Cold War Ghosts

London Review of Books, 12.01.2017
Peter Pomerantsev
  •  ‘Russia is a mental subcontinent, the subconscious of the West. This is why we place our fears, our phobias and foibles in Russia,’ a character says in Zinovy Zinik’s novel Sounds Familiar or The Beast of Artek.

The book, published last summer, explores the way the Kremlin Menace can loom to a monstrous size in the Western imagination. A timely subject, given the way the debate around Donald Trump’s admiration of Vladimir Putin has morphed into a grotesque tale of Putin playing puppet-master in the US election – complete, according to a recently leaked ‘unverified’ report, with candid camera footage of Trump enjoying golden showers in the Moscow Ritz and secret meetings between the Kremlin and Trump’s team in Prague (home of the Golem).

The first character we meet in Sounds Familiar is Sim, a Russian émigré, now living in Hampstead, who carries around all the baggage of a Soviet upbringing: he grew up in a communal flat where he could hear his relatives fucking and cheating on each other. His first sexual partner is an in-law, who dies when a bathroom wall collapses on them. His parents are taken away to labour camps and he’s raped in a Young Pioneer camp. He has hallucinations of a bald, bare-breasted monster who appears at moments of mental stress.

Contemporary Russian literature is full of ghosts. The historian and philologist Alexander Etkind connects this to the country’s failure to come to terms with its traumatic past. But the West is haunted too. In Zinik’s novel, many of Sim’s North London neighbours were raised by pro-Soviet parents. They spent time at Artek, the Young Pioneer camp in Crimea which welcomed socialist kids from around the world. Many of them believe the director of Artek, Makarenko, raped them. (He shares a name with the Soviet educational theorist Anton Makarenko, who died in 1939.) Zinik’s Makarenko has since recreated himself as an online bodybuilding guru who manipulates people across the world through the web.

But the true villain of the piece turns out to be Archibald Wren, a Home Office official who met Makarenko in the 1990s while organising the disposal of British industrial waste in Crimea. Together they turned Artek into a paedophile brothel for the global plutocracy. It was Wren who raped Sim, pretending to be Makarenko, and he has convinced the other characters that Makarenko is an über-villain. He wants them to kill his former associate so he can steal the money he has helped launder. They are easy to manipulate because, having once believed Soviet Russia was heaven, they can now be convinced it is hell.

I often think of Sim when I travel to Eastern and Northern Europe. In Ukraine, Georgia or the Baltic states, there are good reasons to feel haunted by the Kremlin. Moscow uses a combination of corruption, cyber attacks and propaganda that draws on historical trauma (as well as the odd invasion) to make mischief in its former empire. But rather than talk about these very real problems, a lot of people seem happier with a rhetorical battle against an abstract beast known as the ‘Soviet Mentality’.

The US is also still in thrall to Cold War ghosts. The descendants of anti-Soviet liberals accuse today’s pro-Putin leftists of being useful idiots, who in turn accuse the anti-Russian liberals of being neo-McCarthyists. Cold Warriors are reliving their youth by fighting Putin’s supposedly neo-Soviet ambitions, while ageing Cold War doves get to be young again by claiming they will stop the New Cold War. Meanwhile, Republican voters who used to see Soviet Russia as the ultimate enemy are apparently just as easily convinced that it’s their new best friend.

At the end of Zinik’s novel, Sim and his friends exorcise their Cold War ghosts in a bizarre therapeutic ritual. The ‘Beast’ of Artek turns out to have a rational, if brutal, historical explanation. The characters begin a new life in which they can see things for what they are. This can’t come too soon in the real world too. Cold War categories are particularly unhelpful in making sense of our current shitstorm. The danger today is less a Cold War style confrontation between Moscow and Washington than an alliance between Putin’s Russia, Trump’s America and whoever else wants to join in a carnival of nationalism, hate-speech, bullshit and corruption. I can only hope that that monster exists, like the Beast of Artek, only in my imagination.

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