Friday, October 30, 2009

Perfectly Perfect

Sue Lyon

The most interesting debate about Lolita is between the aetheticists who think the book has nothing to do with sex and molestation, but with poetry and butterflies, and those who think there is a connection with the real world in his book, however much Nabokov might want to deny it. Nabokov always insisted great novels have no relation to the social milieu that produce them, that they are a pure concoction of the writer's imagination. In Lolita, according to this view, the idea is to mock the reader who is so swept up in moralism and titillation that he fails to see the pathos of Mrs. Haze, the vulnerability of Lolita, and the humanity of the dozens of others characters, including Humbert himself, despite his moral monstrosity. The main vehicle for this critique of the reader is the elaborate series of Quilty-clues spread throughout the book; those who fail to pick up on the identity of Humbert's tormentor are chided as bad readers by Humbert himself late in the book. So the novel is a great fairy tale; whatever horrors are inflicted on Lolita are merely effects, like the plan to bake the children alive in Hansel and Gretel.

To me this reading was always reinforced by my distaste for the rash of novels in the 80s and 90s with a molestation theme. Because it only happens to a minority, it didn't seem to justify the attention. Of course, many novels include some sort of violent death, something most of us will not experience. But we will all die, and so a killing is valuable as a metaphor and as a way to give shape (that is, endings) to a narrative. Since molestation is located in the past, it could never serve to represent human experience with the same universality as a killing. But it occurs to me now that we are all damaged in childhood in one way or another, so the molestation theme might serve as a dramatization of that fact, in the same way literary murders force us to grapple with the inevitability of endings.

This opens me to seeing the molestation theme in Lolita as real, not a ruse. When the Jeremy Irons version of the movie came out, James Wood made this point in the New York Review of Books. But Nabokov himself emphasizes in his Lectures on Literature that the writer is three things at once: storyteller, moralist, and enchanter. The enchanter is by far the most important, but he doesn't deny the other two functions. In this sense the novel does say something about the nature of predatory sexual behavior, as well as the absence of a sufficiently attentive aesthetic sense. It would be interesting to consider how Nabokov, given his distaste for Freud, would have explained the sexual elements of the Russian Revolution, in the way that Klaus Theweleit does for fascism in Male Fantasies.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Joy of Communism

Communists celebrate October Revolution anniversary

Walter Laqueur has to be one of the best commentators on the Soviet Union who ever lived. His The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union is a small masterpiece. Take the book’s essay, Age of Enthusiasm. Here Laqueur reminds us that modern readers can hardly recall that Communism once represented some of the noblest ambitions the human race had ever harbored. In fact, Laqueur says, Communism emerged victorious in Russia less for tactical or strategic reasons—though Lenin was surely a shrewd political genius who exploited the power vacuum that emerged during the World War I—and more for moral reasons.

The Bolsheviks triumphed because they had a strong moral case, much more compelling that the case of any of their adversaries. They promised Russians what they needed: “land, bread, and peace,” as well as equity, social reform, land redistribution, and so on. Once in power, the Party succeeded in energizing young people on an unprecedented scale. While it’s true that the Cheka and other organs of oppression silenced internal dissent, especially among the older generations who Laqueuer says were never won over to Bolshevism, the experiment in socialism was embraced—enthusiastically—by hundreds of thousands, even millions, of young Russians who can only be compared to religious converts.

Party workers sincerely and zealously believed in Communism. They accepted the argument that atheism could do more for Russian peasants than Christianity had done in the previous centuries. They believed in progress and hoped for a better economy and more just social order in the years to come. Their optimism and self-sacrifice was ideological. Most lived frugally and gained few material rewards for their hard work and modest circumstances.

Swept up in a great cause, young Communists often committed heinous crimes against the civilian population. But their faith in a socialist utopia was genuine. They believed, Laqueuer says, in the perfectibility of humankind. It’s hard to believe, but in the early years of the Soviet Union the Party declared—with some degree of sincerity—that it had put an end to mental disease and halted all crime. Absurdly ambitious industrial production and harvest goals were modest by comparison with some of these social claims. The enthusiasm of the new Communist cohorts was reinforced (but also embodied) by Soviet films, poetry, songs, and official propaganda. The enthusiasm was also undergirded by comparisons with a decadent West, which seemed to be collapsing under the weight of economic problems that many thought inherent to capitalism.

Eventually, Laqueur argues, Communism enthusiasm faded, replaced by the discipline, cynicism, and bureaucratization engendered by Stalin, the secret police, and a command economy. By the end of the 1930s, the “heroic age” of Communism had come to an end.

Sarah Palin is Closer to Russia Than You Are

UPI POY 2008 - Campaign 2008.

In an effort to motivate my damp squib of a co-blogger, I’m going to suggest some subjects for him to post on. I’d like to see him write about the following: Russian composers; Russian gamblers in Germany; Putin; Kasparov and chess; Russian gymnastics; Lolita; Kennan’s Trip Across Siberia and Travel Writing in General; The Revolution as revealed through metahistory; Ontology; Epistemology; Russian anarchism; Women’s History; Lynn Hunt and the Freudian take on Revolution; German perceptions of Russia; Obama and Russia; the Magnetic Mountain; Ten Days that Shook the World; Favorite Soviet Films; What Anthropologists Say About Revolution; Marx’s various works; German socialist leaders; Isaac Deutcher; Turgenev; Chekhov; Russian books you’d like to read and why; Russian geography; Midwest Farming perspectives on communism; Frankfurt School; What Gets Taught About Russia in Western History Survey Courses and Why; Hegemony; Gramsci; Cultural Studies; The Revolution’s impact on the so-called Third World; Communist values; Soviet oil; Herzen; Sarah Palin's proximity to Russia; etc.

What subjects will readers suggest for Nick Blabbermouth's consideration?

Read No History

Someone famous—I forget who but the enterprising reader can Google this—once said that you should read no history, only biography. I take that to mean a couple of different things. First, that biography is can be inherently more interesting than history, insofar as readers can relate more easily to the triumphs and tragedy of individual people than to the broad brush strokes of grand economic, political, social, and cultural processes that occur over long periods of time and overlap one another. Second, biography is in some ways more honest than history. Human beings are subjective creatures and life is experienced more than it is lived. That is to say, subjective experience may matter more than objective reality. Your life may or may not be easy or hard in relation to the lives of other people in America: yet how you feel about your life—your attitude about it, your personal propensity toward happiness or bitterness—is often more important than the objective or comparative reality of your situation.

The superiority of subjective over objective experience is debatable. What is not debatable is that there is a discrepancy between the general and the particular in history. For instance, America is in the midst of a severe recession. However, if one focuses on the lives of individual people rather than writing history, one might well find a subject whose individual life was one of economic success, a rapid ascendancy into a higher tax bracket, and indeed a move off unemployment and into the shrinking ranks of the fully employed.

In Russia, the paradox of biography and history is particularly unsettling. While you read about the millions of people who lost their lives to the Soviet police state, you know that many others prospered under it at any given time. Although workers as a class were oppressed under the Soviet dictatorship, many of them were given access to higher education and professional employment and ceased to be workers. Soviet history is so brutal and tragic, it’s hard to know whether or not to give any credence to the biographies of many Soviets who remained enthusiastic and supportive of Communism for a very long time.

One thinks of the death of Stalin, when, despite the fact that many in Russia must have secretly or at least silently hated the man, most Russians seemed to have mourned, shocked at the passing of a man they thought had embodied the virtues of the Revolution and had carried them safely through the German invasion.

La Vie en Rose

Years after the French Revolution had been quelled by the Bourbon restoration Talleyrand once asserted that no one who had not lived before the Revolution knew how sweet life could be. Talleyrand’s statement is ambiguous. As an aristocrat who miraculously survived the Revolution to serve both Napoleon and his opponent, King Louis XVIII, Talleyrand obviously understand how the Ancien Regime allowed the aristocracy to enjoy privileges that evaporated in the French Revolution and seemed nearly unbelievable to the generation that grew up in its wake, whether they supported the French dynasty, opposed it in favor of another, or opposed the very principle of monarchy.

Yet Talleyrand’s statement was also a product of nostalgia for a lost world. It represents the severity of the rupture that the Revolution represented in the life of the nation. Before the Revolution, the French people were subjects, both in the literal sense of being under the king’s authority, and in the more general sense of being victims of history. After the Revolution, the French became citizens, agents of fate, and makers of history.

Talleyrand’s remark about the break between the existential difference that separates pre and post-revolutionary eras is applicable to the Soviet Revolution. If you never lived before the Revolution, you didn’t know a certain variety of Russian greatness, symbolized by huge aristocratic estates (many kept up with cunning marriages to bourgeois families). These estates were built on the labor—the surplus value of labor—of thousands of Russian serfs or peasants. The estates represented everything good and bad about old Russia. They were architectural miracles, frequently any number of artistic and cultural enterprises, including gardening, musical performances, theatrical performances, and of course novel-writing. Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Bunin—all expressions of the sweetness of life before the Russian Revolution transformed everything.

The scene in Dr. Zhivago where formerly wealthy bourgeois see their home divided up by resettled workers in illustrative. Such scenes actually occurred. Masters shared their homes with former servants, hoping not to be denounced for demonstrating any unwarranted territorialism over their former possessions. Former bourgeois and aristocrats—a few who were formerly not so far from the Russian court—could be seen shoveling snow or performing other menial tasks to earn their bread.

Motel Love

What light does Nabokov’s Lolita shed on the importance of the Russian Revolution on modern American life? I’d say plenty. I see the vaguely European hero of that book as a Russian, much like the author, who is simultaneously startled by, and at home in, the American landscape. And what does Nabokov see in America? What does an exile from the Soviet experiment encounter here? I’d say he encounters a land of innocence, represented by the young woman his protagonist seduces, as well as her gullible mother.

America is a land of freedom too, where even a pedophile has access to highway anonymity and an endless string of cheap motels. To flip Talleyrand’s maxim on its head, Nabokov knew that nobody who had not lived through the Russian Revolution knew how wretched and vile life could be. Nabokov’s protagonist takes that vileness right into the heat of America, which is awaiting exploitation, betrayal, immorality, and disappointment.

If the reader feels that my grasp of this novel is weak, she is right: I’ve not read the book in many years. I can only say that this blog is centered on the small fragment of a novel or work of history that remain with you after you’ve put a book down for a month, year, or indeed decade. Sadly, it ain’t much…

The Wrong Kind of Exceptionalism

Rightly or wrong, one question historians of Russia perpetually ask is whether Russia was predestined to have a tyrannical government in the wake of absolutism—to wit, Stalinism and Communism in general—as a result of its unique historical development. This historical development, so the argument goes, was influenced by centuries of Mongol occupation and, consequently, unrestrained absolutism. And truly, nowhere else in Europe did monarchs reign with so much authority.

No political institution stood in the way of a Tsar’s decision. Prior to the Russian Revolution, and in stark contrast to England, France, Germany, and even Austria-Hungary, Russian society found itself without any real checks to the power of its autocrats. The Russian Orthodox Church had strong ties to the Czar, who appointed its official leaders and ensured that church officials throughout the Russian Empire supported his position in society and the ideology of autocracy.

Russia had no tradition of an independent press, and Tsarist officials censured oppositional propaganda or even suspect literature with little compunction. Likewise, the Tsarist regime had few rivals when it came to the reach and strength of both its internal security services and system of imprisonment and exile. Needless to say, Russia also lacked a national parliament of any kind, right up until the Revolution of 1905.

The argument of Russian exceptionalism was somewhat weakened by events in Germany, once considered a bastion of the Enlightenment. After the Holocaust, historians switched their focus away from Russia and toward Germany, to discover how and why brutality could flourish in 20th century Europe, the putative cradle of global civilization. Even so, historians retained suspicions of Russia, where serfdom had only been abandoned as late as the 1860s, which meant that at the time of the Revolution many adults had actually been serfs at one time in their lives. The argument seems Orientalist, to borrow a concept from Edward Said’s famous book, Orientalism, in that it seems to attribute all of the West’s biased and inaccurate assumptions of so-called Eastern despotism to its Eastern most member-state, Russia.

If the West was by nature civilized and free, Russia was by nature uncivilized and un-free, and so on. Moreover, many of the assumptions about Russia are rooted in the distant past and are thus far removed from any real examination of Russian society. Just as German racial policies under the NAZIS have more to do with scientific and instrumentalist and Enlightenment concepts gone horribly wrong, than with some primordial Hun instinct for savagery, so too is Stalinism more a product of modernity and the industrial revolution than they are a throwback to Ivan the Terrible or the Time of Troubles.

Yet books like Montefiore’s Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner forces us to at least consider the question of Russian exceptionalism. For although we know that Catherine the Great entertained various reform concepts, limited torture in her realm, and wrote directly to Voltaire and Diderot and Bentham, she was a despot only Russia could have produced. Although this isn’t Montefiore’s thesis, his readers will inevitably come across the construction of seemingly hundreds of palaces and estates, each more absurdly grand and extravagant than the next, some built and rebuilt according to the caprice of architectural fashions. One also sees that Catherine the Great gave huge estates, filled with thousands of enslaved serfs, to favorites on a regular basis throughout her long reign.

While Catherine fought war after war with the Ottoman Empire, she also possessed the power to invest in hundreds of enormous economic ventures, new cities, and major state building projects. The Court itself was extravagant and profligate beyond measure. We know from the poverty of Russia’s population that Catherine’s wealth was no true reflection of the economic power of her realm, but rather a reflection on Russian inequality and economic as well as political backwardness.

Potemkin’s own extraordinary economic and political power—a reflection on Catherine’s personal authority to do whatever she wished to do on whatever scale she proposed—shows how little restrained the autocracy was by ordinary considerations of scale, proportion, balance, realism, or popular opinion. Potemkin bought whatever he wished to buy and founded industries whenever he wished to do so. Whatever he admired in other countries, he imported—regardless of its cost or applicability to Russia.

Montefiore has a healthy admiration for Catherine and Potemkin’s genius, but the lasting impression of this book may be that the Russian system of autocracy—perhaps tempered by growing aristocratic influence—had dangerous implications for the future of Russia’s political maturation.

We're All Socialists Now

People today are cyborgs—half human, half communist. Notwithstanding the collapse of formal communism, socialism has changed people beyond recognition. We’re all socialists now.

We’re all utilitarians; We all believe in the greatest good for the greatest number of people, whenever possible. We all support progress. We all like the future. We’re all cosmopolitans. We all believe in brotherhood or sisterhood. We’re all feminists.

We want women to be doctors and lawyers. We’re all opposed to bigotry and anti-Semitism. We all support universal education, universal literacy, and free housing for everyone. We want everybody to have a job and a house. We support abortion rights; we support equality and social justice and anti-colonialism. We like hard work. We like workers. We want workers to get ahead in life.

We want the children of workers to have every opportunity, to become whatever they want to become. We love social mobility. We love the idea of a pig farmer becoming our political leader. We believe in the productive capacity of the industrial revolution. We love machines and technology and electricity and industrial power. We’re into engineers.

We want modernization at all costs. We like to plan, to map, to design, to create, and to build. We want to make things. We want to invent things. We want government to wither away once and for all. We’re against exploitation and lazy fat cats. We want solidarity, fraternity, and happiness. We want better, more meaningful art and literature and culture.

We hate fascism. We like fairness. We think people can get better and will get better. We think that men and women today are better than men and women of the past. They are stronger, smarter, and bigger. We like heroes. We believe that men and women who are born fifty years from now will be better than we are. They’ll be more rational, less emotional. We’ll look like troglodytes to our descendants.

We want our children to believe in something bigger and better than village or clan or tribe or race. We like community. We want utopia now.

Sevastopol in California

On a recent trip to the Bay Area I went looking for Russia. When you're in Northern California, you're in territory that was once explored, and claimed I believe, by Russia. How do you celebrate this trace of Russia in the contiguous 48? You visit Sevastopol, California (a let down--It's near Nappa but I had imagined the Crimea and the gorgeous Black Sea Coast) and you explore anarchist-collective book stores in Haight Ashbury with whole shelves devoted to Russian anarchists. (Yes, of course, I was offered weed soon after, and wouldn't have had it any other way).

At one other book store, I found cheap Russian novels, some no more than a dollar or two. As I approached the register, the young clerk smirked and said: Do you like Russia? I assumed he was making fun of me. Perhaps he was. But he and his co-worker professed a love for Russia. While we briefly discussed our favorite Russian authors, the co-worker dashed downstairs to pull out two rare books on the Soviet Union that were out of print, in her private collection, and definitely not for sale. The pictures here are those books, which looked terrific. Perhaps some day I'll find them for sale. Another customer laughed at the Russian insanity, but it was Friday night and I reminded him that it was Friday night and thus everybody in that line was a geek with no right to guffaw.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Spartacist Leaders

In hindsight, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that German socialism once seemed more important than Russian socialism. Even the Bolsheviks originally suspected that their revolt could only be justified if it triggered a larger revolution in the center of European socialism, Germany. One of the chief figures in the German socialist movement was of course Rosa Luxemburg, a woman who rejected parliamentary strands of socialism and trade unionism in favor of the Marxist creed of revolutionary takeover.

Luxemburg supported Bolshevism up to a point, but criticized its leader, Lenin, up until her death at the hands of Prussian military officers in the abortive 1919 Spartacus insurrection—an insurrection she opposed as a matter of strategy but felt morally obligated to lead when her advice was ignored by her Party’s membership. Reading Luxemburg’s two major essays on the subject, re-titled by Bertram Wolfe as The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism, one is impressed by her attack on Lenin’s undemocratic approach to politics. According to Wolfe, Luxemburg accepted the unpleasant necessity of a creating a short-term “dictatorship of the proletariat” but understood its inherent distastefulness and hoped to put an end to it as soon as possible.

Rosa Luxemburg

Unlike Lenin, Luxemburg had enormous faith in the working classes, and believed that their creativity should be encouraged by a politics of freedom, democratic participation, and even the toleration of dissent within the movement. To Luxemburg, “worker control” of economic production as well as political decision-making was not merely rhetoric, as we know it was in Lenin’s Russia, where workers were quickly and almost completely disenfranchised by the unrivalled authority of the Communist Party.

Luxemburg supported the Bolsheviks as the vanguard of history but followed a Menshevik line of thinking—which seems all too accurate in retrospect—that conditions in Russia were unripe for a successful experiment in Marxism. Bolshevism was a heroic effort to grapple with the evils of capitalism and tsarist militarism, but the experiment was undermined by impoverished opportunities that resulted from a backward economy, a disastrous war effort, an absence of democratic tradition, low cultural standards, and civil war. Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin and Trotsky is compelling, especially in light of what we now know about the defects of Russia’s Central Committee as a mechanism for governing Russia.

She, and the Mensheviks with whom she sympathized, was right about the Bolsheviks: they’re decision to dissolve the Constituent Assembly rather than face popular pressure—and hundreds of subsequent decisions that reinforced a totalitarian tendency in Russian Communism—were tragic and misguided. Still, one can see the weakness of Luxemburg’s line of reasoning, in that it awkwardly rejected totalitarian tendencies even as it supported the historical imperative of avoiding any compromise with the strong tradition of Left-wing German parliamentary politics.

Aesthetics of Tragedy

Another argument of Fitzpatrick deserves comment. Fitzpatrick’s opinion is that there is an aesthetic dimension to the long Russian revolution. To take the argument one step further, the fact that Stalin killed the original revolutionaries who believed in a socialist utopia is the most aesthetically interesting aspect of the revolutionary experience. It’s one thing for the protagonists to defeat their enemies; it’s another for the protagonists to self-destruct. In the French Revolution, the trials of Danton and Robespierre are the most sacred moments of the entire historical drama. How odd to face the guillotine killed poetically by the very process he had helped to create.

George Jacques Danton

Yet Robespierre’s death—see that beautiful movie, Danton—might be seen as tragic too, since Robespierre was the essence of Revolution, an incorruptible force who may have become intolerable to men who didn’t possess the stomach to remain loyal to the original principles of the Revolution—equality, fraternity, and liberty. Certainly Robespierre’s death—and the death of the cause of the Sans-Coulette—he represented, were seen as the heart of the tragedy of the French Revolution by the Russian revolutionaries.

Although the Communists killed many innocent Russians, the ones who garnered the most international sympathy were the Old Bolsheviks or true believers in the very force that destroyed them. Trotsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union was sad enough: Once Lenin’s most capable lieutenant, he was first dragged from his apartment and exiled to the distant In the Purge Show Trials, then expelled from the Soviet Union altogether. (Later, we famously met his end by way of an assassin’s ice pick).

Nikolai Krestinsky

Still worse, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and even Bukharin, all implicated themselves; testifying to their own despicable—but false—betrayal of the Communist cause. This kind of self-immolation was harnessed by Western writers such as Koestler, who wrote a horrific tale of a brave true believer who struggles to find a reason to believe that his own admission of guilt and consequent death is historically necessary. Orwell wrote about a similar theme in Animal Farm. The Revolution succeeds but the revolutionaries quickly separate into a new oppressor/oppressed dichotomy.

Arthur Koestler

Soltzheniztyn, despite his own familiarity with non-Bolshevik victims, was also impressed with the tragic dimensions of the Old Bolsheviks, who, even in the gulag, argued relentlessly that their party had made a simple mistake by accusing them but remained a force for good in the country at large. If Stalin could only be told about their unhappy fate in the gulag, he would set things right.

A Weberian Approach To Revolution

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution is a short primer on the first two decades of the Soviet Union’s existence. The book is relatively uncontroversial but her thesis is worth looking at. She argues that we shouldn’t be quick to assume that the Revolution actually ended in 1917. According to Fitzpatrick, we should ask ourselves what a revolution really is before we assumed that the Soviet Revolution ended so quickly. If a revolution involves massive societal upheaval, the Russian Revolution lasted a very long time, with a brief interlude in the N.E.P. (New Economic Policy) Period. The Civil War, First Five Year Plan, Collectivization, Cultural Revolution, and the Purges, all involved widespread societal transformation, for better or worse.

For Fitzpatrick, as for Crane Briton in Anatomy of Revolution, a revolution has a natural life cycle. Revolutions are born explosively but eventually, and inevitably, zeal fades and turns into a search for stability. The concept is redolent of Weber’s concept of charisma, where leaders such as Mohammad are energetic, original, and intensely creative. But after the death of charismatic leaders the movements they found—Islam included—eventually lose this creativity and slowly turn into bureaucratic parodies of the founder’s vision.

Portrait Of Max Weber

In the case of Soviet Russia, Fitzpatrick believes that the 1917 Revolution essentially outlived Lenin and only burned itself out at the onset of World War II. If this is true, then the Soviet Revolution is truly unique. No Revolution—save perhaps the Chinese—lasted as long. And this, surely, is the real wonder of the Russian Revolution: how did the generation that authored it have enough vitality not only to overthrow an unpopular czar and competing Leftist parties, but also to mobilize for a massive modernization project, especially in the midst of cultural and political chaos. One is tempted to lump World War II into the revolutionary mix, but Fitzpatrick thinks the war came right at the moment when the Revolution had finally exhausted itself.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Reflections on Nabokov #51

For a long time I thought my two favorite European writers were Nabokov and Proust. They shared a love of fantasy that was appealing to someone who wanted to be immunized from conflict. Nabokov thought the artist was a deceiver who wove mysterious illusions that imprisoned the reader in a sticky web of enjoyment. Proust suggested that by aestheticizing memory the past could be remade into something more palatable or heroic. For years when someone asked who my favorite writers were (usually myself, since no one really ever wanted to know) this is the litany I recited, reassuring myself that we all control our own happiness by the quality of the fantasy life we lead.

Now that the years that have passed since since I've read anything by either person are in the double-digits I've stopped asking myself to defend my artistic ideals, and I had almost forgotten this is what I sort-of believe. Somehow I've now turned into someone who is more interested in revealing the ugly brute reality of life and death to those who appear suspiciously over-happy. I only realized this recently after reading a bunch of Philip Larkin poems. In particular, "A Study of Reading Habits", which ends with:

Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store,
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

Not sure what this has to do with Nabakov or Russia, other than the fact that I picked up the Lectures on Literature the other day. But maybe this pose of Larkin's, which appears so quintessentially Anglo, is part of the appeal of Russian history, the central message of which is: things really are, and have been, and will be, much worse than the peddlars of enchantment want you to think.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Conservative Critique of Revolution

The Russian Revolution of 1917 wouldn’t have made sense without the French Revolution of 1789. The French Revolution defined radical struggle as well as its inevitable byproduct: self-conscious conservatism. The terms, Left and Right, emerged as a result of the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly. So Ivan Bunin’s critique of Red Russia was not a recent invention. Edmund Burke has said it all before in Reflections on the Revolution in France more than hundred years previously.

Edmund Burke

Burke’s critique of the French Revolution was predicated on a wider critique of the Enlightenment. Although he was a reformer, Burke stood firmly against the notion that society could or should be improved by rationality alone. Burke’s argument is complex, perhaps even a touch defensive, because the case for Revolution was strong. People knew the Ancien Regime was corrupt, abusive, arbitrary, and illogical.


On the face of it, thinking people could no longer accept the principle of autocracy, which allowed the king to rule by divine right with little regard for the welfare of his subjects, the rule of law, or the dictates of reason. The king’s arbitrary power was only the most obviously irrational aspect of pre-revolutionary France. The church ruled vast swathes of land and enjoyed immense privilege, including an exemption from taxation. The aristocracy enjoyed similar rights, which ranged from the right to carry weapons and the right to be executed by a dignified beheading as opposed to a more plebeian hanging.

The French system was rooted in feudalism, which was rooted in local privileges for local aristocrats who exercised enormous influence over the lives of serfs and peasants. The bourgeoisie, while gaining in influence from one decade to the next, were lumped together as a group with everyone in France who had no claim to aristocratic or clerical privilege. In these circumstances, the Revolution had a lot going for it. The new order it promised seemed fairer, smarter, and more efficient, that what it proposed to displace.

Queen At Tribunal

Burke rejected the logic of revolution, but respected that logic and made his case without relying on purely religious sentiment. Instead, he maintained that society was a slowly evolving organism that embodied the mystical but important lessons of history. If England’s system of government appeared irrational—with kings, lords, and an uneven electoral franchise—the system had evolved over many generations, contained myriad checks and balances, and worked well enough to preserve the people’s liberty. The conservative approach to politics was applied to Russia. While it might appear that the revolutionaries were overthrowing a destructive autocracy and an exploitative economy, Russian traditions had evolved over time for good reason.

Bunin, for instance, believed that—for all Russia’s flaws--the wisdom of the ages was contained in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Aristocracy, and other traditional institutions. If Old Russia represented a host of injustices, anti-Semitism included, Bunin thought that quick solutions would make things worse—much worse. Quick solutions, based on short-sighted claims to utilitarianism, reason, and universal truth, would result in violence and the triumph of an impoverished conception of humankind. We know now that Bunin turned out to be right: revolutionary Russia did make things worse.

The hubris of revolutionaries helped them to do away with the Tsar, but also with all other institutions that might have put a break on the government’s power, including the Church, the peasant commune, the Duma, independent judiciaries, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, the Jewish Bund, the intelligentsia, the arts, the military, and subject nationalities. Eventually, Stalin even moved against the family as an institution, and private life in general.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Beatnik Bunin


We have many accounts of the October Revolution, but most are written from the point of view of the Bolsheviks or their former fellow travelers, the Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, or Anarchists. However, opponents of the revolution wrote too, and none is more powerful than Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days: A Diary in Revolution.

Nobel Prize winner Bunin was the darling of counter-revolutionary circles abroad. His prose was celebrated throughout the large Russian Diaspora, headquartered in Paris, with important offshoots surviving in Prague, Berlin, and New York. Bunin’s reputation and stature were deservedly high, but his nostalgic stories were particularly valued by a people cut off from their cultural roots, linguistic community, and homeland. (See Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory for a rich theoretical analysis of the ties between landscape and memory).

Bunin was also celebrated for his uncompromising stance toward Red Russia. While some exiled authors and artists attempted to find middle ground with the Soviet Union when the Revolution demonstrated its resilience, Bunin resisted all forms of compromise. His Memoirs and Portraits, for example, is filled with trenchant but vitriolic attacks against people who did compromise with the Bolshevik government. His essay about Alexei Tolstoy (not the famous Tolstoy who Bunin worshipped) entitled, “The Third Tolstoy,” is a bitter attack against the morality and talent of a man who decided to return to the Soviet Union to enjoy all of the privileges that could come from state sponsorship. Bunin condemns the poet Block in the same piece, for supporting a murderous regime and taking an official post as secretary to Lunacharsky, the bureaucrat who was put in charge of Soviet high culture. Blok’s famous poem, The Twelve, which compared Bolshevik gangsters with Christ, particularly incensed him.

Frozen Bolsheviks

Bunin’s Cursed Days deserves to be read. It depicts a lot of the savagery of Russian Civil War, but it also gives readers a poetic sense of what it was like to participate directly in the chaos of these years. Written in diary form, the author makes no attempt at objectivity, but merely records his own efforts to make sense of the confusion and terror of this period. Outlandish rumors are mixed in with events that actually occurred but seem no less terrible as a result of their veracity. The diary was written first in Moscow and then in Odessa on the Black Sea, a repository of mixed loyalties. Bunin’s record shows the dramatic, circus-like atmosphere of Odessa, where people desperately awaited the next issue of newspapers hoping for some word about a White victory over Red forces, or a Red victory over White Forces. Farther north, Kiev changed hands between White and Red forces—with deadly consequences for the citizenry—dozens of times.

According to the translator, Bunin’s memoir was his only writing that departed from his traditional posture as an aristocratic social realist. In Cursed Days, Bunin appears to write whatever comes to mind, almost foreshadowing Beat writing in terms of the surreal imagery and apparent randomness of observations.

What’s most valuable about Cursed Days is the way Bunin mixes up Red and White descriptions of the Civil War. Although Bunin clearly identifies with anti-Bolshevik forces, he quotes a long series of Communist man-on-the-street quips and newspaper reports to give readers a picture of the bifurcated information that was inundating ordinary Russians and Ukrainians during these years. Notwithstanding Bunin’s modernist literary style in Cursed Days, he remains immersed in the Russian past like any good conservative. Quoting from Dostoevsky, he writes:

“Give to all teachers ample opportunity to destroy the old society and to build a new one, and the result will be such darkness, such chaos, such unheard-of coarseness, blindness, and inhumanity, that the entire structure will collapse under the curses of humankind even more it is completed…”

Significantly, Bunin thought the Revolution and Civil War had made Dostoevsky’s warning seem understated. Yet the “entire structure” of Soviet Communism did not collapse for decades, but lingered on, destroying countless lives in the process.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Communist Queue

Queue For Food

One of the most emblematic aspects of life in the Soviet Union was the queue. Ordinary citizens waited in line for almost anything. The Soviet economy may have produced impressive gains in industrial output. It may (or may not have) dramatically reduced extreme forms of poverty and inequality. It may have launched rockets into space, equipped a powerful army with advanced artillery, and mined huge quantities of mineral resources from the Siberian earth. It could not, however, keep the store shelves full. The history of the Soviet economy is the history of a weak consumer economy. Whereas capitalism struggled with the fact that some citizens couldn’t afford to get a hold of any of the countless products the system produced, communism dealt with a much different paradox: people often had money but nothing to buy with that money.

So what exactly is a queue? Lidiya Ginzburg makes sense of the term in a general sense, even though the breadlines she describes took place at one of the worst moments in a horrible century, the siege of Leningrad. She’s a sociologist analyzing the phenomenon of the queue in exquisite detail.

The queue is made up of hostile, irritable people, who are nevertheless united by a common goal of keeping order and ensuring that line-jumpers don’t overwhelm the structure of the established line. The queue has gender elements: women have more experience with waiting in line for essentials—they did so even before the siege. Women are also more likely to accept the premise that their time is essentially worthless: they can wait all day if need be.

Men aren’t constructed this way. They feel entitled to cut in line and some always attempt to do so. Even when everybody is suffering together, men think that they suffer more precisely because they are not accustomed to suffering. People talk in queues, but their discourse follows special patterns. To begin with, people are extraordinarily rude to anybody they suspect might harbor any feelings of superiority.

The queue is democratic—everybody waits—and it’s important to reassert this fact at all times. People naturally talk about food (or whatever it is for which they are waiting) in the queue. In a siege, the discourse can be divided into four categories, according to Ginzburg: informational, emotive, story-telling, and self-aggrandizing.

Ginzburg’s close reading of the queue procedes right up to the counter, where customers strain every muscle in their neck hoping to see just exactly how much food they will receive. As Ginzburg sees things, the person at the head of the line wants to participate in some kind of ritual by watching the bread as it gets weighed on the scale. She likens this event to horse-racing, where the crowd feels as if it too were carried along by the horses that are actually running the race.

Upon receiving the ration, the lucky person goes home, but new trials wait, as he or she must decide upon a specific strategy of consumption. Is it best to save the scarce item, or devour it at once? In some ways, the queue fits Ginzburg’s larger theme about suffering, that we use suffering to deflect us from recognizing the absolute horror of non-existence. As bad as lines are, they allow us hope that at some point—perhaps in one hour, perhaps in three—we will achieve something definite. There’s a cure for scarcity—waiting—but there is no cure for nonbeing or death.

Spoof of Life

After telling a friend about this blog, I asked for her reaction. She said: I wanted to read the blog, but it reminded me of the Peep Show, a British sitcom in which the lead character, Mark Corrigan, is obsessed with history. According to the friend, Corrigan's character can't relate to real-life except insofar as it can be compared to military or ancient history, or indeed Russian history. Corrigan simply can't speak in contemporary terms, everything links back to Stalingrad or some similar episode in history. Sadly, I had just posted on Stalingrad. My lack of originality was dispiriting, but I complained to my wife about the injustice of being beaten to the punch by a British sitcom. Her response was this: It's tragic really, but you're spoofing yourself. Hoping to catch the series soon...

South Bank Show Awards - Awards

Russian Poets for Dummies

Russian greatness is predicated on its poets. Although Russia entered into its poetical legacy rather late by European standards, Pushkin won well-deserved and lasting fame as Byron’s equal. Eugene Onegin does not suffer from comparison with Byron’s Don Juan: It’s eloquent, witty, humorous, nimble, profound, and beautiful, even in translation.


Russian poetry suffered greatly as the 19th century wore on, with Russian poets preferring to sacrifice style in the interest of socially beneficial messages that revolved around social justice. According to Nina Berberov in Aleksander Blok: A Life, Russian novelist of the anti-Bolshevik Diaspora, the brilliant prose of Golden Age Russian novelists such as Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, was never matched by Russian poets. The first part of the 20th century was a Russian one, insofar as poetry was concerned.

Boris Pasternak

Russian Formalists reinvented the art of poetry, explored new themes, and employed new techniques. Russian poets took their task seriously, and were encouraged by a small but serious readership. Nabokov, Blok, Pasternak, Mayakovski, Svetaeva, Akhmatova, Mandelstam all merit mention. Eventually, poetry was severely circumscribed by Soviet censors and official aesthetic ideology that favored socialist realism (which is practice meant a deliberately falsify reality to flatter the party and state).

The criminality of the Stalinist regime is reflected in some of the poetry of this brilliant group of poets. Mandelstam’s poetic insult to Stalinism is the most famous example, since it got reported to Stalin and Mandelstam was soon arrested and sent to a labor camp. Pasternak received a direct telephone call from Stalin on the unusual subject of Mandelstam’s poetic talents. Stalin, for all his faults, was extremely well read, and fully capable of entering into literary debates. Sadly, Pasternak failed to definitively establish his friend Mandelstam’s case for poetic genius. The biographies of these men differ about the reasons for Pasternak’s reticence. It may have been professional jealousy; it may have been a fear of offending Stalin by a vigorous defense of somebody already in Stalin’s line of fire. Whatever the case, Mandelstam soon died in the camps. (See Boris Pasternak's An Essay in Autobiography for Pasternak's perspective on his creative processes).

Monument to Osip Mandelshtam unveiled in Moscow

Other Soviet poets suffered under Stalin. Notwithstanding his initial enthusiasm for revolutionary Russia, Mayakovski committed suicide when reality failed to live up to his expectations. Akhmatova survived Stalin’s persecution of her former husband (who was executed) and her son (who survived over a decade of hard labor in prison), as well as the siege of Leningrad and years of condemnation by the official Soviet literary establishment. In many ways, she became a symbol of suffering and perservance in Soviet Russia, preferring to remain in Russia--as Pasternak did--rather than be cut off from inspiration and potential readers rather than flee abroad like so many colleagues did. See Elaine Feinstein's Anna of All the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova for more.

Akhmatova Receives Oxford Degree

After her husband had spied on the enemies of Russia and helped to assassinate an opponent of Soviet Russia, Marina Tsvetaeva followed her husband back to Russia. Once there, the poet saw her husband disappear into the Soviet death trap, now actively eliminating almost anybody with any ties to foreign countries, to say nothing of this man’s unhappy ties to the secret police and historic associations with Civil War opponents of Red Russia. Tsvetaeva survived her husband’s demise, but just barely.

With the German invasion, she fled Eastward with her son. Her fame preceded her. Although the historical record is unclear, Irma Kurdrova, author of The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva, suspects that Soviet agents kept a close watch over the poet, limiting her options even in the midst of total war. Tsvetaeva was a delicate person by nature. She had never been capable of handling even ordinary chores with any degree of ease. Her poetry may well have been the produce of an extraordinary emotional sensitivity. In the end, Tsvetaeva committed suicide, leaving her son (with whom she had been quarrelling more regularly as time wore on) to fend for himself.

Many Russians say that Tsvetaeva unraveled in her final days and was no longer acting rationally in any sense of the word. Kurdrova suggests that the poet didn’t disintegrate in this way. Rather, Kudrova has uncovered some evidence that Svetaeva took a series of reasonable steps, going to a nearby city in search of assistance from fellow writers for example. This trip was unsuccessful, and apparently depressed Tsvetaeva greatly. Did Tsvetaeva kill herself as an act of desperation, or as a calculated act to protect her son, whose future could not have been improved by any association with a suspected Enemy of the People? Kudrova argues the latter point, but feels no undue pressure to undermine the mystery of Tsvetaeva’s final days, if the attempt to do so would overreach the oral and written sources. At any rate, the tragedy perfectly represents the dilemma of the feeling artist in an unfeeling system.


According to Wikipedia, Iteration means the act of repeating a process usually with the aim of approaching a desired goal or target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an "iteration", and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration.

Two and a half years ago I elected to stop reading randomly as I had been doing for many years. I thought it was time to show some seriousness of purpose in my reading habits. I wanted to choose depth over breadth. I decided to read only Russian history and literature. It was an absurd, arbitrary decision, although I had clearly avoided a narrow field of inquiry. Russia was a broad topic, as broad as any subject matter, but it limited my choices and helped me to focus on gaining greater levels of understanding of a particular subject.

And the 1917 Revolution retained a central place in all of my readings, as varied as they have been. I wanted to know as much as possible about the Revolution, but that Revolution’s meaning only revealed itself through a careful examination of a longer Russian cultural tradition, as well as an exploration of the Revolution’s lingering impact. In many ways, this blog is the expression of my attempt to get to know Russia. It’s haphazard and repetitive, but I believe that any search for meaning is tentative, exploratory, and iterative. One needs to make repeated passes at a subject before one gets it right, if one can ever get history right.
This is especially true of painful truth, and the history of Russia is one of unparalleled tragedy.

Exhibition 'Golodomor 1932-33 - genocide of Ukrainian people' opens in Kiev

Recent Russian history involves famine, revolution, slave labor, political terror, exile, two world wars, nuclear catastrophe, economic collapse, and ultimately the betrayal of Europe’s greatest hope for a better tomorrow: communism. Getting to know Russia mirrors the difficult task of self-examination in the wake of an agonizing mistake, sin, or crime: it’s nearly impossible to reconstruct the truth when our own instincts for self-preservation tempt us to shield ourselves from additional injury. The best we can do—to paraphrase the author of Strange Piece of Paradise, a brilliant book about the memory and loss surrounding an attack by an axe wielding madman upon the author in her youth —is to try to be a little more truthful each and every day. What happened in October 1917? What didn’t the world’s first experiment in scientific socialism help rather than hurt people? The best anybody can do is to try to uncover one piece of truth at a time.

Stalin's Daughter

Svetlana Alliluyeva’s second memoir, Only One year, is honest, moving, and well-written. It’s not a great work of art, but it tells a compelling story and deserves to be read. It’s impossible to ignore the emotional power of the woman’s journey. In the wake of her mother’s suicide, Svetlana was raised by her rough, emotionally-distant father. Her home was the Kremlin. Her father was one of the greatest thugs in the history of the world, Joseph Stalin, responsible for the deaths of millions of strangers as well as dozens if not hundreds of relatives and personal acquaintances.

Svetlana Alliluyeva

This memoir (a second) tells the story of the middle part of her life, after her father’s death. As a scholar of international literature—her father had granted her a strictly quarantined life but, somewhat incongruously, a relatively cosmopolitan education—Svetlana met her third husband, a committed but liberal Indian communist many years her senior. Already ailing, Svetlana’s husband soon died, leaving Svetlana with the difficult task of carrying his ashes to faraway India. Despite the eclipse of her father’s anti-Stalinist successor, Khrushchev, Svetlana immediately ran up against Soviet objections to her personal journey. According to her father’s friends—now restored to favor at the Kremlin--the trip was problematic. Her travels to India could be exploited by the foreign press. To them, the proposed trip wasn’t personal; it was a bad move in an international contest with Cold War opponents.

Eventually, and at the cost of some personal humiliation, Svetlana won approval to travel very briefly, and under tight restrictions, to India. She used the trip to remain close to the spirit of her deceased husband, and to discover the magic and religion of the Indian people. To Svetlana’s credit, she used her life as a living protest to everything her father represented, including his cynical materialism. Once in India, Svetlana moved to establish her own personal freedom. Perhaps she had planned an escape when she applied to leave for India in the first place.
Whatever the case, the Soviet darling (praised, much to her chagrin, but Stalinist admirers even in the reign of Khrushchev) sent her first memoir to friends who smuggled it to the West. Then she won extra time in India to see in-laws and experience the Indian subcontinent from outside the Soviet Embassy’s walls.

Next, she calmly defected to America (going by way of Switzerland). To do so, she was forced to say goodbye to her own children, though she had remained in Russia long enough to see them grow up into adults capable of taking care of themselves. In the midst of the Cold War, she knew she risked not seeing them again. She knew also that they would be told to renounce her in order to protect their own careers in the Soviet Union.

If the decision to leave her own children seems cruel, it becomes understandable when viewed in the light of the fact that Svetlana had bravely acknowledged the evil her father and his regime had done to the country, and indeed to her own life and the life of loved ones, including her unhappy mother. In the end, the Soviet propaganda machine swung into gear to discredit Svetlana. However, she didn’t shirk from the contest and denounced the Soviet regime, befriending George Kennan in the process. The book’s enduring value stems from the way it highlights the enormous tension between Alliluyeva’s personal identity and the Marxist-Leninist state.

If Svetlana’s story is more poignant than most, it’s not unrepresentative. Millions of Russians were asked to put party and state above their own personhood, millions were asked to remain silent even when the state seized their loved ones and sent them to the gulag, or killed them outright.

Reader Hate Mail

Does it matter that this blog has no readers? Does the blog need improvement to merit readers? I took this second question to a group of colleagues last week, a focus group if you will. Two members of this group of three women were sent the blog link. Each deleted it after barely glancing at it.

They did have some suggestions. First, they said the blog needed to be more relevant to people’s lives. They needed coupons, they said, something that could be redeemed at a place like Starbucks. Second, they said I needed to write more often about women. (I’ll try to redress the problem in the near future). And while I was at it, why didn’t I put more sex in the blog? People wanted to read about sex. Third, they said I needed an organizing principle, a thesis statement if you will, as well as a purpose or goal. What did I wish to achieve, they asked? Fifth, they said I needed photos to retain the interest of readers. Sixth, they argued that I needed labels to help search engines find me. Seventh, I needed to make my posts weirder, more bizarre, and more creative. Eighth, I needed to explain myself on a personal level: why was the subject interesting to me? One reader said she scanned the blog for some evidence of the origin of my obsession, and found none. Ninth, I needed to hook up with real scholars (they hadn’t realized that my lazy co-blogger—apologies Nick Blabbermouth--has a PhD). Tenth, they said I needed to make a more concerted effort to identify and encourage a targeted readership (military buffs, they suggested, ignoring my shudder). All good advice that I will follow as faithfully as possible. Any other advice out there? No profanities please. My favorite comment was: "Are you TRYING to put me to sleep?" Ouch.

Paris Hilton and her many pets - 17 minature dogs!

Top Gun, Rocky, and Little Einsteins

One of my favorite things about Russia is the way it lingers in the popular imagination. Everybody has a story about Russia. I’m watching Top Gun right now, where Tom Cruise’s erotic power stems, at least in part, from his ability to do battle with a Soviet MIG fighter. If you can go head to head with Russian airpower, you’re a natural born hero. And what would Rocky be if he hadn’t survived long enough to defeat a Soviet boxer in Red Russia, the ultimate feat of masculinity? Russia also finds its way into the thoughts of ordinary Americans.

Target Presents AFI's 40th Anniversary - Presentations

Everybody has a Russian story. For me, maybe it’s the made-for-television movie, The Day After, which probably horrified and titillating children all across America, giving us the impression that we’d be responsible for making do without homes, cars, grocery stores, and even parents, in the event of a nuclear conflict with the Soviets. Or perhaps it’s just the awe I felt every time I walked by the Soviet embassy when I went to college in Washington, D.C.

Some stories are more light-hearted. One chemist in my division tells his students about how Rasputin survived a poisoning (he was eventually killed by other means) because the sugar in his wine is a natural antidote to arsenic. (He also smilingly recalls the disco song, Rasputin, with some fondness). My four year old talks about visiting Russia—the land of the mythical firebird—because a cartoon called Little Einsteins shows four children flying their spaceship past the Kremlin and a series of mad Russian (matryoska) nesting dolls in search of this bird. Another friend says I should mention how cold it gets in Russia, because that’s what has always fascinated her. A colleague on a trip mentions that he took a theatre trip to perform a play in Omsk, Siberia, staying there for a month and drinking lots of Vodka (because the water was dirty and there wasn’t anything else to drink in any case). He took an Aeroflot plane in and out of Omsk, which, he added, always landed at a sharp vertical angle with a thud.

So what’s your memory of Russia or the Soviet Union?

Soviet Implosion

Do we know why the Soviet Union collapsed? We have more causes than we can process, don’t we? How important was the resurgence of nationalism or religion, especially Muslim fundamentalism? How important was the arms race with the United States and NATO? Did the bad decision to invade Afghanistan play an important part? Was the Soviet state stained by some original sin, and if so, was that sin geographical over extension or moral turpitude?


Did a drop in oil prices undermine Soviet stability or an over dependence on oil in the first place? Did the fatally flawed socialist economic system finally give out? How important were historical actors such as Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev? Did events in Eastern Europe, including Polish labor unrest, cause the collapse? Did the infiltration of Western popular culture matter a great deal? Did decrepit Soviet leadership in the 1970s weaken the Soviet state? How important was the Soviet dissident movement or Soviet underground literature?

Did Chernobyl put the final seal on Soviet power by revealing its incompetence or criminality? Did the Soviet elite lose the will to power or did ordinary Soviets bring down the state? How important was agricultural failure? Could the Soviets have lasted longer if they had produced more consumer goods in order to satisfy domestic demands? Was the Soviet collapse precipitated by the failure to use violent means to coerce opposition?

Could the Soviet experience have been prolonged by more flexibility about Marx’s message, or more faithfulness to it? Did Stalin’s legacy consolidate or undermine Soviet strength over the years? Would people have suffered more or less from a prolonged process of disintegration as opposed to the relatively rapid pace of events surrounding the collapse?

What’s interesting about revolutions—and probably we can count the collapse of the Soviet Union as a quasi-revolution—is that they are not easily explained. If they had been predicted, elites would no doubt have taken dramatic actions to appease revolutionary pressures or quash them with force. In retrospect, every event preceding the great explosion of popular feeling seems to have a portent of the end. Another obstacle to historical understanding is the fact that so many disparate forces are at work.

It’s difficult to dissever the many strands of influence at work. Is it enough to identify a few primary causes? Can we accept all of them? The best single explanation for Soviet collapse is probably nationalism. We know that nationalism never really disappeared in the Soviet Union; we know that nationalism has brought down a number of other empires, including the British, French, Austrian, and Ottoman; we know that every single major state within the Soviet Union opted to secede from the U.S.S.R. when given the option.

Ironically, Stephen Kotkin's Armageddon Averted argues against this widely accepted thesis about Soviet decay. According to the book, the Soviet state had successfully resisted nationalist ideologies for seven decades and did not need to submit to them now. It had military might, nuclear weapons, economic leverage, a centralized economy, and large ethnic Russian colonies in many of these potentially rebellions border states.

In fact, by releasing client states from control in Eastern Europe, the Russian center was better positioned than ever to retain control over its periphery. Moreover, the client states did not become bastions of popular democracy: self-serving bureaucrats ruled these states before and after political rupture with the Russian heartland. The people, as such, were not the decision-makers, except perhaps in the Baltic republics or the Ukraine, which had close linguistic and cultural ties to Russia proper. These successor state bureaucrats chose to leave Soviet Russia only after they determined that they could retain their status more effectively through rupture than unity.

And this, of course, leads us back into an examination of the myriad other forces at work in the decimation of Soviet power.

Deep Russian Thoughts a la Jack Handey

Celebrating Pushkin

This post is a work in progress. I'll be adding favorite quotations related to Russia and the Soviet Union here from time to time.

Nina Berberova,from Alexsander Blok: A Life. “The history of Russia might be the evolution of boredom, transformed over centuries in its vast spaces, under the too-grey sky, into passivity, heavy cruelty, and laziness.”

Ivan Bunin. Quoting Chekhov. "You'll see, when Tolstoy dies, everything will go to the dogs." "You mean literature?" "Everything. Literature included."

Nabokov. The Gift. Koncheyev talking to Godunov-Cherdyntsev in imagined scene. “Don’t forget that the whole of Russian literature is the literature of one century and, after the most lenient eliminations, takes up no more than three to three and a half thousand printed sheets, and scarcely one half of this is worthy of the bookshelf, to say nothing of the bedside table. With such quantitative scantiness we must resign ourselves to the fact that our Pegasus is piebald, that not everything about a bad writer is bad, and not all about a good one good.”

Aleksander Blok. "What is darker wins."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bourgeois Values

One of Marx’s greatest contributions to social theory was to unveil the extent to which putatively universal values are actually conditioned by historical context, and, more particularly, economic context. Systems of production help to shape values over time and this process is usually winds up reinforcing the economic position of the ruling class or classes. In the Medieval epoch, many social mores actually preserved the rights and prerogatives of the aristocracy. In the Modern Era, morality—as the notion gets taught in schools and churches for example—is geared to strengthen the hold of capitalist exploitation.

We know that there is a prohibition against theft, but Marx asked: what kind of theft are capitalists really concerned about? As Proudhon famously argued, all property is theft. According to capitalist logic, individual rights are paramount. A man or women have a right to whatever wealth they have accumulated, whether this wealth was earned, extracted from the labor of others in an allegedly free economy, or inherited.

The logic is taken to extremes, and zealously guarded. If an impoverished man steals food for his family, he might end up in jail, perhaps for a very long time. He also is deserving of a certain amount of moral censure. Yet it’s unseemly for anybody to covet a billionaire’s wealth. This money belongs to the man, not society or the poor—even if the billionaire has never worked a day in his life.

Bourgeois values are incredibly durable. Impoverished people here in America and the world over are quite capable of following the adventures of the real-life superrich on television reality shows as entertainment, never entertaining the notion that some of this wealth might in fact belong to them. Bourgeois values also include privacy, which reinforces some of the inequality perpetuated by the value we place in private property. One has a right to excess riches, and one even has the right not to be interrogated too closely about that wealth. It’s a private or personal matter, not something even the government can scrutinize too closely, except insofar as government maintains the general right to levy taxes (notwithstanding tax loopholes and regressive taxation systems).

Karl Marx

Traditionally, bourgeois values also included an abiding faith in patriarchy, Christian ideology, parliamentary democracy, individualistic artistic expression, personal freedom, constitutional rights, Western forms of legality, etc. Even faith in family is a bourgeois value. People have a choice about where their loyalties must lie. What deserves our reverence: self, family, church, ethnicity, gender, cultural community, race, nation, class, or global community? The bourgeoisie emphasized self, family and nation (and perhaps cultural community and race).

The Soviet Union overthrew many bourgeois values, but the cure was far worse than the disease. Famously, Soviet children were taught to report their own parents if they suspected their parents of harboring ill-will toward the community, embodied in the state. Some apparently did, with disastrous consequences for the parents, and were celebrated for their moral integrity. Apparently, there are worse things than the bourgeoisie. Who knew?

Foucault and Soviet Studies

What can Michele Foucault do for students of Soviet history? I’d say that you’d begin with an analysis of the links between Enlightenment thinking and Soviet ideology. The Enlightenment is clearly responsible for Marx’s optimism about human nature. Man is a blank slate, formed almost entirely by the social forces that surround him. (See the earlier post on Soviet conceptions of time to see how the Enlightenment got coupled with Soviet experimentalism to create the conditions in which human catastrophe were much more likely).

It’s only Soviet arrogance that took the Enlightenment assumption to ridiculous and destructive new extremes, assuming that political pressures could and should supersede all other potential social influences. Foucault’s central concept of the panopticon—invented by Jeremy Bentham as a method of policing prisoners by an intrusive, but labor-saving system of surveillance—is the best metaphor of the underside of Enlightenment thinking.

Jeremy Bentham

As Europe became more rational and scientific, it also became correspondingly more intrusive and regulatory. This was true of all European states throughout the 19th century, but Soviet Russia took the principle of the panopticon to unprecedented levels. Under Lenin and especially Stalin, private life became suspect, a threat to the primacy of the state and party. Anything that threatened to intrude in, or compete for, the hearts and minds of ordinary Soviet citizens was immoral.

The other obvious offering that Foucault to Soviet Studies is the way in which the Communist Superpower became the Western world’s alter ego, or, to use Foucault’s terminology, the Western world’s Other. It seems as if the human mind is constructed in such a way that it cannot embrace dichotomy. We define sanity by contrasting it with a definition of madness, we define freedom by contrasting with a definition of slavery, and we defined freedom by contrasting it with slavery. In this way, Western liberal democracies with capitalist economies created a sense of self by opposing their own identity with that of the Eastern neighbor.

In truth, the Soviet power was objectively antithetical to that which the West espoused. However, where this wasn’t the case, where the Soviet Union represented something more subtle than an alien enemy, the Soviet Union was demonized and characterized as the opposite of everything Western citizens valued. What damage this way of thinking did to democratic socialism in the West is difficult to say. But clearly, Right Wing politicians have used the Soviet bugbear to justify military budgets, foreign wars, and a variety of domestic policies that might otherwise have appeared to be too capitalistic to the Europeans and Americans.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Soviet Conception of Time

What’s so interesting about the Soviet Union? The answer is that the regime embodied a unique conception of time. According to Peter Fritzsche at the University of Illinois at Urbana (who has synthesized the work of various social theorists including Terdiman and Kosselleck and Kern), only the German fascists shared the Soviet conception of temporality. For both states, the future was wide open, changeable, and open-ended.

If one asked a typical Russian governmental official from the 19th century what the future would look like, he would probably have answered—with more or less optimism—that one could expect a great deal of progress. There would be more railroads, higher levels of literacy, more agricultural produce, more independent farmers, more territory, and more spectacular cultural achievements. There would be more of the present, in other words, but nothing totally unexpected. (Conservative officials might even have expected less of the same). The Soviets thought about the future differently. They expected the unexpected. They believed they could change everything, and do this almost overnight.

The concept of the five-year plan, designed to skip long phases of ordinary economic development, is typical of the Soviet expectations. The Bolsheviks, as a party, began their career by arguing—contrary to Marx’s own opinions on the subject—that revolutionary action was appropriate even in backward Russia. They soon came to the conclusion that Russia could ignore the ordinary laws of social development and leapfrog past the capitalist economies that had failed to be devoured by Leftist revolt. As late as the 1960s, Khrushchev’s Russia was convinced it could “bury” the West by willpower alone.

Nikita Khrushchev Addresses UN

In the Soviet worldview, facts and statistics were nearly irrelevant. Soviet Russia could coerce its citizenry as well as the ordinary temporal process to achieve the impossible, such as building an industrial economy where there had hitherto been only an agrarian one, or creating a nuclear program when the country lagged far behind America in terms of its overall scientific establishment.

To some extent, the Soviet approach to the future was part of the zeitgeist. Even F.D.R.’s American believed it could overcome ordinary economic processes. As we all know, F.D.R. was a relentless experimenter who tried to master a Depression through an endless variety of brand new government programs and initiatives. Following World War II, European welfare states took this approach even further, creating super states that attempted to suppress and overcome what had once been seen as iron laws of cyclical economic catastrophe.

The Soviets took this much further. They believed they were creating a whole new human species. Of course, the Nazis also believed this, and took their philosophy to genocidal extremes. But the Soviets weren’t so different. They thought they too were creating a new species of humans, Homo Sovieticus. As a result of education and social engineering, people would cease to be what they had once been: private, selfish, competitive, warlike, uncreative, uneducated, exploitative, bigoted, irrational, and—above all—bourgeois.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Russian Rightists

Somehow even nationalist cranks in Russia carry an alluring romance about them. Right-wing xenophobes in other nations are just irritating, but in Russia the assumption of national superiority is palatable because it's at least slightly true. I'm thinking of Igor Shafarevich, the brilliant mathematician turned political philosopher who led the intellectual revival of ethnocentrism in the late 1970s. Why aren't our own rightists of similar caliber? Why haven't Glenn Beck and Michael Savage made major contributions in number theory, or been elected to the Academy of Sciences at age 34? It makes you feel a little inferior.

Shafarevich made his name in algebraic geometry, becoming a world-class scholar and playing a role in the dissident movements of the 1960s. But he couldn't resist the magnetic pull of that favored Russian reification, the People. He began to write bombastic, overstuffed treatises like Socialism as a Phenomenon in World History and Rusophobia. He claimed that both the Revolution and its perestroikan ending were moments in a long plot to destroy Russian civilization. "The Revolution" he wrote, "was the preliminary phase of perestroika. The Revolution destroyed ethnic roots. It destroyed the peasantry. It destroyed the religious world view. It destroyed, to a significant extent, the faith in some united history and national tradition." It was then free to be incorporated into the bland and soulless West. And that was it for the peasants.

Unfortunately Shafarevich's paranoia has been obscured by antisemitic digressions. Had it not been so adulterated, the paranoia itself is a breathtaking thing, and it makes you look forward to a right wing capable of genuinely world-historical resentments. With the erosion of American power, it is time for our Oswald Spengler to step forward.

Peasants, Reality T.V., and Russian Folklore

No conscientious Russian blogger can fail to mention Russian folklore. Up until the October Revolution of 1917, at least 85 percent of the Russian people were peasants. Most lived in small villages cut off from contact with much of the world as a result of low literacy rates, rudimentary schools, communal taboos, and an underdeveloped system of roads and railroads. Most also lived on the edge of real deprivation, with the possibility of famine looming over them.

Russia''s Tatars Celebrate Sabantuy Holiday

At this time, the peasant population was only one or two generations away from serfdom, a state of un-freedom that discouraged initiative and self-improvement. The level of literacy in the Russian peasantry was so low, that mobilization for World War I relied on the placement of colorful flags rather than printed pronouncements, according to historian Bruce Lincoln. In the years leading up to the First World War, the Czar’s energetic prime mininer, Stolypin, made some modest gains in raising the productivity of the Russian peasants by allowing enterprising peasants to break away from collective farming--where village elders would allot land according to the size of families, distribute any given family’s plowing strips across a large area to encourage uniformity in the overall quality of every family’s land, and redistribute land from time to time, thus discouraging any incentive for improving the land from one year to the next.

When Stolypin was assassinated, he had helped a small group of prosperous peasants to opt out of the commune altogether. In the absence of the written word, religion structured peasant lives. And in the absence of an educated and effective Orthodox clergy, this religion could be surprisingly vibrant, diverse, and complex. In fact, Russian peasant maintained a strong, self-conscious, Christian identity, even as their theology remained hopelessly entwined in superstition, pagan belief, and folklore. With this in mind, the student or Russian history and literature must turn to the mythology for a better glimpse of what Russians was really like.

Fortunately, these oral tales were collected by a few determined ethnologists. Alexander Afanas’ev’s Russian Fairy Tales is one such compendium. Here you have almost 700 pages of short, two or three pages fairy tales, which gives you some idea of just how rich this mythology could be. Of course, without some critical analysis of the overall topic of Russian mythology—and this book provides almost none—it’s hard to determine just exactly what these fairy tells tell us about Russians or about human beings in general.

Probably a Jungian analysis of archetypes is in order. At any rate, the fairy tales celebrate cleverness, cunning, and competition. They denigrate foolishness and, sometimes, women. They accept magic as a fact of life. The overall effect, though I hope to discuss some specific fairy tales in future posts, is one in which life is a game. It’s a colorful and exciting game, in which almost anything can happen. But one has to play it well, and play to win against other peasants, against mysterious forces which include animals and sprites and gnomes.

In the world of the Russian fairy tale, it’s your job to outwit, outsmart, and outlast your opponents, to quite from the popular television show, Survivor. And, as in Survivor, one of your principle goals is to get rich. At the heart of many of these stories, is the desire—which seems to transcend the modern age if we assume that these fairy tales have been passed down over many generations—to become wealthy, especially through cleverness rather than work. Not much has changed if our reality television shows may be taken as an example of contemporary fairy tales.

The Soviet Union as a Product of Science Fiction

Forbidden Love

My generation grew up on George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. Looking back, high schools across the country must have been concerned that American children needed these books to be properly inoculated against Communism. Don’t get me wrong: both books are excellent depictions of the very real dangers of totalitarianism. In the case of 1984, this wasn’t really science fiction: the Soviet Union was already spying on its citizens, squashing dissidents, redefining words to mean the opposite of what they had originally meant, systemically deceiving citizens through propaganda, and making every effort to engineer human beings to be more amenable to control from above.

Animal Farm wasn’t far off either. The Soviet Union had created a brand new caste of bureaucrats, replacing a traditional aristocratic and bourgeois hierarchy with one that consisted of party functionaries. But before there was Orwell’s 1984 there was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s book, We. We is a science fiction story about a future that doesn’t look all that different from the one Orwell described in 1984. There’s one state, one state newspaper. `In We, citizens are told that individualism is a purely destructive force. For this reason, people don’t have names, only combinations of letters and numbers, like R-13 for example. People are told that “everything is for the good.” They should trust in the state and the existing order of things. Nothing should be challenged.

In Zamyatin’s dystopia, citizens are told that the past is primitive. Rationalism reigns supreme. The state and its people celebrate what they call mathematical-philosophical reasoning, and mathematical equations dominate the text. The people are also told that love is primitive and that they should therefore participate in a system of love-making as a form of lottery. As your turn comes up, you receive a coupon from the government that allows you to select a lover. The next time you receive a coupon, you may select a second woman, and so on. In this world, the government has eliminated most forms of irrationality and emotion. People behave as they should.

Zamyatin’s We was written at an interesting moment in Soviet history. It represented an incredibly rich stage of Soviet cultural and literary experimentation. The novel is forward thinking in terms of both its futuristic content and its innovative style. However, We was produced at a moment when Stalin was tightening his grip on political power and would shortly eliminate most forms of cultural independence. The most interesting thing about We—which isn’t the most lively narrative—is that it reminds readers that the Soviet Union it implicates seemed like a product of science fiction even at its birth. Nothing like it had ever been created previously.

For the first time, the state was actively promoting the idea that it could overcome conflict, produce prosperity, unleash human creativity, enhance culture, and in general overcome some basic human flaws, including jealousy, thievery, disunity, disorder, and irrationality. In We, even the bible is an historical artifact, a product of an unenlightened age. But the moral of We, and indeed the whole of Soviet history, is that Original Sin does in fact exist and cannot be overcome, even if we wanted it to be.


There are of course better and worse examples of the kind of Russian intellectual fluff to which I’ve referred in the previous post. I think Imagining Nabokov: Russia between Art and Politics is one of the better sorts of intellectual fluff pieces. Notwithstanding the author’s heavy-handed biographical presence in the book, she does have a real thesis: that Nabokov’s books are especially relevant to contemporary, crisis-laden, post-Soviet Russia. As the author notes, Nabokov, once banned from publication in Russia, is now enjoying a major resurgence in popularity among Russia’s younger reading audiences.

The author believes that this popularity stems from Nabokov’s radical break from Russian literary tradition. For Nabokov was a post-modern author rather than a modern one, and, more importantly, Nabokov believed in the priority of the personal over the collective, as well as the possibility of achieving happiness, a very un-traditional Russian literary theme. (Incidentally, the book recalls Lesley Chamberlain’s intellectual history of the Russian Diaspora, which includes Nabokov and his father. Here, Chamberlain points out that many exiled Russian intellectuals were religious thinkers who were crafting a highly individualistic response to modernity called personalism.)

In one section of Imagining Nabokov, the author discusses the traditional Russian concept of the banal, or poshlost, which was odious to most major Russian authors. Better to suffer or do evil than to wallow in the un-dramatic or ordinary. She says Nabokov recognized the pitfalls of such contempt for poshlost. Lolita’s tragedy is not that she lived an ordinary life before she met Humbert. Her tragedy is that Humbert robbed her of this bland but worthwhile life. The interesting thing about this book is that its blend of literary criticism and diary resulted from the rich imagination of Nikita Khrushchev’s granddaughter, Nina Khruschcheva.

Nikita Khrushchev

The granddaughter of a man accused of mass murder in the Ukraine has surely thought deeply about the superiority of ordinary life when weighed against the heroic but bloody acts of state socialism. If only Ukrainian peasants had been left to enjoy their boring lives rather than starved to death or transported in the pursuit of a Bolshevik Utopia. Incidentally, Boym’s Common Places , which approaches Khruschcheva’s theme about the role of banality in Russian culture from another angle, is also worth reading.