Sunday, October 18, 2009
The Anti-Communist Manifestos
By John V. Fleming. Norton. 362 pp. $27.95
In 1946, a Ukrainian defector named Victor Kravchenko published for American audiences a visceral account of the failings of the Soviet system. "I Chose Freedom" was received happily by critics here and rapturously in France, where the tale of slave labor, starvation and collectivization sold by the tens of thousands. Proof that he had struck a nerve came from a series of vicious and sustained attacks from the Parisian liberal press; in 1948 Kravchenko decided to sue the journal Les Lettres françaises for libel. He won, and he returned to the United States a vindicated man. As John V. Fleming notes in his expansive new book, "The Anti-Communist Manifestos," in many ways Kravchenko's life story is also the story of a widespread shift in political sentiment. "I Chose Freedom" presented the "clearest possible dichotomy between the suffering millions and the small clique of Communist tyrants who torture them," Fleming writes. Thus were the horrors of the Soviet experiment brought to the world's attention.
"The Anti-Communist Manifestos" takes as its subject "I Chose Freedom" and three other titles that altered the course of the Cold War: "Out of the Night," by Jan Valtin; "Witness," by Whittaker Chambers; and "Darkness at Noon," by Arthur Koestler. Each of these authors had first-hand experience of the Soviet system, and each attracted a sizable -- and influential -- readership. (None of the men, however, was particularly likable.) Fleming, a medievalist by trade, splits his book into quarters, analyzing both the text in question and the historical background. There is something a little forced about the grouping -- after all, the Cold War was a sprawling conflict, and its course was influenced by thousands of variables. But Fleming is a strong writer and a generous guide, and he emerges with a spectacularly nuanced portrait of a pivotal period in world history.
-- Matthew Shaer, a staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor