Nikolai Yezhov was an abominable man and one of the most feared figures in the early days of the Soviet Union. As head of Stalin’s secret police from 1936-1938, Yezhov helped the Communist dictator consolidate power by presiding over the Great Purges, which saw the murder of 950,000 people for political crimes and the arrest and torture of millions more.
Eventually, however, Yezhov fell out of favor with Stalin and soon he was “disappeared.” Stalin didn’t merely have the man tortured and killed; Stalin had him erased. All pictures featuring Yezhov and the dictator were doctored to remove Yezhov and he was erased from the official historical records. Of course, those who knew him, those who feared him, those whose lives he ruined—those people remembered. But they didn’t dare mention him for fear of suffering his fate.
And so it went. One by one, as Stalin had former comrades erased from life. They were also airbrushed out of pictures and history, erased from existence, and erased from all narratives.
The Soviet political machine attempted to make memory itself something that was subject to the dictates of the state.
My father grew up in Odessa, years after Stalin and the purges, years after the subordination of memory to the government. But he often spoke of its effects.
I remember my father telling me about a man named Kostya who moonlighted as a vodka bootlegger to supplement his meager state wages. Kostya’s spirits sold at significantly lower prices than the state’s and undercut the government monopoly; a monopoly that, incidentally, helped pay for Stalin’s industrialization campaigns and which, by the 1970s, constituted one-third of government revenues.
“One evening,” I remember my father saying, “they just came for him and we never saw him again. We never talked about him and he was forgotten . . . by all except maybe his wife, and even she was loath to bring him up.” Kostya went away as if he never was. To remember Kostya was to be complicit.
Recently, Hasbro released a tongue-in-cheek version of the classic “Monopoly” game called “Monopoly: Socialism” with the tagline “Winning is for Capitalists.” The game was replete with swipes at socialism, which through its organized famines, famines of malpractice, wars, atrocities, and purges, was responsible for the vast majority of human-caused suffering and death in the 20th century. Considering all the suffering socialism has brought to the world, the game was fairly light in its mockery and indictment.
The gameplay mechanics focused on the players landing on spaces, paying for them from a community fund and watching that fund run out. Instead of Boardwalk and Park Place, there were community projects, no-tip-vegan restaurants, and healthcare-for-all. Once the fund runs dry, so does the fun. The game is supposed to end with a bankrupt fund and penniless players.
Tolerable and Intolerable Satire
The original “Monopoly”—the “Monopoly” we all grew up playing—also began life, and continues to be, a parody, a dark satire . . . of capitalism. With multiple players starting a game whose mechanics dictated that the game could only end with a solitary winner and the rest of the players bankrupt. Monopoly presents capitalism as a zero-sum game. The only way to win is at the expense of the other players.
Originally called “The Landlord’s Game,” the game was invented by iconoclast and social critic Elizabeth Magie, who was inspired by the writings of Henry George, a 19th-century politician who inveighed against private ownership of land and natural resources. Magie designed her Board game to expose what she saw as the dangers of private land ownership and put forth the idea that land value taxation was the only solution to the problem of land Monopolies. Magie’s invention initially had two sets of gameplay mechanics:
The Landlord’s Game is based on present prevailing business methods. This the players can prove for themselves; and they can also prove what must be the logical outcome of such a system, i.e., that the land monopolist has absolute control of the situation . . . If the players wish to prove how the application of the Single Tax would benefit everybody by equalizing and opportunities and raising wages, they may at any time during the game put the single tax into operation by a vote of at least two of the players.
Over time, (and with some measure of controversy) the first set of rules would become the “Monopoly” everyone knows today. At its heart, though, the game is designed to be a satirical parody of the worst in capitalism and expose its flaws, as the designer saw them—namely greed, monopoly, and the bankrupting of all but the most ruthless. Ironically, the game’s original history and founder were, until recently, purposely erased from the game’s history.
For 80 years, this satire has survived. For 80 years, we have grown up with a game that mocks, denigrates, and points out the creators’ perception of the failures of “capitalism run amok.” And for years, no one batted an eye.
Capitalism, for all its faults, it seems, tolerates mockery. Can the same be said of socialism?
Socialism’s Solemn Intolerance
“Monopoly: Socialism” existed for all of a week before the purges began.
Within days of a negative review appearing on Twitter, the game was disappeared from the shelves. But like the unmentionable crimes of socialism’s past, it needed to be expunged, not just from production, but from our memory. Like all of the five-year plans that starved millions, the gulags, the cultural revolutions, and great leaps forward that today’s socialists pretend never occurred, the game needed to be erased not merely from existence, but from ever having existed. Even the critic whose tweets presumably caused the uproar expressed shock.
“Monopoly: Socialism” didn’t just disappear from store shelves, all references to it have been removed from Target and Hasbro’s websites. The link that used to point to the game, points to nothing. When I went to my local Target to ask about it, the SKU number came up as invalid. “Hmm, there’s something weird here,” the sales girl told me. “I know we had so many copies of it, it was brand new. Now it’s not even showing up. There must be something wrong with the SKU.”
Hasbro and Target haven’t even addressed the matter publicly. The companies merely pulled the game. No questions, no comments. They expect us to forget it ever existed.
The shelves are as bare as Soviet-era food stores and, like those doctored photos, if you look, there is still some evidence of the game’s existence. The label with the name and SKU number sit, with an emptiness above them, memory’s valley, surrounded on every side by more “acceptable” games.
Your Lying Eyes
In the Soviet Union, collective memory was always chaotic and insecure. The people never knew for sure what was the real version of events—even when they lived through them. They were forced, time and again, to subordinate their experience to the official version of events. Eventually, people stopped trusting their own eyes and experiences for fear of reprisal.
Memory itself became a function of state control—one might remember the events, but no one ever spoke of them, and after keeping silent long enough, one forgot—or at least could pretend at forgetting.
Collective memory is a fickle thing, a signifier of who we want to be. The memories we keep and the ones we choose to let die are insights into what we value and aspire to be, what we honor and what we loathe. There are organizations that exist to help us remember those things we’d rather forget, those things that would be easier to expunge from our memory. Their value is as a reminder against forgetting. But when organizations—public or private—attempt to force us to forget, we should all be wary.
A board game, made by a private company, being removed by that company is hardly the same as erasing people, manufacturing famines, and jailing political enemies. But the attempt to remove all traces of what should be seen, at best, as a cultural bauble, is troubling. It is the attempt to control collective memory.
And so, like faded impressions of the disappeared bureaucrats, state embarrassments that could never happen, Kostya the bootlegger, countless family members, and memory itself during the Soviet reign, we’re left with the notion that something happened, something we all knew about . . . but something the evidence of which no longer officially exists, something that may have never existed. The light of the gas lamps burns bright as we question our memory itself and wonder whether Hasbro’s “Monopoly: Socialism” was ever released at all.