2013-06-08 – In a rare solo excursion, I drove down to the University of Chicago to see my cousin David Satter’s documentary film Age of Delirium, which is based on his book by the same title. It’s about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The film was presented as part of the Alumni Weekend. It was David’s 45th reunion. It was my 40th. After the film, David took questions.
Before I get to the questions, I want to give David one more plug. David’s film, just yesterday, won the Van Gogh Grand Jury Prize of the Amsterdam International Film Festival. I didn’t know that David was a film maker and here he is winning prizes! Congratulations David! Your mom and dad would be proud.
Now for the questions, or to be precise: one question.
One woman, a member of David’s class of 1968 asked how he compared Soviet atrocities and disregard for truth with what’s going on in the United States today. To me the question answers itself, but David gave the question great respect. He said that this question is often asked when he shows the film in the United States or Britain but that it’s not on people’s minds when he shows it in Russia. The reasons? There are two: First, the scale of the atrocities and deception of the Soviet Union were in a completely different league of enormity. Millions killed is a different level of persecution than enhanced scrutiny of an application for tax exemption! The second reason is that, even though there is plenty of contention in US politics, there is an underlying acceptance of a framework of right and wrong that didn’t exist in the Soviet Union. We could debate this latter point, but the first point is right on target.
I didn’t ask any questions. But if I had, I would have reframed this comparison question as follows.
David, when you analyze a regime like the Soviet Union, after its fall, or Nazi Germany, after its defeat, you have knowledge of the monstrosity that the regime became. My question is about the beginnings of delirium. Were the seeds of monstrosity planted from the very beginning? (And focus your answer on the Soviet Union. Let’s assume seeds of Nazi monstrosity were probably present from the beginning.) In your talk last night, you acknowledged that communism had appeal to many intelligent people. How does a people know when they are on the right path or the wrong path?
Folks in our political world like to talk about slippery slopes. Of course, only our opponents are on the slippery slope. Folks on the American right like to call things socialist that aren’t. Folks on the American left like to call things fascist that aren’t.
But the Soviet Union was authentically evil. When in its formation did it cross the line? And, based on your analysis, do we have anything comparable to worry about?