The 49-year-old Bolshevik revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin made this confession during his final plea before the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union on the evening of 12 March 1938: “I am guilty of treason to the socialist fatherland, the most heinous of possible crimes, of the organisation of kulak uprisings, of preparations for terrorist acts, and of belonging to an underground, anti-Soviet organisation. I further admit I am guilty of organising a conspiracy for a ‘palace coup’… I consider myself responsible for a grave and monstrous crime against the socialist fatherland and the whole international proletariat… While in prison I made a re-evaluation of my entire past. For when you ask yourself: ‘If you must die, what are you dying for?’ an absolutely black vacuity suddenly rises before you with startling vividness… I am perhaps speaking for the last time in my life.”
It appears as the appendix to a new English edition of Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, translated by Philip Boehm from a copy of Koestler’s original German-language text found in 2016. The unforgettable title, which echoes a passage in the Book of Job – “They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope in the noonday as in the night” – was chosen by Koestler’s girlfriend, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. First published in London in 1940, the book soon became an international bestseller.
It is the story of a revolutionary who is arrested, imprisoned, tried and executed by the regime he has faithfully served, and probes the psychology of the communist believer. But the kind of political faith Koestler dissected is not confined to interwar communists and fellow-travellers. The same compound of self-deception and denial, adamant certainty and deep confusion can be observed in post-Cold War liberals. Desperately clinging to the belief that history is on their side, they too blind themselves to the demise of the project that has given meaning to their lives.
Koestler’s protagonist Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov was modelled on Bukharin, whom Koestler met when he visited the Soviet Union in 1932. Bukharin was arraigned in the show trials that followed the murder of Sergei Kirov, head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, in December 1934. Stalin’s Great Purge claimed somewhere in the region of a million lives.
Bukharin’s confession came after a year of imprisonment. While in jail he was not idle. He produced four book-length manuscripts, including nearly 180 poems, a memoir in the form of a novel and two works of Marxian theory – altogether some 1,400 typewritten pages, many of them of absorbing intellectual and historical interest. He wrote at night or in intervals between interrogation sessions, in the hope that after his execution the papers would be passed on to his wife Anna Larina, who could then edit and publish them. (Bukharin’s last letter to Stalin, written in his cell in December 1937, contained a plea for an “act of mercy”: rather than being shot in the back of the head, he begged to be allowed to drink poison. In response, Stalin ordered that when he was executed on 15 March 1938 Bukharin be given a chair from which he would watch as 16 co-defendants were shot one by one, until he was himself shot.)
Stalin buried Bukharin’s papers in his personal archives and they were unearthed only in 1992. Anna lived to see them published, but the humanistic communism Bukharin represented remained a chimera. Three years after Anna died in 1996, Vladimir Putin was named as successor to the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
Why Bukharin confessed to the crimes of which he was accused is key to his contemporary significance. In Darkness at Noon, Bukharin’s alter ego Rubashov accepts the accusations levelled against him as a final act of loyalty to the party. Some of Koestler’s contemporaries regarded this as romantic nonsense. The Polish poet and sometime communist Aleksander Wat, who had been interned and interrogated in Soviet prisons, wrote that for many of those like him Koestler’s novel “would have been the subject of gay mockery”. There can be little doubt that most of those who confessed did so under severe coercion.
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The extraction of confessions was a mechanical process. The will of the accused was methodically broken by the “conveyor” system in which prisoners were beaten for days or weeks on end by warders working in shifts, and by psychological coercion – sleep deprivation, mock executions and the like. In his landmark biography Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (1971), the American scholar Stephen Cohen maintained that Bukharin was probably not tortured. Evidence that surfaced in the late 1980s suggests that he most likely had been. There were also threats to the prisoners’ families – in June 1937, Bukharin’s interrogators told him they would have his wife Anna and their new-born son killed if he did not submit. He signed his confession, naming 42 other conspirators in the imaginary “palace coup”, most of whom had already been arrested. His wife and son were not killed but separated and consigned to camps and orphanages. In one of the camps, Anna had her only remaining photograph of their son confiscated. It was another 20 years before they would meet again.
What is remarkable is that Bukharin’s will was never completely broken. Rejecting many of the charges against him, his testimony at the trial was a tour de force of self-defence and counterattack. Koestler’s belief that Bukharin confessed willingly to the crimes of which he was accused was far-fetched. Koestler was closer to the truth when, towards the end of the novel, the narrator comments that Rubashov and his revolutionary comrades were guilty of crimes they could not bring themselves to admit: “They were too deeply woven into their own past, caught in the web they themselves had spun according to their circuitous logic and convoluted morality; they were all guilty, just not of those particular deeds to which they were confessing. For them there was no turning back.”
Like all the defendants in the trials, Bukharin had been complicit in a system of repression that had dispatched innocent people to prison or death. During the inner-party conflicts of the 1930s, he sided with Stalin against Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, who were also executed after facing trumped-up charges in show trials. Bukharin questioned some of the worst Soviet crimes, such as the repression of the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion by Lenin and Trotsky in 1921. He distanced himself from Stalin when Stalin broke with Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) – which allowed peasants to enrich themselves under what amounted to a regime of rural capitalism – by imposing a breakneck collectivisation of agriculture that led to millions of deaths.
But there is no record of Bukharin protesting when, in a letter of 9 August 1918, Lenin ordered that hundreds of sex workers he believed were demoralising Soviet troops be deported or shot. He remained similarly mute on the subject of Lenin’s infamous “Hanging Order”, issued in a telegram of 11 August 1918, ordering the public execution of at least 100 peasants to crush resistance to the seizure of grain by the Soviet authorities. Possibly Bukharin was not aware of these incidents. But he was also silent in September 1918, when some 10,000 to 15,000 people were executed during the first wave of Soviet terror – a massacre he could not have failed to notice.
Bolshevism with a human face was never more than a phantasm. Stephen Cohen and other Western liberal academics have argued that the Bolshevik revolution need not have ended in tyranny. But the rise of a dictator like Stalin was not accidental. More clear-sighted than Bukharin, Stalin realised that continuing the NEP carried a high risk of counterrevolution as economic forces independent of the state became stronger. Lenin came to power in a coup d’état, and consolidated the Bolshevik regime by repressing all opposition. Dictatorship was the logic of the Soviet project from the beginning.
Admitting this truth would have destroyed Bukharin’s view of history and his own place in it. Until he was on the brink of death, he seems not to have asked himself the question posed by the novelist Isaac Babel in his 1920 Diary, written during the Russian Civil War when he witnessed atrocities committed by the Red Army in which he was then serving: “We are the vanguard, but of what?” Twenty years later, Babel was shot in Lubyanka Prison by Stalin’s executioner-in-chief, Vasily Blokhin, who in the same year shot thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn massacre.
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Koestler understood the Bolshevik mind because he too had concealed the truth for the sake of the cause. He spent the winter of 1932-33 in Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, at the height of the Holodomor, the politically engineered famine in which four million or more human beings were starved to death. Travelling by train through the countryside, he found “the stations were lined with begging peasants with swollen hands and feet, the women holding up to the carriage-windows horrible infants with enormous wobbling heads, stick-like limbs, swollen, pointed bellies”.
When he witnessed these scenes Koestler was working for the Comintern, the Third Communist International, founded in 1919. The articles he wrote about his visit were eulogies to the rapid advances being made under the first five-year plan. The famine was not mentioned. Koestler severed his links with the party in 1938 in opposition to the show trials, but it was years later, in The Yogi and the Commissar (1945) and memoirs published in the 1950s, that he wrote of the full horror of what he had seen.
Koestler authored the supreme fictional account of Soviet totalitarianism because – unlike George Orwell – he had succumbed, for a time, to the temptation of a secular religion. For him communism was more than a political project. Along with many European intellectuals of his interwar generation, he found in it a world-view that made sense of the chaos around him. Instead of being a recurring nightmare, history became the unfolding of a rational pattern.
As one of the most intellectually adventurous ex-communists, Koestler, along with five other writers, chronicled his disillusionment in a celebrated essay collection, The God That Failed (1950), put together by the Labour politician and sometime New Statesman editor in the 1970s, Richard Crossman. Koestler died in 1983, before the Soviet Union imploded, but unlike many other ex-communists he never imagined a global liberal order could fulfil the promise of the failed communist experiment. He would not have been altogether surprised that the Soviet state was followed in Russia by a sinister klepto-theocracy, now attempting the systematic destruction of Ukraine.
Unlike humanistic Bolshevism, something resembling what is commonly called the liberal West did once exist. But it originated in a confluence of accidents – the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, European imperial hegemony before the First World War, and American industrial and technological supremacy after the Second – that cannot be repeated. Overreach in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya simply accelerated Western decline. A multipolar world of contesting great power blocs and peripheral powers is not the dark vision of Putin but an established fact, which the West itself helped bring into being.
Liberals babble deliriously of Russian national self-determination and rolling back the Russian empire, but they have not asked what this would mean in practice. A lengthy time of troubles, in which a radical authoritarian Muscovite regime struggled to suppress insurgent and conflicting nationalities, is far more likely than any quick or peaceful transition to democracy. This is a disquieting prospect for a nuclear-armed state, and it is hard to believe there are not behind-the-scenes discussions under way between the US, European governments and China with the aim of pressuring Putin and the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky into a compromise peace.
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If so, the pivotal force in these interactions will be China, the only state with compelling leverage over Russia. But Beijing is itself under domestic pressure from nationwide public dissent, as its subjects reject three years of perma-lockdown.
Though liberals failed to recognise this fact, the Soviet collapse was the end of an era of political faith. The international system will be shaped not by universal political projects, but by the tragic choices of realpolitik in a world of contending great powers.
It would be wise to admit, as Koestler did with regard to communism, that the post-Cold War order was an illusion. But for most liberals this is a psychological impossibility. Without the mirage of a new world, they face – like Bukharin – an “absolutely black vacuity”. If liberalism has a future, it is as therapy against the fear of the dark.
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special