Monday, April 24, 2017

Boredom in Goncharov, Boym, Chekhov, and Platonov

Boredom is surely one of the most important motifs in both late Russian and Soviet literary history. One thinks immediately of Ivan Goncharov's treatise on the subject of boredom, Oblomov, where his protagonist can't usually think of anything compelling enough to make him leave his room or even rise from his bed.  The theme of boredom is perhaps most exquisitely manifested by Anton Chekhov, whose plays seem filled with superfluous characters bemoaning their existential fate as well as their economic fate as representatives of obsolete classes.  Svetlana Boym's brilliant book, Common Places:  Mythologies of Everyday Life, depicts boredom as one of the central tragedies of Russian culture.  Boym's argument is that Russians mourn banal existence and all too often seem to prefer extraordinary events to what they see as the tragedy of quotidian life.

Chekhov's Three Sisters seems to capture this predilection.  As, for example, when Masha and Vershinin try to decide how best to suffer the banality of small town life.  "To speak three languages in this town is not an accomplishment, " mourns Masha.  "It is a deformity."  Vershinin has only a slightly more optimistic view of the situation.  He believes that in the very distant future things will be better. "In two, three hundred years... life on earth will have become unutterably beautiful.  Men need such a life.  We do not have it, but we dream of it.  We anticipate it.  We wait.  We wonder.  We prepare for it."  More than this, Vershinin's view of the present is that it should perhaps be thought about as a rough draft for a better life.  Irina also complains, although it's not entirely clear whether her lament is a class-based complaint or an existential one.  One suspects it is a mixture, or that the aristocratic life somehow symbolizes the more general human condition.  "And if one does not work...that's why we are unhappy. Isn't it?  Because we have nothing to do.  We are born of people who despise work."

For Chekhov's characters, the melancholy of the present can only be redeemed by the splendor of the future, although his characters rarely seem certain about the extent to which that future will actually come about.  "Can we not day dream, as it were, of what life will be in a hundred  years?" Vershinin asks Tuzenbach.  Tuzenbach begins optimistically.  "People will move in hot air balloons.  Fashions will change. We will see the discovery and development of the Sixth Sense."  But then Tuzenbach sours even on this idyll.  "But life...Life will remain the same. Dark. Full of mysteries.  Dark. Difficult.  Unhappy.  In a thousand years, too."  Vershinin retains his enthusiasm for the future.  He can bare the sorrowful present only if life will change in the future.  "At some time...Life will have changed.  How can we think that it will not--as it is changing now?  ..a happy life--a life of betterment."

Chekhov's attitude toward everyday life, and toward boredom in particular, sometimes seems to anticipate the Russian Revolution.  Although we know Chekhov could not have predicated the revolution, we can see in the revolutionary impulse some desire to transcend everyday existence in favor of a radically different future.  As it turned out, the Soviet future was worse than the Old Regime's dreary present, much worse.  For this reason, it's interesting to pair Platonov's brilliantly absurd plays about the Soviet experience with Chekhov's more naturalistic treatment of turn-of-the-century Russian hope of radical transformation.  For Platonov, post-revolutionary communist life remains supremely boring, although that boredom has become almost ideologically necessary to the Soviet state's continued existence.

In both Fourteen Little Red Huts and the Hurdy-Gurdy, Soviet citizens are supremely bored, but boredom (made more vicious by the presence of man-made famine) in the present seems to consolidate one's faith in the Soviet future.  Hurdy-Gurdy opens with the theme of boredom as Miud says to Aloysha, "I've gotten bored of living in the world," and Aloysha replies:  "Never mind.  Soon there will be socialism--then everyone will rejoice."  In fact, Aloysha's retort shows that the Soviet state seems to have finally harnessed Russia's unending (and therefore tedious?) problem with boredom.  When Serena in the Hurdy-Gurdy asks Aloysha later in the play, "Why do you look so bored on your face?" Alyosha's reply is once again ideologically sound.  "Because I'm always yearning for socialism...."  Of course, Alyosha's faith in the future is perhaps no less fragile than Chekhov's Vershinin's faith in the future was.  When Serena shows even a hint of doubt about Aloysha's faith by asking, "And will it be wonderful?"  Aloysha logically replies:  "For a question like that I could kill you. Can't you see?"

In fact, the Soviet Union's principle contribution to humanity may be its putative solution to boredom. In Fourteen Little Red Huts, we see that Communism has solved the problem of suffering the present by actually turning suffering into a positive virtue.  Thus Bos says "That's good--suffer!  Suffering's splendid.  I'm reminding you, so you don't forget."  Communism also provides citizens with a road-map to the future that justifies the present.   With Marx and the Party Line, Soviet citizens "can see right through humanity to the whole of fate!"  In the end, Platonov shows us that the Soviet state has developed a number of different solutions to the problem of time, which is in the end another way of labeling the problem of boredom.  The Soviet state has discovered tools for defeating time.  For instance, the Soviet state has five year plans that can be completed in four years, and shock workers who can do the work of multiple days in a single day.

The Soviet Union has also shown Russian citizens that they do not need to even create the future, as Chekhov's characters suggested.  Rather, they can do what Platonov's Bos suggests, which is precisely nothing.  This is because the Communists had showed him that it's okay to "languish without motion amid the historical current." There's a paradox here, but Platonov suggests that Soviet citizens can defeat boredom in two equally absurd ways.  First, they can work twice as hard to speed up time, and second, they can do nothing and drift in the current of the proletarian future.  Bos sums up the paradox of Soviet boredom this way:  "I'm bored of you all with your youth and enthusiasm, your capacity for work, and your faith in the future.  You stand at the beginning, but I already know the end.  We can't understand each other."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Helen Rappaport's Caught in the Revolution

Helen Raaport's new book, Caught in the Revolution, is an excellent compendium of foreigner eye-witness accounts of both the February and October revolutions in Russia.  It is exhaustively researched, and well-written.  The book also helps readers to get a vivid sense of how events seem to have unfolded at the time.  In other words, it miraculously gives the reader a general sense of chronology even as it teaches us that the revolutionary events felt disordered or unpredictable at the time.  Perhaps the book's greatest strength is that it gives us a sense of the paradoxes of revolution. On the one hand, St. Petersburg was extraordinarily violent and dangerous as the Romanovs disappeared from the scene.  On the other hand, people continued to go about their ordinary business in many respects, even attending theatrical performances in some of the most hectic moments of political chaos.  And while Rappaport shows us that the revolution continuously surprised people, she also demonstrates that many observers already sensed that Russia was headed toward some form of catastrophe.

Rappaport's foreigners may not have understood everything that they witnessed, but they certainly add something to our understanding of what a revolution looks or feels like.  Rappaport relies heavily on the accounts of British, French, and American diplomats and journalists, but captures a number of other different perspectives as well.  Generally speaking, these eye witnesses are biases against the Bolshevik takeover, with the notable exception of Reed and Bryant.  Again, it's the paradoxes of the book that struck me most. For Rappaport reveals that Lenin and Trotsky and their ilk were marginal players in the much wider drama of a society in collapse.  But her sources also show that in such a descent into disorder only a group such as Lenin's would have made any sense to many Russians, who no doubt couldn't believe that the country was still at war when it could no longer feed itself or make its factories run.

I read Rappaport's book directly after finishing Smith's excellent investigation of Rasputin.  The two books work well with one another.  Reading Smith's book one gets a clear sense that the Russian political order was incredibly fragile as it entered the first world war.  Ironically, Smith shows us that Rasputin was not exactly Russia's problem.  In fact, he was a much more sympathetic character than is often portrayed.  Yet the fact that both Nicholas II and Alexandra were so heavily dependent on a a man like Rasputin reminds us that autocracy was no longer viable as Russia moved forward into the twentieth century.  This dependence had serious political consequences, but is also symptomatic of the old regime's brittle nature.  Even the monarch's relatives and fellow aristocrats became critics. Rapapport revisits the final days of the Romanov dynasty, but then suggests that the Provisional Government inherited at least some of the problems of the Romanovs, and never really stood much of a chance of securing legitimacy in such chaotic conditions.  Continuing the war was certainly the government's worst mistake of course.  One would like to see a closer investigation of why the Provisional Government was unable to consider leaving that war.

Igor Vishnevetsky's Leningrad

St. Petersburg has a magnificent mythology, with plenty of gods and monsters roaming about.  Igor Vishnevetsky's short novel, Leningrad, seems to be well-versed in this fantastical landscape.  In his short tale, we see the appearance, however fleeting, of several different layers of deities.  After all, before Zeus and his crew ascended to Mount Olympus, Titans ruled the world.  And before that, there were other gods, including Chaos and Gaia.  Vishnevetsky's god groupings include Finns, Baltics, Slavs, Vikings, Germans, Huns, Tartars, Mongolians, Hanseatic League members, nomads, Orthodox Russians, and Novgorod Russians. But of course he is primarily concerned with the gods of St. Petersburg and their perhaps continuing attempt to resist the age of Leningrad, or even the age of the Nazis which threatens to make all other gods irrelevant.

Vishnevetsky's city is symbolized by dozens of different holy sites, including the Bronze Horseman, St. Issacs, Kazan Cathedral, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage, Krondstadt, the Neva, the Collegia Buildings, the Admiralty, the Tauride Gardens, Vasilievsky Island, Smolny, Anichkov Bridge, and October 25th Street.  His heroes include Genghis Khan, Block, Sologub, Hippius, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Khlebnikov, Tchaikovsky, Kirov, and dozens of other intellectuals and statesman.  Some of Vishnevetsky's heroes do evil things, like Stalin or Peter the Great, but we recall that even Hercules killed his own family in a fit of madness.  

Vishnevetsky's socialist city is modern in some respects but always in touch with the primordial conditions that gave rise to the first gods.  For Leningrad during the siege was often without water, electricity, transportation, heat, or, most importantly, food.  It was beset by bombs, and "pockmocked all over from the dancing of elephants or rhinoceroses."  The siege was a return to an age of primitive sacrifice, or illiteracy (books were burned for heat), of cannibalism even.  But even in the midst of chaos, Leningrad resisted total destruction.  Mythical history is cyclical after all. It has no beginning and no end.  Thus atheist Russia re-encounters religious Russia in the midst of its agony.  "Well, then, what does God 'advise us' us?" The answer:  "That no winter of crushing hunger will ever smear us into snowy Nothingness."  


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Douglas Smith's Rasputin

Even during my hiatus, I can't keep away from Russian history. For this reason, I read Douglas Smith's fantastic new biography of the so-called mad monk, entitled Rasputin:  Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs.  Like his other books, Smith's new book is exhaustively researched and exceedingly well-written.  It also attempts to deal with the mythology that surrounded Rasputin as much as it seeks to discern the true outline of the man's fascinating life.  Overall, Rasputin comes off as a relatively genuine religious man of the people.   Smith's Rasputin was no saint, but he was a generous person, who even moved away from the anti-semitism that surrounded him.  On the other hand, this biography of Rasputin reveals an absolutely bankrupt autocratic couple whose psychological dependence on Rasputin almost defies all rational explanation.  By the time one finishes this book, one cannot help but think that Russia plunged into World War I with possibly the worst tsar and tsarina it could possibly have had.  Smith's book is fascinating in that it reveals the extent to which the Russian political classes were willing to create or circulate fantastic rumors about the sovereign and his wife.  Yet Smith clearly demonstrates that the tsar and tsarina were absolutely unwilling to put their own safety, or Russia's, above their own personal relationship with Rasputin.  Again, Smith humanizes Rasputin, and suggests that the man was no maniac.  Along the way, Smith debunks countless stories about the man's debauchery.  Even so, Smith shows that an ordinary man like Rasputin should never have played such a central role in the life of either Nicholas II or Alexandra.  And most importantly, Smith rightly suggests that the royal repeatedly refused to accept the fact Rasputin had been a symbol of everything wrong with the old regime.  With their brutal assassinations,  and in light of the Soviet disaster, students of Russian history naturally see the royal couple as ordinary people victimized by the deadly currents of history.  However, this book seems to prove that the tsar and his wife were criminally naive about both power and faith.

Stalin's Daughter

As I've mentioned, Soviet Roulette is currently on hiatus due to the author's competing academic obligations. However, I do hope to post now and again until I am able to resume this blog in earnest. For the moment, I would just like to briefly mention Rosemary Sullivan's new book, Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva.  As I've mentioned previously, Alliluyeva's two memoirs were excellent.  In light of the searing honesty of these two books of personal reminiscences, one may not feel like a biography will add all that much to the subject. (And when I write "searing honesty" I have in mind Elroy's book, My Dark Places, which freely acknowledges that nobody is able to do more than confront one's demons as bravely as possible, on a day to day basis).  In truth, Sullivan's book does add some objectivity to Alliluyeva's poetic accounts, as well as offering a full account of the subject's fascinating life, which certainly didn't end after the period of time covered in the two autobiographical sketches. Sullivan's book also seems to show us that Stalin's legacy did not end but rather continues to linger almost to this very day.  Sullivan's book also reminds us--as if we needed reminding in the age of Trump--that the stories of Russia and American are inextricably linked, for better or worse.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Behrooz Ghamari, Remembering Akbar

This blog focuses on the Soviet experience with revolution, but the Russian Revolution should frequently be put into historical context by comparing it with other revolutions, both European and non-European.  With little background in Iranian history, I’ve seldom ventured to make any comparisons between 1917 and 1979.  However, this summer I participated in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Global Studies Research Lab.  The lab included access to the university’s wonderful library collections, as well as access to some of the country’s foremost experts in globalization, including Dr. Antoinette Burton, co-author of  Empires and the Reach of the Global, 1870-1945 and dozens of other highly influential books and articles about empire, globalization, and related topics.  In my meeting with Burton, she recommended one of her colleague’s books, Remembering Akbar:  Inside the Iranian Revolution.  The book, published under the pen name Behrooz Ghamari, offers a strikingly intimate portrait of life before, during, and after one of the twentieth century’s most important revolutions.

Ghamari’s account of revolution suggests that revolutions should perhaps rarely be described as anything other than plural phenomena.  In other words, it’s clear from Ghamari’s account that the Iranian Revolution, like the Russian Revolution, happened in stages.  Unrest in the country built up gradually, and unpredictably, and its success in overthrowing the Shah happened unexpectedly.   Ghamari also makes it clear that the Iranian Revolution, like the Russian Revolution, was all about discourse.  The Revolution was an explosion of speech acts taking place in dozens or perhaps hundreds of different settings or contexts.  The Revolution was performed.  It was communicated.  It took place whenever the disgruntled formed discussion groups, passed along revolutionary books, put on radical plays, printed critical pamphlets, marched, sang, or joined a crowd. 

Remembering Akbar also helps us to see that the Russian Revolution had an enormous direct influence on the course of events in Iran in 1979.  Although Islamic revolutionaries ultimately prevailed over their communist counterparts in the struggle against tyranny, Iranian students were inspired by example of the Russian Revolution.   As late as 1979, and even afterward, many of the Shah’s diverse opponents felts that Lenin and Marx offered one of the clearest alternatives to oppression.   Akbar, the author’s revolutionary pseudonym, treated Lenin’s works, especially What is to be Done?, as if they contained the same magical formula for liberation that the Bolsheviks already claimed they did.  Akbar also read the Russian authors Shokolov and Gorky for inspiration, but also made room for Mao and various other Yugoslavian and Italian communist critics of the Russian communist canon.

Ghamari’s account of revolution is a tragic one, revolving as it does on the fact that the Iran’s new governing class, the Islamic theocrats, imprisoned and executed thousands, targeting leftists, religious minorities, and many other vulnerable groups.  In fact, Ghamari’s time in one of Iran’s most terrifying prisons inevitably conjures up comparisons with Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and Bukharin’s own novel, written as he awaited execution at the hands of Stalin.   In each case, the Revolution is betrayed, and the lack of democracy in the movement leads to unimaginable repression.


 Incredibly, Akbar and other bourgeois intellectual students took to the streets because they felt that they would be able to enter factories and lead a revolutionary proletariat on the victory against a murderous king.  In some ways, the book seems anachronistic.  Could 1917 really be repeated in 1979, the age of Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev?    But it’s hard to say what’s more anachronistic, the idea of a revolutionary proletariat, or the idea of an absolute monarch.  Of course, the Islamic dimension of the Iranian Revolution somehow managed to make both proletariat and monarch obsolete.  Although reviving certain ancient symbolism, the Islamic State was somehow distinctly modern. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Abbott Gleason's Young Russia

Although this blog is officially on hiatus, I can’t help but sneak back to writing about Russia from time to time.  Lately, I’ve been delving a little deeper into Russia’s past to provide some kind of historical framework for the violence and authoritarianism of Russia’s twentieth century.  I’ve looked in particular at Peter the Great’s reign, and thought about the extent to which a single sovereign was able to shape the course of events for his nation.  It seems hard to imagine a monarch in another European country who made such a profound impact on his people as Peter the Great had on his.  Of course, this begs the question of whether Peter the Great was in fact really ruling a European power, something many Russians, both then and now, dispute.  In any event, Peter the Great moved his capital, built a navy, defeated Sweden in a prolonged struggle, open some administrative careers to talent, and spread many Western ideas far and wide in his immense nation.

Peter the Great remains a deeply controversial figure in Russian history, and rightly so.  It’s difficult to know for sure whether the energetic man is a reflection of Russia’s ancient autocratic traditions, or the inventor of new, modern forms of despotisms.  Peter introduced Western military ideas and cultural fashions, but also demonstrated once and for all that aristocrats, churchmen, or other societal forces could not challenge the Russian state.  Paradoxically, Peter wanted reform, but this reform was meant to preclude the possibility of any other source of non-state-driven change.  Such at least is the lesson I drew from reading Robert Massie’s magnificent biography of Peter.

If we look at the birth of Russian radicalism in the middle of the nineteenth century, Peter’s shadow seems all the darker.  Abbott Gleason’s much more succinct—but equally fascinating--version of Franco Venturi’s seminal work on the same subject, The Roots of Revolution, helps us to understand the long-term impact of Peter’s autocratic traditions.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia largely lacked a politics.  Part of the problem was that Russia’s aristocracy was dependent on the autocracy to an unusual degree.  Peter had ensured that nobles retained their status in return for their service to the state.  This changed a little over time, but the servility of Russian nobles vis-à-vis their European counterparts was notable.  Russia’s small aristocracy depended on the tsar for status and employment.  This tradition of service isolated its members from other classes, small as they were in a Russia’s relatively backward farming economy.  But more than this, Russia’s aristocracy was isolated from the peasantry by its European culture, French language habits, etc.  The truth is that Peter helped to cement the sharp distinctions between the Russian aristocracy and all other Russian classes, with the peasant class remaining by far the largest segment of Russian society right up until 1917, and beyond.

At first, a critique of the Russian autocracy emerged indirectly, through a literary tradition that acknowledged, or even glorified, aristocratic indolence.  See Pushkin and Lermontov and Gonchorov.  Over time, the critique became more pronounced, more radical.  Interestingly, Abbott sees a unified political culture in nineteenth century Russia, broad enough to encompass both Slavophiles and Westernizers.  In a culture without open politics, the difference between Right and Left policies meant little.  But ideologically, both Slavophiles and Westernizers believed somehow that Russian peasants would somehow liberate Russia from despotism, and perhaps the world as well.  What allows us to group Slavophiles with Westernizers, is their mutual ignorance of the real economic conditions or culture life of the vast majority of the Russian people.  In a sense, perhaps this ignorance is also the legacy of Peter the Great, a tsar whose legacy was always hotly debated in the nineteenth century. 


Abbott’s ultimate argument seems to be that even Lenin was a product of this overwhelming ignorance of the Russian people.  Russian radicals retained Peter the Great’s commitment to transform Russia without consulting, or even attempting to understand, its common people.  This crash course in modernization seems even today to affect Russia.  Its current ruler seems content to rule without reference to a real politics.  One interesting analogy between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century is that in both cases the country’s master was supposedly popular with ordinary people.  Over and over again, Russian radicals tried to account for the mystery of the Russian people’s ostensible love of the autocrat.  The common people hated the Russian state’s representatives, including clergymen and local officials, but they always seemed to preserve their love for the tsar.  If only he knew the horrid abuses that went on in his blessed name, they reasoned, he would surely put a stop to everything and bring about a new and better era. Whether this love for the tsar was ultimately a myth is difficult to say, and needless to say, still bears examination.