Exactly a century ago, the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia and began a reign of terror unprecedented in human history. What is the place of the Soviet Revolution and the communist ideology that inspired it in the American cultural imagination in 2017?
American Reds, a 2016 documentary film about the American Communist Party (CPUSA) and its relationship to the Russian Revolution, offers a poignant example of the way in which the American left’s vision of the Bolsheviks and their revolution has been lightly repackaged while remaining true to the roots of classic communist romanticism and deception. The film’s website claims it eschews both demonization and sentimentality, offering a balanced account of the events, but the discerning viewer cannot miss the myriad ways in which this work of cinematic ‘non-fiction’ tells the same factually challenged, emotionally hyperbolic story of another film, of a generation earlier with a similar title: Warren Beatty’s Reds (1980).
Beatty’s story is a self-conscious romance, the tale of the relationship of radical writers John Reed and Louise Bryant, with the Bolshevik Revolution as its canvas. The feminist Bryant’s commitment to the communist utopian ideal seems driven entirely by the magnetic repulsion of her hatred of conventional religious views on marital fidelity and gender roles. But Beatty’s Reed is an evangelical convert and street corner preacher of communism, with all the brutal passion and readiness to contemptuously dismiss any evidence contrary to the faith that this entails. In a stunning discussion between Reed and Emma Goldman, in which the latter expresses concern that the Revolution is starving, massacring, and jailing many of its citizens, Reed offers a naked, blanket apology for atrocity in the name of utopianism: “Did you expect social transformation to be anything other than a murderous process? It’s a war. We gotta fight it like we fight a war, with discipline, with terror, with firing squads.” Goldman has no response.
The Revolution is true, in Beatty’s vision, in the way that a love affair is true, far beyond rigorous analysis of the possible, the consequences, and the costs. The scenes in which Reed and Bryant dance and play in the Russian snow as the Bolsheviks take power, in which they and other revolutionaries enter the Winter Palace as polite concert-goers might enter the hall, in which we are treated to cuts from a deified Lenin exhorting the crowd to roars of approval, and then to Bryant and Reed beatifically kissing, all this would be laughable if only one could manage to forget the monstrous realities of those early days of the Revolution.
One could say Beatty’s excuse was the dearth of evidence of the extent of Bolshevik crimes before the Russian archives had opened to the outside world. But Richard Wormser, the filmmaker responsible for the love letter to the CPUSA that is American Reds, has no such explanation for these omnipresent absences in his film. Wormser uses one of the same key narrative techniques Beatty employed, i.e., an ongoing commentary from a host of eyewitnesses, typically in the form of wistful nostalgia and an unrepentant refusal to acknowledge the failings of the belief system that drove their lives. In Reds, they sing “The Internationale,” and talk in bright-eyed naiveté of the Revolution’s poetry.
In American Reds, the stories are similarly aesthetically polished, brimming with passionate if vacuous declamations, and ultimately indicative of the same deep level of self-deception and moral nihilism. One of American Reds’ claims is that American communists were important players in the movement to win and assure the civil rights of minorities. Party members tell us that their inspiration was the Soviet Union’s attitude on the rights of minorities, and the film weaves a heartwarming tale of the USSR welcoming American blacks who fled the U.S. to escape the racist corruption of capitalist social order. But even with the advantage of historical hindsight, those interviewed in the film still believe the mere fact that the Soviets embraced the propaganda value of parading around expatriate American blacks constituted evidence that they had eliminated prejudice in their own country. Can they, or Wormser, be unaware of the Soviet population transfers of ethnic Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and Chechens that resulted in millions of deaths by disease and starvation? Have they managed to believe the incredible idea that the post-Civil War caste system in the American South was worse than this systematic deportation and extermination of millions of ethnic Others by the Bolsheviks?
The most incriminating of the film’s deceptions has to do with the role of CPUSA members in Soviet-directed espionage. When Reds was made, the Venona project, a 40-year American counterintelligence effort to gather encrypted communications between Soviet intelligence forces and their American spies, was still unknown to the public. There is now an extensive literature demonstrating just how expansive and destructive this infiltration was. Yet American Reds contents itself with the tired myth of a paranoid America hysterically denouncing an invented communist menace. One sequence alludes ominously to the anti-communist propaganda of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, suggesting it legitimated violent animus toward peaceful leftists. The truth is there were hundreds of CPUSA members actively engaged in Soviet spying inside the federal government and among the ranks of scientists involved in military research. They helped the Soviet Union acquire atomic bomb technology years before they otherwise would have been expected to, and this tactical fact girded the Soviets for a military showdown in Korea that cost some 37,000 American lives. These appalling costs of communist infiltration are entirely absent in American Reds’ romantic tale of heroic, righteous radicals.
For a more accurate account of the human consequences of the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath, we might well turn to a third film, earlier than either of these, dramatized from the account of a Soviet dissident who saw communism in practice up close. Though it has been criticized for superficially depicting the historical landscape within which the love story at its core took place, Doctor Zhivago nonetheless tells profound truths about these events omitted in Reds and American Reds.
Among the film’s characters is Pasha Antipov, an idealistic radical who is converted by the Revolution’s victory into the merciless apparatchik Strelnikov. In one of the film’s signature moments, he addresses the poet-physician Yuri: “I used to admire your poetry…Feelings inside, affections, it’s suddenly trivial now. You don’t agree. You’re wrong. The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it…The private life is dead for a man with any manhood.” Yuri responds that he has witnessed Strelnikov’s manhood on display in the wake of the Bolshevik massacre of a nearby village. Strelnikov’s answer to this charge is terrifying: “What does it matter? The village betrays us, the village is burned. The point is made.” Yuri replies: “Your point; their village.”
This is a painfully simple truth about the impossibility of justification of Bolshevik crimes, in poetic or any other terms, which makes it all the more astounding that efforts such as Reds and now American Reds work so hard not to see it.
Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.