Thursday, September 17, 2020

My response to the current pandemic was to step back from Russian history and literature for a few months.  I've used the time to read a variety of things, including the entire oeuvre of George Elliot.  I've also ready biographies of Elliot, Dickens, Hardy, and other Victorians.  I even started watching BBC productions of Victorian classics, including wonderful productions of Vanity Fair, Tess, and Bleak House.  Since I majored in British history, I used the time to remember why British history and literature was once so interesting to me.  Elliot's sophistication as a thinker is probably the best advertisement the Victorian age ever had.  I've also started reading about the American prairie, polishing off three Little House books , one Willa Cather novel, 'O Pioneers, and the fascinating biography of Wilder and her daughter, Prairie Fires.  But never fear, once a Russophile, always a Russophile.  For instance, I've just completed Gary Shteyngart's memoir, Little Failure. While not a huge fan of his fiction, I did enjoy this witty and sardonic analysis of his experience as a Russian immigrant in New York City and Wooster College.  While the book would probably resonate with anyone who is interested in how immigrants experience the world, Little Failures specifically discusses the Jewish Russian in the context of the 1980s.  The period is fascinating, but especially so for someone venturing from an ailing superpower to a  dominant one near the end of the Cold War.   
    Shteyngart's memoir is a deeply personal one, filled with his own personal insecurities, but it takes place against the backdrop of Russian history.  We learn that Shteyngart's family was decimated by the German invasion, and his grandfather suffered a further calamity after being sent to Siberian hard labor for the crime of praising German technology.  We learn that his family only escaped the Soviet Union as a result of the deal his country struck with the USA, a deal to exchange exit visas for Jews in exchange for grant and limited technology transfers.  Like most emigrants, Shteyngart's family lived in fear of being prevented from leaving, and shed most of its possessions in the flight, via Vienna and Italy, to America.  More mundanely, we learn about Shteyngart's everyday life in late Soviet Russia, including his experience with bureaucracy, queues, airport searches, space shortages, anti-Semitism, poor medical assistance (e.g., he didn't receive albuterol for his asthma until arriving in America), communist propaganda, and limited material comforts.  
    In America, Schteygart's memoir helps us to see how the Cold War affected Russians. In addition to the traditional dilemmas of finding work, learning English (and a new alphabet), and navigating a brand new culture, Schteygart endured a great deal of psychic distress by learning that Americans were still afraid of the Soviet Union.  In the late 80s, the Soviet Union was an "Evil Empire" that would, according to Reagan at any rate, be bombed "in five minutes."  On the other hand, American Jews did help Schyngart's family, with used furniture, used clothing, job assistance, and cash.  As embarrassing as the assistance was to a nerdy child, it seems to have been a vital element in moving Schyngart's family from poverty to the coveted American "middle class."  

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Tolstoy's A Confession

As a free thinker, I've hesitated to delve too deeply into Tolstoy's religious writing for fear of undermining my love of his novels.  However, the excellent novel, Resurrection, helped me to understand that his secular and religious writings are not so far apart as they first appear.  Tolstoy's short tract, A Confession, seems much less "religious" than one might expect it to be.  Instead, the long essay has a philosophical tone, and is relatively free of mysticism or theology or even religious fervor.  It's a biographical exploration that is not unlike the kind of exploration Tolstoy makes when analyzing his characters' complex, mercurial, and layered decisions.  A Confession also bears similarities to Tolstoy's What is Art? in that it often seems more of an intellectual exercise in rational analysis that any kind of investigation of a supernatural force.  When reading Tolstoy biographies, the two periods of his life seem sharply divided.  In the first part of his life, Tolstoy sins and then writes a series of brilliant novels.  In the second part of his life, he repents and pens a series of didactic and/or religious tracts.  However, A Confession seems to suggest that Tolstoy's signature and quasi-religious self-doubt is the source of his genius as a novelist, and his intellectualism and rationalism the source of his creative power as a religious thinker.  Tolstoy's plays also seem to suggest an absence of a divide between the two halves of Tolstoy's life, since even deeply religious themes turn into abstractly philosophical moral dilemmas.  Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised: I've always speculated that the best religious thinkers have much more in common with the best atheist thinkers than they do with the majority of men and women who lead the Church, Mosque, and Synagogue. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Uptain Sinclair's Coop

 It's difficult to discover or "contract trace" the origins of an obsession.  So it's hard to really know how or why I became interested in Russian history or the history of the Russian Revolution.  But I sometimes suspect that my interest in revolutionary Russia can be traced back to my interest in my grandfather's politics.  Although I never knew my grandfather, I grew up hearing about grandfather's single minded pursuit of Leftist economic and social upheaval.  Be this as it may, my grandfather wasn't a communist, and he never preached overt revolution.  Rather, he was a collectivist or devotee of cooperatism.  He might also fit under the broad category of Christian Socialist.  In any event, I believe my grandfather learned about collectivism in the shadow of the First World War at Harvard University around 1915.  In any event, he never let go of the idea after leaving Harvard.  Although experiencing several farming failures, my grandfather served as a postmaster general and small town newspaper editor for about 40 years.  He also helped to found a couple of small cooperative ventures.  

Knowing that my grandfather talked about nothing else, I have often wanted to know more about collectivism, and especially how it relates, if it did relate at all, to communism.  For this reason, I was especially happy to find a novel by Upton Sinclair entitled, Co-op: A Novel of Living Together.  Of course, the idea of turning a dry economic or political idea into a novel seemed odd, but as it turns out, the novel reads relatively well, and gives one a wonderful picture of the "romance" of cooperatism, such as it was.  

In general, the novel suggests that cooperatism was a response to the economic dislocation that followed World War I and eventually reasserted itself in the Great Depression.  According to Sinclair, cooperatism was an extremely rational response to poverty,  unemployment, overabundance, and currency scarcity.  In his novel, the unemployed gather together to barter outside of the cash economy.  The coop was a nexus or alternative market for workers who lacked both cash and commercial employment.  Its internal politics were fundamentally democratic, and many  of its adherents professed to believe in some form of Socialism or communism.  However, the coop movement sidestepped traditional politics in order to avoid being quashed by the U.S. government and Big Business.  

Sinclair's novel is a paen to the virtues of cooperative living, which he suggests are a perfect mixture of realism and idealism.  To the modern eye, the economic system seems inherently unproductive, with coops avoiding monetary incentives and sharing bartered tools and goods whenever possible.  However, one can readily imagine how many Americans were ready to try something midway between Capitalism and Bolshevism in the 1930s.  

And what was the relationship between the American cooperative movement and the Russian Revolution?  According to Sinclair, the American bourgeoisie was always terrified by the prospect of Bolshevik Revolution, Civil War, expropriations, and economic chaos.  One of his wealthy characters does business with the coop precisely because he wants to make friends with Leftists in the event that there is a Russian-style revolution.  Better to do business with the coop than to be "shot in the cellar" later on.  

Upton Sinclair claims in his novel that California had over 200 coops in the 1930s, and that thousands of people worked for one of these coops in one way or the other.  Politically, coops were propped up by former Wobblies, radicals, liberals, syndicalists, reform-minded Christians, socialists, and communists.  Economically, they were fueled by people who found themselves excluded from the cash economy.  

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Ivan Turgenev's Smoke

 Although Smoke is a short and somewhat awkward blend of romanticism and cynicism, it's often very witty, and in places reminds me of Truman Capote's hilarious roman-a-clef, Answered Prayers, or even Ernest Hemingway's viciously entertaining A Movable Feast.  Set in the fashionable spa town of Baden-Baden, Smoke describes a twice-failed love affair, but sets that bitter romance against the backdrop of a debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles.  One of the best parts about the book is the specificity of its historical context.  Set in the 1860s, Turganev mentions every fashionable idea of the era, including Mesmerism,  spiritualism, liberalism, Polish nationalism, Italian nationalism, LaSalle's socialism, the American anti-slavery movement, serf emancipation, German unification, women's emancipation, worker protection laws, the Russian nationalities' quest for autonomy or independence. Whether or not one becomes invested in the protagonist's love affairs, one cannot help feel the excitement of the decade.  Having just emerged from the humiliation of the Crimean War, Russia was now experimenting with local government (Zemstvos), serf emancipation, land redemption plans, technological innovation, farming improvement schemes, and German philosophy.  And Russians were excited by foreign ideas and occurrences, as well as the British Crystal Palace, Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and news of submarine cables.  Of course, Russia was also entering into a bitter controversy over whether Russia would do better to adapt to European fashions, or double down on those things that made it unique.  Turgenev was clearly on the side of the Westernizers, but Smoke seems less concerned with the Westernizers' point of view than with the fact all Russians were caught up in a frenzy of clashing, and sometimes disorienting, ideas. But again, the book is somewhat awkward, because Turgenev's story of betrayed love doesn't really depend upon its setting.  In fact, the story would likely have worked in any era.

Favorite quotations

Everlastingly short of cash, and everlastingly in raptures over something, Rostislav Bambaev wandered, aimless but exclamatory, over the face of our long-suffering mother-earth.

"What is his work about?" inquired Litvinov.
"About everything, my dear boy, after the style of Buckle, you know...but more profound..more profound...Everything will be made clear."

"I never read novels now," was Madame Suhantchikov's dry and sharp reply.
"Because I have not the time now;  I have no thoughts now but for one thing, sewing-machines."

Fyodor Sologub's Bad Dreams

I did not finish Fyodor Sologub's Bad Dreams so I won't write very much about the book.  I only write to try to record a few fleeting impressions of his tone or style. The tone or style are particularly important insofar as the book contains descriptions and dialogue but little action, and few plot points.  Sologub was a turn-of-the-century writer, a product (or producer) of the Silver Age, and a Symbolist par excellence.  Today, at least in the English language, he seems primarily remembered as the author of The Petty Demon.  At any rate, the tone of Bad Dreams might be described as gloomy, melancholy, or depressive, if not also alienated and estranged.  The characters speak to one another, but don't seem overly hopeful that they will be understood by one another.  Individuals are isolated.  Login, the protagonist, "was enveloped in longstanding melancholy, the coldness of a life that was self-centered and dominated by chance.." The author's style is mysterious, or elliptical.  Indeed, Solugub reminds me of Platonov, although Platonov was not a part of the same literary school.  Solugub seems peculiarly modern insofar as he makes little effort to explain his meaning, or the meaning of his characters' conversations.  If the prose can be described as symbolist, it is because the author probably believes a conversation has a symbolic rather than purely logical or rational meaning.  The entire atmosphere might be characterized as dreamlike, or magical, and filled with "prophetic dreams, bells, candles, house-sprites, the evil eye..." The goal of life, if there is any goal, is to appreciate this magic.  In Login's dream a woman tell him this:  "Dear one," answered another voice," from the horrors of life there is one salvation--our love.  Do you hear?  The stars are laughing.  Do you see?  The blue waves are breaking on the silver starts. The waves are my heart, the stars are your eyes." The mystical nature of wisdom in Bad Dreams is beautiful, but also morbid.  As one character says:  "It would be sweet to die.  I have no no need of happiness.  Love, death--it's all one and the same.  To melt away quietly blissfully, to forget the phantoms of life--that is the heartfelt rapture of dying!"

Quotations From Fydor Sologub's Bad Dreams

Life seemed menacing;  premonitions oppressed him;  misfortunes lay in wait for him.

The housekeeper's sullen face, cratered with pock-marks, increased his melancholy. 

"Tell me," Login spoke up again after a brief silence, "what color does life seem to you, and how does it taste?"

"But why is life frightening?"
"It's too dead!  We don't live as  much as we play at living." 

The ancient elms bent down their branches as though they wanted to eavesdrop on this strange conversation.  But they were not listening and did not hear.  They had their own affairs.

"People, as they always were, are ready to gobble up each other.  But all of them are personally as flexible as willow switches.  Their man at least dares to be openly cruel."

"I looked intently into myself, and within I found the same ardent but impotent audacity of all human beings, and that same dreary question about the fate of our country..."

"Speaking frankly, old friend, our society still, thank God, is not ready for such things.  We have no use for communism and anarchy."

Andozersky waxed candid:  "You know, old friend, I'm getting married soon."
Login felt curious:  "To whom?"
"Right now, you see, it's still hard to say to whom exactly."

"In this nervous age no one has the strength to accomplish anything.  With the temperament of a disillusioned frog, how can we go in for adventures?"

"After all, I don't live between the covers of a book:  I've got a real flesh-and-blood body;  I'm young, high-spirited, nimble."

"..disipline is the first thing in life.  Our people couldn't get along without it."

P.A. Markov's The Soviet Theater

Like Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko's My Life in Theater, P.A. Markov's book, The Soviet Theater, was published in the middle of the 1930s, long after Stalin had consolidated his control of the country.  Unlike My Life in Theater, Markov's book is an unapologetic advertisement for the salutary impact of the Revolution on the Russian theater.  According to Markov, the Russian Revolution overhauled a deeply flawed Russian aesthetic tradition and paved the way for a marvelously improved theatrical experience.  Following a fairly strict line of Marxist analysis, Markov argues that pre-revolutionary theater was inappropriately consumed with the narrow concerns of small and privileged economic classes, namely, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.  According to Markov, the old theater was obsessed with irrelevant, purely personal, or distracting topics.  The old theater favored light comedy and sentimental drama, and focused on petty, personal, light, and sentimental issues.  After the Revolution, the Soviet theater gained gravitas but grounding itself in the broader and deeper political and economic concerns of the Russian masses. The Revolution widened the Soviet audience, both theoretically and practically, since the Soviet Union's institutional leadership now regularly sent Soviet trade union or Party delegations to attend ideologically mature performances. 

Although the Markov asserts that the new theater could assimilate the best of nineteenth century traditions, he believed that the new theater was endowed more serious, even didactic, purposes. The day of the private entrepreneur was over. The Revolution was creating new plays, with new and better heroes (i.e., shocker workers, Young Communists, scientists, collective farmers), and a more active audience.  Now, Revolutionary playwrights wrote about the following:  "The life of the Soviet intelligentsia, the revolutionized village, scientific institutions and factories, collective farms and administrative offices," etc.  Indeed, the Revolution even interpreted class plays in new ways, highlighting economic or political "contradictions" whenever necessary.  In fact, the new theater was organically linked to the proletariat and peasantry, since factory workers and collective farmers now regularly attended the theater, and actors now regularly toured factories and collective farms in the remotest corners of the Soviet Union.  The close connection between theatrical workers and the proletariat and collective farmer economy meant that the playwrights adopted better theatrical forms too, including vaudeville, propaganda poster plays, and musical comedies.

The Revolution ensured that theater now had a higher calling than it ever had before.  It was, Markov maintained, a link a "chain of production" that was creating a stronger, more modern country.  Echoing Stalin, the new playwrights were engineers of the soul, and were no longer permitted to serve the whims of rich individuals or indeed wealthy classes.  Of course, Markov also approved of state censorship or aesthetic direction. As he explained, the Commissariat of Enlightenment "does not permit the performance of plays, which are socially insignificant or harmful, and it insists the theaters in the correct interpretation of a play."

To conclude, Markov's book defends a highly politicized theatrical movement in the Soviet Union.  On the other hand, even Markov's commitment to the Revolution, and to Stalinism, doesn't prevent him from attempting to argue that the new theater could still accommodate diversity, including Meyerhold, the Moscow Art Theater, and Tolstoy. 

Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko's My Life in the Theatre

Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko was a revolutionary force in the Russian theater for several decades.  Although he wrote excellent plays, his role as a co-founder of the famous Moscow Art Theater, and producer of some of the best Russian and European playwrights of the first part of the twentieth century, brought him enduring fame in the history of the modern theater.  His book, My Life in the Russian Theater, first published in 1936,  outlines his artistic creed, but, owing to its dignified prose and gentlemanly anecdotes, seems a bit dated now.  The fact that Nemirovitch-Dantchenko wrote the book on the eve of Stalin's Great Terror could not have encouraged free artistic expression or personal honesty.  At any rate, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko explains the mechanics of his partnership with Constantin Stanislavsky, and also describes the origins of the Moscow Art Theater in great detail.  On aesthetics, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko describes his dissatisfaction with the nineteenth century intelligentsia's narrow interest in liberalism and social problems. He also explains his resentment for playwrights who created characters for the sake of their favorite actors and subscribed to a whole set of unrealistic theatrical conventions. He insisted that great plays arose from "
familiar life" rather than the "familiar stage." Nemirovich-Dantechenko also supported literary genius and the dignity of the stage.  He and Stanislavsky also opposed the idea that the audience rather than the producer were the proper masters of the aesthetic experience. For instance, the director and producer no longer permitted theatergoers to enter the play after it had begun.  He also describes his enthusiasm for Chekhov, who recognized the importance of the quotidian context of his characters, avoided the deus ex machina and external effects in general, and created truthful depictions of human struggles with mortality and meaning. 

Some quotes: 

Grigorovitch:  "He is not worthy of kissing the trail of the flea which has bitten Chekhov!"

Another Coryphaeaus of Russian literature, Boborikin, said that he gave himself the pleasure of reading every day, without fail, a tale of Chekhov's.

A certain writer said:  "Talent is necessary for the writing of a play, but genius for its production."