When I talk to practically any of my undergraduates these days, I have a nearly impossible task to do when I try to convince them that the twentieth century has, after all, ended much better than it might have been. The half-full undergraduates talk of how wonderful and advanced our industrial civilization is, and how human progress to this point was nearly inevitable. The half-empty undergraduates talk about poverty in the developing world, inequality, and injustice, and seem deaf to the idea that the world we live in is much better than the world that we seemed headed for during the second quarter of this century. The Great Depression. Stalin's purges. World War II. Hitler's genocides--they have read about these, but they are not *real*, and the idea that for decades people thought that the forces headed by Stalin or by Hitler were the wave of the future (or the last chance to stop an even greater evil) does not penetrate below the surface.
So the next time I teach a course on the entire politico-economic history of the twentieth century, I think I may assign Alan Furst's novel Dark Star, for it does a better job than anything else I have read to catch the atmosphere of the days when Josef Stalin seemed to be the lesser of two evils--and it is a very fine novel besides.
This is not my judgement alone. Historian Alan Bullock calls Dark Star "a classic.... Furst brings to life better than most historians the world of fear in which so many human beings felt trapped." Reviewing it for Time, Walter Shapiro sees it as a "classic black-and-white movie that captures the murky allegiances and moral ambiguity of Europe on the brink of war.... Nothing can be like watching Casablanca for the first time, but Furst comes closer than anyone has in years." And a third reviewer calls it "exceptionally fine... Kafka, Dostoevsky, and le Carre..."
Andre Szara is an Old Bolshevik, a hero of the Russian Civil War, a Jew, an intellectual, a long-time foreign correspondent for Pravda--hence he moves about Europe with ease, from Paris to Ostend to Prague to Berlin--and an occasional helper of the Russian espionage services. He is not a happy man in his role of always echoing back to Moscow its latest propaganda line: "Once... he'd persuaded himself that... a sentence singing hymns to the attainment of coal production norms in the Donets Basin was, nonetheless, a sentence, and could be well rendered. It was the writer's responsibility in a progressive society to inform and uplift the toiling masses--word had, in fact, reached him that the number one toiler himself had an eye for his byline..."
Szara, however, has survived by teaching "himself discretion before the apparat had a chance to do the job for him." His pen remained uncooperative and "stubbornly produced commissar wolves guarding flocks of worker sheep or Parisian girls in silk underwear, well, then the great characteristic of paper was the ease with which it burned..." But now in the late 1930s his options and his room for maneuver are closing down. Hitler is in the saddle in Berlin. The English prime minister dismisses the countries of central Europe as faraway places of which the English know little. In Russia, Stalin has decided that the consolidation of his power requires purge upon purge--with Jews and Old Bolsheviks highest on the list. And a sinister NKVD general has decided to use Szara as a tool for his own purposes of exposing pre-revolutionary spies within the Communist Party and of increasing the pitifully small number of Jews fleeing Europe the British allow to settle in Palestine.
So Szara tries to keep from being killed either by his own Russian side, by the German espionage services, or just by accident when Nazis go hunting Jews in the night for sport. Rotten as the Soviet Union is, and tyrannical as Stalin may be, it remains true that Szara's side is the good guy. But what if that great hope sees Hitler not as his adversary but his ally?
And what business does Szara ultimately find himself in? As the sinister NKVD general puts it, there has to be a great lowering of sights. Szara was "...like all of us... in the paradise business. We got rid of the czar and his pogroms to make a place where Jews, where everyone, could live like human beings and not like slaves or beasts.... And yet... paradise slipped away. Because now we have a new pogrom, run, like so many in history, by a shrewd peasant who understands hatred.... What do I offer my associates? A chance to save a few Jewish lives.... Is it dangerous? Oh yes. Could you die? It's likely. Will your heroism be known to history? Very doubtful. Now, have I successfully persuaded you to throw everything you value in life away and follow this pecuiliar, ugly man over the nearest horizon to some dreadful fate?"
Highly, highly recommended.