The Moscow Show Trials and the Universal Human Experience

Yesterday I marveled at the human capacity for inside jokes – today is an occasion to marvel at the human capacity for uncoordinatedly arriving at universal conclusions.

Through late high school and early college I had to read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon more than once; then a year or two ago I got my hands on Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches.* And just a month or two earlier this year I finally managed to read large chunks of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of TotalitarianismChugging through the chapter “Totalitarianism in Power” late one night, I suddenly paused, overcome by a profound sense of deja vu. Quickly I realized it wasn’t at all deja vu; the reason the passage I’d paused over seemed so familiar was that I had already read it – in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Maclean’s Eastern Approaches.

Here are the relevant passages, in order of publication.

Koestler (pg 227):

For at their second or third meeting already, as it were, an unspoken agreement had come into existence between them: if Gletkin could prove that the root of charge was right – even when this root was only of a logical, abstract nature – he had a free hand to insert the missing details; “to dot the i’s”, as Rubashov called it. Without becoming aware of it, they had got accustomed to these rules for their game, and neither of them distinguished any longer between actions which Rubashov had committed in fact and those which he merely should have committed as a consequence of his opinions…

Maclean (pg 116):

But the conspirators, with their minds working along the same lines as those of their inquisitors, would have had no difficulty in following their line of argument, especially if, in the back of their minds, there lurked a suspicion that if only they had had the chance they might in fact have acted in the way they were supposed to have done. Once this basis for an understanding between the two parties had been established, the rest would follow naturally. It only remained to prepare the idea for presentation to public opinion…

And lastly Arendt (pg 426):

…the totalitarian version of the possible crime is based on the logical anticipation of objective developments. The Moscow Trials of the old Bolshevik Guard and the chiefs of the Red Army were classic examples of punishment for possible crimes. Behind the fantastic, fabricated charges one can easily detect the following logical calculation: developments in the Soviet Union might lead to a crisis, a crisis might lead to the overthrow of Stalin’s dictatorship, this might weaken the country’s military force and possibly bring about a situation in which the new government would have to sign a truce or even conclude an alliance with Hitler. Whereupon Stalin proceeded to declare that a plot for the overthrow of the government and a conspiracy with Hitler existed.

All three writers are describing the Moscow Show Trials of Stalin’s Great Terror, so perhaps it’s not too surprising that, given the same source material, they would produce similar assessments of what took place. Still, the consistency between all three texts is arresting, and it suggests 1) the Soviets were not fooling anyone with half a brain who had witnessed the trials or had access to a reliable account and 2) within certain parameters (e.g. mid-century liberal Western intellectuals) people are not terribly different. It’s comforting to think that there is enough that is universal to the human experience that at least something like the Moscow Show trials would provoke independent but unified responses.** This type of thing is visible in other contexts, too; a more prosaic example might be two album reviewers unknowingly and simultaneously using the same language to describe a particular song. Wherever it happens, it’s a reassuring reminder that we’re not alone on this Earth – it’s also a depressing reminder of how profoundly unoriginal we all are.

*I say had to read because both times it was for a class, but it’s one of the few novels that might make my list of favorite books; I thought it was excellent
**I say independent since Maclean’s account comes from his first-hand experience of the trial and 
Darkness at Noon was published before either of the other works, but it is difficult (impossible?) to know how much cross-pollination may have taken place