From mass murder to barroom kitsch
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 20 August 2005)

On East 4th Street in New York, at the KGB Bar, you can find the perfect symbol for the thoughtless way that much of the world now remembers the Soviet empire. The decor, with its communist slogans and hammer-and-sickle logo, gives the point visual impact.

In its day, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), or Committee of State Security, was the world's most despised institution, an army of thugs, spies, murderers, and torturers. They ruled Russia by fear and violence. They sent millions to slave-labour camps and employed 220,000 border guards to keep people from leaving for somewhere better.

But that didn't stop Denis Woychuk from borrowing their name when he opened his cool bar a dozen years ago. He moved into the former Ukrainian Working Men's Club, where pro-Moscow immigrants once met and drank. In the 1950s, Woychuk sometimes went there with his father. The club closed when the members either died or changed their politics. Woychuk saw a business opportunity. As he says, he created a "counter-culture" place:

"I knew that once people found KGB, its walls now plastered with authentic propaganda posters, photos and paintings from the fallen Soviet empire, they would love the room, the sense of history and vibe." That proved true.

It's as if someone named a club Himmler and decorated it with swastikas. But of course that would be different. Himmler, as a club, would be shunned, maybe bombed. The crimes of the Nazis remain unforgiven. The crimes of the communists, on the other hand, raise nostalgic smiles.

The late Donald Brittain, an excellent National Film Board director, thought he had heard everything. Still, I shocked him one day about 25 years ago when he was interviewing me. While the cinematographer reloaded the camera, I remarked that if you add up the human consequences, "Communism is worse than fascism."

Brittain sat back in astonishment and demanded I explain this bizarre opinion. I said, "Communism kills more and lasts longer." (As it turned out, Soviet communism ran 73 years, Nazi Germany 12.)

Brittain acknowledged these facts. "But," he said, "there's a fundamental difference in their intentions."

Good intentions! For the innocent, good intentions excuse everything. That was communism's secret. It promised Utopia for all of humanity, whereas the Nazis offered it mainly to Germans. Both failed, as Utopian schemes always fail, but many among us still think kindly about the communist version.

Communism demonstrated that seeking a perfect world necessitates millions of killings. Nevertheless, many people retain a little of the crazed optimism that fuelled a world-wide political and social disaster. A demon whispers in our ear: Maybe Lenin and Stalin just got the details wrong. Perhaps it should be tried again. Wouldn't it be better than the unfair contrast between rich and poor under capitalism?

In most countries, the crimes of the communists went unpunished. Tadeusz Bradecki, a distinguished stage director, recently pointed this out. He was born in 1955 in Poland. Communist Utopia, he says, victimized millions -- and the perpetrators were "never brought to justice in a Nuremberg-like trial."

What makes Bradecki's comment so fascinating is that it appears in the program of Bertolt Brecht's and Kurt Weill's communist musical, Happy End, now running at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Clearly, Bradecki hates communism. But he's staged a terrific production of a 1929 propaganda musical that calls for overturning capitalism and replacing it with the rule of the people.

He's living his own variation on an embarrassing contradiction that's recently become almost routine: Communism, while quite dead, has developed a posthumous life as a fantasy form of politics that's attractive to people who prosper under capitalism. Revolution has become an element in entertainment and Karl Marx has evolved into a toy for professors to play with. All that bitter history, the enslavement of millions -- that was just a mistake, now best forgotten.

The script of Happy End excoriates Rockefeller, Ford, and J.P. Morgan but saves its most vehement rhetoric for bankers. "Robbing a bank is nothing compared to owning one," a character says. "Blasting open a safe is nothing -- we've got to blast open the big gang that keeps the safe locked."

On Tuesday, the matinee audience was composed mostly of prosperous-looking senior citizens who paid up to $69 a ticket. Most are likely receiving monthly cheques from pension funds, which usually invest in bank stocks.

The air was thick with irony -- and thickest for those who read the credits in the program. There we could learn that Happy End was "generously sponsored by TD Canada Trust."

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