Saviors and monsters. Angels and devils. Good and evil. Life.
“But how did Lenin turn into a monster?”
Our writing group was critiquing my book about my family’s exile from Russia a hundred years ago. Trying to mix personal story with world history is a challenge; but this question had nothing to do with my writing.
I had tried to paint Lenin as neutrally as I could, as a man who started out with the goal of creating a worker’s paradise. Just a few pages later he had launched the Red Terror, which eventually evolved into Stalin’s genocidal rule. Whatever their initial objectives might have been, they had replaced the Tsar with a far greater evil.
“You know, he’s not the only example of a leader bringing salvation in the form of Communism who instead brought damnation on his country,” someone said.
My mind immediately returned to Cambodia, where I had recently traveled. Someone else brought up China. The debate disintegrated into disagreements over Cuba. It was hard to bring the discussion back to my writing.
A few days later a New York Times headline announced: Khmer Rouge’s Slaughter in Cambodia Is Ruled a Genocide. It continued: “Pol Pot and his Communist disciples turned the country into a deadly laboratory for agrarian totalitarianism.”
Russia judged Stalin just a few years after his death. Cambodia waited forty years to succumb to external pressure to judge Pol Pot’s supporters.
A photograph headlined the story:
Just days earlier I had been hosted by the prison’s official photographer at his home in Siem Reap. I met his mother, wife, and child. I documented and photographed our time together.
Nhem En was an enigma. He was completely flat in his affect, and his eyes revealed nothing. He made his living from the world’s morbid curiosity about his past.
As I listened to him talk, all I could think about was that my father, too, took pictures of people with an uncertain future. But his were photos of those waiting to go to Canada or Venezuela or America. Nhem En’s were of people facing certain death.
My father never talked about his years in a refugee camp, years of an uncertain future. Nhem En hasn’t stopped talking about it for twenty years. A few years ago the Guardian wrote: “And the photographer is far from a sympathetic advocate: before starting his career as a self-published author, he tried to sell Pol Pot’s sandals and toilet seat online.”
Cambodia continues to haunt me. My graduation from college, in 1970, was canceled because the University at Berkeley rose up in protest in response to the U.S. invasion. My father was deprived of seeing the result of years of hard work; he was dead by the time my graduation was ceremonially held in 1990.
Cambodia is still recovering. In the declaration of genocide, the tribunal found only three living people guilty. All others have been exonerated of any influence in the decisions taken by the leadership. Lucky for them, since many—including the current prime minister—were Khmer Rouge members.
One of the guilty was called Dhuc. He ran the notorious prison and was Nhem En’s boss. Nhem En explained that he testified against Dhuc. And then he dropped what was, for me at least, another bombshell: he had photographed Pol Pot with a Yugoslav leader.
In 1950 Pol Pot had spent a month building a highway project in Yugoslavia. During his rule, Cambodia considered Yugoslavia one of its few friends in the world.
“Wait,” I wanted to say. “Leave me out of this!”
I was an infant in Yugoslavia in 1950. I did not need to learn that my mother’s country supported this horrific dictator. I had already lived through watching my homeland endure one war crime tribunal. Did it help to reassure myself that it was the totalitarian leader of Yugoslavia who exiled my family?
In any case, I was in Siem Reap to take a photography workshop, not to rip my soul. People came here to see the ancient temples of Angkor, not to revisit their past.
A few days later, walking out of the gate from the temple of Angkor Thom, I stopped to photograph some faces on the bridge. They represented a story of Guardian Gods and Demon Gods facing off to roil the waters of the Earth.
A thousand years later, it seems the gods are still at war. And my personal demons are also still at battle. Once you start turning the pages of your past, I have learned, you can’t control what comes out.