Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kowalski: Diary of a Former Stalinist

Ludwik Kowalski has written another book, Tyranny to Freedom, Diary of a Former Stalinist.  Professor Kowalski’s first love is science but as he indicated in his previous book, Hell on Earth: Brutality and Violence Under the Stalinist Regime, he has had certain experiences, and has a certain testimony regarding what happened to him and his family.  He doesn’t want to see the brutality that was Stalinism softened and excused by modern day apologists.  And while his second book doesn’t deal with Stalinism with that same intensity, the intellectual intimidation he was subjected to was far greater than anything one might encounter in the West.
Tyranny to Freedom has three main threads, Kowalski’s education and developing career, his search for an ideal wife, and his adherence to and later disillusionment with the Communist System.  I wondered, as I read, how I would have handled living as he lived.  I can’t shake loose from my own experiences, my independence and freedom of thought, but these considerations are, of course, invalid.  If I lived in Poland or the USSR during that time, I would almost certainly have behaved more or less like everyone else – perhaps just as Kowalski did. 
Kowalski’s career and his pursuit of a proper wife are part of what make this book a “page turner,” but of more lasting significance is the progress this very-idealistic man made from his whole-hearted belief in the Communist System through the disappointment in its failures and on to seeing that the only logical course open to him as a Polish Jew was to move to the West.  I have read other things from individuals who lived through this period, and I wondered how guarded the recollections and how subdued their diaries.  But in Kowalski’s case he kept his diaries at an aunt’s house in France.  He felt free to express himself openly knowing Communist authorities were never going to have access to them. 
It isn't in his book, but Kowalski’s wife suggested that his diaries be preserved for use as a primary source by historians, but he didn’t think he was important enough for them to provide that sort of interest.  I second his wife’s opinion.  Historians have written books based on the diaries of soldiers who fought in the American Civil war or in the First World War.  So why not diaries of individuals who lived through Stalinism?  Many of us still puzzle over the great Communist experiment in the USSR and Eastern Europe.  How could so many have been caught up in it?  How could individuals raised in that system, as Kowalski was, believe so fervently in it for such a long time?   Could it have achieved viability as a system if the leaders had lived up to its ideals?  Or was it doomed from the start as I believe, and if so, what lessons can we draw about man’s credulity?
I commented recently about themes I saw in British TV, Dr. Who, Torchwood, and in the series Battlestar Galactica, demonstrating that some writers are seriously exploring the question of whether the human race deserves to survive as a species?   Very likely some of those screen writers would answer in the negative.  But here in this book we find an individual who has come through one of the most colossal mistakes mankind has ever perpetrated.  Surely if anyone is entitled to declare that homo sapiens doesn’t deserve to survive it is Kowalski, but that is not what we find.  We find this very optimistic professor valuing the time he spends with his daughter, discovering the religion he was never allowed to embrace as a child, writing some very interesting memoirs, and, one can learn by Googling on his name, engaging in some very controversial and provocative experiments (Cold Fusion).   Life for none of us is going to be free of error, but in this case, maybe the errors were made mostly by the system he was raised in and not so much by this person who did his very best to live honorably.


Ludwik Kowalski said...

Thank you Lawrence. Yes, I am optimistic about the future of mankind. A condensed version of my book (Chapter 1) can now be read on line at:

Please share this URL with those who might be interested. And I will appreciate additional comments on this blog (or sent to me in private).

Ludwik Kowalski said...

Being optimistic does not prevent me from being realistic. Here is a little poem about this. Yes, I know that not everything that rimes can be called a poem. But that is what you will see, at the end of my book.

Both good and evil will survive.
To fight each other and contrive,
To show and hide, and to refuse,
To offer something and confuse.
To give and take, to kiss and bite,
To make and break, and to excite.
To promise something in the sky,
To ruin hopes and say good-bye.

To feed and starve, to love and hate,
To burn, to smash and to create.
To wreck, to torture, to destroy
To build, to cherish and enjoy.

Ludwik Kowalski said...

Dear Lawrence,

1) Thank you for posting the review at the website. Hopefully, this will be noticed by potential readers. As you know, writing two books about dark pages of the Soviet history was a moral obligation for me; all royalties go to a scholarship fund.

2) Also thanks for the suggestion (in the private message) to add a closing chapter. I will probably append it to

but not immediately.

3) I see that you have written a considerable number of essays during the last three years. They are probably worth publishing in the form of a book. Try to avoid self-publishing; self-published books are hard to promote. Editors of newspapers often refuse to review them. But they are ideal for those whose goal is to reach a small number of known readers, for example, a work-book for students in a course that one is teaching each semester, or a family memoir for children, grandchildren, etc.

4) I hope you do not mind that I share with others the link to the review of my book at your website. I started doing this the day before yesterday.


Ludwik Kowalski said...

Google Alert often brings me links to websites were communism is discussed. Let me display what I wrote on two such websites. Why do moderators of such blogs often decide not to display my contributions?

FIRST CONTRIBUTION (made on 2/22/2010)

Presluc wrote: "I don't think Stalinism should be associated with communism. Stalin in my opinion was a Dictator pure and simple, he made up his own rules as he went along. Although he did some good for Russia and the world for that matter in World War 2 Stalin was a dictator. Saying Stalin was a communist leader is like saying Sadam was a muslim leader."

That is a good observation. But one thing is clear, the USSR was the first "laboratory" to test the ideas of Marx and his followers. For that reason, the "experimental results" should be studied very carefully, especially by those who are supporting another attempt to impose proletarian dictatorship. Unfortunately, some of them say something like this: "Stalinism was not communism and for that reason bad things that happened in the USSR are not worth exposing and analyzing. Our task is to go ahead and not study the past."

SECOND CONTRIBUTION (made on 2/23/2010)

Sergey Borisov wrote: “The idea of the Moscow authorities placing stands with information about Joseph Stalin during World War II has immediately found its supporters and opponents. Moscow’s Committee on Advertising, Information and Displaying Advertisements plans to place billboards and stands with information on Stalin as part of preparations to decorate the city for the 65th anniversary of the Soviet people’s victory in the Great Patriotic War.”

It is not Stalin as a person that should be in the center of attention. It is the Soviet Union, as a country. Yes, its contribution to WWII was decisive. Stalingrad was at least as important as D day. But even before this, the heroic country became the first "laboratory" in which Marx's idea of proletarian dictatorship was implemented. This fact should also be emphasized, for the sake of future generations. What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? How can we insure that what was described by Solzhenitsyn does not happen again? In trying to answer these questions, Russia has a chance to make another tremendously important service to the world community.

Ludwik Kowalski

I lived in the Soviet Union during the WWII, in a place the German invaders were first defeated. Here is how this is described in my recently published autobiography. "Five months later we were between two armies, for about a week. The Red Army retreated from Dedenievo (after blowing up the railroad bridge across the canal) but the Germans did not enter; they stayed about two miles away. Our settlement was heavily bombed by Germans. Most of the residents of the [nursing] home died from cold after windows were shattered by explosions. My mother carried some patients to the nearby hospital, on her back. . . ."