A few reflections stemming from the "beauty" of communism

This is a draft of the intro for the book Do Not Avenge Us (to be published by Reflection Publishing), from which I have already posted some fragments.  The book, which I translated from Romanian, contains the testimonies of people who were deported to Siberia after the Soviet Union occupied Bessarabia. I “publish” the intro here in the hope of receiving feedback. If any of you have suggestions of any kind, please let me know. Thank you!
A while ago, I had a conversation with a gentleman. The discussion took place online, in the presence of others, as many of our conversations these days. We had a common friend, but we did not know one another. Someone had praised Marx, and I confessed that for me, after living in a communist country and after being exposed to a multitude of testimonies about the sufferings inflicted by a regime that considered Marx a spiritual father, it was difficult to accept that communism can work otherwise than it “worked” wherever it gained power. The gentleman pressed me further, talking about the beauty stemming out of the socialist doctrines’ interest in the poor. I still confessed that the interest in “the poor” made no sense to me, as I could find no meaning in loving masses of people, separated from the others by a certain quality. I could rather understand the interest in Johnny or Mary, the persons who may be, in different or all moments of their lives, poor. This interest in Johnny and Mary would not generate a slogan and would not be the attribute of the state, but rather of anyone who acts humanely. True care and sacrifice for another, whoever he or she may be, could not be imposed from above, from the state. I do acknowledge that the discussion was weak on both sides, as many of our “online communications” tend to be. None of us may have had the time to express clearly his views. Here, I am certainly the favored one, since I narrate the story. But this is not about whether one of us “won” the battle, since dialogues, in principle, are not about wars. What I think, however, is telling for what falling in love with an idea can do to an inherently good person is the gentleman’s final reply: “People like you are the reasons why things are wrong in this country! The world would be better without such individuals!” I could not help but think that this gentleman could have easily been a young man with good intentions who would want to cleanse the world of its problems by sending the “troublemakers,” those who are just blind to “truth,” to concentration camps.
I do not mention this story to paint unfavorably those who believe in socialist ideas or any other people, for that matter. Instead, I think this story reminds us that anyone, and especially those of us who may believe that they are the manifestation of beauty in the world, can become so blinded by our ideas that we can murder in their name. The moment when we see us as potential saviors of the world is a dreadful one, for this is when we have already lost the world and ourselves: we become judges of beauty instead of having communion with it. It is a temptation that we all face. Some people believe that their lives are better without Jews; others, without Christians; still others, without Muslims. Some of us may just want a “beautiful” world with people who would have only one color, whichever that may be. Further, we hear today how the world would be a better place if homosexuals were to disappear, or, the reverse, if those who disagree with gay marriage would just be thrown away on a lost island. If we do not recognize ourselves in any of these situations, we may still remember a moment in our lives when we may have thought that our family would have been just fine if that distanced uncle did not belong to it.
The readers of Do Not Avenge Us! may find themselves in the middle of the same temptation: “if just these communists did not exist, life in Bessarabia and Romania may have been better.” When you witness the terrible sufferings experienced by the people of this volume, anger and resentment toward the persecutors are contained with difficulty.  This fall is “normal.” To be tempted by justice, by paying back the one who harmed you with the same evil that you have received from him or her is what the majority if not all of us do. The people from this book have done it too. But at the end of all things some of them remembered something, and that is the love found in a relationship with another person.
While this book reveals how individuals faced the wrath brought upon them by a murderous regime, it truly is about how one relates to another person. Fr. Moise, the monk who put together the testimonies of those persecuted by the Bolsheviks in Bessarabia, told me once that the people in this book are revivers, not survivors (this translation was suggested to me by Fr. Ciprian Sas)—and this phrase may not fully capture the beauty of his words. In Romanian, it sounds quite poetical: “învietori, nu învingători,” that is people who revive, who rise, and not people who win or are successful. Fr. Moise referred especially at the education of these days, when, from an early age, children are taught to compete with others and do everything necessary to win. We are taught that we can be either tigers or gazelles in life.[1]We either eat from the flesh of another, or we are eaten. Both cases are found in Do Not Avenge Us! There are indeed tigers and gazelles in these stories. The book you have in your hands is written from the perspective of the gazelles. The darkness that transpires from those pages is overwhelming, and the suffering is unbearable, even for those who, after years, only read about them. The lack of humanity, the inability to perceive a human being in the presence of another, and the viciousness that a human being can manifest are as many reasons to say that the world would have been a better place without the Bolsheviks. How could the book then be beautiful? Who would want to read a text full of darkness, of death, and of destruction?
The answer may be found in Fr. Moise’s phrase that I mentioned above. Indeed, the idea that we are to be revivers, not survivors, captures the essence of this book and witnesses to its beauty. You will encounter in these pages people who have lost everything: they lost their families, their homes, their country, their goods, and, at times, even their hopes. Nevertheless, they somehow come to surface once again[2]and do not lose precisely that which the Bolsheviks wanted to destroy: themselves. This recovery is achieved in connection: a son that reminds a mom of who she used to be, a good word from a fellow prisoner, or an embrace that reminds someone of being human.
This is not a book of morality. People do not give lessons and do not encourage others to only act in certain ways. In fact, many deal honestly with the temptation of being a “tiger.” In those times, being a tiger meant to betray your neighbor or to arrange things with authorities so that someone else would be send to Siberia in your place. It meant to become the head of the village and take everything from the others, trespass their properties, and threaten with rape. After all, it also meant just a “small” thing such as giving up your faith. I do not know how many of us can say without a doubt that we would choose the life of a beggar for our children if this were the only option that would allow them to maintain their human dignity. The people in this book do not claim such a heroic thing. They go even as far as acknowledging that, as luck has it, they could have been on the other side. Nicolae Istrate, one of the narrators, actually says, “I may have been like them. If they did not take me to Siberia, I may have been like them.”  When he says this, Istrate acknowledges that life is not about being better than the other, be it morally or socially. Suffering does not make one good; having powers over others does not make one evil. In fact, from the lines of this book we see once again—this testimony is recurrent among many of the survivors from communist persecution[3]—that there is nothing about human beings that make them good or bad.[4] There is, however, something, in which they express the meaning of being-human: the love for another person. Fr. Moise’s revivers do not love concepts; they do not love equality, the poor, or freedom. They love an infinite person in anyone of their neighbors.

[1] A president of a college actually delivered a speech to the new freshman class telling students that the school would teach them to be tigers and not gazelles, so they can feed themselves with the others and not be among losers.
[2] This does not mean that all people could revive; many did not.
[3] See also Aspazia Otel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison, published by Reflection Publishing.
[4] I emphasize here that the phrase claims something about human beings, about persons, and not about actions.

About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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