Something that stopped me dead while reading Zoë Heller’s “The Believers”

‘Only ideas are perfect. People never are,’ Joel would tell her. ‘When you’ve lived a bit longer, you’ll be more forgiving.’ But Rosa had scorned these attempts to modify her wrath. For a person as deeply offended by injustice and inequity as she was – as committed to changing the world – a degree of ruthlessness was imperative, she felt. Her usual response to her father had been to quote Lenin’s defence of Bolshevik tactics: ‘Is regard for humanity possible in such an unheard-of ferocious struggle? By what measure do you measure the quantity of necessary and unnecessary blows in a fight?’

Oh dear. Now, I must first explain that I have a knee-jerk reaction to Americans like Rosa’ character – for a while, I’ve even pretended as if they don’t exist at all, which is, of course, completely untrue. It’s as if some well-intentioned American decided to quote a passage from the Q’uran to Apostate at a party – there’s a sense of “hey moron, this is MY lived experience, not YOUR lived experience. Piss off, why don’t you.” (Without putting words in Apostate’s mouth, I somehow imagine her reaction to the aforementioned scenario would be similar to my reaction upon encountering  people like Rosa)

In my family, the harshest words of criticism were always reserved for Lenin, not Stalin. There are several reasons for this. First of all, the symbolism of the gruesome murder of the royal family. Then there is the belief that without a Lenin, we would never have had a Stalin in the first place, that Lenin was the foundation for everything. Finally, and this is the part that I think few people know about (I could be wrong), those Bolshevik tactics that Lenin defended? He enjoyed them. Something that Western radicals rarely quote is Lenin’s famous attempt at humour – “We’re not shooting enough of those little professors!” Haw haw. The diminutive Lenin uses for professors, meaning, of course, the academic establishment, is insulting in a uniquely Russian way, and hard to translate, but I’m sure you can imagine what it sounds like. Lenin was gleeful, absolutely gleeful, at the violence he presided over.

Having now finished the excellent Believers, I also believe in something.

I believe that Lenin would have taken one look at earnest young Rosa and her lawyer father, one glance with those beady little eyes of his, and sent them before a firing squad without a second thought. They lived in Greenwich Village, for one thing. I don’t know if a power-tripping murderous psychopath really needs any other evidence. I’m not entirely sure, but a part of me thinks that Zoë Heller’s narrator might agree with me.

Of course, I don’t believe that anyone owns Lenin or his words. Many different people have believed in him over the decades. Babushkas and dedushkas with trembling hands and heads have stood for hours to pay their respects at his tomb. Even now, an atmosphere of solemnity prevails inside. You’re not allowed to talk or giggle or take pictures. Like it or not, Lenin is a legacy onto himself.

I’ve always thought about the fact that he never wanted to be embalmed or to be placed on public display like that. I think there’s something very sad about the way his wishes were disrespected. Lenin re-wrote the rules and that came back to bite him on the ass. Well, the ass attached to his dead body, anyway.  Haw freaking haw. Though I am glad they haven’t put his body in the ground yet. Such a gesture would break the heart of many aging, infirm people, and I think their hearts have already been broken enough.

I think if people can take away something meaningful and good from Lenin, then that’s great. However, it seems to me that Rosa’s character takes the worst that Lenin ever had to offer – the idea that a horror film-worthy struggle ostensibly done for the sake of worker’s rights, a struggle that put the New Boss, same as the Old Boss, into power, was great and good. As the book unfolds, Rosa abandons this path and begins gravitating toward Orthodox Judaism, and to Heller’s credit, Rosa’s experience with religion cannot be described in singular terms. On one hand, it’s bloody awful and you have to wonder if Rosa is simply replacing one rigid dogma with another. But you can also allow for the possibility that she has found something both complex and profound, a faith that doesn’t just challenge her but also feeds her.

Upon examining my own bout of wrath when encountering the passage quoted above, I was once again confronted with just how different things can look from various angles. There is a certain strange beauty in the inability to compromise all vantage points. It’s like a kaleidoscope image that refuses to properly arrange itself, the little bits of glass cracking under the pressure with an oddly satisfying crunch.

And what could be crunchier than a deliciously good novel? Zoë Heller has messed with my mind, and I rather love her for it.

7 thoughts on “Something that stopped me dead while reading Zoë Heller’s “The Believers”

  1. Heh. Yep, that’s pretty much what my response would be – in my head. I am much politer and nicer in person than on the blog. 🙂

    I’m very conflicted about the historical realities of communism in practice. I have come to respect it mightily as an ideology, but I still struggle with the best way to make it reality. Inevitably, one runs up against questions of violence and oppression.

  2. See, this is why I’m sick of fucking radicals and their juvenile fucking bullshit. Oh look, I was a coward and defaced a historic monument at 4 a.m.! How fucking revolutionary and touching! Opening up a homeless shelter is a bit more revolutionary than that, but that would be, like, totally dealing with reality, man.

  3. Sounds like a good book.

    do you like Joseph Conrad? Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent are both about revolutionaries and anarchists in around 1908-1911, and explore these ideas of whether all revolutions have to be ruthless and all revolutionaries enjoy violence. the introduction to Under Western Eyes is really interesting on the russian revolutionary character (Conrad was born in Ukraine, as I expect you know)

    was in Tate Modern yesterday with a russian friend, looking at a room full of Soviet posters. Weird seeing most visitors admiring the style of them and having no real idea what they said or meant for generations of Soviets.

  4. hmm..I agree with you on this:I’d say with the anti-anti semitism, public health care, women’s rights,etc. lenin had the best intentions compared other communist leaders, but yes: he was cold and calculating considering vanguardism and the like. Ironically, one person on lenin’s tomb denounced vanguardism expressed by another commenter!

  5. I’ve never really gotten into Conrad much. Not since high school, anyway. Maybe I ought to give him another whirl. I think Soviet posters are incredibly stylish – but of course you see a whole other dimension if you can read Russian.

    Hi Jenny – I don’t really read Lenin’s Tomb (I assume you’re referring to the blog…?). A friend introduced me to it, I skimmed, and turned up my nose. I don’t like the name, I don’t like radicalism, and I get tired of post-colonialism because it centers the West as the only actor in a drama where the rest of the world simply reacts.

    I think Lenin was a murderer and a reptilian asshole, and whatever good intentions he had simply paved the way for Stalin. So whatever it is that other people appreciate about him is ultimately lost on me.

  6. Sorry, this is kind of rambling and possibly incoherent, but your post above and the one in which you mentioned fear of racist attacks against your boyfriend got me thinking and when that happens, my brains basically fall out of my head and onto the keyboard.

    I haven’t been to Russia or Ukraine, but I’ve been to various other places that were part of the USSR, and I’ve been just about everywhere in the former Yugoslavia and lived in Bosnia for a while. Before I went to these places, I’d read about all of them, and had my own notions of what people’s experiences growing up under the Soviet and Yugoslav systems (which, of course, were dramatically different in many ways) would have been, but I was by then mature enough to understand that the world is never so simple. So, I decided to eschew the urge to make commentary, and just ask a lot of questions. What I found in the ex-Yugoslavia was that a single person could hold many conflicting and contradictory opinions of the past, reminiscing about the peacefulness of Tito’s Yugoslavia one moment and then railing against its illiberalism the next. Same went for the present -yay for freedom of the press!, boo crazy ethno-nationalist politicians fucking the country over. I’ll never forget one of my friends telling me about how, when paramilitaries came to his home to kill his family and called he and his father something akin to “fucking Muslims” that he, then just a little boy, turned to his dad and said earnestly, “Daddy, we’re atheists!” (The family lived, after a long standoff. The dad was an adept hostage negotiator.) And this part of the story my friend tells chuckling.

    Here in the US, most of my ex-USSR friends aren’t ethnic Russians. I’m not sure how much that skews things. Anyhow, how they address the past isn’t any cleaner or more consistent that the ex-Yugos. Meskhetian Turk friends are pissed that Stalin deported their grandparent to Uzbekistan, but more personally angry at the Uzbek government for allowing them to be pogrom’d out of where their families lived for two generations and more pissed still at the Krasnodar authorities for discriminating against them. “In the Soviet Union that wouldn’t have happened,” they say, even though most of them were still potty training when the Soviet Union ceased existing.

    My boyfriend is one of the Afghans who were sent to the Soviet Union to study during the Soviet-Afghan war. He was from a dirt poor family that gave him and his sister up in the hope they’d live better, or just live. His memories of life in a Kazakh “orphanage” are entirely rosy, and gets all mushy when he recalls the summer camps, the skiing, the trips to Moscow. “The Soviet Union was a nice place, I cannot say bad things about it, honestly,” he says to his perplexed American friends. An yet, and yet –it was the Soviet Union that caused so much destruction in the country of his birth.

    His relationship with Russia today is much more fraught. When he lived there, prior to coming to the US, he was, despite his upbringing and association with Russian culture, treated as just another brown Central Asian guy –that is, treated very badly and constantly preyed on by skinheads. “I was black in Russia. I’m white in the US,” he laughs, and then sinks into a contemplative silence.

    I have a Yakut friend who feels less and less attachment to Russia as time passes and she experiences more and more racism in the big cities. This friend is something of a Yakut nationalist (ok, she would slap me for saying that, but it’s true). But she remembers the USSR fondly, especially her days as Young Pioneer. Her facebook albums reflect this.

    Another friend’s Russian Jewish father (the whole family came to the US as refugees in 1990) tells hilarious stories of buying smuggled Western lingerie for his wife when they were dating at university, but then goes on long, rambling, pro-Soviet rants when he has a bad day at work.

    People’s identities are layered. Like people, the past –or rather, the many pasts– do not easily lend themselves to categories like “good” and “bad.” People compartmentalize, sometimes with alarming success. time may be linear, but history is not –the past is always there, a translucent overlay on the present, ghosts walking hand in hand with the living and the yet to be. Life is messy, irrational, and full to bursting with ambiguity of all kinds. Listening is key.

    My short time on the this earth and travels over it have taught me these things.

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