It's easy to reproach the organizers of the 22nd Winter Olympics, kicking off Friday in Sochi, Russia, for their practiced historical forgetfulness. Visit the event's slick website—plastered with corporate logos and the somewhat nonsensical slogan "Hot. Cool. Yours."—and you wouldn't know that a generation ago Russia was at the center of a totalitarian empire straddling two continents; that Russian communists introduced the termgulag to the political vocabulary of mankind; that the Bolshevik Revolution gave birth to Joseph Stalin, among the deadliest mass murderers in a century of mass murder.
One in three Russians today, surveys show, holds a positive attitude toward Uncle Joe. Yet collective amnesia knows no borders. Its Russian variety wouldn't be so alarming but for the fact that Moscow has again become synonymous with authoritarianism at home and bullying diplomacy abroad. Even so, that President Vladimir Putin is attempting to stage a mostly nonideological, Twitter-friendly spectacle at Sochi is also a satisfying reminder of communism's ideological downfall, Stalinist nostalgia notwithstanding.
The edifice of historical materialism—the philosophical system that justified Soviet misrule—didn't collapse of its own accord in 1989; it took decades of chiseling at its foundations by some of the 20th century's best writers, many of them former communists.
Among the first former communists to expose the horror lurking behind the ideology's promise of utopia was the Hungarian-born British journalist Arthur Koestler. His "Darkness at Noon" (1941) is perhaps the greatest anticommunist novel of all time: at once a warning about the nature of the Soviet regime, issued at a time when few in the West wanted to hear it, and a grand novel of ideas in the tradition of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann.
Much of the novel's power derives from its simple, watertight structure and Mr. Koestler's lucid, unadorned prose. Nicholas Rubashov, a member of the founding generation of an unnamed communist country, is arrested in the dead of night and imprisoned on the usual charges of ideological deviation and counterrevolutionary activity. (Rubashov's arrest by his erstwhile communist comrades mirrors a recurring nightmare in which he relives an earlier arrest by the Nazis—a not so subtle attempt by Mr. Koestler to link the two, ostensibly competing, totalitarianisms of his time.)
Rubashov immediately understands that he has outlived his usefulness to "that mocking oracle they called History." The party, now totally dominated by "No. 1"—Mr. Koestler's barely disguised Stalin, whom we only ever meet in the form of his omnipresent portrait—has turned on its old revolutionaries. Execution—or "physical liquidation," in the party's awful jargon—is his exit from the dialectical highway. The only question is whether he will cooperate in the sham trial the party is preparing for him. This was the fate that met many real-life Rubashovs, victims of Stalin's show trials in the 1930s, to whom Mr. Koestler dedicated his novel.
The real trouble with Rubashov is that he is an individual in a violently collectivist state; he clings to a certain "grammatical fiction"—the first-person perspective—and to the "familiar and fatal constraint to put himself in the position of his opponent, and to see the scene through the other's eyes." Rubashov also retains a measure of conscience, and as he reflects on a life dedicated to the party, he is visited in his tiny cell by the ghosts of communism past: men and women whose lives he destroyed for the cause.
It is the prisoner's residual individualism that his two interrogators—Ivanov, a member of the party's urbane and literate founding cohort, and Gletkin, the merciless torturer who represents its future—attempt to exorcise. As with the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," Mr. Koestler's interrogators are disturbingly persuasive in making the case that the ends justify all means: How else could the Soviet state propel Russia from the depths of kulak backwardness into industrial modernity than by iron discipline and the breaking of a few eggs? "We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one," as Ivanov puts it.
As it turned out, the Soviets couldn't, in the long run, deliver on their basic promise of universal security and prosperity. Still, men like Ivanov, Gletkin and Rubashov kept the faith and acted accordingly.
Communism's resemblance to religious faith was an enduring theme in Mr. Koestler's work. He contributed to and was instrumental in the publication of "The God That Failed," a 1949 anthology of essays by influential ex-communists, including André Gide, Stephen Spender and Richard Wright. In "Darkness at Noon," Rubashov recounts how an unnamed, Lenin-like figure was revered by the party as "God-the-Father, and No. 1 as the Son" (history was presumably the Spirit in this unholy trinity).
Authentic faith, Mr. Koestler suggests, is a bulwark against the nihilistic substitute-religion of Marxism. A Pietà painting, which he never had the chance to fully inspect, reminds Rubashov of his sins. "Perhaps it did not suit man to be completely freed from old bonds," he concludes, "from the steadying brakes of 'Thou shalt not.'" Yet almost till the end Rubashov bends himself to the party's logic of terror, unable to abandon his intellectual's vanity.
In this respect, too, Rubashov was like many of his real-life counterparts, not just in the Eastern Bloc but also in postwar Western Europe, where rare was the progressive thinker who didn't contort common sense and decency to justify Soviet crimes. A decade after the publication of "Darkness at Noon," as news of more show trials broke through the Iron Curtain, the writer Marcel Péju editorialized in Jean-Paul Sartre's journal, Les Temps Modernes, that "the charges…are not prima facie implausible." One shouldn't speak of Soviet repression, the surrealist poet Paul Eluard said, lest it "discourage" the working class in the West.
Mr. Koestler later in life adopted some strange if harmless views. He became obsessed with "paranormal" studies, among other things. But on the most important moral questions of his day, Mr. Koestler, like his doomed protagonist in his final hours, "entered the darkness with both eyes open."
—Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.
De WALL STREET JOURNAL, Saturday 02/01-02/2014
Ilustración: Phil Foster