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. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Robert Massie's Peter the Great

    Unfortunately I haven't all that much time for Russian literature and history in recent months.  I continue to read haphazardly, but almost all of of my writing time and energy is devoted to another project.  For the time being, my goal is merely to keep this blog on life support by posting something once in a while.  Today, I'll just say that I've fallen in love with Robert Massie's popular histories of two Russian monarchs, Peter the Great and Nicholas.  The Peter the Great biography was a refreshing break from academic writing and a brilliant introduction to not just Peter but his whole epoch.  The book may perhaps be more narrative than analytical, but it certainly helps readers get a sense of the drama of Peter's epoch.

    Interestingly, Massie allows his portrait of Peter to expand into a depiction of the Europe as a whole, at least in terms of its military and diplomatic and dynastic components.  This has its advantages and disadvantages.  While we sometimes lose sight of Peter's perspective on unfolding events, we are able to analyze his statecraft in the context of wider global events.  This is helpful in that we can best understand Peter's brutality and penchant for war against a backdrop of a brutal age of ever-shifting frontiers and alliances.  Peter's drive toward modernity makes sense only if Russia's vulnerability within the European state system is highlighted.

    Massie's treatment of Peter reminds readers that Russia's status as a Great Power, or even a Superpower, is only a recent phenomenon.  At least at the beginning of Peter's reign, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire both overshadowed the developing fragile power, to say nothing of Louis XIV's awesome strength and military sophistication.  As a ruler, Massie's Peter is clever, extremely energetic, curious, restless, and single-minded.  According to Massie, Peter's cruelty isn't particularly noteworthy for the age, and it should be noted that Peter used brutality and political violence as political tools rather than expressions of personal sadism.

    Massie's description of Peter's reign isn't particularly novel, though it is literary, and descriptions of Moscow, the Kremlin, St. Petersburg, Archangelisk, and other Russian locales are vivid and arresting.  For the most part, Massie avoids psychological investigations into Peter's motivations, but Massie doesn't neglect Peter's friendships with Menshikov and others, his dependence upon his second wife, or his early trauma at the hands of angry streltsy.

    Massie doesn't entirely resolve the question of whether Russia's move toward the Baltic (and abortive move toward the Black Sea) was a result of Peter's personal obsession with maritime issues, or the natural result of an expanding empire.  However, he does seem to nicely explain a certain repeating dynamic of Russian history, and that is the Russian state's propensity to use overwhelming force to quash all open resistance to massive change.

    While we should be careful to accept any cliches about eternal Russian styles of government, Massie's Peter does seem to foreshadow Alexander II and Lenin and Stalin and even Gorbachev, by overawing all opposition to the often violent introduction of widespread economic and even cultural change.  For Peter's terrifying and spectacular use of state power, ensured that Old Believers remained at the fringes of society, and that few Russians dared to openly express opposition to new clothes, styles, technologies, capital cities, and military reforms.  Massie's Peter uses the state to engage in almost perpetual warfare.  He uses it to found a new capital and enact countless reforms.   However, everyday Russian resistance to centralized power and even Western cultural norms seems to have been silenced but not destroyed altogether.  Russians can be removed from politics but they cannot be coerced into embracing foreign and unfamiliar approaches to modernity.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Aleksander Wat

I take a somewhat absurd and small-minded, if not downright xenophobic, approach to the study of Russian history and literature. Aside from a few random books ingested on CD during my morning commute, I generally read Russian history and Russian literature and little else.  I tell myself that I need to avoid non-Russian materials to spend more time on a vast and growing subject.  However, my parochial reading list makes it appear as if Russia has always existed in a vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world.  Fortunately, from time to time I pick up a book by a non-Russian author, but only if I can randomly flip through the unread pages but still encounter a number of Russian names and places.  And so it was that Aleksander Wat's brilliant book, My Century, survived the Procrustean bed of my reading regimen.  For Russian connections and allusions and ideas litter almost every page of the long book.  And why shouldn't this be so?  For better or worse (and most Poles would say the answer is clearly, "for worse"), Poland's history is interwoven with Russia's, especially in the catastrophic twentieth century.

Wat's story, like Poland's itself, is in many ways a Russian story. Wat grew to intellectual maturity on a steady diet of lef-wing and Marxist readings.  Like so many other Polish intellectuals and proletarians, Wat, generally a fellow-traveller rather than an outright communist, was also thrilled by the adventure of the Bolshevik Revolution.  The Russian Revolution seemed to promise a brand new, and much improved world. Everything could and would be reinvented.  The Soviet Union was remaking economics, politics, art, culture, gender relations, and indeed everyday life. Eventually, Wat's romance with both the Soviet Union and communism in general came to an end, and Wat even came to reside in the Soviet Union's notorious Lubianka, and then later suffered under Poland's post-World War II communist dictatorship.  Wat's book, My Century, is largely a prolonged apology for his own part in Europe's great experiment with communism.  This informal series of interviews returns again and again to one of modernity's greatest crimes:  It's willingness to sacrifce human rights, and freedom itself, at the alter of an super-rationalist faith in the radical progress of humanity.

A few quotes from Wat's My Century:

"No one knew what communism would be like.  For the time we thought of it as a great nihilism."

"The dark sectarian layers, Russia inundated by sectarianism--all this was very attractive to us in our esthetic, literary revolution."

"Hempel was the first apparatchnik I had ever known."

"[Jansienski] had come as a young man from Russia, very full of himself yet at the same time terribly cynical, and that cannot be called communism.  In any case that's was communism, that was bolshevism, and it certainly wasn't Marxism."

"By analogy with what is happening in physics, just as the atom has ceased to be the simplest unit, subject to no further reduction, so has the event, the fact, become incredibly complex."

"We see a social system dominated by genuine idiots, capitalists.  That is the most fertile ground for laughter and for revolution."

"Doctors can't cure  me, but a good exorcist probably could.  Because my main demon is communism..."

"But from Rousseau on we again see history confused with autobiography.  And isn't that one of the signs of our illness?  The muddying of history with biography.  Isn't that a sin?"

"The Literary Monthly is the corpus delicti of my degradation, the history of my degradation in communism, by communism."

"Now they're turning spies into heroes, but I [Broniewsky] was in Lubyanka and nobody's making a hero out of me."

"Bourgeouis decadence.  And I was afraid of causing infection.  Just as they're afraid to send satellites to Mars so as not to cause any virtal infection there."

"As if it were still possible to write tragedies in the twentieth century..."

"There was only one alternative, only one global answer to negation."

"It was a very simple matter, a matter of mathematics.  There were too much of everything. Too many people, too many ideas, too many books, too many systems.  Too much of everything...absolutely awful multiplicity.  It has become so vast that a refined intellect was unable to deal with it."

"How pure and great must be the cause for which so much blood is spilled, innocent blood."

"Besides, experts in religion know that when great religions are dying, warped religions--sects--emerge."

"Kireevsky, a post-romantic and one of the Slovophiles, wrote that politics was such a crime and a disgrace that it was better for one person to take all that disgrace upon himself."

"It boils down to the Soviet astronaut who said that he had been in heaven and hadn't seen God.  Voila!  That's communism's rationalism in full flower."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Eli Sagan's Citizens and Cannibals

Eli Sagan's book, Citizens and Cannibals, is a fascinating theoretical treatise on the meaning of the French Revolution.  Favoring analysis over narrative, Sagan argues that the French Revolution reveals the fault lines of modernity.  According to Sagan, the French Revolution is representative of the anxiety modern men and women feel when they give us Early Modern sources of corporate identity. Following the logic of Marshall Berman's book, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Sagan maintains that French revolutionaries turned to terror to compensate for the loss of the king, the Catholic church, guilds, and other sources of social and cultural identity. Sagan writes that most people in France accepted the principles of the French Revolution even before it occurred.  Nobles, clergymen, and even the king, all more or less gave up medieval assumptions and joined the bourgeoisie in believing in the rights of individuals and the bourgeois concept of freedom.

According to Sagan, the French Revolution had little or nothing to do with capitalism, which had made few inroads in France by the end of the 18th century, and everything to do with middle class values. The French Revolution was not made by industrialists or great merchants but rather by lawyers. The Revolution was ultimately an expression of a new ethos.  By 1789 most educated people accepted many or perhaps most modern ideas about politics.  Robespierre, for instance, believed in many of the things we believe in.  He hated slavery, favored the separation of church and state, supported progressive taxation, and championed free and universal education.  He believed in civil rights, as they are commonly understood.   Sagan goes so far as to call Robespierre a "moral genius" for his early and eloquent advocacy of so many of the causes we still champion today.  On the other hand, Robespierre, like so many of his contemporaries, hated factionalism.  This hatred was born of a fear that is representative of the widespread fear that accompanied all passages to modernity.

Why was the French Revolution so bloody?  Sagan makes a compelling case that Frenchmen embraced most aspects of modernity but rejected the concept of a loyal ambition.  They believed in individual rights, and Rousseau's famous "general will" of the nation.  What they simply could not abide were factions.  Sagan points out that this suspicion of factions is common even to America's founding fathers.  He also reminds us that France never fully resolved its disgust with factions until DeGaulle renounced the idea of becoming a dictator well over a century later.  With this hatred of factionalism, French revolutionaries were left with no other choice but to annihilate one another.  The stakes were huge:  Girondists knew that they would either kill members of the Mountain, or be killed. Of course, Sagan doesn't let matters wrest there.  He knows that many national histories involved widespread bloodshed, and bloodshed out of all proportion to the struggle for political power.  In France, revolutionaries didn't just kill potential political opponents, but rather killed powerless nobles and other groups.

In the twentieth century, ideological terrorists repeatedly created large groups of people for no reason at all.  The holocaust, for example, cannot be explained by any ordinary logic. The murder of a group of people who offered no resistance to the regime was, strictly speaking, irrational.  How to explain such hysteria?  Sagan offers the plausible argument that Germans, like so many others who encountered modernity, were both exhilarated and terrified by their isolation and freedom. Cannibalism is in a sense the flip side of citizenship.

The logic of modern terror makes sense in a Russian context.  On a narrow level, we see that the Bolsheviks never learned how to deal with factionalism except through radical violence.  On some level, Stalin understood that he would either kill or be killed by political opponents.  Bolsheviks never admitted to themselves that other Bolsheviks had a right to disagree about tactics or ideology in fundamental ways.  The unit of the party and therefore the nation could not be threatened, even if the alternative to disunity was violence.  But more than an explanation for bloody dictatorship, Sagan offers us an understanding of why the Soviet Union embraced violence on such an enormous scale. Sagan offers us an explanation for why there were so many Stalinists in 1930s Russia.  The Russians were hysterical about something.  They required sacrifices to feel better about the earth-shattering, if also exciting, changes they were experiencing.  This is the paradox of the Russian Revolution, a paradox that existed however as early as the French Revolution:  Russians were forging a radical version of equality, but also giving up many of their most familiar sources of social cohesion, including the tsar, the Orthodox Church, the aristocracy, and the peasant commune. How to deal with this level of uncertainty?  Surely violence was chicken soup for the terrified soul.