I’m not yet old enough to perk up my ears every time an old man dies. Yet I was saddened to learn that an old communist I’d known gave up the ghost recently. I’d visited his St Petersburg apartment about fifteen winters ago and we tossed back many tumblers of Ararat cognac. (The Armenian stuff Churchill was fond of – and yes – properly called ‘cognac’ after it won a taste test back in the day (See, Wiki)).
I will call him Vanya: Grim. Gray. Gaunt hands resting on a carved cane. The graves of many comrades reclaimed by nature long ago. He was neatly dressed and had a certain Soviet kind of cleanliness that is somehow different from Western cleanliness. I believe he had been a military engineer.
He said things like: ‘Poetry is food for the soul. A man who rejects it is a beast.’ And he recited countless poems from memory.
I remember he mentioned how his teachers, when he was a boy, would take the classes on ‘literary walks’ to the places associated with the great masters of Russian literature and how everything was weaved in with the books read in class. These peregrinations, through boulevards and alleys, hit every spot where the old, rarified culture still hovered. And all the important names stuck in little Vanya’s cranium. ‘Literature reconciles us to existence…’ he added, ‘Our people will never accept a relativistic education. For us, literature, music, even architecture, is a promise that the world is good. We will always be so, whatever way things go.’
He even hammered on a piano and produced a melancholic thunder of real beauty. And something he said stayed with me: ‘I cannot, on principle, accept official religion, yet I believe music comes to our world from another purer world. It is the highest form of Platonism. And, for good or ill, it is not possible for an artist to be an atheist.’
We talked more about Pushkin and Prokofiev than Perestroika and the former Politburo. But he did opine that Russia ‘needed Putin’ or it would fall into ‘banditry, anarchy and financial feudalism’.
There was a photograph of a sturdy aproned woman in a flowing skirt, like a Gypsy’s, on his row of endless books. ‘That was my Tanya,’ he said.
At one point, he put some drops on his tooth. Apparently, he’d had the same toothache since time out of mind. But when I asked if it was hard to get a dentist appointment, he only gave me a bemused look, like my whole civilization was made of soft stuff or something. And what made it odd was his declaration that ‘all disease comes from the teeth or the nerves’.
Anyways, what really confounds me about Vanya is: Why did I like him? It makes no sense!
The fact is, I can’t bear progressives. Sure, when I was younger, I would ‘exchange ideas’ and all. But these days my brain is too full for that. I’ve got to forget something before anything new gets in. So how could I like a near Stalinist when I can barely stomach a deconstructionist? Was I some sort of perverse hypocrite? Am I really that unfixed in principle?
But soon I figured things out: It seems, deep down, I don’t measure a man by ideology. Yet I have been contaminated by the leftist doctrine that the human person is only a mirage ‘constructed’ by the ever-changing flow of ideas (or else a bundle of biologically determined wants in the case of homosexuality). In America, this is especially so, because our entire national life is built on ephemeral concepts. And so, our common destiny depends, lopsidedly, on whatever dominant ideas happen to float in the air. Chesterton noticed this when he said that in England it isn’t so much what a man thinks, since everyone knows how he spends his time: Lord So-and-So might be an anarchist, but he’ll still dress for dinner (Cambridge spy cells notwithstanding).
Yes, I liked our Communist simply because he was a good man. He had a sense of personal honor as punctilious as that of any knight who had donned shining armor. And shall I say it? This Marxist was something not ideological (as leftist would have us believe): a tory!
Now, I know that for purges and gulags to happen, there needs to be an adequate number of scoundrels to do the dirty work. And I have never held a whit of sympathy for the Soviet experiment. Yet, fairness compels me to own that many ordinary Soviet citizens were probably not unlike our hero. And, in any case, he is of the type I most often met in my travels over there.
But how does our Vanya compare to the progressives that surround me now like flies? Well, I no doubt could excavate some sufficiently noble contemporary to hold a candle to him. But that would not be a representative sample. The sort of progressive that usually comes my way is more like a man I will call Lance.
I’m not sure how Lance got the job at my former company. From day one he gave the marked impression the whole place irritated him. He was the kind of guy who expansively proclaimed his sympathy for all the world’s oppressed (not just people but even chickens and cows). Yet he was singularly hated by those most oppressed at our company: the clerks and janitorial staff. He even made the cleaning lady change some chemical she used, citing his allergies.
And let me tell you of Lance’s coup de grace. Once, the boss called him into his office to discuss some business, but he did it while holding a bacon cheeseburger. And what does Lance do? He complains about being obliged to smell roasted flesh. And the boss was duly compelled to change his ancient practice. Yes, Lance cancelled a bacon cheeseburger.
Once, after his girlfriend hurled a book at him, Lance summoned the police and had her tossed from her own leasehold – and he somehow managed to continue dwelling there without her. (If I knew Lance’s methodology, for all the frying pans that have flown at my head, I’d have several handsome residences by now).
But his own revolution turned around and ate him in the end. This happened after Lance told a black woman, who was engaged to marry, that she’d be putting herself into ‘domestic slavery’. All the blacks and woman started a campaign against him. And the boss was onboard. So, one day, he was called into the Human Resources office and nobody saw him again. This was one instance that the PC Police really did some good.
Anyways, I bet this is the first instance that a communist was heartfully praised in these venerable pages. But this life is a variegated business, gentle reader, and strange things happen if only one lives long enough.
This article was published in the December 2021 edition of The Salisbury Review, The UK’s most conservative magazine.
Mark Mantel is an American lawyer. He was born in St Petersburg and left when he was a boy. He went there for long trips during his university years and during law school. He was christened into the Orthodox Church during Soviet times (in a village church) and still keeps to that faith.