Tuesday, December 28, 2021

S.A. Smith's The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

As one might expect from the author's expertise, S.A. Smith's The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction is a very informed account of the Russian Revolution and its influence up until the 1930s.  The book provides readers a concise account of revolutionary events but tries to introduce readers to some of the major areas of research into the revolution and its immediate aftermath.  Smith seems particularly interested in issues related to nationalism and ethnic minorities in the Revolution and in the Soviet Union.  He touches on issues related to gender, the arts, modernization, etc.  One might do better to read his relatively recent Russia in Revolution, however, since this book does feel caught somewhere between a high school text and a grad school preliminary exam preparation book.  And perhaps the issue is that Smith attempted to cover the narrative but also the historiography, and that might be too hard to do in A Very Short Introduction, even though I recall liking Catriona Kelly's Russian literature book in this series fairly well.

Hannah Arendt's On Revolution Revisited

 I'm a huge fan of Hannah Arendt and think there's nothing finer than her Origins of Totalitarianism in particular.  But for some reason, I wasn't thrilled with her book, On Revolution, the first time around. I was confused by the extensive discussion of the so-called American Revolution, which hardly seems like a revolution at all when set alongside of the French or Russian Revolutions.  But in preparation for a class, I gave the book another read and liked it much better this time.  I particularly like the way she explains why revolutions are inherently modern phenomena.  An expert in Greek history, she admits that previous epochs knew regime change.  However, she asserts that regime change, or even the eruption of religious mass hysteria, is quite different than revolution in the modern sense of the word.  Revolutions, she argues, involve rectilinear time. They demand revolutionary calendars that begin in Year One.  The idea of novelty is essential to the revolutionary experience.  People need to know that the future is wide-open, almost unpredictable.  

In the 18th century, people moved closer to the idea of overturning the world to create something brand new, or even utopian.  But they weren't searching for freedom, or at least the freedom to do something unprecedented.  In pre-modern eras, discontents might search to recover lost liberties, but they didn't do so to create a unique, open-ended future.  They didn't even call for liberty for all male members of society, or citizens.  They also made no pretensions to speaking on behalf of the world. They required the return of lost liberties, and these liberties were generally very specific to particular places, or particular classes or even nobles.  According to Arendt, pre-modern people didn't seek comprehensive, total, terrifying, change.  Slaves sought freedom, palace elites sought a new leader, sections of an empire sought independence; but no one sought global freedom for all citizens.  

Like Goldstone, Arendt does some historical work.  But here she notes that nobody even used the word revolution until quite recently.  And when like Machiavelli does identify a secular realm of politics, he's looking to the past, to Polybius.  Indeed, medieval thinkers couldn't even conceive of anything other than a rebellion in order to exchange rulers.  Medieval thinkers made no claim whatsoever that the people should gain any share in government.  You were born a ruler, a noble, and that was that.  The English levellers did finally demand something new:  a constitution.  Still, they were primarily concerned to get their ancient rights restored to them.  To use the scientific term, they demanded a complete revolution of the social order, or, in other words, a return to the ancient status quo.  

Arendt even includes the US revolution in a pre-modern rebellion, in the sense that the revolutionaries were demanding their rights as Englishmen restored to them.  The French Revolution, by contrast, called for the execution of the king and queen, and then the radical unfolding of new knowledge about politics, a new society, a new future.  And at first, they wanted radical decentralization, and later, and as a response to the threat of counterrevolution and invasion, the reverse:  radical centralization.  Of course, the French Revolution also added an economic dimension to the notion of radical freedom.  From 1789 onward, revolutionaries would also be thinking of social and political freedom.  

Jack Goldstone's Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction

 As will be evident, I've taken a long break from my Soviet reading list.  The general Covid situation made switch to other readings.  Even so, I have recently decided to teach a short course on the Russian Revolution and so I'm reading a few books that I thought might help me with this task.  The first book I read was Jack Goldstone's Revolutions, part of the Very Short Introductions series.  I thought my class should start with some reflections on the nature of revolution, and the history of the concept, so I appreciated Goldstone's first chapters on the subject.  Goldstone's first couple of chapters raise a number of interesting questions. After reading these chapters, I thought my class could begin by discussing questions such as the following:  How should we define the word, revolution?  What is the difference between a revolution and a revolt or rebellion or civil war or insurrection or guerilla warfare? Are revolutions common or rare in world history?  Why do they really matter?  Are they essentially violent?  Do they often or even usually lead to dictatorship?  Are they varied in their expression or a unified phenomenon? Why and when do people think they can revolt, or that they should revolt, or that they simply have no choice but to revolt?  Do revolutions occur because the people are optimistic or pessimistic about the future?  Do revolutions always contain a democratic element, or are they almost by definition democratic?  Do revolutions occur only when leaders are isolated or weak?  Do they occur only when the military waivers?   Are revolutions essentially political by nature, or are they mainly an economic occurrence?  Can a revolution be an elite affair, or is it always a matter of the masses revolting?  Are the reasons revolutionaries give for rebelling the real reasons revolutions occur, or are there more important reasons they occur?  Does inequality help or hurt the cause of revolution? What's the role of religion in revolution?  Does modernization prevent revolution or cause it?  How do we judge the results of a revolution?  Should we use a short-term or long-term standard of its effects on society?  Do elites need to be divided for a revolution to be successful?  When do revolutions have a global impact?  Is there a science of revolution?  Can they be predicted to any degree?  How have revolutions change over time?  What's the relationship between war and revolution?  Can revolutions be coopted by bringing rebels into the ruling establishment?  Are revolutions moral by nature?  Do revolutions require foreign assistance?  How do revolutions draw on past rebellions or revolutions to make their case for radical change?  Do revolutions require charismatic leaders?  Why do they attempt to adopt new language, new rituals, new religions?  Must revolutionaries be conspiratorial? Do revolutions have to lead to post-revolutionary power struggles?  How can revolutionary regimes best be stabilized?   How can they deal with external threats?  Do they do best to adopt constitutions?  Can revolutionary regimes remain democratic?  (Is the US Revolution truly a revolution?)  Do revolutionary regimes always adopt purges as a technique of government? Do the radicals always win in post-revolutionary power struggles?  What are the benefits and costs of revolutions?  Why do some revolutions have ethnic or nationalist overtones, or do they always have to have them?   How did revolutions change between 1688, 1776, 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1917, etc.?  How did non-European revolutions incorporate anti-colonialism into ideologies?  What do the Iranian Revolution and Arab Revolt say about revolutions?   

These are all great questions.  Goldstone also believes that revolutions require five characteristics:  1) economic or fiscal stress; 2) elite alienation; 3) popular) a narrative of resistance; 5) international support. 

Golstone's book also covers different broad historical epochs and their experiences with revolutions.   I found these chapters less than useful.  I think Hannah Arendt's book, On Revolution, helps to explain why this is the case.  According to her, revolutions are modern by nature.  They demand something brand new, rather than a return to lost privileges, whether real or imagined.  They usually have global pretentions.  They are utopian.  She makes her point by analyzing the Puritan Revolution and the Glorious Revolution.  Both had some modern elements, but neither sought to bring about a millenarian future.  They called for the reestablishment of ancient liberties.  They used the scientific definition of the term, revolution, to call for a return to the way society was supposed to be. Although Goldstone is right to point out that the Greeks and Renaissance princes knew regime change, they aren't quite right to equate this with the French or Russian revolutions, which called for the implementation of modern utopias that would scarcely resemble any past.  

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

George Saunders' A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

George Saunders' new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, analyzes several Russian short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol.  As a Russophile, I was happy to read or reread the stories he selected, which included The Nose, The Master and the Man, The Cart, and at least one story from A Sportsman's Sketches, and other nineteenth century classics.  On the other hand, I was just slightly disappointed that Saunders didn't have any special expertise in either Russian literature or history.  Picking up the book felt like a case of false advertising.  Yes, Saunders had taught a course in the Russian short story for several decades and knew these stories intimately.  However, he was primarily concerned with the craftsmanship of the stories, rather than their Russian themes or the Russian literary contexts from which they emerged. Indeed, Saunders analyzed these short stories primarily from the point of view of a writer, or would-be writer.  In some ways, Saunders could have written the same sort of book about any group of short stories.  He really did not need to limit himself to Russian stories, so the book seemed a bit gimmicky.  In any case, Sanders did something new by asking readers to read these stories, and then carefully deconstruct them in terms of their plot and other literary devices.  And certainly it was nice to approach these classics from the point of view of a writer learning a craft.  It was somewhat exciting to be asked by Saunders to think about the many choices each of these Russian authors made when creating their masterpieces.  It was also interesting to see that Saunders thinks that a writer like Turgenev may have actually created something unique as result of his own creative limitations.  That is to say, Saunders argues that Turgenev was not an expert at plot, but therefore turned characterization and setting and detail into something extraordinarily beautiful.  

Monday, May 3, 2021

Vivian Gornick's The Romance of American Communism

Vivian Gornick, where have you been all my life?  As famous and prolific as she is, I don't remember ever reading anything by Vivian Gornick before.  I actually just stumbled upon her this week when I encountered a short book of her insightful literary essays entitled, The Men in My Life.  Loving this small book, I moved on to a larger book, The Romance of American Communism.  This book is phenomenal.  A work of oral history, The Romance of American Communism traces the rise and fall of American Communism by relying on many of its surviving members.  Gornick was perfectly positioned to write this book.  A product of of the New York Jewish Left, Gornick grew up around every shade of American socialist, cooperative enthusiast,  trade unionist, Wobbly-descendent, and communist.  She also writes beautifully, and seems just how to conduct interviews that honor their subjects without a critical spirit of inquiry.  The variety of communist experience was of course vast, and Gornick captures that variety.  Still, Gornick's respondents elucidate some big and unifying themes in the movement.  Many people were practically born into communism, especially those whose families emigrated from Tsarist Russia or other lands of poverty and persecution.  Others were appalled by the Depression and specific injustices, often in the California agriculture districts.  Many communists were attracted to the idea that they were participating in something larger themselves.  Interestingly, a great many men and women said communism helped them to "discover" politics for the first time.  In other words, prior to recruitment, these men and women had no way to explain their lives, and how those lives connected to communities, and how those communities connected to the world at large.  After recruitment, these men and women had a diagnosis for what was wrong in the world, and felt that they could make a difference.  Over time, communism was confronted with state-sanctioned harassment.  Also, Stalin's Show Trials and later Soviet conduct in the Cold War did much to dampen the enthusiasm of American communists.  But even after the diminution and end of the American communist movement, former communists remembered how much the movement had meant to them.  Participation in the Party had given their lives meaning.  They had made friends and lovers by way of their political activity.  Some were disillusioned, but even many of these were convinced that nothing else in their lives had been so important, so meaningful.  

Julian Barnes' Noise of Time

 Since the pandemic arrived, I've taken a bit of a hiatus from Russian subjects, reading widely.  However, I try to make sure a few Russian books, or Russia-themed books, stay in the mix.  I happened about Julian Barnes' novel on Shostakovich in a roundabout way. I had just finished several books by Flaubert, and was in particular greatly impressed by A Sentimental Education.  This, in turn, led me to pick up Barnes' magnificently clever paean to the master stylist, Flaubert's Parrot.  After that, I needed to find another Barnes book immediately, so selected Noise of Time.  Well, Noise of Time can't compete with either A Sentimental Education or Flaubert's Parrot, but Barnes does do a wonderful job of depicting the moral dilemma of many ordinary (and extraordinary) Soviet citizens.  For Shostakovich was neither pure saint nor pure sinner.  Like many, he lived through the Great Terror and entered into the Thaw in a somewhat traumatized state.  While I didn't find Barnes had all that much to say about Shostakovich as a musician or artist, he did help demonstrated the complexity of making one's way in a totalitarian society.  Of course, Shostakovich's own memoir, Testimony, is an even more eloquent account of survival in Soviet society.  That great work is filled with Shostakovich's rage and bitterness at all kinds of people who made dark compromises with power.  Some have argued that Volkov actually authored (or too actively curated) this memoir, but even if he did, the work expresses deep truths about moral corruption.  Rubenstein's  biography of Ehrenberg, Tangled Loyalties, is another exceptionally insightful take on artists who managed to maintain some moral integrity despite being frequently called upon to serve as apologists for Stalinism and post-Stalinism.   

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark

Over time, I hope to make my way through most of Nabokov's books. However, thus far I've only read Lolita, Mary, the Gift, Speak, Memory, and now, Laughter in the DarkLaughter in the Dark is a short, delightful book, originally written in Russian. The book is seems more concerned about a suspenseful plot than Nabokovian wordplay or complexity.  It's a short book, but filled with urgency.  It's hard to put down.   As its title suggests, Laughter in the Dark somehow both tragic and comical.  One stands in awe at Nabokov's ability to describe the state of blindness standing at the center of the novel's denouement.  Nabokov's book is lots of fun, but the protagonist's physical blindness to say something profound about the metaphorical blindness of its bourgeois hero, about the metaphorical blindness of all of us.  Metaphor or not, the book mainly succeeds in describing the inevitable costs of infidelity.