With the exception of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — whose circle of defenders and sympathisers have just come together at the Museum of Jewish Heritage here for a new documentary celebrating their martyrdom — there is no greater Cold War icon than Alger Hiss, the patrician, high-ranking state department official who passed government secrets to the Soviet Union. Hiss was exposed 60 years ago and did time for his crimes. The Left, however, always insisted he was framed despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt.
I sat next to Hiss once during a Spectator lunch and caught him red-handed telling a whopper about Bill Buckley and myself. As he was already quite old — this was 25 years ago — I let it pass. Hiss spent 52 years waging a campaign of vindication, which partly succeeded because he made common cause with Sixties radicals and Nixon-haters. (Nixon was the man who went after him.) With Soviet military intelligence files now open, Hiss’s guilt is indisputable. He was a Soviet agent who got caught, pure and simple.
As were the Rosenbergs. The reason their case ignites passions is that they fried. The Cold War was really heating up in 1953, and Ike simply could not commute the death sentence — a death sentence which Philby, Burgess and Maclean surely deserved, and perhaps even Blunt. Treason is treason, but nowadays it has been deconstructed into something like a bi-polar condition or, better yet, lack of self-esteem. (What can I tell you, Doc? I thought so little of myself I passed secret documents to Joe Stalin in order to feel better about myself...)
This does not sit very well with my good friend Garri Karolinsky, whose father and mother died in the Gulag and who also did time there for anti-Soviet activities. Garri is a bitter man, and rightly so. ‘A sizable cadre of American intellectuals openly applaud and apologise for one of the bloodiest ideologies of human history,’ he says, ‘and, instead of being treated as Holocaust deniers are, they have distinguished positions in American higher education and cultural life.’ (If he lived in Britain, he’d be a hell of a lot angrier.)
Stalin and the evil system of communism killed on a vastly larger scale than Hitler and Nazism, yet the useful idiots to this day refuse to condemn the bestiality of that system. It is as if the tens of millions that were imprisoned in the most horrendous of camps, who were starved, tortured and murdered (the murdered were the lucky ones), were subhuman species who didn’t really count.
When Garri Karolinsky, who has published countless books in Russian under the name Garri Tabachnik, first arrived in America in 1974, he was shocked at the ‘amazing lack of knowledge of students about the Soviet Union’. The few questions he got were so stupid, according to Garri, he had problems answering them. ‘How often did you have conjugal visits in the Gulag?’ was one which stands out. The other surprise, which is no surprise, was the way the New York Times ignored him once he was out of harm’s way. (He was eagerly sought out by the paper while in Moscow.)
When Garri got some backing and began an anti-communist publication —Free World — it was totally ignored by so-called Sovietologists. No publishing house accepted the numerous books he churned out. He was prevented from working with Radio Liberty and with the Voice of America. He thinks the KGB had infiltrated both institutions and made sure a knowing voice like his was silenced. It finally dawned on him that the dominant American elite was, and is, soft on communism. After the collapse of the cruellest system devised by humans, Garri became a star in the new Russia. Two volumes of his memoirs — Russian Key and A Voice from the Mausoleum — made him known in his homeland, and he’s now published the final volume of this trilogy.
Garri and his wife Zina — a world-renowned ballet dancer — live quietly in a New York suburb. They compete in ballroom-dancing contests, winning the lot. But Garri is an unquiet psyche. He explains that only those who have lived under the threat of the midnight knock can understand what it was like living under the Soviet system. When I once said to him that, at least under the Soviets, crooks like the oligarchs did not steal the nation’s wealth in order to spend it on yachts, private jets, large houses, hookers and football teams, he got so angry that I thought he’d take a swipe at me.
But even if he had, I would not have told him about a bar in the East Village right here in the Bagel. Its name is KGB, and it’s jammed to the rafters every night, especially on Sundays. The corporate symbol of the bar is a hammer-and-sickle, and writers of a certain persuasion read from their work in progress and publishers come to applaud. In view of the fact that writers were among the first to be tortured and killed by the KGB, it is obvious that the scribblers have come around and learned to love Big Brother. My question is this: how long would a New York club named Gestapo, with posters of Treblinka and portraits of Julius Streicher plastered on its walls, stay open for business? Why have we turned a blind eye to those who suffered and died under Stalin?