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Assignment in Utopia Paperback – 31 Jan 1991
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"Let no one who wishes insight into the baffling complexities of contemporary Russia lay aside this book lightly. It abounds in revealing, often comical, incidents of daily life, interlarded with inside' stories on the origin and development of outstanding news stories such as that of the famine of 1932-1933, which have been instrumental in shaping world opinion about the U.S.S.R. Not least interesting is the chain of seemingly incredible events which led to the author's expulsion from the country."-Atlantic
About the Author
Eugene Lyons (1898--1985) was journalist and author of numerous books about the Soviet Union, and the danger of Communist hegemony. He spent his mature years as an editor at the Reader's Digest.
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Some forty years ago Alexander Solzhenitsyn was so astonished to see that the events in his Nobel-prized “Gulag Archipelago” were an absolute revelation for a lot of American readers, thou’ he was using during his work dozens of much earlier Western-published books about the horrors of Soviet life. Nevertheless, only a tiny part of his reading American audience knew that those silent witnesses of the Communist crimes still existed: there were no intentions to reprint them for intensive study in history programs. They were becoming just antique rarities for some few connoisseurs.
Years later Solzhenitsyn had discovered the precise reason for that strange (or, rather, tragic) forgetfulness: “The communist regime in the East could endure and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who (feeling the kinship!) refused to see communism's crimes, and when they no longer could do so, they tried to justify these crimes. The problem persists: in our Eastern countries communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat. And yet Western intellectuals still look at it with considerable interest and empathy”.
Today one may safely substitute the Solzhenitsyn’s obsolete “Western intellectuals” by the brave new “Leftists”, since their mob – with hardly a shadow of intellect, but then with lots of pretending – was allowed to rule practically everything, from education and publishing houses to MSM and state bureaucracy. Would Eugene Lyons be still alive today, he’d probably create another description of Utopia, this time without any need for foreign visas…
The situation may sound like Make Utopia Great Again – hence, here comes a natural question: will MAGA defeat MUGA? Truth to tell, I do not know. But at least I do know that the Eugene Lyons’ book does not need any great-making-again: it IS great.
If you wonder why people who should know better lie about what they see in front of their noses, it's all explained in this book. And nowhere will you find it better explained. Lyons' writing flows and carries you effortlessly through this horrifying story.
Lyons himself had been born to a Jewish family in the old Russian Empire but grew up in the tenement slums of the Lower East Side of New York City. Like many young people of that background and generation, he gravitated to socialism and welcomed not only the collapse of the autocratic and anti-semitic tsarist regime in 1917 but also the emergence of a new radical alternative with the Bolshevik October Revolution. By the early 1920s young Lyons was a journalist and vigorous fellow-travelling propagandist for the Bolsheviks. In 1928, on assignment for United Press International, Lyons had the opportunity to come to the USSR for himself, and from 1928 to 1934 Lyons would not only cover Soviet affairs but would even have the opportunity to meet the great dictator Stalin himself.
The account that Lyons gives of this experience is eye-opening. No one today who pays attention can be unaware of Stalin's crimes or the nature of the Communist regime as it evolved in the USSR, and yet even today, more than 70 years after the book's publication, this book still provides a gripping insight into the nature of the regime and the horrors of Stalinist Communism. Lyons is honest enough to acknowledge his own role early on in concealing the extent of these horrors to his readers, mentioning for example his role in dismissing journalist Gareth Jones' accounts of famine in the Ukraine. He tries to explain why journalists in the USSR closed their eyes to these facts and why he eventually felt he had to be open with his readers, and why he could not accept the rationalizations of people like radical Anna Louis Strong and New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who continued to lie to their readers.
Lyons was too honest -- and too horrified by the terror -- to close his eyes for long, and eventually he is compelled to leave the country. His accounts of the horrors of what were happening in the USSR are still shocking, but perhaps even more disturbing are the accounts of western political "tourists" -- often literary and intellectual celebrities like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and Romain Rolland -- who seemed to be stubbornly, almost willfully, blind to the realities of Soviet existence. Such apologists for Stalinism appalled him, and even more depressing was the unwillingness of liberal or fellow-travelling audiences to hear or understand what he had to say once he came home. While most Socialists and the anti-Stalinist left had come to understand the meaning of Stalinism (and it was the Socialist movement, not the political right, that was the principle target of Communist hostility during the Comintern Third Period, 1928-1934), too many others on the left, especially among well-meaning liberals, simply did not want to have their illusions about the workers' paradise shattered. Nor did Lyons have any patience with those on the American Right who tried to compare the mild liberal democratic reforms of the New Deal to the brutalities, paranoia and terror of Stalinism.
Lyons's book is essential reading for anyone trying to understand what was happening in the Soviet Union in the 1930s -- especially for those on the left who still in some dark corner of their mind wish to hold on to the notion of the Soviet Union as a "progressive force." During the 1930s the pressures of economic depression and the menace of rising fascism and rightist militarism made the need for unity on the left imperative and this created an entirely justified Popular Front impulse that sought to overlook differences on the Left in favor of common resistance to Nazism and Fascism. Lyons demonstrated that this unity might come at too high a price. In his controversial 1941 book, "The Red Decade", Lyons goes further in attacking a Popular Front ethos that ended up making excuses and apologies for Stalinist crimes in the name of anti-fascist unity, although the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact demonstrated the bankruptcy of this "unity." But even if one feels the need to qualify some of the claims Lyons makes in his 1941 book (as author Frank Warren would do in his 1966 book "Liberals and Communism: The Red Decade Revisited"), Lyons in "Assignment to Utopia" makes a valuable contribution to understanding not only the meaning and nature of Stalinism, but also offers valuable insight into the struggle by those on the non-Communist Left to make sense of the Soviet experiment.
Lyons himself would later turn politically to the right, rejecting not only Communism but those efforts to minimize or downplay the insidious influence of Communism in American life. By the 1960s he was an editor with Reader's Digest and contributed to other conservative journals. One does not have to accept his later political evolution to appreciate the value of his contribution to our understanding of Stalinism through "Assignment to Utopia." Nor does one have to fully accept his growing anxiety about Communist influence in liberal and fellow-travelling circles during the 1930s and 1940s -- although I suspect he had more reason for this anxiety than is sometimes appreciated today -- to appreciate the importance of his descriptions of life in the USSR. "Assignment to Utopia" is a very good book, a very important book, and one that still deserves reading now that the Soviet Union has collapsed into the metaphorical historical trash bin.