Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Walden Pond

While I was growing up I entertained a series of prospective careers. Many of my ideas centered around professional sports, but along the way I wanted to be an architect, an astronomer, and a politician. Once I realized the career in sports was absurd, I settled on economics. The only publication we subscribed to was Reader's Digest and under its influence I developed conservative inclinations. I supported Jack Kemp for President in 1988. Making money struck me as the ideal way to help bring down the Evil Empire. Somewhere along the way I got ahold of an issue of Money magazine which listed "money manager" as a particularly lucrative profession. I guess that was the equivalent of what we call a fund manager today. My favorite book was Lee Iaccoca's autobiography. I even wrote him a letter.

Henry Thoreau

Halfway through high school I started reading books, and a couple of them cast dents in my conservative-economist armour, but the decisive blow was landed by Thoreau's Walden. I don't think I ever made it all the way through the book, but I would credit Thoreau with inspiring my lifelong parsimony, my discomfort with consumption, and my inability to enjoy enjoyment. Probably he just confirmed instincts that were already there; I remember being seized with buyer's remorse after laying out 60 cents for a pack of baseball cards. At any rate, Walden began a long decline into the humanities, and after twenty years of book reading I find myself not very enlightened and without much of a career to speak of either.

Over the holidays I read a little of Walden for the first time in 20 years. I was surprised at his libertarianism. I had scoffed at conservatives who cited him approvingly, but Thoreau certainly wouldn't have much use for modern liberalism. He thinks the poor would be better off fending for themselves. I would also have classed Thoreau as an exponent of a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, but it turns out he's more interested in a sort of Puritan laziness. The necessities of life are not all that hard to obtain, he says. There is no reason to be poor unless you really want to. I was probably also influenced at that impressionable age by Thoreau's contempt for other people and his critique of enjoyment. None of this was very appealing on a second reading though.

I bring all of this up because Thoreau is probably the closest thing we have to a native radical writer, and yet his opinions are so far removed from socialism in theory or practice that they hardly occupy the same universe. Even his critique of consumerism is so firmly embedded in an ethic of individualism that no social theory could be coaxed from it. It makes you sense doubly the foreignness of the Soviet experiment, and while maybe that gives us grounds to hope our national character has rendered us immune to the lure of absolutism, it also raises the fear that we are condemned to eternally wander in the woods alone.

Monday, December 21, 2009

100 Years of Genius

Ballet School

Sololomon Volkov’s The Magical Chorus is a brilliant introduction to Russian high culture in the 20th century. It’s original, accessible, and relatively objective in terms of its treatment of revolutionary traditions in literature. The book covers Russian poetry, prose, theatre, dance, music, art, and film, with some forays into popular culture. It links Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, and Block to Brodsky.

Pavlova And Chaliapin

Volkov’s own position as a Russian √©migr√©, expert musicologist, and Voice of America cultural critic lends him special credibility on many of the topics he covers, especially the art and life of Russian and Soviet composers. The Magical Chorus stresses the close relationship between politics and culture throughout the twentieth century. Although some might fault Volkov for spending too much time on elite culture, and too little time on popular art forms, Volkov makes a very convincing case that elite art was incredibly influential on Soviet politics and Russian political culture. Strangely, but convincingly, Volkov’s study of high culture places Stalin squarely at the center of many if not most artistic trends of the twentieth century.

Volkov’s Stalin retains his place as one of the century’s most brutal dictators. However, Volkov’s Stalin is intelligent, well-read, sophisticated, and personally invested in the arts. Stalin’s impact on the humanities is manifested on many levels. Stalin took a direct interest in the leading authors of his day, patronized many leading figures in culture, selected Lenin and Stalin prize winners, met with literary leaders, and often intervened directly in their fates, for better or worse.

Stalin also maintained active correspondences with many authors—Gorky and Pasternak, most famously—and used culture as a political tool in terms of the propaganda war he was waging against the West during the 1930s. However, Volkov demonstrates that Stalin had a serious aesthetic philosophy (related to the general line of bringing high culture to the masses) and serious appreciation for some of the work itself, particularly opera, film, and literature. (In this context one should also recall that Stalin wrote good poetry as a young man).

Lunacharsky At Desk

In comparison with both Lenin, who preceded him, and Khrushchev, who succeeded him, Stalin was a connoisseur of the arts. Born into the intelligentsia, Lenin had almost no sense of wonder at even the most extreme forms of musical or literary talent. And Khrushchev, notwithstanding his early support for A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, let his belligerence, poor education, and insecurity get the best of him whenever he had the opportunity to engage with the arts.

To sum up, Volkov’s tour de horizon of modern Russian and Soviet culture leaves one breathless. What other country can boast so many first-rate authors and poets and muscicians? In fewer than 300 pages, Volkov discussed Tolstoy, Checkhov, Blok, Gumilev, Kandindsnky, Chagal, Diaghilev, Babel, Akhmatova, Berdyaev, Benois, Esenin, Ginzburg, Simonov, Horowitz, Mirsky, Ninjsnky, Stavinsky, Rachmaninoff, Shlovsky, Yevtushenko, Ehrenburg, Eistenstein, Mayakovsky, Nekrasov, Nureyev, Meyerhold,Sholokov,Bunin, Nabakov,Mandelstam, Bulgakov, Chukovsky, et cetera and so on. Despite the suffering and oppression, Russian genius asserted itself at every stage of modern history, but this genius was always produced as a result of a complex dialogue with the powerful and often terrifying Russian state.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Yes, but is it art or is it "parasitism," Eddie?

Joanna Lumley

My senior year of college I was accepted at The American University in Washington, D.C. Before moving to Washington, I went with a friend to Paris, France. While there, I read much more than I should have. Many of the books I brought with me were, appropriately, set in France. Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge comes to mind. But I also took along a few books that The American University required almost all of its incoming freshmen to read. And, although I had taken the Advanced Placement Test that would allow me to skip college English composition courses, I wanted to share the common experience of other entering freshmen by reading all of the books that other students were reading. I was very democratic. One of the books was John McPhee’s book, the Pine Barrens.

I read the short book cover to cover and, twenty years later, I recall that it was a well-written and reasonably interesting description of a scenic part of New Jersey I had never heard about before. Why this book had been chosen by The American University’s English faculty over other more artistic or influential books I’ll never know. Perhaps people who actually took English composition found out when they went to class. In any event, I hadn’t heard from John McPhee since then, until a year or two ago my younger brother mentioned McPhee was one of his favorite authors. Luckily for me, McPhee has accommodated even those readers who, like me, are on strict literary diets of Russian history and literature. His book, The Ransom of Russian Art, is entirely engrossed in Soviet culture.

In the Ransom of Russian Art, McPhee briefly but intelligently tells the story of an odd, mysterious American art collecto--Norton Dodge--who gradually acquired the world’s largest collection of dissident Soviet art, some 9,000 pieces in all, now housed at Rutgers’s University. Like the Pine Barrens perhaps, McPhee tells a simple but fascinating nonfiction story with a strange blend of journalistic narrative and academic context. Interestingly, McPhee pays equal attention to the collector and the collected. One the one hand, the reader gets a glimpse into the mind of a bizarre but benign man who managed to turn something akin to a mild psychological problem—namely obsessive compulsive disorder or hoarding--into nothing short of a public service to humanity. On the other hand, McPhee helps readers to get to know the Russian dissident artists whose work ended up on the collector’s farm and, ultimately, at Rutgers.

As somebody who has begun to collect Russian history and literature books, I was as interested in Norton Dodge's collecting impulse as I was in the Russian art itself. Why are some of us compelled to collect things? What is the difference between collecting and hoarding? When is collecting an expression of individuality and when is it an expression of pyschological insecurity or inordinate materialism? What does one do with a collection? How does one set limits on the types of things that fit into a collection and the types of things that don't? I'm not sure that Norton Dodge has any particular self-knowledge in this area, but, from the outside looking in, it quickly becomes apparent that the right kind of collecting can serve a useful social function and be an expression of individuality. Dodge's obsession helped Soviet artists to survive a dismal regime, and grants modern viewers a window onto to an important period of artistic expression, especially insofar as Russian abstract art was relatively isolated from its Western counterpart.

One sees that dissident artists were brave, bohemian, creative (even for artists), and incessantly artistic even in the context of governmental oppression. Better yet, McPhee uses dissident art to illuminate the nature of the Soviet Union. As the lives of the Russian artists demonstrate, Soviet tyranny survived Stalinism. For example, Soviet artists were either certified by the state as official artists, or they were forced to seek other employment. Without a job, Soviet dissident artists could be found guilty of the crime of “parasitism.” Additionally, if they were not connected by personal bonds with official artists in some way, many dissident artists had no access to basic art materials, such as acrylic paint or canvas, and no separate studio space. They were forced to be creative about the materials upon which they relied. Abstract art in general was nearly criminalized, except in design work, and the Soviet regime sometimes put artists into labor camps or mental hospitals to punish ideological or artistic transgressions. In one memorable line, a former dissident artist said something to this effect: "You can't imagine the extent to which fear dominated our lives. It was similar to how modern Americans must feel with the perpetual fear of not exercising enough or taking enough vitamins." In a more terrifying line, one artist said: "There is no exaggeration in Orwell."

Social Realism was the only game in town, and even the reformer Khrushchev told avant-garde artists that their work was worthless and represented a betrayal of the investment the state had made in them. Khrushchev openly threatened avant-garde artists with labor camps and declared war against them. Artists also suffered from police persecution, KGB surveillance, physical harassment (and perhaps an occasional murder), and the regular travel restrictions that were imposed on Soviet citizens. In fact, Soviet dissident art suffered from a lack of contact with foreign sources (though there obviously was some), an almost non-existent private or public art market, and Soviet restrictions against travelling to see Russians who happened to live in other cities.

The Ransom of Russian Art also tells the story of how Russian artists did manage to subvert the system and survive. Clearly, some form of public sphere or intelligentsia did spring up after Stalin died. And one of the most interesting things about this history of dissident art, is the way in which McPhee uncovers the layers of international intrigue and spying that enveloped Soviet art. With some prompting, the collector himself, while denying any specific ties to the CIA, admits that the CIA was everywhere at the time, and prevalent in most American organizations or associations that had anything to do with the study of Slavic culture or language. Clearly, McPhee is not convinced that much of the collector’s dissident art collection cannot be traced to CIA funding sources.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tragedy and Farce in 1852

Self-Styled Emperor

An analysis of the Revolution of 1917 necessarily involves retrospective treatment of other European revolutions. 1789 is the obvious point of departure, but 1848 shouldn’t be neglected since this revolutionary conflagration touched almost every corner of Europe and was therefore more universal than either 1789 or 1917, despite the glaring irony of its failure to gain even a foothold in autocratic Russia.

Portrait of Napoleon III

1848 was also an event that Karl Marx came to know first-hand and his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte deals brilliantly with its closing chapter, the triumph of the popular dictator and nephew to the original Bonaparte. Marx’s short treatise on contemporary France succeeds as political commentary as well as historical analysis. Its witty and sardonic treatment of Louis Bonaparte would make John Stewart and the Daily Show proud if it were written today. But the work has something important to say about the nature of revolution in the modern world, even apart from its careful depiction of class struggle, economic transformation, and the process of ideological mystification.

Brumaire Revolution

According to Marx, revolutions were becoming increasingly serious in the 19th century. “Early revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content…. There the phrase went beyond the content. Here the content goes beyond the phrase.” For Marx, bourgeois revolutions were shallow, effervescent, ecstatic, but short-lived, while proletarian revolutions “criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts,” and so on, until society has been so utterly transformed by the experience that there is, quite simply, no turning back.

The deep nature of modern or proletarian revolution is contrasted with the superficial nature of bourgeois revolution. For instance, the bourgeois republic, even when it is ostensibly bound to a written constitution, recognizes only citizen rights and privileges that are effectively undermined and checked by the rights of the body politic.

The proletarian revolution, Marx rightly predicts, will recognize no checks on its own authority or prerogatives. It will, moreover, be decisive, passionate, and heroic. Most importantly, the modern revolution will not be cowardly. It will face down its critics and disregard “pretentiously paraded exertions and philistine terror” that the change it brings will represent the “end of the world.”

One can almost hear a communion between Marx and Lenin in lines like these. Wasn’t Marx telling his followers to embrace the future, at whatever the costs? What of the opponents of the modern revolution? In Marx’s disturbingly comic description, these were nothing more than “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, procurers, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag pickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term La Boheme…”

Clearly, in a modern revolution, opponents could, in the words of Leon Trotsky half a century later, be safely “swept into the trash bin of history.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Soviet Symphony

One of the great paradoxes of Soviet history is that this most unmusical of regimes could have produced so many great musicians. Russians dominate 20th century music like Germans did the 19th. Many of them drew sustenance, as Orlando Figes showed in Natasha's Dance, from peasant traditions and much of the beauty of the music stems from the tension between rural tradition and the lure of the modern.

Modernism in all the arts was an attack against the decadence and complacency of the West and its deep-rooted hypocricies. The Soviet composers were primed to exploit these opportunities because they could hook their cultural-aesthetic critique to the regime's socio-political critique. Or in many cases it was hooked on for them. Shostakovich's bitter, gray-hued memoir, Testimony mostly communicates the long-suppressed fury of an artist who survived terror, but was permanently crippled by it. He never misses a chance, though, to emphasize his Russianess and to ridicule artists as great as Stravinsky and Prokofiev for betraying their patrimony. American productions of his work were deemed superficial, and his visits abroad were invariably uncomfortable. Yet in 1942 there was Shostakovich on the cover of Time magazine, wearing an absurd fireman's helmet, leading, in American eyes, the united socialist-capitalist charge against fascism. Throngs of admirers greeted him in New York and elsewhere and he grudgingly put up with their adulation.

I think it did us a lot of good, during the Cold War, to listen to Shostakovich, to read Solzhenitsyn, and to sense the double negation of our own culture. First as Russians, then as modernists, they had little use for what they saw as a depthless, self-regarding, atrophied civilization. Today such a negation does not exist. Sure there are radical Muslims who renounce everything western. But they don't embody that renunciation in shared artistic, musical, or literary forms; their scorn, unlike that of the Soviets, descends to those forms themselves. As a result there can be no dialogue and no self-criticism. Maybe that is why we feel so adrift in the war on terror.

Grace Boyd, Liberal, RIP

Margaret Mead On Stage

December 7—Pearl Harbor Day--was the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death. That’s right; it’s been a quarter of a century since I last saw or hugged the woman. In many ways, this blog was created as an homage to Grace Boyd, my mother. Grace wasn’t a socialist or even a Russophile, but she inherited a moderately left-of-center political disposition from her father, who was a self-professed “Christian-Socialist” who never missed a chance to evangelize about agrarian populism and the advantages of “the cooperative” alternative to capitalism. As my mother told us, she grew up in an intellectual atmosphere of unremitting opposition to the deleterious effects of consumerism and capitalism. Her father, an editor of a tiny newspaper, wrote minor treatises on socialism and collectivism in almost every edition of his paper, ignoring the opinions of his manifestly uninspired readership.

Kon Tiki Raft

After 25 years, my connection to my mother is necessarily tenuous, but writing about my mother’s intellectual world is one way to revive this connection. My mother’s cultural heroes were not, of course, Lenin and Trotsky. While Grace must have been interested in the Soviet Union’s putative attempt to implement social equality, feminism, internationalism, and anti-colonialism, the influence of these dead men was very remote from the microscopically small Midwestern town where she grew up, namely Capron, Illinois.

Louis Leakey

Rather, my mother celebrated the work of Liberal, Democratic, and feminist icons of the post-war era, including Margaret Meade, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, Jean Paul Sartre, John F. Kennedy, J.R., Paul Tillich, Enrich Fromm, Joseph Campbell, Thor Heyerdahl, Gloria Steinem, Jane Goodall, and Luis Leakey. (Note the decidedly non-revolutionary nature of this strange cast of characters—Malcolm X and Mao Tse Tung never made the list). And, truth be told, a liberalized, post-War Jesus Christ also made her list. (I remember that for many years she had a picture of a white, smiling, hippie Jesus hanging over her bed, making the classic peace sign with his fingers.)

ERA Supporters With Sign In Park

In the era of African independence, Grace studied African history in college and once lived for a brief time in Southern Rhodesia, Africa. The country, now called Zimbabwe, was dominated by a white, apartheid regime, which ultimately declared independence from Great Britain in order to set up a locally controlled racist regime. The enemies of that regime, led by Robert Mugabe and others, were African freedom fighters who were inspired by the twin ideologies of nationalism and socialism. To Grace, the choice seemed clear: socialism was preferable to racism, and might even be an antidote to it. (How sad to think about Robert Mugabe in the present).

Tribal Chiefs

I don’t know when the idea first hit me, but not long ago I decided that it was important to look at cultural heroes who were no longer in fashion. Think, for instance, of the whole system of Esparanto, an invented language that, once upon a time, seemed destined to become a neutral and therefore unifying force in diplomatic and inter-cultural relations. Remember the Equal Rights Amendment, which seemed ready to take us to another epoch in gender relations but narrowly failed to pass and then quickly vanished into obscurity for modern women?

Cesar Chavez

Celebrating the importance of the unimportant, I decided that it would best to go to the source of discredited ideology: The Russian Revolution of 1917. While it’s true that both Liberals and Conservatives formed a united opposition to Soviet aggrandizement, and my mother never even participated in systematic opposition to the Vietnam War, I believe that most Liberal ideology was ultimately grounded in some form of limited engagement with Bolshevik ideals. I can’t speak for my mother, but I suspect that she and I share this grudging respect for the “workers’ paradise.” If it meant nothing else, she feared the Right (whether that meant the Nazis or the followers of Ronald Reagan) more than she feared the Left. If Fidel Castro wasn’t admired in our household, neither was he a bogeyman.

Erich Fromm

I’ll close these random ruminations about my mother by quoting from her own college notes on Marxism, taken from a class she attended on 21 February 1957. How strange to be separated from Mom by half a century: the notes still feel fresh, as if they had just been written, and some of the historical judgments haven’t been affected all that much by 50 years of scholarship. They suggest a rather critical attitude to Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism. According to the Radcliff/Harvard lecturer of Humanities 125 (named Buttrick—and easily identified via Google), the Soviet Union was an attempt to overcome “man’s” inevitable anxiety about death; the Soviet citizen might die, but the state would live on. The Soviet critique of bourgeois pride made sense, the lecturer goes on to say, but Communism reinstated this divisiveness by creating administrative rather than social ranks. Ironically, the Soviet elites even had property now, including limousines.

Jane's Baboons

Mom’s notes leave off on a decidedly un-Communist note: “We are free whether or not we understand.” Rest in peace.

A Blackberry Fetish

Katie Holmes takes pictures of her daughter Suri while having lunch at Balthazar in Soho

The simplest way to explain the lasting appeal of the Soviet experiment is to say that it has offered the only serious critique of, or alternative to, capitalist modernity. Nick is on to something when he discusses the Soviet Union’s theoretical (in both senses of the word) attempt to glorify work as opposed to consumption in terms of how human beings should go about making their lives meaningful, or go about making meaning in general.

U.S. Launch Party for The BlackBerry Tour Smartphone from Sprint

To celebrate the proletariat was to celebrate production at the expense of consumption. But to propose a successful alternative to capitalist modernity involves Marx’s theory of the commodity fetish. And while this writer is not equipped to analyze this theory in depth, it may be enough to say that anybody who has been to Best Buy recently may have some idea about the strength of America’s commodity fetish. As you stroll around this massive marketplace of electronics, you can’t help but be impressed by your own insignificance in comparison with what the Russians might call, a technological “field of wonders.”

Bai Ling attends the Madame Chocolate Valentine Day Mixer on Canon in Beverly HIlls

Once upon a time, the washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and stereos might have awed the consumer into reverent silence. Today, the gadgets and technological marvels are proliferating at unprecedented speed, with something new and unprecedented appearing each time you visit the store. The result, as we all know, is a consumer paradise. We all want many things at Best Buy: a bigger television, a thinner television, a new game system, a more advanced phone, a faster computer, etc. I was impressed most recently by a pen that could record dozens of hours of lecture and was equipped with a camera and computer chip that allows the writer to transfer his or her scribbles directly on to a computer in the same form in which the scribbles appeared on paper.

Paris Hilton leaves the Mayfair Hotel in London and heads out for a night on the town

The consumer’s paradise (see the French novel Ladies Paradise for a nineteenth century diagnosis of the same problems) is ultimately linked in profound ways to human identity under capitalism. Why do we care so much about owning a bigger television if not to reinforce our own identity as a powerful earner-consumer? The sophistication of the new video games tells the story without even resorting to metaphor. Our identities are clearly wrapped up in the alternative selves or avatars we create on Nintendo, Play station, Wii, or X-Box worlds.

Marx was of course concerned with the mystification process involved in the capitalist commodity. And while it’s true that nobody thinks twice about the “labor value” or “surplus value of labor” that went into each of these consumer products, this isn’t really the primary effect of the capitalist commodity fetish. As Christina Kiaer writes in Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, Marx pointed to the issue when he said something to this effect: material relations were becoming persons, and personal relations were becoming things.

Now it may be unfair to say that your new Blackberry has become one of your closest friends, but surely if your Blackberry actually required a seat at your coming wedding, you’d make room for it at the expense of an annoying high school friend or distant relative. Whether your Blackberry would be allowed to bring a date is a different and more delicate question.

Amy Poehler falls head over heels on the set of her new televison show!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Consumer Ethos

There is an wonderful moment in Solzhenitsyn's The Cancer Ward when Kostoglotov is released from the hospital on a gorgeous green spring day. After months of sickness and disease, the ordinary world is suddenly coming to life again. It's like he's been reborn. He buys a skewer of meat (shashlik), a cup of wine, and stumbles into a department store. Initially he's astonished at the new consumer goods on hand. TV, 'photo-telegrams', cameras and accessories--technology seems just as fecund as nature. Then, standing at the silk shirt counter, he hears a man ask for a size twenty-five shirt with a size fifteen collar. "It staggered Oleg like an electric shock." After years of war, imprisonment, exile, and finally cancer, he is finally brought low by consumerism. A world in which you can stipulate collar sizes is entirely foreign to his sensibility.

We usually think that the Soviet system failed in part because it could not satisfy its citizens' desire for worldly goods. But people have survived for centuries without grumbling at their lack of electronic toys. It's equally possible that it was the collision between a Soviet culture that lionized production and creation with the sweeping global expansion of passive consumption. At this oversated moment in our history it's strange that we don't hear more about the importance of work. Obama emphasizes responsibility, education, and other core values, but he says little about work as a tonic for overconsumption. No one wants to slow the economy any further. But somehow we have to figure out how to balance our accumulative desires with our need for creative outlets, and in this era of a persistent degradation of the work experience, that is quite a challenge.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Original Gangstas

RUS: Khodorkovsky Returns To Moscow Courtroom

Although already overtaken by events since its publication in the early 1990s, Stephen Handelman’s Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya is an important book. Its central thesis, while not entirely original, involves the claim that the Communist Party was a form of criminal conspiracy, and inevitably gave birth to the new mafia (spelled mafiya in Russian) that dominate large parts of the Soviet economy today.

We know of course that the Old Bolsheviks were fascinated by crime, and perhaps rightly so: in an era when almost all forms of oppositional politics were outlawed, there wasn’t much of a difference between social revolutionaries and criminals. As Montefiore’s biography, Young Stalin, reminds us: key Bolsheviks led armed groups that functioned both as mafia clans and Communist agitators, with Stalin going so far as to pull off hugely successful bank heists in order to finance Lenin’s political platform. Handelman also points out that most leading Bolsheviks spent a lot of time in the gulag, where they would have become intimately familiar with ordinary criminal circles. And many, like Stalin, openly expressed admiration for the ethos of the tough, ruthless criminal underworld.

When the Bolsheviks took power, it was in some respects inevitable that they would carry some of their criminal tendencies (if that’s not too strong a word) to the Kremlin. And indeed the Central Committee and Politburo did begin to resemble a meeting of dons to settle larger disputes about the state’s wealth would be distributed. Like the Mafia, the Party was always extremely centralized and hierarchical. Decisions were always made at the very top, and nowhere else. More importantly, over time the Communist Party became a kind of cosa nostra. Its members formed a relatively small subset of the overall population, isolated themselves from that population through specific socialization rites and rituals of loyalty, intermarried, and enjoyed a large set of special privileges which they endeavored to pass on to family and friends. (The author recalls that this brand of nepotism existed at every level of the Party, with Brezhnev famously giving his son-in-law a key post in his government. )

In fact, to become a Communist Party member, one required Communist Party personal sponsors, not unlike a traditional rite of entry into the Russia mafia. To be a Party member meant access to special schools, stores, jobs, cars, retirement packages, the possibility of travelling across and national borders, state-sponsored dachas, and vacations in the Crimea. It also meant you had a chance to become a political official or government bureaucrat. If one sets aside the criminal class, the Communist political and bureaucratic class—called the nomenklatura-- became, notoriously, the only class that mattered in Russia and the Soviet State in general.

To get things done, you had to work through the Party elite. They, aside from the mafia, who continued to operate throughout the Soviet experiment notwithstanding Stalin’s repressions, were the only “fixers” in town: they decided who received housing, who got permission to move to other regions, what jobs became available, what justice would look like, and everything else that affected ordinary people.
The reality of the situation was only fully revealed with the collapse of communism.

Although it seems ironic to some, Handelman believes it was inevitable that former Communist officials would collaborate with the mafia (now dangerously split into dozens if not hundreds of groups or factions) in the vacuum on a broad spectrum of outrageously successful criminal ventures that robbed the Russian people of most of their patrimony. If there must be an irony about the rise of Comrade Criminal, the ex-Communist gangster, it is that Communist ideology had always denied the very existence of criminality in Russia. According to official Communist doctrine, organized crime was a byproduct of decadent, immoral capitalism, but could not exist in a socialist state.

Nikolai "Piggy Foxy" Bukharin and Co.

German Proletarian art exhibition at Hermitage Museum

The Russian Archives of Social and Political History hold extraordinary secrets. Foxy Piggy and the Sword of Revolution reveals some of them. The book is a collection of informal political caricatures produced by and for elite Russian government and party officials during the 1920s and 1930s. Of varying degrees of artistic fluency, they reveal a great deal about the nature of power in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Revolution.

The cartoons, some incredibly funny, others merely malicious, show how Soviet leaders jockeyed for power with one another and intermingled personal feeling with public policy disputes. As the editors Vatlin and Maleshenko tell us, these cartoons were created in the midst of political activity, at Central Committee plenums, Party Congresses, and Politburo meetings. They suggest that Soviet leaders were creative if also crude students of human nature. While they do track the growing dominance of Stalin within the Party, they show that uniformity of expression was not established until the Great Purges of 1937-8. For while the editors point out that few cartoonists created portraits of Stalin that ridiculed him—as they surely did for most other leaders—Central Committee and Politburo politicians were busily, and often collaboratively, producing works that poked fun at one another, both on a personal basis and with respect to political opinion or error.

One cartoonist that stands out both for artistic talent and a humane subject matter is Bukharin. One can’t help but believe that this sensitive artist was proclaiming a more urbane view of politics than his peers, who frequently used their cartoons to do little more than attack and discredit their subjects. However, one can’t help but remember that Mao Tse Tung was an excellent poet and this didn’t do much for Chinese peasants or intellectuals.

It’s important not to generalize too much about Soviet politics based on this treasure trove of cartoon art. However, the editors rightly point out that the content of the artwork is largely devoid of attacks against colonialism or capitalism (common themes in public Soviet propaganda), suggesting that Soviet officials were more concerned with building Russian socialism than with exporting it during this time period. They also note that the work becomes darker and darker as the years go by, reflecting the end of any pretence to pluralism within the Politburo or Central Committee.

In truth, it’s hard to imagine how diversity of opinion lasted as long as it did in the upper echelons of the Communist Party. As the editors remind us, Hitler never even pretended to have equal debating partners. As a theme, economics looms largest. The editors note that the Soviet Union was attempting to create a brand new form of economics, and largely failing. They were producing economic plans, building factories, electrifying the countryside, balancing supply and demand, creating canals and dams, transforming agriculture, and eliminating any form of private trade or free enterprise. In this situation, officials fought with one another for scarce resources as well as the authority to exert influence over key economic activities. With the politburo making all decisions—and often doing so in an information vacuum—government officials were caught in a dilemma. Lacking all authority to make independent decisions, they took their concerns to powerful Party patrons, who ultimately resolved even conflicts which arose out of tiny practical concerns.

The cartoons reveal the darker side of this competition, and hint at the cost of losing this competition: being branded a saboteur or ideological opponent of socialism. As the editors suggest, the leaders who were producing this art with wrestling with their own incompetence and lack of insight into economic reality. They—and increasingly Stalin alone--made every decision, and yet key elements of the Soviet economy were in disarray. The trains collided, agriculture was collapsing, consumers had too little, and slave labor was needed to complete some of the massive industrialization and mining projects. Somebody deserved blame, and since it couldn’t be the Party elite, it had to be kulaks, Trotskyites, “wreckers,” and capitalist spies. The cartoons, which begin with some levity, end with the darker search for scapegoats.