First, I’d like to thank Molly Tanzer for hosting my guest-blogging effort on behalf of Historical Lovecraft: Tales of Horror Through Time, and editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia for arranging the guest-blogging exchange. And a more general thank-you to all the wonderful authors with whose works my story is sharing space in the pages of Historical Lovecraft for making it such a wonderfully frightening anthology.
When I think about discussing my short story “Red Star, Yellow Sign,” the first thing that comes to mind is how it wouldn’t even have been possible for me to write it a few years ago. In fact, it might be better to say it wouldn’t even have been thinkable to write it as I did, with Nikolai Yezhov as the protagonist and principal point-of-view character.
I originally studied Russian in the late 1980’s, when our knowledge of that period of the history of the Soviet Union was still fragmentary, and largely the product of either Soviet propaganda or the accounts of defectors. As a result, I got the standard view of the time, which portrayed Yezhov as a psychopathic monster who gleefully fabricated cases against people he knew to be innocent, motivated entirely by bloodlust reflective of a lifelong moral emptiness. After all, nothing much was known about him prior to his sudden appearance as the head of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), so it was easy to assume the worst.
After the fall of the USSR, more information began to come out, including first-person accounts by people who knew him before the Terror, including Anna Larina, widow of Nikolai Bukharin. In spite of having suffered terribly as a result of her husband’s destruction in the Terror, and thus having every reason to hate Yezhov, in her autobiography This I Cannot Forget, Larina recalls him warmly, telling stories of how Yezhov and her late husband joked about having the same forename and patronymic, Nikolai Ivanovich, in the years prior to the Terror, when neither of them had any reason to expect they’d end up on opposite sides in a social cataclysm.
Then there was the story of Yezhov’s daughter, who after his fall from grace was sent to a hellish orphanage and subsequently has endured a lifetime of poverty and social rejection (she is as of this writing still alive, elderly, ailing, and crushingly poor). Generally the children of brutal killers recall their childhoods as being full of abuse, but she recalls Yezhov as a loving father, quite possibly the only person in her life who truly loved her. In the only English-language interview with Natalya, her steadfast love for him shines through the writer’s use of slanted language to portray her as a contemptible person (perhaps to justify his humiliation of her in her own home) and Yezhov’s ability to inspire such love in the face of overwhelming pressure to disavow him suggests that we need to take another look at the standard view of Yezhov as bloodthirsty killer devoid of any human qualities.
This was when I encountered two very significant scholarly works that changed my whole view of the Great Terror: The Road to Terror by J. Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov, and Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941 by Robert Thurston. Suddenly I get an image of the Terror not as a systematic operation of mass murder directed from the top by Stalin (as frequent comparisons to Nazi Germany’s genocides suggest), but of a moral panic affecting all levels of society, more akin to the Salem witch trials, or what the McCarthy Era might have become if the US didn’t have due process protections to slow down the wheels of (in)justice long enough that Ed Murrow could get the truth out and people could calm down. Instead of the pathological mastermind of mass murder, Stalin’s role becomes more that of throwing gasoline on a fire that would have burned no matter who was at the top (so much for all those alternate histories in which Sergei Kirov outmaneuvers Stalin and the Terror is averted). Thus it became possible to see Yezhov not as a psychopathic monster, or as Stalin’s witless tool, but a sincere Soviet patriot in over his head, not realizing that his entire society has gone mad around him because it can’t name the Elephant in the Middle of the Living Room that is the abject failure of Communist theory in the disaster of forced collectivization.
However, the final link came not from history, scholarly or popular, but from science fiction: namely a story from Larry Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars anthology series. In Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling’s “The Children’s Hour,” (which is reprinted in The Houses of the Kzinti), one of the characters claims that Communism was created as a self-limiting tyranny to control humanity’s self-destructive impulses. The idea of the tragedies of Communism being the result of a shadowy Illuminati-style conspiracy foisting Communism onto unsuspecting dupes who sincerely believed they were creating a better world really bothered me.
Thus, when I saw the call for submissions to Historical Lovecraft, I immediately saw a possibility in substituting Cthulhu’s minions for Pournelle and Stirling’s shadowy Illuminati-style conspirators. My original idea was to have a modern researcher discover evidence of the tampering, and come under fire for appearing to be exculpating Yezhov — but then the editors add a line in the guidelines that they do not want to see frame stories set in the present day. So now I’ve got a story written from Yezhov’s point of view — but how can I convey the manipulations of history by Cthulhu’s minions when Yezhov’s supposed to have only the most glancing idea of what he’s discovering?
Thus I developed the idea of a series of memos back and forth between R’lyeh and Cthulhu’s agents in Leningrad, interspersed through the narrative. This technique also had the benefit of rejecting any grandiose portrayal of Cthulhu and his minions, instead portraying their evil as utterly banal and bureaucratic. It’s rather appropriate when one considers that one of the failure modes of bureaucracy is a loss of the sense of personal responsibility for actions, such that people carry out terrible orders fully believing that they’re not just doing the right thing, but fulfilling a positive duty, and that failure mode has been such a major part of several of the worst horrors of the 20th century.
After that it was just a matter of actually pulling everything together into a finished story. I got some wonderful suggestions for that from some of my friends who are also writers, and some help from my husband on the final edits right when his computer had major problems and he needed me to get it working again.
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