Thursday, August 13, 2009

DBTL 25: Enemies of the People

Kuropaty, Belarus Devo, Polish Commonwealth
28 May 1945

Colonel Eric Blair was feeding the half dozen chickens he kept in a pen outside his office when he saw the bicycle wheel up. John Dos Passos carefully swung himself off the saddle and leaned the bike against the unpainted wooden wall of the building Blair had chosen to make his HQ. Dos Passos kept his hat pressed low and the collar of his trenchcoat up against the stinging drizzle that fell from the leaden sky. Nevertheless, Blair could see enough of the American's face to recognize the blank expression. It was one he had seen in the mirror every day for the past six weeks.

"It's all true, isn't it?" said Dos Passos.

"Every word," said Blair. He led the other man into the house.

The outer office held four desks, all of them deserted. The inner office held a few spare items of office furniture. Dos Passos seated himself before Blair's desk, while Blair himself dug into a desk drawer to retrieve a bottle of vodka (poor stuff, but all one could find in postwar Belarus). Dos Passos downed a shot in one gulp, and spent half a minute coughing. Wiping tears from his eyes, he finally said, "I don't know how you stand it. If I had to live here day after day, seeing things like that, I think I'd go mad."

"I'd go mad as well," said Blair, "if I couldn't write about it." Ever since the first mass grave had been discovered, Blair's literary alter ego had been pouring out torrents of articles, in English, Polish, Spanish and French. It had sparked a vast war of words among European and American leftists, and hardly a day went by when someone like Dos Passos or Graham Greene or Kingsley Martin didn't arrive to try to confirm, or more likely, refute, Blair's accounts. A few such as Martin had gone away convinced (or convincing themselves) that it was all a vast hoax. Blair could tell that Dos Passos believed.

"And you say you've found more like it?"

"There are scores in the neighborhood of Minsk alone, most between six and ten years old, though some are newer. And so far, that's the only area we've investigated. I've a feeling we'll be finding more as we examine the rest of Belarus and the Ukraine. I suspect we'd find a good deal more if we could could search through the rest of the USSR."

Dos Passos' brown eyes left Blair's face as they lost focus. For a long time he stared down in the direction of the floor, seeing images and thinking thoughts that Blair was only too familiar with.

"Why?" the American suddenly exclaimed as he looked up again.

Blair looked a question at Dos Passos.

"Why kill them all? What was the point?"

Blair chuckled. "Enemies of the people."

"But they were ordinary peasants, women, children!" Dos Passos declared.

"Well now," said Blair, "if they weren't enemies of the people, how could Stalin have shot them?"

"But it's just totally senseless! It's . . ."

"Yes?" said Blair.

"Insane," Dos Passos said at last.

"Congratulations, Mr. Dos Passos," said Blair with a wintry smile. "You've just learnt all you need to know about the Soviet Union."

"But that's impossible! How could any nation allow a madman to rule them?"

"The Romans had a number of Emperors who were absolutely barking mad," Blair pointed out. "Then there was Charles VI of France. Ludwig of Bavaria. And I'm sure I needn’t tell an American about George III."

Dos Passos was shaking his head. "Unbelievable."

"Which is the main reason I've had so much trouble being believed," said Blair. "You remember what happened after the German War? All those anti-Semites who refused to believe in Röhm's concentration camps, who still do despite all the documentary evidence? Or the ones who insist that the Jews themselves provoked it. And Röhm only killed seventy thousand people. As many people as were murdered by the Brownshirts in five years can be found buried within fifty kilometers of this spot, in one small patch of Belarus. If so many people can doubt Dachau, how can we get them to believe this?"

The blank look left Dos Passos' face for the first time. "When I get back to America," he said quietly, "I'll make them believe it."

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