Sunday, November 19, 2017

Revolutsiia Demonstratsiia: Soviet Art Put to the Test

After visiting the small but excellent Soviet art display at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum, I was overwhelmed with the size and variety of the Art Institute of Chicago's exhibit on Soviet art, entitled Revolutsiia Demonstratsiia:  Soviet Art Put to the Test.  Like the Smart Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago has done an excellent job of displaying Soviet artistic trends in all their originality and variety.  After visiting the display, it's difficult not to get a sense of the extent to which artistic innovation was intertwined with political innovation.

The Art Institute has, understandably, created a much more impactful display than its University of Chicago counterpart, if only because its exhibit enormous. The Art Institute's exhibit displays Soviet architectural drawings, magazine covers, avant-garde pieces, theater sets, propaganda posters, furniture, and porcelain figures.  The overall effect is to demonstrate that early Soviet artists were able to experiment with both form and content in the service of the revolutionary impulse.  The exhibit also demonstrates that even totalitarian regimes can continue to generate well-designed art.  Even if Soviet art was often dedicated to the glorifications of party leaders, it remained vital and dynamic.  After its initial burst of creativity, the exhibit suggests that Soviet art seems to have settled down to some relative stable tropes.  These included the importance of ordinary workers to Soviet production, the extent to which women contribute to the efficiency of the economy, the achievement of the Soviet Union in creating a truly multinational or multiethnic political entity, and the omnipresence of technology in the Soviet present.

More than anything, I came away from the Soviet exhibit thinking about the universal nature of creativity.  From an anthropological point of view, all societies seem to generate high quality art. The exhibit's catalog is almost as good as the exhibit itself, and is well-worth the purchase price.  My favorite piece in the exhibit was a chess set that posed villainous bourgeois pieces against heroic, hardworking proletarians.

Alexander Ostrovsky's A Profitable Position

I've recently been caught up trying to catch up with theater.  To this end, I've been building my collection of plays, both Russian and non-Russian.  I've read or reread much of Shakespeare, especially the tragedies, and spent some time on August Wilson and other modern playwrights.  With respect to this blog, I've posted recently on Chekhov and Platonov and stumbled on a few other Russian playwrights.  One glaring omission in my reading has been Alexander Ostrovsky.  I know little about either the man or his works, but finally decided to do something about this omission by reading Ostrovsky's A Profitable Position.

At first, I found the language of this mid-19th century play to be a little too formal, stiff, and dated.  It's themes seemed modern, but the language and structure seemed trapped between modern and pre-modern sensibilities.  However, by the time I had finished the play I was completely enthralled with the importance of the play's themes, the modernity of its conflicts, and the incredible tension that had developed between its characters.  A modern reader can't help but be struck by the fact that Ostrovsky's play prefigures Turganev's novel, Father's and Sons.  The conflict between a corrupt but successful uncle and a noble but impoverished nephew is a powerful dramatic engine.  The nephew strives to leverage youth, education, and idealism, against his uncle's experience, cynical wisdom, and venality.

The almost mythological power of the father-son conflict is supplemented by the author's critique of traditional roles.  Here, the author makes a sophisticated attempt to link societal corruption in the public sphere with societal corruption in the private sphere.  If men are tempted to steal in the public sphere, it is largely because they are expected to use stolen funds to provide consumer goods to females in the private sphere.  The critique is redolent of Engels' critique of bourgeois marriage.  Like Engels, Ostrovsky suggests that the ethics of marriage often resemble the ethics of prostitution.  The most impressive component of Ostrovsky's critique--which never completely releases women from a dependent gender role--is that he demonstrates the extent to which both men and women replicate the ideology of prostitution.  Young girls ask their husbands to buy them things to adore themselves in polite society, but their mothers teach them to do so.  And men seem only too happy to purchase the love and respect of their brides, as for example when the old male lead of the play, Vyshnevsky, showers gifts on his young bride in order to convince her to marry him, and remain intimate with him, despite her understandable disinterest in him.

The play's ending is optimistic.  Vshnevsky is publicly shamed, prosecuted for his venality, and ultimately suffers a stroke.  His foil, the youthful Zhadov, stumbles, but recovers his dignity, and decides that all of his philosophical training should be put into practice at any cost.   The optimism seems a little sappy to the modern ear.  However, its dramatic effect is heightened by the author's sympathy for the old Russia.  While the author knows corruption is wrong, he understands why even good characters, like the protagonist Zhadov, are drawn to it.  Modern readers may also see a hint of revolutionary tragedy in the whole affair.  While Russia's youth would continue to oppose ideological purity to Ancien Regime corruption, the cure would turn out to be worth than the disease.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Revolution Every Day

Today, while watching my children play basketball in Hyde Park, I realized that the Smart Museum, only two blocks away from the baseball courts, was hosting an exhibition on Soviet art.  That said, I had no other choice than to quickly duck into the exhibit.  The exhibit was well worth my trip of two blocks, but is also probably worth a visit from any quarter of the city of Chicago or its environs.  Taking its queue from Sheila Fitzpatrick's phrase, "everyday Stalinism," the exhibit focuses on how the Soviet revolutionary project, especially as that project related to femininity.  Focusing almost exclusively on state-sponsored poster art, the exhibit demonstrates that the state was acutely concerned with the role of women in the society it hoped to build.  Perhaps it would even be fair to say that the state was anxious about that role. If the artists' work was any guide, the Soviet Union was deeply interested in ensuring that Soviet women were fully incorporated into its economy.  Soviet propaganda sought to demonstrate to women that they could fulfill almost any technical role available to Soviet citizens, including welding, tractor driving, and pilots.  Soviet women also needed to parents, and happy ones at that.  Thus, women in Soviet posters are sometimes depicted as mechanics, but also sometimes portrayed as idealized mothers. The overall effect of the exhibition is to demonstrated the extent to which Soviet art mobilized avant-garde aesthetics to introduce or reinforce a specific ideology of gender.

ASEES Conference

Although this blog is the product of amateurism, I have often wondered what the Association of Eastern European and Eurasian Studies annual conference looks like.  This year, with the conference only twenty minutes from my campus in downtown Chicago, I felt obligated to finally attend.  The experience of sitting in professional panels and roundtables was both exhilarating and intimating.  I realized how of course how far my blog is from anything even approaching original research.  In fact, I was once again reminded of the character in Don DeLillo's short novel, White Noise, who founds the interdisciplinary field of Hitler Studies but can't read a word of German.

In any event, it was good to see how scholars of Russia and the Soviet Union talk to one another.  Intimidated by the erudition and professional expertise of both the presenters and the attendees, I scarcely asked a question of anyone.  In fact, with some discomfiture I realized how community college students must feel when they enter my office, the office of a dean, with little prior postsecondary experience.

On the bright side, it was wonderful to be at this conference in the centenary year of the Revolution, and to hear Laura Engelstein and other major scholars discuss the historiography of 1917 at this particularly significant moment in time.  I was particularly impressed by panels on nationalism in Eastern Europe in 1918,  masculinity in the Soviet Union of the postwar era, and biographies that cross the revolutionary divide.

When I told my wife, a well-published professor of electrical engineering, of my experience at the conference, she asked me why I had attended at all.  Her point was that professional conferences are usually geared toward specialists rather than community college administrators who spoke not a lick of Russian and hadn't taught a class in several years, and had in fact never taught a specialized class in Russian history.  She of course had a point, and certainly I immediately wondered whether it would make sense to attend again, insofar as I didn't even know enough attendees to network properly.  On the other hand, coming home from the conference, I reflected on that fact that writing this blog has at least positioned me as the kind of generalist who could comfortably attend sessions in a variety of areas on all manner of subjects.  Being a generalist doesn't lead to publications, but it can perhaps make for an enjoyable conference experience.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Abraham Ascher's Russia: A Short History

This blog focuses on the twentieth century, but makes frequent forays into the nineteenth century for context.  From time to time, it's also necessary to delve into Russia's earlier history, if only to scan the centuries for themes and patterns.  To this end, I recently read Abraham Ascher's survey of Russian history, Russia:  A Short History.  The book reads like a textbook but certainly gives its readers a nice overview of the entire sweep of Russian history.   It covers the origins of the Russian state, the Mongol invasion and occupation, Ivan the Terrible's chaotic reign, the Time of Troubles, Peter the Great's violence and westernizing policies, peasant rebellion under Catherine the Great, the Crimean War, Nicholas II's folly, the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalinism, the Cold War, Glasnost and Perestroika, and even the Putin era return to autocratic traditions.  The book is centered squarely on political history, and spends its time on the Russia's tsars and their post revolutionary analogues.  Russia: A Short History is not a book about social or cultural history.  It offers no hint of "history from the ground up."  Morever, Ascher's take on Russian history offers very few original insights into Russian history.  It is rather a synthesis of scholarship about Russia.  And this synthesis suggests that many scholars still see Russian history as a tragedy, shaped by autocratic violence, inequality, peasant and worker misery, invasion, and war.  To be sure, this interpretation still makes sense.  Russia suffered from war and state violence.  As Ascher reminds his readers, even in the reign of the revered Peter the Great, the country's most impactful Westernizers, the country was almost continuously at war.  But if Russia has suffered from a history of violence, historians do need to spend more time thinking about other, more positive, narratives that make up the Russian historical tradition.  If Russian history is violent, it is is also by turns optimistic, peaceful, soulful, creative, and humane. Susan Sontag once wrote that we all indebted to Russia's rich literary tradition for a share of our collective humanity.  If this is so, historians will need to discover what elements of Russia's historical trajectory have accounted for this invaluable component of Europe's intellectual and artistic heritage.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Masha Gessen on Empire and Terrorism

Massa Gessen has become something of a personal hero for me.  She’s a prolific Russian-American (or perhaps American-Russian) who demonstrates indefatigable personal courage with every new literary, historical or journalistic project she takes on.  She’s a champion of civil rights and a worthy inheritor of the rich moral heritage of the Russian intelligentsia.  Her choice of investigative projects reveals her insatiable curiosity, broad knowledge of Russian culture, and firm commitment to democratic politics.  This blog has reviewed a variety of her books, including ones that analyze Putin, the political protest band, Pussy Riot, and the fate of the Russian intelligentsia.   Gessen has a new book out that seems to provide readers with an overview of Russia’s current anti-democratic moment, but before I tackle that book I’ll just mention her small gem, The Brothers:  The Road to an American Tragedy.  In this short book, Gessen writes a sort of textbook on 21st century terrorism.  

As a student of true crime fiction, I admire Gessen’s contribution to this sometimes-underrated literary genre.  In the tradition of those who, like Capote or Mailer, have move beyond the inhuman elements of vicious crime in order to uncover something wonderfully precious about human nature, Gessen explores the complex, unstable, intercontinental lives of the Boston Marathon bombers.  As an immigrant to America with persistent connections to her native land, and a civil rights activist who has done some work analyzing multiple Chechnya catastrophes, Messen is well placed to tell these stories.  Gessen’s theme is that the genesis of terrorism cannot be located in a strange and unfamiliar location overseas.  In fact, the bombers’ commitment to violence didn’t simple arise as a result of their contact with violent jihadists in Chechnya.   The Boston Bombers were not merely passive recipients of a violent overseas radical ideology. Indeed, Gessen asserts that the elder brother, a man in contact with several strains of American liberalism, can be said to have attempted to radicalize his overseas friends and family.  

To be sure, Gessen does not offer any easy explanations for the violent ideology of her subjects.  Instead, she shows how truly global terrorist ideologies can be.  When Stalin first displaced the residents of Chechnya to Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan, he set in motion a truly international phenomenon.  Indeed, even before Stalin, Russian imperialism meant that local patterns of violence at the periphery of the Russian empire would eventually be replicated at the centers of imperial power, including Moscow.  Of course, Russia’s recent wars in Chechnya are even more directly related to the birth of a global jihadist creed.  With Grozny transformed into one of the most war-torn cities on the planet, its residents would naturally flee to every corner of the earth, including many Russian and American cities. 

The temptation is to see this Chechnya diaspora as bearing responsibility for the violence that was inflicted on Chechnya, but Gessen is at pains to demonstrate that the global ideology of imperialism undergirds the global ideology of Muslim extremism.  In fact, Gessen also dissects America’s strains of imperialism, manifested in anti-Muslim 911 sentiment and governmental overreach.  Her point is to demonstrate that any international ideology of violence emanating from the metropolis, whether it originates in Moscow or Washington, D.C., is likely to breed its inverse creed on the peripheries of empire.  Gessen’s book suggests something powerful about the impact of war and dislocation and imperial power on vulnerable men and women.  But the book also suggests how vulnerable all immigrants are as they struggle to remake their worlds in the midst of a foreign and disorienting culture.  

As an immigrant herself, Gessen seems to instinctively understand that although the overwhelming number of immigrants successfully overcomes every barrier to assimilation, they often do so only after great psychological effort.  In any case, it’s interesting to see that the Boston bombers were somehow both extremely isolated by their attachment to a peripheral culture (e.g., Gessen points out that a girl could be subject to an honor killing for holding hands with a boy from a different ethnic group), and thoroughly immersed in global culture (e.g., they routinely discussed politics with their Cambridge-liberal landlady, spoke multiple languages, and sometimes travelled to visit far-flung relatives).  

Messen’s book reminds me of another book that examines the Janus-head of immigration, the French Intifada.  In this book, the author notes that somehow Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian familiarity with French culture easily coexists with its opposite: Antipathy for French racism and colonial attitudes. Like the Boston Bombers, French residents and citizens of North African decent are products of a long history of colonial violence and imperial power in their homelands.  Whether in France, America, or Russia, terrorism is in a sense the almost inevitable reflection of the truly global scale of empire.  This isn’t to lay blame for terrorism on its victims, but only to do as historian of empire Antoinette Burton suggests and analyz   

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Master and Margarita

As a Russophile, I'm embarrassed that I've not read Bulgakov's Master and Margarita until now.  Although I recognize that countless Russians believe that this book is the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century, I never seemed to get very far with this book until now.  In fact, I only managed to finish the book by "reading" it on Hoopla, and unfortunately audio-books can be difficult to follow even with much simpler plot structures.  Notwithstanding the book's imposing reputation, or perhaps because of that imposing reputation, my impression of the book wasn't very positive.  I recognize that Bulgakov was one of the Soviet Union's most competent modernists.  I recognize that the imaginative elements of the book, including its rich cast of bizarre characters, deserve my appreciation.  I also recognize that Bulkagov deserves praise for producing such a creative work in the midst of Stalinist oppression.  However, Bulgakov's masterwork was a little too chaotic for my taste.

Someday I hope to re-read the book.  Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, assigned to me in my first Russian history class at Georgetown University, was probably one of the first Russian books I ever read.  Like Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog comes across as an absurdist fairy tale, a modernist version of Gogol's strange tales of walking noses and the like.  But Heart of a Dog's shortness seems to make its strange conceits more believable.  Master and Margarita's endless flights of fancy seem to lead nowhere and to distract the reader from any sustained sense of direction or purpose to the plot.  I recognize that this is a relatively shallow reading of a novel that no doubt contains complexity and richness.  I certainly can understand that the book is representative of a type of modernist prose that has been immensely influential in the last fifty or so years.  In fact, it did remind me another book of modernist fiction I liked much better:  Ralph Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man, which contains similar absurdist conceits but somehow seems to hang together as a unified tale of one man's intellectual and political journey through an absurdly racist America.  Perhaps the reason I prefer Invisible Man to Master and Margarita is because Ellison was able to tackle racism much more directly than Bulgakov was able to tack Stalinism.  In both cases, the author was courageously responding to a culture of systematic violence.  However, in the American case, Ellison could at least count on a black and liberal white audience to celebrate his rather overt depiction of American racist tropes.  In the Russian case, Bulgakov might have felt that even if he were "writing for the desk" he could not risk any direct reference to the terror that was overwhelming his countrymen.  Better perhaps to see Stalinism in the biblical allegory.

The Master and Margarita was clearly ahead of its time, and influential after it was finally published.  Yet when laid side by side with a Russian masterwork of the nineteenth century, it seemed lacking to me.  The author's inventiveness lacked purpose to my mind.  I do hope to learn more about the work, reread it, and post on this book again.  I also hope to hear from readers who are interested in explaining their enthusiasm for the book.  I will fully confess that my audio "reading" of this book distracted me from the plot.  I only post this incomplete analysis here to remind myself to return to book in the future with an open mind and enough time to read the book in print.