The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism
Temple University Press
Russia today is a metaphor for a kind of sickness: The country's convalescent president, corrupt capitalism, and anemic economy all indicate a wasting disease in the body politic. It's difficult to remember that only a decade ago, the Soviet Union appeared a stalwart adversary. Although the nation's public presence may have withered, Communism gave birth to a cultural legacy as well, some of it kitsch. And this seemingly meek aesthetic has proved wily in adapting to the ice age that has killed off the hulking institutions of Soviet state control. Just think about the auctioning of massive Lenin statues, or the multilayered dolls that bear a portrait of Soviet leaders in smaller and smaller shells. Communism has suffered as an ideology but blossomed as a trading commodity.
Longtime Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman ruminates on this legacy in The Red Atlantis, a dense collection of essays on topics ranging from the Hungarian film industry to Soviet Jewish art, to the treatment of Kafka in Czechoslovakia. To his credit, Hoberman avoids the tendency to view Communist culture as a monolithic evil. He demonstrates, for instance, how Hungarian avant-garde documentaries enjoyed a flourishing of sorts in the late 1960s and 1970s. In the archly sarcastic The Long-Distance Runner, for example, an athlete demonstrates his commitment to the socialist ideal by running all the way from Budapest to Moscow. But Hoberman also refuses to glorify any aspect of the repressive Warsaw Pact regimes. He notes, for example, how a Hungarian party secretary lost his post after approving The Resolution, a 1972 documentary that focused on the party's failed recall of the chairman of an agricultural cooperative. (The film then disappeared from public view for a decade.)
The legacy of Communism, Hoberman argues, lives on in America as well. (For evidence, one need look no further than this past Sunday's Academy Awards, and the protests over giving recognition to Elia Kazan, a House Un-American Activities Committee cooperator.) In a final chapter, Hoberman turns his attention to the controversy over Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Jewish Americans who were convicted and killed by the state in 1951 for handing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. In the chapter, titled "My Nuclear Family," Hoberman reports on a vitriolic 1983 public debate in New York on the subject of the couple's guilt. Even now that the evidence seems conclusive that Julius Rosenberg was indeed a spy, the matter appears unlikely to be put to rest anytime soon.
There is little quarreling about the strange durability of the culture produced under the stultifying conditions of the Communist regimes, as well as the art produced about Communism in the West. Although Coca-Cola, Hollywood, and Nike may have carried the day for now, Communist art and kitsch linger on as part of the Twentieth Century's uncertain legacy.