Apocalypse is safe in the glass

October 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of a revolution that shook the modern world. Hanoi in October and November, it seems brimming with “red” delight, a striking contrast between young people’s apathy toward the event and older generation’s dallying with nostalgia.

The entrance of National Library of Vietnam, Hanoi. Defying Hanoi’s bleak winter chill, bright scarlet posters were seen popular and stirring heat in people’s mind.

Stalin caught my eye when I was walking through the hall of the National Library in Hanoi. His name and portraits were placed among those of Lenin and other soviet revolutionaries in a month-long commemorating the Russian Revolution of 1917 (or better known here as the October Revolution). So I picked up an anthology of his writings and speeches, published in 1953, the year he died. Stalin and his legacy will always be controversial: the ruthless dictator under whom 40 millions people perished, or a great leader who spearheaded a country’s transformation? Regardless, his writing and speeches are self-evident of a megalomaniac.

Stalin and Lenin’s revolutionary speeches and various writings were on display. I was lucky to have picked up some to read before the library’s staff sealed off the shelves with glass panes.

I browsed through some of his national assembly addresses. A sense of self-assuredness cloaked in a camaraderie tone, whereas the early pages give away his fear and suspicion. Ironically, the very war-worn rural population that Lenin had promised “Peace, Land, and Bread” was wailing and falling deeper in crises; poverty was rampant while much done by the Party was relentlessly recruiting new “loyal” members and tightening the soviet control, militarily and ideologically.

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I could never overcome asking why intellectuals, artists, religious people had to die so that the “blue-collars” and “peasantry” will rule the country. Glorifying communism was a significant part of my early life’ education, until I learned English and was able to read for myself.

In Stalin’s words, grim consequences were to follow “unless we made the soviets act more forcefully and vigilantly, …”. Such were the expressions as frequent as the soviet paranoia about winning and controlling their rural population – the very birthplace of the soviet revolution. Nowadays perhaps few even care to ask ‘Why’.

One reason seems to stand out: Stalinists were busy persecuting the non-soviets. In one of his 1927 speeches, Stalin made it clear that Democratic Socialism is no friend to the soviets. In fact it was as evil as capitalism and therefore should be defeated. He called the anti-Bolshevik peasantry uprising in Georgia in 1924 as “thổ phỉ” (bandits uprising), supported by the opposition Mensheviks and capitalists – the evil must be terminated. My favorite essayist, George Orwell, did enjoy much more freedom of speech in his post-war England. Fast forward to 2016, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders obviously enjoyed much fanfare and popularity advocating for Democratic Socialism. It would not have been fantastic for them had they been in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s reign of terror. No one was entirely safe from his gaze.

The entrance TV screen displayed the two Russian revolutionaries whose names are inscribed in history. Time made heroes or losers; were they great leaders who launched the country into international stage, or ruthless masterminds who terrorized and murdered their own people?

In the same bookshelf, I found another book titled “The International Significance of the October Revolution”, published in 1952. In it Stalin made comparisons between the Bolsheviks and the French Jacobins – as both shook and shocked the world. According to Stalin, the Jacobins in reality did not do much to the social revolution but instead only perpetuated the class system – by replacing one exploiting class with another. In this sense, the bloody French Revolution couldn’t be called “triệt để”(exhaustive/absolute). In the dream to realize a classless society, Stalin took Lenin’s vision into a whole new level.

Few figures in the human history could have exerted such a terrifying combination of fear and idolatry as Stalin and, to a less apparent sense, Lenin. The Russian revolution of 1917 was indeed a landmark in humankind, but it was also bloody and senseless. It seems far-fetched for the VCP to return this historical event to its right place in history. I’m glad that the works of Stalin and Lenin are still there for discerning eyes to see just before the “glass panes” sealed them. Books are meant for reading, not for just displaying. Through their enticing yet intimidating lessons, we realize how close we were to apocalypse.

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