to the editors:
I am writing in response to Gary Saul Morson’s blatant misrepresentations in his review of my Boris Savinkov biography. [“Falling in Love with Terror,” NYR, January 13]. His tactic is to consistently ignore all the abundant evidence I bring to the table that contradicts his preconceived idea of Savinkov. But he also goes much further when he attacks me ad hominem by claiming that I am an uncritical apologist for Savinkov’s terrorism. One particularly offensive aspect of Morson’s attack is that he bases his false claim on my ethnicity, something I didn’t think I’d see on his pages. Morson begins by stating that Russia was “the first country where the ‘terrorist’ became a honorable…profession, one that could be passed down in families for generations”; then he identifies me as having grown up in “a family of Russian émigrés”; and finally, he states that thepurpose” from my book is “exalt the Russian terrorist movement in general and Savinkov in particular” (all italics are mine).
Why is my ethnicity mentioned in this review instead of other standard academic identifiers? Is it to suggest that I can’t be objective about terrorism because of my Russian background? In the context of the review’s misrepresentations, this is the only possible conclusion. Whether Morson’s animosity is intentional or an unconscious slip, it echoes former director of national intelligence James Clapper’s recent notorious smear that the Russians “are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, curry favor, to be”.
Because I do not have enough space to cite all of the evidence that refutes Morson’s claims about my book and me, I refer readers to my response at valexandrov.com/nyrb. Below is an outline of some of the points.
Savinkov’s disinterest in the niceties of revolutionary ideology is not evidence of his disregard for “relieving people’s suffering,” as Morson absurdly claims, and there are dozens of places in my book where I describe Savinkov’s lifelong struggle. for the ideals of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR). from the land to the people, free elections and self-determination for all subject nationalities of the Russian Empire.
Morson is wrong that a morbid preoccupation with violence was all that moved Savinkov and his comrades. As she explained in detail, Dora Brilliant couldn’t get over her guilt for participating in the assassination of the great Imperials, even though she believed her deaths were necessary to free the Russian people. As a result, she and other members of the SR Combat Organization, including Savinkov, saw their own possible deaths during the assassinations or their executions after being captured. as atonement for their sins. Morson omits this context when he quotes “I Must Die” from Dora Brilliant.
Morson regularly misrepresents my book by selecting quotes. For example, he cites Savinkov’s “giggle” about the RS theorist Chernov, but omits a fair passage five lines down which shows that Savinkov not only supported the SR Party’s commitment to the peasantry, but urged a comrade to do so as well. To paint Savinkov as unprincipled, Morson cites Savinkov’s statement to Gippius that he would work with “anyone”, but omits Savinkov’s explanation. in the same letter that this means those who are committed to patriotism and the “Constituent Assembly,” the democratically elected body that Lenin dispersed at gunpoint in January 1918. To implicate myself in irresponsible admiration for Savinkov, Morson quotes just the part from a sentence about Savinkov not killing anyone, thus misrepresenting my point about the paradoxical nature of Savinkov. Morson claims that Savinkov makes only a “fairly qualified ‘condemnation'” of Bulak-Balakhovich’s anti-Semitism during his military foray into Belarus, but ignores what I summarize seven lines down on Savinkov insisting that “it is the duty of every honest man to defend the Jews, who as a people are as innocent of being Communists as the Russians are of being Bolsheviks.”
Even larger omissions abound. While I admire Savinkov and some of his closest SR comrades for his commitment to the Russian people, I also detail many criticisms of Savinkov during all periods of his life. But Morson mentions none of these in his desire to make it appear that I view Savinkov as a “secular saint”. And when Morson criticizes my explanations of Savinkov’s behavior, he doesn’t get involved. none of the documentary evidence that I provide and, instead, refers to people and historical events that have no direct relationship with Savinkov.
Morson even hides that, for the sake of objectivity, I cite evidence against my own interpretations. When he tries to refute my conclusion that Savinkov committed suicide while in a Soviet prison, he refers to various comments by others that Savinkov was murdered, as if this were evidence I was not aware of. But all that (and more) is in my book. Morson’s carelessness extends to inventing that Savinkov replaced weapons with bombs, although I explain that it was the notorious Evno Azef.
Morson also makes a historic mistake when he tries to blame me for not mentioning Ignatiev’s memory of Stalin, which he presents as closing the case against Savinkov’s suicide. Morson fails to realize that Lenin could not have ordered Dzerzhinsky to throw Savinkov out of a prison window because Lenin died eight months before Savinkov was imprisoned, as I describe in my book.
Morson concludes by approvingly citing Lenin’s denigration of terrorism and his attacks on those who idealize the revolution. Considering the unbeatable records the Bolsheviks set in both kingdoms, this is both highly ironic and historically blind. Immediately after Fanny Kaplan’s attempt on her life in 1918, Lenin and his followers launched their “Red Terror”, which killed an estimated 200,000 people. When Lenin recovered from his injuries, his closest associates immediately began to deify him. The first mausoleum on Red Square was built, and Lenin’s mummified corpse was placed in it, in 1924, the year of his death. And we all know how state terror and the cult of Lenin developed in the following decades.
BE Bensinger Emeritus Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures
New Haven, Conn.
Gary Saul Morson answers:
in my review of To break the chains of RussiaI quote Alexandrov’s statement that Russian terrorism at the beginning of the 20th century, including that carried out by the PSR (Party of Socialist Revolutionaries), to which Savinkov belonged, was completely different from what that word means today. “The [PSR] the killers proudly called themselves ‘terrorists’, but what they meant by this is not like what the word means now,” explains Alexandrov, because today’s terrorists kill people at random and “attack almost anyone.” randomly chosen national, social or cultural group and engage in any pastime… Had the Social Revolutionaries known of such deeds, they would have condemned them as unequivocally criminal.”
But everyone knew about such events. I cite evidence from Anna Geifman’s authoritative study You Shall Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894–1917 that Russian terrorism claimed the lives of thousands of bystanders and private citizens; that “robbery, extortion and murder became more common than traffic accidents”; that terrorist groups “competed…to see who had committed the most robberies and murders, often displaying jealousy of each other’s successes”; and that they also competed in devising sadistic torture, which Geifman describes in stomach-churning passages. These terrorists also invented suicide bombings, which seems to link them to more recent terrorists. In his letter, Alexandrov does not bother to address these facts and other counter evidence that he cites from Geifman and other historians.
On the first page of his book, Alexandrov states, without reservation, that Savinkov himself “chose terror out of altruism.” This defender of “freedoms” (as Alexandrov describes Savinkov in his first sentence) collaborated with Mussolini, excused his imperial adventures and praised fascism (“Fascism is close to me psychologically and ideologically”). When his party convicted another group (the Maximalists) of an assassination attempt that killed twenty-seven bystanders and injured thirty others, Savinkov wrote that he “did not approve” of the conviction. At one point he offered to join the maximalist leader, explaining that he didn’t care about ideology: “Why can’t we work together?… I don’t care if you’re a maximalist, anarchist, or social revolutionary. We are both terrorists. Let us combine our organization in the interests of terror.” Doesn’t this sound as if terror (not just “altruism”) is a goal in itself, and that Lynn Ellen Patyk’s portrayal of a Byronic Savinkov (which I describe) makes more sense than Alexandrov’s depiction of a man noble guided only by purity and purity? human motives?
Does Alexandrov represent Savinkov as some kind of secular saint? “All his [Savinkov’s] the efforts,” he writes, “were directed at transforming their homeland into an exceptionally democratic, humane, and enlightened country.” all your effortsterrorism out of altruism, an “absolute commitment to personal and political freedom”, suicide chosen as the only honorable course of action when he failed to carry out his plan to assassinate leading Bolsheviks – such descriptions (and there are more) sound like a revolutionary version of “secular holiness” for me.
Alexandrov writes: “Morson even hides that, for the sake of objectivity, I cite evidence against my own interpretations.” But I provide that evidence multiple times, for example: “According to Alexandrov, a woman Savinkov tried to recruit for terrorism ‘concluded that terrorism itself had overshadowed all other considerations for Savinkov.'” I also mention how PSR leader Victor Chernov bristled when “Savinkov… ‘with a giggle,’ in Alexandrov’s words… expressed his indifference to the party’s defining commitment to the peasantry.”
My purpose in citing Stalin’s line about Savinkov’s suicide, along with the confession Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn heard from a secret police agent who claimed to have participated in Savinkov’s defenestration, and Savinkov’s own statement that “if you hear I’ve got my hands on myself, don’t do it.” “I don’t think so” was to point out how murky the whole thing is and that murder was at least as likely as suicide. We just don’t know.
Alexandrov is perfectly sure that the reason the review mentions that he is “a prominent scholar…who grew up in a family of Russian émigrés” is that I hate Russians and agree with James Clapper that Russians “They’re almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, curry favor, whatever.” Alexandrov is so sure of my hatred of the Russians, to whose great literature I have devoted my life, that “this is the only possible conclusion”! As it happens, the phrase in question was supplied by the editors of The New York Review, I do not. They wanted to make it clear that Vladimir Alexandrov, despite his obviously Russian name, is not Russian but American. Indeed, this type of biographical information is far from rare on the pages of The New York Review. Even if that had not been the case, surely Alexandrov could allow Some another explanation is possible. This kind of simplistic reasoning also characterizes his book.