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Internet Anarchist Revision Brigade: how Burt Green tried to write about statist anti-imperialism and blocked his sink with tea leaves

Here’s something George Orwell wrote back in 1946 dealing with, among other things, the political writing of his day.

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

. . . As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. . . . In [the example from a Communist pamphlet], the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.

Here’s an example of exactly that kind of writing, which I’ve taken from an article in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. Unfortunately, the writing in this article is a lot like the writing in a lot of articles that appear in AJODA (right alongside an Anarchist Media Review media review section that constantly complains about jargony or dreary writing in other, less widely distributed anarchist zines). I’ve chosen this passage in particular because the writer clearly seems to know what he wants to say, and what he’s got to say is basically true, but–well, let’s just try to read it.

As long as Anti-Imperialism is presented as the foremost or central contradiction of capitalism, it will have innate limitations which are constitutionally incapable of supercession.

In the first instance, Anti-Imperialism still has to account for the way it was used in the past, and will always for that reason bear the heavy burden of the crimes committed in its name. To those who fought against imperialism in the Philippines and Chile, in South Africa and Vietnam, one must take care to add those in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, and those who fight today in Tibet.

The uncritical assumption of statist perspectives implicit in the positioning of the organization of the National Liberation Struggle as the revolutionary subject, conceals both the class divisions between the forces that make up this organization — especially those between the bureaucratic class-in-formation on the one hand and the working class, peasantry and those sections of the intelligentsia supporting independence on the other — and the common interest all proletarians have in the elimination of their elites, regardless of nationality. The establishment of sovereign government (that is, a state) as the revolutionary objective, carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions. It partakes with enthusiasm of the artificial and arbitrary separation in the activities of capitalist national and international political economies created by international law. Anti-Imperialists declare the extra-national colonization of markets, polities, societies, and cultures to be somehow worse or different in essence from the exercise of the same principles of capitalist economy in the country of its origin (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves.

On the other side of the equation, then, Anti-Imperialism has been a means of avoiding recognition of the independent interests and struggles of the working class and peasantry in the imperial dependencies, save from the point of view of distortions created by the advancement of exogenous imperial interests. This lack of proletarian perspective allows Anti-Imperialism to become a weapon to be used against (competing) foreign exploitation without a critique of local inequalities and forms of domination, much less of the political economy as a whole. This kind of Anti-Imperialism is easy for the likes of Vladimir Putin (the pacifier of Chechnya) and the misogynists of Hezbollah to employ without damage to themselves. It also provides useful ammunition to that most perfect of modern princes, Hugo Chavez, in whom are embodied both the Leftist, pseudomodern authoritarianism of his friend and political patron, Fidel Castro, the Maximum Leader of Cuba, and also the right-wing pseudotraditionalism of fascism, as imparted by his mentor, the Argentine anti-semite Norberto Ceresole, author of Caudillo, ejercito, pueblo. La Venezuela del presidente Chavez [Leader, Army, People, the Venezuela of President Chavez.]o

o It is high time that revolutionaries make proper acknowledgement of the complementary parts played by Marxism-Leninism and Fascism, as two wings of the same general movement of reaction against the rising proletarian, peasant, and intellectual insurgency of thel ate 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest conscious expressions of these twin tendencies, those of Lenin on the one hand and Mussolini on the other, grew from the same source: (Marxian) social-democracy. The use of conspiratorial, quasi-military organization, of fronts and the infiltration of strategic organizations as a means to establishing influence, and then otion of themselves as the general staff of some kind of alleged revolution embodied in their own seizure of state power, unite these post-social-democratic factions. So does their presumption that the working class itself, incapable of more than a trade-union consciousness in Lenin’s infamous words, or unwilling to embark on crusades of national greatness (eg campaigns of forced capital accumulation, war), needs the Party, composed of this or that constellation of petit-bourgeois elements, at its head to lead it. To think that such tendencies, then or now, can be the allies of antiauthoritarian, anti-capitalist revolutionaries, is to ignore not just the overwhelming weight of the historical experience of the world’s proletarian revolutions, but the very material nature of the political economies and quality of life in the regimes created by these hyper-authoritarian Symbionese twins.

–Burt Green, Anti-Imperialism or Anti-Capitalism, in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed 26.1 (Spring/Summer 2008). pp 41, 43.

How did you feel when you tried to read through this passage and the footnote? It actually makes several important points; I think at least one or two of the points it makes are both new and important. (For example, I think that the footnote at the end is really very sharp.) That’s the sort of thing that ought to be both fun and exciting to read. But in the entire passage I can think of only two places where the writing made me feel anything than a dull pounding on my forehead — They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves, and that most perfect of modern princes, Hugo Chavez. The second phrase manages to be funny precisely because the pretense is watered by the sarcasm; the rest of the passge gives you the straight stuff and demands you drink it down. If we want to say the things we need to say, then we need to find better ways of saying it than this.

If you were going to try to rewrite a passage like this to try to make it more clear to those who haven’t spent years reading and writing in Marxist jargon, and more enjoyable to read even for those who have — to rewrite a passage like this so that the author’s point about anti-imperialist politics makes more of an impression than the dull, thudding drumbeat of his language — how would you go about it?

There are some obvious easy changes that you can make. Anytime someone writes a phrase like in the present epoch you can just about always cross it out and write in today; worker or working-class can be put anywhere that the author chose to put down proletarian, and you can strike exogenous and write in outside, or replace the whole phrase save from the point of view of distortions created by the advancement of exogenous imperial interests with something like except when the bosses are foreigners. But other stale fixed phrases (This lack of proletarian perspective …, … carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions, … the working class, peasantry and . . . intelligentsia …) are harder to deal with. You could pretty them up a little by trimming unnecessary verbal filler and by taking out obviously pretentious words and replacing them with simpler ones. You can put lipstick on a pig, too. But the problem is that the dreariness of the writing has a lot to do with the dreariness of the thought itself. It’s not that the points being made are wrong, or even hackneyed, exactly. It’s that the approach to the point is hackneyed, that the writer can find no way of expressing what he wants to say except by leading you through this cut-and-paste collage of phrases from Marxist pamphlets and whitepapers. (As Orwell said, You see, he feels impelled to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern.) That kind of writing needs more than copyediting; it needs to be rearranged or rewritten from the start, with paragraphs either thrown out entirely or transformed into something that you wouldn’t know for a rewriting of the original.

For example, let’s look at paragraph 3 and think about what you might do about a paragraph like this.

The uncritical assumption of statist perspectives implicit in the positioning of the organization of the National Liberation Struggle as the revolutionary subject, conceals both the class divisions between the forces that make up this organization — especially those between the bureaucratic class-in-formation on the one hand and the working class, peasantry and those sections of the intelligentsia supporting independence on the other — and the common interest all proletarians have in the elimination of their elites, regardless of nationality. The establishment of sovereign government (that is, a state) as the revolutionary objective, carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions. It partakes with enthusiasm of the artificial and arbitrary separation in the activities of capitalist national and international political economies created by international law. Anti-Imperialists declare the extra-national colonization of markets, polities, societies, and cultures to be somehow worse or different in essence from the exercise of the same principles of capitalist economy in the country of its origin (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves.

Instead of that, you might write something like this:

The picture of the world that anti-imperialist rhetoric paints is a picture seen through the eyes of warring states. If you want to know who will make the revolution, it forces you to look for a national fighting force, organized by geographical or ethnic borders. If you want to know what kind of revolution they will make, it forces you to look for a new government — a government run by locals, after the foreign governments have been forced back over the border.

The only way that anti-imperialist has to talk about revolution is to stand at made-up borders and yell Stop! — as if it made any difference whether it happens to be foreign bosses or local bosses who take control over workers’ jobs, culture, and living arrangements. Anti-imperialism takes the borders of capitalist states more seriously than the capitalists do themselves. This kind of revolution has nothing to say about what powerful people within the nation do to their victims — and particularly not what aspiring bureaucrats do to workers and intellectuals. It’s a distraction from workers’ real interest in getting out from under bosses, no matter where the bosses come from.

As far as I can tell, this would convey almost exactly the same meaning. There are some losses — for example, (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). But I threw out the parenthetical because someone who was making the point clearly would not think that you could just stick that point where Green tried to stick it. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but if it did, it’s only because the rest of the paragraph consists of so many stock phrases strung together that just stringing another one in may have seemed like logic. But the comment in between the parentheses has to do with a particular way that some anti-imperialist writers have tried to adapt their rhetoric in order to avoid glossing over the internal forms of oppression that Green says anti-imperialist rhetoric glosses over. For example, people who used this line often said that the white man’s government treats black people inside the borders of the U.S.A. the same way that it treats foreign people in the Phillippines or Vietnam; and you might say the same thing about groups of people who are oppressed within a post-colonial country when a more powerful group takes over power from the old colonial government. But the parenthetical mentions this position without explaining any of that, or making any of it clear to anybody who isn’t already familiar with a lot of anti-imperialist jargon. And it just states that this adaptation of anti-imperialist rhetoric doesn’t actually solve the problem, without saying why it fails. If talking about internal colonies doesn’t help, then you need to say something about why it doesn’t help, and it would probably take long enough that it belongs in a new paragraph or a footnote. If you can’t do that much, then you’d be better off not mentioning it at all.

And there are also some additions — a couple of attempts at shifting the emphasis or making use of some imagery. Because if I just stopped at cutting out the parts that had gone bad, then the leftovers would be wholesome enough, but not enough to be filling — a single paragraph that’s short and clear, but also a paragraph with nothing to really drive the point home. That would be fine if this passage was a brief stop along the way to some other conclusion. But it’s actually supposed to be about half of the essay’s conclusion.

And now that I mention it, that brings up another problem. If the simple statement of the point is as simple and boring as the simple statement of this point is (so–it’s a mistake for radicals to use an approach that doesn’t deal with oppression inside national boundaries, because it’s the bossing that really matters, not where the boss comes from) then maybe the essay needs to say more than what it does, insead of just leaving off on such an obvious point. (For example, why spend so long making a point like this, when you could use that space to make a genuinely novel point, like the point about the similarities between conspiratorial Leninism and conspiratorial Fascism, instead of hiding that point away in a footnote?) So even this kind of rewriting, paragraph by paragraph, can only do so much. What a passage like this needs, in the end, is rethinking. What do you think? How would you do it? Given what he wants to say, how would you say it well?

Sprachkritik: “Privatization”

Left libertarians, like all libertarians, believe that all State control of industry and all State ownership of natural resources should be abolished. In that sense, libertarian Leftists advocate complete and absolute privatization of, well, everything. Governments, or quasi-governmental public monopolies, have no business building or running roads, bridges, railroads, airports, parks, housing, libraries, post offices, television stations, electric lines, power plants, water works, oil rigs, gas pipelines, or anything else of the sort. (Those of us who are anarchists add that governments have no business building or running fire departments, police stations, courts, armies, or anything else of the sort, because governments — which are necessarily coercive and necessarily elitist — have no business existing or doing anything at all.)

It’s hard enough to sell this idea to our fellow Leftists, just on the merits. State Leftists have a long-standing and healthy skepticism towards the more utopian claims that are sometimes made about how businesses might act on the free market; meanwhile, they have a long-standing and very unhealthy naïveté towards the utopian claims that are often made on behalf of government bureaucracies under an electoral form of government. But setting the substantive issues aside, there’s another major roadblock for us to confront, just from the use of language.

There is something called privatization which has been a hot topic in Leftist circles for the past 15-20 years. It has been a big deal in Eastern Europe, in third world countries under the influence of the IMF, and in some cases in the United States, too. Naomi Klein has a new book on the topic, which has attracted some notice. Klein’s book focuses on the role that natural and artificial crises play in establishing the conditions for what she calls privatization. But privatization, as understood by the IMF, the neoliberal governments, and the robber baron corporations, is a very different beast from privatization as understood by free market radicals. What consistent libertarians advocate is the devolution of all wealth to the people who created it, and the reconstruction of all industry on the principle of free association and voluntary mutual exchange. But the IMF and Naomi Klein both seem to agree on the idea that privatization includes reforms like the following:

  • Tax-funded government contracts to corporations like Blackwater or DynCorp for private mercenaries to fight government wars. This has become increasingly popular as a way for the U.S. to wage small and large wars over the past 15 years; I think it was largely pioneered through the U.S. government’s efforts to suppress international free trade in unauthorized drugs, and is currently heavily used by the U.S. in Colombia, the Balkans, and Iraq.

  • Tax-funded government contracts to corporations like Wackenhut for government-funded but privately managed prisons, police forces, firefighters, etc. This has also become increasingly popular in the U.S. over the past 15 years; in the case of prisons, at least, it was largely inspired by the increasing number of people imprisoned by the U.S. government for using unauthorized drugs or selling them to willing customers.

  • Government auctions or sweetheart contracts in which nationalized monopoly firms — oil companies, water works, power companies, and the like — are sold off to corporations, with the profits going into the State treasury, and usually with some form of legally-enforced monopoly left intact after privatization. One of the most notorious cases is the cannibalistic bonanza that Boris Yeltsin and a select class of politically-connected Oligarchs helped themselves to after the implosion of Soviet Communism. Throughout the third world, similar auction or contract schemes are suggested or demanded as a condition for the national government to receive a line of tax-funded credit from the member states of the International Monetary Fund.

  • Yet Another Damn Account schemes for converting government pension systems from a welfare model to a forced savings model, in which workers are forced to put part of their paycheck into a special, government-created retirement account, where it can be invested according to government-crafted formulas in one of a limited number of government-approved investment vehicles offered by a tightly regulated cartel of government-approved uncompetitive investment brokers. This kind of government retirement plan is supposedly the centerpiece of privatization in Pinochet’s Chile, and has repeatedly been advocated by George W. Bush and other Republican politicians in the United States.

Klein and other state Leftists very claim that these government privatization schemes are closely associated with Right-wing authoritarian repression, up to and including secret police, death squads, and beating, torturing, or disappearing innocent people for exercising their rights of free speech or free association in labor unions or dissident groups.

And they are right. Those police state tactics aren’t compatible with any kind of free market, but then, neither are any of the government auctions, government contracting, government loans, and government regulatory schemes that Klein and her comrades present as examples of privatization. They are examples of government-backed corporate kleptocracy. The problem is that the oligarchs, the robber barons, and their hirelings dishonestly present these schemes — one and all of them involving massive government intervention and government plunder from ordinary working people — as if they were free market reforms. And Klein and her comrades usually believe them; the worst sorts of robber baron state capitalism are routinely presented as if they were arguments against the free market, even though pervasive government monopoly, government regulation, government confiscation, government contracting, and government finance have nothing even remotely to do with free markets.

I’d like to suggest that this confusion needs to be exposed, and combated. In order to combat it, we may very well need to mint some new language. As far as I know, privatization was coined by analogy with nationalization; if nationalization was the seizure of industry or resources by government, then privatization was the reversal of that process, devolving the industry or the resources into private hands. It is clear that the kind of government outsourcing and kleptocratic monopolies that Klein et al condemn don’t match up very well with the term. On the other hand, the term has been abused and perverted so long that it may not be very useful to us anymore, either.

So here’s my proposal for linguistic reform. What we advocate is the devolution of state-confiscated wealth and state-confiscated industries back to civil society. In some cases, that might mean transferring an industry or a resource to private proprietorship (if, for example, you can find the person or the people from whom a nationalized factory was originally seized, the just thing to do would be to turn the factory back over to them). But in most cases, it could just as easily mean any number of other ways to devolve property back to the people:

  1. Some resources should be ceded to the joint ownership of those who habitually use them. For example, who should own your neighborhood streets? Answer: you and your neighbors should own the streets that you live on. For the government to seize your tax money and your land and use it to build neighborhood roads, and then to sell them out from under you to some unrelated third party who doesn’t live on them, doesn’t habitually use them, etc., would be theft.

  2. Government industries and lands where an original private owner cannot be found could, and probably should, be devolved to the co-operative ownership of the people who work in them or on them. The factories to the workers; the soil to those who till it.

  3. Some universally-used utilities (water works, regional power companies, perhaps highways) which were created by tax money might be ceded to the joint ownership of all the citizens of the area they serve. (This is somewhat similar to the Czechoslovakian model of privatization, in which government industries were converted into joint-stock companies, and every citizen was given so many shares.)

  4. Some resources (many parks, perhaps) might be ceded to the unorganized public — that is, they would become public property in Roderick’s sense, rather than in the sense of government control.

Now, given the diversity of cases, and all of the different ways in which government might justly devolve property from State control to civil society, privatization is really too limiting a term. So instead let’s call what we want the socialization of the means of production.

As for the IMF / Blackwater model of privatization, again, the word doesn’t fit the situation very well, and we need something new in order to help mark the distinction. Whereas what we want could rightly be called socialization, I think that the government outsourcing, government-backed monopoly capitalism, and government goon squads, might more accurately be described as privateering.

I’m just sayin’.

Update 2007-11-08: Minor revisions for typo fixes, clarity, and to add a link I forgot to add.

Further reading:

Welcome to Red State America

Here’s a passage from Wednesday’s New York Times story on yet another set of secret legal opinions issued by the Bush Administration’s Department of Justice licensing the use of torture in interrogations:

From the secret sites in Afghanistan, Thailand and Eastern Europe where C.I.A. teams held Qaeda terrorists, questions for the lawyers at C.I.A. headquarters arrived daily. Nervous interrogators wanted to know: Are we breaking the laws against torture?

The Bush administration had entered uncharted legal territory beginning in 2002, holding prisoners outside the scrutiny of the International Red Cross and subjecting them to harrowing pressure tactics. They included slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions; or the ultimate, waterboarding.

Never in history had the United States authorized such tactics. While President Bush and C.I.A. officials would later insist that the harsh measures produced crucial intelligence, many veteran interrogators, psychologists and other experts say that less coercive methods are equally or more effective.

With virtually no experience in interrogations, the C.I.A. had constructed its program in a few harried months by consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture.

— Scott Shane, David Johnston and James Risen, New York Times (2007-10-03): Secret U.S. Endorsement of Severe Interrogations, p. 2

Refuge of oppression #3: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Here is a piece of correspondence that I actually received quite a long time ago, but which I just noticed recently as I was cleaning old out e-mail. The letter is apparently in response to my remarks in GT 2005-01-03: Robert E. Lee owned slaves and defended slavery. I suppose that it’s better late than never, when it comes to reprinting such valiant efforts to clear the name of such a great man and great American.

From: Todd
Subject: Hero
Date: 11 May 2006

General Lee is and will ever be my hero. Despite Slavery. He was a Great American. One can look with hind sight and say things, but we are careful about this. Never damning such people as Washington, or Jefferson. My point is we make our history to meet the PC thought of the day.

Lee was a loyal patriot, that had history provided a different out come, would be the model of every young person of every race.

The one thing I don’t like about America is we dismiss the brave heroes of our past because they don’t fit the PC world of today. We have a rich history, of which we should be proud. Men like Lee should be praised along side others like Washington, Lincoln, F.D.R. and so on.. They are part of what made us American.

I have traveled to the former USSR many times, and the subject of Gen Lee came up with ex Soviet Army Vets. All knew him as a great General. They had studied his tactics. When I told them that Americans were ashamed and renamed schools which once bore his name, they always laughed, saying you Americans have become weak, and cant honor your own This was hurtful words, but true words.

Slavery was an evil, one we should always remember, but something more important we should know , it still exist. In the heart of Africa it is there, why don’t we do something ? The only answerer I can provide myself is that, it isn’t PC. If it were P.C. every Hollywood actor, and Liberal Political would be screaming from roof tops. Dear Lord, it would be the biggest political thing in 150 years.Because we don’t here about it leaves me to wonder about the legitimate cry over the history American Slavery. It is just an agenda of the left. Because if they really cared they would do something to help the people around the world still enslaved. I don’t think they really care, but blaming men like Robert E. Lee makes them feel better.

For the record, I would like to admit that I have been convinced, in spite of the seditious libel spread throughout the P.C. world of today, that Robert E. Lee should indeed be praised about as much as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and whichever of their own nationalist heroes as may be honored by the proud veterans of the Red Army.

Further reading:

Just people: Over My Shoulder #35, Nikolai’s story about work at Chernobyl, from Poor People by William T. Vollman

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from chapter 3 of William T. Vollman’s new book, Poor People. It’s a sometimes compelling and sometimes tiresome book; Vollman went around cities in the U.S. and all over the rest of the world, interviewing (urban) poor people in several different countries, bringing back their stories and their answers to questions like Why are you poor? and Why are some people poor and other people rich? The compelling part are the actual stories; the tiresome part, which appears only a little in this passage but a lot more elsewhere, is Vollman’s insistent, neurotic handwringing about his own position as a rich American and his own authorial presence in the tale. (There’s nothing wrong with being upfront about these things; but there’s also nothing interesting in spending 2, 5, or 8 pages musing about your trouble in writing about poor people’s stories, which you could have spent actually letting them talk about their own stories.) Anyway, this passage comes from Vollman’s visit to Russia in 2005, when he met an eighty year old woman in front of a church, who was begging to help support herself and a family of four — her daughter Nina, her son-in-law Nikolai, and two grown grandchildren, Marina and Elena.

Nina, who had been the family’s agent of verification twice in my case (first she telephoned the interpreter to inquire about our motives and resources, and then when I had invited myself into their home she had been the one who emerged from the doorway graffiti’d KISS MY ASS to inspect me), who calmed her husband whenever he got overly worked up against the government, and who seemed to be closest to the two daughters, had originally seemed to me, even taking into consideration Oksana, who in spite of being the breadwinner was after all eighty-one years old and who so frequently wept, the most capable physically, mentally, and emotionally. Nina was a handsome, careful woman who was aging well.

I had no idea that things would turn out this badly, she said. They promised us an apartment in Petersburg. We had no idea; we were actually lied to. We were told that my husband was sent there for construction, not to clean up. We heard about it on the radio, but they told him that he would be at a safe distance from the contamination. He was away for three months. He wrote letters. He was forbidden to let us know that anything was wrong. So I took him at face value; I thought that my husband would never deceive me. His health problems began immediately. He could no longer complete an eight-hour workday, so they proposed to fire him.

And what did you do?

I sat with the children a lot and also taught grade school.

When did you know that something was wrong? I asked.

I knew exactly when they measured me, the man replied. My exposure was nine point four.

And what did you know before they sent you to Chernobyl?

I didn’t know, he said. On my official military ticket they put down that I would only build houses, nothing else.

I had always thought that the USSR was fair to the workers, I said.

That is absolutely not true, he insisted, raising his voice. Fairness to workers is only what they scream about in the newspapers. I have written a letter to Putin. They reply told me to contact the regional authorities who have already ignored me.

The man had lost some of his hair. He was very lanky in his old blue suit, and sported a strangely pale and bony face.

He showed us his card which bore the date 1986, an incorrect year, which meant that he couldn’t prove that he had been at Chernobyl and therefore remained ineligible for compensation. (Here something must have been lost in translation or else Nikolai Sokolov was confused, for the date of explosion was in fact April 1986. Perhaps his part of the cleanup took place in 1987, for he later said: From ’88 to ’94 we lived in Volgograd trying to get housing.)

Have you stayed in touch with the other workers?

No, he said.

His wife thought the date to be merely an error. But he was sure that the government wanted all personnel in the cleanup crews to die.

I think that Moscow is responsible, he said. The whole point was to change the situation so that no one is responsible for what they have done to the people.

How are you today?

Unwell, he replied.

His wife said: When he was in the hospital, he got treatment. Then, when he had no more housing, that meant no more treatment…

I produced more radiation than the X-ray machine used to measure my lungs! he cried in proud horror. It was a four and I was a ten, so the X-ray was unsuccessful.

Was your presence dangerous to your family?

The lady who works the machine has to wear a lead apron against level four and I am a level ten, so absolutely. The situation was caused intentionally…

How was your life before Chernobyl?

He stood there folding his arms, thought, then said: My life was stable and very simple. I put in ten hours at the factory. Now I get the shakes and my joints ache. I am a house builder. I build from the bottom up. That is how I was trained, but I branched out into different types of work. Work is work everywhere. I started branching out into factory work and office work but then I started being discriminated against. I wasn’t making the same rate as others–

As I said, there were no more chairs in the Sokolovs’ flat, so he stood. I, the guest, observer and rich man, sat. By now he’d begun to exert a weird effect upon me with his lank hair and bald forehead, his heavy greying eyebrows.

When you went to Chernobyl what did it look like?

Very regulated. We would get on a particular bus, travel to an intermediate area, put on our suits, then go to the main reactor compartment. We would carry armatures and concrete, and pour the concrete. Japan sent robots inside the reactor, but the radiation was so high that those new, shiny robots became useless. They just stood there.

What did it look like inside?

The reactor was already capped with concrete when we got there. But there was a machine tunnel next to it, the mechanical chamber. What had blown out of the reactor in the explosion landed there: walls, pencils, whatever. In the beginning we had to run, not walk, because the radiation was so high. We were in there with shovels wearing masks. We were only there for several seconds at a time. Five seconds per day was what we worked. We would run in, shovel one load into a trench, then run out. The trench was six to eight meters deep. Once the tunnel had been cleared out we were told that it was all right to walk. When the trench had been filled, we pumped concrete over it. Downstairs where we worked, we wore fabric suits. On the roof they wore lead suits. They were better protected.

How many workers did you see?

There were several busloads of people every day, just for our shift.

Why didn’t they just fly over it in an airplane and drop sheets of lead?

Elena, sitting in her chair, brushed her pale hands together and said something bitter in Russian. Meanwhile the man grew more and more loud, leaning forward ever closer. –I’ve asked myself that many times. The reason is that they were too cheap to spend the money and chose instead to expend people.

Elena echoed bitterly: Just people.

It’s war, but people basically end up dead. Our veins are clogged, so they just tell us to drink more vodka, which makes it worse.

How many people have died?

I don’t know. I don’t listen to the radio. I’m tired of listening to fables.

If you hadn’t gone to Chernobyl, what would your life be like today?

I would continue building houses, he shrugged. I would be able to have a decent job, and enough money.

–William T. Vollman, Poor People, pp. 70–73.

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