My interview with Lewis Siegelbaum about his book Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile is now online.
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Meet Don Kozlents. This octogenarian medal of valor holder is one of the millions of Red Army veterans of WWII. Like so many others, most of his family perished at the hands of the Nazis. He fought in the Battle of Kursk, where he was wounded when he crawled out of a pit to reconnect the wires of his primitive radio. A shell hit him, shattering his arms. Ironically, the very faulty radio equipment that brought him out of his hole was the very thing that protected him from the shell’s fatal blow. To this day shrapnel from the shell float in his body. As Kozlents spreads his metals out on his kitchen table in his apartment in Rishon Letrzion in Israel, he tells Haaretz‘s Lily Galili, “I did good work as a soldier. I was there for Russia, but as a Jew for Russia.” After the war he continued this good work by developing drug patents for the Soviet state.
Indeed, Kozlents was a “Jew for Russia.” Like so many WWII vets, Kozlents’ identity is irreducible. Like his father, also a Red Army officer, Kozlents was and remains a Zionist. By the 1970s, he joined thousands of refusniks, Soviet Jews who wanted to immigrate to Israel but were denied. Success finally came when his son Mark managed to immigrate. The elder Kozlents followed shortly after thanks to a Canadian “kibbutznik” and the personal intervention Margaret Thatcher.
Also like his father, Kozlents was a die hard communist. And remains so to this day. “I worked in the plant from morning until evening,” he says as he shows Galili a certificate signed by Stalin thanking him for his pharmaceutical work. “We sent the drugs to Africa and Asia. I worked to achieve a better world. I wanted to change the world.” But even Kozlents’ Marxism is difficult to categorize. As Galili writes,
He remains a fervent communist, but over the years he has also become a loyal “Bibi-ist.” According to him, Benjamin Netanyahu is following in the path of Karl Marx, more or less, and if we fail to understand this, that’s our problem. Kozlents says he is a real Marxist, just as he is a real communist, a real Jew and a real Likudnik – he sees no contradiction among these elements.
A Marxist Likudnik? I shutter to think. But who am I to say who is and who isn’t a real Marxist. “In Russia, the communists weren’t real communists,” he explains to Galili, “certainly not the counterfeits of Lenin and certainly not Stalin. I’m a real communist. Marx wasn’t a Bolshevik.” He doesn’t waver in this view when the Haaertz reporter points out to him that Marx wasn’t a member of Likhud either. But her question of how the two–Marxism and Likudism–mesh goes over his head.
“Read this,” he says, pointing to one of the volumes of Das Kapital. “The rules written here are Marx’s economy. Bibi understands these rules. More or less.” A remark that Bibi is a capitalist does not sway him. “So was Marx,” he claims, without showing any confusion.
And so when you put it all together Kozlents is a symbol of two events being commemorated this week: the Soviet defeat of the Nazis and the 60th Anniversary of Israel’s independence. For him the two are in an eternal dialectical relationship. “Without our victory over the Nazis, there wouldn’t have been a state,” he proudly tells Galili. “Everything is connected.” Such is the happy life of a Red Army veteran, Zionist, and Marxist Likudnik. Happy Victory Day and Independence Day, Don.