Thursday, September 24, 2020

Timothy Synder's On Tyranny

Although I thought I'd dislike this little book, thinking Synder might have put together a short list of democratic clich├ęs, I came to realize that Americans need a practical book like this to teach us that freedom isn't a purely abstract concept. Rather, it depends on everyday decisions made by plebeians like me.  In a sense, Synder's book is the counterpoint of Fitzpatrick's book, Everyday Stalinism.  His book might have just as easily been called Everyday Democracy. 

In fact, in the age of Trump and Putin, Synder's little book is long overdue.  While Synder doesn't have the space to incorporate too many historical analogies into this small book, his call to resist creeping authoritarianism in clearly grounded in the Soviet and Nazi pasts he explored so brilliants in Bloodlands and other books.  What, specifically, does Synder call us to do to defend our fragile liberties?  First, he asks us to think carefully before we surrender any freedoms.  Indeed, he actually believes citizens tend to give up freedoms in anticipation of upcoming threats from would-be dictators.  Second, he asks us to defend institutions, whether they be national, state, or local ones.  An ordinary citizen may not be able to support all institutions simultaneously, but if each of us would invest in a newspaper, a union, or a legal entity, the system itself will remain more resilient.  Third, Synder reminds us to resist any one-party solutions be proposed by participating in local, regional, and national elections.  Fourth, he asserts that we can defend the public sphere best by supporting vulnerable minorities and social groups.  Fifth, Synder insists that professional groups, and the ethical rules these groups uphold, are a vital bulwark against state power.  Sixth, Synder leverages historical experience to point out the dangers of paramilitaries and other forms of lawlessness.  The list continues, but generally calls upon citizens to support factual and investigative journalism, verifiable reality, honest political language, social connectivity, the sanctity of private life, skepticism of overblown state claims about the dangers of terrorism, panic-based politics, patriotism (as opposed to blind, xenophobic nationalism), etc. Most importantly, Synder asks us to beware of the "politics of inevitability" or the "politics of eternity."  Freedom can be defended, but it takes ordinary citizens (and not just heroes) to do so.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Marina Tsvetaeva's Poem of the End, etc.

As translated by Nina Kossman, Marina Tsvetaeva poems hold up relatively well in English. Below are a few favorite lines from them.



From on a Red Steed

No Muse, no Muse

Sang over my shabby

Cradle, or took me by the hand.



I clang--blare--clap,

I snarl, I shoot sparks.



An alliance of winds

Sweeps the big roads.


 

Poem of the End

In the sky, rustier than tin,

Is a lamppost like a finger.



In every eyelash, a challenge.



Sky of bad omens. 

Rust and tin.



This soundless kiss:  

The stupor of the lips.

Thus--empresses' hands are kissed,

Thus--dead men's hands...



(The exaggeration of life,

In the final hour.)


What yesterday was waist-high,

Suddenly reaches the stars.

(Exaggerated, that is: 

To its full height.)



Gypsy brotherhood--

This is where it led!

Like thunder on the head,

Or a naked blade,



My brother in sin,

My fever and fervor.

They dream of running away

The way you dream of home.



The water--a steely strip of it,

Deathly pale.

I stay with it like a singer

Sticks to the score;  like a blend-man


Sticks to the edge of a wall.



    The dead are faithful.

Yes, but not all in the same basket...

On my left side, death;  on my right--

You.  My right side seems dead.


Too much breaking, too much smoking,

But mainly too much conversation!

What's that smell?  The smell of haste,

Of connivance and petty sins,

Of business secrets

And ballroom powder.



Too much laughing, 

But mainly--too much calculation!



..The smell of business deals

And ballroom powder.



Too much stroking, too much groping

But mainly--too much squeezing.

(Yesterday's left-overs, 
But who minds the smell?)



The chain's too short?
At least it's platinum, not steel!

Their triple chins shaking,

Like calves they eat their

Veal.  




Love is flesh and blood, a flower

Steeped in its own blood.

Or did  you think love was 

A chat across the cafe table?


A quick hour, and then away?

Like all these gentlemen and ladies?

Love is...

    --Is it a temple?

Hardly, child;  it's a scar upon


A scar.  In full view of servants

And drunks.  (Soundlessly, I say,

"Love is a stretched 

Bowstring:  a partying shot.")



"And love is, above all, a shared

Bed."

    "Or did you want to say:

Abyss?"




Death--and no conditions!

--Life!--Like a Roman commander,

Surveying what's left of his

Troops.

    "Let's call it quit."


    (Silently: Listen.

Wanting is what bodies do, 

Now we are only souls.)



    (Courteous liar,

You hand your love

The bloodstained honor of parting


Like a bouquet.)  Say it clearly:  Syllable

By syllable.  "Let's call it quits,"

You said?  (Like a handkerchief

Dropped in a moment of sweet


Mischief...) In this battle you are 

Caesar. (What an insolent thrust:

To hand back to the opponent 

The sword he surrendered


As a trophy).





The shadow of money

In a shadow land.  Soundless,

These coins.  




It burns... As if my soul were torn

Away with the skin.  Like steam through a hole,

It vanished, that notorious silly heresy

Called the soul.


That Christian anemia!




Separation--it's not Russian talk.

Not women's, nor men's.


Nor God's.  What are we, sheep, 

Gaping at our dinner? 

Separation--in what language?

There's no sense in it,


Not a sound.  




Losing everything at once--

There's nothing neater.




Love is a seam.


A seam, not a sling;  a stitch, not a shield.

Oh, don't ask to be shielded!

The stitch by which the dead are sewn to the earth,

By which I'm switched to you.



Better to rip than unravel.



It's there, but not for us!

A stepmother, not a mother!



Ahhh, the game's lost,

Ladies and gentlemen!

Suburbs everywhere!

Where are the real cities?



Life is a place where no one can live:

The Jewish quarter...



Wouldn't it be a hundred times better

To become the Wandering Jew?

For anyone not scum

Life is a pogrom.



Expect no mercy

In this most Christian of worlds

All poets are yids.




Weep!  With others you'll recover

The dignity you lost with me.


We are fish of one

Sea.  An upward sweep!

..like a dead seashell,

Lips upon lips.




Attempts at a Room


I remember three walls,

I can't vouch for the fourth.



    Urgent wires

From everywhere and every when.




A portable chair of emptiness.)




The door--the threshold is sensitive to shoe soles!




The sheer wall of the Cheka,

A wall of dawns, of sunlit firing.


Squads of gestures more clear-cut than

In the shade--shot from behind, in the back.


What I can't understand: executions.

But leaving aide the torture-chamber theme,

The ceiling was definitely

Intact.  





        All of us, in that other world,

Will learn to walk upon

Emptiness. 


A floor is for feet...

How embedded man is, how rooted!

So it won't leak:  a ceiling.

Remember the ancient torture, one drop


Per hour?  A floor:  so that grass won't

Grow into the house, so earth won't enter---




Not a plasterer, nor a roofer

But a dream, a guard on wireless

Pathways:  A He meeting a She

In chasms underneath eyelids.





        The unsparkinling

Flood.  A room?  Mere surfaces.  



        After all, the desk is fed by

An elbow.  Elbow out along its inclines--

That will be your desk's deskless.



        Don't fret beforehand.

The chair will arise with the guest. 





Gestures serve me 

In psyche's hall.




In a child's stringed, inmost memory

Distance is hand luggage and a governance.



        (Distance is stylish).



He who built (dug) the corridors

Knew where to curve them--

To give the blood time

To turn the corner




To give the brain time

To assign seats,


For a rendezvous is--a location,

A signature--a calculation--a draft--




        Into time's farthest point:




Maybe the walls were go ne,

The ceiling definitely gave


a lurch.  In our moths only the vocative

Blossomed.   The floor was definitely a gap.


And seen through that gap--green as the Nile..

The ceiling was definitely adrift.



By a single dash is the poet held


Together....






New Year's Greetings

        We have blood ties

With the beyond.  Whoever had been to Russia

Has beheld that world in this.





Doubtless, I see poorly from my pit.

Doubtless, you see better from up there.


Irving Howe's Leon Trotsky

 I have a shelf of Leon Trotsky biographies so I was not in a hurry to read Irving Howe's small, yellowing, and seemingly dated biography.  However, Howe's book is a brilliant overview of Trotsky's life and theoretical contributions to Bolshevism and Marxist theory and practice.  In fact, this short book goes a long way toward explaining many of the fundamental mistakes of the Soviet experiment.  Perhaps Howe's greatest strength as an historian of the Soviet Union is his balanced approach to his subject matter.  He is deeply sympathetic to socialist project, and yet willing to critique almost every mistake Trotsky and other Bolshevik (and Menshevik) leader made.  

According to Howe, Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution was a genuinely important contribution to socialist thinking.  It essentially predicated the course of events in post-revolutionary Russia by pointing out that a fragile working class would necessarily depend on ongoing, global revolution to avoid counterrevolution or degeneration.  On the other hand, Trotsky flipped sides on this question after the February Revolution, arguing that the Bolsheviks had every reason to overthrow the Provisional Government and even socialist democracy in the service of the working class.  Thus, Trotsky (who was of course not alone in this) ironically came to be responsible for working against the very theory he had once proposed, and would propose again once he had left power.  

Howe's Trotsky was a deeply ambivalent figure.   He was in a sense a deeply divided thinker.  On the one hand, he produced relatively sensitive works that advocated for some level of social  and intellectual plurality.  Literature and Revolution is a case in point.  Trotsky admitted here that Proletarian culture was not yet rich enough to afford Russia or the world with a rich literary culture. In fact, Trotsky believed that the Russian Revolution would eventually mean that the Proletariat, qua class, should wither away.  When workers created enough wealth, they would have ample opportunity to stop behaving as workers.  They would have enough leisure time to produce worthy literary and artistic creations.  Until then, Russian workers should appreciate the great bourgeois works of the  previous century.   On the other hand, Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism celebrates authoritarianism, and defends the Bolshevik's rather outrageous claim that the Party could fully represent Russia's workers.  

In the end, Howe agrees with the Menshevik position that Russia was not yet ready for a socialist revolution.  Like the Mensheviks who seemingly abandoned the field of combat, Howe thinks Stalinism was the almost inevitable result of the Bolsheviks' decision to prematurely eliminate both the bourgeois parties and competing socialist parties from political life.  Indeed, Howe believes that once Lenin and Trotsky convinced their reluctant comrades to take power, the Party was doomed to rely on ever increasing levels of compulsion and terror to maintain their fragile grip on power.  


 

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.
"Why?"
"Because I have not the time now;  I have no thoughts now but for one thing, sewing-machines."