Friday, February 23, 2018

Mikhail Zoshchenko's The Galosh and Other Stories

Zoshchenko was once immensely popular with the Soviet people.  It's easy to see why.  His stories are short, easily digestible, endlessly inventive, and funny.  More than this, Zoshchenko's stories allowed Soviet citizens the opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of dozens of dimensions of everyday Soviet life.  Zoshchenko's stories make fun of both the bourgeoisie and the unthinking proletariat who bore such visceral animosity toward this declining class.  Indeed, Zoshchenko's stories are filled with characters who don't quite know how to treat formerly middle class or aristocratic men and women. While the atavistic class elements aren't given a lot of dignity, Zoshchenko's workers seem to confront their class enemies with a great deal of awkwardness, insecurity, unnecessary anger, and even guilt.  The stories are in many ways the best way to measure the depth of the transformation taking place in Russian during the 1920s.  Somewhat paradoxically, Zoshchenko's sketches show both that traditional Russian life was being rapidly overturned, and that revolutionary change was often transitory, superficial, and skin-deep.  Thus, the new Russians had different words, different governmental structures, and different belief systems.  But they still suffered from perennial Russian problems, including housing shortages, bribery, gender insecurity, and stupidity.  In once read a review of Tolstoy's book about the pre-revolutionary judiciary and prison system.  The reviewer claimed that Tolstoy's catalog of ancien corruption and brutality and shown him why the Revolution had occurred.  Zoshchenko's stories are similarly revealing about the post-revolutionary years.  They reveal just how much was still being worked out by everyday Russians who didn't quite know what the Revolution man for their everyday lives.  After Revolution, how were you supposed to date, play, think, pray, eat, live, or even talk?  Whatever was happening in elite Soviet circles, ordinary Soviet citizens had to continuously decide the meaning of revolution for themselves, from one day to the next.  After the Revolution, was a wife suppose to keep cooking all of the family meals? Was it okay to date a formerly wealthy person? Was it okay to accept the authority of others in the workplace?  Was it okay to keep believeing in God? Zoshchenko's stories address dozens of these questions, but most importantly, they addressed one central question:  After the Revolution, what was funny? 

Below are some snippets from The Galosh and Other Stories:

"Bribery.... The word alone drives me mad with indignation..."

"The times are over when people could just be shoved in broad daylight.  We've been shoved enough."

"He was rich.  Home comforts, and a wardrobe, and chests full of goods...he even had two samovars."

"I'm telling you:  If you, you old fart, go to Labourers' Gardens at seven o'clock in the evening on Saturday the twenty-ninth of July, then you'll see with your own eyes what a roving butterfly your spouse is.  Wake up, you old fart.  Respectfully yours, An anonymous friend."

"So, you see, I polished the floors, say, on a Monday, and on Saturday the Revolution took place." 

"It was in the theater that she exposed the full extent of her ideology."

"And suddenly she walked over to the plate in her decadent way, grabbed a cream cake, and chomped away on it."

"I suddenly felt some bourgeois embarrassment."

"I used to take a skeptical attitude towards the abilities of dogs.  But not now, now I fear and respect dogs."

"Kind people, class-conscious citizens!" he said.  "Tie me up.  "I," he said, "collected money for the water, but I spent that money on myself."

"She wasn't pretty of course, this lady, but I wasn't looking at her exterior, I was looking at her interior."

"You can go and croak," he said, "and don't count on the aid of science."

"The most fashionable word you could possibly find these days is, of course, electrification."

"And next day to her some bourgeois bastard was leaning over to her and whispering in her inner ear."

"Out the window with the lot of it:  the cooker, the saucepans, the washtub.. Let the woman know freedom... She's got the same rights as me."

"You can't imagine how much better off we are for this change.  It's brought nothing but advantages, clear profit!"

"This Russian's a hard language, my dear citizens.  A disaster, it's so hard."

"I haven't got a very good imagination.  That's why I don't like wasting my previous life-blood on some non-existent made-up stuff. I know, dear reader, that life is much more important than literature."

"Firewood--said the man--is precious stuff... You can even give firewood as a birthday present."

"You can't give firewood away as a present, this isn't 1919, you know."

"Citizens, you ask me whether I was ever an actor.  Well, I was.  I've played in a theater.  I've been entangled in that art."

"Productivity, he said, that foundation-stone of Soviet life, is improving."

"They say, comrades, that the bathhouses in America are totally excellent."

"But where's a naked man to keep tickets?  I'll tell you where, no where.  He hasn't got any pockets.  It's all stomach and legs."

"This isn't the tsarist regime, You can't just go round whacking people with tubs." 

"I won't say what street it's on.  I can't afford to.  Because then when I next go there they'll bash my brains out with a tub, and that would be the end of a politically conscious, thoughtful citizen."

"And people talk about civilization and education!  For example, now they use these new diesel locomotives to pull trains.  But then they allow totally uncivilized behavior in the carriages."
















Thursday, February 22, 2018

Linor Goralik's Found Life

I have been impressed with many of the new titles in Columbia University's new series of Russian translations.  See, for instance, my posts on Platonov's Fourteen Little Huts and Other Plays as well as my posts on Iliazd's Rapture.  Thus is came as no surprise to me that Columbia University Press' book by Linor Goralik, entitled Found Life, would be almost equally good.  The book is a collection of the modern author's richly creative and varied productions, and includes poems, stories, and comics, as well as a play and an interview.  This post will dwell on Goralik's collection of extremely short sketches of modern Russian life.  Although her short prose is apparently fictional, they somehow closely resemble Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich's project of recognizing ordinary, everyday Russian speech as a form of literature.  Although Goralik's short prose is apparently highly polished or outright fictional representations of overheard speech, it somehow seems like an oral history of the present moment.

To be sure Goralik's short prose doesn't reach the emotional depth or historical significance of Alexievich's work on Chernobyl, Chechnya, the Soviet experience, or World War II.  Goralik's work is a form of oral history sans history, if such a thing is possible. To my mind, the project of recording the tragedy of quotidian life via banal speech patterns is extraordinarily captivating.  For good or evil, it reminds me of what television producers and audiences alike realized not so long ago:  one needs neither actors, nor scripts, to produce well-acted, and well-descriptive television.  But like reality television, one wonders if authors such as Goralik will reach the limits of this genre in the near future.  If Duchamp's toilet seat was art, everything else could be considered art too.  It's a revolutionary moment, but it doesn't last all that long.  Sooner or later, the experiment is over. With respect to reality television, the conventions of the new art form remain:  the camera shakes, the actors try to say unpredictable things, and the content appears to be as frivolous as ever.  But over time, the audiences become increasingly sophisticated, and demand well-crafted "spontaneous" moments and actors with enough training to really pass themselves off as "amateurs."  In any event, we must appreciate the artistic moment while it lasts, and celebrate authors such as Goralik who have produced such startlingly revealing--if almost overbearingly light--archives of the present.


Some snippets from Goralik's short prose pieces:

[Speaking of Jackie Kennedy].  "If I were as much as love as she was, I would have work those gloves for the rest of my life.  I mean, well, probably I'd go crazy first then I'd be a crazy old lad wearing gloves with President Kennedy's blood on them.  And I'd call them 'John."  Both of 'em.  Or maybe one John and the other one Robert."

"...the wife comes home and the cat smells like someone else's perfume."

"...so just imagine you're looking at a copy of 1950s Amateur Erotica and inside, on like page ten, there's your mom covering up her left breast with a hand mixer.  Sure, there's really nothing wrong with that. But some book to get as a present, right?"

"Anya, you know, her mom abandoned her too, but not like how you abandoned me..."

"I just don't want to be a girl, I just don't want to, I don't.  The good thing is at least I lost my virginity.  At least that's done, thank God."

"You know, he did ballet as a kid, then worked for the KGB, so, like basically a real inspired dude."

"And his mama bitch slaps him, screaming:  'What did I tell you--never admit to anything!!!"

"...when he loved me I was never jealous, but when he didn't love me--I got jealous."

"So he bought like five pounds of meat and went around his neighborhood that night and switched out all the Jesuses with, like hams...It was super conceptual, really great.  Not like just sitting at home with the family, smiling like dumbasses."

"Because real life just doesn't produce tragedies of that magnitude."  

"...he ate one hot dog and left. I mean, tell me, Lena, do I need this?"

"...she's got strawberry yogurt inside instead of blood... And then in a year she'll give birth to a kid with Pyle's syndrome.  And that, Pasha, is what you call God's plan."

"... I don't like people like that.  She makes three thousand bucks in a month, but her cat craps in that seventy-ruble Soviet litter."

"...she is a weak, cowardly, clingy, totally incompetent, very difficult, very unhappy woman.  And we should feel sorry for her and not talk shit."

"What difference does it make how it all ended?  The important thing is how it started, you know?"

"...They were saying the worst shit about you behind your back!  That you're pregnant, married, and you have a three-year-old!  Can you believe it?  The bastards!"

"... I'll tell you a story that is totally St. Petersburg.  I don't know why Petersburg, I mean it happened in Prague, but it's really just so Petersburg."  

"...we have a family tradition--doing idiotic deeds for absolutely no personal benefit."

"...I don't go to class reunions so as not to fall into pride...Like, the majority of them are living these lives, like, even Google isn't looking for them."  

"I showed  my knife right away, it was that kind of conversation."

"You'll be thirty-two next year.  If a man still has questions at thirty-two, he's an idiot, a waste of space, he doesn't deserve to live, no one can live like that."  

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Tristram Hunt's Marx's General

Tristram Hunt's biography of Friedrich Engels, Marx's General, provides readers with an excellent introduction to the evolution of socialism in the 19th century.  Indeed, Engels repeatedly found himself at the very epicenter of European and even global history.  He was, of course, a student of German philosophy at its zenith, and was well-versed in the work of almost every philosophical giant of the early nineteenth century, including Hegel and Feuerbach.  What is more, Engels was an extremely successful industrialist in Manchester at precisely in time when Manchester's mills were conquering every market they encountered.  Most importantly, Engels was both also a famously trenchant social critic and an active revolutionary who participated in the revolutionary events of 1848 and tried to offer support for a variety of other social and political upheavals right up until his death in the 1890s.

As a biographer, Hunt seems most intrigued by the way that Engels was able to balance his bourgeois (and almost aristocratic) existence even as he plotted to destroy capitalism.  On the one hand, Engels worked faithfully for the family firm and revealed in aristocratic activities such as fox hunting.  On the other hand, he authored the Condition of the Working Class in England, coauthored The Communist Manifesto and other influential socialist texts, and worked tirelessly to promote working class revolutionary politics.

From the perspective of Russian history, Hunt sometimes seems to argue that Engels' is only indirectly relevant.  After all, Marx and Engels seldom focused on Russia in their work.  Nor could either man have predicted that a communist revolution would first be successful in the relatively backward economic conditions of Russia.  Indeed, if the Russian Revolution was at least partly the product of a very long history of intellectual ferment in the West, Hunt argues that Marx and Engels bears very little, or perhaps no, responsibility for Bolshevik or Stalinist totalitarianism.  According to Hunt, Marx and Engels' produced essentially humane works of criticism, and the political positions they supported, including feminism, the North's war against slavery in the United States, and government involvement in social welfare programs, have very little in common with post-World War I experiments in state coercion.  Seen in the light Engels' long life of revolutionary thought, Hunt argued that the Russian Revolution and its aftermath have very little in common with twentieth century state brutality.

Of course, Hunt's book is ultimately a biography. So while it touches upon all of Engels' many contributions to what has become known as Marxism, it does not offer a very meaningful perspective on the impact of his ideas on totalitarianism as a system of thought.  We can perhaps accept the fact that Marx and Engels were humane figures who passionately believed that capitalism could be improved upon, without necessarily accepting the fact that their belief systems did not have some deeply troubling if unintended consequences.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's The Return of Munchchausen

Surely Sigizmund Krzhizhandovsky is one of the smartest writers twentieth century Russia has produced.  Filled with lyrical prose, and beautiful descriptions of various locales, all of Krzhizahdovsky's books are filled with powerful and original ideas about life and art.  In fact, their absurd, modernist plots sometimes seem overshadowed by the complex ideas the author is explicating.  Half science, half art, The Return of Munchausen is probably one of Krzhizhandovsky's most innovative books.  In fact, it reminds this blogger of a better version of Ilya Ehrenburg's later work, The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz, which is also an absurdist adventure tale of genius. 

The Return of Munchausen contains a reasonable narrative arc, but that arc is often less important that the vitality of the myriad ideas that populate each chapter.  Krzhizhandovsky is a brilliant thinker and an original modernist stylist, whose flights of fancy make a  master American modernist like William Burroughs look almost derivative by comparison.

The author's surreal plot points mock many different aspects of modern European life but are particularly effective at satirizing the early years of Soviet Union.  For Krzhizhandovsky, the Soviet experiment appears to be insanely bureaucratic, criminally negligent, duly scientific, unthinkingly militaristic, and cruelly egalitarian.  Krzhizhandovsky is not, however, merely concerned with criticizing the Soviet government.  Rather, he seems to be dissecting the post-World War I human condition, which involves violence and disorientation.

Notwithstanding his apparent disgust for Soviet rule, Krzhizhandovsky evidently has a grudging respect for the importance of revolution, which, the baron claims, is the primary method for dividing time into different historical periods.  Not merely serving as the numbers on a clock, revolutionary events serve to speed up time.  If 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871 came as violent shocks, 1917 threatens to throw everyone off balance entirely.

The shock of the 1917 revolution is particularly unnerving as a result of its close connection to war.  Throughout The Return of Muchchausen, traces of World War I appear, including Versailles and other so-called peace treaties.  But Soviet society seems to be the society most specacularly transformed by the Great War.  The impact of World War I on Russian life is paritcularly evident in the author's recurring use of war terminology, including trenches, missiles, artillery barrages, musket locks, and hunger.  It's also evident when the baron encounters buffer states, guard towers, frontiers, and customs officers as he attempts to make his way into the secretive "Land of the Soviets."  As a reflection of the future, Russia is perhaps inherently warlike.

However, the impermeability of the Russian frontier also speaks to the fact that non-Russians find the mysterious Soviet Union as tantalizing as a glimpse of the unknown future should be.  Bad or good, people want to know what the future has in store for them.  They expect to keep their eyebrows raised continuously as they encounter the future in every facet of Soviet life.  In the case of the baron, he eventually has to restart to riding on the back of a rocket to enter Bolshevik Russia to get a proper taste of modernity.  "Yes, I had at once to admit that you cannot outrun technology.  Even phantasms cannot outstrip it."

The new revolutionary government isn't merely modern by virtue of its warlike qualities.  It is also modern in its class antagonisms.  In Soviet Russia, the baron is obviously an atavistic presence.  As an American writer once said, the world had (formerly) been ruled by men who did less than two hours of work a day.  Things would be different in this Soviet society of the future where everyone could be equally impoverished.

What of the politics of the future?  In Russia, men and women lived in a state of constant surveillance.  Soviet people lived "lives fenced off by denunciations and chekaneries;  raise your eyes to theirs and you see pupils like point-blank muzzles."  The baron notes that democracy has no role whatsoever to play in this most modern of countries.  In fact, back in Britain, the British are forced to do some extraordinarily absurd calculations--i.e., they quantify the work power required to move the tongues of politicians--to justify the system they have defended for so many years.

One of the more interesting aspects of Krzhishanovsky's portrayal of time, revolution, and modernity, is that he demonstrates that modern men and women are increasingly disoriented by their headlong movement into unknown territory even as they continue to have access to the experiences of multiple historical epochs. 1917 wasn't just a year of political experimentation, it was a year of films, electricity, and "rivers of automobiles."

Russia's current experiment with centralized bureaucratic rationalization has its antecedents in Catherine the Great's flirtation with the Enlightenment, the Russian people are somehow able to remember life before the Soviets brought them electrification and every other symbol of modernity.  Post-World War I life in Russia wasn't therefore merely a bold movement into the future. It was also a radical juxtaposition of many different historical eras operating on the same temporal plane.  As a countess argues:  "And when we became angelless, the smoke rose up from space to time and so began our beclouded (as through a haze) Time of Troubles. Time itself became troubled and the centuries confused, the thirteenth with the twentieth,  and then:  revolution."

To be sure, Krzhizhanovsky's problem with time isn't unique.  As literary critics have pointed out, many modernist authors were deeply concerned with the nature of time, and set out to explore its mutability in bold literary experiments.  Krzhizahanovsky may be reasonably original, however, in that he has associated a new temporal reality with the Russian Revolution.  For his characters, modernist time isn't merely something to be explored, it is something to be lamented.  As the countess continues:  "Look at the street-clocks disks:  are their hands not trembling with disgust, flicking off the seconds' soot and cinders?  Are your eyes not crying, stung by the smoke of the times?"

Even in Europe's most modern state, the underside of modernity continues to exist.  Thus, officially atheist Russia continues to harbor deeply religion peasants, and communist leaders of a nationalized economy continue to feel anxiety about the possible return of exiled property owners.  Even the ancient "hordes" of Russian history remained ready to strike out in violence against undetermined targets.  Thus, on one level at least, communist Russia remains "unhurrying, ever in slow motion."  As one Russian puts it, "We may inch along, but we do advance."  Paradoxically, the Land of the Soviets was therefore a site of technological innovation and a site of peasant "pitchforks" and "bast shoes."  It was a place where superstitious, "know-nothing" peasants might yet take heed to the baron's stern advice:  "I told him he should be ashamed, at his hoary age, of trading God for socialism."

The Land of the Soviets was therefore essentially a series of paradoxes.  It was the kind of place where plans were being drawn up for everything, including that which could not, or should not, be planned.  As the baron recalled, upon entering the Soviet Union he "drew up a plan to rationalize brigandage."  The expression, of course, seems to perfectly capture the criminality of Stalin's version of socialism.  The Land of the Soviets was a place where advanced "Red Science" could easily coexist with basic food shortages.  As one Soviet representative told the baron, "Our life is like an exhibition:  One of everything, but not more."  In the topsy-turvy landscape of modernity, Russian reality rubbed against Russian dreams.  "We are poor and shall be poorer still," states a communist apologist. "But all the same, sooner or later, our country of huts shall become a country of palaces."





Below are some favorite quotations from the book.

"You do Berlin a disservice, baron.  We too have mastered a few things:  ersatz, for instance, and the metaphysics of factionalism--"

"Not at all:  Life, like any ware, is subject to supply and demand.  Have newspapers and wars not taught you that?"

"I flatter myself that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy."

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, now you must not object.  In your hands you hold not only glasses of champaign;  you have opened a savings account for me in Being."

"Russia, unhurrying, ever in slow motion"

"On arriving in Moscow, I must find out how long the supplies of Russian literature will last."

"At this I raised my eyebrows and indeed I did not lower them during my entire sojourn in Moscow.  Prepared for extraordinary things, my heart pounding, I now entered that city build on blood and mystery."

"Yes, I had at once to admit that you cannot outrun technology.  Even phantasms cannot outstrip it."

"The sun and I, having completed our trajectories, were both ready to drop."

"here I was in a country of superstitious know-nothings..."

"I told him he should be ashamed, at his hoary age, of trading God for socialism."

"I applied my spurs, but you cannot gallop away from four-legged horses on a two-legged one."

"I drew up a plan to rationalize brigandage."

"people are kind so long as you don't contradict them."

"These men had enviable lungs (the Russian people develop their lungs by blowing on their samovars)..."

"an asthmatic man was running, butting the air with his bald pate"

"My interlocutor spoke tersely (without incidental or dependent clauses), preferring question marks to all others.  He put his questions the way people put buckets and basins under cracks in the ceiling ahead of rain, and waited."

"Our life is like an exhibition:  One of everything, but not more."

"We are poor and shall be poorer still.  But all the same, sooner or later, our country of huts shall become a country of palaces."

"His laugh lengthened, then shortened the crack of his mouth, like an aperture during a short exposure."

"So then, all of our penmen are given a choice:  feast or famine.  Some work steadily;  others starve."

"The Dictionary of Omissions: Complete and Unabridged"

"Revolution's notorious broom, which raises more dust than it sweeps out, tried to sweep the idealists out of Russia's house, but of course, so I reflected, many of them got stuck in the doorway"

"Have you noticed that the crows of Tsverskoi Boulevard, instead of cawing, have started hurrahing? Now what could be the point?"

"And when we became angelless, the smoke rose up from space to time and so began our beclouded (as through a haze) Time of Troubles. Time itself became troubled and the centuries confused, the thirteenth with the twentieth,  and then:  revolution."

"Look at the street-clocks disks:  are their hands not trembling with disgust, flicking off the seconds' soot and cinders?  Are your eyes not crying, stung by the smoke of the times?"

"..lives fenced off by denunciations and chekaneries;  raise your eyes to theirs and you see pupils like point-blank muzzles."


















































]

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Iliazd's Rapture

The Georgian Iliazd's Rapture is a prose poem if ever there was such a thing.  It's filled with lyrical descriptions of nature, brilliant flights of fancy, clever turns of phrase, and powerfully original ideas about existence and non-existence.  Below are a few favorite passages.


"..something like violins or the whine of an infant in pain barely bled through the tempest."

"the blissfulness of this glacial slumber..."

"the forecourt of paradise"

"But Brother Mocius slept and was not sleeping..."

"A sequence of trivia, more and more numerous..."

"Summits, spiteful and disfigured.."

"floating on the preposterously lilac water, a rabble of alpine butterflies was bathing very peacefully..."

"suspicious crags"

"promenading on the bottom, you could make out their teeny-tiny antennae"

"But imps are no longer menacing in these parts"

"Here, goats and chamois ambled under the watch of spirits with dense feathers and rudimentary feet"

"Sinless, they would stare at the sun for hours without squinting"

"The hamlet...was situated right next to the glaciers and forests and renowned for being populated exclusively by cretins and people with goiters"

"The old man was approaching eighty and had irrevocably lost his mind, without, however, losing his ability to sleep with his wife, shoulder loads of firewood, and be the wisest shepherd in the neighborhood."

"The wenny wife was a very ordinary old lady, well-preserved and beautiful, despite her monstrous goiter and hunchback"

"Busy with his chess, his speculations, and his books, the former forester overlooked his daughter growing and maturing beside him."

"even in this land where all women were beautiful, Ivlita was an altogether exceptional phenomenon.  And not, like all perfect things, dead.."

"Her movements were intrinsic to fleshy perfection..."

"And, to be precise, the young woman hadn't grown up, hadn't suffered the ponderousness of earthly existence and the tedium of growth.."

"the dew was bitter and brackish.  The lavishness of falling starts lighting up the heavens made sleeping difficulty, and the roosters' crowing particularly throaty."  

"you couldn't leave the hamlet without running smack into a bears' wedding."

"The forest, anticipating the snow, was gripped with fever, and moans and groans burst from the thickets."

"But her animation soon drained away, replaced by a stupor, a dormancy full of visions, a daily life rich in emotional turmoil and short on events."

"Spring drags on overlong, longer than the winter and more restive.  More superfluous variety."

"And yet, no matter how simple this sensitive life and how alien Ivlita was to desires, she was short on rapture.  Her cultivated and complex mind's mind, endowed with inward contemplation at the expense of outward, was conscious of being its own enemy."

"Beliefs and rituals--she fled them to keep the emptiness from expanding even more."

"And that autumn, after languishing to her heart's content during the course of the year, Ivlita was thinking of snow as though it were death"

"Who would climb up under the clouds for the love of crime?"

"vainly attempted to drown out the chiropters"

"And if the snow had gone on for years, she would have felt neither more joyful nor more melancholy."

"And that autumn, after languishing to her heart's content during the course of the year, Ivlita was thinking of snow as though it were death."

"Ivlita tried to avoid complications, replying neither 'yes' nor 'no."

"Ivlita arranged the dollars, named them, played with them;  in short did nothing but beat one another in spite, kill one another, and Ivlita saw this way, too, had been choked off.  One day, she hurled them into the stove"

"The master of the house was lying there--deceased, perhaps, but formidable."

"Previously, his colloquies on the advantages of brigandage had largely been exercises in eloquence"

"And those fingers, what rings did they not demand, what necklaces did her neck not await, what tiara her precious head?"

"As though his victims had infected him with the malady of nonexistence."

"In the end, it wasn't worth robbing churches, either--a lot of complications and trouble with the locals.  And when you got right down to it, could your really walk around the forest in vestments carrying gonfalons?"

"and since you wouldn't think of drinking coffee at home, the whole populace hung out at the coffeehouse, including children, peacocks, parrots, and cats."

"The sea, poured out before him, didn't speak to him and only aggravated his boredom."

"She'd never before suspected how unbelievably difficult dying was.  Much more complicated than living."

Well, have you brought us good fortunate with your unlawful sleeping around?  Have you seduced Laurence to quench your abominable lust?  Did you conquer him with your fucking beauty?"

"But, really, he was right, she thought to herself.  Those unpardonable blasphemies against rapture she was guilty of."

"From the the heights, the lark that never lands on the treats sprinkled a trill of eternal return."

"It's not seemly for a murderer to remain with the victim"

"The hard life is a ficticious life.  Natural life is easy and cloudless."

"framed by crags, fettered in ice"

"but does a mirror reflecting something animate cease to be itself inanimate?"

"I wanted to assault you, but, you see, it's hard without my leg."

"Bull fuck your mother!" roared Laurence, "I would have killed you, but I'm sick of getting dirty."  

"We strive to take everything from the rich so there won't be any rich people and everyone will be equally poor."

"Our only concern is the world, where we want to establish equality and expedient coercion.  You seek freedom, but necessity propels you, the party strives for what is necessary and is therefore free."

"...reared their heads up all day, picking their teeth, although they never ate anything."

"The time comes when you can't even trade your wife at a loss--you can move on to your own children.  That's the reason here raise children."

"monotonous to the point of nausea"

"But Laurence could no longer sleep in the company of Basilisk, who took the liberty of killing his friends in their beds."

"his speech dripped, accentuating his silence"

"Day seeped into the room at a revoltingly slow pace."

"The slaughtered beasts showed black from afar, a magnificent hill"

"On the steep slopes, the corpse slid down more quickly, knocked her off her feet, drew her behind it, pulled her down into the snow, and she would get up after lying in the dead man's embrace, covered in blood."

"Laurence, without any sales pitch, parted with his gold, overpaying for everything--regardless of the conscientious tavern keeper's intervention--by a factor of three."

"Neither police, nor perfidy, nor bullets had dissuaded him."

"But the thought of future massacres, the blood that would flow, enraptured them all, cheered them, made some cling to others, draw deep breaths, find life magnificent, and themselves likewise"

"In its first advent, nature was comprehensible, but meaningless."

"..everything was insignificant, or significant, to the extent that the noise of a waterfall, an owl's cry, or the groan of a tree entering its senescence is weighty."

...Ivlita found comfort thinking that nature is absolute equilibrium."

"With his eyes he squared accounts for all his liberties, and his witticisms were so flat, while his eyes were so horrifying, that by way of exception, everyone pretended to believe him"

"And even though the highlanders' dress was picturesque, no one lifted their heads, let alone turned to look at the new arrivals."




Monday, February 5, 2018

Emma Gerstein

Emma Gerstein's Moscow Memories:  Memories of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Literary Russia under Russia is an invaluable resource.  It imitate portrayal of the intelligentsia in the age of Stalin allows readers to understand that intellectual and creative work continued even in the midst of authoritarian terror. Although Gerstein was a serious scholar of Lermotov, her memoirs--as the subtitle implies--are particularly interesting insofar as they offered additional or even alternative descriptions of two of Russia's greatest modern poets:  Akhmatova and Mandelstam.

In Gerstein's account, Mandelstam emerges as a deeply flawed human being whose nervous disposition often made life difficult for friends and family.  Gerstein's depiction of Mandelstam's wife is even more caustic, with Nadezdha Mandelstam emerging as a relatively selfish champion of her brilliant husband.  Gerstein's worst complaint of the couple is related to the claim that Mandelstam evidently offered up Gerstein's name in at least on interrogation by the secret police.  According to Gerstein, Nadezhda justified the action on the grounds that her name was already compromised.  Nevertheless, Gerstein was rightly hurt that she was delivered so nonchalantly after years of aiding the two.

In the end, one believes Gerstein, not only because she seems to be a singularly honest memoirist, who constantly testifies to her own moral failings, but also because it's easy to believe that a great poet would have found it difficult to live in Soviet Russia without resorting to petulance, selfishness, moral compromise, and self-pity.  Authoritarian pressure on free intellectual discourse made life for sensitive souls all but impossible. Gerstein's take on Nadezdha in particular is easy to credit, largely because unfettered moral genius probably always has its downside, including insensitivity to men and women who fail to live up to unusually high ethical standards.  One thinks of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who bravely opposed Soviet totalitarianism for decades, but then failed to interrogate his own self-serving nationalism in the final years of his life.  In the end, there is room to believe both Gerstein and Nadezdha.  For if Nadezdha had not been the sort of woman who could occasionally ignore the legitimate complaints of friends, neither would she have been the sort of woman who could have single-handedly defended the legacy of her husband against the false and egregiously immoral demands of Soviet elites. 

In contrast to the chapters on Mandelstam, Gerstein's account of her friend, Akhmatova, is almost entirely positive. Gerstein clearly admired the dignified fortitude of her long-suffering friend. In particular, she defends the poet against the accusations of her son, Lev Gumilev, with whom Gerstein had once been in love.  Gerstein's description Gumilev's relationship with his mother is probably the most fascinating aspect of Gerstein's memoirs. They explicate the elements of the myriad personal tragedy associated with Stalinism.  Gumilev, also son of the executed poet by the same name, was a genius in his own right, and someone incapable of accommodating his own behavior to the exigencies of authoritarianism. While Gumilev became an important Russian ethnographer, he was ultimately severed from his mother by his horrendous experience in the labor campus.  With tenuous, surveillance-state communications between mother and son, Gumilev began to blame his mother for his condition, or at least blame her for not caring enough about his bitter fate.  Gerstein was a front line witness to this personal catastrophe.

Of course, Gerstein's memoirs demonstrate that intellectual life continued even in the midst of Stalinism.  For instance, Gerstein's acquaintance, the brilliant Yury Tynyanov somehow managed to write the extremely well-researched and sensitive book, Young Pushkin, between 1935 and 1943.  Nevertheless, Gerstein's description of everyday life under Stalin reminds readers of the creeping terror of those years, since so many of her acquaintance of her casual acquaintances end off dead, and not merely as a result of the brutal Nazi invasion.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Mikhail Zygar's The Empire Must Die

Mikhail Zygar's The Empire Must Die:  Russia's Revolutionary Collapse, 1900- 1917 is an astounding book.  Zygar's prose is extraordinarily dynamic, and his use of the present tense to describe the run up to revolution helps to create a climate of drama, uncertainty, and suspense. We experience The Empire Must Die as contemporaries must have experienced the turn of the century, a period of time filled with possibility but fraught with danger.  In some ways, Zygar's time frame help to explain the book's narrative force.  If we don't read history backward, and don't expect revolutionary fervor to degenerate into Stalinist totalitarianism, we are left free to experience all of the vertiginous chaos of Nicholas II's tumultuous reign.  Zygar's plethora of presentist footnotes also lend urgency to the tale of Russia's authoritarian plunge into modernity.  Drawing frequent analogies between Nicholas II's reign and Putin's era might sometimes seem misplaced or even misleading.  Clearly, neither Witte nor Stolypin operated in the same context as Putin. However, the anti-Putin footnotes help readers to understand the contemporary relevance of this particularly important period in Russia's modern history. 

To read The Empire Must Die, is to be persistently surprised.  Page by page, one discovers or rediscovers the sturm und drang of the period and revisits some of the most important events in the shaping of the modern world.  This was an era of dynastic intrigue, political innovation, colonial conflict, diplomatic realignment, war, violent anti-semitism, revolution, terrorism, unrivaled aesthetic creativity, and labor unrest.  It was an era of class conflict, ideological warfare, resurgent nationalism, and religious uncertainty.  It was a time of emperors, empresses, and grand-dukes, as well as by strikers, playwrights, and rabble-rousers.  It was a time of political and aesthetic experimentation. 

The personalities of pre-revolutionary Russia (and Zygar includes the diaspora in his definition of Russia) are as dynamic as revolutionary Russia, and included Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Witte, Stolypin, Lenin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Lvov, Benois, Chernov, Azef, Gotz, Gapon, Struve, Martov, Yusopev, Tsereteli, Stravinsky, Gippius, Kerensky, Milyukov, and Rasputin.

Overall, The Empire Must Die argues that Russia on the eve of the First World War was even more fragile than one might imagine based on the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.  While perhaps nothing is ever foreordained, Russia's politics were perhaps as unstable as they could have been. They were a strange and deadly mix of dilettante authoritarianism and democratic aspiration.  As Zygar portrays matters, Nicholas II, the royal family, and the secret policy, were all dangerously disconnected from Russian civil society.  Hunted by terrorists, the royal family made some overtures to ultra-orthodox, anti-Semitic nationalist sentiment, but never really forged robust relationships with any particular class in society.  Indeed, Nicholas II's own relatives were not always entirely reliable, and certainly he was never able to demonstrate political loyalty to any particular proactive minster or group of engaged politicians.  The moral and political confusion of the time are perhaps best illustrated by the complicated relations between the tsar's secret police and their alleged enemies, the Social Revolutionaries and other terrorist groups.  According to Zygar, it was often difficult to tell the two groups apart.  In  part, the confusion stemmed from the regime's interest in sponsoring double agents or creating loyalist labor unions.  Thus, Gapon was simultaneously both ally and enemies of Nicholas II's government. In part, the confusion stemmed from the moral equivalency of the two groups, each committed to using violence to promote its own fundamentally antidemocratic aims.