Over dinner with my older son tonight, to celebrate our respective birthdays (they are three days apart), I listened with barely concealed delight as he told me about the books he has been reading lately. They are all the books I could not induce him to read when he was younger: Maugham, Waugh, Tolstoy (of course), Dostoevsky, Joyce, Hemingway, and to my great satisfaction, Babel. I think Isaac Babel was the most talented of the post-revolutionary Russian writers, and therefore, the most tragic. A brilliant young Jewish intellectual, he served, incongruously, with the Red Cavalry in the Russian civil war (though he did not know how to ride a horse), participating in the invasion of Poland, which gave rise to his greatest work, the cycle of short stories entitled "The Red Cavalry."
I based my own book, "Lt. Ramsey's War," structurally on "The Red Cavalry," which is a work I admire very much. It is wonderfully made, expressive, moving, and profound. My son said that he had done a bit of research on Babel prior to reading him, and was dismayed to learn that he had been arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and finally executed in the Soviet camps. But that was inevitable. The Bolsheviks could not tolerate so lyrical and liberated a soul. They killed, tortured or silenced all of the great talents of the Soviet era, including Mandelshtam, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Tarkovsky and, perhaps most touchingly of all, Yuri Olesha.
Olesha, who is little known or read these days, was, after Babel, I think, the most talented of the Soviet writers. A chubby, spectacled little man, he was essentially a romantic of the 19th century who found himself in the nightmare world of communist Russia. His greatest work and his only novel is entitled "Envy," because he saw the new world, and the new "Soviet Man" who was to inherit it, and he knew he could never be part of that. That was what he was envious of: a new generation of super-men of the communist state, with their steely eyes and sledge hammers who served the state slavishly -- lived, labored, sacrificed and died in its service.
They were creatures of the new collective government, these New Men, its minions, its mice who ran its tortured labyrinth their entire lives, ceding to it their freedom, their individuality, their very souls. They gave their children to state orphanages to be raised in the principles of Marx and Lenin, married when they were told whom they were told, and devoted their lives to the greater good of the communist populace. They were, in short, the ants of Dostoevsky's ant hill, that massive, inhuman, impersonal collective of which he warned the Russian people in the 1870s. Fortunately he did not live long enough to see it come into murderous reality.
As I thought of Olesha, that timid, tender soul who also tried to warn the Russian people of the cliff over which they were rushing, and whose brilliant promise was cut short when he was warned by the secret police to write no longer, I could not help but think (forgive me) of our own nation in our own time. And so I feel moved to warn my fellow Americans, as Olesha did his fellow Russians, that we are in the process, very gradual but unmistakable, of selling our souls to the government. In return for what? "Free" health care, cheap prescription drugs, entitlements, and a phony sense of fairness.
My fear is that our children may be the last generation of what the world would recognize as Americans -- those unique people who created their own government, constructed their own nation, lived their own lives, possessed their own souls and died in the certain knowledge that their children would be better off for their having done so. Like Olesha, I envy those who came before me in my land, and I fear and despise those who are usurping it in the name of greater social justice, greater collective good, greater dependence on a government which even now has swollen to proportions that can absorb us all.
We must resist. We must reinvent ourselves. We must restore our nation to what its Founders intended: a land of opportunity, where great accomplishment is possible because great risk is inevitable. We must be free to fail even if that means some of us fail miserably. The goal of this nation was the greatest good for the greatest number, not a mediocre level of satisfaction and security for everyone at the expense of liberty and individuality. America was meant to be, as Jack Kennedy said, the last, best hope of mankind. We must not barter that hope away for a phony fairness and a false promise of security from cradle to grave. In short, we must once again begin behaving like Americans.