Bill Mandel

Mark Jones markjones011 at
Tue Dec 31 05:10:36 MST 2002

Hunter Gray wrote:
> The articulate and essentially very civil discussion bubbling and swirling
> about Bill Mandel on Marxism is interesting to me.  Bill, who is a very
> active and welcome presence on the two lists that I "own" and "manage"
> -- Redbadbear and Marxist -- has also become a very good friend.
> I respect him highly.
> I would identify myself as a Left socialist.  But, whether one
> agrees in whole or in part with Bill -- or disagrees altogether -- he
> happens to have spent most of the Twentieth Century in some extremely
> fascinating places globally and, more than that, has helped make some very
> significant history himself.  ..... I very recently finished
> another fine
> book of his, SOVIET BUT NOT RUSSIAN, and it's one hell of
> fascinating trip
> into a rich array of ethnicities and cultures. [And the chapter,
> "Indians,"
> Eskimos, and Islamic Nomads" -- is, well, my kind of favorite chapter!]
> We give his work top marks.

Mandel's book SOVIET BUT NOT RUSSIAN was published in 1985 by the University
of Alberta Press. It is an egregious piece of timeserving Brezhnevite
propaganda, describing the glorious achievements of the Soviet Union even
while that state was in its death throes. When it was published the policies
of perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness, i.e. press freedom)
were being heavily promoted by then Soviet Communist Party General
Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev who initiated these reforms. Somehow Mandel
manages to not notice the vast upheaval going on in the country, and te
obvious signs of accelerayting collapse of the Soviet state and its
ideological and cultural institutions. Mandel managed not to notice anything
until the Berlin Wall fell. Despite 10 trips all round the USSR and much
time alledgely spent talking to its citizens, the signs of popular
resistance against the enveloping, suffocating, mendacious system of
propaganda, escaped him. He never meets a single Soviet citizen with
anything bad to say. Mandel is a fraud, a fake and a liar.

Perestroika and glasnost opened the door to capitalist restoration. This has
had catastrophic results for ordinary Soviet people, although apparently not
for William Mandel, whose eyes opened as if by magic. After the fall of the
Berlin Wall he abandoned his lifelong communism and become overnight a
liberal-humanist who believes in markets.

Since 1985, when SOVIET BUT NOT RUSSIAN was published, more than 200m people
living in the ex-USSR and other ex-socialist states have seen their per
capita incomes fall to $2 per day according to UNDP figures, and possibly
the biggest genocide in Russian history has seen the population of the
ex-Soviet bloc fall by as much as 30m souls below the demographic trendline.
Western journalists and writers celebrating the fall of socialism never
mention these gloomy figures of course, and neither does Mandel, who also
now applauds the fall of the USSR. But 'Perestroika', which seemed to promie
so much, has became derisively known by the Soviet masses as 'Gorbastroika',
a play on words which roughly means the 'hunch-backed reconstruction'. They
know better now. They would like the Soviet Union back, but not the old
Soviet Union, built of moral fraud, mass deceit and social hypocrisy of the
kind Mandel celebrated and served.

SOVIET BUT NOT RUSSIAN is the work of a conformist, a lifelong servant of
the Soviet bureaucracy, and it is a book so full of lies and error as to put
it alongside the turgid masterpieces of home-grown Brezhnevite propaganda
published by Soviet publishing houses like Progress and Novosti, in their
heyday. However, the Soviet authors of Soviet propaganda at least had the
excuse that they were citizens of a police-state and had no choice. What was
and is Mandel's excuse for the torrent of cynical lies, the utter shameless
hypocrisy, which constitute works like SOVIET BUT NOT RUSSIAN ?  He was free
to come and go; nobody forced him to write this kind of thing.

I am one of those who for many years endured the label Stalinist because we
saw much that was positive in the Soviet experience, and saw reason to
celebrate its historical victories, particularly over Nazi Germany. Yet I
was never an apologist for the Soviet Union, I never would put my name to
the kind of mendacious, cynical mixture of half-truths and outright
falsehoods which Mandel does here.

Arthur Koestler writing in the 1930s described a typical Soviet apparatchik
as 'part-gangster, part-gramophone'. That description applies just as well
to the Soviet machinery of ideology as a whole: the press, TV, books and
film all were trained to produce a seamless web of falsehood and
half-truths, to create an image of hurrah-socialism which no-one believed
in, not the masses nor the politicians nor the ideologists they were in
tutelage to. Nothing more rotted the soul of socialism than the fundamental
dishonesty of everyday life and its cultural representations; nothing helped
make people more cynical, disillusioned and resentful of the regime than the
huge gap, the abyss, between the truth they saw with their own eyes and felt
on their own backs, and the kind of triumphalist propaganda produced by the
paid agents of the KGB's ideology departments. I have no hesitation in
saying that William Mandel was one of these. If he did indeed travel the
length and breadth of the country, from the far north to the Baltikum, and
was allowed to meet and interview "ordinary" people for the purpose of
writing a book, then he was indeed either cynically or unwittingly availing
himself of an opportunity which only the KGB and its front organisations
like Novosti Press Agency could offer. But he doe not admit to receiving any
Soviet "help" at all! In his acknowledgments in the preface to the book he
mentions help received from western colleagues but there is no mention of
help from the Soviet authorities in preparing the book. Instead he describes
renting a Soviet car, driving around and interviewing strangers, hitchhikers
and so on, and then returning home and writing a book. To a gullible
American reader who knows the difference between Avis and Hertz that may
sound reasonable, but to anyone who ever tried to rent a car and do the
things he talks about unaided, it is simply laughable, a leg-pull. It is, as
the Russians say, hanging noodles over our ears. Things just weren't done
like that.
Does Mandel come in the category of what Lenin called 'useful fool', who did
not notic they way his visits, interviews and tours were choreographed and
scripted in great detail by his KGB handlers? I do not believe William
Mandel is a fool; I think he is clever enough to understand what kind of
deal he made with the Soviet authorities, i.e. the KGB, which allowed him to
prepare this and similar books. Because even in 1985, no writer just rented
a car and travelled around the USSR taping conversations with strangers.
Mandel was chaperoned and probably financed in his study tours, by a Soviet
entity of some kind. Almost every conversation he ever had was recorded, and
not only by him. But he wants to gull the western reader into a false sense
of security, into the belief that what he wrote he freely wrote, and it just
happened to come out like a pastiche of hand-me-down Soviet propaganda
fantasies. To visit a country 10 times, as he did, and notice nothing, is a
major result. Not to notice that you are the guest of a secret police state
where, even in 1985, it was a criminal offence for a Soviet citizen to have
a conversation with a foreigner without personally reporting the content of
that conversation to the KGB; where indeed it was a crime merely to observe
someone else talking to a foreigner without reporting it: this is a heroic
act of not-noticing by comrade Mandel.

The essence of Soviet representation of reality in its terminal phase was
pure Potemkin village. There was no freedom to dissent (if there had been,
Gorbachev's glasnost policy would have been meaningless, instead of
resulting in a cultural upheaval and the instant collapse of the whole
Soviet propaganda house of cards). There was freedom only to celebrate the
glorious advances of the peaceful Soviet people in the construction of

Nothing so much brought the USSR into disrepute abroad as the kind of lying
propaganda disseminated by the foreign servants of the bureaucracy, those
'useful fools' like William Mandel. It can really be no surprise that Mandel
himself instantly abandoned the irksome and nauseating hypocrisy which sums
up his career as a writer, once his mealticket disappeared. When the Berlin
Wall fell, Mandel became overnight an arch-liberal, a 'Humanist', like so
many other devious bureaucrats, conformists, timeservers and placemen of the
Brezhnev bureaucracy.

The freedom to criticise is perhaps the most important freedom we have, and
it gets even more important after the revolution. I have a personal stake in
the triumph at Stalingrad, because without the Red Army's triumphs on the
Eastern Front  would not have been born, and I am hardly alone. There was
much of worth in the USSR. The kind of capitalism which has replaced it, and
which Mandel lauds, is infinitely worse. Russia is still a police state, and
only the gangsters were liberated in 1991. Millions have died. Soviet social
policy, the Soviet welfare health and education services did offer much to
ordinary people, ad did basic guarantees about income, work and housing,
none of which now exists. No wonder a huge majority of ordinary citizens of
the ex-USSR want the USSR back. But few Soviet citizens are now prepared to
fight and die for a cause which has been so comprehensively dishonoured and
disgraced by its own spokesmen and leaders. People will only die for what
they are dingified and exalted by, and if you take away the right to
criticise you take away all dignity and are left with slaves.

I give only one example from Mandel's book SOVIET BUT NOT RUSSIAN to
illustrate my point. This is his treatment of the Baltic states, Latvia,
Lithuania and Estonia. As it happens I know the Baltikum well and spent much
time in Latvia in the 1980s and 1990s--when this book was written. This was
a time of nationalist ferment. You would not think so from Mandel's
patronising accounts of the locals dressing up in the costumes while
celebrating their lives as model Soviet citizens.

A sure sign of the upheavals to come was the appearance of small groups of
very brave people who assembled at the Freedom Monument (a non-Soviet
monument, not pictured in Mandel's book which does however feature pictures
of various ghastly Soviet era statues. But it is the Freedom Monument which
was closest to Latvian hearts). They assembled at first in two and threes,
to commit the crime of singing their national sings, in the Latvian
language. In recent memory, this crime was sure to result in the deportation
to the East suffered by tens of thousands of Latvians since 1945 (not
mentioned by Mandel, naturally). This small act of defiance was how Latvians
began to test out the limits of Gorbachev's glasnost. I was there and I
stood with them, so I know. We were surrounded by militiamen with submachine
guns. Within a few days the militiamen had gone, and tens of thousands of
Latvians were assembled to sing their songs in open defiance of "Soviet
order" (poryadok) and the "Soviet Power" (Sovietskii vlast) But the closest
Mandel gets to mentioning the cultural resonance underlying a monumental act
of rebellion which directly led t the break-up of the USSR is his remark
that "Latvia's national hobby is the preservation, writing and mass
performance of songs." (p. 211). The context is a discussion of Latvian
hobbies and leisure pursuits.

Mark Jones

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