The deadly stoogery of Baader-Meinhof

It was a blast from the past. And boy, did these people know about blasts.

“Three veteran members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Germany’s most notorious homegrown terrorist organisation,” reported Justin Huggler in the Telegraph last May, “may have emerged from years in hiding to execute a series of armed robberies.” These crooks, who walked off with several hundred thousands of dollars, were part of the gang’s “third generation,” which had been notorious for act of terrorism back in the 1980s and 90s.

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The RAF’s official logo

How to sum up the long, eventful story of the Baader-Meinhof Gang (a.k.a. Baader-Meinhof Group), whose large cast of characters dominated headlines in 1970s West Germany with their seemingly random and meaningless acts of violence? Known by the names of two of its founders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, it actually called itself the Red Army Faction (RAF). Its members, most of them university students or former university students who had grown up in the years immediately following World War II, were young and angry. And extremely confused. For them, the Bonn government was little more than a continuation of the Nazi regime, and a tool of America – which, in their view, had inherited the Nazis’ role as the major worldwide force of fascist imperialism.

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Andreas Baader

One might ask how they managed not to recognize the rather significant difference between Hitler’s Germany and the West Germany in which they lived. One might further ask how a group of people who lived right next door to the Soviet bloc were so fiercely exercised over America’s supposedly imperial actions in far-flung places like Vietnam and Chile while showing nothing but fondness for the Moscow regime that subjugated Eastern Europe, ran the Gulag, and had built the wall around West Berlin, where many of them lived and operated.

But then, any American who encountered political-minded West German university students in those days can attest to the fierce anti-establishment and anti-American attitudes that ran rampant among them. Not all of them sympathized with the USSR, but even those who did not seemed to view it almost as an implacable fact of nature and appeared to see no point in criticizing its philosophy and policies.

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Ulrike Meinhof

As writer Michael Burleigh has put it, they were a generation of “spoiled middle-class kids [who] revolted against parents who had arduously rebuilt the country from wartime rubble” – and the RAF was “the lethal face of [that] radical generation.” (Indeed, Stefan Aust noted in his 1985 history The Baader-Meinhof Complex that while violent New Left radicals such as the Weather Underground were never popular in the U.S., fully a quarter of West Germans under forty actually felt sympathy for the Baader-Meinhof Group, with one out of ten saying they’d hide a member of the group from the police.)

But if RAF were their generation’s “lethal face,” they were hardly disciplined. Far from being worthy of the name “army” – theoretically coherent, strategically focused, tactically organized – the first generation of RAF members differed from the majority of their West German agemates largely by being bigger slobs, bigger screw-ups, and bigger screwballs: they lived, in Burleigh’s account, “a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll amid overflowing ashtrays, posters and fetid sheets.”

**ARCHIV** Andreas Baader, links, und Gudrun Ensslin in der Anklagebank vor der Urteilsverkuendung im Brandstifter-Prozess in Frankfurt am 31. Oktober 1968. Die zwei Angeklagten erhielten je Drei Jahre Zuchthaus. Vor 40 Jahren - in der Nacht zum 3. April 1968 - zuendeten die spaeteren RAF-Terroristen Andreas Baader und Gudrun Ensslin ihre ersten Brandsaetze. Im Kaufhaus Schneider auf der Frankfurter Zeil setzte ein verstecktes Schwefel-Phosphor-Paeckchen eine altdeutsche Schrankwand und im benachbarten Kaufhof Betten und Spielwaren in Flammen. Was auch manche Zeitgenossen als Happening von Bekifften ansahen, war der Beginn einer beispiellosen Terrorwelle, der in den naechsten drei Jahrzehnten mehr als 30 Menschen zum Opfer fielen. Auch viele Mitglieder der Terrorgruppe kamen ums Leben, bis sie sich 1998 für aufgeloest erklärte. Zunaechst als Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe oder Baader-Meinhof-Bande bekannt, nannte sie sich selbst Rote-Armee-Fraktion. (AP-Photo/fls) Andreas Baader, left, is seen together with Gudrun Ensslin during the proclamation of their sentence in their department store arson trial in Frankfurt/Main, Western Germany, on October 31, 1968. Baader was later one of the founders of the Western German terrorist group RAF (Red Army Faction). (AP Photo/fls)
Gudrun Ensslin

RAF co-founder Gudrun Ensslin, notes Burleigh, was “a dope-smoking anti-nuclear protester with serial boyfriends who had given away an illegitimate child for adoption” and who “had already starred in a soft porn movie when she fell under the spell of Andreas Baader.” As for Baader, he’d “been thrown out of school and failed at a succession of jobs; he had eked out a living as a male model, supplemented by robbing customers in the lavatories of gay bars and stealing cars. Like Ensslin, he too had an illegitimate daughter – and was also a drug-fuelled fantasist.”

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Christopher Hitchens

More than one observer has dismissed them as “psychopaths.” Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2009 that he’d been convinced since the late 1970s “that the Baader Meinhof phenomenon actually was a form of psychosis.” A principal recruiting ground for the RAF, he noted, “was an institution at the University of Heidelberg called the Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv, or Socialist Patients Collective, an outfit that sought to persuade the pitifully insane that they needed no treatment save social revolution.” When the RAF ran low on members and needed to replenish its numbers, it proselytized at the SPK.

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Che: a role model

In any event, the RAF unequivocally admired the Communist world. If West Germany was the Third Reich’s successor state, East Germany preserved the ideals of the anti-fascist forces, led by Moscow, that had defeated it. They loved Mao. They identified with Che Guevara. Like many members of the New Left throughout Western Europe and North America, they were steeped in the writings of the Frankfurt school and other Marxists, devouring, and frequently consulting and quoting, writers like Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and German-American theoretician Herbert Marcuse (1989-1979).

But theory wasn’t enough for the RAF. Above all, they were devoted to translating theory into action. More about that action tomorrow.

Rewriting Rwanda: John Pilger

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John Pilger

Who is John Pilger? Born in Australia in 1939, he worked as a reporter for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, then relocated in 1962 to Britain, where over the years he made a name for himself as a foreign correspondent, TV journalist, documentary maker – and, not least, as one of a small number of prominent scribes (among them Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, and Howard Zinn) who are famous for their anti-Western rancor. As is so often the case with such figures, his anti-Western rancor hasn’t kept Pilger from receiving honorary doctorates from several leading Western universities and from collecting a long list of major Western awards – an Emmy, a Peabody, a BAFTA, two nods for “Journalist of the Year,”multiple prizes from the UN, an award from Reporters without Borders, and a human-rights prize from Norway, among others.

Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein yells at the court as the verdict is delivered during his trial held under tight security in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, Sunday Nov. 5, 2006. Iraq's High Tribunal on Sunday found Saddam Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity and sentence him to die by hanging. (AP Photo/David Furst, Pool)
Saddam Hussein

We saw yesterday that even after 9/11 Pilger couldn’t see Americans as ever, ever being victims. That atrocity and its aftermath evoked some of Pilger’s most wretched writings. It’s one thing to consider the whole “War on Terror” misguided or botched, and to deplore the collateral damage caused by coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq; it is quite another to look upon the utter savagery of Saddam or of Taliban jihadists, as Pilger did, with apparent indifference. (Indeed, Pilger openly declared that he was on Saddam’s side.) For him, as one critic wrote,

the people of Iraq, the terrorists, the psychopathic death squads, only exist in the dim and distant background. If they are mentioned at all…they are products of Western policy. They lack all agency. To all intents and purposes they are the absent party. They are non-persons; hapless nobodies…..There’s obviously a kind of racism at play here: only Westerners matter; and only then if they can be blamed.

It gets worse. In 2010, Pilger endorsed a book, The Politics of Genocide, in which Edward S. Herman and David Peterson denied the monstrous 1994 annihilation of the Tutsi in Rwanda by the Hutu majority. According to Herman and Peterson, the shoe was on the other foot: the Tutsi, in fact, had massacred the Hutu. Pilger called the book a “brilliant exposé of great power’s lethal industry of lies.” As one former admirer of Pilger commented: “In the Rwandan context, this is the equivalent of asserting that the Nazis never killed Jews in death camps – indeed, that it was really Jews who killed Germans.”

In Pilger’s view, we weren’t even the good guys in the Cold War: complaining in one 2005 essay about the history syllabi then in use at Oxford and Cambridge, he mocked the references to Soviet “expansionism” and the “spread” of Communism and protested the fact that “there is not a word about the ‘spread’ of rapacious America.”

(FILES) In this 04 September1999 file photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro discusses his request to the president of the International Olympic Committee in Havana for an investigation into the treatment of certain Cuban atheletes. Castro said the communist nation is not afraid of dialogue with the United States -- and not interested in continued confrontation with its powerful neighbor. The comments came as a group of US lawmakers visited Cuba this weekend to try to end nearly half a century of mutual distrust and amid reports that President Barack Obama was planning to ease economic sanctions on the island, including travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans. "We're not afraid to talk with the United States. We also don't need confrontation to exist, like some fools like to think," Castro, 82, said in an article on the Cubadebate website on April 5, 2009. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE /FILES (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images) Original Filename: Was672139.jpg
Fidel Castro

Of course he loves Cuba, which he first visited in 1967. In a 2011 article, he depicted that initial exposure to the Castros’ island as a fun, colorful, fiesta-like experience. The Cubans he met were uniformly delightful and friendly – but, he added, “the hardship of their imposed isolation left smiles diminished and eyes averted once the music had stopped.” And whose fault was that isolation? One guess. America’s, naturally. In fact, everything that went wrong with the Castro Revolution, it turns out, was America’s fault: the increasing poverty, the decrease in food supplies, the crumbling of infrastructure, etc., etc. Also, while America’s relations with the rest of the world are driven by a sheer lust for power, don’t you know, Cuba’s international relations are motivated by pure altruism: the “revolution,” Pilger maintained, echoing the Castros’ ludicrous propaganda, “sends tens of thousands of doctors across the world for the sole purpose of helping other human beings: an epic internationalism.”

And he was at least as fond of Hugo Chávez as he is of the Castros. More on that tomorrow.

Sons of the KGB

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Alex and Tim shortly after their parents’ arrest

Quick recap: yesterday we started telling the story of Tim and Alex Foley, two brothers who thought they and their parents were Canadians but discovered, as the result of a 2010 FBI raid on their Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, that their folks were not only Russians but Russian spies, living in deep cover since Soviet days. The family’s tale was a key inspiration for the current FX series, The Americans. 

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“Donald Heathfield” and “Tracey Foley”

When “Donald Heathfield” and “Tracey Foley” were taken into custody and deported to Russia, the story made headlines. Since then, both brothers – who, then aged twenty and sixteen, were obliged to follow their parents to Russia, but left as soon as they could – have kept a low profile, but they agreed to speak to the Guardian as part of an effort to regain their Canadian citizenship, which was rescinded after their parents’ arrests. Both young men insist that they have no sense of belonging to their parents’ homeland. In a recent affidavit to a Canadian court, Tim wrote: “I do not have any attachment to Russia, I do not speak the language, I do not know many friends there, I have not lived there for any extended periods of time and I do not want to live there.” Alex, for his part, told the Guardian: “I feel like I have been stripped of my own identity for something I had nothing to do with.” Although both boys’ relationship with their parents has been “difficult” and “sad” (they visit them in Russia every few months), Alex, after having thought long and hard about “whether he hated them or felt betrayed,” claims he eventually decided “that they were the same people who had raised him lovingly, whatever secrets they hid.”

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Tim and Alex in Bangkok, 2011

Speaking on behalf of both himself as his brother, Alex also says this about his parents: “I’m glad they had a cause they believed in…but I wish the world wouldn’t punish me for their choices.” Ponder that sentence. Admittedly, one can’t expect kids who’ve been put in such circumstances to come out clear-headed. But if we were counseling Alex, we’d suggest he’d put some more thought into his assertion that he’s “glad” his parents found a “cause” to serve – and into his apparent conviction that it’s “the world” that’s responsible for the punishment he and Tim have undergone. Granted, perhaps he has a profound psychological need to cling to the belief that his parents, in spite of everything, were “loving” – but as someone at the threshold of adulthood he must address the question squarely: just how loving was it for “Don” and “Tracey” to put their children in such a situation? For people who made the choice they did – and who clung to it even after living for years in the free world, all the while knowing that their Western-raised sons might ultimately have to pay dearly for their deception – “loving” is, shall we say, hardly the mot juste.

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Tim and Alex in Kazakhstan, 2013

To be sure, although they spent decades operating in the same ideological territory as many of the unsavory characters we’ve studied on this site, “Don” and “Tracey,” as born-and-bred Russians who chose to become KGB spies, don’t qualify as “useful stooges.” On the contrary, they were full-fledged pillars of Soviet totalitarianism (and, later, of whatever you want to call Putin’s own distinctive brand of thuggish tyranny). They and they alone created the nightmare in which their sons are now living. By all means, give Tim and Alex back their Canadian passports; but first make certain that they understand completely just who is responsible for their “punishment” – and just who is being “loving.” In other words, make sure that these two young men, who have been so intent on completing their educations, learn perhaps the most important thing they can ever learn: that their parents weren’t serving just any “cause,” but were, in fact, fighting to eradicate the very freedom that Tim and Alex now seek to live under again.  

 

Spy story

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Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-cover KGB spies in The Americans

In early May, the Guardian recounted a fascinating true story that, as it happens, helped inspire the current FX series The Americans. It’s about a Canadian couple, Donald Heathfield (a consultant) and Tracey Foley (a realtor), and their two sons, Tim and Alex Foley, who, on June 27, 2010, when they were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were in the middle of celebrating Tim’s twentieth birthday when “a team of armed, black-clad men holding a battering ram…streamed into the house, screaming, ‘FBI!’ Another team entered from the back; men dashed up the stairs, shouting at everyone to put their hands in the air.”

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The family’s house in Cambridge

Some of the G-men drove Don and Tracey away in handcuffs, while others remained behind to search the house. From those investigators, the boys learned that their parents were Russian spies who’d been living under deep cover since Soviet times, using names stolen from long-dead Canadians. Don was really Andrei Bezrukov; Tracey was Elena Vavilova. The deep-cover system was a well-known KGB specialty (no other country has ever trained spies to pose as foreigners) but it was widely believed to have been shuttered after the fall of the Iron Curtain. On the contrary, as it turned out, old KGB hand Vladimir Putin saw to it that it remained alive and well.

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“Tracey” with Tim in 1991

Visiting his parents in prison after their arrest, Alex, then sixteen, didn’t ask them about the charges: “I refused to let myself be convinced they were actually guilty of anything….They were facing life in prison, and if I was to testify, I would have to completely believe they were innocent.” On their mother’s advice, Tim and Alex decided (rather bemusingly) to “escape the media circus” by flying to Moscow, where they’d never set foot. There, colleagues of their parents in the SVR (the KGB’s successor agency) met them at the airport, showed them around town, and introduced them to relatives they hadn’t known existed. After a few days their parents joined them, having been exchanged, along with eight other SVR operatives, for Russians who’d been spying for the West. They “were welcomed back…as heroes.”

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“Donald” with Alex and Tim in 1999

It turned out the FBI had been on to “Don” and “Tracey” for years. Their home had been bugged. G-men had scoured Foley’s safe-deposit box as far back as 2001. Tim denies a 2012 report that his parents had told him the truth “long before the arrest” and that he’d agreed to train as a “second-generation spy” for Russia. On the contrary, both sons insist they have no affection for their parents’ homeland. Tim, now 25, says they both underwent a “real identity crisis” when, having been stripped of their Canadian citizenship, they were given Russian passports and a new surname (Vavilov). Both maintain they were eager to leave Russia ASAP. Tim, after completing college there, was able to go to London to earn an MBA; Alex, however, couldn’t get visas to Canada, the UK, or France; now 21, he is studying in an unnamed (but presumably less desirable) country in Europe. What’s the deal with them now? Tune in tomorrow. 

Malcolm Harris’s Soviet nostalgia

Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris sits in the courtroom before a hearing in Manhattan Criminal Court stemming from his arrest in a protest march over the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Malcolm Harris

In late April, the New Republic – which until recently was the flagship of liberal anti-Communism in America – published a reprehensible piece, “Who’s Afraid of Communism?,” by Malcolm Harris, a young editor at a website called New Inquiry and a frequent contributor to Al-Jazeera. The essay, an apologia for Communism, began with Harris mocking Hillary Clinton for her praise of NATO, which she’d called “the most successful military alliance in probably human history.” Harris dismissed this as “a bizarre assertion,” maintaining that NATO has only conducted a few “major military operations.” How, then, he sneered, could it be called successful?

Um, how about its four decades of success at keeping the USSR from overrunning western Europe as it had eastern Europe?

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But don’t tell Harris anything negative about the Soviets. He’s quick to remind us that in World War II the USSR “lost the most people, 50 times as many as America did.” He doesn’t mention that while members of the Red Army were fighting to defend their own homeland after it was invaded by Hilter (prior to which their own dictator, Stalin, had been allied with Hitler), America, by contrast, was fighting to rescue fellow democracies from totalitarian conquest by Germany – and, after the war, joined with those democracies in NATO to prevent totalitarian conquest by the USSR.

It’s outrageous to even have to remind anyone of these facts.

Lenin_CLHarris does at least admit that it was America that won the Cold War. But for him, what won was not democracy but capitalism, that ugly thing. For Harris, the USSR was not truly an evil empire but a “bogeym[a]n.” For Harris, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War wasn’t a matter of the U.S. feeling compelled to align itself with certain less-than-admirable authoritarian regimes in the cause of long-term victory over a far worse totalitarian enemy; no, it was a matter of the US being the villain, and the USSR the hero, in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere. For Harris, not only were the Soviets heroic, but American Communists were, too, in the fight against Jim Crow; ditto Cuban Communists, in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. To view things in any other way, claimed Harris, was sheer “bullshit” – an attempt to continue to repress the glorious “story of communism’s struggle against fascism and white supremacy.”

maoNone of this would matter, of course, except that – as Harris himself points out – his own perverse view of things is widely shared among young Americans today. “A new poll of adults under 30,” he wrote, “found that 51 percent ‘do not support capitalism.’” A disproportionate number of those who showed up to cheer socialist Bernie Sanders at his rallies were quite young indeed. What young Americans need, Harris insisted at the conclusion of his piece, is “a more nuanced version of the Cold War narrative.” No. These are kids who’ve already been sold a whitewashed picture of Communism by the media, their schoolteachers, and their college professors; what they desperately need is a thorough, honest education in its barbaric history.

Dreaming of freedom, sneering at freedom

Our topic this week has been Ilinca Calugareanu’s extraordinary documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism. The film takes us back to Communist Romania in the 1980s, when ordinary people gathered secretly to watch Hollywood movies – and thus got their first precious glimpses of life under freedom.

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Producer Mara Adina, Irina Nistor, Ilinca Calugareanu

In an interview with PBS, Calugareanu, who herself attended these group screenings as a kid, described her film as telling a story “that the world needed to hear, a story filled with joy and magic from a part of the world that most film audiences don’t know much about.” She’s right. In another interview, at a Toronto film festival, she recalls that when she was a child and walked into a group screening and saw the TV set and VCR, the thrill was palpable – you felt as if “you could almost touch freedom and the West.” People who have lived their entire lives in freedom need to be reminded how precious that gift is. To viewers who do appreciate their freedom, this documentary will be a deeply moving experience.

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 27: Director/writer Ilinca Calugareanu, translator/film critic Irina Margareta, and producer Mara Adina attend The Variety Studio At Sundance Presented By Dockers Day 4 on January 27, 2015 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Variety)
Calugareanu, Nistor, and Adina being interviewed at Sundance

Unfortunately, many Western film critics don’t belong to that category of viewers. It doesn’t help that they are so contemptuous of the action vehicles starring actors like Sly Stallone and Chuck Norris that they can’t bring themselves to even try to appreciate what such fare meant to people living under totalitarianism. One such critic is Scott Foundas, who, reviewing the documentary last year in Variety, actually described it as a “breezily entertaining bonbon” – which is just this side of calling Schindler’s List a “fun romp” or Shoah a “great date film.” To be sure, Foundas was on-point when he compared Zamfir to a Graham Greene character and when he praised Calugareanu for giving her picture “the flair of a good espionage yarn.” And at least he treated the documentary and its mission with a degree of respect, acknowledging the importance of the fact that “the glimpses of the West and Western democracy afforded by American films…did much to counteract the influence of Ceausescu’s powerful propaganda machine.”

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John DeFore

But then there’s John DeFore, who, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, sneered condescendingly about the “jingoistic action films and romantic fantasies” that worked magic on Romanian audiences. DeFore even managed to work into his review the term “cultural imperialism” – giving one the distinct impression that for him, what’s disturbing about Calugarean’s story is not the idea of people living under a real-life dictatorship that sought to brainwash and terrorize them 24/7 but the idea of them being ideologically influenced by such dreaded capitalism-promoting products as Top Gun and Pretty Woman.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Jordan Hoffman unhesitatingly panned Calugareanu’s documentary, complaining that it “says everything it needs to say in its first 15 minutes, and then just keeps rewinding the tape….While I’m sure the dissemination of black market tapes truly did have huge social repercussions, there’s a surprising ‘so what?’ effect after the 15th recollection of what it was like to watch Rambo.”

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Jordan Hoffman

That Hoffman should respond so dismissively, so unfeelingly, to such an extraordinarily stirring chapter of modern history tells us a great deal about him. And it’s not pretty. All he succeeds in doing, in his small-minded piece, is to remind us that while there are men and women of remarkable courage in totalitarian countries who yearn for freedom and who strive to do their part to bring down tyranny, there are also pathetic characters in free countries who not only take their freedom for granted but who think it’s cool and chic to mock the very idea of yearning for freedom. 

But what else can one expect from the Guardian?

Romania: becoming heroes

Yesterday we began discussing the documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism, in which director Ilinca Calugareanu takes us back to 1980s Romania and the phenomenon of surreptitious private screenings at which ordinary Romanians got to see American films – and, through them, the Free World.

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In a re-creation from the documentary, Nistor is seen doing her secret dubbing

But the films didn’t just vouchsafe to Romanians their first look at the West. “The films changed what you thought,” says one of Calugareanu’s interviewees. “You developed through films.” The movies, we’re told, sowed “seeds of freedom.” One interlocutor remembers that after viewing one action film after another – starring actors like Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude van Damme – “we started to want to be heroes.”

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Nicolae Ceaușescu

This is no small admission. These were people who’d been systematically beaten down by the Communist system. The word hero was flung at them constantly by their leaders – as we see in the documentary itself, in an excerpt from one televised speech by dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu – but it was invariably used to refer to so-called “socialist heroes,” people who’d submitted themselves heart and soul to the regime, who’d embraced their role as obedient mice, who’d parroted the totalitarian rhetoric (and, in many cases, ratted on their neighbors who didn’t). The bootleg Hollywood films restored to the Romanians who saw them the concept of heroism in its authentic sense – restored to them, that is, the notion that it was possible in this world to stand up for oneself, for one’s friends, and for goodness itself against the forces of evil and oppression. Nistor tells Calugareanu that since the liberation of Romania, people have told her that her very voice is linked in their minds with the idea of freedom and hope.

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Vaclav Havel

Like many a good Hollywood thriller, Calugareanu’s film actually contains a twist or two in its latter half. We’d rather not give away the surprises here. Suffice it to say that pretty much everybody in Romania, it turns out, up to and including people at the very highest levels of government, was eager to watch American movies. Which, in turn, underscores the fact that even top officials were, in a very real sense, prisoners of their own system. It’s not a fresh insight: Vaclav Havel, the Czech poet-turned-activist-turned-president, articulated it brilliantly in his famous essay “The Power of the Powerless.” Indeed this documentary, seen from one angle, is a confirmation of Havel’s own assertion in that essay that oppressed people in totalitarian countries are effectively collaborators in their own oppression and that they contain within themselves the power to overcome their own powerlessness. The Romanians who gathered in tiny apartments to watch those American movies were, in their own small way, defying authority – awakening in themselves the very spirit that Havel wrote about, and that would help to bring Ceaușescu down.

We’ll finish up on this tomorrow.

Chuck Norris vs. Communism: a riveting true-life story

In a stirring documentary called Chuck Norris vs. Communism, first screened last year at the Sundance Film Festival and now available on Netflix, director Ilinca Calugareanu tells the story of how bootleg Western movies, sold on the black market and shown on VHS in secret, illegal viewings in private homes across Romania in the 1980s, helped transform the mentality of a people living under the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu.

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Nicolae Ceaușescu

Calugareanu effectively combines beautifully directed historical re-creations with absorbing on-camera testimony by a couple of dozen or so Romanians who explain the impact that the movies had on them at a time when their own national TV service consisted of two hours a day of boring propaganda about the glory and triumph of socialism and when they were denied even the slightest glimpse of the world on the far side of the Iron Curtain. An older woman recalls that when she first saw Western movies, “I realized how far behind the West we were.” Another interviewee remembers, “We would all savor every image, even the credits at the beginning of the film.”

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Chuck Norris

Indeed, the stories told by the Western movies often took a back seat to the settings, the backgrounds. For the first time, Romanians could see the streets of New York and Paris. The actors’ “clothes, the attitudes, the gestures” communicated oodles of information that couldn’t be put into words. “You’d stop following the movies,” recalls one man, “because you were impressed by the houses.” You’d see “cars that you’d never see here.” The pictures provided “a window into the west through which I could see what the free world was like.” And every bit of it was fascinating to the viewers: “people had a strong desire to know, to learn about a society that was forbidden.”

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In one re-created scene from the documentary, Zamfir gets into a spot of trouble with the authorities

Few Romanians knew how the bootleg tapes had found their way into Romania. All they knew was that they’d had been smuggled in illegally – and that it was illegal to watch them. What we learn from Calugareanu is that the whole operation was the work of a single remarkable man named Zamfir. Starting with a couple of VCRs, he ended up with 360. Two or three times a year, he’d drive abroad and come back with a trunk full of new films. To get away with it, he bribed border guards. Eventually he developed a network that distributed tapes throughout the country.

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Irina Nistor today

Zamfir’s main helpmeet was a woman named Irina Nistor, whose story is also remarkable. She was working as a translator for the official government censors when Zamfir approached her: would she be willing to take on an evening job dubbing foreign movies for him? She leapt at the chance. She was risking prison – but she was curious to see the films herself. “It seemed,” she tells Calugareanu, “like a way to be free and spite the regime.”

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In one of the film’s re-creations, Nistor is seen at work in Zamfir’s home

So while continuing to work with Ceaușescu’s censors during the day, she also secretly collaborated with Zamfir, going to his home night after night to sit at a desk, watch movies on a TV screen, translate the dialogue in real time, and dub all the actors’ voices into a microphone, trying her best not only to render the words correctly into Romanian but also to convey the tone, the feeling, the mood. Even after being called on the carpet by an official of the secret police, she refused to quit. “The films were my oxygen.” Simultaneous translators at the UN generally work for only fifteen minutes or so at a time, so exhausting is the job; Nistor could dub a half dozen or more films in a single sitting. By 1989, when Communism fell, she had dubbed more than 3000 of them. As a result of her work, Nistor’s voice became, after Ceaușescu’s, the second most familiar in all of Romania.

More tomorrow.

George Blake, KGB

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George Blake

George Blake is 93, a former MI6 agent and convicted KGB mole now living in Russia. Last year his story was told in a BBC documentary, George Blake: Masterspy of Moscow, by George Carey. Yesterday we examined Blake’s colorful early years and his conversion to Communism, an ideology that he regarded as “an attempt to create the kingdom of God in this world.” Taken custody by the North Koreans after the outbreak of the Korean War, Blake was “freed” after three years in their custody and returned along with other captured Brits to the U.K., where he was hailed by the Fleet Street press – and by his colleagues in MI6 – as a hero.

A list of six ìdangerous agentsî of British intelligence in a file kept by the Stasi, the feared East German secret police. Credit: George Carey *** MUST CREDIT *** ONE TIME USE ONLY ***
A list Carey found in the files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, listing six MI6 agent exposed by Blake

But Blake was no hero – not for the West, anyway. He was now a counterspy. Based in London, and later in Berlin and Lebanon, Blake proved to be a highly reliable Soviet asset, photographing classified British and American documents that crossed his desk and handing them over to KGB contacts on a regular basis. This went on for several years, and ended only after a Polish intelligence officer – who was himself a double agent, working for the Brits – turned over information to MI6 showing what Blake was up to.

Summoned to London, Blake was interrogated for two days, during which he repeatedly denied being a KGB mole. On the morning of the third day, however, when his questioners suggested that he’d switched sides as a result of torture or blackmail while in Korea, he insisted defiantly that he’d never had any such motive: he’d offered his services to the KGB, he said, “of my own free will.”

Hans Mohring: Hans Mˆhring, an official on the GDR state planning commission and an agent for MI6, spent 17 years in a Stasi prison after he was betrayed by George Blake. Credit: George Carey *** MUST CREDIT *** ONE TIME USE ONLY ***
Hans Möhring spent 17 years in a Stasi prison for spying for Britain after being betrayed by Blake

His case made headlines. Sentenced to 42 years in prison, he was incarcerated at Wormwood Scrubs in London. In 1966, with the help of friends on both the inside and outside, he escaped, and managed to make his way to Russia, where the KGB were “good to him.” “Showered with medals,” he was given a nice apartment in central Moscow and a prestigious job in a think tank. He’d left behind a wife and children in Britain, but he found a new wife in the USSR and had more children.

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Blake with fellow traitor Kim Philby

“George has never had any regrets,” a cousin of his said on the BBC documentary. This, even though the information he supplied to the KGB resulted in the arrest of about 100 Soviet officials who were secretly working for the West. Six MI6 agents he fingered for the KGB “were imprisoned for up to 17 years inside East Germany, serving time in jails notorious for torture and psychological intimidation of inmates,” reported the Telegraph. One is now believed to have been taken to Moscow and executed.”  

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Blake today, at his home near Moscow

“I’m still a Communist,” Blake said in the late 1980s. Not long afterwards, the USSR collapsed. One wonders whether he was surprised to find out just how few of his fellow Soviet residents actually believed in the ideology that was their government’s excuse for controlling their lives.

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George Carey, documentary maker

The irony is rich: the Iron Curtain came down, and Russia and its satellites joined the family of nations, their people finally able to speak their minds, run their own lives, travel the world. But Blake, a convicted spy, had no choice but to stay in Russia, a living relic of another era. To avoid re-imprisonment in Britain, he lived in Russia, in a prison of his own making. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he’s less than delighted by this fate; according to an old friend, Blake, somehow unable to grasp that his past couldn’t be “forgiven and forgotten” as easily as he would like, has actually looked into the possibility of returning to the Netherlands.

And so he remains in Russia, a nonagenarian who’d “believed that his fate was to do God’s work on earth” – but whose destiny, it turned out, was to spend his old age as a living reminder of his own dead, twisted dream, a dream, as Carey’s documentary pointed out, “for which he’d done so much damage to Britain.”

“The spy who got away”

George Blake on returning from his internment in North Korea

He’s been called “the most damaging British traitor of the Cold War,” “the spy who got away.” His name is George Blake, and he’s 93 years old. Today he’s a doddering, harmless-looking old coot living in Russia. Half a century ago, however, he was a very slick character indeed who, to quote an interviewee in a recent BBC documentary, was “responsible for getting people killed.”

The documentary, entitled George Blake: Masterspy of Moscow, aired on the BBC last year. Made by filmmaker George Carey (not to be confused with the former Archbishop of Canterbury of the same name), it recounted Blake’s exceedingly curious and colorful early years: born in Rotterdam in 1922 with the last name of Behar, he grew up in the odd position of being unable to communicate with his own father, an Egyptian Jew, hard-working businessman, and British subject who, though he lived in the same house as his son, spoke English and French but not Dutch, which at the time was the only language the son spoke.

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Cairo, 1938

After the father died, in 1936, leaving the family in financial difficulties, it somehow came to the attention of his widow and children that he had a rich sister in Cairo who lived in a palace, no less. George, then in his early teens, came into contact with his aunt and presently relocated to Cairo, where he moved into the palace, enrolled at the English School, and learned both French and English. (One presumes he must have picked up at least some Arabic, although there is no mention of this in the documentary.)

The German ultimatum ordering the Dutch commander of Rotterdam to cease fire was delivered to him at 10:30 a.m. on May 14, 1940. At 1:22 p.m., German bombers set the whole inner city of Rotterdam ablaze, killing 30,000 of its inhabitants. (OWI) NARA FILE #: 208-PR-10L-3 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1334
Rotterdam after the Nazi bombing in May 1940

He was visiting his family in The Hague when World War II broke out, and a year later was in Rotterdam for the Nazi air raids of May 14, 1940. Returning to The Hague to discover that his mother and sisters had fled for Britain, George joined the Dutch Resistance, found his way (a rather spectacular feat) to the U.K. via Spain in 1942, and, after arriving in London, managed to parlay his remarkable personal story into a job with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6, which sent him to Cambridge to learn Russian.

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Cambridge University

It was there, in a class taught by a professor who inspired in him “a romantic admiration for everything Russian,” that Blake, according to the documentary,  first began to sympathize with Communism. (Blake himself has testified otherwise: when he’d first moved to Cairo, he’d met one of his cousins, Henri Courel, a Communist whose views, he said years later, “had a great influence on me.”)

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Seoul, 1948

Sent to Seoul by MI6 in 1948, Blake was apprehended by the Communists after the Korean War broke out. They could’ve executed him, but instead he allowed himself to be turned – to accept the role of a double agent, spying on the British for the North Koreans’ Soviet masters. By this point, he was not a tough sell: “I felt I was on the wrong side…that it would be better for humanity if the Communist system prevailed, that it would put an end to war.” Indeed, Blake, who had once aspired to be a pastor, would later say that he “viewed Communism as an attempt to create the kingdom of God in this world.”

What happened next? Tune in tomorrow.