Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Communist Jokes

Ben Lewis, author of Hammer and Tickle: A Cultural History of Communism, collected hundreds if not thousands of jokes by Russians and Eastern Europeans about the Communist experience. Lewis believes these jokes are unique in that each topic implicitly links back to a general critique of the whole communist system. Here are a few of them:

Who dug the White Sea canal?
The right back was dug by those who told jokes...
And the left bank?
By those who listened.

What is the difference between Stalin and Roosevelt?
Roosevelt collects the jokes that people tell about him, and Stalin collects the people who tell jokes about him.

An old housewive joins a queue: "What are they giving out?"
Person in queue: "A slap in the face."
Old housewife: "To everyone? Or just Stakhanovites?"

Who invented barbed wife?
Lysenko, who crossed a snake with a hedgehog.

Will there be a police force when we have achieved full Communism?
No, by then people will have learned how to arrest themselves.

What is the definition of Capitalism?
The exploitation of man by man.
What is the definition of Communism?
The exact opposite.

Trotsky wakes up in the morning.
"How are you?" an assistant asks.
"I don't know," he says. "I haven't read the papers yet."

What were Mayakovsky's last words before he committed suicide?
"Comrades, don't shoot!"

What's the new sign in Kiev hospitals?
Anyone who has come in for radiation therapy, please go outside.

Do you know why Romania will survive the end of the world?
Because it is fifty years behind everyone else.

What is the difference between a Western fairy tale and a Communist one?
The Western one begins, "Once upon a time there was...", and the Communist one begins, "Once upon a time there will be..."

How will the problem of queues in shops be solved when we reach full Communism?
There will be nothing left to queue for.

What are the most constant problems facing the Soviet economy?
Temporary problems.

What is the difference between life in the time of Jesus and life today?
In those days one man suffered for us all. Today we all suffer for one man.

Young Pioneers on Film

Dziga Vertov's silent film, Kino Eye, is revolutionary in its technical as well as social dimensions. The film is one long sequence of innovative cinematographic maneuvers. It's subject matter is twofold: first, early Soviet society, taken as a whole; and second, the beneficent activity of the Communist youth association, the Young Pioneers.

What does the naked eye of the camera reveal about the Young Pioneers? They are, quite simply, selfless, helpful, healthy, ubiquitous, and progressive. The Young Pioneers, the junior of the two official Communist youth organizations--the other being the Komsomol-represent the future of Russian society twice over. First, the Young Pioneers are, of course, future Communists. Second, even as youngsters, they are actively reshaping Russian society according to Marxist principles.

The camera's eye catches the Young Pioneers celebrating new Communist holidays, demonstrating Communist enthusiasm by marching in quasi-military marches, teaching drunkards about the negative consequences of drinking and smoking, putting up propaganda posters related to public health and the merits of buying from economic cooperatives (the First Red Supermarket is cheaper than private enterprise), exercising or grooming, helping widows with their agricultural work, making tin implements for needy villagers, and drilling for the coming conflict with capitalist warmongers. As one woman remarks in text, "...they aren't going to church, but I'm happy anyhow."

The camera's eye depicts the essential role of the Young Pioneers in building Russian socialism. But its canvas is broader than that. Kino Eye takes the viewer throughout urban and rural Russia, depicting technological triumphs such as trolleys, light bulbs, telephones, and radio receivers, realistic scenes such as T.B. sanitariums and mental health institutions, and complex, multi-step economic processes, such as bread making and slaughterhouse activity.

At times, the film's subjects seem to have been chosen purely for their suitability for the medium. How else can we explain an elephant's trip to the zoo, a record player's movement, or a Chinese magician entertaining a crowd? But overall the film retains a visual idea: Communist Russia is complex, forward-looking, and actively overcoming a traditional heritage in the interest of progress. This isn't a simple approach to agitprop; the director shows us drug addicts, vagabonds, alcoholics, seemingly backward-looking peasants, and insane people. Nevertheless, these honest scenes of ugliness only highlight the accomplishments of the Young Pioneers and the worthiness of the Communist project.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Comedy of Communism

Soviet Roulette is biased: it is naturally obsessed with those authors who mix personal ruminations with historical or literary observations about the Soviet Union. See, for example, previous posts on The Possessed and Inside the Stalin Archives. One of the best efforts in this strange genre is Ben Lewis' Hammer and Tickle: A Cultural History of Communism. Lewis, who isn't afraid to describe an illuminating relationship with a neo-communist East German girlfriend, believes that humor lies at the heart of the communist experiment. Lewis' book (which expands on a movie on the same subject) is an open-ended investigation to decades of communist jokes, which were used both to ridicule socialist states as well as their alleged enemies, including capitalists, Western powers, and even foot-dragging apparatchiks.

Lewis doesn't provide readers with any easy answers about the meaning of communist humor. He tracks jokes by topic, regime, era, purpose, and venue. He contrasts competing historical and cultural theories related to the impact of jokes on despotic regimes. Did the ubiquitous jokes undermine the regimes they denigrated or serve them by replacing more meaningful, action-oriented forms of political protest? Lewis offers no simple solution, although he does admit that people seem to have put away humor when they finally took to the streets in the late 1980s to bring down communist rule once and for all.

If Lewis doesn't advance a single thesis about communist humor, he does help to show how his approach to understanding the logic of communism is indispensable. Humor is at the heart of many different facets of the European experience of communism. People told jokes about almost every facet of communist existence, including shortages, shoddy goods, the cult of Lenin, stupid or corrupt leaders, sham elections, police surveillance, and capitalist economic supremacy. Stalin told jokes about his enemies. Communist periodicals derided the state's perceived enemies.

Lewis quotes historian Steven Cohen by saying something to the effect that communism was only serious for about five minutes, but has been funny ever since. If this tongue-in-cheek formulation underrates the tragedy of the gulags, purges, and collectivisation famines, it does point to the essential absurdity that always lay at the heart of communist social and economic theory. By the 1960s, Eastern Europeans understood that in many ways their society was a parody of the Western one. Their economy produced things that nobody needed; hard work had almost no relationship to economic reward; and the continued viability of most Eastern European nations was contingent upon the generosity of the Western ones, who routinely gave out large, sub-market loans.

There is a flawed Woody Allen film entitled, Melinda, Melinda, that unconsciously follows Marx's famous dictum about the nature of history. In this tale, Allen makes the point that the same story can be told in two different but equally satisfying ways; either as tragedy or farce. Although it's sometimes hard to credit--see my previous post on film, The Trotsky--looking at communism as comedy somehow seems worthwhile and long overdue.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Vladimir Nabokov's book of interviews, letters to the editor, and editorials establishes the following: Nabokov... 1) is a genius; 2) knows that he is a genius; 3) doesn't usually make any aesthetic or intellectual compromises; 4) hates communism and other forms of political dictatorship; 5) eschews literary trends and labels and schools; 6) is proud of his scientific publications about butterflies; 7) loves America; 8) thinks The Gift is his best Russian book and Lolita may be his best overall book; 9) believes that Russian liberalism was vibrant on the eve of the Revolution; 10) believes he is better than most other major European or American authors, living or dead; 11) is confident about his translations, and also about his philosophy of translation; 12) is contemptuous of other people's translations; 13) is not interested in religion; 14) dislikes interviews and interviewers, by and large; 15) has a well-established creative process and philosophy of literature; 16) is not particularly found of literary criticism; loathes Freud, Marx, Sartre, et cetera and so on.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Wild East

America and Russia have always resembled one another. Most importantly, the concept of manifest destiny isn't unique to America; Russians think of Siberia in much the same way as Americans think of the Wild West. The "frontier myth" is central to both national identities. In Andrei Konchalovsky's lengthy epic, Siberiade, we get the chance to examine the Russian version of an American cinema cliche up close.

Like the American film, Giant, Siberiade revolves around the quest to open up Siberia by drilling for oil. Beginning in tsarist Russia, the film tracks several generations of Russian frontiersmen (and their love interests) and ends with the discovery of oil in the modern era. It also interweaves this local story of a small and fragile outpost of civilization with that of the broader Russian-or rather Soviet-narrative of progress.

Near this tiny village one man spends his life in a seemingly Sisyphean struggle to carve out a road in the Siberian taiga. But his heroic struggle is a metaphor for the larger Soviet story of development. Throughout the film the director inserts historical footage, or classic black and white film footage that appears to be historical footage, to remind viewers that throughout each of the decades that the film covers, the Soviet Union represents the almost Hegelian ideal of progress, movement, technological innovation, hard work, heroism, and forward motion.

If this small group of Siberians eventually discovers the oil that transforms a wilderness into a "Sun City" of economic sophistication and industrial power, the nation as a whole was experiencing this same metamorphosis on a truly Titanic scale. As the film nears its climax, it's interesting to note that Party officials and bureaucrats (rather than the entrepreneurs and capitalists of American mythology) play a decisive role. Although it's an ordinary driller who heroically throws himself into a harm's way in an attempt to close down a burning oil well, it's a regional party boss who defends the project by asking his superior, perhaps a member of the Central Committee, to remember how, in World War II, the two men used to take "risks" in order to defeat the Germans. Thus, even in 1979, the era of stagnation, the Party's leadership is cinematically represented by intelligent, even daring, apparatchiks. Although Party leaders and politicians honor the workers who make things happen on the ground, it is they who should and do make the future happen in Siberia.

Friday, December 24, 2010

What Would Trotsky Do?

There's a quaint little Canadian movie--and what Canadian movie, with its reverential references to Alice Munro or the Cowboy Junkies--isn't quaint--entitled, The Trotsky. It's a film that makes a playful attempt to reconcile the communist revolutionary tradition and contemporary, bourgeois Canadian society. The film is about a young man, 17 or 18, who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. What would a real revolutionary do when confronted with contemporary social conditions? Would comfortable, wealthy, quasi-socialist Canada warrant revolutionary activity? Leon Trotsky's young avatar never doubts his calling. Notwithstanding a comfortable upbringing, he sets out to organize the workers at his father's business and then eventually attempts to organize the students at his school. His indefatigble efforts to oppose authority in the service of justice bare fruit, reminding viewers that courage, conviction, and the ability to see injustice (whether it's there or not) can have profound effects, even today.

The film has a brilliant leading man, but doesn't quite work. Is the problem that communism isn't very funny? This explanation seems implausible, as a subsequent post on communist humor and the book, Hammer and Tickle, will make clear. But certainly it's difficult to calibrate mirth with a real social message, as this film tries, heroically sometimes, to do. On the one hand, the film's protagonist is a wonderful pastiche of the historical actor, whose encounters with ordinary Canadian high school students and authority figures are often awkward, unexpected, and exceedingly funny. On the other hand, the film is ultimately about how young people can or should organize for social justice in a world of post-modern malaise. (By the way, I didn't invent that term; rather, I was accused of "post-modern malaise" by a job interviewer who thought I was being to flippant about the rhetoric of education and empowerment.)

Using the Bolshevik example in this context can seem perverted against the historical background of communist brutality and democide. The incongruity is more or less disturbing at various points in the film. Take, for example, the scene in which Trotsky's father finally acknowledges his love for his wayward son by giving him a copy of Mao's Little Red Book. It's signed, "From your favorite fascist," or words to that effect. One wants to laugh, but Mao (to say nothing of Hitler) was responsible for so much twentieth century tragedy, one doesn't.

In fact, this film makes one doubt whether the radical revolutionary tradition has anything at all to recommend it. Certainly the Trotsky's successful kidnapping of the school principal doesn't dispel any doubts one might have about this style of school reform. Even so, the film deserves some credit for sketching out a portrait of a modern radical, as opposed to the modern reformer we all know so well. It's still useful to ask questions about the role of radical opposition even after such opposition has become so endangered by parliamentarianism, financial stability, and (Canadian) socialized medicine.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Avoidance Therapy

I once had a friend who was deeply troubled by psychological disturbances. She took medication to stabilize her mood disorder, but her treatment plan naturally included a healthy dose of talk therapy. My friend went diligently to her therapist for perhaps two years. Over time, my friend's mental health improved dramatically, but she still struggled with paranoia and a host of minor but nevertheless troubling mental health issues. For instance, my friend labored under the delusion--perhaps not wholly constructed by her infected imagination but nevertheless distorted by bipolar disorder--that her supervisor and colleagues at work were out to undermine her and ultimately get rid of her. In her opinion, they might even be contemplating active sabotage, subverting her scientific studies for instance to render her experimental data ridiculous. This was the type of delusion she regularly discussed at weekly therapy sessions. Well, one day my friend brought another of her worries to me. She was saddened by a romantic breakup, and missed a former a lover. Further, she now felt at sea when dealing with members of the opposite sex, and consequently worried that she would not be able to "move on" in her romantic life. After some discussion of the matter, I asked her what her therapist made of this complaint, and what he suggested as a remedy. Without hesitation she explained quite forcefully that she never discussed her personal life with her therapist.

My friend meant of course that she used her therapist as a vehicle for stabilization, but only in reference to her more serious, chemically-grounded, mental problems. For the quotidian woes of everyday life, she had her friends and her normal psychological resources. Boy troubles simply didn't rise to the level of professional treatment, and were none of her therapist's business anyhow. Yet still, the statement, which amounted to a general principle or credo, that one should never discussed private life with a therapist, stayed with me, and seemed emblematic of the way many of us approach external scrutiny. Surely, we avoid it whenever possible--even do our best not to discuss that "real thing" that lies at the heart of our neurosis.

Take another example, culled from another conversation with a friend over her therapy, which illustrates the same point. This second friend told me once that she had gone back into therapy with her former psychologist ,even though this therapist lived in another state. When I asked how this was possible, she said that naturally they conversed by phone. Not having heard of telephonic therapy, I asked how well this worked. She said that under ordinary circumstances it wasn't ideal but that her therapist happened to be blind, which meant that there really wasn't much difference between meeting with her therapist in person and talking to her by phone. Somehow, the idea of a blind therapist struck me as a wonderful metaphor of the way most of us go about delving into the truth about ourselves. On some level--the ego, is it?-- want to set up the mechanism for self-discovery and inner investigation, but on another level--if I say Id, do I have that right?--we want to do everything possible to avoid revelation, light, truth, and self-knowledge. In the end, we all want a blind therapist.

In the quest to understand the Revolution, I sometimes wonder if I'm self-sabotaging. If not, why do I constantly move away from the central revolutionary texts to explore distant pre-revolutionary events, nineteenth century literary history, recent Russian films, and even the current dramas of the Putin and Medvedev administrations? Why don't I spend more time getting to know the primary texts of Revolution, such as Trotsky's detailed treatment and the others? Why don't I learn the Russian language in order to explore primary texts? Am I looking for a blind therapist?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stalinism in Film

Burnt by the Sun, a Russian film set in the late 1920s, follows the lives of a communist war hero, famous for his exploits against the Whites during the Civil War, and his small circle of friends. This lively group of friends share a warm and cozy home, and enjoy one another's company. The colonel's wife and small girl seem especially contented. Even so, this happy home is threatened by vague but unrelenting external pressures.

Everyday Stalinism is a creeping, insidious force. In its most brutal form, the state sends tanks to eradicate the fields of local peasants, presumably in order to enforce collectivization. Relying on his seemingly unassailable reputation as an ally of communist, the colonel narrowly averts this disaster. But the state is closing in on his country idyll. Communist propaganda is a constant presence even in this remote area. It arrives by newspaper harangues against Stalin's enemies, by radio propaganda, by children's parades and communist celebrations, by civilian defense force maneuvers. The result is a low level but unceasing state of anxiety and a fear of strangers.

One such stranger turns out to be a long lost lover of the colonel's wife. This man courts his former lover. Soon, however, the lover's past and present are revealed. He and the colonel are rivals in two levels. Aside from their quarrel over a woman, the colonel knows this stranger to have been a spy during the Civil War, a traitor to the Whites with whom he sympathized. The stranger has been corrupted by the Revolution, turned into an agent of the secret police, a man who destroys others in order to survive.

The stranger's animosity toward his rival in affairs of the heart will be compounded by Stalin's animosity for rivals for the affection of the Russian people. The colonel's bravery cannot save him; indeed, that bravery puts him at risk. The stranger soon calls in the Chekist thugs who will destroy the colonel. Not even a signed photo of the colonel with Stalin can save him. As we know, military leaders were more vulnerable than anybody in Stalin's police state. Their charisma and potential authority was a constant threat to the paranoid sovereign's power. In a clumsy visual metaphor, a balloon carries a portrait of Stalin over the beaten colonel as he is taken away to be tortured and executed for mysterious crimes. Stalin, the sun, seems omnipotent, both life-giving and soul-destroying.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tycoon, Gangster, or Liberal?

What is it about Khodorkovsky that makes him so damned intriguing? Surely the fact that he was once Russia's richest man--whose personal wealth topped four billion dollars--but now languishes in a prison cell has something to do with the enduring appeal of his story. Is Khodorkovsky Russia's Al Capone or is he a modern day Herzen, crying out for the rebirth of liberal dissent against a monstrous autocracy? Perhaps he is both. In Keith Gessen's London Review of Books review of Richard Sakwa's book, The Quality of Freedom: Khodorkovsky, Putin, and the Yukos Affair, the erstwhile oligarch emerges as a complex man who has come to represent an ever more complex age, the age of Putin.

For Khodorkovsky is a former komsomol officer who exploited the wild instability of the Yeltsin years with an equal dash of brilliance and knavery to build a spectacularly successful bank and essentially (if not illegally) rob the citizenry of its state-owned oil company. Khodorkovsky's triumph is the story of capitalist Russia. Violence, one of the fundamental themes of early capitalist Russia, seemed to reinforce Yukos' ascendancy, although the correlation between oligarchy and low-level criminal battles seems hard if not impossible to prove.

Over time, Khodorkovsky's business empire became, like the business empires of many other oligarchs, a state within a state. Handsome and always outwardly polite and mild-mannered, Khodorkovsky gained enough stature to resist Putin's attempt to reassert the authority of the state. Eventually, Putin offered oligarchs a deal: stay out of politics, and the state will avoid asking difficult questions related to mega-businesses. Most oligarchs took the deal. A few fled Russia never to return. Khodorkovsky couldn't grasp the limits of his power. Soon, he was imprisoned and stripped of his vast wealth.

Today Khodorkovsky has become an emblem of resistance to Putin and his brand of government. He's a lucid, limpid champion of liberal dissent. Without the fear of losing either wealth or liberty, he seems free to voice his dissatisfaction ever more stridently, naively, and urgently.

A Dignified Hustle

How much talent did modern Russia have? Even after the best and brightest of the country was decimated by the First World War, the Civil War, the Great Hunger, and the Purges, talent survived, even if much of it was forced to sneak abroad. Take, for instance, the case of Nina Berberova, the brilliant author, translator, and writer of biographies of Aleksander Blok, reviewed previously by Soviet Roulette, and Baroness Budberg, a.k.a., Moura.

Berberova, a genius in her own write (though Nabokov reminds us that the word genius, in Russian anyhow, is solely reserved for Pushkin, Tolstoy, and perhaps one or two other supremely gifted literary artists), was a friend of many Russian luminaries, including Maxim Gorky and Khodasevich. She was also a friend if not social equal of an older and more sophisticated Moura, Baroness of Budburg, a translator, cultural consultant for British films, and so much more.

Berberova's admiration for Moura was predicated on the woman's strength, beauty, self-confidence, discretion, intelligence, bravery, and brand sense of adventure. While so many other high-born ladies crumbled under the volcanic pressures of revolution or exile, Moura did not. After discovering that the husband who had given her an aristocratic title had been murdered by peasants, Moura struggled to survive. Neither hunger nor violent social dislocation could put an end to the strange career of this intrepid woman.

Wondering the streets of a lonely, impoverished, and now-alient St. Peterburg, Moura's pre-war ties to Great Britain eventually brought her into contact with the ever-diminishing British mission in Moscow. This in turn led her into a very real love affair with that spectacularly adventurous and eloquent British diplomat and agent, Bruce Lockhart, who plotted to overthrow the Soviet government while it was still in its infancy. If Moura had done nothing more than help her lover, Lockhart, to escape from his Cheka prison, her life would merit some attention. But Moura's fascinating tale didn't stop there.

When Lockhart was let out of Russia, Moura continued to survive in war-torn Russia, eventually finding solace in the intellectually vibrant circle of Maxim Gorky. Gorky, as will be remembered, launched some of the most ambitious publishing enterprises in the history of communism. Once an ardent supporter of Lenin, Gorky opposed the Bolshevik crackdown on liberal as well as leftist political competitors. Eventually, Gorky oversaw the translation and publication of world literature in Russia on a stunning scale, even in the midst of abject poverty. When Gorky eventually withdrew from Russia in protest, Moura found her way to him in exile. But all the while, she maintained innumerable contacts with family, friends, intellectual peers, and perhaps secret agents.

But Moura's life of danger had not yet ended. In its next iteration, the consummate survivor allowed Gorky to return to Russia without her, and eventually became the life partner of one of Gorky's admirers, H.G. Wells. Berberova is naturally in awe of this woman who earned the love of no less than three first-tier interwar actors, Lockhart, Gorky, and Wells. But her admiration stems less from her knowledge of the devotion each of these man held out to Moura, and more from this aristocrat's irrepressible capacity for survival and self-invention. Moura attracted brilliant men, but this attraction was generated by their recognition of the fact that this woman did not come to them with even a shred of dependency. Moura would survive with or without any of them, though she never spoke about her independence in a melodramatic or spiteful way.

Moura's life will perhaps always be shrouded in some mystery. She made up stories all the time, maintained discrete lives, and may also have had ties to the Soviet Union's espionage services. (Berberova even speculates that Moura may have gone back to the Soviet Union to be at Gorky's deathbed). Certainly, she always believed the best years of communism lay in the future.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Melanie Griffith in the USSR

The hit 1980 Soviet film, Vladimir Menshov's Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears, is a tender work of propaganda, a class comedy in post-class Russia. The film revolves around the tension between rural and urban life, but in the hands of Menshov, Moscow, the biggest of all big Russian cities, is a gentle giant. To be sure, the three female protagonists who come to the metropolis understand that city life presents them with a series of challenges, including--ironically for a socialist state--mild but real class distinctions that separate them from doctors, directors, professors, and other urban sophisticates.

And yet this Moscow is the friendliest of all large cities. It's filled with friendship, fun, steady jobs, easy escapes to the idyllic pre-industrial countryside, educated people, a great subway, an excellent health care system (the best in the world, so one character claims, as he points out that an abortion clinic should be easy to locate), and a tranquility and peaceful order that is apparent in the film's opening credits, where Moscow's planned streets and grand but predictable architecture are presented to viewers with a soft, sweet lullaby of a Russian song.

If communist society in this film has a fault, it's a lack of housing--but don't worry, viewer, some of the main characters are actually working on the problem, and two characters actually meet and fall in love as they construct new apartments for those who need a little more space. The film's characters have little to complain about: even at the bottom of Soviet society, they are provided with comfortable rooms in a "worker's dormitory," ample opportunities to advance themselves through hard work and education, and stores that are chocked full of tempting consumer goods and foods.

On the other hand, the film acknowledges at least one trade-off for communist happiness, and that is space. In Moscow at least, the characters live in cramped quarters. When two of the girls gain the chance to see how older, more successful Muscovite lives, it's not a spectacle of overwhelming architectural plenitude. One supposes that Russian audiences would have revolved at the idea of any working class Muscovite girl gaining access to a private bedroom. Even when one of the three women becomes a significant figure in Russian industry and a member of Moscow's city council, she spends her nights in a fold-out sofa. The twenty years that separates the two halves of the film doesn't give anybody much breathing room. But perhaps the film keep its protagonists in tight quarters in order to signal the essential equality of Russian society.

Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears is a sentimental film, redolent of its American counterpart, Working Girl, crossed with the Way We Were. Like Working Girl, Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears is about women. The saving grace of the film is its relatively serious treatment of the dilemmas faced by modern Soviet women. Lenin statues, red flags, and posters of Karl Marx, haven't improved men all that much. They can still break hearts, drink too much, and avoid helping around the house. Of course, the real problem in Soviet society, and one that this film wholeheartedly acknowledges, is that World War II and hard drinking have left Moscow with a severe shortage of men.

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
is a sweet film. But its sweetness is not only revealed by its admiration for the women who work hard, search for love, and take care of one another when confronted with adversity. Rather, it's full mawkishness is reserved for the film's faith in communism even as the system tattered in the edge of collapse. Socialist values are everywhere. The leading man, a tool-and-die maker, is portrayed as a worker-hero, someone who is at least as important as the scientists who depend on his creativity on the shop floor. He's even given a speech about the dignity of NOT seeking managerial opportunities. The leading woman distinguishes herself for her willingness to do the hardest manufacturing jobs, and her ability to do them intelligently and efficiently. The film's portrayal of communism is relatively static but makes gestures toward dynamism. When the leading woman becomes and engineer and high-profile manufacturing leader, she pushes hard to overcome inertia and circumvent shortages. She is, one character says approvingly, "tough but fair." She wants results rather than excuses. Even twenty years previously, while working as a front-line proletarian, a "fitter," she is celebrated for critiquing pay levels and demonstrating a general sense of initiative.

It's easy to feel smug about a film that clearly overlooked or minimized the fault lines of Soviet society. After all, the USSR was on the brink of implosion. However, the film seems to suggest some of the virtues of an alternative path toward modernity, a path in which work and workers have at least some claim to dignity, and women are encouraged to see themselves of fully capable of transforming themselves and their countries through perseverance, hard work, intelligence, and sisterhood.

The Last Holy Fool

Soviet Roulette recently described the rise and fall of Gregory Rasputin, as seen through the lens of a documentary film, Land of the Tsars. Today we revisit the theme by describing the creative film, The Agony, finished in 1975 but released much later due to its politically charged themes. Here, in Klimov's excellent film, Rasputin is seen as the mirror image of Nicholas II and his wife. Rasputin, oily and grotesque but simultaneously charismatic and sensual, is a malevolent force who inevitably seeps into the moral and political vacuum of the monarchy in 1916.

This Rasputin is self-serving but slick--labeled a thief by the wise peasants who remember him upon his triumphal return to the countryside--charlatan. As bad as he is, the film makes his appearance and influence seem almost inevitable. The tsar, portrayed at least a few strokes of sympathy, is utterly lost. Striken by his ill son, and weighed down by the memory of the blood he has shed by earlier decisions related to the Lena Strike, the Russo-Japanese War, Father Gapon's march to the czar's palace, the 1905 Revolution, and the especially the First World War, Nicholas II is clearly lost.

God is everywhere in this film, and no where. The royal family prays, church fathers bless soldiers at the front, and holy icons abound--but God's silence is palpable. What is Nicholas II to do? With his army bloodied and his authority in the duma under attack on all sides of the political spectrum, Nicholas increasingly needs a miracle, the kind of miracle that only a strange and disgusting monk, who speaks in tongues and wallows in the mud, seems capable of delivering. Alas--Rasputin takes a bribe that leads him to deliver bad military advice that leads to catastrophe, and the way is clear for an aristocratic coup that leaves Rasputin murdered. The miracle comes--Rasputin survives poisoning and an initial gunshot before being gunned down once more in a grand courtyard--but it's not what the tsar and his wife had in mind.

As an aside, the film comes with a documentary about the director, Klimov, who is responsible for films such as Farewell and Go and See. Klimov, who grew up in the ashes of Stalingrad, eventually rose to become Gorbachev's man to reform the entire Soviet film industry in the age of Glasnost and Perestroika. His official position under Gorbachev was First Secretary of the Union of Soviet Film Makers. In this short biographical sketch, one sees the complexity of the end of communism in Russia. On the one hand, Klimov supports reform; on the other, he's clearly the man in charge, or at least the man who will deliver Gorbachev's message about the limits of freedom in the new age of aesthetic experimentation. One interesting note that the Klimov film makes is that it's the first time Nicholas II or Rasputin were actually depicted in Soviet film. It's also at least the seventh time in non-Soviet film history that a film about Russia's last Holy Fool was made.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Snippets: Life in the Near Abroad

Please accept my apologies for this post, a series of fragments about nearly contemporary life in Russia and other former Soviet republics. When family members hand me a stack of Economists, I feel compelled to scan them for a description of how things are going seventy years after the October Revolution. The past is prologue, and vice versa.


According to the book, Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal, this area, birthplace of Stalin, has the highest density of languages in the world. In 1900 it was the world’s biggest oil producer. In 1917 three Caucasus states briefly became independent. The area was fortunate to have largely missed direct involvement in the Second World War. After the war, it became a playground for the Soviet elite. The area is home to several "frozen" conflicts; talk of NATO expansion in the area ended after the recent Russian-Georgian War.


NATO intends to have have polish troops defend Lithuania in the event of a war with Russia. Poland and Lithuania, two countries that were united only 440 years previously, maintain frigid relations. Poland has ten times the population of Lithuania and Lithuanians still resent Polish cultural hegemony in the Vilnius area during the Interwar period. Important Polish assets may be sold to Russia, alarming some Lithuanians.


Estonia maintains flat taxes, free trade, and a strong currency board. In 2004 it achieve NATO and European Union membership. In 2011 the country is scheduled to begin using the Euro as its official currency.


Latvia has been practicing relative economic usterity. According to the Economist, it's made sound economic decisions and even wants to adopt the Euro.


Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries to emerge from the wreckage of the USSR, is divided by ethnicity and held together by two roads that link the north with the south of this mountainous country. The north is more ethnically Russian the south, and less Islamic. The country, whose boundaries emerged as late as 1924, must decide whether it prefers a parliamentary democracy or a strong presidency. It has 5.4 million people. Its emigrant remittances are crucial to its economy and, according to the Economist, represent a full 22 percent of GDP. Half a million Kyrgyzs work in Russia and up to 100,000 Kyrgyzs work in Khazakhstan. Most of the country's food is imported. Uzbekistan sometimes closes borders in response to unrest in the country. This, despite that Uzbeks are often a persecuted people in Kirghistan.

Kirghistan has no history of democracy, though a recent election was hotly contested. The Economist says its leaders don't seem to know how the president, 120 seat parliament, and prime minister should work together, if at all. Kirghistan's undemocratic neighbors fear revolution and democracy. Russia, despite a strategic interest in the area, would be unwilling to risk another costly intervention in the area. In some ways, Russia may benefit most from democracy, since this would allow it to gain needed local allies. The states are divided against themselves, the result of Stalin's successful effort to carve up the area into competing ethnic states. The area is awash in water disputes, spies, ethnic enclave rivalries, nomad/farmer tension, and great power intrigue.


Minsk and Moscow claim to love one another but there's tension behind the scenes. Oil prices are one source of friction. Alyakashandr Lukashenka is also upset about documentaries that portray his leadership, and Belarus, in a negative light. Belarus has retaliated by allowing the Georgian president to be interviewed on Belarus TV. There is also some friction about a possible customs union between Russia and Belarus. For their part, Russians are wondering what they have gotten in return for their policy of giving subsidized oil to Belarus. Belarus, for instance, didn't recognize the independence of Georgian breakaway areas.


In April 2010 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former boss of the oil company Yukos faced two trials for the same alleged crime, or "double jeopardy." He was being accused of underpaying his takes and stealing his company’s oil. The man's website www.khordorkovskycenter.com outlines his position. The Economist believes the man is being punished for refusing to submit to Putin as other oligarchs did. He had, for instance, financed some opposition parties. At this time, Khodorkovsky is unpopular with the Russian people as a whole, but very popular with intellectuals and human rights activities. The treatment of this famous dissident and former oligarch is a defining moment for Putin's legacy.

Moscow represents ten percent of the Russian population and a quarter of its economic output. It's also polluted, and full of traffic. The summer was the hottest on record, thousands died from heat stroke or drunken swimming as they attempted to escape the sun. There are 142 million people in Russia, and 400,000 of die from alcohol each year. The population may be shrinking as fast as 700,000 a year according to the Economist. A new road is being built that should speed up traffic between St. Petersburg and Moscow, but are forests being cut down wantonly? Is correction at work? There's a new Moscow mayor now that Yuri Luzhkov was sacked after 18 years on the job. The new mayor, a Putin loyalist, is Sergei Sobya-nin. Oddly, he has no security or oil background and hails from Siberia.


Russian signed a deal with Ukraine to give it gas in return for the use of Sevastopol for its Russian fleet. The majority of Ukrainians support this deal, which blocks Ukraine from joining NATO--but the Economist maintains that this wasn't really going to happen anyhow. The fleet is week but has great historical significance to the former superpower.


President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 70 year old "leader of the nation"--ruler since 1989--is a man invested with special powers for life. Notwithstanding widespread corruption, Kazakhstan's economy maintains a solid rate of growth. It's benefiting from a market economy, banking reform, a generally free market, sound educational policies, and healthy direct investment. There is some uncertainty about who will succeed the president in in Astana.

That Damned Seagull

In order to support the Chicago 2010-2011 Soviet humanities festival, the Soviet Arts Experience, I saw Chekhov’s play, the Seagull, at the Goodman Theater the other night. (No matter that Chekhov pre-dates the Soviet era; the Goodman obviously had nothing to lose by including the play in the festival’s billings).

It’s not my favorite Chekhov play: I’ll take Uncle Vanya or the Cherry Orchard any day of the week. Maybe if I could figure out what the seabird represented things would be different.

I do sympathize with the leading character, the young man who struggles to write something beautiful but ultimately fails to do so. I remember a time in graduate school when I was faced with the prospect of writing a master’s thesis. For as long as I could remember I had considered myself to be a good writer. But then suddenly I was confronted with my first genuine opportunity to prove my worth as a writer and I couldn’t produce more than a single paragraph. I remained glued to my computer for weeks at a time. I’d read my single paragraph over and over again, sometimes softly, sometimes out load. I’d rearrange a few words, change an adjective, and then put things back the way they were. Sometimes I’d leave my desk to grab a bottle of Peach Snapple at the local convenience store, only to return to my project a half an hour later.

The introductory paragraph remained largely untouched as the weeks turned into months. Over time, I came to believe that I was having an almost mystical experience with my solitary paragraph. I felt that by devoting so many countless hours to crafting the perfect paragraph I was coming into contact with some dark, mysterious essence of human communication. The words themselves seemed to break free from their superficial meaning. Like the Sanskrit sounds of the Rg Veda, my paragraph was magical chant, a window onto eternity. I suppose it didn’t help that when I wasn’t staring at my eight lines of text, I was reading the beat prose of modern Sufis such as Celine, Genet, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsburg. At one point I picked up a copy of Camus’ The Plague where, as I now only vaguely recall, another writer was at work on a masterpiece as the city succumbed to quarantine and apocalypse. In the end, they discovered his text and, unless my own experience with words has perverted my memory of the Plague, it consisted of only a few lines.

I’m reminded of what Fran Leibowitz said about a period in her life when she failed to produce anything substantive. She said that she hadn’t really suffered from writer’s block at all. Rather she had been a victim of writer’s blockade. Lynda Barry has something to say on the subject as well. She says that writer’s block occurs when one fails to recognize the seriousness of play. Barry says that we misremember childhood. Play isn’t necessarily light-hearted fun: it’s deadly serious. Children arrange their toys with purpose and serious intent. At any rate, writing requires playfulness. It’s just that playfulness isn’t always, or perhaps isn’t usually, much fun.

This blog is the flip side of my dwarf master’s thesis. Where once I struggled to fit the entire universe of meaning, the whole of my earthly experience, into a single page of prose, now I write out everything, no matter how insignificant, and could deposit 1000 master’s theses. Surely Chekhov’s protagonist wouldn’t have shot himself had he lived in the age of blogs.

Wilson and Nabokov

Nabokov’s letters to Edmund Wilson--published in the book Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940- 1971--are wonderful to behold. They remind us of the genius of both men. In his American phase, Nabokov was busily translating, annotating, lecturing, analyzing, promoting, butterfly collecting, and writing. His work was prodigious. Although he was now writing in a second language, Nabokov wrote an enormous quantity of short stories, novels, poems, commentaries, letters, lectures, translations of Russian classics, and scientific treatises on butterflies and moths. Wilson, in addition to his work as an editor, was equally busy writing poetry, prose, history, translations, lectures, letters, and literary criticism. Together, the two opinionated men seemed to be capable of debating almost every aspect of global, or at least Western, literary culture.

Their letters demonstrate that both men felt extremely comfortable with American, French, German, British, and Russian literary history. Wilson, literary editor of the New Yorker, sometime husband of Mary McCarthy, knew almost every major intellectual of the Atlantic seaboard, including the Caribbean. Not content with translating European modernism for an American public, he ventured directly into the Russian revolutionary project, producing his masterpiece, To the Finland Station, in the midst of dozens of other major and minor literary projects.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to Wilson, is the respect with which Nabokov addressed him in their letters. At first, Nabokov’s fondness for Wilson seems to be linked, at least in some small measure, with the concrete commercial favors Wilson did him throughout their long acquaintance. For instance, Wilson recommended Nabokov for university appointments, suggested him as a translator whenever the occasion arose, collaborated on projects with Nabokov, reviewed his books, provided him with literary introductions, critiqued his English, or made suggestions regarding Nabokov’s many literary contracts.

Over time, the balance of power shifted but Nabokov revealed his ongoing respect for Wilson by his continued intellectual engagement with the man, despite ideological differences. Neither man pulled his punches on the subject of political ideology. For Nabokov, Wilson fundamentally misread the Revolution, which had nothing to recommend it. According to Nabokov, whose father had once served as a high ranking official in the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks had put an end not just to the reactionary aristocracy but also to a very vibrant and viable liberal political tradition that had included parliamentary democracy, a respect for dissenting opinions and human rights, and an independent judiciary.

Wilson agreed with Nabokov that Stalin was a tyrant, but did not agree with the proposition that Lenin’s original project was debased and despotic. Moreover, Wilson thought that Nabokov’s biased refusal to acknowledge the positive aspects of the revolutionary tradition in Europe led him to underrate the importance aspect of the social dimension of literature. I think perhaps that Wilson was on to something though Nabokov’s privileged position in today’s literary canon suggests that Wilson effectively lost both the historical and the literary debate with his Russian interlocutor.

One sympathizes with Nabokov during the 1940s and 1950s. Americans didn’t always take him seriously, thinking that his claim to represent a middle ground between Bolshevism and White Reaction was untenable if not insincere. It reminds one of how bisexuality is treated today. People don’t tend to believe that one can adopt a middle ground between gay and straight. Surely the bisexual is merely covering his tracts, pretending to be something more reasonable than gay? Why, people sometimes ask, doesn’t the bisexual just get it over with and say that he isn’t attracted to women at all? Nabokov repeatedly faced intolerance and disbelief over his claim to be neither tsarist nor Marxist. Why hide things? It was obvious that he hated the Bolsheviks. What could this mean if not a love for the Ancien Regime? At any rate, while we’re on the subject of sexuality, it’s interesting to note that it was Wilson who turned Nabokov on to a fascinating “true confession” of an irredeemable pederast that surely formed the genesis of perhaps his finest English novel, Lolita.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Frances Welch's A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson tells the story of Anna Anderson, nee Franziska Schanzkowska, who claimed to be the murdered Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. The story reminds one alternatively of Grey Gardens, the documentary (then remade movie and now play) of two Kennedy relations who lived in obscure, chaotic, yet strangely regal squalor for decades, and the Return of Martin Guerre (remade as Sommersby in America).

In fact, Anderson, like the protagonists of Grey Gardens (whose claim to blue blood was more verifiable), had over 40 cats at one point in her life, though they were all killed in an attempt to clean up her residence. The premise of Natalie Zemon Davis' history, The Return of Martin Guerre, is that pre-modern French society had no easy way to fix the identity of villagers. If the "real" Martin Guerre died in a foreign war, an imposter had a reasonable chance of taking his place because early modern French technology did not include photographs or even, by and large, mirrors.

The strange career of Anna Anderson, who lived into the 1980s, reveals that modern and postmodern technologies have not entirely erased identity confusion. For Anderson found new and sometimes very distinguished backers throughout her long life. For instance, at least one world famous anthropologist, and one expert in graphology, testified to the veracity of Anderson's claims. The fact that Ms. Anderson apparently knew no Russian whatsoever, was born five years apart from Anastasia, and began her Russian identity phase claiming to be a different Grand Duchess altogether, didn't unduly upset her supporters.

This book also resembles Woody Allen's masterpiece about historical identity, Zelig. In Zelig, a character loses his sense of self and, as a consequence, becomes a human chameleon, someone who can adapt himself to any social setting, as well as an international media sensation. Anna Anderson's life resembles that of Zelig's in many of its more sensational particulars. Anderson, only the most successful of dozens of other Romanov imposters, became a celebrity who, at various times in her life, was able to go hop-scotching from one European castle to the next. Movies, books, and plays cast her in the central role.

The fact that Anderson possessed few attractive personality traits--she was self-centered, rude, ungracious, paranoid, highly emotional, vindictive, mercurial, and intellectually limited--did not generally count against her. Indeed, her supporters found these characteristics to be entirely consistent with royalty, and especially with the young Anastasia, who was known to be a willful child. The Zelig aspects of Anderson's case extend to her somewhat strange relationship to the NAZI Party (Zelig eventually appeared at Nazi rallies despite his Jewish heritage), as well as her repeated interactions with other celebrities such as Rachmaninoff and, most interestingly, Rasputin's daughter, who had been living as a circus performer in Berlin.

A Romanov Fantasy deserves to be made into yet another movie on the life of Anna Anderson. The movie would have to explore the possibility of the transmigration of souls, of the possibly reincarnation of Anastasia as Anna Anderson. But of course the story makes sense even without supernatural explanations. As Frances Welch reminds us at the onset of her story, Anastasia was murdered in the most reprehensible way imaginable. She and her entire family, along with the father of one of Anna Anderson's most talented and admirable champions, were murdered in a chaotic and inefficient bloodbath.

The murder of the tsar, tsarina, and innocent tsarevich and four grand duchesses became the very symbol of communist depravity for large segments of the world. Although the tsar had been guilty of political incompetence, the utter destruction of his family was self-evidently inexcusable. And given the long history of tsar imposters, it was inevitable that at least some portion of the Russian diaspora--and indeed the world at large--would invent a survivor. As Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic reminds us in his book about Gothic literary conventions, crime leads to guilt and guilt is soon transmogrified into ghostly apparition. Anna Anderson was such an apparition. It hardly mattered whether or not she was aware of the fact that she was not, physically at least, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. One way or the other, Romanov ghosts would have found a vehicle to haunt the Western imagination.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Soviet Studies Supernova

Sometimes I'm ashamed that I can't speak a lick of Russian. Yet how would one possibly keep up with the flood of new books if one tried to cover more than English language trends? Readers of this blog will know that under normal circumstances I scrupulously avoid anything other than self-advertisements. But out your University of Pittsburgh Press' 2011 catalog of new and recent titles in the field of Russian, Central Asian, and East European Studies, only one of dozens if not hundreds of worthy publishing houses with something to say about the Soviet experience.

How impressive is the list of new books coming out this year alone in this single press? We've got Ruthchild's book on women's rights between 1905 and 1917, and the links between women's right and the Russian revolutionary tradition. Gyorgy Peteri's book on the socialist battle with the West over health care, human rights, architecture, culture, and, most importantly, consumer products. And this especially tantalizing book, Other Animals, in which Jane Costlow and Amy Nelson edited a collection of essays on how Russian and Soviet culture has conceptualized the relationship between humans and animals. Apparently the interdisciplinary book demonstrates Levi-Strauss' promiscuous assertion that "animals are good to think with." With reference to Soviet Roulette, one is curious to read those essays which talk about how animal-human "hierarchies and categories" are upended during revolutionary periods.

Other 2011 University of Pittsburgh books include Duhamel's book on the KGB's 1980s campaign against corruption, Christopher Ward's monograph on Brezhnev's disastrous campaign to build the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM), "one of the largest public works projects of all time," Gorshkov's book on Russia's child factory employees, Iagal Halfin's look into Stalinist terror within Leningrad Communist University (his earlier book From Darkness to Light on the concept of revolutionary salvation also seems worthy of attention), Eric Landis' book on the Antonov peasant uprising movement during the Russian Civil War, and the list goes on.

One can only wonder at the variety of depth of scholarship on Russia and Soviet Russian in particular. Other fascinating books could be mentioned, including ones on Russian drinking, Soviet manhood, the Russian Silver Age, the collapse of rural Russia, Russian nuclear power, Soviet sex, poetry and prose related to the Siege of Leningrad, Soviet feminism, urban-rural relationships during the communist era, Russian politics, Soviet ecological perspectives, the Soviet dissident movement, and the rise of Soviet Tashkent.

Even judging from the vantage point of a single 2011 press brochure, the Soviet experience is now recognized as something complex and multi-fascinated, much more than the history of Joseph Stalin or Soviet political economy, as fascinating as these topics can be.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Charlotte Hobson's small book, Black Earth City: When Russia Ran Wild (And So Did We), is a gem. It captures the chaos and disorder (homage to Prince there, though that was surely his worst album) of the first post-Soviet moment. As a British student in Voronezh, Hobson found herself in a very ordinary Russian setting--a run-down college dorm in an unremarkable Russian city--but in the midst of one of the most remarkable transformations in the whole of Russian history.

As communism collapsed, and a strange blend of capitalism and criminal anarchy emerged in its wake, Charlotte experienced this modern Time of Troubles through the prism of college social life. Her peers embraced the radical changes with a mixture of survival strategies and coping mechanisms, including adaptation, optimism, denial, nostalgia, lethargy, emigration, and alcoholism.

The world outside of dorm life was disorientating and Hobson captures some of the challenges Russians faced. As the Soviet State collapsed, Veronezh suddenly became a border state; dormant ethnic rivalries re-emerged; organized crime erupted; the currency collapsed; pensions and jobs vanished; et cetera and so on. And Russians could not easily decide if life would get better eventually or much, much worse. On the one hand, Russians understood that communism had delivered shoddy good, overcrowded apartments, long lines, bureaucracy, party elitism, travel restrictions, monotony, and a whole host of spiritual ailments.

On the other hand, Russians benefited in some ways from the Soviet system: their country was a superpower, people had job security, travel was inexpensive, ideas circulated clandestinely, and the streets were safe at night. What was to come? In many ways, Hobson's exquisitely written book explains Putin and the Russian search for security. After Gorbachev and before Putin, Russia did seem to run wild.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Russia's Greatest Love Machine..

Grigori Rasputin seems to belong to another age, and a medieval age at that. And yet Rasputin was one of the figures who did the most--albeit unintentionally--to usher in the Russian Revolution. In the documentary series Land of the Tsars an entire episode is devoted Rasputin's fascinating rise to power and ignominious demise.

Rasputin was a Siberian peasant with captivating eyes and boundless sexual energy whose charisma charmed local women and eventually led to his angry expulsion at the hands of unsympathetic townsmen. Although Rasputin married, and remained devoted to his wife throughout the rest of his life, he never stopped courting other women, and his wife seemed to accept her husband's infidelities as inevitable. After his expulsion from his native village, Rasputin took a trip to a famous monastery where he experienced a profound religious epiphany. After that, the film relates, Rasputin wandered the length and breadth of Russia for many years, gaining an ability to deal with people from every walk of Russian life in the process.

At the end of his travels, Rasputin arrived in St. Petersburg, where his charisma immediately won him an audience with the Tsar and Tsarina. At their first meeting, the holy monk used startlingly familiar language to address the country's ruler, calling him "papa." Rasputin was a strange sort of holy man, one who developed a theory that one had to sin brazenly in order to earn true forgiveness from God. Rasputin sometimes asked women to strip with him in order to practice their powers of sin-resistance: sometimes they successfully resisted sin, other times they failed. Rasputin's unusual behavior did not stop him from winning the hearts of the tsar and his wife. He did so, in part, by conforming to a long Russian tolerance for the role of a "holy fool" who, notwithstanding his personal eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, had special access to God's will.

Most importantly, Rasputin soon demonstrated an ability to heal the tsarevich, whose hemophilia saddened his parents and threatened to undermine the line of succession. In effect, Rasputin's healing powers seemed to protect the heir to the thrown for the better part of a decade, and even seemed to work at a distance, when the monk was far from the capital. Rasputin was a regular presence at the royal court, but he wasn't unduly influential until the advent of World War, which Rasputin warned the tsar against.

During the war, the royal family's fortunes declined precipitously. When the tsar left to lead the troops at the front, the tsarina assumed a great deal of authority in domestic affairs, and listened attentively to all of her holy favorite's advice. To her, Rasputin spoke for God. On the other hand, Rasputin's disastrous advice carefully mirrored the empress' own political philosophy, so it's impossible to say whether or not Rasputin directly undermined the authority of his peers. Yet Rasputin's deleterious effect on popular opinion is impossible to gainsay. He was seen as sexual profligate, a mad monk, a German spy, and an ally of the devil himself.

When one of his lovers nearly assassinated him, Rasputin made matters worse. In pain, he turned to alcohol and his behavior became still more erratic. Bragging about his influence at court, drinking heavily, chasing women, and even at one point exposing himself in public, Rasputin became the symbol of autocratic immorality and incompetence. Deeply unpopular even within the aristocracy, one leading member of society and a group of supporters eventually conspired to kill Rasputin to save Russia. Famously, Rasputin survived a poisoning, and then two volleys of shots, and then apparently remained alive as he was sent into a frozen river. The tsarina fell into deep mourning, but recovered in a month; the tsar was at least partly relieved to be free of the negative publicity that surrounded Rasputin's nefarious activities. The film ends with Rasputin's strange prophesy, delivered shortly before his death: that if he were to be killed by friends of the tsar, the country would disintegrate the tsar's own family would be dead within the space of two years, which was in fact what happened.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Long Duree

Sometimes it's best to look at an event from the perspective of the long-duree. Marshall Poe's book, The Russian Moment in World History, does just that. His short treatise makes a number of interesting arguments about Russian history in general and the revolutionary period in particular.

First, Poe argues that Russia is quite simply not European. Quite simply, Russia missed out on many of the key experiences of Europe, when Europe is seen as an economic or cultural entity rather than merely a geographical expression. Russia did not participate in the Renaissance, for example, and well into the 17th century, Russian rules essentially banned or severely restricted contact with their more culturally advanced neighbors to the West. Thus the country had no analogous traditions of technology, agriculture, science and education, trade, or even military technology.

For this reason, Russia's autocratic traditions deserve some consideration. For it was Russia alone that managed to hold back the tidal wave of European imperialism in the modern era. Where countless states and empires collapsed in the face of Western capitalism and European industrial power, Russia erected a highly effective deterrent, namely autocracy, that, coupled with an inaccessible heartland and a lack of a warm water coast, allowed the state to survive. The Russian model could be brutal, but it essentially delivered the goods for many Russian citizens. Russia survived a series of invasions by much more advanced countries, including early modern Poland, Napoleonic France, and of course Germany during the Second World War.

Poe makes other tantalizing assertions about Russian history. For instance, he argues that the Mongols did not have a dramatic effect on the course of Russian history. To be sure, the Mongols helped to make its chief tribute collector, Muscovy, the center of Russian Slavic civilization. Yet the Mongols weren't interested in colonizing Russia and therefore did not significantly alter the culture of the place.

In terms of the Revolution, Poe's broad perspective--he begins the account in the early seventh century when the Slavs first appeared in the Europe's written records--seems to emphasize that the Russian Revolution, for all its horrors, actually delivered modernity to most of Russian citizens. His argument is that the madness of Lenin and Stalin don't mean that the majority of Russian citizens didn't feel that their militaristic, autocratic state wasn't once again responsible for defeating an invasion force by a richer and more technologically advanced power. Moreover, the Communist system eventually succeeding in delivering education and a relatively high standard of living to an area of the world that had traditionally been mired in a poverty that was in part the natural outgrowth of geography and climate. Moreover, the Bolshevik Revolution delivered a model for achieving modernity that was to be emulated with success (whatever the cost to human rights) again and again around the world, including China, Vietnam, and Cuba, to name just a few countries that experimented with unrestricted despotism on the road to modernity.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Russian Music for Chameleons

Fran Leibowitz, famed writer for the Village Voice, called her historic but hilarious column, "I Cover the Waterfront." She took the title from Tennessee Williams, who once responded only slightly cryptically to an interviewer's question about his sexuality by using those same wonderful words. Well, as my better readers know (and there are better and worse readers, Charlotte), Soviet Roulette and I similarly attempt to "cover the waterfront." Even so, we don't know music. So it was a wonderful coincidence when I observed one of my college's great lecturers, Adam Gustafson, on the subject of Russian music in the 19th century.

Gustafson is a wonderful teacher. He's confident, entertaining, and frenetic. His theme today dwelt on the differences between the Russian Conservative and Nationalist Schools, which apparently mirrored the Westernizer versus Slavophile debates that overtook most of Russian literary society at about the same time.

According to Gustafson, the Conservative School were reacting to European stereotypes about Russia. At the time, Western Europeans saw Russia as a vast, dirty, ignorant, drunk, dark, cold, and utterly disorganized nation. (If only they had known how far Russia had come from the days of the Mongol Yoke!). In response, the Conservative School thought that Russia's music ought to become truly European, indistinguishable from the civilized music of Germany, Italy, and France.

The St. Petersburg Conservatory--naturally the Conservatory was set up in the country's most Western city--was the cradle of the Conservative attempt to emulate or even someday surpass Western models for musical excellence. And one of its first students--Tchaikovsky--quickly established himself as one of its greatest exponents. The middle class Tchaikovsky, born in 1840, nearly conquered the world with his universal aesthetic. His Swan Lake, Sleepy Beauty, and Nutcracker continue to delight (or haunt, depending on one's perspective--and see the Will and Grace episode where the two are ultimately unable to sit through the mawkish performance despite their longing for a holiday tradition) the world with their popular melodies.

As Gustafson reminded his class, Tchaikovsky was a virtuoso and wrote lots of first-class music, but he is especially well known for creating music for ballets. But to understand what this meant to Russians in the 19th century, Gustafson tell his students that "one has to think in terms of the NFL." At the time, everybody (and of course he means the middle and upper classes) loved ballet. The ballet was "special, popular, sophisticated, complex, and above all, athletic."

The Russians, of course, quickly became masters at the art of ballet. Then, and today, Russian dancers dominate the art. The most famous ballet of all of course is Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. In Gustafson's summary, this is a supremely moving--if also "emotional, romantic, and crazy"--piece of Romantic theater. There's a princess, Odette, who is captured by the evil Rothbart. Rothbart captured Odette and changes her into a Swan, at least by day. Odette lives in a world of swans, other captured women, on a lake that has been created from the tears of Odette's grief-stricken mother.

One day, a hero named Siegfried is out hunting and notices Odette changing from a Swan into a beautiful princess as the evening falls. The two frolic all evening and fall in love. Siegfriend decides to pledge his eternal love to Odette in front of everybody at a grand ball. This pledge would signify the end of Odette's curse. Unfortunately, the evil Rothbart substitutes his daughter, an imposter, for Odette. Thus Rothbart's pledge of eternal love is made to the wrong person, and Odette, peering inside the windows of the ball, is devastated. Her curse can no longer be lifted--ever. Naturally, this being a Romantic work of art, the lovers kill themselves, freeing the other swans from their curses in the process.

Tchaikovsky's ballet, and his tonal music in general, was "easy on the ears," and his melodies, the basis of so much Disney music, were nothing short of infectious. But there was a backlash. Eventually critics of the composer came to see his Romantic approach to music as melodramatic, kitschy. More immediately, work like this was criticized by the "mighty handful", the five chief composers of the largely self-taught Nationalist School. These composers saw Tchaikovsky as a "sell-out," someone not capable of recognizing the special genius of the Russian people or its music. The "mighty five", and Mussorgsky in particular, believed that Russia's music had to be distinctly Russian. Their music was site-specific, predicated on Russian locales, Russian folk tales, and Russian folk tunes.

Gustafson used Mussorgsky's "Night on Bare Mountain" as an example of this other type of music. "Bare Mountain", whose orchestration was created with the help of Nikolas Rimsky-Korskokov, took place at a specific site of memory for Russians, or at least Ukrainians--a mountain that was alleged to be the home of evil demons or the devil himself. In "Bare Mountain" a master demon by the name of Chernobog runs everything. He summons demons demons and only disappears when a church bell rings and the sun rises slowly over the Ukrainian landscape.

Next time, Gustafson promises to tackle Stravinsky. With enough of these wonderful lectures under my belt, Soviet Roulette will truly "cover the waterfront."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Diaspora

With loving and understandable bias, the documentary film series, Russian Choice, tells the story of the Russian diaspora, with loving bias. What does this story consist of? 80 years of exile in destinations as diverse as France, America, Tunisia, Turkey, Brazil, and Bulgaria.

It's the story of bitterness, nostalgia, and the unendurable and perhaps irrational hope of a return to the homeland. Russian Choice explores a number of different aspects of the diaspora, including the murder of the tsar's family, the defense of Siberia, the creation of the volunteer army, the cult of white generals such as Wrangel and Kolchak, the tragic retreat from the Crimea, and the Russian fleets betrayal at hands of the French.

The Russian community abroad was a splendid if also darkly pathetic thing. It consisted of writers such as Bunin and Nabokov, Russian-language newspapers, poets like Touroverev, students, engineers, scientists, officers, French patriots, Russian-language schools, Cossack cultural institutions, impoverished aristocrats, suicides, and cabbies. More than anything, Russian Choice reveals the depth of the community's nostalgia and raw anger at the memory of the Red Terror.

The series reveals the continuing horror of one ancient survivor of Wrangel's retreat from the Crimea with 150,000 Russians. But the film's makers and narrator are, even now, similarly perplexed by what happened to White Russia. Why, asks the narrator, aren't the heroes of the diaspora honored in Russia even now?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

History Channel

This blog has only just begun. In future months, we'll be exploring the vast Russian-related archives of Netflix. I've begun with Land of the Tsars, Part I, a documentary that does a pretty good job of covering the whole of Russian history, right up until the Revolution of 1917.

It's got everything: ninth century viking trading networks; the emergence of "Rus;: the influence of Constantinople; five centuries of Mongol rule; the overthrow of Mongol rule in the 1480s; orthodoxy; the Time of Troubles; the rise of the Romanovs; Peter the Great as reformer, Westernizer, and tyrant; Peter's daughter Elizabeth (who assumed power at age 32 and ruled confidently for 16 years); Peter III (stupid, crude, and Russophobic, he forced his brilliant wife to play toy soldiers in bed and hanged a rat in front of her for treason--worse, he made peace with Frederick the Great when Russian forces were poised to obliterate Prussia, forced priests to dress like Lutherans, and threatened his wife with the nunnery); Catherine the Great (conspirator, lover, Enlightened Despot, and reformer, she created some organs of local government and challenged elite traditions, but nevertheless engaged in ceaseless wars to expand the kingdom in all directions, and put down peasant insurrections--Pugachev's primarily--without compunction); etc.

The Land of Tsars spends a great deal of time on Catherine. After all, her reign so Russia occupy the Black Sea Coast and the Crimea as well as Alaska. There were 30 million Russians living within the Empire at the time, and Russia seemed unlikely to stop expanding in several different directions. Catherine's successor, Paul, was horrendous. He was exceedingly cruel and, like his father, pro-Prussian. He was also in a hurry to revenge his father, even burying Catherine with the man she had overthrown and effectively killed. Paul's brief reign saw hurried and ill-considered reforms that led to his own death. The indirect cause of his murder in 1796 was none other than his own son, and Catherine's favorite, Alexander I. The historians in the film claims Alexander was wracked with guilt over his accession to the thrown and compulsively indecisive, toying with reform but always rejecting it in the end. According to one historian, he was "born confused." Alexander's one great decision was to renew a war with Napoleon, a decision which nearly cost him all of Russia. In the end, Alexander's Russia emerged victorious of course, and Russian armies effectively became the guardians of the conservative, Christian, dynastic order throughout Europe.

What was next for Russia? Some thought liberalism, reform, or at least a constitution were in order. However, the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, inspired by the liberal currents of Western European politics, was put down ruthlessly. Nicholas I had leaders of the movement either executed or exiled to Siberia. Politics remained illegal. Even educated Russians were legally unable to discuss political change of any sort. Where there was no public sphere to debate liberal ideas, and economic and social elites felt humiliated by the autocratic atmosphere of Russia, politics turned inward. Secret societies sprang up. Even so, while the rest of Europe eventually exploded in liberal and democratic revolt in the fateful year of 1848, Russia remained quiescent, the autocracy triumphant. Nicholas I even sent troops to restore the Hapsburg monarchy.

In light of Russia's recent history, the Crimean War came as a shock. Russians were out-gunned by the French and British. The myth of Russian invincibility, born at Borodino, was overturned at a stroke. The Russian elites felt humiliated. Clearly, Russia had become a backward state. Its technology, economy, and perhaps even its whole social and political framework, were pre-industrial, pre-modern. When Nicholas II died, Alexander II conceded defeat to the Western powers and began an ambitious program of national reform and modernization. He encouraged private enterprise, liberal ideas, and the rule of law. Most importantly, he "liberated" the serfs in 1861. At first, the film tells us the Russian educated classes were elated. The tsar was known as the Tar-Liberator. Later, after it became clear that Russian peasants remained impoverished and deeply indebted to landlords under the terms of their emancipation, and that Russian agricultural production was plummeting, the tsar's popularity sharply declined.

Of course, the Tsar Liberator was soon hounded by assassination attempts (the streets emptied whenever he moved about St. Petersburg) and he was eventually murdered by a child of elite parents, illustrating what one historian calls one of the central paradoxes of modern Russian history: the fact that members of the Russian social elite--Lenin included--often became the regime's opponents.

Alexander II was replaced by his son, Alexander III, was cracked down hard against the regime's opponents and reversed Alexander's modest movements toward political devolution. The assassins were executed. Over the next 15 years, Alexander essentially assured that the regime's critics would remain violent, radical, and underground. After all, even as the country hurdled toward industrialization and modernization, the country had a single source of political authority: the person of the tsar.

When Alexander II died in 1897, he was replaced by his son, Nicholas II, who was completed unprepared for the responsibility and admitted as much to himself. The film's historians believe he was completely unsuited to power and, as importantly, unable to compromise his belief in his divine right to rule. His wife, compulsively shy, was a further hindrance to him, and her complete faith in the mystic Rasputin did nothing to enhance her reputation, insofar as her son's hemophilia (which Rasputin seemed to be able to contain) was a state secret.

Nicholas II was indecisive but he gambled by threatening Japanese geopolitical ambitions in the Far East. The Japanese victory in the 1904-1905 war came as a devastating shock to the country. An entire armada was destroyed. The country was racked with labor and peasant unrest. When father's Gapon's enormous rally--ostensibly loyal to the tsar at least personally--was met by gunfire and Cossack sallies, the country erupted in revolt. Revolutionary Councils made bids for power in about 50 cities. Peasants burned estates. Reluctantly, the tsar made peace with Japan and granted a modest but very real constitution in October. A duma was eventually elected, and power was, for the first time and despite the tsar's continuing authority, officially divided.

The tsar's tenuous grasp on power did not withstand the first World War. 16 million soldiers were lost at the front. In the bloody civil war that followed, the tsar and his family eventually lost their lives as well.

Monday, September 27, 2010

ee cummings in 1931

One of the best depictions of Soviet Russian in the 1930s comes from ee cummings. The poet went to Russia to see how humanity's greatest social experiment was fairing. The result is a Beat novel, Emie, avante la lettre and a ruthless but comical attack on everything related to the new communist society. The Soviet Union, as a whole, was depicted as hell on earth, a place where humanism and individuality were on the verge of excinction. In the hands of ee cummings' diurnal writings, homo sovieticus was depicted as the ultimate "nonman," living in fear of the state's security apparatus and the whole culture of conformity that official ideology celebrated. The books is a frantic and riotous assault against the Soviet state, even without any direct discussion of that state's already bloody crimes. It's also a great read. Sadly, I've left my copy of the book behind at a children's birthday party. It's probably covered with birthday cake frosting at the bottom of a gigantic garbage dump. I'll have to find another copy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Conventional Fantasies

This blog wouldn't survive five minutes in the bright light of academic scrutiny. It's a blog after all. It's meant to be filled with slandor, urban mythology, unsubstantiated rumor, and misinformation. However, there is a fan dimension to this blog so I have to eventually improve coverage of the biggest names in Russian Studies and related fields, right? For this reason I've joined the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, whose annual convention takes place in late November in Los Angeles. Aside from recurring fantasies of bumping into University of Chicago's doyen of Russian History, Sheila Fitpatrick (as if I could recognize her), while taking a stroll in Hyde Park, learning Russian overnight, actually visiting Russia someday, attending the ASEESS Convention is my number one daydream. A glance at the itinery will explain why.

There are panels on the following subjects: science in Petrine Russia; World War II resistance; social and economic change in the era of so-called "stagnation;" the Silver Age; identity-formation in the Far East; recent Trotsky scholarship (with Lindy Laub's new Trostky documentary, Planet without a Visa;" Jewish Commerce in Pre-Revolutionary Russia; masculanity in the Napeolonic Wars and Steel Age; first-person narratives and their meaning; war poetry; war prose; art from 1850 to 1900; Soviet and Eastern European political recruitment of elites; post-communist justice; Medvedev's economics and defense policies; historical time and Stalinism; literature and the sublime; the state of translation studies; St. Peterburg between at peace; and various other Eastern European topics.

It would be fun to go, but I'll have to make do with my copy of Slavic Review, the association's official journal. Articles in the Summer addition covered Liddia Ginzburg, the Seige of Leningrad, Bulgakov and Eizenshstein, Ivan the Terrible and the debate on historical periodization, the end of Muscovy, etc.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Cult of Tolstoy

I recently purchased a membership to Netflix and was surprised to discover a fairly large collection of modern Russian and classic Soviet films. I expect to be including more references to cinema in the near future. I began with a relatively formulaic documentary of Trotsky, which nevertheless helped to put the man into context as an international symbol of the proletariat and global hero for would-be revolutionaries in every inhabited continent. From there, I watched the Last Station, and was pleasantly surprised to see how the film captured some of the importance of Tolstoy's later life as well as its complexity. To the end, Tolstoy was waging an idiosyncratic and sometimes muddled but always admirable war against violence, war, and various other forms of human iniquity.

The film helps one to see how close Tolstoy came to becoming the fountainhead of a sustainable religion and we see his family and network of close supporters in a state of quasi-religious exhalation over his charismatic presence and undisputed reputation as novelist, social critic, and quasi-religious thinker. There's a fine line between cult and formal religion, and the Tolstoyans walked that line. The film reminds readers of Tolstoy's importance to pre-revolutionary Russia as well. As he fled his wife and fell ill, the whole country followed the melodrama. Tolstoy's celebrity is witness to the fact that Russia had developed, despite its autocratic government and calcified Orthodox Church (which had excommunicated Tolstoy for his beliefs), a powerful public sphere of ideological opposition, relatively free intellectual inquiry, and social criticism.

With the benefit of hindsight, to see Tolstoy die in the film is to see liberalism die. But the real subject of The Last Station is Tolstoy's marriage. As the film begins, Tolstoy and his wife have been married for decades. She, much younger than he, had born him a huge brood of children--and lost five children in the process--and these children have become surrogates in a marital war, ostensibly over Tolstoy's literary inheritance. Tolstoy, although conflicted, hopes to turn over a large portion of his writings to the people at large, and is, he says, ashamed of the privilege he retained.

Strangely, at this time Tolstoy had essentially renounced all wealth, and yet he remained a denizen of an aristocratic estate, now ostensibly owned by his family. It puts one in mind of a quote about Gandhi, one of Tolstoy's most important admirers. It was said that although Gandhi was poor, it took a vast fortune to keep him that way. Tolstoy's marriage was grueling: despite a deep and abiding love and decades of intellectual cooperation, the two had become bitter antagonists. The film gives us a sense of the dimensions of the complexity involved here. When they were young, Tolstoy encouraged if not forced his wife to read his diaries related to his sexual adventures. Now, notwithstanding the fourteen or so children, his wife suspects her husband of harboring inappropriate feelings toward other men (not entirely without reason). The marriage endured, but it existed in the physical presence of strange sycophants and religious devotees, as well as the children, and with national and even international humanistic causes in the background.

Even the madness of Tolstoy's final flight from his wife (who claimed to have almost drowned herself in response), highlights his greatness, or at least the uniqueness of his contribution to Russian and Western history. Even as the stage is set for this final drama, Tolstoy is profoundly interested in humankind, at the individual level of one of his protégées as well as at the abstract level of the Russian narod. And, although he may well be partially blinded about the faults of his own admirers, he retains a healthy skepticism about his own reputation, and also tolerates his wife's mockery of that reputation. It's this spirit of honest and searching self-criticism (which isn't ever entirely successful of course, but it's the heroic effort at honesty that is so exceptional) and empathy for others that made him one of Russia's finest novelists.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Comedy by Chernychevsky

Nabokov’s last Russian novel, The Gift, is often said to be one of the greatest twentieth century novels. For me, it’s been a long struggle to even complete the book. Nabokov, genius though he is, pains me with his lack of concert for plot or suspenseful pace. Indeed, I freely admit that I only kept reading to see what Nabokov’s protagonist would say about Russia’s famous nineteenth century radical and godfather of Bolshevism, Chernychevsky.

Chernychevsky was Lenin’s nineteenth century hero, a widely-read, hard-working man who wrote the influential if badly written novel, What is to be Done?, which first spelled out the ascetic path to revolutionary sainthood so many zealous, socialists would eventually follow. The first portion of the book takes place in Berlin and seems, at least in a general way, to be autobiography. The second portion purports to be prose from the author’s study of the famous editor of the liberal organ, The Contemporary. This, interestingly, is followed by a short series of post-modern rants against this same history.

Nabokov’s interest in Chernychevsky is not hard to understand. The utopian socialist’s theories, as well as his whole intellectual milieu, have everything to do with what came later, although it’s hard to tell whether Bolshevik communism was an extension of this milieu or a reaction to the fuzziness and innocence of it. Chernychevsky, the materialist philosopher who had been born the son of a priest, believed in peasant communalism. He was an important interlocutor of men such as Herzen (they lived together in London briefly), Belinsky, and others.

According to Nabokov’s book, which is written with such irony and perhaps subtlety that it’s hard to know precisely where he stands on the man’s legacy, Chernychevsky was extremely popular with liberal opponents of autocracy in the age of peasant emancipation, rampant conspiracies, censorship, and millennial aspiration. His famous novel (there was at least one more) was very well-received—more popular than anything Tolstoy or Dostoevsky wrote his protagonist claims--as the incarnation of everything chic at the time. What was this thinker like? Nabokov’s protagonist is condescending, saying that for all his magnetism and courage, he was awkward, badly dressed, and unsophisticated as a thinker. He critiques his poetry, understanding of the natural world, shallow esthetic philosophy (he believed that art should always serve life), and philosophical pretensions.

In the end, Chernychevsky suffered for his unrelenting radicalism. He was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, exposed to a mock execution, and exiled to Siberia. While he was imprisoned, fellow radicals dreamed of freeing him. They didn’t understand that he couldn’t even ride a horse. His wife came to see him in Siberia, as so many Decembrist wives had done for their husbands, but apparently slept with somebody on the way. (Chernychevsky loved his wife deeply, perhaps more intensely as a result of his status as a cuckold).

Nabokov’s treatment of this phase of socialist activity is redolent of E.H. Carr’s treatment of another famous Russian radical, Bakhunin. In both instances, the radical hero appears sympathetically but ridiculously. It’s hard to know whether this understanding of the past is fair or not. Does an intellectual current that took itself so seriously—and had such a serious opponent—deserve to be laughed at? Perhaps the comedy of that gentler century only became emerges in relation to the decidedly “un-funny” legacy of its heir, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In any event, the paraodox of a comic tragedy or a tragic commedy reminds me of Woody Allen's bad film, Melinda and Melinda, which had at least a wonderful premise: that any story can be told, or perhaps it's all in how the story is received, as a happy comedy or a depressing tragedy. That's how history works.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What To Do

After staring into a bright light for the past 12 hours, I realize that I have committed a grievous intellectual error. I was seduced by capitalist marketing into reading non-Russian authors to fuel the ravenous global market for paper and ink. The imperialist powers, with their viperous subtlety, implanted the idea that their lackey hacks could illuminate my self. I now see that such a notion is based on a grammatical fallacy. There is no "I" in a truly just system. I repudiate all my past acts of heresy and resolve to improve.

What is to be done?

Today I discovered that my blog co-author has betrayed me and, more importantly, you the reader. I caught him, in flagrante delicto, reading a non-Russian novel. It's not the first time he's prostituted himself like this. He has a habit and belongs on the HBO reality show, Intervention. I mean, he can't seem to leave non-Russian novels alone. Lord knows where he gets them. I suppose the fact that he works at a library is too much for his feeble will-power. You might as well send a recovering alcoholic to an Irish wake or a Blues club. As you can imagine, I had a stern conversation with him, evening issuing a formal written warning about his offense. I told him that it sometimes seemed to me as if he had never heard of Russian literature, or didn't know that he was surrounded by the stuff. After the anger and shock wore off, I realized I had what they call in my business "a teaching moment." So I asked Nick to sit down and spread out about three dozen first-class Russian works of fiction in front of him, including Russian classics, contemporary works, short-stories, and novels. I told him he had lost his capacity for rationale judgement when he overlooked books by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Babel, and Gorky. Too tired for the classics? I pushed his face into a pile of twentieth century masterpieces, including stacks of books by Nabokov, short stories by Bunin, prose by Platonov and lesser known novels by Troyat, Montefiore, Simonov, and Berberova. From time to time I lost my cool. Who can blame me? Had he even read a single book by Alexei Tolstoy? Has he forgotten that an obscure man named Mandelstam (to say nothing of Pushkin) had written some prose that might be worth a glance every now and again? Could he really claim to have sucked the marrow from the bone of Solzhenitsyn's brilliance? Did he somehow think he was above reading another work by Pasternak? Some of my readers may believe my co-author didn't know any better, but I submit to you that he does know better. This is a man who, after all, can't pick up a copy of Brothers Karamazov without noting the translation. This is a man who stared back at my stack of novels and commented dryly: "Well, I wouldn't mind reading Pnin a fourth time..." Trust me, he knows better. The only question to ask is that which Lenin's favorite novelist asked, What is to be done? (Note that Lenin, whatever his faults, read that book five times in a single summer). Chernychevsky, help me understand how my co-author could do what he has done--and what is to be done...

Friday, September 10, 2010


Recently a relative asked me whether or not it was a good idea to accept a job in Kyrgyzstan. I told him that I couldn't see an upside to the offer, but admitted that, this blog notwithstanding, I knew nothing at all about the place. Since then I've meant to conduct a brief Internet search to learn more about the republic. Although I never did get around to it, the new issue of Russian Life has offered me my first glimpse of the area.

Apparently, Kyrgyzstan is home to ethnic diversity (Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Cossack Russians primarily), religious diversity (Islam and Orthodox Christianity), Communist-era ruins (Lenin statues, Communist-era street names), Mosques and Orthodox churches, various tourist activities (dead goat polo, horse trekking, yurt camping, opera, watersports, mountain climbing), a unique and short-legged horse species (Przewalski's Horse), a spectacular mountain range (Tien Shan), and a beautiful lake, Issy-Kul, which is enormous and never freezes over. The country is as large as Nebraska but almost all of it is over 1500 meters above sea level, according to Russian Life. Historically, the area lay along the Silk Road and was once home to Mongols, Turkic nomads, and Scythian. Russian influence in this former Soviet Republic is not hard to detect, although the editor claims that the ethnic Russian population has already fallen from 22 percent in 1989 to 9 percent today. That influence was initiated by Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky, a Russian explorer, geographer, naturalist, Sinophobe, and soldier.

And what of Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyzstan Republic? According to Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare of Russian Life, the city is home to one fifth of the country as well as Russian and American air force bases. It's also a somewhat gloomy city, filled with ancient cars, slush and ice, and Stalinist-era apartment buildings. Bishkek, formally named Brunze in honor of a local man who became a leading Bolshevik and Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, was once home to an ethnic Slavic majority (Russians, Ukrainians, etc.) who helped to modernize the country and integrate its economy with that of the Soviet Union, at great cost to local nomadic traditions of course. In fact, as late as 1991, the authors say that 89 percent of the population voted to remain within a renewed post-Soviet federation. At independence, Bishkek suffered a severe shock when it was cut off from its main trading partners. Overnight, the economy shrank, GDP fell, and professionals and ethnic Europeans fled. Worse, the country soon fell victim to political-ethnic rivalries and one of the worst corruption rankings in the world.

The attacks of September 11 had an immediate impact and Kyrgyzstan and its beleaguered economy. America's military and political presence expanded rapidly, and Russia's own diplomatic and military presence soon followed suit. What is more, America's involvement triggered contact from a host of NGOs and businesses. Since then, the country has been torn by fierce political, ethnic, and Great Power rivalry.

It is my hope that this relative, or his spouse, will in the near future provide Soviet Roulette with more specific reports on the country and the legacy of its Soviet past.