Revolutionaries and regret: Eleni
In my post on the unfortunate tendency of revolutions to devour their own, Elmondohummus made the following comment:
Such movements, such revolutions, tend not to be the wonderfully exciting, meaningful, free places that participants imagine, but coldhearted, calculating monoliths of purpose unimagined by the individual participants caught up in the heady romance of the moment...But to be openly abused, jailed, even executed... Such a betrayal... yet, time and time again, you read of people in Ghotbzadeh's shoes, true believers chewed up and spit out by the momentum of the movement, a mere commodity to be used to the movement's own ends.
Most revolutions do tend to turn on their own in time--and often not all that much time. But there's a further aspect of it I want to discuss here, and that is this: when revolutions change into something unforeseen by their original-- sometimes starry-eyed, idealistic, and naive--proponents, those early advocates often turn into opponents of the very revolution they launched. Their efforts to undo what they've unleashed are usually futile. That is apparently what may have happened to the sardonic Ghotbzadeh, who did not have the last laugh, after all.
Back in 1983 I read Eleni, Nicholas Gage's testament to his mother's life and a depiction of her execution by Communists during the Greek Civil War in the 40s. It's an extraordinary book for many reasons, and its power is difficult to describe. It's long and complex, with so many characters that, halfway through, I wished I'd kept a chart with all the names and familial relations graphed, because every now and then I got lost in the maze. But, even though at the time I was the exhausted mother of a young child, it was so compelling that I exhausted myself still further by staying up night after night until I'd finished it.
It's one of those books where you know the ending right at the beginning--Gage comes right out with it in the introductory chapter. But that doesn't diminish the story any more than knowing the plot of a Shakespearean play takes away from the experience of seeing it again. Gage's mother Eleni is a true heroine, a woman of epic courage and love (as well as great intelligence, despite her lack of formal education). I submit that the book cannot be read by any feeling person without its pages becoming wet with tears.
But in the days after I read Eleni, I realized on reflection that Gage tells another story in addition to his gripping personal story. He attempts to describe the Greek Civil War itself. In this, by the way, he has drawn some fire from those who believe he hasn't given the Communist guerillas their due.
But when I read Gage's book I actually thought his portrait of said Communists was somewhat sympathetic. It's hard to forget his description of them; one in particular was the local schoolteacher, initially a gentle idealist, as I recall. The book delineates, step by careful step, how over the course of time these people compromised and hardened until they were all but unrecognizable, their dreams soured and their cause utterly transformed into something they wouldn't have recognized (or supported) at the outset. To me, that was a twin tragedy.
The two brothers, Prokopi and Spiro Skevis, the locals who, in Gage's words, "sowed the seeds of Communism" in Lia, his home village, both were killed in battle rather than at the hands of their own. But Gage writes that, after the execution of his mother and four other villagers:
Spiro Skevis' success in bringing Communism to the Mourgana villages had turned to ashes in his mouth. The execution in Lia of his five fellow villagers tormented him. A captain in his battalion later told me how, shortly after the retreat from the Mourgana, Spiro went out of control and tried to kill one of the chief aides [to the judge in the trial that led to Gage's mother's execution], drawing a gun on him and screaming that the man was a criminal, a murderer of women. Other guerillas jumped Spiro before he could pull the trigger. He went to the grave tormented by the perversion of the movement that he and Prokopi had begun with such high intentions.
I don't think Spiro would be alone among revolutionaries in having such regrets. Ghotbzadeh, Robespierre, Trotsky, and the rest--what were they all thinking in their last moments?