Saturday, June 18, 2005

Going Back Again - VI


One noticeable feature of life at MGU during the late 1960s, as one strolled around the place, was the prominence given to Soviet support for the North Vietnamese side in the Vietnam War. In the autumn of 1969, at the entrance to the main building, just inside the main doors, there was a large exhibit entirely devoted to this theme, with large portraits of Ho Chi Minh and many photographs, including Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution of a member of the Viet Cong at the hands of South Vietnam's police chief, Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, at noon on Feb. 1, 1968. There were also long statements by Viet Cong and Soviet leaders, all presented in Russian, and the usual red-and-white or red-and-black slogans in praise of “world communism” and the communist parties of the USSR and Vietnam. No one ever seemed to pay this exhibit much attention – it just stood there, for the most part unnoticed, like a large commercial advert or a display for the latest model of some ideological motor car.

During 1968, like many or most of my student contemporaries in Britain, I’d grown very critical of the U.S. presence in Vietnam. The constant barrage of negative U.S. and European press reports on the war, both U.S. and European, had contributed to a general hostility towards the American engagement, and there were several large demonstrations in London – the biggest of these took place on March 17, and ended in violence near the US embassy on Grosvenor Square. I didn’t take part in that demo, but did take part in the demonstration on October 27, which was largely peaceful, but also ended violently when a breakaway group of 6,000 tried to storm the US embassy. I didn’t join in the breakaway action, but left when the majority of marchers did. I remember the point where it seemed that mass arrests of demonstrators were about to begin – but we were told by police to walk across Lambeth Bridge, which we did, and then didn’t look back. I remember the strong sense of disillusionment and anger that we felt – I was there with my wife and two friends – after this event, though I’m still not sure why we felt so let down.

In Moscow, I met face to face with North Vietnamese students. This was a decisive moment for my view of the war. The meetings took place on two or three evenings, in a room in MGU, and were organized by a Soviet student committee. There were quite a lot of American research students there, and the atmosphere was quite heated. I remember getting into discussion with one Vietnamese student in particular, who had given a talk in Russian. He told me that his people hated the Americans and British (from 1961 to 1963 Britain had fully supported US Vietnam policy),and that their aim, like the aim of Communists the world over, was to destroy them. The look of inflamed and violent hatred on his face was very striking – and I could see that he meant what he said. Also that he found my shock amusing.

That evening in Moscow, I also talked to some Cuban students. In London I’d been reading Cuban poetry – in particular, the work of Heberto Padilla. I’d seen Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film Memorias del subdesarollo, which had been released in London the previous year. I had no real knowledge of the social, historical and political context in which the film was made (most of the European left just swallowed it n ritual fashion along with the work of Godard, Truffaut and Pasolini), nor any real understanding or knowledge of Cuban literary history. At that time, a rosy and sentimental view of the Cuban revolution was widespread among Western students, and I guess that in my eagerness to try to find some saving grace among what seemed like an oncoming tide of disillusionment with “leftist” ideas I was casting around in Castro’s Cuba for reassurance – a stupid thing to do, and that evening began the resolution of the problem for me. The Cuban students pointed to the attitudes and preoccupations of the North Vietnamese students which I’d just experienced, and asked me if I thought that the attitudes of Cuban communists really differed. One of them told me that it was a total mistake to think that Cuban communism was in any way distinct from the brand promoted in Moscow. He said that Havana was used by Moscow as a kind of display window with a fake version of “revolution” for use as a propaganda tool. This message, which I absorbed in a rather simplified form, stayed in my mind, for I was struck by the frankness and non-sentimental sincerity of these students, who seemed several years older than me (I was already 24).

Looking back on it now, that evening marked a breakthrough for me in terms of political awareness – but it also returned me to where I’d been before the outbreak of fashionable “revolutionism” in Britain and the West. I realized that I was going to have to reconstruct my whole outlook on the world – and it was in the work, activities and ideas of Soviet dissidents, who were resisting, from the very centre of its initiation, the consequences of a revolution that 52 years later was still affecting large parts of the globe, that I found the beginnings of a way to do that. It wasn’t an easy process.

(to be continued)

See also:

Going Back Again
Going Back Again - II
Going Back Again - III
Going Back Again - IV
Going Back Again - V

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