Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Reading the blog of a self-described sexpot recently (funkybrownchick.com), I thought that it might be wise to adopt a more interactive, flirtatious posting style. It works for the Sex and the City Crowd so why not with the Soviets. So while her posts provoke comments and encourage active readership with questions like: boxers or briefs, what do you make of interracial dating, when is it appropriate to go home with a man? We'll copy the format with: What's your favorite Soviet Union successor state? Who is your favorite revolutionary? Who was right, the so-called Westernizers or the Russian exceptionalists?
And perhaps there are more direct approaches to capturing Twitter and Facebook market share. Click here if you think Catherine the great was a whore.
Incidentally, Simon Sebag Montefiore doesn't think so. He admits Catherine was chronically in need of male company, and that she has at least 17 lovers in her time. But he stresses that she always thought she would stay in love with her official partners for the rest of her life, at least when she began the relationship. He also says that she was faithful to one person at the time, as far as we can tell, and with the obvious exception for her best friend and near co-ruler, Potemkin, who was apparently welcome to drop by her apartments at any time..
Of course, he's right to point to gender biases at work in Catherine's reputation among contemporaries and historians. Frederick the Great's misogyny, for instance, encouraged him to assume the worst, and spread the worst, about the Empress.
Monday, September 28, 2009
I suppose that's part of the motivation for doing a blog. You need some accountability, no matter how small the readership. On the other hand, when you're teaching a class, you're gearing up for the lowest common denominator. Unless you're teaching a graduate seminar, you want to spit out digested material that makes sense to somebody with no prior training in the subject, and probably no prior interest.
At any rate, I can't help but think in terms of classes. When I approach Soviet history, I imagine a class. What would the syllabus look like? I would think the best class would focus on the Revolution proper. One can talk about antecedents, and one can talk about legacy, but ultimately it's the revolt itself that makes for a unique historical experience with something interesting to say about the human experience. Revolutions don't happen often, and they don't happen very often because the world can't stand on its head for long stretches of time.
Scholars of the Soviet experience (see Djilas' The New Class for example) revel in what they perceive to be an irony about the Revolution's aftermath: and that is that the revolutionaries became the new elites, the new bureaucrats. Yet this isn't real irony. How long could any society remain so volatile? The Social Revolutionaries and Anarchists were already shocked by societal ossification even as the Bolshevik's consolidated their power.
But back to Syllabus... I'd say you would want to cover Marx in some detail, with a quick description of socialism in general. You'd also want to cover 1905, World War I, the February Revolution, and October. Perhaps something on the structure of the Ancien Regime, especially in terms of class and gender, would be useful. Then I'm thinking that a lecture on comparative revolutions would help to contextualize the great event. Separate lectures on politics, economics, gender, and the arts would be nice. Separate lectures on the various segments of society would be nice too, especially the intelligentsia, military, peasantry, nationalities, Jewish minority, working class, aristocracy, church, and tsar. After that, you move into Stalinism, World War II, and the decaying legacy of the revolution.
Most importantly, you'd want to consider the collapse of the Soviet Empire and what the Revolution continues to mean today and might mean tomorrow.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
We feel as if we live in the scariest world imaginable, with Islamic terrorists and killer flu germs, and global warming, etc. I remember somebody recently noticed a commercial on t.v. that said what has now become a commonplace: "we live in the most stressful age in history." Her response was appropriate: Really? Really??!! This is the most stressful age ever? More stressful than an age that, for example, saw the invasion of the Huns, the bubonic plague, the collapse of the Roman Empire, etc.
It seems obvious that every generation, or at least many generations, have felt that they lived on the brink, almost at the end of the world. In fact, Christian theology seems almost dependent on the notion that the end of the world is at hand, and its interesting to note that the many Christians pointed to the collapse of the Soviet Union as a clear signal that the apocalypse was right around the corner.
The real tragedy of the post-Cold War world is that it seems to have revealed the fact that, psychologically, humans seem to have a basic need to feel as if the world were fragile, whether or not this is indeed the case. For 9-11, that unprecedented American disaster, was indeed nothing in comparison with what the Soviets threatened to do to American for decades at a time.
Yet we're actually in two wars now, each lasting for many years, and we're even apparently at war on the home front, even to the extent that civil liberties are being scaled back (and some of the restrictions made semi-permanent apparently by the Obama administration--see NYRB article on the subject).
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
One can't completely condemn those in Stalin's hometown, or in Georgia in general, who take some pride in the largeness of Stalin's legacy, for good or evil. Then there is the nostalgia born of traumatic experience. People obviously get stuck in a time that was somehow more important than other times. World War II by itself, the Great Patriotic War, was a horrific event, but one understands that its survivors must view later life as somehow less real than the war years. Moreover, survivors must want to stay in touch with a time when many of their loved ones still lives. The tragedy itself probably invites people to stay rooted to the moment of loss.
There's a whole literature of nostalgia that explains how this process works. This literature suggests that modernity and instability and radical change--see Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air--lead to greater levels and more ac cute forms of nostalgia. Of course, the post-Soviet experience with economic shock treatments, political disintegration, gangsterism, and unbridled capitalism naturally lead to nostalgia. To use the title of one book on American nostalgia, Russians probably miss "the way things never were."
And, to be fair, there probably are a few things that are worth missing, such as relative economic equality, political stability, international power and prestige, and visions of a communist utopia that was always on the horizon. To a lesser extent, it's also interesting to reflect upon nostalgia in the West. As Nick says, CCCP gear are back in vogue. I suspect this Western nostalgia will grow and the Cold War becomes more surreal, Stalin's crimes more distant, etc.
And perhaps we do have some things to mourn in terms of international system stability and some form of perceived alternative to the existing economic or cultural system in the West.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
One of the big questions I have about modern Soviet history is how exactly the system became humane. I suppose this begs the question of whether or not it really did have any claims to humanism. I read Natan Sharansky's chilling "Fear No Evil" which describes how the Soviet surveillance state continued to function well into the 1980s.
When I discuss the question of Soviet humanism, I really only mean that the system became much more moderate and reasonable in comparison with Stalinism. I wouldn't really debate Ronald Reagan's description of the Soviet Union in the 1980s as an "evil empire." In many ways, it remained that. One thinks of Solzhenitsyn's memoir, the Oak and the Calf, to see both sides of the story.
On the one hand, Solzhenitsyn clearly identifies many horrible traits about communist Russia: it was bureaucratic, invasive, cowardly, banal, vulgar, and generally un-free. On the other hand, Solzhenitsyn survived all of the oppression. He became famous in the Great Thaw but even after the Communists identified him as a threat he somehow survived as a public entity.
The book Armageddon Averted points to a perhaps related paradox: this massive empire, possessed of stockpiles of nuclear weapons, somehow disappeared without taking the world with it. This was a failure of will, but probably also a result of a kind of creeping humanity among some government elites (or perhaps just cowardice coupled with the growing democratic power of a humane citizenry).
I think this question of Stalinism turning into a different kind of society is the highlighted by the life of Khrushchev, especially as written by William Taubman. Because Khrushchev, despite his mercurial temperament, really did make some decisions by taking into account moral considerations. And yet the same man was a close crony of Stalin, a product of Stalinism, and a despot who helped to bring about near apocalypse in the Ukraine.
One recalls that Beria, who was responsible for political violence on a huge scale but also apparently liked to personally torture or rape victims, also tried to become a reformer when Stalin died. There's really much to say about this question of a creeping Soviet morality. Did it result merely from a reaction to Stalin's excesses? Did it actually survive Stalin's purges and gulags, and if so, how? Did morality stem from some aspect of Marxism, from contact with the West, from the Soviet intelligentsia?
Another instructive book related to this is "Conversations with Gorbachev" in which he and a Czech communist reformer who took part in the Prague Spring discuss their mutual attempts to reform communism from within. The Prague Spring participant has to a large extent turned away from Communism now, but Gorbachev perspectives are more interesting. Even now, he seems to be saying that Communism offered the world something, that it contained a moral sensibility that even now is needed in the West, if not in the form of a Soviet Empire.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Surprisingly, Napoleon himself comes across--to this reader anyhow--as somebody who really did have the ability to set limits for himself. He seems to have really wanted to avoid war with Russia, and moreover seems to have hoped (not entirely unreasonably) that he could defeat Russia and force the country to to the bargaining table as all countries previously had been forced to the bargaining table. At this point, dynasties had little interest in total war. But Napoleon showed an ability to negotiate, to respect the opinions of his generals, to maintain a realistic sense of what was going on at home, etc. At any rate, the books shows that Napoleon's leadership abilities were real and necessarily predicated on certain forms of realism and moderation and sympathy for the common soldier. On the other hand, Zamoyski shows that Tolstoy's portrait of the chief Russian general was way off the mark. The Russian chief strategist made few good decisions except for avoiding conflict on a few key occasions.
More important than any of these impressions, Zamoyski shows that this war was horrific for the soldiers who fought it. This might seem like a commonplace, and perhaps all wars are equally bad.
But this book reads like a gruesome true crime thriller or a decent into hell. The horror starts with Borodino, with massive causalities on both sides. But it gets so much worse with every page. The French (but also the Russians to a lesser extent) fell into anarchy. On paper, Napoleon's army remained capable of defending itself as it returned to central Europe. In reality, it disintegrated. Soldiers froze to death, fought one another, starved, etc. There are stories of men left to die on the battle fields who were forced to drink the blood of dead horses. There are stories of Cossack torturers who attacked stragglers without mercy. The captured French were often starved, robbed, forced to walk naked through the snow, etc. The horses died en masse. Cannibalism spread. Soldiers killed one another for shelter or set others on fire who were huddling together for shelter. Units froze in all sorts of positions while standing guard. One particularly horrid passage describes how soldiers would cut living flesh off the horses who were too frozen to feel the blades.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
I guess the problem is that Catherine burned Potemkin's letters but he kept at least some of hers, so the reader only gets a picture of Catherine's many wonderful qualities. She comes across as remarkably intelligent and politically savvy, but also as somebody who as a firm grip on her own psychology. I guess the term would be emotional intelligence.
It's not that she didn't need anyone, it's really that she understood what she needed in terms of love, sexual satisfaction, friendship, etc. Potemkin, thus far in the book, comes across as manic, spoiled, arrogant, profligate, etc. Apparently, he was incredibly intelligent and energetic and funny as well--but we don't exactly see that as readers, we're just left to take the word of the author and Catherine herself.
The other thing this book does is explain the wide chasm between the 18th century and our own age. When ones comes across Catherine's American Revolutionary contemporaries, one finds them to be operating, generally speaking, in familiar political terrain. The struggle for life, liberty, and happiness isn't a foreign language. But dynastic struggles and murdered pretenders and Cossack rebellions and autocracy and indeed serfdom make little sense in the modern age.
Potemkin's rise to power is a catalog of bizarre offerings from Catherine, including huge estates filled with endless serfs, gigantic monetary offerings, potential crowns, rights to formally attend the Queen, ribbons and medals and other sartorial embellishments, military ranks, a title from the Holy Roman Empire, and various awards such as the Order of the White Elephant from Denmark.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
The crimes are clear enough. There are personal betrayals of former allies, the purges, the murder of Polish officers, the deportations, the gulag, the prosecution of veterans returning from the war, the doctor’s plot, and so much more. One can read a book like the Court of the Red Tsar, which opens with the suicide of Stalin’s wife and follows up with a murder or mass murder on nearly every other page, to get a glimpse at pure villainy. One can read The Whisperers to see the kind of evil that made an entire country fear speaking out loud for fear of the political police or ubiquitous informers. But if you study Stalin or Stalinism long enough you need to develop a philosophy or theology of evil.
What could compel somebody to imprison the wives of even one’s closest political ally? A few related questions present themselves. First, which is more evil, Stalin, or the Communist system which allowed a man like Stalin to achieve power? Second, did Stalin’s evil lead to any positive good, such as the Soviet triumph over NAZI Germany? Third, was Stalin evil because he was clinically psychopathic or are is evil inherently insane? Fourth, how unusual was Stalin’s criminality? In other words, if Lenin had lived, or if Trotsky had won, would life have been much different in the Soviet Union? My own sense of who Stalin was influenced by the book, Young Stalin.
To my mind, the book goes some way to brilliant Stalin toward explaining that however brilliant, Stalin was one of a type. The revolutionaries were, of necessity, gangsters. Stalin thrived in the lawless society of Tsarist Russia. The state, itself devoid of moral authority, simply didn’t have the ability to dominate large segments of the population. Places like Georgia, to say nothing of Baku and indeed large cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, were anarchic. In such a society, Stalin was at home. His type, the criminal one, was rewarded by success. Young Stalin doesn’t deny the argument that Stalin’s moral fabric might have torn at a very early age. His father was a drunkard who apparently beat him.
However, it’s not necessary to see this abuse as central to Stalin’s eventual brutality. One thinks of any semi-criminal or totally criminal world. In prohibition, people like Al Capone rose to power. Dillinger also thrived. What is interesting, is that even in Depression-era America, these people became famous and respected. In a place like the Russia Empire at the end of the 19th century, where the State had far weaker claims to the conscience of a people (especially when the people weren’t even Russian, as in Georgia), one would surprised to learn that anybody other a criminal would rise to power.
The wonder is that Stalin didn’t just become a bank robber—though he did that too. Instead, he seems to have genuinely bought into a revolutionary ideology and then espoused that ideology for the rest of his life. The case reminds one of Columbia in the 1980s, where one sees a political movement with legitimate grievances utterly immersed in a culture and economy of drugs and violence. At any rate, Stalin’s proclivities for secrecy and radicalism and even violence would have been reinforced in the tsarist prison and exile system.
In exile—really a badge of honor in a autocracy with few admirers even in the bourgeois world—Stalin would have learned few values related to traditional morality. Of course, many people—notably Koestler via Darkness at Noon—argue that Communism as a way of thinking is immoral. It’s undemocratic, anti-religious, materialist, utilitarian, and anti-capitalist even at its best. This ideology probably did unleash the potential for evil politics, and would have done so even without a man such as Stalin.
Many authors spend a great deal of time on Lenin, showing his own commitment to an evil form of politics. Certainly the Civil War made things worse, permitting the previously unpermittable on both sides. Then there is the argument that the flip side of an utopian ideology is that its sponsors would inevitably espouse brutality if it meant defending hope in the impending arrival of absolute good. But back to Stalin… I think all of this background is true and means that Stalin’s personal proclivity for immoral action isn’t as important as one might suspect in light of his crimes. More than that, one does notice a host of evil actors in a host of evil regimes. They exist today, and have existed in almost every era.
To my mind, that means that there were probably hundreds of Stalins lurking behind Stalin. The wonder to me is that Stalin continued to project some kind of balance and perspective with outsiders whenever this was required of him. He could still charm visitors such as F.D.R. when he needed to do so. Throughout the 1920s, he could still win arguments based on logic and apparent moderation as opposed to brute force. Although many of the policies seemed cruel beyond belief—one thinks about the Ukrainian famine and policy of de-kulakization—the record of his personal behavior and speech and thought process doesn’t seem to suggest any form of lunacy or irrationality.
I’d go farther. I’d say that if the rules of even the most ordinary office job changed, if a few checks and balances were removed, we’d see a form of Stalinism emerge overnight. In terms of immorality, it’s only a degree of difference between getting fired and getting killed. And who doesn’t know a colleague who, if given the right opportunity and robbed of any oversight, might not begin his or her own reign of terror?
The banality of evil should be closely linked to the rarity of courage. Courage, as such, doesn’t exist in many places. It’s a purely cultural artifact. It didn’t really exist in Soviet Russia, or at least in wide parts of it. We know of few assassination attempts against Stalin. And few against Hitler, except in the midst of unprecedented military disaster on the Eastern front. And if there is no courage, it doesn’t require a unique monster to create a uniquely monstrous regime.
In more theoretical terms, people say that we’ve experienced the death of the “meta-narrative” or the “end of history.” Whether wrong or right, Marx provided us with an incredibly rich mode of imagining alternatives to the status quo. The world was filled with exploitation, bourgeois warfare, sexism, racism, and colonialism, but there was also a clear road map to something better. There was optimism; there was bravery in the face of the bourgeois exploiters; there were positive historical trends.
As late as the 1940s, one could perhaps be forgiven for still believing in the dream that there was a real possibility that the future could be better—much better—than the present. As it turned out—and as many historians convincingly argue we all should have admitted to ourselves much sooner—Communism could be almost as vicious as capitalism even in its fascist iterations.
But how hard must it have been for many thoughtful people to admit as much? If Communism was worse than capitalism—which signified drudgery, pollution, child exploitation, and a variety of other abuses—than what exactly should one be working for? Right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, many reasonable people maintained that a middle road was possible, and that Communism remained a viable alternative to alienation and materialism and gross wealth disparities.
In Eastern Europe, they might have looked to still-debatable Origin Myths associated with the positive attributes of Lenin and Trotsky and Bukharin. They might have merely blamed Stalin for what went wrong. They might have gone further and said that while Lenin himself deserved blame for Bolshevik despotism, Homer Simpson was right: “Communism works… in theory.” And the theory, especially espoused by Rosa Luxemburg, which combined democracy with communism, still made a lot of sense to many people around the world.
In the 1990s, we had apparently reached what Francis Fukuyana called the end of the history. The results of socialism were so uniformly bad, in terms of ethics, freedom, equality, or economic happiness, that people no longer even said that “Communism works..in theory.” Perhaps we’ll be in this post-Utopian place for many decades to come. It’s impossible to tell. However, with the recent economic crash and recession, and other more acute problems in various parts of the developing world, one remembers that nothing lasts forever.
Critiques of capitalism could blossom dramatically, as indeed they might have had the recession turned into a more serious economic crisis or depression. This makes it a good moment in history to go back to the Soviet experiment. Could something like this become attractive again? Was there anything about it worth keeping? What other kind of alternative could arise that fulfilled the same European or global needs?
Recently, I was asked why I was reading something about Soviet history. I said that the Soviet experience was fascinating because it failed so utterly. One was tempted to wonder how it was that the system survived so many decades when it seemed almost designed to create economic lethargy or even chaos, to say nothing of political oppression. She agreed. But after a moment, I contradicted myself, saying that I understood even today how somebody could point to our present system and say that it was designed for gross inefficiency. The market remained deeply flawed. We had seen what a lack of regulation could do to undermine economic planning as well as the safety and stability of the general population.
Everyday people were re-making their retirement plans based on the market fluctuations of a few months. The housing bubble made basic planning assumption obsolete overnight. And the economy had overproduced on a massive scale while the environment suffered from a system that rewarded short-term thinking from almost all individual or institutional actors. My colleague was surprised, calling attention to the fact that I had been arguing both sides.
I suspect others will feel some ambivalence in the years to come. I don’t dare to say that the re-evaluation will come very soon. The catalog of crimes committed by Soviet leaders is far too long to allow for any easy reconciliation with the “God That Failed.”
I have only read on Russia a small percentage of what Fur Coat has gulped down in the last few years, but I share this sense of the extradinary allure it all possesses. No other country, culture, or historical record can compare with Russia's when it comes to pure Nabakovian enthrallment. I find it interesting though that this coincides in myself with a twinge of xenophobic horror toward the country, such that I'd feel much more secure traveling in Singapore, Egypt, Israel, China or a host of other countries where statistically my chances of running into danger are probably higher. I can't envision traveling to Russia without being blown away in a hotel lobby by a scarred mafioso, or finding myself wasting away in some rural prison for a few decades because I lost my passport. This all could be the unconscious legacy of growing up in the 80s under anti-communism, but I was never particularly anti-communist myself. It could be residue left by accounts of the Gulag, but I've spent plenty of time in Germany without worrying that I'd be dragged off to a concentration camp. Of course the death camps weren't on German soil, but still... I remember during the last winter Olympics an American figure skater was photographed wearing a nostalgic CCCP jacket while he caroused with Russian groupies in their village. I was astonished that Russia had become cool. Maybe it had something to do with the craze for vodka which emerged about that time.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Orlando Figes: Natasha's Dance; A People's Tragedy; The Whisperers
Henri Troyat: Chekhov; Turgenev; Gorky; Peter the Great; Alexander of Russia; Tolstoy; Pushkin; Ivan the Terrible
Simon Montefiore: Young Stalin, Court of the Red Czar;
Steinberg: Fall of the Romanovs
Adam Zamoyski: Moscow 1812
William Taubman: Khrushev
Robert Conquest: Tyrants and Typewriters
Constantine Pleshakov: Stalin's Folly
E.H. Carr: Bakhunin
Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: Stephen Cohen
Isaac Deutcher: Lenin's Childhood; The Prophet Outcast: The Prophet Unarmed
Richard Pipes: The Degaev Affair
Anthony Beevor: Stalingrad
Sheila Fitzpatrick: The Russian Revolution
Alan Moorehead: The Russian Revolution
Svetlanda Alexievich: Chernobyl, an Oral History of A Nuclear Disaster
Mary Mycio: Wormwood Forest, A Natural History of Chernobyl
Paul Gregory and Normal Naimark (Editors): The Lost Politburo Transcripts
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Despite its minority status, it was courting an extremely targeted audience, radicalized workers in a radicalized city. Thus one can understand why this very narrow stratum of the Russian public could move slowly away from the other socialist alternatives, especially that of the Mensheviks. Lincoln also shows how the Kronsdadt naval base and certain other narrow segments of the Soviet military were won over to the Soviet cause. The sailors were poorly fed and poorly trained, as were all of Russia’s military forces after three years of massive warfare in which officers usually led the charge.
We know already that Lenin promised Land, Bread, and Peace. It was Lenin’s genius that kept him from compromise, even when many of his lieutenant’s advocated for collaboration with other socialist parties. At most times and places, compromise works, it allows you to leverage support for your own point of view. Not in Russia in the year 1917. At this time, collaboration and cooperation themselves became suspect.
It began with autocracy. While it’s true that the Civil War demonstrated that tsarist ideals still had advocates as late as 1921, the vast majority of workers and soldiers, the people who mattered most when a war effort was required, had utterly abandoned anything related to the Old Regime. Actually, Lincoln’s explanation of the Bolshevik takeover is strengthened by his lengthy treatment of Nicholas II and his bride. As Lincoln shows at great length, the royal couple were utterly incompetent. They weren’t just naive or unimaginative, they were criminally negligent or worse.
It’s strange that one needs to be reminded of this, but when one looks at Alexandra’s letters to her husband, and her successful advocacy of some of the worst ideas available to Russia, one cann’t have sympathy for the couple, except in terms of the awful fate they both eventually met. Really, one need look no further than Rasputin, and see his all-pervasive influence on conservative politics, to know that autocracy—and by extension tradition or moderation—would come to seem the very definition of insanity to many people throughout Petrograd society.
But if autocracy was rejected out of hand, the Duma, and its liberal leaders, were tarnished by their association with the tsar. By itself, the war may well have led to radical revolution; but combine horrific war with a disgustingly atavistic institution like autocracy, and moderation begins to look ridiculous. As things in the war got worse, socialism became the only sensible alternative to many important components of society. The conservatives lost influence; the moderate Cadets declined as well.
Lincoln’s description of the cauldron of revolutionary Russia wouldn’t be complete without treatment of the peasants. Quite simply, the peasants—who made up at least 85 percent of the country—wanted to own their own land. By itself this factor would ave led to some form of insurrection and some form of socialist political influence. But the peasants’ chief party, the Social Revolutionaries, couldn’t be a serious contender for power. They weren’t organized in the only places that mattered: Moscow and Petrograd. Russia’s lack of technology and roads and railways made the isolation of the countryside worse.
Lincoln shows that the Social Revolutionaries would indeed have been a real power if the Constituent Assembly had mattered, or if the electoral system in pre-Soviet Russia had mattered. But they didn’t. The Bolsheviks allowed the Constituent Assembly to take place, because it didn’t hurt them to do so, and would have cost them some unfavorable press if they had not. But they were able to disband the Assembly because real power had nothing to do with elections. Real power was won in the Petrograd Soviet and in the armed forces.
Lincoln does show that the Bolsheviks did reasonable well with the large peasantry for a couple of reasons. First, contact between the working class and the peasantry was great during the War, when labor or food shortages were sometimes acute. And second, because the armed forces were made up of peasants. Lincoln’s book doesn’t neglect the concrete steps Lenin took to win power. He makes special mention of propaganda work in the armed forces, and the armed revolutionary action committees (if I have the right term here). But after all is said and done, one is left with the impression that Lenin’s drive to power worked because his failure to compromise seemed logical in view of the situation Russia found itself.
Lenin’s genius, but also the bizarre situation in which Russia found itself, is revealed again by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Here, a majority of even the Bolsheviks, once again advocated a form of compromise with Russian tradition. They wanted to continue the war on some level unless a non-penalizing treaty could be signed with Germany. It’s instructive to see Lenin in the minority within his own conquering party on this important issue. For even after winning power, many or most Russian Bolsheviks were willing to risk the Revolution itself. Why were they willing to do so?
One could say, as Bukharin said, that they wanted to wage a revolutionary war with Germany against the bourgeoisie in Europe as a whole. This may be, but since even Bukharin was willing to settle for a just peace with Germany, it seems likely that many Bolsheviks were still tied to Russia’s past, especially her traditional political boundaries. Yet here again, Lenin’s radicalism—which robbed Old Russia of one third of her territory and a considerable economic power and population---still seemed reasonable to most Russians, including the peasants who wanted no more than immediate peace, immediate access to land, and bread.
In his youth, we learn that Stalin was everything, including successful poet (shades of Mao), singer, underworld boss, student, priest-in-training, revolutionary, bank robber, lover, prisoner, exile, and theoretician. Clearly, Stalin was a talented man. Not for nothing did Lenin keep him on the Bolshevik all-star team, even during the Revolution. So despite Trostky’s brilliant efforts to explain Stalin away as an upstart and a fluke, Stalin had earned his place at the top of the revolutionary command structure.
Beyond his charisma, he was an intelligent and effective organizer. Of course, later Stalin had the opportunity to show other levels of talent. As he gradually earned Lenin’s seat at the heart of the Communist Party during the 1920s, Stalin showed that he could be by turns (and when it served him) cunning, unsentimental, cruel, well-spoken, humorous, machiavellian, and patient. A
nd it’s my opinion that he won out over his opponents for another reason: he was realistic. For instance, his Socialism in One Country seems much more realistic than the brands of internationalism advocated by either Trostky or Bukharin. The strange thing about the term, realism, in the context of Communist Russia in the 1920s or 1930s, is that realism and socialism were almost oxymorons. So realism or even moderation of Stalin’s kind could lead to gulags and five-year plans.
Even so, Stalin was “neither left nor right” in comparison with some of his rivals, especially Trostky on the left, and Bukharin on the right. Now Stalin is justly critiqued for his disastrous misreading of Hitler at the onset of World War II. I wonder what this truly says about the man. He clearly erred, and his error cost the Soviets a great deal. However, Stalin had made a number of previous realistic, if utterly brutal, moves that set the Soviets up to fight the Germans with some chance of success.
The purges were crazy and self-defeating, to be sure. But some of level of political terror, industrial preparation, diplomatic intrigue (at the expense of the West as well as Finland and Poland,) and military build-up, probably helped the Soviets. Moreover, the instinct to avoid conflict with Germany (if taken to the level of dellusion in the weeks leading up to the German invasion) was logical, either in classical balance-of-power terms, or in terms of an encircling capitalist menance.
So Stalin makes for an interesting revolutionary, a force of personality, a political genius of the first order. Yet Trostky has a case to be made. His books are wonderful and humane, for the most part. You can’t help but appreciate the man when you read My Life, for example. His role in 1905 as well as 1917 and the Civil War, obviously outpace that of Stalin or any other revolutionary save perhaps Lenin. In the public’s mind, as well as the mind of the Old Guard Bolshevik Party, Trostky was the revolution.
Isaac Deutcher’s three-volume biography leaves one in awe of Trostky’s creativity, courage, intellect, ethical rectitude (however controversial), theoretical acumen, linguistic, and oratory skills, etc. The man was of course beaten by Stalin and his allies in terms of the dynastic struggle that evolved after Lenin’s death. Other historians say his arrogance, Jewish heritage (in an anti-semitic nation), and overconfidence did him in. This is probably right. Yet his time in exile, both internal and external, add to his lustre, although one man’s heroism is another man’s egotism, because Trostky’s family and friends were largely sacrificed in his battle with Stalinism.
Okay, this post is longer already than it should be. I’ve not come to Lenin, Plekhorov, Bakhunin, Axelrod, Herzen, Zinoviev, Bukharin, or anybody else for that matter. All subjects for future posts.
Monday, September 7, 2009
It’s massive, for instance, and stretches many time zones, possessing untold natural riches, and a huge citizenry. The fact that it straddles both East and West is interesting too, as is its brutal past, historic ties to Mongol invasions, and relatively unique religion, being neither Protestant nor Catholic. What is more, Russian history is the history of so many other things, since Russian history is inter-tangled with the history of Eastern European states, Baltic states, Transcaucasia, Turkish states, and China, Japan, and the general European balance of power. The supremely good literature would make it worthy of an obsession as well.
However, it’s probably communism that makes for the obsession. Real revolutions are rare. The French Revolution of 1789 would have been a good subject for a blog. And when one happens it’s worthy of prolonged study. 1917 was a fascinating year. When rich people are exiled, killed, humiliated, forced to do manual labor, forced to share homes with their servants, or excluded from political power—something unusual has happened.
There is probably a lot of unrecognized continuity between pre-and-post Revolutionary Russia. However, the economic, political, cultural, artistic differences were profound. So it’s interesting to see what happens next, especially since Russia experienced no Thermidorean reaction, and never saw the overthrow of the Revolutionary tradition until the better part of a century had passed.
Even the French had nothing similar happen: first Napoleon, then the Bourbons again—and certainly no sans-coulette government. As a true crime aficionado, I’d say that modern Russian history is without parallel too. If you study British history, you must look for grave crimes abroad for the most part, in Ireland, or in more distant colonial parts. With Russia, you’ve got czarist crimes and pogroms, 19th century terrorism, then you’ve got revolutionary violence, and Stalinist purges, the Gulag, and the world wars, which were obviously ten times more bloody than anything experienced by Britain. And obviously, Russia too had all of the violence of colonialism, even without the overseas empire.
The other factor in Russia that makes Russian history interesting is its history of serfdom, which can in some respects be compared to American slavery, both ended in the same decade. Maybe the bourgeoisie is equally interesting, but it seems more familiar and therefore less interesting than Russian aristocracy and Russian serfdom.
There was a time when I was bored by the Cold War, bored by the decaying bureaucratic structures of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, for example. I’ve moved away from this because I’m now interested in the question of how something as evil and dysfunctional as the Soviet regime could transform itself into something so banal (if still evil). But I understand people who are bored of the Cold War. I myself sometimes think of Cold War history as something akin to 1970s music or episodes of some no-longer-relevant sitcom like Welcome Back Kotter. Still, this is a good time to study the Soviet Union. With capitalism experiencing another wave of severe setbacks, it’s important to look back at the only other distinct option that modernity apparently produced.
As a young man, I couldn’t have asked for anything better than Dostoevsky. I was shocked to see how directly the man dealt with the question of evil. Although few details remain with me, I remember how Crime and Punishment seemed to be the perfect book, the best book. It was of course a real page-turner. You sweated with the hero, worried for him. You knew he had done wrong, but you felt that he had somehow asked the important questions of life, whether society or law or religion or morality offered anything of value to the individual.
I remember being bitterly disappointed with the ending of Crime and Punishment, insofar as the conversion and repentance seemed to overturn everything of value that had happened in the rest of the book. But, at least at the time, I felt that this ending had been somehow tacked on, in deference to the censors, or as a way of earning societal approval for his titillating treatment of murder and amorality in general. I didn’t blame him for the ending—I just didn’t believe him.
Then I tried the Demons (sometimes translated as The Possessed). Now here again was the perfect book, in that it dealt with religion and philosophy and ethics, but all against the backdrop of my favorite subject, politics. I was stunned by its directness, and didn’t think that anything like this would have been permitted in the 19th century, let alone America in the modern era. And if Dostoevsky was actually a conservative and a Christian, I personally couldn’t detect these themes. So I felt a strong kinship with the man who had demonstrated—to my mind at least—a terrific empathy with radical thought, atheism, skepticism, and revolution.
My first encounter with Tolstoy was War and Peace. I remember it took me a couple of months to finish its 1500 or so pages. I think I ripped off pages and left them wherever I went to keep myself motivated: the shrinking carcass of the book, deprived of so many pages, made the carcass seem much more digestible. I remember reading this book at a critical moment in my life. I had just graduated from college and, without a job or any real idea about how to go about getting a job, I moved across the country to be in California with a girlfriend. While looking for a job under very surreal circumstances—I wound up working at a post-production studio in Hollywood if that says anything—I thought that I shoudn’t waste these months of unemployment but should rather embark on a significant intellectual project. So that’s how I began War and Peace.
Probably others have tried the book for the same reason, not as a result of being intrigued by Tolstoy, but because one likes the challenge of the 1500 pages, or wants to brag about having conquered the challenge. Probably I was too young to understand the book.
It was divided into two parts, sort of like The Devil and the White City is divided into two parts (the story of a serial killer, and the story of the World’s Fair). And I essentially fell in love with the war parts alone. I liked the battle scenes, the treatment of diplomatic episodes, etc. The history of Russian society interested me also, but mainly in terms of its relationship to French culture and ideals and language.
After War and Peace, I read Anna Karenina. I did so when the next crisis of my life presented itself. Having left California with little direction, I again began looking for work. And, having found only the most unsatisfactory employment as a waiter, I embarked upon Anna Karenina. Sadly, I remember little, just that the tragedy was very well sketched, the characters exceedingly well developed.
Many years later, I decided so many Russians alluded to Tolstoy so frequently that I needed to reengage. I read Troyat’s biography first, and it made me fall in love with Tolstoy by reminding me that Tolstoy had been a true original in terms of his philanthropy, aristocratic contradictions, profound hypocrisy (which a lesser man could never have maintained), religious attitudes, honesty, and influence on men such as Gandhi, Jane Addams, Chekhov, Gorky, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Reading his book, Childhood, made me appreciate his self-effacing honesty, humor, humility, sympathy for others, and relentless self-criticism. Since then I’ve read the Cossacks, which some say is the best novella ever written in the Russian language. It wasn’t that for me, but again, it showed his writing skills, and his capacity for taking up interesting themes, and for portraying men and women, Russians and non-Russians, with great intuition.
And I’ve read the short, the Death of Ivan [X?] which seems to demonstrate real restraint and recognition of the important of literary subjects. In fact, when you read The Death of Ivan [X], you think to yourself: how is it that nobody else ever created a novel about one’s own death, stripped down to its bare essentials? It’s as if no other author had ever realized that people die or, more likely, it’s as if no other author was brave enough to admit this, either to himself or his readers. I have the feeling that all of Tolstoy’s books work this way: they all seem to related to subjects that don’t feel as if they have ever before been revealed as the proper subject of the literary imagination.
I’m reading Steiner’s Tolstoy the Man right now, and it’s a wonderful survey of Tolstoy’s fame and effect on the best minds of his generation. Another short book about Tolstoy focuses solely on the role Tolstoy played in defending a soldier from execution. Ultimately, Tolstoy was unsuccessful and the soldier was killed for having slapped an officer while on duty; but the fact that Tolstoy appears to have remained racked with guilt for not having defended the soldier—even decades later—says much for the man. In fact, Tolstoy brought up his own guilt publicly when he condemned the death penalty more vigorously at the end of his life.
To sum up, I am inclined at the moment to say that Dostoevsky may be the better author. His books seem slightly tighter, slightly more perfect. But Tolstoy’s genius was probably broader, taking in a more expansive view of the totality of human experience. And I think in the end literature is about honesty, being everyday more honest than the previous day. It’s a pity that Tolstoy left imaginative literature to focus on pseudo-Christian polemics, but this was inevitable: he was searching for truth and not trying to pursue fame or literary greatness for their own sake. Anna Karenina strikes me to be the key to Tolstoy’s greatness: it was apparently meant as a sort of moral lesson about infidelity, lack of faith, shallowness.
Yet Tolstoy understand both sides of human life, that which he advocates, and that which he condemns. And so the villainess is also the heroine, and one comes away with terrific understanding for the very character he is apparently condemning, the adulteress. Maybe it’s time to tackle the Brother Karamazov; however, this may shift my opinion in favor of Dostoevsky. I’ve tried this book, and the Idiot, but made little headway heretofore. And then, come to think of it, I’ve never read a biography of Dostoevsky, so perhaps my greater appreciation for Tolstoy stems from secondary commentary rather than the novels themselves.
My sentimental favorite is Henri Troyat, who was apparently born in Russia but grew up in France. The man penned endless books on Russian history and literature, and they are all emminently readable if perhaps slightly formulaic. His biography of Trostky was a favorite of Orlando Figes—which says a lot. It makes for wonderful reading and is sympathetic even when it comes to some of Tolstoy’s more bizzare opinions and behaviors. The drama between Tolstoy and his wife is portrayed with a great deal of humor, but not ridiculed per se.
Troyat’s Chekhov and Turganev are excellent too. (I have yet to discover a copy of his Gogol or Dostoyevsky biographies—but can hardly wait until I do, and don’t quite want to spoil the hunt by ordering copies online). The Gorky biography is a first-rate introduction to the man, but it’s almost too short, too flippant, to deal with such a central man in the history of Russian literature. Of course, Troyat also deals with the emperors, and I have loved his Ivan the Terrible and Alexander I. The fault with Alexander I, it appears from subsequent reading, is that to tell a good story, Troyat seems to impute all historical processes to this man’s will when, in fact, even subscribing to the Great Man Theory of History, one has to admit that the leading generals and aristrocrats influenced Alexander as much as he influenced them.
Other candidates for leading historian? I’d put Bruce Lincoln right up there, although I admit the bias that comes from recently finishing about four of his books in a row, including his books on Siberia, the 1890s, the Revolution, and the Civil War. We’ll see how well he can deal with the history of Russian arts. Other candidates might include Tolstoy, who wrote now formal history but whose War and Peace had lasting influence on our perception of the Napoleonic invasion as well as on historiography itself.
Maybe Marx also deserves consideration, since Trostky and all other writers—both pro and anti-Revolution—formed their analysis based on his categories of analysis, however perveted to serve events he had not anticipated. And current favorites, in terms of producing the kind of history that would bear scrutiny from current historians at the top of their game, might be the author of Young Stalin and the Court of the Red Czar (the spelling of the man’s name elludes me), or Orlando Figes, whose The Whisperers may have even topped Natasha’s Dance.
Perhaps others will think Scott Reed’s fame gets him into the finals. Or some 19th century historian whose work was somehow foundational? Or the auther of the Magnetic Mountain? What's your vote?
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Was the Revolution an ethical project or not? It's hard to know how to begin approaching this question. Of course, historians can probably now at last agree that the actual effects of the Revolution were negative. The Purges and Stalin's abuses and the Gulag Archipelago and Hungary and Prague cast grave doubt on the legacy of the Revolution. And the negative consequences of the Revolution were no longer even debatable after the final and complete collapse of European Communism.
But obviously most of the revolutionaries could not have known what would follow their attempt to dismantle the Old Regime. And the Old Regime--especially as depicted in Bruce Lincoln's books--was the embodiment of darkness at the time. The legacy of serfdom, the corrupt cabal of people who surrounded the incompetent royal family, the antisemitism, the nationalism that led to participation in World War I--all of it had to go.
One way of getting a grip on the question of ethics is comparing Lenin or Trotsky to Churchill. Who, at the time, would have seemed more or less ethical? The men who stood for Land, Bread, and Peace--despite their undemocratic leanings--or the man who systematically supported colonialism and militarism and capitalism over a long period of time?
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Perhaps I would be able to answer questions about Soviet power on a multiple question exam by choosing the closest answer among different options, but that is as far as I can go. Commisars, soviets, central committees, party congresses, politburos, the KGB, etc. It's still all a bit murky. Things are made harder because some institutions did change radically over the years and decades, especially at first, when these new forms were freshly invented. And the institutional names are linked to Marxist ideology, which is almost a theology, and we all know that theological terminology is--especially in Russia--all a form of Greek. And then there are institutions that seem to mean a lot but are in reality not important in the Soviet system, such as the difference between Premier or Secretary or President, etc. One can only admire those party members such as Trostky and Lenin who spoke with such confidence about new governmental forms, as if they had been around for decades, as if Marxist theory was transparent when it came to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
Two days ago I had a brief debate with my co-author about the pros and cons of existence. My friend said he feared non-existence above all else and thought that it would be better to live a life of at least mild suffering than never have existed at all. I disagreed. In fact, the debate arose over the question of abortion rights. This passage from Tolstoy, quoted by his friend and biographer Steiner in Tolstoy the Man, seems to capture my friend's position, and almost (but not quite) convinces me. After bearing witness to his brother's death from consumption he wrote:
"He literally died in my arms. Nothing in my life has made such an impression on me. He was right when he said, "Nothing is worse than death" and when one remembers that is the end of everything, then there is nothing worse than life. Why should one work and worry when nothing of that which was Nikolai Tolstoy nothing remains?... He was beginning to feel his absorption into nothing; and if he found nothing on which to take hold, what shall I find? Much less than he; and assuredly I shall struggle with death as he has struggled. To the last minute he held on to life... [T]he truth which I have discovered in my thirty-two years is, that life is terrible. You write, "Take life as you find it, because you yourself are to blame for the position you find yourself." I take life as I find it, but as soon as man has reached the highest plane of his development, the truth which he loves above everything else is awful. When one comes to see that clearly and plainly, he wakes, and says like my brother, "What is that?"
I suppose the same question could be asked of any of the main belligerents in World War I, since they all squandered so much property, so many lives, so much wealth. But Russia obviously suffered most, and suffered most by an order of magnitude. And this of course was well before the Revolution itself destroyed what was left of the economy, before Germany robbed Russia of some of its border states, and before the Civil War re-duced the standard of living even further.
There was a time when contemporaries believed Communism was responsible for raising Russia out of this desolation, but even acknowledging that slave labor and iron discipline and targeted investment might well have rescued targeted sectors of the economy, it seems that Communism could only have further retarded Russia's efforts to re-claim its Great Power status in the 1920s.
Admittedly, there is a precedent here, insofar as Russia overcome the Napoleonic invasions and seemed, in most observable ways, stronger than ever despite the dislocation and destruction and death that the French brought. Even so, I find it hard to explain Russia's reemergence in the 1920s. One might even wonder a related question: how is it that Russia could lose a war to the still-emerging Japan in 1904-05 but then fight both Austria and Germany, with some notable successes, during World War I.