Should anyone believe that Russia today is different from the old Soviet Union, they should have watched “Dr. Zhivago,” the motion picture adapted from the novel by the great Russian writer Boris Pasternak. The M.V. Playhouse screened it on Feb. 17. The book and film recount the life of a young physician and poet who is swept up in the revolutionary changes of his nation after the tsarist empire fell to the Communists in 1917.
Even in its infancy, the Soviet regime exhibited no patience for those who objected to its iron-fisted, murderous actions to force the Russian people into collectivized society. The civil war that followed the revolution consolidated Soviet control over a country larger than any in the world: some 8.65 million square miles, compared with the U.S. at 4 million. The result was seven cruel, brutal, and ruthless decades of mind control, concentration camps, murder, and mayhem. Scholars estimate that approximately 20 million people died under Stalin’s rule alone.
The authorities sent tens of thousands to the gulag, the intricate network of labor camps throughout Siberia, which has its origins during the empire. Often, the sole reason was that they declined to support a specific policy, spoke out against the dictatorship, or did nothing but irritated those in power.
Many years ago, when I thought I would learn to analyze Soviet documents for the U.S., I was walking in Leningrad (today, as it was in prerevolutionary Russia, St. Petersburg) a young man accosted me on the street. “U vas yest spee-chek?” he asked (Do you have a match?). “Nyet,” I answered in my broken Russian, “Ya nee ku-ryu” (I don’t smoke). It turned out he was a schoolteacher, dying to leave the Soviet Union to come to the West for a better life. Of course, he could not do so. I did not keep in touch. I wished I had. And I never became that analyst.
You will find no better introduction to the Soviets than in several works by Nobel prizewinner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, especially his first novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The story parallels Solzhenitsyn’s experience in the gulag after WWII.
The modern Russian state hardly differs from the ghastly spectacle that was the Soviet Union, except in its sophistication. The gulag, the acronym for the office that operates the camps, still exists, and continues to be filled with those the Putin government regards as antagonistic. Murder, torture, hard labor become the fate of those who plummet into the deep depths of the gulag.
Others are murdered on the street, often by poisoning, and sometimes not even in Russia. Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the FSB (the post-Soviet equivalent of the KGB, or secret police), was murdered in London in 2006, after his defection, by a Russian agent when he was injected with radioactive polonium-210. He suffered terribly before his death.
Two years ago, Russian agents used a nerve agent to poison defector Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the British intelligence services, in Salisbury, England, along with his daughter, Yulia. While they survived, a woman whose friend found a perfume bottle contaminated with the agent and gave it to her, died within a week after putting the perfume on her wrist. Her friend was sickened, but survived.
And, as we know, 18 American intelligence agencies confirmed that Russian military agents, working on orders from Putin, interfered in the 2016 presidential election via social media and hacking email accounts. During his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last summer, Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, noted that the 2016 Russian interference “wasn’t a single attempt. They are doing it while we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
Indeed, on Feb. 13, according to the New York Times, U.S. intelligence officials warned members of the House of Representatives that Russia was well on the way to interfering in the 2020 presidential election.
“Dr. Zhivago,” the novel and the film, were banned in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities severely condemned Pasternak’s poems, like those he attributed to Yuri Zhivago, but Pasternak escaped a trek to the gulag when it became clear that his great novel would never be published in the Soviet Union.
The reason lies in the fascinating new novel by Lara Prescott, “The Secrets We Kept.” Prescott focuses on how “Dr. Zhivago” was first published in Italy in violation of Soviet law (the censors had not permitted it). But then agents of the Central Intelligence Agency smuggled copies of the first Russian edition into the Soviet Union, where it was passed around from person to person until it was widely read. Today, it is required reading for all Russian high school students.
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, Pasternak was forced to decline the award after he ran into harsh Soviet pressure. He died two years later of lung cancer at 70. His great novel, Prescott’s depiction of its publication, and the Playhouse screening should remind us that the Russian state, like that of the Soviets, is no friend of the U.S. It will continue to do whatever it can to undermine our democratic way of life.
Jack Fruchtman, a part-time Aquinnah resident, was learning content analysis in the Soviet Union in 1969.