Friday, March 13, 2020

Tolstoy Refresher

This past week I plunged into several Tolstoy books.  I re-read Tolstoy's infamous Kreutzer Sonata, and read his What is Art? and The Cossacks for the first time.  The Kreutzer Sonata starts slowly, with the characters making relatively lazy--and sometimes philosophical--observations about women, but Tolstoy's talent emerges as he describes his protagonist's murderous jealousy.  Reading the book, one almost wishes Tolstoy had written his own Crime and Punishment to set along side Dostoevsky's version. Tolstoy's What is Art? demonstrates Tolstoy's ability to produce great work in multiple genres.  For this nonfiction investigation into aesthetics is very well researched and reasoned, and demonstrates the author's versatility as a thinker. In the book, Tolstoy draws upon his knowledge of German and French, to produce a survey of the field of aesthetics.  He also proves that he has a firm grasp on the history of the Church and European history in general.  In The Cossacks, Tolstoy seems to foreshadow some of the magic of War and Peace, since his ostensible adventure tale is filled with powerful insights into every day life, and wonderful "small" and "slow" moments and conversations between ordinary people. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Loren Graham and Richard Stites' on Bogdanov Science Fiction

According to Loren Graham and Richard Stites, Alexander Bogdanov's science fiction wrote widely read science fiction novels at the beginning of the twentieth-century.  Red Star, in particular, had a wide readership.  While stylistically unimpressive, Bogdanov's Red Star provided rank and file socialists with a compelling vision of a socialist utopia in outer space.  Bogdanov's alternative to capitalist reality included a rotating leadership, collective child rearing, short work days, unisex clothing, unlimited consumption, 3D movies, planned settlements, and a single language.  In general, the Red Star was a model of modernity, technology, and efficiency.  Red Star society required no state, and somehow blended the best elements of rural and urban living.  It also reduced the differences between men and women, and offered people the opportunity to change jobs frequently to avoid tedium and unnecessary routine. Medically, Martians participated in mutual blood transfusions and had the option of opting out of life at any hospital, all of which houses medical "suicide rooms."  Foreshadowing later cybernetic theory, Bogdanov also outlined a society that made use of statistics and data retrieval systems to implement or organize progress in highly sophisticated ways. 

Kathleen E. Smith's Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring

Kathleen E. Smith has written a brilliant historical account of the fateful year of 1956.  Impeccably research and beautifully written, Smith's Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring analyzes the pivotal year of the post-Stalin era by breaking down the year into its component months. Smith begins her narrative by carefully exploring the origins, meaning, and impact of Khrushchev's Secret Speech. She demonstrates the complexity of Khrushchev's undertaking:  after all, elements of the Soviet leadership intended to overthrow Stalinism without damaging their own reputations or that of the country's revolutionary traditions.  Somehow, Khrushchev needed to overthrow a so-called "cult of personality" without undermining the country's self-confidence.  Outwardly, the Soviet Union remained in a relatively strong position vis-a-vis its capitalist competitors.  After all, Great Britain, France, and America were beset by colonial rebellions and post-colonial anger, while Russia now now embraced Eastern European allies as well as a newly communist China.  Inwardly, however, the Soviet Union was uncertain about how to curtail its experiment with mass incarceration and forced labor.  It was also uncertain about what to do with the legacy of the man who had apparently consolidated the gains of the Revolution and overseen the country's triumph against fascism.  Should the country release all political prisoners, or just some of them?  Should released prisoners be permitted to return to their old jobs, or should they be marginalized to prevent undue awkwardness?  What license should be given to authors to criticize Stalinism?   How far should foreign communist governments be permitted to go in their own criticism of Stalinist traditions?  Should the Party's official history be re-written?  Should the reputation of people like Trotsky or Bukarin be rehabilitated in any way?  (The answer was no, especially in the first case). 

Moscow 1956 begins with a comprehensive overview of these unfolding questions.  The richness of her sources, and the strength of her critical analysis of those sources, demonstrates the extent to which the Soviet Union struggled to create a clear path forward, somewhere between totalitarian extremism and moderate reform.  Of course, Khrushchev himself provides the best example of a country in flux.  Where once Khrushchev had participated in Stalinist terror, now Khrushchev avoided using murder to silence political opponents.  And where once Khrushchev avoided almost all contact with the non-Communist world, now Khrushchev advocated peaceful competition with capitalist countries and struck out on numerous visits to Western, socialist, and non-aligned countries.  But Smith isn't content with examining the Soviet leadership.  She also examines Soviet travel and tourism trends among ordinary people.  She looks at the way Soviet historians began to re-write textbooks.  She looks at the aesthetic and political decisions of novelists, poets, and filmmakers.  She looks at the way scientists began to reexamine Stalin's anti-genetics positions. 

The overall theme of the book seems to echo Fitzpatrick's theoretical construct and book title, Everyday Stalinism.  Smith suggests that 1956 was much more than a series of political decisions by top Party bosses.  Rather, it was a whirlwind of political, creative, and personal confusion.  And while the Party maintained its political authority, even the official Party line could be met by confusion by ordinary Party members and non Party members.  For instance, when a top historian met with ordinary teachers to explain the Party's new approach to Stalinism, many of them asked damaging or embarrassing questions.  Complicating things further, ordinary Russians were split about what made them most uncomfortable about the new Party line.  Should Stalinism be completely overthrown now that the man's crimes had been uncovered, or should the Party acknowledge how much he had done for the country? 

Quotations from Eight Twentieth-Century Russian Plays

Quotations from Eight Twentieth-Century Russian Plays

Victor Ardov's The Case of the Entry Room

A dog--is a person too, citizen Judge, heaven knows it has feelings too.

Of course, in the lean years I got it in exchange for flour--the billiard table.  And I traded only for the sake of the cloth, so that the whole family would have green clothes.

He's her husband, but last month they made as if they had divorced, so that each would get a room, and not have their space reduced.  But he's a husband to her.  He was her husband, and is still her husband.

Well, you see, maybe Pushkin spent a night in the room I occupy.  Her is the documentation.

Squaring the Circle:  A Vaudeville in Three Acts

Abraham:  As if we couldn't get along with without registering our marriage.  Who would we be hurting?
Tonya:  A concession to the petty bourgeoisie.

Abram:  What do you need for a stable marriage?  Compatible personalities, mutual understanding, class consciousness, a shared political orientation, and proletarian solidarity.

Abram:  I give you my Komsomol word that I'll try not to crowd you.

Tonya:  I don't understand these feudal sensitivities.

Abram:  Kuznetsova, cut the petty bourgeois nonsense.

Abram:  I always said that our work among nonmembers wasn't worth a damn.

Abram:  Aha! Kuznetsova, you here that?  There's a resolution on the table to have some tea and rolls.

Tonya:  Proletarians in solidarity don't act like that.

Tonya:  Don't forget I'm not your servant, but an autonomous companion in life and comrade in work.

Tonya: You have a feudal conception of marriage.

Abram:  No getting around it, this is a one hundred percent, honest-to-goodness feudal family squabble.

Abram:  I'm looking for a book on ethics.  Just wait, there's been a disaster.  Someone swiped it.

Abram:  There's something horribly feudal about a woman crying.

Vasya:  Do you love him or don't you?  Just tell the truth.
Tonya: I don't understand--what an ideological way of putting it...

Tonya:  If I may express myself in obsolete ideological terminology, comrade Abram is madly in love with me.

Tonya:  We'll have to forgo our individual interests in favor of the common interest.
Tasya:  What a drag...

Flavii:  Well, well, guys, show me your territory, demonstrate your technical accomplishments.  Just where do you live, exactly.

Flavii:  Who would have thought that such a serious young woman, with such a sound sociopolitical record, would be capable of such foolishness?

Abram:  A letter for me?  That's a rare historical event.  I haven't received a letter since 1917.

Quotations from Vladimir Kirshon's Grain

Olga:  I'm sick of this little town, with its age-old gloomy ignorance and only three hundred and eleven streetlamps to light it.

Mikhailov:  Well, what do you say--is there any chance of a revolution in the West?

Rayevsky:  It's impossible for the proletariat not to be victorious.  Victory is inevitable, like death. 

Kvasov:  Pashka, take the masters to the room.
Kayevsky:  What masters?  I used to dunk masters in the Black Sea.

Kvasov:  I've watered our earth with my own sweat and tears.  And so have you.  See, our earth is salty.  But in Moscow the cabdrivers feeds their horses baked bread.



Forms of Government or Organization

Residents' Associations
Young Pioneers
Komsomol
Regional Committee
Central Committee
Council of People's Commissars
Party Member
Comintern
Party
Kolkoz


Techniques of Government

Resolutions
Measures
Inspection Committees
Plans
Quotas
Decrees
Informers
Arrests
Official orders
Procurement
Taxes
Savings bonds
Voluntary contributions
Propaganda campaigns
Hostage-taking


Goals

Modernization
Industrialization
Secularization
Collectivization
Communal housing

Compliments

Hero of Labor
Order of the Red Banner
Citizen
Proletarian
Comrade
Class conscious

Insults

Feudal
Bourgeois
Petty Bourgeois
Bourgeois holdover
Kulak
Nonmembers
Decadent
Tsarist
White
Counterrevolutionary




















Eight Twentieth-Century Russian Plays

Northwestern University Press'  Eight Twentieth-Century Plays traces the evolution of Russian drama from 1901 to the end of the last century.  Timothy Langen and Justin Weir's introduction to the book provides readers with a framework for seeing connections between these widely divergent literary works.  Although the form and content of the plays diverge, Langen and Weir remind us that almost the whole of the twentieth century involved revolution.  Twentieth-Russians were, after all, almost always plotting revolution, actively overthrowing governments, consolidating revolutionary gains, or overturning revolutionary traditions.  The first play in the collection is Zinaida Gippius' 1901 Sacred Blood, an odd but strangely compelling piece of symbolist drama.  As might expected from the symbolist theater, Sacred Blood revolves around fantastical creatures--mermaids and witches--and a dark religious theme related to sacrifice and immortality.  The play doesn't seem particularly modern, but it's vague eschatology seems rooted in some profound if metaphorical truth about humankind and the universe in general.  Another symbolist play, Alexander Blok's The Unknown Woman, seems ever more remote from modern aesthetic concerns.  Almost intentionally unintelligible, Blok, one of the century's greatest poets, seems intent on wrapping his theme of beauty in a coat of poetic abstruseness.  Mayakovsky's short, 1913 play, Mayakovsky:  A Tragedy, is the first play in the collection with unmistakably modern overtones.  Like Blok's play, Mayakovsky lacks a clear plot, or even clear meaning.  However, the play's tone is clear enough:  alternately sardonic, playful, grandiloquent, and self-mocking, Mayakovsky doesn't seem all that far removed from Allen Ginsburg's Howl, or any number other works of late twentieth century poetry or prose. Victor Ardov's 1929 play, The Case of the Entry Room, isn't as stylistically innovative as any of the other previous plays.  However, the editors wisely included it to illustrate the extent to which the relatively new Russian revolutionary society still debated the meaning of 1917, or sometimes poked fun at its results.  In this short play, members of an overcrowded communal apartment fight for space, and in the process a judge realizes that almost every participant in the drama is guilt of some offense against order and decorum.  Some residents file fictitious divorces, some keep livestock in hallways--but all are willing to bend the rules of the new revolutionary society when it suits them.  In The Case of the Entry Room, the growing pains of revolutionary society cannot be hidden.   People are learning new words, participating in unfamiliar forms of social organization, and applying to new governmental institutions. The Collection also includes Valentine Kataev's vaudevillian comedy, Squaring the Circle.  This 1928 play is premised on the lightly satirical themes related to half-digested Soviet phraseology, NEP acquisitiveness, the conflation of Soviet political economy and personal ethics, and the general Soviet housing shortage that fully ended. However, the mechanics of Kataev's plot aren't strikingly new:  two men marry, trick their new wives into moving into the space cramped apartment, and soon swap partners to find real happiness.  The play collection is rounded out by Vladimir Kirshon's 1930 drama about Stalinist grain requisition, a theme too susceptible to historical analysis to be included in this post, and Leonid Zorin's The Guests, a piece of Thaw drama which also deserves extended commentary.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Sara Wheeler's Mud and Stars

Sara Wheeler has written a wonderful little book about her relationship with Russia.  The book focuses on author's visits to the homes of Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Leskov, Lermontov, and Dostoevsky.  But it also touches on her delightful attempt to master the Russian language as she approached the age of fifty.  The book isn't especially original, or tightly organized.  It's also a slightly awkward mixture of travel writing, literary criticism, and collective biography.  On the other hand, the author provides readers with a nice introduction to varied Russian literary giants, and provides readers with a number of amusing anecdotes about her travel and language adventures.  At any rate, Russophiles will definitely envy her trips to so many literary shrines in Russia.  I know that I treasure my own visits to apartments or homes once owned or occupied by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Block, Nabokov, Akhmatova, and Gogol, and regret not being able to find or enter apartments or homes once owned by Bulgakov, Mayakovsky, and Chekhov. When all is said and done, I guess we're all religious, one way or the other. 

Some favorite quotes from the book are below

Dostoevsky

He pawned his watch so many times that his saintly second wife said she never knew what time it was.

From Brothers Karamazov.  "For real Russians, the question of the existence of God and immortality are of course first and foremost."

A Dostoevsky biography reads like a Greek tragedy.

Pushkin

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a lubricious, bawdy, imperious, whoring gambler who seldom missed an opportunity to pick a fight.

From Queen of Spades.  Would she like a Russian [novel]?  "Are there any Russian novels? the countess queries.

Pushkin produced the first major Russian work in almost every literary genre.

Pushkin was a heroic shagger who had time to write only when he had a sexually transmitted disease.

Two years later, he married her, writing to a friend to say that she was his 113th love.

Turgenev

Turgenev's father:   My son, fear the love of woman;  fear that bliss, that poison.

Lermontov

I have a congenital desire to contradict;  my whole life is merely a chain of sad and unsuccessful contradictions to heart and mind.

Gogol

Gogol's mother was proud of her son and in old age told neighbors that Nikloai Vasilyevich had invented the railway engine.

According to one academic there are eighty-six kinds of food in Dead Souls.

Chekhov

His stories and plays deal with the essential problem of being:  How to find meaning before the return to dust.

Chekhov felt that he had "wasted his life on fornication"--who hasn't--and wished to write a report on the condition of the prisons and prisoners, hoping that it might do some good.

"It seems to me," he said, "that Pushkin and Gogol are not understood here."

On Russia

Their lives were and are consumed with the generally dreadful business of being Russia.

Russia emerged as an increasingly shocking country. 

Catherine the Great said [Russia] was too big to govern, or so they say she said.

Russians claim the banya as their first doctor, vodka being the second and raw garlic the third.

Russia has two eternal problems, roads and idiots.

Quoting Alexandra Kropotkin:  "Russians are nice people, though in certain parts of Russia the admixture of Oriental blood may lend a definite touch of deviousness to their thought and behavior."

Quoting Alexandra Kropotkin:  "The whole of Russia is a prison camp."

Dostoevsky:  "The most basic spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, incessant and unslakeable suffering, everywhere and in everything."

I remember my friend Colin Thubron, an accomplished Russia watcher and fluent speaker, saying that in decades of visiting, he had never met a smiling Russia.

The author's prose [Grossman's]  reinforced my opinion, forged both through direct experience and through reading, that for most people, being Russian has always been miserable--before, during, and after communism.

...the Soviets like shifting graves around, controlling death as they did life.

One of my Russian grammar books says that da and nyet "loosely correspond to yes and no."

We covered kto, "who," and chto, "what," or "that."  Cats and dogs, it turns out, had to be referred to as "who."  I asked Irina why.
"Well," she said, "they are not insects."

Words I had to look up

Lubricious





Other

Raisa Gorbacheva, we heard, was the first Russian First Lady who weighed less than her husband.

Friday, February 21, 2020

A Brief note on Laurence Kelly's Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus

Laurence Kelly's Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus provides an elegant but concise overview of one of Russia's most influential writers.  The book describes Lermontov's rapid ascent to literary stardom in the first part of the 19th century.  It covers his amorous and military adventures, and analyzes the growing power and originality of most of his prose and poetry. Kelly is especially interested in Lermontov's fascination with the peoples of the Caucasus. He believes that this interest reflects Russia's rising enthusiasm for empire, but notes that Lermontov was more sympathetic for local peoples than most other Russian conquerors.


A few favorite quotations

...she had undoubted charm for those she loved.  Unfortunately, her husband was not one of them.

His widow's only recorded comment was terse:  "a dog's death for a dog."

"Who will believe me," he wrote, "when I saw that I knew what love was, at ten years of age?"