Monday, November 30, 2009

Milovan Djilas

Milovan Djilas

One of the richer literary genres related to communism is that produced by disillusioned practitioners. Milovan Djilas has produced at least one masterpiece of theoretical critique, but his Conversations with Stalin is a more human and therefore literary account of the problems inherent in Russian communism. The title of the book is somewhat misleading, for although Milovan’s personal reflections about Stalin are central to the book’s thesis, Djilas met with Stalin fewer than a handful of times. The book by a highly educated, highly influential Yugoslav patriot (imprisoned by two regimes for his principled stands) does provide readers with a wonderful analysis of Stalin the man, and historians have paid careful attention to his observations about the decision-making style of Stalin and his inner circle near the end of his thirty year political tenure. As importantly, Djilas describes his personal transformation from a stalwart believer in communism to a man with serious reservations about Russian leadership in the socialist world, if not about socialism itself.

Djilas’ personal growth takes place against the backdrop of the incredibly complex, pivotal, and fluid world that emerged during the final months of the Second World War and last until the Soviet Union had solidified its hold over most of Eastern Europe, excluding Yugoslavia. Although Soviet power soon answered most (but, significantly, not all) questions by the application of power or the threat of force, every chapter of the book testifies to the confusion that faced Eastern Europeans as the Germans withdrew from one country after another. Should the Western powers be placated or confronted? Where should German treasure go? What should happen to railroad stock that had originally been looted in Yugoslavia? What treaties were appropriate between socialist countries? Was nationalism compatible with communism, and, if so, in what circumstances? What prerogatives belonged to Russia, home of the original revolution? Did multiple sites of revolution make the October Revolution somehow less significant? Did Stalin alone speak for Lenin? Did Eastern Europe owe the Russian economy anything in return for liberation?

Conversations with Stalin opens with Djilas’ depiction of the heroic, communist-led Yugoslav revolt against Nazi occupation. Djilas reminds readers that this Yugoslav revolt reminds readers that no other country in Europe made such a significant and successful attack against its occupiers. He also points out that this revolt involved a social transformation as well as a political one. As the war against the brutal, genocidal Nazi occupiers proceeded, communists were busying overhauling the very structure of pre-war society in favor of the poorer classes. Yugoslav partisans grounded in bourgeois or princely political ideals were rendered irrelevant by the success of communist resistance and the devastation that resulted from German atrocities. In the midst of the war, Djilas, like many other socialists throughout occupied Europe, looked to Stalin’s Soviet Union as the embodiment of forward-thinking politics, economic progress, human equality, and social justice.

As Djilas now admits, he and most other socialists in Eastern Europe forgave Stalin, or accepted official Soviet rationalizations, for everything, including the invasion of Finland, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the occupation of the Baltic States, and the Purges. Slavic nationalism coupled with the heroic successes of the Red Army reinforced Djilas’ enormous respect for the U.S.S.R. After all, Yugoslavs and Russians were the only forces at war with Hitler’s Empire on the continent of Europe for a long stretch of the war.

Both before and after the war, Djilas met with Stalin on behalf of Tito and the communist movement in Yugoslavia. By and large, Djilas remained in awe of Stalin, who had directed the forces of socialism for so long. But the Stalin that emerges from Djilas’ recollections was complex. His intelligence and benevolent authority were matched by his craftiness, ribald sense of humor, and crude sense of power politics. Djilas’ reflections are of course highly colored by his nationalism, which was slowly but steadily developing in opposition to Soviet hegemony in the rest of Eastern Europe. Overall, the book argues that Stalin and the Soviet Union were more concerned about power than about socialist theory, communist brotherhood, or the equality of nations. With some prudishness in the arena of alcohol, Djilas also became disappointed that following the war Stalin demonstrated a penchant for cynicism, drunkenness, crude humor, gluttony, game-playing, anti-Semitism, and self-serving flattery.

In one vignette, Stalin says he supports Yugoslavia’s interest in “swallowing” Albania, and puts his fingers to his mouth to illustrate the destructive aspect of the proposed aspect of the event. Elsewhere, Stalin defends his army against charges of rape and pillage in Yugoslavia saying that soldiers were human and needed some kind of emotional release. (With malevolent brilliance, Stalin follows up the comment on another instance by kissing Djilas’ wife and saying that he did so despite the fact that he might later be accused of rape.)

Notwithstanding Stalin’s personal foibles, Djilas presents his conversations has he heard them, and these conversations show off some of Stalin’s unique talents, including a sense of realism in international relations, a capacity for accepting at least limited disagreement within the socialist bloc, a sense of humor, and an ability to understand what motivates people. In one vivid scene, Djilas, a gifted intellectual, is able to discuss Russian literature with Stalin in some depth. Although Stalin’s crimes are unpardonable, one can’t but admire any ideology that regards literature as worthy of discussion in the midst of global war and reconstruction.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Immoralist in Moscow

Andre Gide

It seems self-evident that gay men produce the best European and American fiction. Witness the literary supremacy of Proust, Burroughs, Capote, Baldwin, Wilde, Vidal, Mann, James, and Gide. And who can forget the first time one read Gide’s best book, The Immoralist? But Gide prostituted his literary talent and became an apologist for Stalinist Russia.

This wasn’t unusual during the 1930s. In France, the ideological alternatives, of course, included Catholic anti-modernist movements that seemed to sympathize with German and Italian fascism. In the mid-1930s, Gide spoke up publicly in support of Stalinist Russia. Three years later, he visited the country on the occasion of Gorky’s funeral and published his assessment of the country in a widely read little book entitled, Return from the U.S.S.R.

Gide’s observations are somewhat mixed, but his eagerness to be enthusiastic about the possibilities of Soviet Russia had not yet dimmed. Communist Russia remained an “unprecedented experiment” about the future of the whole of humanity. If Europe seemed awash in economic and political turmoil, if the German NAZI party seemed particularly odious, a glorious future was struggling to be born in socialist Russia. In 1937, Gide spoke without irony or sarcasm about a “chosen land,” a new society “for all people,” and a society in which “utopia was becoming a reality.”

Having recently written about the evils of European colonialism, Gide was not entirely unaware of his host’s attempts to showcase what was best about Soviet society for their esteemed visitor. However, Gide believed he had cracked the code of the Russian state and could report back on the essence of the Russian experience as it was lived by ordinary people. And what did Soviet Russia look like? It was filled with sincere efforts to improve society and “engineer men’s souls” for the better. Even in a relatively poor country, the Russian Government had created rest homes for the elderly, camps for children, and culture parks where ordinary people played games, danced, sang, played chess, participated in sports, watched movies, listened to edifying lectures, and even went to the theatre. The state was all pervasive, but in an avuncular rather than overtly repressive sense. It organized the people into pioneer clubs for children, komsomol organizations for earnest young men and women, and other associations for adults.

More than anything, Gide was curious to know what this state “could do with man.” And, this being the case, it was natural that Soviet officials should show up a model kolkholz. In one, he saw fruit trees, flower gardens, and other scenic amenities. According to these officials, the kolkolz was so efficient that its workers were able to double their salaries, since they all allegedly shared in the success of the experiment in communal work. Gide was ambivalent about the impersonal dormitory atmosphere of the sleeping quarters, and slightly saddened to note that everybody had the same portraits of Stalin on the walls, as well as the same ugly furniture. For these people, their home was—to quote the modernist architect LeCourbousier—“a machine for living” and nothing more. More radically, these kolkholz workers had almost no personal effects. Having overthrown the tyranny of capitalism individualism, they apparently had no need for trinkets and baubles.

During his visit, Gide came to believe that the U.S.S.R. had made some trade-offs in its quest to do great things for its citizens. It had built ugly buildings, created some consumer shortages, and deemphasized creativity and individuality. It had also produced a gauche attitude toward foreign and a culture of superiority: Russians seemed anxious only to tell the world how superior their way of life had become, but were extremely ill-informed about the outside world. Gide even recognized that conformism and an authoritarian spirit had undermined the original spark of revolutionary liberty and fraternity.

On the other hand, Gide believed Russians were experiencing a precious moment in human history: a classless society, where nobody was any richer or poorer than his or her neighbor and everybody worked for the greater good of society as opposed to the prosperity of the individual. Gide’s real concern was that revolutionary momentum might decrease rather than increase. While recognizing that Russia was trying to consolidate the gains of the revolution in order to shore up its ability to defend itself against the growing power of Germany, Gide claimed to be disappointed that Russia was giving some ground and reestablishing the authority of the family, suppressing any hint of Trotskyism, and dampening criticism wherever it appeared. It’s interesting to speculate further along those lines. It’s customary to say that Russia would have been better off without the Revolution, but perhaps Russia would also have been better with more Revolution?

Friday, November 20, 2009

When You're 99.9 % Sure

Head Of Cheka

To pick up where I left off, the letters that make up Christopher Cerf and Marina Albee’s book, Small Fires: Letters from the Soviet People to Ogonyok, 1987- 1990, measure the impact of Communist politics on ordinary people. When it came to politics, glasnost called into question the longstanding principle—in operation since 1918--that political parties as well as factions were a threat to the country. From 1987 to 1990, many Soviets had had enough: they now asked for personal rights, competition in elections, political pluralism, governmental checks and balances, decentralization, equality in political processes, and popular participation in politics.

Soviet elections were one area of concern for Soviets in the age of glasnost. As anybody of my generation will recall, Soviet politicians frequently won elections with 99.9 percent of the vote, or some similar crushing margin of victory. In Small Fires, we get a glimpse of one participant’s views on the subject. According to a voter, people brought passports to the voting booth in order to verify who they were while they performed their civic duty and, much more importantly, lived up to the expectations of local Communist Party officials. However, voters routinely brought the passports of other family members to register their votes as well. Party bureaucrats didn’t care what individual voters actually thought, they just wanted to report high levels of political participation to their superiors.

Of course, elections did not entail choice. Before Perestroika, Soviet voters had only one choice for any given election. The Party selected candidates, and voters endorsed the decision. Soviet politicians were one layer of the Soviet nomenklatura, the privileged caste in Russian society. Members of the nomenklatura often drove in black sedans, shopped in special government stores, avoided long lines at the doctor’s office, and had access to state-supported dachas.

In theory, the U.S.S.R. worked accordingly: local soviets reported up to regional executive committees who reported up the chain to the Supreme Soviet, which concentrated power in the hands of a small Central Committee. The units of government were districts, oblasts, and then, largest of all, republics. In this context, many ordinary people felt that Lenin’s idea that all power belong to the soviets had long since been betrayed. In the Soviet Union, power was thoroughly centralized, with all power residing in the hands of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

The irony of glasnost and perestroika is that Gorbachev’s reform efforts were made possible as a result of this extreme centralization. Although his proposals threatened to undermine the authority of Party officials at many different levels, these officials were not accustomed to questioning central authority or resisting authority. Many of these officials had risen to power under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev as a result of one factor—their personal loyalty to the Party Leader.

Since most Russians had never participated in politics, Gorbachev’s reforms—Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985--were shocking. In 1989, The Congress of People’s Deputies was televised for the first time. Yet once the floodgates of Glasnost and Perestroika were unleashed, there was no turning back. Letter writers in Ogonyok repeatedly criticized their government. They were shocked that leading dissidents such as Andre Sakharov were routinely vilified by the government. They were angered that the Congress of People’s Deputies didn’t even have current electronic voting technologies, and that members often voted for one another when one member decided not to show up for an official vote.

Ordinary Russians disliked the political system, but state repression operated on many different levels. The very concept of freedom was circumscribed in Soviet society. It existed, in theory, in the Soviet Constitution, but in practice it was a meaningless concept. The Soviet army was not accountable to anyone, and officers could bump civilians off of trains or force junior recruits into personal service. Experienced soldiers physically abused new recruits—the practice was called “the rule of the grandfathers”—and the army establishment did nothing. Courts could operate at night, away from prying eyes, without benefit of defense witnesses or juries. Citizens carried passports that assigned nationality status to all citizens and requested permission from local officials to move into a new jurisdiction. Some young men died from the abuse.

Worse than the army, was the K.G.B., a vast, silent, well-financed internal security service that opened people’s mail, enforced prohibitions against contact with foreigners (which had not been explicitly endorsed by a person’s supervisor), shut down protests, hassled Russians who illegally attempted to photograph bridges or train stations or anything else that had was allegedly related to state security, and guarded its secrets even in the midst of glasnost. Even in 1991, Russians hesitated to speak up about the dreaded K.G.B., symbol of everything wrong with Soviet life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Toad Work

Recently I have become aware that Blackberry commercials are the most annoying thing I encounter on a daily basis. Before their recent ad campaign my impression of Blackberry was mostly positive. I'm a little suspicious of Apple and the iPhone, which are far too eager to corner the market on cool. Buying a Blackberry would be a vote for the classic and a way to resist the stampede toward the new. Plus Obama loves his, or did before the secret service took it away. My affinity for the Blackberry is a sign that, whatever its excesses, there is still something alluring about American business culture. Even socialists have to admit it.

But then appeared this ad campaign, featuring young gyrating arty-types, rock musicians, dancers--a whole menagerie of unpromising wealth-enhancement strategies, all offering obeisance to that counterculture businessman's koan "Love what you do". This is offensive because I find it impossible to believe that people who work, especially people whose work requires a Blackberry, love it. Even painters and musicians hate to work; why else do so many big rock bands split up after 10 years? I'll resist the urge to quote another Philip Larkin poem. But even when work is fundamental to a person's identity, as it should be, it is impossible to ignore the futility interwoven into every human pursuit. Artists realize this as well as anyone. The only people who don't realize it are those who are so narrowly focused on short-term gain that they lack the ability to generate a narrative that would explain to themselves their actions in the world.

Coat recently wrote that socialism's aim was to exhalt use over exchange values, to return us to a precapitalist intimacy with things. I think at its essence socialism was a critique of work and an attempt at its rehabilitation. The Soviet Union tried to create a world in which work would be awesome. Steelworkers became celebrities. Poets wrote 5 lines a year and got a dacha in the country. Functionaries and bureaucrats were granted absolute local power. It didn't turn out that way of course. If anything work was more unpleasant in that drab system. And there wasn't even anything to buy with whatever you earned. But as the planet fills up with bodies and overheats, as industry disappears and the number of indispensible individuals shrinks, we might consider grappling with this toad while we still have a chance. And buying a Blackberry won't help at all.

It's Hard Out Here for a Communist

Long Live The Soviets

One of the best ways to understand the Soviet Union is to look at the country through the lenses of ordinary citizens. But since the Soviet Union was a police state, it only became possible to learn the views of ordinary citizens during the period of Glasnost and Perestroika. The moment when citizens began to write letters of complaint, protest, and accusation to liberal journals such as Ogonyok (Small Fire) was extraordinary.

Until 1988, the public sphere in Russia had been small and fragile. But when the process of liberalization began, the floodgates of suffering opened wide, and people began sending thousands upon thousands of angry, plaintive letters to the editors of liberal journals, who printed a wide variety of them in each issue. It’s difficult to summarize the hundred or so letters that appear in Small Fires: Letters from the Soviet People to Ogonyok Magazine, 1987- 1990, Edited by Christopher Cerf and Marina Albee. They touch on every aspect of Soviet life, and leave no doubt that modern Russian history and experience had little in common with that of America or Western Europe. As the 20th century drew to a close, a large portion of the Russian people understood that the Communist experiment—at least in the form it had taken in Russia up until that point—had failed the Russian people. Agriculture was underdeveloped, the state couldn’t properly regulate supply and demand, shortages and queues and rationing abounded, corruption was endemic, the political process didn’t cater to the will of the people, and so on.

Below are just a few of the letter-writers complaints:

The kolkozes (collective farms which, in theory, belonged to the workers who ran them) and sovkhozes (state farms—not so different in practice from the collective farms) were collapsing. The discrepancy between their optimistic names and reality had become increasingly jarring to Russians who knew they absorbed huge amounts of targeted investment but produced very little agricultural produce. Most were called things such as “Will of the Proletariat” or “Lenin’s path,” but, as one embittered jester pointed out in his letter, they ought to be renamed “40 years without a harvest” or “30 years of padded figures.”

The economy was in ruin. Railroads were in disrepair. People were waiting line for everything. Wait lists for cars were 15 to 20 years, and spare parts were so rare that existing cars were often off the streets one half of the time. There was no sugar for cakes and cookies. Women couldn’t get perfume or skin crème. Stores were closed and then remodeled when foreign dignitaries came to down, but these same stores stocked nothing when foreigners weren’t in town. People were on rations for basic necessities, and forced to make 100 milligrams of soap, for instance, last three months for an entire family.

Corruption permeated every corner of the Soviet economy. The retailers were collecting scare goods and selling them at a huge markup to select customers and keeping the profits. Telephone operators sold calls to friends and acquaintances.
Technology was outdated. The state apparatus bragged about Soviet production levels, but often the country was producing obsolete products like typewriters even after the West had long since switched to computers. One letter writer seemed in awe of the idea of a personal computer and a personal printer.. He also wondered why copying machines were considered to b e sacred machinery in Russia, when Americans seemed to be able to make copies whenever they wanted to. Russians were still using carbon paper when the West didn’t even stock this obsolete office supply anymore. The reader noted that the Soviet government might still be hoping to combat the spread of pornography and bourgeois ideas by restricting copy machines—so the scarcity of new technology might be due to Soviet ideology as much as to Soviet economic backwardness.

Censorship was still being practiced as evidenced by the publication of Dostoyevsky’s complete works, minus his political novel, The Possessed. Indeed, one letter-writer also called attention to the irony that he couldn’t get a copy of Gorbachev’s new book, Perestroika, although it was readily available in the West. Whether the problem was related to the paper shortage in Russia, or a form of indirect censorship, he did not say.

The people had little access to information. The most informative state news show was deliberately aired when older people had gone to bed. The dangerous situation in Armenia was ignored altogether in the press. For decades, state propaganda had been blaming the Pentagon for everything that went wrong in the world. The Soviet press was severely restricted in its access to the news makers. The history books were tainted by official propaganda. One dictionary that was published in 1988 proclaimed that only the West used racist stereotypes, that Western philanthropy was a tool of its spy services, that Soviet anti-Semitism did not exist, and that the U.S.S.R. had solved its nationalities problem once and for all. Trotsky and the Bible were only now becoming available to readers. Soviet geography was only slowly becoming a declassified subject, even in the age of satellites.

The Soviet Union was spending far too much money on its military budget. Moreover, the Soviet Army was a closed institution and provided the public with little or no information about how it operated, or how much money it drained from the Soviet economy each year. The Afghan invasion was, of course, a disaster with disastrous and far-reaching consequences.

One man’s wait for a new automobile sums up the desperation of the citizenry. As a veteran, he was entitled to “jump” to the head of a wait for a new car. When he went to find out about that car, he was told that many other veterans were already in this line and that it would be 62 years before he would be eligible for the car. In other words, the man could expect the car in the year 1051. With grim humor, the man wrote to the magazine to say that he thought that he would like to visit his heirs in the new car. At 130 years of age, he would make quite an impression on them all.

Cash Money

Adam Smith

Without being an expert in Communism, I can imagine the general desire to somehow transcend capitalism. There is something jarring about an economic system that persistently transforms, undermines, and changes the way we live our lives. The vocabulary of capitalism is so thoroughly integrated into our speech patterns that we hardly notice it anymore. But think for a moment about the way the discourse of capitalism structures the way we think about almost everything we (pun attended) value. We talk about money, debt, class, socioeconomic status, financial transactions, markets, prices, commodities, sales, discounts, interest, wealth, poverty, merchandise, monetary policy, fiscal policy, deficits, economic growth, economic decline, economic well-being, change, currency, cash, money, Benjamins, credit, payments, dividends, annuities, salaries, bonuses, savings, deals, trades, loans, dollars, etc.

Socialism was a well-intentioned effort to turn back the clock (or to advance the clock) to a time where human beings were not subject to competition and the caprice of supply and demand. As bad as the Middles Ages were, they did demonstrate that men and women are indeed capable of attributing meaning to things other than money. In the Dark Ages, people sometimes did without trade. Hell, they sometimes did without money. Although the Dark Ages may never have been as dark as they are sometimes made out to be—or were they worse—people were often forced to grow their own food in a state of near total autarchy. People valued Christian ideals (or didn’t) and military prowess, which gradually evolved in a decidedly non-capitalist set of values, to wit, chivalry. The bourgeoisie, as a class, didn’t even exist. People worked for protection (or because they had become quasi-slaves, or serfs) rather than for monetary remuneration.

If socialism failed to create a viable alternative to capitalism, it seems impossible to believe that human beings will accept this decision as final. Is the language of trade the only language we’re capable of using? Does everything really have a price? Hunter-gatherers seem to have gotten along for many thousands of years without capitalism (or capitalist accumulation). Can we do it again?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

E.H. Carr

Dynasty Ends

Is a blogger who deals with the Russian Revolution obligated to read E.H. Carr’s massive treatment of the 1920s? As Carr doesn’t actually cover the Revolution or the Civil War, I have a plausible if not persuasive case for amnesty. However, Carr has dealt with this period of the consolidation of revolutionary energies in more detail than any other author, and by a wide margin. Carr has in fact written over 4000 pages on the subject, and this count doesn’t include any of his other smaller studies of men like Bakunin or Herzen. He’s covered NEP, Socialism in One Country, and many other key Russian events with patience and diligence. (For Carr, Stalin’s approach to the challenge of Trotsky and others was extremely practical: could Communists be expected to wait for the global revolution rather than advance Russia’s national interests in the meantime?)

I’m not about to take on this monumental task of reading a large portion of Carr anytime soon, so I’m thankful for Laqueur’s short overview of the work, written over two decades ago. Back then, the jury was still out on E.H. Carr. Carr has a lot to recommend him. He had a rich diplomatic past and excellent command of the primary sources available in the West. He is also relatively objective, if such a thing is possible, and knows how to write, as evidenced by his wonderfully comic treatment of Bakunin’s strange career for instance. He also appreciated the gravity of what was happened in the Soviet Union. This really was an experiment without parallel in modern history. However, E.H. Carr’s heroic attempt to turn his long series of books the post-revolutionary era doesn’t quite measure up to Macaulay’s treatment of Rome, which remains as a profound work of literature even if its historical explanation are often out of favor with professional historians.

If Laqueur was critical of Carr he was not yet prepared to past judgment on Carr’s project. It was, he thought, too early for that. By now, Carr’s mistakes loom larger and his enormous oeuvre is only sometimes seen as useful let alone authoritative by the present giants of Russian history. Laqueur naturally found fault in Carr’s decision to omit the Revolution and Civil War, since the policies and structures of the 1920s only make sense if one understands how and why they were first created. Laqueur also finds fault in Carr’s claim to impartiality, which admittedly waxes and wanes which each book, according to the shifts in modern European experience. For Laqueur, objectivity can be a mask for insensitivity to human suffering, or a mask for one’s hidden but also present viewpoint and prejudice.

The fascinating thing about Carr is that he wrote a history that left out most personalities and focused instead on legal, political, and economic structures. This approach helps Carr to overlook dramatic stories that didn’t really make a difference in the bigger life of the Soviet state. However, Laqueur says Carr often overlooks the reality behind formal structures. The Soviet Constitution, for instance, is really not very important. It reads surprisingly well, but since it was never implemented, the real story of Soviet jurisprudence is that it never evolved to protect the most fundamental rights of Soviet citizens.

Carr’s major response to his critics was that he was attempting to do a kind of history that made few moral judgments. As he said on some occasions, it would be inappropriate for historians to judge the morality of players in the English or French Revolutions, so why do so now with the Soviet one? Moreover, what’s true of France and England may not be true of the Soviet Union. If the Soviet government would look brutal if it appeared in the West, it’s not quite so unusual in terms of Russian experience. As the facts are now known, this seems to be a woefully insensitive to the millions of Russians whose lives were ruined or ended by Stalin’s police state.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rule Number One: "Take Power When It's Given to You"

Marching Women

Walter Laqueur’s 1917 is a wonderful overview of both the year 1917 and the historiography surrounding it. Let me just hit on a few of his more interesting points about the year and its place in history.

Unlike the French Revolution, historians were largely unable to analyze new primary sources related to the Russian Revolution as a result of the closed society that guarded these documents. So the debate over the Russian Revolution was largely been confined to the meaning of events right up until 1991, as opposed to debating what actually happened. One crucial question about meaning is whether to accept the Marxist contention that 1917 was a deep, structural transformation of society rather than an accident or conspiracy.

The counter-revolution saw things differently: the Bolsheviks defeated their enemies because they exploited a series of bizarre and tragic circumstances that led to an unprecedented power vacuum. There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of the Bolsheviks—once a tiny minority even within the greater socialist movement--in Russia. In light of subsequent events in Russia, which really did transform society in fundamental ways, this argument is unconvincing. But Laqueur also points out one weakness in the Marxist argument that the year 1917 was really the inevitable result of historical processes and irresistible social pressures. If the first revolution of 1917, the one that resulted in the Provincial Government, represented the victory of the bourgeoisie, is it possible that real socialists actually replaced the bourgeoisie less than one year later, in the October Revolution of 1917?

Laqueur also looks at the victory of the Bolsheviks over their socialist rivals. It’s one thing to look at why the Tsar lost credibility and the Kadet party failed to make a commitment to the kind of radical reform the country needed. It’s even possible to understand that Kerensky’s Provincial Government was too attached to the war effort to survive failed military offensives against the Germans. But why did the Bolsheviks prevail against the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who were each much larger socialist parties? Laqueur thinks that most historians have accepted the premise that the Mensheviks weren’t equipped to compete with the Bolsheviks. Although they were much larger, they accepted the traditional Marxist theory that socialist revolution was not appropriate in backward Russia, which lagged far behind the West in terms of economic development as well as political maturity. The Mensheviks were, at first, more numerous than the Bolsheviks, but they had no will to power, and were even committed to a measure of democracy.

The Social Revolutionaries were more complicated. Were they or were they not capable of competing for power with the Bolsheviks? The Social Revolutionaries were by far the largest socialist party in Russia. But they were seriously divided into left-wing and right-wing faction—to say nothing of the Chernov center--and the left-wing faction was closer to the Bolsheviks than they were to their own center. They were rooted in the countryside, and almost by definition bereft of strong communication networks and mobilization strategies.

It’s true that the Bolsheviks had some significant advantages over their rivals. The Bolsheviks were well-organized, fervent, and willing to take power. They had no scruples about democracy. Moreover, the Bolsheviks were ideologically versatile. Lenin had scrapped large portions of Marxist theory by moving to seize power in Russia, but he had also thrown over Marxist theory by conveniently adopting the peasant-friendly land confiscation platform of his Social Revolutionary rivals. Indeed, Lenin at first also favored the liberation of the subject nationalities, which clearly conflicted to any notion of the solidarity of the working classes across national loyalties.

For Laqueur, one of the strange ironies of 1917 is that the Bolsheviks defeated their rivals and won Russia precisely because they had such a poor political position. That is to say, the Bolsheviks won because nobody else took them seriously and, more importantly, nobody else was willing to make a serious play for power at a time when power seemed to be so elusive and ephemeral. Laqueur sites that famous worker exclamation to the Social Revolutionary leader, Chernov: “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it’s given to you.”

Since Chernov had just witnessed the execution of the tsar followed by the gradual dissolution of the authority of the Provincial Government (which shared power with the Soviets even at the height of its authority), it’s no wonder that he wasn’t eager to “take power.” But once the Bolsheviks did take power, they became instantly locked in Civil War with reactionary opponents. And this being so, large portions of the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary Party were obviously unlikely to support the White Guards against any form of socialism.

Laqueur’s concluding remarks on the year 1917 and its place in history are notable, notwithstanding the fact that they undermine the premise of this blog. Laqueur says that 1917 was at first seen to be one of the central turning points in modern history. However, in retrospect, he feels that historians will see 1917 as only an early sign that the focus of world history was moving eastward toward China, India, and other countries. In hindsight, he thinks decolonization will loom much larger than anything that happened in Russia.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Wandering Spector of the Revolution

The Nabokovs

When I was 21 I moved from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, California. Upon arrival, I entered a totally alien world. Los Angeles felt like a foreign country, more foreign than many of the real foreign countries I had previously visited. In some ways it felt like another planet. Greater Los Angeles had exotic plant life like palm trees, exotic homes (all homes occupied a single level, no matter how grand), and exotic weather (winter—a staple of life up until that moment--somehow disappeared altogether and I ended up going hiking on Christmas Eve). In California one ran into magnificent beaches, washed up movie stars delivering Chinese food, mountains, and deserts. Still ostensibly in America, I was now a few hours from surreal locales like Tijuana, Barstow, Santa Monica, and Las Vegas.

I lived first in Santa Monica and then in Westwood, but I worked in Hollywood, which seemed to be the epicenter of the bizarre universe I had unwittingly entered. I was here on a fluke—my girlfriend had moved and I had followed her on a whim—and that made everything more interesting, more jarring. Each day I drove to work on Sunset Avenue, scene of so many movies and television shows that had, up until now, seemed to be located in a fantasy landscape. I started my drive in Beverly Hills—the show was in full swing at the time and defined the place for me—and drove past enormous landscapes on a winding road, past the Beverly Hills Hotel, past the enormous billboards featured on Entourage, and into Hollywood. My job was located at Sunset and LaBrea, at a post-production studio, something I had never heard of until I landed the interview through a friend of a friend. The place was directly across from the Seventh Veil, a strip joint, and crack addicts regularly strolled the alley behind it.

I left Los Angeles abruptly, dramatically--moving back across the length of the country to Washington, D.C. My departure from alien Los Angeles was so abrupt that, for many years (and sometimes even now), I vividly imagined that my old life in L.A. was continuing, even as one part of me set up shop again thousands of miles away on the East Coast. Years later, I sometimes still wonder how my Los Angeles persona is getting on. I figure he has gotten a few promotions, and is no longer working for $9 dollars an hour. I am in sales now, no doubt, living in a cheaper suburb, enjoying the weather, etc. As I write this, I figure Californian Derek is probably on Facebook, and I should certainly attempt to “friend” him. He’s out there somewhere—unless he too has moved by now. Or perhaps he has already died. And come to think of it, doesn't death work according to the same principle of doubleness: what are ghosts if not evidence of rupture and the multiplicity of plot lines that emanate from the same point of origin?

I think all history is like that. I think ruptures (especially traumatic ones) don’t really end lives, they just multiply them. In Russia, these ruptures were commonplace, and severe. The Revolution of 1917 was the ultimate break in continuity. Thus it is that many Russians continued to believe for decades that the Old Russia was still alive and well, living its life quietly and uneventfully. If the tsar and his family were brutally murdered in a basement, many believed for a very long time that at least one or two of the children had managed to escape and had escaped abroad, waiting to return to Russia to reestablish the old way of life. It’s seems quite probably that there is a Romanov somewhere still hoping to return to the thrown—and who can say with certainty that he won’t?

The Russian Diaspora (perhaps all exile communities work this way) lived a rich double life, setting up show in alien worlds—Prague, Berlin, Paris, New York—even as they enjoyed making contact with ongoing pre-revolutionary life of their alternative personas. Bunin and Nabokov expressed this feeling of temporal bifurcation in two totally different literary styles, but the mood was the same: the Old Life still existed. When Nabokov’s protagonist enters a Russian food shop, it’s a “kind of wax museum of the old country’s cuisine.” Most poignantly, Nabokov—like all those who allow themselves to acknowledge the existence of double (or a multiplicity of) lives, imagines a homecoming to Russia, where his childhood goes on, unencumbered by political reality, economic transformation, violence, or indeed his present life as an exile. He imagines walking around his family’s old estate, noticing the changes that have occurred to the place over time. The idea of re-capturing the past (however frustrating or illusive) is, he says, the thing that makes “the business of exile worth cultivating.”

It’s childhood, above all, that continues to live for Nabokov. The Revolution came during his childhood with unexpected fury and violence, and thus that childhood can’t evolve or disappear. It lives on. Nabokov sometimes says that he recognizes that it’s futile to recapture that which has disappeared, but his whole work testifies to the contrary. His childhood is more vivid in his books than it must have been when it occurred. As Nabokov writes in the Gift: “Thus a former impression keeps living within harmony’s ice.”

Oprah, Streisand, and Gramsci

Barbra Streisand's "Love Is The Answer" After Party

If it seems remarkable that Russians overthrew their government and installed a radical new one in 1917, it sometimes seems more incredible that America doesn’t have a revolution today. Who could have guessed that the exploiting class—the superrich—would publicly flaunt their privileged status to every corner of the country?

If you say that people in Russia always knew about aristocratic privilege and tsarist palaces, note that America’s have turned the lives of the morbidly wealthy into entertainment. See the show, Cribs, for example, where ordinary viewers get tours of insanely ornate mansions, filled with basketball courts, swimming pools, ten car garages, and the like. It’s as if you were daring viewers to seize power in order to eliminate the disparities. Antonio Gramsci, Italian Communist, made the argument that the upper classes achieved dominance over the lower classes through cultural and ideological stratagems. The working classes would revolt, he said, if they hadn’t become complicit in their own degradation.

As we watch Cribs, we seem to be doing just that, admiring our cultural heroes and their privilege more than we love ourselves, our class, our country, or justice itself. Now I know I sound rather smug, mocking people who are in love with those refrigerators that are stuffed to the rim with 40 bottles of Cherry Coke and 22 jars of Nutella. Not so. I find myself enjoying Kathy Griffin’s journey to ever-expanding heights of wealth and power. And I’m in ecstasy when I get a glimpse of Oprah and Streisand just kicking back, sipping tea, and keeping it real by discussing the daily aggravations of the superrich, including the difficulty of finding five star hotel rooms for dogs displaced by Santa Barbara fires, the challenge of maintaining multiple homes and island retreats, and the bother of having to keep yacht staff at peak performance on both coasts at once—or words to that effect. Clearly, the revolution will not be televised.

Friday, November 13, 2009


HBO Premiere Of "The Sopranos" - Arrivals

The most compelling aspect of the show, the Sopranos—aside from Edie Falco's perfect acting—is Tony Soprano’s relationship to power. Tony Soprano is a walking explanation of how power works in any context. Power has mysterious origins. In Tony’s case, it’s partly inherited--a product of the unique history of Italian immigration in New Jersey, an underground milieu, and the violent personal successes of his father and uncle. And it’s partly contextual: Tony’s strength wouldn’t be operational in many different contexts but is perfectly suited to the work of cosa nostra. Tony’s power is also the result of a variety of personal traits, including physical strength, cunning intelligence, charisma, sensitivity, machismo, savage humor, and brutality.

As the show proceeds, it’s often hard to know which facet of Tony’s personality is most important to his success. He’s a good negotiator. He knows the rules of the game, both in terms of receiving respect from others in the criminal underworld, and in knowing how city councils and labor unions and gambling consortiums work. He also knows other people. For a sociopath, he maintains the ability to empathize with other people, at least to the extent of knowing what motivates them. Tony sometimes makes mistakes. He’s out of his element when dealing with elite society, and can’t quite control his own wife, Carmella, or his children.

By and large, however, Tony’s recipe for controlling others works well. He’s tender enough with his crew—his cousin for example—to give them each hope that he may well have their best interests at heart. He’s cruel enough to keep them fearful of his ire. He also possesses a wicked sense of humor, mostly geared toward ridiculing, mocking, and degrading those around him. (The scene where Tony realizes that those around him are laughing hysterically at his jokes only because they realize the need to flatter the boss is priceless).

The fact that Tony seeks therapy in the attempt to overcome panic attacks hints at a fatal weakness in Tony’s armor. However, Tony’s developing capacity for introspection is in many ways a testament to his leadership potential. As the therapist’s mentor tells her, research shows that psychopaths don’t gain anything from therapy. Rather, they use therapy to gratify their own egos or, more frighteningly, to overcome barriers to an even more efficient savagery. And this of course is how Tony’s therapy works. He doesn’t really become more humane. He’s unkind to his son, and analyzes his own dreams (at least this is my interpretation of the episode) to uncover—and murder--a government mole in his organization.

One thinks of Woody Allen, who remained in therapy his whole life, but somehow managed to justify the fact that he seduced a young woman who was, effectively, his own step-daughter. As the ultimate television personification of the successful pursuit of power, the Russophile naturally thinks of Joseph Stalin. Although all of Russia was his stage, Stalin had the Soprano touch. He was intelligent, cunning, and brave. Like Tony, Stalin understood people. He knew how to flatter them, persuade them, humor them, belittle them, and scare them. He made friends easily. He spoke persuasively. He was patient in the application of his power, and could wait months or even years to exact revenge.

In the end, Stalin was an effective political leader because he, like Tony Soprano, possessed self-discipline and good, old-fashioned people skills, while maintaining a sociopath’s ability to use force and terror without compunction whenever necessary. Of course, Stalin also used terror when it wasn’t necessary, killing people who posed no threat to his regime. He was paranoid, but probably also executed people for a variety of other reasons, believing that his will was synonymous with raison d’etat as well as communist philosophical principles. Tony Soprano would probably have needed a philosophy to have risen to the level of Stalin as a mass murderer

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Giving Atheism a Bad Name

Charles Bradlaugh

How do you know you’ve had a Revolution with a capital “R?” I’d say when your new government overturns 800 years of Christianity or so and makes a cult of atheism. Worse than that, you know you've had a serious cultural event when you've turned atheism into a sort of mirror image of the very theology it hopes to elude. (For analogous American trends, See James Wood's recent article in the 31 August 2009 New Yorker: "God In the Quad: A Done Defends the Supreme Being from the New Atheists").

How atheism established itself—even in the context of political and economic upheaval—is a mystery to me. Apparently Russian revolutionaries took their Marxism seriously. Religion was the opiate of the masses, a symptom of the false consciousness that covered over class oppression and obscured the true economic and political interests of the working classes. Even so, a political party has to have a very low regard for the notion of democracy to dethrone a common religion. (It was actually illegal for an atheist to sit in the British Parliament right up through most of the nineteenth century--See Walter Arnstein’s excellent monograph on the subject, the Bradlaugh Case--and few if any self-professed atheists could win any significant election in America today.

Evidently Russia’s official religion, Orthodoxy, was so corrupted by its contact with autocracy and aristocracy that it had lost much of its charm even for Russian peasants. Perhaps Russian peasant cared more about occupying church lands than they did about following church doctrine. Part of the issue is that the Russian peasants were never as Christian as they were sometimes made out to be. Although Christianity has reemerged in the wreckage of communism, historians such as Bruce Lincoln have argued that Russian peasants were as polytheistic or pagan or superstitious as they were Christian. Without literacy, and without educated priests in their midst, peasant understanding of Christian dogma was extremely fragile.

In any event, Soviet atheism quickly became an oppressive force. The religious were scorned and marginalized if not harassed. Were Soviet atheists as intolerant and oppressive as Western Christians continue to be in countries like America? It seems hard to imagine that this could be possible. It’s a tragedy really, since the novel phenomena of overt agnosticism, deism, and atheism had traditionally been allied to the Enlightenment principles like toleration, openness, free inquiry, skepticism, and equality. In fact, the word “freethinker” was a synonym for agnosticism throughout the nineteenth century. And atheism had no history—except perhaps in the French Revolution—of torture, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and warfare, as Christianity and theism in general had.

Yet somehow the Soviet Union managed to do the impossible by giving atheism a bad name. The great experiment in mental freedom was, alas, a failure. Perhaps the problem was that communism became a religion itself. Perhaps people are doomed to some form of religion—the real Original Sin--regardless of their aspirations.


Russian Research

The Soviet Union invented a new language that Orwell might have called New Speak. Soviet political leaders spoke to one another using Marxist phraseology, and spoke to the Russian public in a glowing torrent of propaganda. Eventually, the emptiness of Russia’s official discourse collapsed on itself. Everyone knew that the Pravda, the Moscow newspaper named for the Russian word for “truth” meant just the opposite. People preferred to seek out literature smuggled in from the West, printed illegally at home, or gleaned from jammed foreign radio signals.

At some point, the discrepancy between Russian reality and Russian words became unsustainable. Soviet propaganda was also directed outward, to its allies as well as its enemies. A USSR New York exhibition pamphlet, printed in 1959, illustrates the eerie quality of the Soviet effort to convince Americans that the Soviet Union was outperforming the American one and would soon surpass it. While admitting that Russia had not yet built a Communist society—which would presumably make any comparison with flawed capitalist states absurd—the pamphlet reminds readers that the country was the first socialist state in the world, and had overcome a long legacy of economic and cultural backwardness to become the world’s second largest industrial power.

Moreover, Russia had used socialist planning principles to increase gross industrial output by “36 times since 1913.” Its scientists had engineers had already made important contributions to diverse fields, including agriculture, optical instrumentation, engineering industries, nuclear medicine, the biological sciences, and machinery. The pamphlet also emphasized Soviet successes in the production of iron, steel, chemicals, and various forms of energy. And, if one cared to listen to friendly Russian exhibition staff members, they would tell Americans about Soviet advances in electronics, semi-conductors, radio and television applications, and infrared instruments.

Best of all, the pamphlet graciously reminded Americans that the Soviet Union, and not the United States, had launch the first “artificial satellite” into space, Sputnik, a milestone in the long history of human accomplishment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The West's Love Affair with Stalin

Uncle Joe

It may seem odd that this blog is devoted to one year in the whole of human history. Why is one moment more or less important than any other moment? Walter Laqueuer observes that historians seem to agree that some moments are more important than others, and probably a plurality of historians would agree that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 is the single most important moment in modern world history, if not in the whole of human history.

This was of course the rhetoric of Revolution, but, strangely, historians have, by and large, endorsed this view. Even so, they don’t agree about anything beyond that. They condemn the purges, but disagree about almost every other detail of the revolutionary experience. One things historians still debate is why the West failed to come to terms with the nature of Soviet tyranny for so long. Laqueuer analyzes this dilemma in his essay, “Russia and the West” in The Fate of the Revolution, arguing that the reasons for Western naiveté are diverse and complicated.

Laqueuer begins the analysis by reminding readers that most contemporaries fundamentally misunderstood the French Revolution too. Even Burke and Paine—despite their genius for analyzing the philosophical significance of the Revolution—got it wrong in many fundamental aspects. Burke thought that revolutionary violence sprang from the actions of a small conspiracy of morally corrupt and evil men. He did not think the Revolution had sprung up as a reaction or byproduct of a host of societal structural flaws and social pressures. Paine, for his part, thought the Revolution was long overdue, but made no serious effort to explain how reform could coexist with revolutionary oppression and capricious murder.

The Russian Revolution naturally met with similar misunderstanding, made worse by the fact that the Russian people were cut off from contact with the West throughout the Revolution and afterward. In London and Paris, most people initially reacted to the Bolshevik takeover with abuse, although Western anger had as much to do with the fact that the West had lost an important ally in the war against Germany. As Laqueur reminds us, the British papers regularly ran articles that sensationalized Bolshevik actions, accusing them of making women the common property of men, nationalizing parenthood, outlawing God and religion, and murdering countless innocents. The attacks were intertwined with virulent anti-Semitism.

Later, the rhetoric was toned down, but sophisticated intellectuals such as the Webbs came to admire Stalin. It’s ironic that the West actually disliked Lenin more than they disliked Stalin. (Note: The Americans were less outraged by the defection of Russia in World War I, and assumed, wrongly, that the Bolsheviks would become more moderate over time. After all, they confidently reminded themselves that Communism removed the incentive of pay differentials and was therefore doomed to failure if left unreformed).

On paper, Lagueur tells us that Stalin’s Constitution was one of the best the world had ever produced, and in person Stalin could be as affable and modest and charming as anyone. Many visitors wrongly assured their constituencies at home that Russia was no less democratic than their homelands. Even Russian justice was lauded. And, if Stalin wasn’t always charming, he was at least powerful: and power, as we all know, is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Stalin had something else going for him: he wasn’t Hitler. This fact must have helped many people to overcome their scruples about the severity of his rule. If he was eliminating opponents, he was at least preparing Russia to meet the crisis Germany was bound to provoke. One is tempted to go further than Laqueur and say that frenzied Nazi propaganda attacks against the Soviet Union must have made it tempting to assume that Stalin’s Russia had something to recommend it. If Hitler hated Russia, maybe the Bolsheviks couldn’t be all bad. Needless to say, the triumph of the Soviet Union in World War II made it that much harder to believe the worst about Bolshevism. And soon after that, Russian industrial growth became the envy of the world.

Birth of the Brezhnev Cool

Germany To Mark 20 Years Since Fall Of Berlin Wall

Nick is on to something by pitching a new Soviet television series. For my part, I’d love to see a show about the Brezhnev era. I’d like to see a show that is marketed to America’s aging population about elderly politicians jockeying for power in the context of a closed, decrepit politburo. It might have the feeling of Twelve Angry Men meets Paris, Texas. And let's face it, neither Madmen or Obama has anything on Brezhnev when it comes to being laid back and cool.

The Paris, Texas inspiration would mean that nothing would ever happen in the show, it would be slower than molasses: 55 minutes of bureaucratic utterances, pregnant silences, and official jargon—and five minutes of human speech. The backdrop would be the Kremlin, the May Day Parade, and Lenin’s perfectly preserved corpse. Television studios will no doubt ask me to make Lenin’s body the narrator for the show a la the dead neighbor in Desperate Housewives. The show would teach Americans to speak the language of Communism, but of course the scientific discourse of Marx would now exist in a world that no longer believes in the promise of socialism. The great divide between Brezhnev rhetoric and reality might be revealing. What if Americans have also abandoned belief in the system we continue to support out of habit? (See also the Daily Show's Comparison of Obama with Gorbachev-both young, prematurely popular, charismatic leaders who won the Nobel Prize, etc.)

If the studio passes on this proposal, I’ll pitch Addicted to Communism, with Dr. Drew. Here, eight or so ordinary folks from various East European countries who still missed communism would go into rehabilitation. They’d talk about how hard it was to let go of Communism and its ideals, benefits, and certainties. One many might say he missed the security of a guaranteed job, another would talk about how hard it was to live with full knowledge of the super-rich, another would talk about the unity of the socialist half of the world, and another might just miss the way his country used to sweep the Olympics. They’d talk it out and adjust to the fuller possibilities of life under capitalism.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Red Men

I was talking to a friend the other day about Mad Men (which I watch on DVD because I don't have cable) and I started thinking how cool a parallel series set in the Soviet Union would be. Some of the themes would be the same: the burgeoning of a consumer society (more imagined than real in the USSR), oppressive if thawing gender relations, Cold War threats of annihilation. Instead of advertisers you'd have apparatchiks, instead of the civil rights movement you'd have poet-dissidents, instead of flashbacks to Korea and the Depression you'd have even darker memories of relatives who disappeared in the night.

I wonder how interested Russians are in the 1950s and 60s and if they engage in Cold War nostalgia the way we do. Do they detect subtle changes in greatcoat and fur hat fashions the way we do in suits and ties? And do they link those minor details of dress and furniture to big reified cultural traits, then press them into artificial ten-year chunks that appear to explain everything about everyone of a certain age?

Women in Exile

Three Profiles

Thus far this blog hasn’t made use of oral history to map the history of the Revolution. Yet oral history helps to see how the Revolution as an abstract phenomenon manifested itself in the particular. In history, it’s the little things that sometimes matter more than the big things. Is it more important to know what happened to autocracy or is it more relevant to ask what happened to windjammers, snow-filled food storage well, oil lamps, dachas, public parks filled with attendant-operated “tricks and follies,” full-length dress school uniforms, French-speaking nannies, and German tutors? Another advantage of oral history is that it helps us to recover the voices of women, whose stories often unfold in the context of the private sphere as opposed to the more masculine public sphere. Although women haven’t produced a large percentage of the documentary evidence for large portions of history, their life experiences are no less important for that.

Memories of Revolution: Russian Women Remember isn’t an objective book and it’s not even about ordinary Russians. The ten women who sat for interviews with Frances Welch and Elena Snow were extraordinary. They were exiles, almost all White Russian exiles, and all grew up in considerable privilege before 1917. One was 98 at the time of the interviews. The stories are remarkable. Some of the exiles knew famous people and participated in public life on a political or artistic level. Leo Tolstoy helped to arrange the adoption of one, who remained in Tolstoyan circles throughout her life. She even painted one of the most famous pictures we have of the master. Another woman’s father served on the Tsar’s personal yacht and went to a school that was tied to the life of the Tsar’s court. She herself became a sculptor of note, soon tied by marriage to a revolutionary of some note.

The histories of these women—as told by the women themselves—shed light on a many facets of Russian history. We learn about how aristocratic and bourgeois families operated, in terms of dating rituals, entertainment, musical preferences, education, servant support, nourishment, and technology. Most poignantly, we see how the trauma of history works. As the book’s authors assert, many of these women see the pre-revolutionary period as an idyllic period, never to be repeated. 1917 came with a fury. Fathers and brothers and male cousins were often murdered or tortured or killed on the battlefield. Properties were confiscated. Many were put to work. Some came close to starvation. Many were jailed, their wives left to plead that as admirals they had at least treated their men with fraternal love and respect.

The book is most powerful in its understatement. As one women remembered, one year she was too young to participate in a school dance. She watched as the older girls danced with elite, uniformed cadets, and thought: “Oh well, next year I’ll be allowed to dance. But next year never came.” Another woman recalled her mother devoting specified days to writing letters for illiterate hired help. The letters often listed each and every member of the letter-sender’s village, including all of their patronymics. The story-teller recalls asking her mother why they had to write such monotonous letters all of the time. The mother explained that if the letter-sender neglected to mention the name of a single member of the peasant commune, he or she would be gravely insulted.

One woman remembers how the Bolshevik victory resulted in the wholesale sale of valuable private property on the black market to avoid the danger of outright confiscation. This woman, relocated to London, believed she had purchased some of Catherine the Great’s earrings and wore these earrings most of her life. One woman said she lost touch with her peasant nanny but then rediscovered her in Paris two decades later. The nanny immediately asked her how old she was, since she only knew her age in relationship to the woman she raised.

It’s remarkable really, to hear these women describe the way their lives were overturned. One minute their servants are preparing picnics for them, the next they are impoverished, landless, crowded, unemployed, and under suspicion. Some of the women remember hearing about the political events as they unfolded. They remember hearing when the First World War broke out, when Rasputin was murdered and they allegedly found his shoe in the Neva river, when the February Revolution occurred and people stood around talking on the streets about what should happen next, when the Bolsheviks disarmed troops who were loyal to the Provincial Government, when Bolshevik forces started hunting down opponents, etc.

One woman remembered seeing the tsar’s girls riding merrily in a troika before the Revolution, then seeing the tsar shoveling snow for exercise and being told that he was a prisoner in his own palace. The same woman remembers living next to Gorky who, she said, bothered the children by trying unsuccessfully to play with them. Most revealing, this woman also remembers that her aunt was sent away to the gulag where she survived owing to her talent as a painter. For two decades, the woman employed her talents to draw portraits of a man she must have hated—Stalin--for Communist officials.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Berborova on Blok

Nevsky Prospekt

As one of Russia’s leading writers of the White Russian Diaspora, Nina Berborova’s writing is exquisite, so it’s a real pleasure to read her short, unfinished biography of Aleksandr Blok. In Berborova’s estimation, Blok is a central figure in the history of Russian poetry, a figure that captured the mood of the fin-de-siècle while helping to invent the consequential school of poetry known as Russian Symbolism. For Berborova, Block and his close friend Bely almost single handedly helped to revive poetry as an innovative and relevant art form in Russia.

However, Berborova’s respect for Blok is rooted in the language Blok used, in the poetry itself, rather than in Blok’s literary significance or influence on Acmeism and other schools of poetry. And Berborova never really attempts to analyze that poetry so the book reads rather oddly, full of strange and fragmented allusions to Blok’s poetic themes. The book ultimately fails to capture the personality of Blok, to say nothing of his mental or artistic processes. Be that as it may, the book is a useful primer to Russian poetry of the period.

Most dramatically, it captures the dilemma Russia’s artists faced in World War I and the early revolutionary period. Some artists attacked the revolution; others made feverish attempts to embody it. Blok tried hard to embrace the revolutionary tidal wave. In terms of his class background, one might have expected Blok to have joined the counter-revolution. In fact, he had an official job within the Provisional Government, which overthrow the tsar and preceded the Bolshevik takeover. Yet Blok, like many others of his social milieu, was often shocked by revolutionary excesses. A former employee’s letter to his wife makes for sad reading. Peasants sacked his estate while he was in St. Petersburg, taking or destroying everything he owned, including his books and archives and family heirlooms. The employee was instructed to warn the revolutionary mob if the owner made an attempt to return to his property. Blok never returned to his beloved home.

Despite his reservations, Blok attempted to make a case to his peers that they should support the Bolsheviks. To paraphrase Blok, the intelligentsia has waited about 100 years for the Revolution to occur. Now that it had occurred, it was short-sighted (unpoetic?) to quibble over its excesses. They had wanted revolution, and it was absurd to think that the phenomenon of revolt could be easily channeled into safe, predictable pathways.

As Blok knew, it was tempting to remain caught up in a sentimental nostalgia in the face of massive, and often violent, change. If one wanted equality, social justice, peace, and freedom, one needed to be reconciled with sacrifice. The Old Regime would not pass away quietly. According to Berborova, Blok’s "The Twelve," a poem that equated revolutionary violence with the person of Jesus Christ and his disciplines (Bunin was sicked by the sacrilege) encapsulated Blok’s attempt to conjure up a stunningly innovative poetic response to the imperative of revolution.

“I do not know why you do not see the greatness of October behind its grimaces—there weren’t many of them, and they might have been worse.” Letter from Aleksandr Blok to Madame Gippius.

Plotting Revolution

“In our name they will oppress future generations, the way food is compressed in a can.”

Bolshoi Theatre

Viktor Shkovsky’s Night’s Move is a difficult work. It’s not just that the Shkovsky’s short articles are theoretic ally sophisticated; the difficult also stems from that fact that these articles regularly refer to obscure early Soviet works in diverse artistic media. For me, Night’s Move is most useful as a reminder that the Soviet Revolution was, at first, almost as much about aesthetic transformation as it was about political or economic change. Richard Sheldon, the book’s 2004 translator, says that Schkovky’s Formalism and Futurism set him on a collision course with Trotsky as well as Stalin.

What’s most impressive to me is that Soviet political leaders such as Trotsky had the time and the ability to do ideological battle with art critics of genius such as Shkovsky. (The issue, Sheldon asserts, was Shkovsky’s very un-Marxist assertion that art should not be subservient to political or economic exigencies.) In any event, the world Shkovsky describes, and criticizes, comes alive in these essays. Notwithstanding the material privations of the Civil War and its aftermath, the Soviet Union in the early 1920s was, at least in St. Petersburg, alive with theatrical, poetic, literary, cinematic and artistic innovation.

In an essay on Tolstoy entitled “Parallels in Tolstoy,” Shkovsky asserts the centrality of art in helping make revolution possible. I take this theory seriously: poetry may have undermined the Old Regime as much as food shortages did. In Shkovsky’s words:

“A poet takes down all the signs down from their places. An artist always foments the revolt of things. In the hands of poets, things revolt, throwing off their old names and taking with the new name a new face. The poet uses images, tropes, similes; he calls, let us suppose, a fire a red blossom or he attaches to an old word a new epithet…In this way the poet makes a semantic shift.”

Reading Shkovsky now I’m also taken with the fact that he was obsessed with plot and structure in any work of art. For instance, he analyzes the circus just as he would analyze War and Peace or Anna Karenina. The diagnosis of plot makes one think immediately of the Russian Revolution itself. For here is an event with an artistic tradition, inherited from 1905, 1870, 1848, 1789, and 1688, as well as actors, both in the sense of people who cause things to happen, and people who have recourse to a wide range of theatrical devices and traditions. For revolutionaries, like circus people, play parts, orate, and perform for audiences.

When Shkovsky asks the literary question: what separates the circus from everyday life, one naturally asks the same question of the Revolution. In this sense of analyzing the formal plot structures, Shkovsky anticipated modern literary criticism, or works of history that borrow from that literary criticism such as Metahistory. To a surprising degree, Shkovsky also seems to anticipate the field of interdisciplinary inquiry known today as Cultural Studies. For the critic uses the strictures of Aristotle and Plato to analyze the meaning of movies, pantomimes, circuses, and songs, as well as theatre and poetry. He makes no distinction between Shakespeare and vaudeville: each art form, whether popular or elitist, must be judged severely, according to the artistic conventions of the medium.

What’s refreshing about Night’s Move, is that whole theoretical arguments can sometimes emerge in a page and a half journalistic piece. For instance, in one critique of a play by Sergie Radlov entitled "The Comic and the Tragic," Shkovsky reminds readers of Fielding’s theory that sometimes a Harlequin performance intentionally offers audiences a dull and monotonous set of characters to throw into high relief the gifts and excitement of the main one.

Shkovsky’s criticism is often brutally funny. In the review of a play he thought to be overwrought and filled with a cacophony of artistic devices, he reminds his readers of the tale of a schoolboy who turned in a paper that contained no punctuation whatsoever. The student gathered all of the punctuation marks together and added them to the very end of the paper, with the common school phraseology: punctuation marks, take your places…

One final thought that Shkovsky left me with is this: the Russian Revolution ought to have been both comedy and tragedy. As Shkovsky notes in his "Apropos of King Lear," art isn’t really about emotions. The Cherry Orchard can be played as a hilarious farce or as desperate tragedy; music can be played cheerfully or sadly according to its interpreter’s will. And the Revolution was nothing if not an artistic statement. It’s a shame that we can no longer see—or interpret-- the comedy of the Russian Revolution—only its tragedy.

Communism is a Condo Association

Condo Construction Boom Continues In Chicago

People sometimes say that the Soviets didn’t practice real socialism. If they had stuck to the Marxist script, Russians would have prospered, both economically and culturally. The theory seems plausible, right up until the moment that you buy a condominium and enter into a miniature socialist state known as a condo association. When you’re a unit owner, you depend on the good will of others; you depend on collaboration and cooperation with neighbors. The result, as everybody knows, is anxiety, resentment, and a sort of arms race to see who can exploit his or her neighbors the most.

Those who care the most about the common good, suffer most and are soon disillusioned, sometimes becoming the most embittered and asocial members of the entire collective. Living in a condo association is an exercise in game theory: how much can you get away with before you create a violent backlash from others that undermines the gains you have made by not contributing to the common maintenance of the property or the work of the board. Meetings are also redolent of the theoretical communist state. They are long, boring, and ineffectual. People whine; nothing gets done. Members have their own agendas. Generally speaking, there is little concern for the common cause. If the roof is leaking, only those on the top floor of a building are interested in taking action. If one half of a building loses power, the rest of the building isn’t in a hurry to resolve the problem.

The real Soviet state was a strange mixture of extreme coercion, super-bureaucracy, slow motion suffering, and selfishness. If you’ve been to a condo association meeting, you’re likely to understand what that’s like. You know that the board has coercive power. Whether you’re broke or not, the board can decide to create a special assessment to install new stained glass windows in the hallway, build a brand new swimming pool in the common area, or raise a statue of Lenin in the courtyard. You know that the board is corrupt: It will help you, only if you’ve done something specific to help its officers attain their own personal goals.

The power to resist the board’s decision is generally limited, but can increase in inverse proportion to the size of a property. In smaller associations, an owner can effectively nullify the board’s decision since the board can’t always afford to take legal action to enforce its will. Moreover, an individual unit owner can retaliate against a decision by leaving trash in the hallway, holding raucous all-night parties, or turning up the volume on the television to make life unbearable for other owners.

In the end, most associations bring everybody down to the lowest common denominator. It’s not worth investing too much in the place, because your share of the property is only worth as much as your worst neighbor. On the other hand, condo living is a social experience. You meet people, you interact, you maintain a social existence—until you pack it in, cut off contact with any form of community, and move to the suburbs in disgust.

My Cold Places

I never responded to Fur Coat's rash ruminations on the genre of travel writing. To me the only good reason for reading books is to expand the horizon of experience. Some people say the only justification is pleasure, or that there is a relationship between literary style and goodness tout court. Both are partly true. But I value experience most, and travel writing produces a kind of virtual geographic mobility parallel to what history does on the temporal axis.

By contrast, true crime, a genre my esteemed colleague loves, strikes me as pure repetition-compulsion. A great example is James Ellroy's My Dark Places, which Fur recommended in an earlier post. The details of Ellroy's mother's murder are repeated in masochistic detail a ludicrous number of times. Not only is this psychological stasis unhealthy, it is ultimately boring, and that's the worst crime of all.

If you want a real horror story, try George Kennan's Siberia and the Exile System. Kennan--cousin to the famous Cold War diplomat--was one of these 19th century travelers who tried to be both a gentleman and a tough guy. He weathers sleeplessness, cold weather, and bad food with his iron constitution, and manipulates dim provincial officials with his wit. His description of a mule carrying him down a sharply graded slope toward the Altai is unforgettable. But his aim was not just to survive a harsh environment (like another classic of the genre, Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands) but to investigate the Siberian prison system. What he finds is so appalling, both in terms of prison conditions and inmates' degree of guilt, that it challenges the novelty of the Gulag. Kennan brings us the thick stench of those cold, crowded places, the constrained fury and resentment of the inmates, and the overwhelming beauty and desolation of the landscape. All without leaving your La-Z-Boy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Raisa was a Capricorn

It’s a good thing the Soviet Union collapsed when it did because we’ve all somehow forgotten that it appeared—almost right up until the moment of the collapse—that the Soviet Union was holding its own, even winning, even in the first half of the 1980s. As I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the Communist Superpower seemed to have a lot going for it. It remained the largest country in the world; its population was larger than ours; its army was said to be superior to that of the U.S., in quantity if not in quality; and we were routinely told that the Soviets enjoyed strategic superiority in many key aspects of the nuclear arms race.

Ruling Couples

The Soviet Union had its problems, but it possessed immense natural resources, including astronomical quantities of oil, which dwarfed our own. It had reliable allies in comparison with our NATO client states, who often went their own way even on matters directly related to the safety of the Western World. The Soviet Union also continued to do well in the war for the hearts and minds of the so-called Third World (now renamed the developing world). The Russians had, for instance, apparently chosen the right side in the Arab-Israeli conflict, insofar as Israel had little to offer America in comparison with the wealth, population, markets, and oil of the Arab League and OPEC. Moreover, despite the quagmire of Afghanistan, the Russians had clearly won in Vietnam, and were doing well in Africa, where, once again, the U.S. seemed to have backed the wrong side: the minority Apartheid regime of White South Africans.

The Soviets were even gaining ground in Latin America. Cuba had survived a trade decade for decades, and Ronald Reagan insisted that Nicaragua and Grenada were lethal threats to the security of the continental United States. Remember the map Reagan showed Americans of a huge red surge washing up to the U.S. southern border by way of Nicaragua and Mexico?

Soviet superiority also seemed to manifest itself in chess, with the Soviets maintaining both the first and second positions in the global sport. There were no more Bobby Fishers in the 1980s: We knew we couldn’t be either Kasparov or his opponent. The Russians continued to well in international sports as well. The Russian state had another important advantage: its leaders didn’t need to contend with alternative parties, or organized public opposition, or true freedom of the press.

Even when Communism entered into the period of Glasnost and Perestroika, the Soviet Union evinced certain signs of competitiveness. The viability of the system was epitomized in the strange pairing of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev, confident, supremely intelligent, and urbane, the Soviet leader emerged as a master of public diplomacy. Where David Stockman’s book The Triumph of Politics revealed that Ronald Reagan frequently slept during key meetings and required blow up dolls or other gimmicks to engage his attention for White House presentations, Gorbachev boldly challenged stereotypes about what a Communist leader could do or be. He, more than Reagan, seemed to be the man of the future. He was—or so it seemed to many, especially in Western Europe--for peace, reform, and change.

The Reagans

If Gorbachev seemed like a sophisticated leader who was prepared for the future, Ronald Reagan’s confidence seemed rooted in his Hollywood past. It was a matter of playacting. Reagan could deliver speeches, but was he the real thing or was he a B grade actor? A large minority of the United States didn’t think he was smart enough to be president. (It turns out alzheimer's might have been part of the problem). However, for me the real key to understanding Soviet potential for the future was not Mikhail Gorbachev but his wife, Raisa. While Raise was a sophisticated, substantive woman who had earned a doctorate and taught philosophy at the college level for two decades, Nancy Reagan was spending huge quantities of money on designer dresses and consulting astrologers. In the past ten years, I’ve come to reassess my superficial appraisal of the two women, and I’ve come to respect the magic of astrology.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fight the Power

2009 VH1 Hip Hop Honors - Peformances

By and large, this blog is dedicated to the proposition that the Russian Revolution of 1917 can illuminate the darkness and shadows of contemporary American life. However, on occasion the reverse is true: American contemporary life can explain the Russian Revolution. Witness the case of that great American film, Do the Right Thing. When Spike Lee’s masterpiece came out, I saw the movie three times in the theater, and many times since. The movie’s excellence is a product of many different aesthetic factors, but I think the heart of the matter is this: it explains the central logic of revolution, and not just in the sense of 1960s-style cultural change, but in the fuller sense of violent action in the pursuit of justice.

Let’s review the elements in Lee’s successful attempt to articulate that which is, almost by definition in American society, unacceptable. To begin with, Spike Lee shows how ordinary people can be transformed from passive, ordinary, exploited people into an angry mob. There are some casual factors here. Excessive heat, for example, is everywhere manifest in Do the Right Thing. The community disk jockey reports it, the characters complain about it, kids play in the water generated by an open fire hydrant to avoid it, the lead character, Mookie, uses an ice cube during sexual foreplay to enhance it, and everybody is busily fanning him or herself to mitigate it throughout the film.

Then there is the urban setting. Revolution happens most frequently, or most dangerously, within the context of a crowded city like New York. Next, Lee delineates the nature of the kind of community that is capable of mobilizing: it’s one that is connected in a thousand ways by interpersonal connections. In Lee’s film, the community—however unorganized or informal by the standards of traditional political science—contains a genuine organic structure. People, many unemployed, hang out on porches, eat in cheap pizzerias, talk to passersby out windows, listen to pirate radio, play in open fire hydrants, and listen to message-laden music.

Do The Right Thing 20th Anniversary special screening in New York

Community ties are latent: solidarity within Lee’s world isn’t easy to see; folks are united by economic circumstance, a shared ideological worldview, general exploitation, and race. They are capable of uniting, but don’t do so often for a variety of subtle reasons. After all, it’s much easier not to mobilize and one extremist who pedals Black Power photos is routinely mocked by others until a specific act of police brutality energizes or inflames community feeling.

The community even has its own leaders, such as Da Mayor, an alcoholic who may not possess formal authority, but who does, nevertheless, have the ability to sway crowds, based on his own moral strength and historical ties to the neighborhood. Someone once said—was it Tip O’Neil—that all politics is local. This is surely true in Do the Right Thing.

Lee’s cinematic depiction of revolution is reinforced by the movie’s soundtrack. The music is central to the message. To take nothing away from the beauty of the music, the cool, ponderous jazz symbolizes the slow, monotonous routines of ordinary, non-revolutionary life. The city is alive and vibrant in a cultural sense, but asleep in a political sense. The group, appropriately called Public Enemy, manifests revolutionary consciousness. Chuck-D’s tough abrasiveness strikes the perfect note for mobilization. The movie’s anthem, "Fight the Power," is brilliant: it records the long history of white exploitation of the black community—already known to its listeners—and calls them to action. In this case, the cultural is the political.

2009 VH1 Hip Hop Honors - Arrivals

One of the best things about Do the Right Thing is the fact that it shies away from any simple storyline of good versus evil. In Lee’s film, the revolutionaries are deeply flawed characters. Although economic oppression may partly explain unemployment in the community, it doesn’t fully explain the problem. Mookie, who has a job at the pizzeria, is seen as unique among his African-American peers. Why does he go to work every day, while many of his friends don’t? Indeed, the two sources of economic vitality and entrepreneurialism on the block are maintained by an Italian family and a Korean family respectively. If Sal and his sons are racists, so are the African-Americans, Koreans, police, and everybody else. This is best represented by a series of racist rants Lee strings together in a collage of hatred.

The moment of truth arrives when community lassitude gives way to action. The spark that ignites the literal conflagration is Sal’s attempt to defend his pizzeria from an unwanted intrusion by the aforementioned Black Power radical and Radio Raheem, a man who insists on carrying his boom box right into the restaurant to the tune of "Fight the Power."

Lee’s climactic scene is morally ambiguous, as most revolutionary actions probably are. In this case, the intruders seem to be advocating a relatively innocuous demand: that there should be more pictures of black people up on the pizzeria’s wall of fame, now occupied exclusively by Italian Americans. For his part, Sal seems to have some reason on his side too. He owns the restaurant, loves serving the community despite its daily frustrations, and has worked hard enough over the years to have earned some right to maintain his property according to his own standards.

When Sal asserts the primacy of his claim by asking Radio Raheem to turn down his radio, and then smashes the radio with a baseball bat, he has clearly gone too far. The two men erupt into battle and before long the police have arrived. In Lee’s film, the police are essentially an extension of the white power structure that Sal, perhaps unwittingly, benefits from. The police immediately take the side of the white man, and actually strangle Radio Raheem to death as a result of either ardor or anxiety. At this point, the mini-revolution explodes: even the mild-mannered Mooky sees—or perhaps feels—that the community is in need of a vigorous defense. He leads the charge against the symbol of the recent murder—Sal’s pizzeria, his former employer.

The film closes with two quotations, one from Martin Luther King asserting the claims of peace; the next from Malcolm X asserting the claims of violence when used in self-defense. Giving Malcolm X equal time with Martin Luther King shocked many white Americans, but it was this more than anything that allowed Do the Right Thing to escape official American ideology and explain how revolution happens, which needed some explaining since the Los Angeles riots occurred not long afterward.

Wonderfully, Lee left the reader to wonder what “the right thing” really had been. Was it to defend the status quo or was it to assert the rights of the community, no matter how frenzied? The movie’s final scene showed Mookie and Sal reconciling: neither man apologizes, but Sal offers Mookie his old job back and Mooky accepts it. One feels that Sal, while not convinced, understands that the death of a man has trumped the destruction of insured property. And perhaps Sal has also come to understand some of the logic of revolution.