A review from The Washington Post, 14 March 1999

The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism
J. Hoberman

Review by Abraham Brumberg

This is a superb collection of essays—deft, penetrating, erudite, witty and altogether a pleasure to read. A long time film and art critic for the Village Voice and professor of cinema at Cooper Union, Hoberman is clearly at home with several languages, and has an affinity for the absurd and surreal, which render his occasional forays into the latter both wildly comic and heart-rending.

A case in point is the saga of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, from their trial for treason at the end of 1951 to the public debate held in New York City's Town Hall more than 20 years later. In recounting the story, Hoberman shifts back and forth from reportorial passages to flights of fantasy, such as conflating the personas of Julius Rosenberg and the Czech Communist leader Rudolf Slansky. Both were executed as spies in the early 1950s: the first together with his wife, in New York, for spying for Moscow; the other in Prague, along with other communists, all found guilty of spying for the United States and World Zionism.

Neither a superannuated "cold warrior" nor a "revisionist" given to coating the American Communist Party with a patina of sincere if misguided idealism, Hoberman is equally astringent about Walter and Miriam Schneir, who contended in Town Hall that the Rosenbergs were the innocent victims of rapacious American imperialism, and about Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, authors of the then-recently published Invitation to an Inquest, who argued that the Rosenbergs were rotten traitors and rotten human beings and that the Communist Party that nourished them (along with co-author Radosh in his younger days) was au fond a pack of rotters. The obscenity of sending a man and his wife to the electric chair and inflating their squalid activities (which did not amount to handing the secrets of the atom bomb to Moscow) into the crime of the century had no effect on Radosh's triumphant zeal, nor on that of his young co-author. The context be damned: All that mattered was the Rosenbergs' zeal to do anything for the country they adored. (I was present that night at Town Hall, and Hoberman faithfully recreates the three-ring circus into which it turned, with imprecations bellowed from the floor, hundreds of people rushing to the exists, and the pair of prosecuting and defense "attorneys" manfully holding the fort.)

There was one more malodorous aspect of the Rosenberg drama. All its actors were Jews—the two principal culprits, relatives, friends and comrades implicated in their spying activities, the defense and prosecuting attorneys, and Judge Irving Kaufman, who sentenced them to death, "all but calling Julius and Ethel the worst Jews who ever lived. . . responsible for fifty thousand casualties and who knows but millions more." No wonder, then, that the foreman of the jury, that only Gentile body in the whole trial—felt good that the trial was "a strictly Jewish show" "It was Jews against Jew," he recalled later on. "It wasn't the Christians hanging the Jews." Today, few are distressed at the sight of one group of black Americans fiercely denouncing another, nor for that matter by displays of "Jewish anti-Semitism." But 50 years ago a Jewish member of the establishment (Judge Kaufman) equating Jewish traits with savage communism and a Christian chortling over the spectacle of "Jews hanging Jews" could not but conjure up in Jewish minds the most alarming presentiments of anti-Semitic violence.

Hoberman compassionately depicts the deprived and insecure world of Jewish emigrants in New York where Julius Rosenberg grew up, dreaming of a better future, but he is also clear about the counterfeit nature of the popular front mentality into which youthful dreams degenerated, and of which the Rosenberg case was one of the last gasps. Thus, Julius and Ethel could not admit that they had ever been communists: No, they were "progressives," "antifascists," normal, average Americans struggling for democracy and justice, serving their children Wheaties every morning while the radio blared forth the latest installment of "the Lone Ranger." Similarly, the sad book by the Rosenberg children, Michael and Robert, We Are Your Sons, avoids the subject, mentioning only in a footnote that the authors' parents were "probably members of the American Communist party." Probably! Sycophantic loyalty to the Soviet Union was apparently not compatible with membership in the American CP. (The grudging footnote appeared in 1975, when there could no longer be any doubt about the Rosenbergs' political credo.)

Hoberman's blend of human understanding and moral consistency comes through in every chapter of The Red Atlantis, as he examines one or another facet of communist myth-making—from the mendacious "socialist realist" novels, paintings and films in the Soviet Union to "realist socialism," as he wittingly calls the films that began to appear in Hungary in the late 1960s, when the country's leader, Janos Kader, relaxed the reins of official control by allowing searching explorations of once sacrosanct aspects of communist reality. (Not too searching, of course. As Hoberman puts it, "Socialist Realism conjured up that which was acknowledged but did not yet exist. . . Realist Socialism sought to reveal that which existed but could not be acknowledged.") He depicts the vicissitudes of Soviet Jews, many of whom had been drawn to communist visions of the future (imagine—no more anti-Semitism!), then became the wretched casualties of Stalin's political paranoia; and the life and literacy output of Victor Serge, a convert to Bolshevism who turned into an illuminating critic of the Soviet Union. One can only hope that Hoberman's masterful portrait will help revive an interest in Serge, an extraordinary victim-cum-witness of the Leninist-Stalinist utopia.

Perhaps nothing was more phantasmagoric in the communist world than socialist realism, that portrayal of "what was acknowledged but did not yet exist." There was nothing "realist" nor "socialist" about it, of course, yet its power to shape and distort communist reality was colossal—from TASS bulletins to exhibitions about Soviet agriculture, form history textbooks to architecture, painting, films, and literary works. "The essence of Socialist Realism," says Hoberman, "is the combination of strict idealization and na´ve, almost goofy idealism.' He shows how the underlying method of socialist realism—in a word, bluff—is present in many Western art forms, too, but he is also aware of crucial distinctions. "The only difference between Stalin and Tarzan," he quotes a French critic, "is that films about the latter don't pretend to be documentaries." Yet pretending was de rigueur, the price of avoiding it ranging from obloquy to Siberian exile and even execution.

Hoberman is very good, too, in exploring the tortuous path that Soviet Jewish culture traversed, from "repressive tolerance" (to borrow a later malapropism by the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse) to extinction. In the process, Hoberman examines the fate of the Yiddish and Hebrew (yes, both) theaters in the 1920s, the few films on Jewish themes, which tried desperately—and not very successfully—to blend nostalgia for the disappearing Jewish shtetl with hosannas to the new "Jewish Soviet man," contemptuous of "clericalism," brawny, strong, building steel mills and celebrating his exploits in special Yiddish songs written for the occasion. Hoberman also provides a splendid account of Birobidjan, the failed "Jewish republic" in the Soviet Far East, of the Stalinist purges and the maniacal campaign against "Zionists" and "rootless cosmopolitans" (read: Jews) after World War II and then again in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Soviet war against "nationalist deviations" claimed many victims, but none fared more grievously than the Jews, subject both to ideological brutality and old-fashioned anti-Semitism. Along with the other chapters of The Red Atlantis, it tells a story no one interested in the inanities of communist culture can afford to miss.