I wrote the words “Party unity” on my slate and gave them a mustache like Comrade Stalin’s. You could do that now. Now that Stalin was dead and his “excesses” exposed, you could make jokes.
—Svetlana Dukovskaya, Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn
There was never any question that my heroine, Svetlana Dukovskaya, would be a political loyalist. Only how much character that loyalty would demand of her. For in the Soviet Union of the 1960s, any young girl with a chip on her shoulder, a dream in her bag and a black mark on her biography would be foolhardy to step off the proscribed path that passed for public opinion on questions of the State. And Sveta was no fool.
Loyalty comes in all shapes and forms. For the most part, they are good shapes and worthy forms. When friends are heartfelt in their honesty and when strangers have each others’ back, that’s the kind of loyalty we can all get behind. But when you graft that unqualified commitment onto politics, you remove its personal element. You pave the path to dogma and a stubborn refusal to see the dangers inherent in putting Party over People.
In the most terrifying years of Soviet history (the years which my 16-year-old Svetlana is trying hard to forget) friends lived in fear of telling the truth, and strangers denounced each other to protect themselves. During the reign of Joseph Stalin, 20 million citizens perished in the name of political loyalty. They were killed by secret police and by famine and by neighbors whose single word (given as a false expression of political loyalty to Stalin and the Motherland) sent them to the prison camps.
It was Stalin who turned the phrase “Enemy of the People” into a household term, one so toxic (and indeed fatal for those who were so labeled) that it replaced normal social interactions with a pervasive antisocial psychopathy. To speak of “Enemies of the People” was to falsely equate the People with the State and to hint at the deliberate physical annihilation of opposition.
This—this specifically ominous and historically loaded term—is the phrase that Donald Trump, in the 21st century, has chosen to revive as a weapon against his most vocal opponents, the press.
What we are seeing in America today—polarized politics and a radicalized right—is alarming for so many reasons. Particularly horrifying is the spectre of a narcissistic, authoritarian leader more interested in his own historic legacy than in history itself. It’s a strange situation when the President of the USA is more frequently compared to the President of Russia than to any other statesman. But it is particularly abhorrent when the similarities cross into deeper roots of murderous authoritarianism, police brutality, and genocidal policies; i.e. into Joseph Stalin’s brand of despotic denunciation.
Among the many disturbing images that appeared out of the hateful Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a poster showing the earnest profiles of two young people headed, one had to guess, into an all-white future. The people who carried the posters have been widely condemned as Nazis, which many of them freely admit to, but I was more struck by the obviously Communist aesthetics of the posters. They look like the signs under which Svetlana, were she a more active young member of the Komsomol, would rally. And while I didn’t send her off to march (she was busy training her ballet body and her telepathic mind), and I didn’t make her stand up to either ethnic bigots or ideological bullies, I did write a novel in which a political loyalist came to a bad end when she said “enough.”
Because it’s never safe to trivialize loyalties that need enemies.