On the evening of February 24, 1956, as the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party came to its formal close, the building of the Central Committee suddenly began to buzz with activity. Outside observers were perplexed. It would take years before they understood the strange occurrence: The leadership of the Communist Party was convening to debate an unofficial address Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was to deliver later that night.
That address — Khrushchev’s “secret speech” (later leaked) — hammered the final nail in Stalin’s coffin, three years after his death. In it, Khrushchev assailed his predecessor’s reign of terror, his use of “extreme methods and mass repressions at a time when the revolution was already victorious,” his “complete political liquidation” not only of his enemies but also of those who had risen through the ranks of the party. The revolution, as the hackneyed saying goes, had devoured its own children.
“It was at that moment that true Communism had floated free of history, like smoke,” is how Jonathan Lethem describes that speech in “Dissident Gardens,” his brilliantly caustic and deeply moving new novel. It’s no coincidence that Lethem sets the book’s opening scene — a gathering of American Communist Party members in a cramped kitchen in Sunnyside, Queens — mere months before the speech takes place. Soon, the disillusionment will hit, and such gatherings, with all their bluster and aplomb, would prove historically insignificant — even laughable.
The novel is filled with such instances of mistiming and missed opportunities. “American Communism, born in parlors,” Lethem writes wryly, “had gone to the kitchen to die.” The particular kitchen in “Dissident Gardens” is presided over by Rose Zimmer, a firebrand Jewish revolutionary whose German husband abandoned her and their young daughter a decade earlier to become a Communist spy in Germany, a woman “unforgiving in her nature and intoxicating in her demands, her abrupt swerves and violent exclusions.” … [Read more]