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.

Three Recent Television Portrayals of Catherine the Great

The new, four-part Catherine the Great series on HBO is magnificent. Of course, Helen Mirren deserves most of the credit for the series' dramatic power.  She brilliantly combines Catherine's political savvy with her desire to love and be loved.  The plot of the miniseries focuses on Catherine's relationship with Potemkin, although Orlov and several other lovers are roles to play.  The show is also notable for its beautiful architectural settings and historical customs.  Overall, the point it makes is that Catherine was a sophisticated despot who sought love but never let her personal feelings interfere with her decision to rule Russia alone.  The series gives us glimpses of the Russian state's victory over Pugachev as well as Potemkin's victory in the Crimea.  But the dramatic focus remains on Catherine's relationship with the men around her, including the heir.  Here we see that Catherine, like Elizabeth before her, usually put her political relationship with her son above her maternal one.  

The most recent Russian version of Catherine the Great, entitled Ekaterina:  the Rise of Catherine the Great, is also worth watching.  Now in it's third season, Ekaterina spends a great deal of time on Catherine's young adulthood.  The leading actress, Marina Alexandrova, probably is extraordinarily charismatic, and redolent of the leading actress who played Anne Boleyn so convincingly in the Tutors.  Although this series often veers toward melodrama, it gets Catherine's complicated relationship with both her naive mother and her cynical mother-in-law right.  For years, Catherine worked hard to stay in Elizabeth's good graces. Simultaneously, she seems to have been studying for the position of Russian autocrat.  Most interestingly, this Catherine the Great series allows us to see Catherine's often pathetic husband, Peter III, in a sympathetic light.  Although Peter was immature, Russo-phobic, absurdly militaristic, and politically inept, he was a sensitive musician caught in an almost impossible dilemma.  Despised by his mother, Peter III grew up tense and nervous.  In any case, the film shows all three characters--Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter III--as complex figures caught up in complex political machinations.  

A third version of Catherine the Great was filmed in 2015.  Although this series is clumsier than the other two, it also seems to offer insight into some of personal dynamics that defined Catherine's rise to power.  Elizabeth is particularly well portrayed in this film.  For this view of the dominant force in Catherine's early life in Russia, this series is also well worth watching.  

Monday, October 7, 2019

Quotes from Maxim Osipov's Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories

Quotes from Maxim Osipov's Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories

Life in the Country

He's falling all over me:  vodka, sweat, tobacco--there, enjoy, breath it in!  People ought to maintain a certain distance from one another.  Like in America.

Here nobody has any secrets.  Just like in heaven.

Where did all the bright people go?  When we were young there were enough of them around.  What, did they all emigrate?


The world doesn't break, no matter what you throw at it.  That's just how it's built.

To deliver man from his neighbors--isn't that the point of progress?

"Don't think about them," he says. "Killers--they're just your average people."

Yes, she taught Russian literature at a university in Khujand, but only for a while.
"But who needs Russian literature there?"  the officer ask, puzzled. "They're all..." He had wanted to say Asiatics.
No one needs it--Ruhshona couldn't agree more. Totally useless.

Polite, smartly dressed, with friendly gray eyes, he asks me to tell him about myself.
What's to tell?  I don't drink, don't smoke.  I have a driver's license.

"Our office," says Victor, "is one big family.  Anyhow fails to understand that will be fired."


"What's happening here is a particular kind of negative selection.  You won't find a humane copy within the existing system."

"The competition was settling scores," the young man agrees.  "It was a contract job."
"But why try so hard if it's only a contract?"
"For the soul's delight.  I'm telling you, cops aren't human."


The place could be anywhere with its own kind of appeal--particularly Central Russia.  You can fall for this place just as easily as a woman can fall for a loser.

There's no easier pastime than bad-mouthing the church.  Much like bad-mouthing Dostoevsky:  it's true, of course, all true, but it also missed the point.  The church is a thing of wonder, Dostoevsky is a thing of wonder, and the fact that we Russians are still here--that, too, is a thing of wonder.

But where Moscow doesn't believe in tears, as they say, around here tears are the only things we do believe in.  When the need is great, we make an exception.  It's ugly--we shouldn't allow ourselves to be touched by it--but this happy-go-lucky collective deceit unites the nation just as well as any good law.

..the water for tea is only lukewarm, and possibly not boiled at all.
"Just like the goddamned Soviet Union," mutters Tolya.

They're beating him with their black truncheons and they're beating him with their fists.  This is how we in Russia treat delirium tremens--not, we have to admit, the most uncommon ailments.

"It's horrible!  I do not--I absolutely do not--want to go on living in this country!"

"Why not leave," the girl puts in, "before you get beaten up?  A normal person shouldn't have to live here."

It's beautiful here; a joyless, Central Russian sort of beauty.  If you ignore everything man-made, it's very beautiful indeed.

"You a real Russian?"
"Yes," I replied, "I'm Russian."
"So what do you need all these things, all this order for?"

Once there has been Socialism, and Ksenia had done her duty, believing and not believing, like everyone else.

The rich, as they say, have their quirks:  the boss, for instance, plays the piano.  Nothing wrong with that.  In America, people take lessons at seventy, but here--well, we're not used to it.

"And the Soviet Union, for those who lived in it then, represented just that--the whole world. So.."
"That's a stretch, Yevgeny Lvovich.  Many people still remembered Europe."

He runs through the countries he's visited and tanks them according to quality of life: Protestant, Catholic, and, in last place, here.

To be frank, it's a country of fools.  Yevgeny Lvovich would add:  "And saints."

"He's been to the Italian countryside, to the Netherlands...Is there any comparison?  Hard to be a patriot.  Yevgeny Lvovich, almost impossible.


The boss likes to survey his surroundings through a pair of binoculars.  In his free time, when he's not occupied through a pair of binoculars.

Women appeared in his life like targets on a shooting range, immediately taking up all his attention--for a short while, but all of it.  After hitting the target, so to speak, he would keep up the relationship very briefly, then break it off.  So it went, as it should go.

There's a crow near the conservatory that smokes.  It grabs lit cigarettes out of people's mouths and smokes.  This is no urban legend--he has seen it with his own eyes, on the day he first met Lora.  In fact, the crow brought them together.

"Sofushka, dear mother, help me find a cheap apartment, already renovated,.  With all the proper paperwork."

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Svetlana Alexievich's Last Witness

Svetlana Alexievich's latest book to be translated into English, Last Witness:  An Oral History of the Children of World War II, is perhaps her most powerful one.  The subject of the book, memories of the Great Patriotic War, is perfectly suited to oral history.  By asking aging adults what they remember of the war, we get at the very heart of this immense twentieth century tragedy.  We are introduced to countless children who were robbed of their innocence. We note how these children's bitter memories of starvation, bombings, hangings, deportations, and other atrocities, remained with them for their entire lives.  As in her other books, Alexievich seems to find ways to get her subjects to describe horrors poetically.  As she says in the introduction to Secondhand Time, she is knows that there is something literary even in the midst of everyday speech. 

What do we learn about Russia's experience in the Second World War?  We learn that many Russians were completely unprepared for the invasion despite the fact that they had been repeatedly exposed to militarism in their youth culture.  So although almost all young Soviets had sang war songs, celebrated the lives of pilots, and participated in formal or informal war games, none had any idea how horrible true war was going to be.  We learn also that World War II was a war of civilians.  Indeed, children were exposed to both the relatively impersonal terror of  nightly aircraft bombings and to the incredibly personal violence of German allegedly anti-partisan reprisals against civilian centers.

Of course, many or even most of Alexievich's "last witnesses" don't claim to remember events objectively, or in detail.  Even so, their testimony often seems more valid than that of any soldiers or other adults.  For children seem to remember only the essence of war:  its brutality, abruptness, and cruelty.  Most children grew up to remember the war in the context of an abrupt change in their relationship to their parents.  Often, the war robbed a child of one or more of their parents, if not their whole family, or the whole village.  At the very least, most children lost a father for the length of time that father served at the front.  More often, their fathers (and sometimes mothers) died at the front or in partisan warfare, disappearing altogether from their lives. 

Alexievich's book is a good attempt to tell the story of World War II from a new perspective.  And why shouldn't we ask whether children didn't see something the rest of the adults missed at the time? The book reminds us of many child-specific acts of violence.  For instance, the book tells countless stories of Germans literally taking children's blood for their own purposes even as their victims starved to death. The book is also a story about memory:  World War II was a series of events, but it was also a lasting memory.  History and memory are certainly related, but they are not identical.  Alexievich's book is also a work of poetry.  More often than not, almost all of her subjects have managed to say something highly creative about one of the worst experiences of their lives.  And strangely, even the most gruesome of these childhood memories includes some element of beautiful about humankind.  Sometimes the child merely remembers an act of sacrifice he or she witnessed. Sometimes a child remembers his or her love for a parent.  But almost always, the child's oral testimony says something about the ability of humans to find something meaningful even in the worst event of their lives. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Leonid Dobychin's Encounters with Lise and Other Stories

Leonid Dobychin's brilliant short stories offer richly illustrative descriptions of life in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.  They point out that Soviet citizens suffered from food shortages, food rationing, and food queues, as well as a lack of electricity and other basic services. They point to a culture of violence, social tensions, and disorder.  They show a society plagued by prostitutes, internal refugees, and disgruntled former soldiers`.  Indeed, Dobychin's prose exposes so many social ills it's a minor miracle that Soviet authorities allowed any of them to be published.

As in his other works, Dobychin style is elliptical. As Richard Bordan's introduction makes clear, Dobychin provides readers with cinematographic treatment of his characters and settings rather than sustained reflection or analysis.  Nevertheless, the characters' actions and dialogue provide strong evidence that post-revolutionary Russian society was deeply unstable, insecure, and vertiginous. Although the stories demonstrate the extent to which the Soviet regime had already overturned traditional Russian mores, they also show that Russians--and especially Russian peasants--remembered the Old Regime and even missed aspects of that regime.  In other words, while the Soviet government had won the Civil War, Soviet citizens missed concrete reminders of the Old Regime, including Tsarist buildings, as well as Old World values, including Christian ones.  Revolution therefore complicates the way many people view the relationship of the past to the present. So although Dobychin documents varied ways in which Soviet authorities tried to articulate the value of revolutionary reforms, the ostentatious of this propaganda testifies to the new bureaucracy's deep insecurity about the permanence of revolution. In other words, why was the government constantly spreading propaganda, renaming pre-revolutionary places, espousing rigid slogans, and inventing new Soviet words, if it wasn't so worried about the possibility of a successful counterrevolution? 

Dobychin also hints at the superficiality of revolutionary change by his mode of describing revolutionary change externally rather than internally.  By avoiding any discussion of complex internal changes among his characters, readers are left to believe that revolutionary change may really only be a matter of renamed things and places (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Garden, Victims Square, the October Club), new fashions (red neckties), new political terms (purges, collective farms, unions, district congresses, delegates), neologisms (Phys-Culture), etc.

Some quotations are below


"Haven't heard of any impending change of regime, have you?" asked Zolotukhina languidly, holding out her hand.


"Ah," he sighed, "the old days won't be back again."


"Under the guidance of the Communist Party, we'll aid the workers of Red Leningrad!"

"life without labor," had been written over the stage in the filling works' theater, "is theft, and without art is barbarism." 

"Damnation to you," he was painting a sign, "Mister Trotsky." 

"Away with Pessimism and Unbelief," said a little placard she was carrying;  'Poincare, take that in the kisser,' a flag flutter over her.


"Not a miracle, but science," he elucidated.  "There are no miracles."


"There's an article by Fishkina:  'Don't abuse portraits of the leaders.'"

They removed from offices the banners and garlands of colored paper:  "Imperialist predators tormenting China!  Get your filthy-bloody hands off a great oppressed nation!"

Favorite quotations

"After all, I'm not against the lowest classes.  I'm prepared to sympathize."

The court sentences the conspirators to capital punishment and petitions for its commutations to strict isolation:  Soviet power does not take vengeance. 

"Comrade Gusev brought to a near-resolution the tasks confronting the Party." 

They turned this way and that.  Behind was a cemetery, to the right--reformatory, in front--barracks.

"I made her an insulting proposition," heard Petrov, "she didn't consent." 

He was undergoing treatment for love, and a doctor examined him.

"You're an alien element," Prokhorova said, "but I like you." 

In the theater, as always, there was shooting. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Robert Alexander and Richard Lourie

Fictional treatments of historical actors and events can supplement our overall understanding of the past. Robert Alexander's book, Rasputin's Daughter, and Richard Lourie's book, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin, are two cases in point.  If Douglas Smith's new biography of Rasputin leaves little to be desired, Alexander's short work of historical fiction concisely describes the way in which someone could view the "mad monk" both sympathetically and unsympathetically for some of the same personality traits.  For Alexander's daughter admires her father's charisma, generosity, and devoutness, but also detests his hypocrisy, sensuality, and crassness.  The fictional approach to the man allows us to see how the man could become invaluable to the empress even as he was despised by so many ordinary (and aristocratic) Russians.  

An even better work of fiction, Lourie's The Autobiography of Stalin helps readers to cut through the mountains of research on the man to understand the man's defining character traits.  Of course, on some level everyone familiar with twentieth century Russian history must know that Stalin was cynical, cold-hearted, and malicious.  But a book like this helps one to imagine how this villain might have (even must have) understood his world. A book like this helps us to resolve some paradoxes about this man who seems to have combined real elements of insanity with an uncanny ability to view the world realistically, even dispassionately.  One of Lourie's most interesting insights into Stalin is that he probably took Trotsky extremely seriously. While it's easy to believe Stalin used the myth of Trotsky as a tool to destroy his enemies, if we actually believe that Stalin was worried about Trotsky we might better understand the bizarre way in which he attacked his enemies.  Why did he blame so much on one man, namely Trotsky?  The novel suggests that Stalin's psychopathic side could work in tandem with his realistic side.  He could enjoy hounding a hated man and his followers to their deaths even as he used this sadistic enterprise to reinforce his position.  Lourie's Stalin is fascinating most of all for his ability to blend realism with monomaniacal adventurism.   


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Sergei Dovlatov's Novel, Ours

I'm a bit schizophrenic about Sergei Dovlatov.  I was thrilled with his memoir about his time as a prison guard, The Zone, which I found to be both insightful and painfully observant, but disliked his short novel, Pushkin Hills, which I seemed somewhat affected to me.  To resolve my uncertainty about the Dovlatov's literary quality, I'm resolved to work my way through his other works.  Today, I'll discuss his short book of biographical sketches about the members of his family.  Like The Zone, the memoir of family remembrances, Ours, seems to be both trenchant and acutely attentive to the traits and characteristics that make each of his family members unique.  It also gives the reader an overall portrait of the experience of a twentieth-century Russian family.  Dovlatov's family is not perhaps an ordinary one.  The family are firmly entrenched in the Russian intelligentsia and much generally very literary and/or artistic. Some were editors, others were actors or directors.  Most interestingly, Dovlatov shows us that members of the same Soviet family were capable of both embracing and rejecting Stalinism (and Soviet norms in general) at various times.  Indeed, often the same family member wavered in his support of the regime.  Witness the story of Dovlatov's uncle, who worshiped a long series of Soviet leaders, only to privately admit to his nephew (but only when he thought he was on his deathbed) that Soviet communism was a scam. Overall, Ours reinforces my impression that Dovlatov had a particular talent for non-fiction writing.  The individual tales are short, but profound, and often hilarious. And the form of his memoir is incredibly inventive. Somehow, reading a series of character sketches about the author's family members simultaneously gives one a sense of each individual family member, the collective family, the author's unique psyche, and, in some ways, the U.S.S.R. as a whole.

Favorite quotations from Ours 

Grandpa did not like disorder.  For that reason, he held a negative view of the Revolution.

"Begler Formich is a good man.  It's just a pity he waters his wine."

Perhaps the universe, such as it was, did not suit him.  I wonder, did it not suit him in its entirety, or just in certain details?

Tall and straight, he headed toward the market.  If anyone greeted him, he did not respond.

I was insulted very rarely, by the way, maybe three times in my entire life.  All three times were by my  uncle. 

"They say that marriages on the brink of divorce are the ones that last the longest."

"What an awful country!  I've been to America, to Israel.  I've been everywhere in Europe, but I would never got to Russia.  It's good for chess and ballet, but that's it. That and police action."

"Show me one good idea that exists outside of communism!"

A small portrait of Solzhenitsyn hung near the head of his bed.  He took it down whenever guests came. 

"I'm sick of living.  I don't believe communism can  be built in one country.  I've slid into the swamp of Trotskyism."

My father, on the one hand, felt great esteem for the Leader, though he was the one who had good reason to hate Stalin, especially since his father had been shot.

My mother and I lived in a revolting communal apartment.  The long, gloomy corridor led, metaphysically, to the toilet.  The wallpaper by the telephone was covered with doodles, leaving a depressing chronicle of the communal unconscious. 

As everyone knows, the only truth in our newspapers is in the misprints. 

He was an alcoholic journalist and, like many lushes, a man of blinding nobility of character.