Friday, February 8, 2013

Lessons of the Heart from a Secret Policeman

When I lived in Moscow I regularly frequented an antique shop on Malaya Nikitskaya Street that had a small selection of English books. A lot of the stuff was awful, but they had a good selection of volumes from “Progress”, the USSR’s foreign language publishing house. Progress specialized in works by soviet authors and bad translations of the Russian classics. My favorite Progress book however (which I found in the shop) was Words from the Wise, a selection of Russian and Soviet quotations.

Some of the words within are wise, others are banal while many are flat-out lies. My favorite quotes however come from Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish Bolshevik who founded the Cheka, embraced Lenin’s policy of terror and established Russia’s first concentration camps. A bad man? Certainly. But he knew the human heart. 

I discovered this while searching for quotes from Stalin on love. Nothing doing, but Felix, he had a lot to say. For instance:

“Love is the maker of all that is kind, exalted, strong, warm, and bright.”

Not exactly revelatory, close to platitude, and yet still it reveals the tender side of Iron Felix. Better yet is the fact that the editors gave the first word on love in the book to a secret policeman who liked shooting people. Does this suggest a crippling lack of irony on their part, or a hyper-irony so sophisticated it will take centuries before mortals can comprehend it? It’s anybody’s guess.

But I digress. Felix’s other quote on love fits the template of revolutionary rhetoric:

“Love is a summons to action and struggle.”

It is also untrue, unless of course he is talking about the love of power that motivated Lenin, Stalin and Mao. However Felix is not done with musing on the tender passions. In the section “Love and Morality” we find:

“Where there is love there must be trust.”

Very true, and I am starting to think that at some point in his life Felix suffered severe pains of the heart. Plain as it seems, the statement is much better than this effort from Ivan Goncharov:

“Deep love and deep intellect are inseparable.”

Goncharov was a Great Author, you see, and so he wanted to say something profound. But Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor experienced deep love without deep intellect. You see? He’s just saying stuff to sound clever. Felix, a torturer by trade, had less vanity and so kept it simple and honest. It’s when we get to “Family, Parents and Children” however that the architect of the Soviet police state really hits his stride:

“A love centered upon but one person in whom it concentrates all the joy of life, making everything else a burden and a torment- that sort of love is laden with poison for both.”

Clearly he wasn’t all about leather and pistols. Felix understood the danger of obsessive, monomaniacal love, and was as alert to the dangers of passion as he was to its ecstasies. Compare the above to this slice of “wisdom” from Lenin, written in his characteristically theoretical-robotic style:

“Divorce will not cause the “disintegration” of family ties, but, on the contrary, will strengthen them on a democratic basis.”

That’s not just false, it’s meaningless. Here’s Felix again on “Family, Parents and Children”:

“The faults and merits of children fall mainly on the heads and conscience of their parents.”

This relies too heavily on the “blank slate” theory of child psychology which has no empirical basis, but who can deny the truth about a parent’s conscience? Felix- so sensitive a lover- was a thinking, feeling parent also. In fact, he has a lot to say about children:

“Parental love must not be blind. Pandering to the child’s wishes or cramming it with candy and other goodies is tantamount to warping its soul.”

Amen, brother! But what of the opposite extreme?

“Intimidation will foster in a child nothing but meanness, hypocrisy, base cowardice and extremism.”

And as the head of the Cheka Felix knew a thing or two about intimidation! Finally there’s this:

“Parents are unaware of the harm they do their children when, using their parental authority, they try to impose on them their own convictions and viewpoints.”

This has many applications today, as a warning to excessively authoritarian parents and also to self-consciously progressive parents, who force their kids into all kinds of supplementary classes and lessons, hoping to mould miniature intellectuals in their own image, as if they were gods and not mere fallible humans like the rest of us.

In short, Felix Dzerzhinsky had a soul. He knew the pangs of love, the joys and sorrows of family. He advocated tolerance, openness, freedom, fairness, balance- in family life anyway. In his career as a fanatical communist and mass murderer he had no problem with imposing his viewpoints on millions, via the barrel of a gun if necessary. If only they’d invented television, and Oprah, earlier. Felix might have found another, less catastrophic, career.