It’s really interesting to read this one. Dread of Soviet Communism is now pretty much a thing of the past, though there is the ridiculous, tragic pantomime of it still operating in North Korea, and China has some kind of Communist governance in place, which at this point in history really only means that an oligarchical dictatorship is calling the shots there. To meditate on the Kremlin somewhere in the early 60s when this poem was written, the height of the Cold War, puts this poem in a stark historical context. B. never visited the Soviet Union, but to meditate on Communism and its symbol, the Kremlin, is plenty understandable, and it’s a relief for me from the previous section of The Dream Songs. János Kádár is mentioned in the poem, “for Christ knows / poor evil Kadar, cut, is back in power.” It’s easy enough to call János Kádár evil from B.’s American perspective, conventionally pro-Western here. Kádár had been courageous in the Hungarian anti-Nazi resistance during the war, in a country that historically aligns with Germany whenever trouble breaks out. He successfully navigated the deadly landscape of Communist politics after the war, though not without making enemies and likely being tortured in prison. But he got out and rose to power again when the Hungarian Revolution was crushed, and he stayed there. Hungary became known as “the best barracks in camp” under his leadership, which somewhat relaxed the kind of oppression East Germany and Czechoslovakia had to endure and raised the standard of living. Hungarians realize that while he was a Stalinist, he also seemed to be a solid leader, and under the circumstances tried to do well for his country. At the very least, not a total villain, which is remarkable enough. There is a monument right in front of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest, which commemorates the firing-squad execution of a group of revolutionaries on that spot, and it proclaims flatly that Communism was a failure in every way imaginable. In a poll taken a few years ago, Hungarians still voted János Kádár as one of their most capable leaders ever, in recognition for what he managed to accomplish under that otherwise despised system.
This was all very fresh, as were the presence of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev in the Kremlin, where it seemed at the time the latter would be enshrined along with his predecessors. It didn’t quite work out that way, as the whole Soviet system rotted and collapsed some 25 or 30 years later.
My wife and I spent six months in Budapest in 90-91, and we got a feel for what that side of the Iron Curtain had been like through some of the lingering after-effects. I find this all interesting enough, and it motivated me to look into János Kádár more than might seem usual for anyone outside of a hopeless history geek. Budapest, when we first got there, reminded me in an unusual way of what an American city might have felt like 50 years before. The country seemed to be in a moment of stunned stasis when we arrived, and then it started changing. It was a different place by the time we left. I’ve been back twice recently, and it’s now a full-fledged modern European capital, and a truly great and beautiful city. We wanted to visit Russia, but were warned against it in no uncertain terms by the Russians we met there. While Hungary and Czechoslovakia were still and gathering themselves, Russia was in chaos, and it was a dangerous place for travelers. We did visit Prague—the giant red stars just taken down, a new coat of paint, gorgeous almost beyond comprehension. At that moment a flood tide of Westernism was clearly on its way, but it was still just a shallow overlay on top of a motionless, stunned country. That changed quickly too, but that was my impression. I haven’t been back since, but I hear the West took over in Prague—noisy and touristy.
The Kremlin’s St. Basil’s cathedral and its bells are world-renowned icons symbolic of one of the world’s great cultures. It’s easy to see from here, but we now know that the soul of Russia that the domes symbolize runs far deeper than the Soviet structures erected on top of it. But the structures of Communism, the figurative “bell, book & candle” (the Medieval rite of excommunication from the Church and from the possibility of salvation) had ascendency then. The “moujik”, the Russian peasantry, were forced to kneel & vote for it. You couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel from B.’s moment. Khrushchev would be enshrined forever, and the rites of Orthodox religion even would be co-opted to anoint the political system and force it into a perverse holiness. Such it was, all backed by phalanxes of rockets loaded with H-bombs, pointed straight at our heads.