Frequent readers of NSAEN might be acquainted with the book reviews I have been contributing for several years now. These reviews concern mostly, though not exclusively, older works. But this time, at the risk of seeming immodest, I would like to say a few things about a recently published novel that I wrote. It’s called Stalinland. What follows will not be a review, of course, only some comments on the background of the book’s composition.
Going back decades, I have been haunted by the fact that most people possess at least an adequate understanding of Hitler and the Nazi evil, but little or no understanding of Stalin and the Communist evil. Why is this so? Is it because Stalin and the Communists, though bad, were not as bad as the Nazis? While I would never argue that the Communists were worse than the Nazis, I do not hesitate to say that they were every bit as awful, oppressive and murderous. In fact, if one compares death statistics alone, the Communists exceeded the Nazis by far—a mind boggling consideration!
Some twenty years ago I tried to write a novel about a German concentration camp guard who experiences an awakening of conscience and attempts to atone for his sins by venturing straight into the jaws of Stalin’s Russia. East was the name of this novel. The theme concerned the moral equivalence of the two regimes. It was a decent idea and I daresay that my intentions were good, but the end result was a literary stillbirth. However, during the ensuing years the theme of East kept coming back to me. Stalinland was the end result.
One of the real-life victims of Stalin’s Russia was a writer named Isaak Babel who, in 1934, spoke of the “heroism of silence.” Yes, mere silence was condemned by the regime because it indicated political alienation and discontent. From this comical and atrocious historical circumstance, I conceived the idea of a writer who publishes a book of blank pages as a symbol of protest—and pays for it with his life. Perhaps that sounds farcical and outlandish but it was all too plausible at the time (it’s not entirely implausible now).
That being said, my intention was to write a work of fiction, a novel, not a history lesson. Russian literature was as much a source of inspiration as the concerns mentioned above. “The Diary of a Madman” and “The Overcoat”—along with The Gulag Archipelago—were in my thoughts throughout the writing process. Thus, prospective readers should not be too surprised over Gogolesque oddities like talking spiders and an onslaught of ghosts in the course of the narrative.
The appearance of ghosts in Stalinland signifies something more than a gratuitous shift toward fantasy. In my mind they represent hope in an eventual triumph of justice. Given the fact that worldly justice failed to punish untold numbers of Communist criminals (no Nuremberg Trials for them), other-worldly justice is allowed to step in and correct the miscarriage.