbachev was wagering that truthful and unfettered expression — a press able to criticize and investigate, history books without redacted names, and honest, accountable government — just might save the creaking edifice of Communist rule.…  Seguir leyendo »

Red century. A hundred years after the Russian Revolution, can a phoenix rise from the ash heap of history?

What was Vladimir Lenin thinking on the long journey to Petrograd’s Finland Station in 1917?

Like everyone else, he had been taken by surprise at the speed with which the February Revolution had succeeded. As he traveled from Zurich across Europe to Russia, on board a sealed train courtesy of Germany’s kaiser, he must have reflected that this was an opportunity not to be missed.

That the weak liberal parties dominated the new government was to be expected. What worried him were the reports he was receiving that his own Bolsheviks were vacillating over the way forward.…  Seguir leyendo »

Red century. A hundred years after the Russian Revolution, can a phoenix rise from the ash heap of history?

Vacant offices. Barren corridors. The hush of work not being done settles across the capital city, a silence of memos untyped, papers unpushed, file cabinets sealed shut. The machine of state is not in use. This is not Washington today; it is Petrograd, Russia, 100 years earlier, where after the Bolsheviks seized power in late October, the bureaucrats of the Russian state — tens of thousands of them — locked their desks and pocketed the keys on their way out the door.…  Seguir leyendo »

Red century. A hundred years after the Russian Revolution, can a phoenix rise from the ash heap of history?

After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, the Soviet state became a beacon of hope for the left, and Moscow a place for pilgrimage. It was four decades before the magic faded, and the world is still waiting for something to replace it.

It’s easy to see the original appeal. In 1917, men were dying like flies on the blood-soaked fields of France and Belgium. Many of them were working men who made the ultimate sacrifice for countries where they could not vote, and whose deaths left their families in penury while the rich got richer.…  Seguir leyendo »

Red century. A hundred years after the Russian Revolution, can a phoenix rise from the ash heap of history?

“Ura! Ura! Ura!” I vividly remember the wall of sound as stern, gray-uniformed soldiers met their commander’s greeting: “Congratulations on the 70th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution!”

An exchange student in Moscow in 1987, I had traveled to Gorky Street on that crisp November morning to see the military parade making its way to Red Square. A row of assembled Soviet and foreign dignitaries presided as the young servicemen paid homage at Lenin’s Mausoleum. This impressive-seeming display was to showcase the enduring revolutionary energy of Communism and its global reach.…  Seguir leyendo »