Friday, January 17, 2020

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Days of the Turbins

Although Mikhail Bulgakov's reputation in twentieth century Russian letters is almost unparalleled, I have yet to fully connect with any of his works.  His Days of the Turbins is no exception.  To be sure, it's fascinating to read the play (based on the novella) that moved so many Russian communists to tears.  Bulgakov depicts history's losers, a family of White officers, as a group of largely brave bourgeois men and women who are almost trapped in an apartment in the midst of literal and metaphorical storms.  While the play lacks an compelling plot and convincing character development, it probably resonated communist audiences who felt guilt on some level about the fact that their Revolution, as necessary as it may have been, quashed so many of the values their countrymen had once cherished.  For although at least one of Bulgakov's characters turns out to be coward, most are chivalrous, witty, stoical, educated people, who surely represent something worth preserving.  So the play leaves no room for doubt that its romantic heroes are doomed, it does show them in a very positive light.  It also makes clear that the communists, and everything associated with the revolutionary movement, had much to regret.  The protagonists point out that their enemies, "the people," were capable of almost atrocity. They had rewarded Alexander II, the Great Reformer, with assassination.  The symbol of the counter-revolution might be Lariosik, who traveled with only one shirt, which served to wrap the collected works of Chekhov, the biographer of a dying class.  Overall, the play may not be great theater.  However, it is the perfect testimony to the anxiety associated with the end of an era, anxiety that both victors and vanquished must have shared, at least on some level.  What had happened to Russia?   What would happen?  As Nikolka asked:  "I wonder what the Bolsheviks look like?"

A few of my favorite quotations from the play are below:  

Elena:  But why isn't he here yet?
Alexei:  Well, obviously, they have had to wait at every station stop.
Nikolka:  Revolutionary travelling, Lenoshka.   You go an hour, you stop for two.  

Alexei: I don't understand, why did they send you off to the Inn?
Myshlaevsky:  Why the peasants are there at the Inn.  Those same damned God-bearers out of the works of Mr. Dostoyevsky.

Lariosik:  But I think I have one shirt here. I wrapped the collected works of Chekhov in it.

Nikolka: The whole division will be bivouacking with the angels.

 Shervinsky: As  Karl Marx said, money exists to be spent.

Shervisnky:  I'm so happy to see you!  It's been so long since I've seen you!
Elena:  If my memory doe not deceive me, you were here yesterday.
Shervisnky:  Ah, Elena Vasilievna, what is "yesterday" in times like these!

Elena:  The only good thing about you is your voice, and your vocation to be an opera singer.

Myshlaevsky:  Your glass.
Lariosik:  I...basically, I don't drink vodka.
Myshlaevsky:  Well of course--I don't either.  But one glass.   How can you eat herring without vodka?  I simply can't understand it. 

Lariosik:  Gentlemen, the cream-colored curtains...behind them you can rest  your soul...You forget about all the horrors of the Civil War. 

Alexei: We lost the war. Now we have something more terrifying than the war, than the Germans, than generally anything on earth--we have the Bolsheviks,

Alexei:  But now it's too late, now our officers have turned into cafe sitters.  A cafe army!

Shervinsky:  Gentlemen!  The news of His Imperial Majesty's death...
Myshlaevsky:  Is somewhat exaggerated.

Myshlaevsky:  Aloysha, can they be the people!  Why they're bandits.  A professional union of regicides. 

Shratt:  When there is a catastrophe, everyone becomes very nimble.

Myshlaevsky:  Enough!  I've been fighting since 1914. For what?  For the fatherland?  

Myshlaevsky:  I'm for the Bolsheviks, only against the Communists.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine

Frank Dikotter has provided the Chinese analog to Robert Conquest's classic treatment of the Soviet Famine of the 1930s, Harvest of Sorrow. Less sprawling than his equally insightful Cultural Revolution, Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958- 1962, provides readers with a well-researched analysis of one of the twentieth century's greatest disasters.  While Dikotter provides readers with a rich descriptions of the human costs of the famine, he also explains how the Chinese Communist Party, and Mao in particular, brought the tragedy about, or least severely deepened its impact on the Chinese peasantry. 

For students of Russian history, Dikotter begins his book with a careful political history of Mao's rupture with Soviet leaders, and Khrushchev in particular. In fact, Dikotter argues that Mao's refusal to play second fiddle to Khrushchev on the international stage contributed to China's ever worsening food crisis.  By insisting that his country could export grain to fellow socialist countries, and eventually forgo aid from Russia, Mao doomed China's peasants to unendurable levels of food scarcity.  The fact that Mao required starving peasants to help industrialize their country in the midst of agricultural chaos made matters worse. Of course, Dikotter's explanation of the causes of the famine is complex.  He argues that Mao made a series of tragic leadership mistakes, but also explains that collectivization was inherently flawed and deprived peasants of any incentive to produce food.  Overall, Dikotter's thesis seems to be twofold:  first, that Mao's philosophy of government was deeply immortal, and placed absolutely no value on even the minimum health requirements of the vast majority of China's citizens;  and second, that Communism in general produced an absurdly undemocratic and centralized system of government that provided ordinary men and women no opportunity to help themselves. 

To conclude, Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine can also be usefully compared with a new book on Communism's first famine, Douglas Smith's The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin.  Although Smith documents Lenin's repeated cynicism about the food security of his political opponents, one is struck by the fact that Russian Communists had not gone out of their way to starve large segments of their citizenry. In fact, this early famine was at least partly the result of a Civil War rather than misguided or criminal agricultural policies alone.  For Lenin did ultimately make a series of compromises that allowed Hoover and the American Relief Administration to feed millions of Russians.  By contrast, Stalin and Mao never considered even acknowledging the dimensions of the tragedy they had done so much to create.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Margarita Khemlin's Klotsvog

Margarita Khemlin's novel, Klotsvog, is a subtle portrayal of a complex heroine, Maya, who displays both positive traits, such as perseverance and self-confidence, and negative ones, such as selfishness and unfaithfulness.  Over the course of a long and difficult life, Maya's perseveres.  Like other Jewish Ukrainians, Maya grows up against the general background of devastation related to World War II. Her extended Jewish family has experienced both the war itself, and the holocaust, and now repeatedly encounters antisemitism in the post-War Soviet Union.  In fact, Soviet antisemitism is so pronounced that Maya's daughter somehow manages to develop a grammar school antisemitism that puts her at odds with her mother.

Maya's personality avoids easy categorization.  She is shrewd, but only modestly educated. In fact, her inordinate pride in her limited teacher training usually comes across insecurity.  Sometimes she accept the limits of her consciousness. For example, early in thee novel she writes hese days there are a lot of Brazilian and other television series, and everybody's knowledgeable about how things happen in life.  At that time, though, I had only  myself and my son Mishenka.

  She is often strong-willed, but doesn't always work outside the home, and often depends on men to move forward in life.  She is beautiful, but her beauty never quite translates into an easy life.  She has no doubt that she is Jewish, but often tries to overcome that fact.

Overall, Klotsvog's novelty is related to the fact that it tells a deeply personal story about a woman's life as daughter, mother, lover, wife, and worker, while simultaneously describing the historically conditioned life of a Jewish women living in the shadow of a specific historical catastrophe. Stylistically, Khemlin is at her best when she demonstrates the limits to her heroine's ability to understand her own life.  The awkwardness of her first-person prose illustrates her struggle to make sense of her place in the world.  For instance, she both acknowledges her attractiveness but wonders why she can't use that attractiveness to better advantage by stating:  "I was extraordinarily indignant that my situation didn't allow me to completely reveal my feminine essence." Elsewhere, she recognizes her Jewishness even as she tries to distance herself from the penalties of that birthright. "The problem of the future fate of the Jewish people--of which I was constituent part due to my birth--rattled me."  In this sentence and elsewhere, Maya accepts the awful idea that her particular people may have a dark "fate," but also tries to emphasize the fact that she only shares that fate by virtue of the accident of birth. 

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Margarita Khemlin's Klotsvog


I won't say my relations with Kutsenko were despicable from the beginning.


Love or no love, a woman should be with a man.

People lack the persistence to live.

It's extremely complex to get through to a consciousness fogged by alcoholism.

Why stir up what's unfixable?

Nothing in nature changes.  Unlike in a human.

Former husbands are capable of a lot.

He lost his mind.  And searching for an insane person is a nasty business.

There's not much space inside a person's psyche, though.

That's a law.  Coercion never leads to anything positive.

Yes, you never know what kind of cruelty to expect from children.

As an elderly person, I'm calm knowing that life is the exception and death is the rule.

The dead are living, too, in the great beyond.  And sometime it's unclear who has things better.


"The house is burning but but the clock still keeps


"I'm not inclined to baby talk here.  My family, they perished.  I'm alone, without kith or kin.  I save myself--though very badly--with jokes and banter.  I think it would've been easier if I'd perished with them."

"You know what, lass?  You could marry me.  I'm a person who's been through things and seen things.  And I'm not old yet, either.  You can't scare me with death and Siberia."


He repeated reliable sources from the highest circles, that the Soviet authorities weren't fascists after all and would only send certain people away.

..she read the Bible and knew a lot about Jews, but wasn't at all against her son living with me.

We used to play Beilis in the caves.  For old times' sake, you might say.

And don't pretend you don't understand.  Jewish words cost you nothing.  But oh, they could cost him so much.  But oh, they could cost him so much.  They could bring him death.

"You go first, they won't touch you, you don't look like a Jewess."

"And furthermore.  If you're going to pay attention to bad words directed at Jews, you'll have a hard time living."

He was taken.  They decided he'd been talking about some kind of Jewish clocks he was allegedly dreaming of inventing so they'd so they'd show the time properly to Jews.  But not to other Soviet people.

Ella show a glance at Mrik and ran off to her room.  Probably to write down new information about Jews.


He a good person and honest, it's just a bitchy woman landed in his life and completely broke him.

Blyuma burst out sobbing.  Very unattractively too.

Of course there could be no talk about love here.  This was the usual male impermanence.

As a mother and a wife, I constantly thought about the hard times that slyly lay in wait.


I talked with the kindergarten teacher, with prophylactic goals.

As for his antics, that's not important. We'll let that stay with me.  You're not a doctor to discuss it, but after all, I'm a pedagogue.


I was forced to leave my job, again so as not to cultivate nepotism.


Figures with zeroes spun in my head.  It seemed like the zeroes were always throwing themselves at my neck and suffocating me.

Of course you can't keep secrets in a communal apartment.

And he started laughing.  He started laughing in a bad way, without the right zeal, as if he had to.

And everything would have been good other than, naturally, Fima's behavior.  He systematically pestered me with conversations about his family that perished.

Fima opened the bottle like he wasn't hurrying, but his eyes were in a big rush.

I gave Ella a box on the ears with my forced ambivalence.  It's unclear how much that cost me.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Quotes from Vladislav Khodasevich's Necropolis

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Vladislav Khodasevich's Necropolis, as translated by Sarah Vitali


Her gift for literature wasn't great.  Her gift for living was immeasurably greater. 


Later, looking back on the young Bryusov, I realized that the actuity of his poetry from this period lay precisely in that combination of decadent exoticism with the most artless of Muscovite petty bourgeois attitudes.

The concept of quality was entirely foreign to Bryusov.

He had a remarkable way of offering his hand.  It was a strange operation. 

In general, he somehow managed to combine an elegant (albeit formal) politeness with a love for dressing-down, discipline, and intimidation.

His appearance were always arranged in theatrical style.  He wouldn't respond yet or no to any invitation, but would leave the inviter to wait and hope.

Perhaps he really did respect love.  But he did not notice his lovers.

He loved literature, only literature.  He loved himself, too, only for literature's sake. 

He had a passionate, unnatural love for serving on committees--and he loved being a chairman even more.

He was an anti-Semite. 

Bryusov despised democracy.

This is why he was a monarchist in the time of Nicholas II.

It was only in the summer of 1918, after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the beginning of the Terror, that he perked up a bit and declared himself a Communist.

He "served" and "oversaw" with all his might. 

He distanced himself from the literary scene even more sharply than the literary scene distanced itself from him. 


He imaged supernatural provocateurs lurking behind every member of the police force, from the department head to the custodian. 

He lived through War Communism the way all of us did, in sickness and in want.

As it turned out, neither Dr. Steiner nor his entourage had any intention whatsoever of getting involved with anything as transient and trivial as Russia.

He moved to the city that autumn--and all of Russian Berlin bore cruel and curious witness to his hysteria. 

There had been no disparate scenes.  Instead, what happened was the bitterest thing imaginable:  they had simply been bored in each other's company.


"Russia won't be saved by verse
and might not manage the reverse."

In addition to its obvious, primary meaning, each event took on a secondary meaning that had to be deciphered.

Another time,, we were walking along Tveskaya Street.  Muni was saying that there were moments in which he was able to predict the future with complete accuracy.  But this talent only applied to trivial events.

We were with V.F. Akhrmovich, who went on to become a zealous Communist.  At the time, he was a zealous Catholic. 

He donned his blue glasses "so as not to see more than was necessary"..

Muni wasn't lazy.  But he didn't know how to work.

And then he would start in on his analysis, which would be detailed, extensive, and decimating. 


Blok was always a poet, every moment of his life.  Gumilyov was only a poet while he was writing verses. 

His entire appearance says, "Nothing has happened.  Revolution?  Never heard of it."

First and foremost, he noted that, up until that point, stupidity had been given a bad reputation;  poets had unfairly shunned it.  The time had come for stupidity to have its own voice in literature. Stupidity is a natural quality, just like intelligence is.  It can be developed, cultivated. 

Finally, he welcomed the introduction of blatant stupidity into the Poets' Guild in the person of Neldikhen. 

He expresses his stupidity with a talent that lies beyond the reach of many intelligent people. 

But what did he actually die of?  No one knows.  He somehow died "in general":  because he was sick all over, because he could no longer go on living.  He died of death.


Thus began Gershenzon's scholarly career and his poverty.


...there is a crease above the bridge of his nose and his eyes are half-closed.  When he opens them, their expression can best be conveyed by the question:  "Oh, do you still exist?"


For Esenin, the borderlands were not, of course, Russia.  Russia was Rus', and Rus' was the village.

Were up to our necks in capitalists because the kikes (pardon me, you aren't a Jew  yourself, are you?" want to topple the tsar and then take control of all of Christian Rus.

Russia is a muzhik country.  Anything in her that is not by and for the muzhik is scum and must be scraped away. 

In his autobiography, he writes:  "I have never belonged to the CPSU because I consider myself to be far more left-wing."

They went through periods of fervent belief and periods of fervent blasphemy.  They visited prostitutes to preach the Revolution--and beat them after they were done.

He decided to make a spectacle of himself--and artlessly made the poetess the following offer:  "Would you like to see how people are executed?  I can arrange the whole thing for you with Blyumkin in a matter of minutes."

Esenin was dragged into imaginism just as he might have been dragged to the tavern. 

It is as if there is some enormous, precious truth that binds together all these errors. 


The year seventeen knocked us senseless.  It is as if we had forgotten that revolution does not always come from below, but that it can come from the very top as well.


As we parted ways, Valery Yakovlevich said, "In time, someone will make a thorough examination of these spiritual forces and, perhaps, will even find a technological application for them, as they did with steam and electricity.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Khodasevich's Necropolis

Columbia University's Russian Library continues to deliver first-rate translations of important but neglected Russian classics.  In this case, Sarah Vitali has translated Vladislav Khodasevich's collection of biographical sketches of Silver Age giants.  Khodasevich's insightful essays remind me of the equally insightful essays that make up Marina Tsvtaeva's Earthly Signs.  In both cases, the poet seems to produce something better than ordinary prose.  In both cases, the poet seems to be able to analyze both people from multiple perspectives.  While not a student of poetry, my experience with Tsvataeva and Khodasevich's prose suggests that great poetry must usually involve both prodigious amount of logic and the ability to view a single person or phenomenon from a multiplicity of perspectives.  In any case, Necropolis and Earthly Signs go well together.  Necropolis focuses on the  life of writers and poets before World War I, it necessarily describes their experiences in World War I and their deaths between the wars.  By contrast, Earthly Signs focuses on the the experience of writers and poets in War, Revolution, Civil War, and War Communism.  Khodasevich's menagerie of writers includes Bryusov, Bely, Muni, Gumilyov, Blok, Gershenzon, Sologub, Esenin, and Gorky.  Each essay is better than the next.  Khodasevich is usually sympathetic, but sometimes caustic, and often satirical.  And the best part of Necropolis is that the whole is better than the sum of its parts.  That is to say, we conclude the book with a much deeper appreciation for the Silver Age, with all its triumphs and absurdities.  We come to understand that these poets, writers, and aesthetes were extremely talented, but that their approach to art had some serious limitations.  Indeed, Khodasevich argues that in the absence of a moral or intellectual sensibility, the search for experience wasn't quite enough to drive art far enough in any particular direction to make a lasting impact on the future of Russian or European art. 

Dostoyevski's Poor People

I'm rereading one my gateway novels into Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.  The novel is more feverish and introspective than I recalled it.  It also seems to portray a protagonist who is not at all certain whether or not he hopes to avoid detection.  Perhaps the issue is that I'm reading Oliver Ready's relatively new translation of the book, and the new translation reveals Raskolnikov's ambivalence than previous translations. Or perhaps the issue is that I haven't read Crime and Punishment for over twenty-five years.  In truth, prior to picking up this translation, the only thing I remembered about the book was that it was suspenseful, had terrific denouement (but not-so-terrific epilogue) and made you feel as if you had personally committed the crime and were in danger of being discovered.  At any rate, the new translation comes with excellent end notes.

One Dostoevsky book I hadn't read up until this year was his early epistolary novel, Poor People. This book doesn't quite reveal Dostoevsky's mature genius, but neither does it fail to reveal Dostoevsky's trademark masochism.  For while the book can read like a work of social realism, it also pushes past social realism into grotesque absurdity.  At first, the male protagonist, Makar Devushkin, seems to be in an ordinary predicament: like many of St. Petersburg's underclass, he can't really afford his modest St. lifestyle.  He lives in a crowded tenement, and works unusually long hours just to make ends meet.  Over time, the protagonist's life falls apart.  He's too poor to keep his clothes from disintegrating, too poor to maintain even a reasonably presentable wardrobe.  A porter puts it this way:  the protagonist shouldn't brush his coat for the filthy garment would only spoil the brush.  In the end, the hero's life can hardly be seen as anything other than comic.  He throws away his small salary on presents for his much younger friend, distant cousin, neighbor, and probable love interest.  He worships his wealthy employer.  He works ever-longer hours.   Meanwhile, his friend. Varvara Dobroselova, also falls into catastrophe and is forced to marry a not-so-good older man in an arrangement that looks remarkable similar to prostitution.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War

Catherine Merridale's book, Ivan's War:  Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, represents a very important contribution to the historiography of the Soviet Union's participation in World War II.  Unlike most other books on the subject, the book depicts perhaps the most destructive military event of modern history from the bottom up.  Rather than spend time analyzing the decisions of Stalin and other politburo members, or the actions of Soviet generals and diplomats, Merridale helps her readers to understand how ordinary Soviet soldiers lived through the war and experienced its trials and triumphs.  Merridale deserves a great deal of credit of moving our understanding of the war away from jingoistic accounts of Soviet military heroism and toward a more nuanced understanding of the horrors of war.  In particular, Merridale does not shy away from discussing the fact that so many Soviet soldiers helped to terrorize the women of Germany and other conquered countries in Eastern and Central Europe.  If Merridale deserves any criticism, it is only that her subject is too vast for a single book.  After all, it's difficult to maintain a general narrative of the war's many phases while also striving to cover so many different aspects of the soldiers' everyday lives.  And one also can't help but think that Svetlana Alexievich's two oral histories of World War get more directly at the lived experience of Russians in the war.  Without the overarching narrative, Alexievich gets even closer to the psychological realities of life at the front. But of course, Merridale is dealing with the whole of the Soviet soldiery, and Alexievich tries to find out something unique about Russian women and Russian children experienced the trauma of war.  Another of Merridale's books, Night of Stone:  Death and Memory in the Twentieth-Century Russia, would seem to be the natural bookend to Merridale's overall "argument" about the war's impact on Russians, both at the time, and over time.