The banality of evil on Facebook

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Human nature bothers me.

My whole novel is about how cruel and lazy human nature is.   The whole thing I’m grappling with is, basically, is how did people let Stalin happen? And the answer is, people let Stalin happen the same way that you pass by a piece of litter on the street without throwing it out, or see a car stranded on road and don’t slow down to help.

We are a planet of assholes.

Some people are assholes less than others. Some give time to charities, live in mosquito nets in Senegal, and adopt children with missing chromosomes. But we, as a whole, are a pretty selfish race; we have to be to survive. In addition to being selfish, we are also pretty stupid, and we like regularity.  So we rarely end up questioning the system we live in, no matter how large or small.

For example, have you ever thought about why there are 15-or-less items aisles at supermarkets? Why did they make it 15? Why isn’t it 5? Why isn’t it 20? And who decided it was 15? Who studied you and decided it was optimal that you have 14 yougurt containers and one carton of milk? Someone did. And that someone determines how you live on a weekly basis.

Yesterday I saw a Tanqueray ad on the train:

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Why is it considered sexy  and professional when men wear an extra piece of cloth on their neck that covers up the buttons on their shirt? If aliens came to this planet, they wouldn’t get it.

You know, just the little stuff. We do it because society mandates it, without a second pause.

Anyway, the point of this is that we’re always like, “oh, we’ll prevent the next Holocaust,” and never again, and stuff, but that’s never going to be how humanity operates, because we are stupid, selfish, and comfortable and have invented air conditioning.

Which is why I decided to take a stand, so to speak. (I wasn’t actually standing since this happened on Facebook.)

Two days ago was the 60th anniversary of the death of Stalin. There were a bunch of thinkpieces in the Russian press, and some in the American as well. In Russian, they were mostly reflective, but also a lot about how just maybe Stalin was the right guy for the job.

There is an increasingly larger majority of the Russian public that feels this way, because the current government is terrible but there is no stability, and Stalin killed pretty much everyone, but at least there was no AIDS and krokodil.

When I went to Russia with my dad in 2006, we experienced some of this at the Kremlin. We were taking a guided tour (because they didn’t let you into the Kremlin without a guided tour, which basically means you have to bribe some semi-sober older lady to walk you around and then look at Lenin’s waxy remains). We were standing by a group of graves, when a man in his 50s said, “Where is Iossif Vissarionovich’s grave? I’d like to go pay my respects.”

He used Stalin’s first name and patronymic instead of his last name, signifying that he thought him worthy of being called the equivalent of “Sir.”

Anyway, so some of these same people popped up on my Facebook feed yesterday, reposting this picture, with basically a message like, “Oh, look, this is what Russians think of Stalin today.”


The text says, “Not long ago, this picture and similar ones like it were seen on many cars. And yet no one forced people to do this. Do you remember?”

The message is cute and ambiguous enough, but what it really means is that there are people who remember Stalin in a positive light, that he was a guiding force for the country, etcetera etcetera.

I wasn’t  Stalin’s number one fan before starting this book, but after hundreds of hours of research on the 1936 purges, interviewing family members, and generally just being a lazy asshole, but still a lazy asshole who is not super-crazy about a whole nation of people being pinned down like butterflies under a glass, barely daring to breathe, for TWENTY YEARS, my blood started simmering.


The post already had five likes by this point. But no one was saying that this person was wrong for posting about a mass-murderer in an appreciable manner. No one spoke up.

And that’s how these things start, right?  “First they come for the communists,” and Martin Niemoller and all of that stuff?  Someone has to speak up.

I think Niemoller meant his quote in a way like, “Hey, you stupid Germans, get off the couch and start protesting and questioning your government.”

I took it to mean that I should do something stupid.

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So I stepped up to the plate.

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And that’s when the fun began.

The conversation basically went something like this:

Vicki: WTF? You’re really posting this?
Poster: Maybe it’s hard for you to believe Stalin did those things because you’re looking at him from a modern perspective?
Vicki: “What do you mean? Do you mean that it would have been easier to believe if we lived in the 1930s?”
Poster: (paraphrased)No, you don’t have to live in the 30s, you just need to read about the global events that were going on at the time. It might help you understand.
Vicki: “What in your opinion is the justification for being directly responsible for the death of at least 20 million people over 20+ years (around 1 million between 1936 and 1938)? What kinds of historical events occurred that justified it?”
Poster: Are you talking about some imaginary stuff that you’re making up, or something that you believe really happened and you believe only one person was responsible?
Vicki: *jaw drops*
Poster’s buddy: Those Russians living in America! They don’t know anything! It’s so easy to judge people. Look at people judging Putin today, saying he’s responsible for everything bad in Russia. Same case with Stalin (“killed his own people”). We need to understand that we can’t hold one person responsible for everything.

That’s when I kind of knew that I had lost, because you can’t argue with crazy, but the thread went on for another two days, with people insisting I was wrong,  American, hysterical, and playing fast and loose with facts.

What really scares me is that I was questioned on numerous times, on where I was getting my information from, that Stalin had killed all these people. I just didn’t know how to respond, because how do you cite years of research, multiple scholars begging the Russian government to open its archives, pulling together what they could, and that they still came up with a lowball estimate of 20 million people?

I don’t know how to prove I’m right to people who believe Stalin was the optimal leader for Russia with complete access to historical documentation, not to mention grandparents and great-grandparents whose lives he ruined. Just ruined, without even thinking about it.

The only thing I can do is hope and pray they never get what they wish for.

The worse part of this is not that I specifically am right, but that history is right, and it always repeats itself in various shades and flavors of Stalinism and is repeating itself today, just not in Europe.  People just have a hard time listening to history. But if you do it closely enough, it will tell you everything that’s going to happen in the future.

And maybe that’s why I’m writing the novel.  Because humans are lazy and stupid and no one will ever be able to convince humans that what they’re doing is wrong. But I can at least write about this truth and I’ll have said my small, miserable piece.

And maybe I should also get off Facebook.





14 thoughts on “The banality of evil on Facebook

  1. I just think, how little I really understand world leaders and how history is all pieced together. And now with Hugo Chavez dying the media is talking nonstop about him, and how little we really know (when did he even die, really?) and how propaganda perpetuates (the US gave him cancer!). And in our own government… did you read Maureen Dowd’s piece on Cheney? We knew he was like that, you know, just the worst, but are we already forgetting? Even though those are both recent examples, and history is supposed to get easier to understand the further removed you are from it… well actually I’m not even sure that’s accurate.

  2. There’s a word for what you’re describing: Upstanding. I’ve been involved in a lot of organizations that work this concept into curricula and play. Because if we teach our children that they cannot be bystanders when another kid is getting bullied on the playground, the hope is that they will also not be bystanders when another human is helpless (or even when a piece of litter on the floor needs to be put into the trash even if you did not put it on the floor in the first place). It’s called being a decent human. And, unfortunately, Russians’ lives are moving on such a plane right now that as a society upstanding is a dream of the few rather than a national aspiration.

    P.S. Kudos for standing up.

  3. @Jane: Yeah, that photo at the top is on the cover of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s excellent book Young Stalin and I always am more than slightly disturbed about the fact that I find him semi-attractive in said photo.

    Anyway, this was a great post (and I can’t wait to read the book, Vicki) and brought back memories of my senior thesis. I touched on a lot of this in what I wrote. The bulk of my thesis was analyzing the views higher-education textbooks had of Stalin during different time periods, but I touched on the polls that show the favorable public opinion towards Stalin. Pretty depressing stuff, overall.

    Quick question: are the people who disagreed with what you wrote on Facebook Russian? (I assumed they were but maybe I misread…) In a way, if they are Russian, I can maybe, sort-of, kind-of forgive them for holding favorable views of Stalin because I read, in the original Russian, quite a few history textbooks that whitewashed Stalin’s crimes. What I’m trying to say is that perhaps some of them didn’t know any better – they just were repeating what they were taught (I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing, because I’m really not trying to be patronizing here!). What I find a lot less unforgivable is when Westerners excuse Stalin’s crimes. I had a MASSIVE argument with such an individual (he’s British) who should have known better, and that, at least to me, was way more depressing than Russians forgiving Stalin’s crimes.

    Wow, that was longer than I anticipated. Sorry for the epic comment!

    1. That’s super-interesting.

      Yes, they were Russian. But I think that, even, given that, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Accounts of the gulags started coming out in the early 90s, and there are tons of documentaries on Russian tv every day on how many people Stalin murdered.

      Although, I did read the same thing about textbook whitewashing, so I don’t know.

      1. That may be true about Russians and their history books, but it also takes a special kind of person to get online and expend effort defending Stalin (as opposed to just nodding through their history lesson and moving on).

        I did a story last year on iPhone dictator apps, and spoke to a prof in Norway who’s doing very interesting research (there’s a group of them) into how the former Eastern Bloc views itself online. She had some interesting points about the lack of official means of memorializing the traumas of the past, and also views a lot of it as a means of establishing identity. Which fits with the comments about American imperialism – as in, we’re Russian, not American, therefore our way is right, etc.

        Their website is called “Web Wars” – I think you’ll find it interesting.

  4. Yeah… I don’t even know where to start.
    Stalin’s crimes against humanity have been largely ignored in the Russian history books. As have any transgressions of Russian soldiers during WWII. Because the Red Army soldiers didn’t “rape” anyone, ever, according to my grandma. They just didn’t. Basically, anything unsavoury in recent Russian history has kind of been… glossed over. At least it was when I was in grade 7 in 1999.
    I find it incredibly difficult to discuss historical topics with anyone who currently lives in Russia/the former Bloc, because a certain “us vs. them” mentality remains, even though a lot of former Soviet Union has been for the lack of better term, Americanized. I think that for a lot of Russians, especially those in my age group of mid to late twenties, understanding of Russian history is comprised of school mandated whitewash,( i.e. there was a Stalin, he had a difficult personality, times were hard, people died) coupled with their grandparents memories of better days. For some reason, a lot of Russians in my circles, even those living in North America seem to think that any and all western information about Soviet Union and present day Russia is a huge conspiracy aimed at portraying the country as an evil empire. I am obviously exaggerating a little, but that has kind of been my experience when attempting these types of conversations. Last time I was in Russia was in 2011, and I remember talking with my uncle about WWII, and he kept on asking me about where I got my facts and if my sources were American or Russian. I imagine it kind of sounded like your FB thread. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but really, good for you for voicing your opinion. I do understand why someone may be nostalgic about the Soviet-era past they never experienced (community!equality!low crime!jobs for all!morality!), but the fact that so much about the Stalinist regime has been glossed over is really troubling. Anyway, I am going to stop rambling now. And as per usual, this was a great read.

  5. That there is 25 different brands of yogurt, each making 10 variations on their product, but only 1 milk (not true, actually, if you look at different fat content and soy, coconut, etc substitutes, not to mention the strawberry and the chocolate kinds) is not determined by “somebody”. It’s called the invisible hand. If there is enough demand for another kind of milk, but customers stop buying pomegranate Fage, groceries will offer different products.
    American idea is life, liberty and pursuit of happiness (where “happiness” is supposed to basically mean property, not free prozak or free birth control). Russian idea, as Yuri Nesterenko eloquently put it, is that people are willing tolerate any tyrant as long as he makes somebody else more miserable. If you are going to argue with Russians, understand that they actually think they are sophisticated for valuing dictatorship.
    You should be thankful to your parents for moving to the US. Like, call them every day and say “thank you”.
    Also, see the return of propiska (thta never actually went away:

  6. Its funny how people scream Hitler, Hitler, while people like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were responsible for far worse things.

    Just read a little from Solzhenitsyn. Some people who returned to Russia from the concentration camps in WWII, were sent off to the Gulag because they were deemed collaborators. The reason given: no one who did not collaborate would survive the camp, so you must be a collaborator. Same goes for POW’s. You did not fight to the death, means you are a traitor.

    It true that government mass murder can occur anywhere, but I feel that some places are more susceptible than others. Russia is a kind of country, where people expect someone to come and solve their problems for them. If Russians miss Stalin so much, they can move to North Korea and worship the dear leader 24/7.

  7. I am going to paste a long excerpt from Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag. Sorry about the length, but to me it verbalized a lot of what was in my mind regarding this topic. Also interesting as it was written before the Putinization of Russia.

    I first became aware of this problem several years ago, when walking across the Charles Bridge, a major tourist attraction in what was then newly democratic Prague. There were
    buskers and hustlers along the bridge, and, every fifteen feet or so someone was selling precisely what one would expect to find for sale in such a postcard-perfect spot. Paintings of appropriately pretty streets were on display, along with bargain jewelry and “Prague” key
    chains. Among the bric-a-brac, one could buy Soviet military paraphernalia: caps, badges, belt buckles, and little pins, the tin Lenin and Brezhnev images that Soviet schoolchildren once pinned to their uniforms.

    The sight struck me as odd. Most of the people buying the Soviet paraphernalia were Americans and West Europeans. All would be sickened by the thought of wearing a swastika. None objected, however, to wearing the hammer and sickle on a T-shirt or a hat. It was a minor observation, but sometimes, it is through just such minor observations that a cultural mood is best observed. For here, the lesson could not have been clearer: while the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another mass murder makes us laugh.
    If there is a dearth of feeling about Stalinism among Prague tourists, it is partly explained by the dearth of images in Western popular culture. The Cold War produced James Bond and thrillers, and cartoon Russians of the sort who appear in Rambo films, but nothing as ambitious as Schindler’s List or Sophie’s Choice. Steven Spielberg, probably Hollywood’s leading director (like it or not) has chosen to make films about Japanese concentration camps (Empire of the Sun) and Nazi concentration camps, but not about Stalinist concentration camps. The latter haven’t caught Hollywood’s imagination in the same way.

    Highbrow culture hasn’t been much more open to the subject. The reputation of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has been deeply damaged by his brief, overt support of Nazism, an enthusiasm which developed before Hitler had committed his major atrocities. On the other hand, the reputation of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has not suffered in the least from his aggressive support of Stalinism throughout the postwar years, when plentiful evidence of Stalin’s atrocities was available to anyone interested. “As we were not members of the Party,” he once wrote, “it was not our duty to write about Soviet labor camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrels over the nature of the system, provided no events of sociological significance occurred.” On another occasion, he told Albert Camus that “Like you, I find these camps intolerable, but I find equally intolerable the use made of them every day in the bourgeois press.”

    Some things have changed since the Soviet collapse. In 2002, for example, the British novelist Martin Amis felt moved enough by the subject of Stalin and Stalinism to dedicate an entire book to the subject. His efforts prompted other writers to wonder why so few members of the political and literary Left had broached the subject. On the other hand, some things have not changed. It is possible–still–for an American academic to publish a book suggesting that the purges of the 1930s were useful because they promoted upward mobility and therefore laid the groundwork for perestroika. It is possible–still–for a British literary editor to reject an article because it is “too anti-Soviet.” Far more common, however, is a reaction of boredom or indifference to Stalinist terror. An otherwise straightforward review of a book I wrote about the western republics of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s contained the following line:_”Here occurred the terror famine of the 1930s, in which Stalin killed more Ukrainians than Hitler murdered Jews. Yet how many in the West remember it? After all, the killing was so–so boring, and ostensibly undramatic.”

    These are all small things: the purchase of a trinket, a philosopher’s reputation, the presence or absence of Hollywood films. But put them all together and they make a story. Intellectually, Americans and West Europeans know what happened in the Soviet Union. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s acclaimed novel about life in the camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published in the West in several languages in 1962– . His oral history of the camps, The Gulag Archipelago, caused much comment when it appeared, again in several languages, in 1973. Indeed, The Gulag Archipelago led to a minor intellectual revolution in some countries, most notably France, converting whole swathes of the French Left to an anti-Soviet position. Many more revelations about the Gulag were made during the 1980s, the glasnost years, and
    they too received due publicity abroad.

    Nevertheless, to many people, the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler. Ken Livingstone, a former British Member of Parliament, now Mayor of London, once struggled to explain the difference to me. Yes, the Nazis were “evil,” he said. But the Soviet Union was “deformed.” That view echoes the feeling that many people have, even those who are not old-fashioned left-wingers: the Soviet Union simply went wrong somehow, but it was not fundamentally wrong in the way that Hitler’s Germany was wrong.
    Until recently, it was possible to explain this absence of popular feeling about the tragedy of European communism as the logical result of a particular set of circumstances. The passage of time is part of it: communist regimes really did grow less reprehensible as the years went by. Nobody was very frightened of General Jaruzelski, or even of Brezhnev, although both were responsible for a great deal of destruction. The absence of hard information, backed up by
    archival research, was clearly part of it too. The paucity of academic work on this subject was long due to a paucity of sources. Archives were closed. Access to camp sites was forbidden. No television cameras ever filmed the Soviet camps or their victims, as they had done in Germany at the end of the Second World War. No images, in turn, meant less understanding.

    But ideology twisted the ways in which we understood Soviet and East European history as well. A small part of the Western Left struggled to explain and sometimes to excuse the camps, and the terror which created them, from the 1930s on. In 1936, when millions of Soviet peasants were already working in camps or living in exile, the British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb published a vast survey of the Soviet Union, which explained, among other things, how the “downtrodden Russian peasant is gradually acquiring a sense of political freedom.” At the time of the Moscow show trials, while Stalin arbitrarily condemned thousands of innocent Party members to camps, the playwright Bertolt Brecht told the philosopher Sidney
    Hook that “the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die.”

    But even as late as the 1980s, there were still academics who continued to describe the advantages of East German health care or Polish peace initiatives, still activists who felt embarrassed by the fuss and bother raised over the dissidents in Eastern Europe’s prison
    camps. Perhaps this was because the founding philosophers of the Western Left–Marx and Engels–were the same as those of the Soviet Union. Some of the language was shared as well: the masses, the struggle, the proletariat, the exploiters and exploited, the ownership of the means of production. To condemn the Soviet Union too thoroughly would be to condemn a part of what some of the Western Left once held dear as well.
    But it is not only the far Left, and not only Western communists, who were tempted to make excuses for Stalin’s crimes that they would never have made for Hitler’s. Communist ideals– social justice, equality for all–are simply far more attractive to most in the West than the Nazi advocacy of racism and the triumph of the strong over the weak. Even if communist ideology meant something very different in practice, it was harder for the intellectual descendants of the American and French Revolutions to condemn a system which sounded, at least, similar to their own. Perhaps this helps explain why eyewitness reports of the Gulag were, from the very beginning, often dismissed and belittled by the very same people who would never have thought to question the validity of Holocaust testimony written by Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel.

    From the Russian Revolution on, official information about the Soviet camps was readily available too, to anyone who wanted it: the most famous Soviet account of one of the early camps, the White Sea Canal, was even published in English. Ignorance alone cannot explain why Western intellectuals chose to avoid the subject.

    The Western Right, on the other hand, did struggle to condemn Soviet crimes, but sometimes using methods that harmed their own cause. Surely the man who did the greatest damage to the cause of anti-communism was the American Senator Joe McCarthy. Recent documents showing that some of his accusations were correct do not change the impact of his overzealous pursuit of communists in American public life: ultimately, his public “trials” of communist sympathizers would tarnish the cause of anti-communism with the brush of chauvinism and intolerance. In the end, his actions served the cause of neutral historical inquiry no better than those of his opponents.

    Yet not all of our attitudes to the Soviet past are linked to political ideology either. Many, in fact, are rather a fading by-product of our memories of the Second World War. We have, at present, a firm conviction that the Second World War was a wholly just war, and few want that conviction shaken. We remember D-Day, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the children welcoming American GIs with cheers on the streets. No one wants to be told that there was another, darker side to Allied victory, or that the camps of Stalin, our ally, expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy, were liberated. To admit that by sending thousands of Russians to their deaths by forcibly repatriating them after the war, or by consigning millions of
    people to Soviet rule at Yalta, the Western Allies might have helped others commit crimes against humanity would undermine the moral clarity of our memories of that era. No one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another. No one wants to remember how well that mass murderer got on with Western statesmen. “I have a real liking for Stalin,” the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, told a friend, “he has never broken his
    word.” There are many, many photographs of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt all together, all smiling.

    Finally, Soviet propaganda was not without its effect. Soviet attempts to cast doubt upon Solzhenitsyn’s writing, for example, to paint him as a madman or an anti-Semite or a drunk, had some impact. Soviet pressure on Western academics and journalists helped skew their
    work too. When I studied Russian history as an undergraduate in the United States in the 1980s, acquaintances told me not to bother continuing with the subject in graduate school, since there were too many difficulties involved: in those days, those who wrote “favorably”
    about the Soviet Union won more access to archives, more access to official information, longer visas in the country. Those who did not risked expulsion and professional difficulties as a consequence. It goes without saying, of course, that no outsiders were allowed access to any
    material about Stalin’s camps or about the post-Stalinist prison system. The subject simply did not exist, and those who pried too deep lost their right to stay in the country.

    Put together, all of these explanations once made a kind of sense. When I first began to think seriously about this subject, as communism was collapsing in 1989, I even saw the logic of
    them myself: it seemed natural, obvious, that I should know very little about Stalin’s Soviet Union, whose secret history made it all the more intriguing. More than a decade later, I feel very differently. The Second World War now belongs to a previous generation. The Cold War is
    over too, and the alliances and international fault lines it produced have shifted for good. The Western Left and the Western Right now compete over different issues. At the same time, the emergence of new terrorist threats to Western civilization make the study of the old
    communist threats to Western civilization all the more relevant.

    In other words, the “social, cultural and political framework” has now changed–and so too has our access to information about the camps. At the end of the 1980s, a flood of documents about the Gulag began to appear in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. Stories of life in Soviet
    concentration camps were published in newspapers for the first time. New revelations sold out magazines. Old arguments about numbers–how many dead, how many incarcerated–revived.
    Russian historians and historical societies, led by the pioneering Memorial Society in Moscow, began publishing monographs, histories of individual camps and people, casualty estimates, lists of the names of the dead. Their efforts were echoed and amplified by historians in the former Soviet republics and the countries of what was once the Warsaw Pact, and, later, by Western historians too.

    Despite many setbacks, this Russian exploration of the Soviet past continues today. True, the first decade of the twenty-first century is very different from the final decades of the twentieth century, and the search for history is no longer either a major part of Russian public discourse, nor quite so sensational as it once seemed. Most of the work being carried out by Russian and other scholars is real historical drudgery, involving the sifting of thousands of individual documents, hours spent in cold and drafty archives, days spent looking for facts and numbers.
    But it is beginning to bear fruit. Slowly, patiently, Memorial has not only put together the first guide to the names and locations of all of the camps on record, but has also published a groundbreaking series of history books, and compiled an enormous archive of oral and written ‘ tales as well. Together with others–the Sakharov Institute and the publishing house Vozvrashchenie (the name means “return”)–they have put some of these memoirs into general
    circulation. Russian academic journals and institutional presses have also begun to print monographs based on new documents, as well as collections of documents themselves. Again, similar work is being carried out elsewhere, most notably by the Karta Society in Poland; by
    historical museums in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, and Hungary; by a handful of American and West European scholars who have the time and energy to work in the Soviet archives.

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