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Clarissa’s Soviet Story

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I’m in the editing and rewriting stage of Live Not By Lies now, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk yesterday with a woman I’ll call “Clarissa,” whose stories were so good that I’m weaving them into the book’s narrative.

Clarissa is a college professor who emigrated to the US from Russia as a young woman, a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. She is yet another ex-Soviet bloc person who is extremely anxious about the emergence of soft totalitarianism here. Of course she can’t use her real name, because she fears professional retaliation. It should tell us something that not a single academic from a former communist country that I interviewed for this book was willing to speak using their own name — this, in the Land of the Free. Why not? Because they were afraid of facing professional consequences for speaking out against identity politics and the “social justice” regime. Below, some quotes from our interview:

I have the feeling of extreme frustration. Our stories of people in the former Soviet space are constantly dismissed. I have no idea why. I think it happens because people still think that the ideas that existed in the Soviet Union are basically good – that it was the execution that was at times excessive. My father says what happened to us was not about the economic system. The economic system was just an excuse. This could happen anywhere – even under capitalism.

Totalitarianism is something that takes away from people the unbearable burden of freedom. It allows many people to hound and persecute with impunity. That is pleasant in many senses. There was a practice in the Soviet Union where people would be told to get together in groups at work and write letters to the newspaper to denounce famous poets or artists. We see that today in Twitter. People love that because it allows a little person to completely destroy somebody who has done something great.

This is very human. Once you have removed any moral or religious obstacles to that behavior, what’s to stop anybody?

When I was nine years old, I had a teacher of Russian literature. I really admired her. What we didn’t know was that her father was a high ranking KGB officer. He found out that a little girl in our class, Masha, was attending church with her parents, and not only that, but was singing in the choir. The teacher one day pulled that little girl out in the class and for an hour unleashed a torrent of abuse on this child. For what? The feeling of power of persecuting that child in front of the rest of us. This is not happening right now in the US, but it’s conceivable.

(On American vulnerability to totalitarianism)

It’s American exceptionalism. You all think you’re such special people that you’re going to do it right. If socialism comes here, don’t worry, we’ll make it happen in the correct way. Not true! Ten years ago if you had told me I would be seeing this in the US, I would have laughed in your face. But now it’s happening. I’m seeing it happening to my friends. It’s like their minds are disintegrating.

Once your religion is taken away, you still have a need for an overarching moral law. You’re going to look for it somewhere else, even outside religion. We’re seeing it now with this identity politics. … In the Soviet Union when I was young, cynicism was everywhere. Nobody believed in anything. Everybody just went through the motions. I used to think that cynicism was the worst thing in the world. It’s not. The worst thing in the world is the lack of cynicism and critical difference, and accepting everything uncritically. These people today, they really believe all this woke ideology. And that’s what’s really scary

I have a friend who is very woke. The woke ideology is the belief is that if somebody departs from the dogma, even by an inch, that person is an evil, hate-filled bigot. When I disagree with her, I can see that she genuinely can’t comprehend that I disagree with her. She knows I’m a good person, but here I am disagreeing with her. She can’t understand it. And she’s an educated person! A college professor.

The intellectuals are playing a dangerous game. They think they can control it. They think that once their ideas are imposed on society, they can control it. That’s ludicrous. They’re going to be the first ones the system turns on, because as intellectuals, they can be the first ones to spot the flaws in the system.

Nobody is going to be safe. Nobody can pledge enough allegiance to this kind of system to protect themselves.

I mentor early career academics. I used to enjoy it, but not anymore. These graduate students are not producing scholarship. They’re just turning in collections of woke slogans. I don’t even know what to do with that. When we start talking to the younger academics, they don’t understand what we want for them. They were taught this way, and they’re reproducing it. I see this from students who come to college. It seems like all they get in the schools is dogma. They are blank slates. They have no real knowledge of anything – they just repeat slogans, and when you ask them to explain it, they turn blank.

In the Soviet Union, when you were a student and assigned to write a paper, you knew that the thing to do was to go straight to the correct books in the library and copy the relevant articles, word for word, with no deviations. That was your paper. When my family left, we arrived in Canada, and I entered the university there. When I was assigned my first paper, I found it impossible to believe that the teacher really did want me to think for myself. It was an incredible feeling! To think about something, and to say what I really thought about it! It was so weird, but so liberating.

Now, I’m seeing young people who are just like we were in the Soviet Union. They are afraid to think for themselves. They only want to know what the “right” answer is, and repeat it. It’s depressing.

The problem is that many people still associate totalitarianism with an all-powerful state, and if it doesn’t come from the state, it’s not totalitarianism. What we’re dealing with now is not coming from the state. None of us are afraid that the government is going to send secret police and take us to the dungeon. That’s not going to happen. No. We’re afraid of being humiliated and deprived of a living. Of being a pariah, of being marginalized, unpersonned, cancelled. You don’t need the government for that, especially in the age of social media. It wasn’t the government hounding those Covington Catholic boys, or J.K. Rowling.

Voting for someone [as a protest against political correctness] is wonderful, but the government cannot solve this problem.

Since I started going to church a couple of years ago, I began to understand what was taken from us. I feel incredibly angry that we were deprived of something that’s such a huge part of our culture and civilization, that it taken from us. I take my little girl to church and Sunday school. I want my child to know this so she doesn’t have to discover it in her forties, and feel clumsy.

I wish we had some form of a secret handshake [on my campus]. I know a couple of other professors on campus who I suspect are one of us. But everybody is so closeted, it’s impossible to talk about it.

We have this bias response team that prowls the campus looking for signs of non-compliance, and to justify their existence. We had the same thing in the Soviet Union. Right now they’re on campus, but eventually, they’re going to be in every workplace. If you have everybody in your workplace trained in diversity, then you can treat your workers however you like, and nobody will care.

(On the culture created by diversity and sensitivity training in the workplace)

All your co-workers are enemies. Either they can get you in trouble, or they are out to destroy you with an accusation. It destroys all sorts of uncontrollable communities – friendship, families, church communities. When you set people against each other, they are much easier to control. This is what it was like under totalitarianism.

I hope in this book you can convey a sense of urgency. If you think you can hide from this, and not have to confront it, you’re dreaming. This is coming for everybody. This is coming soon, and people have to think about it now. If you know how you’re going to respond when the persecution comes, you will be in a better position to react to it.

There will be more in Live Not By Lies, out in early September. By the way, I’m going to be traveling today to a weekend wedding, so comments approval is going to be delayed.

By the way, here is a link to Clarissa’s blog, if you’re interested. Here’s a post from a previous blog of hers, about her father’s life as a closeted Christian in the USSR.

Here’s a Clarissa post on teaching a class on totalitarianism. Excerpt:

The wall-to-wall propaganda that characterizes this new totalitarianism isn’t state-sponsored either. It’s disseminated solely through corporate channels. Traditional politicians are squeezed out by TV and social media stars who represent this new form of power. The complete dependence of their popularity on Twitter and Instagram means they will do absolutely anything to avoid being deplatformed. It’s no longer about courting rich donors to donate to your campaign. Now it’s all about being a funny enough clown that attracts hits and likes to enrich the owners of these platforms.

Every day, the power of these giant corporations to unearth a tweet or a like on a tweet that can sink absolutely anybody grows. There is no need for a state to keep a dossier of kompromat (compromising material) on each citizen. This process has been completely corporatized. And the worst part is that people who are wielding this sort of coercive power honestly see themselves as powerless victims who have to defend themselves from coercion.

You know, since I started writing this post, I went to look up the blog entry I posted from my first interview with Clarissa, a year or so ago. I couldn’t find it, except in my notes for the book. I wonder if I ever posted it. Sorry if you’ve already seen it, but I suspect I forgot to put it on the site. Here’s the text:

Just got off the phone with a Soviet-born academic who teaches in a small state university in the American heartland. She blogs under the name “Clarissa,” but I got her real name, and checked her out. She’s REALLY excited about this book, and told me she would be a source, and introduce me to the emigre community. She’s teaching a class on totalitarianism this semester, and is unnerved to have discovered that every single one of her students thinks that socialism is a good thing.

“I teach in the heart of America, in what a lot of people think of as the Bible Belt, and this is how they think,” she said.

She got her PhD at a top American university (I checked this out), and said that it was a constant struggle there to be heard. Whenever Marxist topics would come up, she would talk about her experience in the USSR, and people would shout her down. “You wouldn’t believe the rage in their faces,” she said. “They did not want to hear it.”

She said that when she talks to her parents and tells her about things she’s seeing as an American academic, within academia, they’re shocked. They keep saying, “It’s like we had it back in the Soviet Union!”

She has learned to be very, very careful about what she says among her colleagues. She knows that nobody wants to hear it, and now she’s afraid of being identified and punished. She said, “I have to live my intellectual and spiritual life underground. I stay silent about so many things with my colleagues because I know that they would honestly and sincerely see me as some kind of monster because of the things I believe, which are in no way radical.”

Yesterday a tenured academic she knows in California wrote to her to say that he withdrew from publication a paper he had written that very mildly criticizes woke dogma (she didn’t say what it was) within the academy, because he lost his nerve. He’s tenured, so he wasn’t afraid of losing his job. He was afraid of becoming a pariah — of his friends turning their backs on him because of his views, and others being afraid to take his side out of fear that they would be seen as tainted.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t want anybody at work to know I read your blog,” she said.

She also said that she can’t stand Trump, but has come to see him as the only obstacle between herself and total progressive madness. “It’s the most frustrating thing!” she said, her voice rising. I told her I agreed with her, and we laughed about that.

The diversity commissars have everybody terrified at her university, she said. Recently the chief diversity officer publicly identified her as “transphobic.” Why? Because a student asked her about use of the term “Latinx.” It came up in class, and as a Spanish speaker, she mentioned that many Spanish speakers hate the term. For this, she was identified as “transphobic” by the diversity office. She said that she didn’t even express an opinion about the term, only noted that it’s not popular among Spanish speakers. So now she’s on the watch list.

Here’s something really interesting: she said that one of her research interests is how multinational corporations undermine the nation-state. She said that wokeness in corporate America is a weapon used by white-collar professionals to weed out competitors for increasingly scarce jobs. She said, “People find ideological purity tests useful to weed out people who compete for jobs you cover. Progressive forces are completely allied with globalist capitalism.”

She also said that people have no idea how vulnerable they are to this mindset, because of social media. “You will not be able to predict what will be held against you tomorrow. You have no idea what completely normal thing you do today, or say today, will be used against you to destroy you. This is what people in the Soviet Union saw. We know how this works. This is why people like me are so upset today. I’m so glad you’re writing this book. Thank you for calling me and letting me vent.”

Remember to check out Clarissa’s blog. I hope she’ll tell more Soviet stories, and talk about how they relate to what’s going on in contemporary American academic culture, and beyond.

If you’re interested, here’s the speech on the topic that I gave in Rome earlier this month:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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