Saturday, February 13, 2010

You Shook Me

John Reed

More Americans have gotten their impressions of the Russian Revolution from Ten Days That Shook the World than from any other source. John Reed's short book is filled with the reporter's first-hand and generally enthusiastic impressions of the revolutionary events of October 1917. The prose is energetic; and one is tempted to think that Reid's omnipresence in the events he describes must have influenced countless American journalists and nonfiction writers, particularly Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson.

Reed's insights influenced countless liberal and leftist Americans to look sympathetically upon the world's first successful proletarian coup d'etat. His sympathies for Lenin, Trotsky, and Bolshevism in general are overt. Even so, Reed's book does not wholly elide or erase the moral complexity of Red October. Reed's book assumes two things: first, that tsarist Russia was thoroughly discredited in the eyes of most if not all right-thinking Russians; second, that by 1917, if not before, the Allied cause in the the First World War had no moral claims on the Russian people.

Beyond this, Reed clearly endorses the Bolshevik position of providing Russia with clear and moral leadership, but gives readers a very clear idea of why many socialists and radicals clung to the Provisional Government rather than jump on to the Bolshevik bandwagon. The Bolsheviks gained support among key constituencies--namely the army, the navy, the proletariat, and the peasantry--by calling for an immediate end to the war, ending capital punishment in the armed forced, putting industry into the hands of workers, granting land without compensation to peasant Land Committees, and making a series of promises to the ethnic minorities.

Even so, Reed shows that most Menshiviks and Social Revolutionaries thought that the Bolshevik coup would ultimately undermine the socialist cause. Their critique, which Reed does nothing to obscure, was predicated in the idea that the Bolshevik party had too little support in the country at large to be successful. While Reid clearly admires Bolshevik audacity, he understands that the Bolsheviks represented a minority opinion even within those Leftist communities which clearly opposed not only the tsar but the bourgeois parties such as the Cadets.

As a small minority, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries could object to Bolshevik authority by relying on Marx's theory of a bourgeois interlude between feudal and socialist politics. But socialist critics of Lenin and Trotsky also made practical arguments to support the Provisional Government. They said that the proletarian insurrection would rally the forces of counter-revolution and lead to a reactionary restoration of some sort. Bourgeois liberals would united with Cossacks, royalists, tsarist officers, anti-semitic Black Hundred supporters, and many others to overthrow all previous socialist gains.

Menshevik and Social Revolutionary criticisms were varied, and included principled Marxist critique as well as seemingly partisan resentment at being ignored despite strong democratic support. The non-Bolshevik Marxist parties (and some key trade unions) also doubted that the Bolsheviks even had enough leadership talent to run a government, and many in all parties predicted that the Bolshevik experiment would collapse of its own accord in a matter of days. The popularity of Ten Days That Shook The World is justified. It's a clear and persuasive explication of Lenin's claim to be the most effective exponent of the socialist traditions of peace, land reform, and worker empowerment. And it's a brilliant work of reportage that provides a rare window onto the written and oral discourse that overtook Russia in these days of historical possibility.

Baku Congress

But most importantly, the book is a lasting testament to the moral complexity of the revolutionary moment, when everyone (general, officer, politician, peasant, trainman) is a potential hero and a potential villain. In Reed's book, even old-guard liberal politicians demonstrate personal valor and high-mindedness. They just happen to be on the wrong side of history.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sinyavsky on Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin

Andrei Sinyavsky became famous after being imprisoned by the Soviet regime for his independent scholarship. Exiled to the West, Sinyavsky resembled Solzhenitsyn in his principled opposition to Communist Russia. But when the U.S.S.R. finally collapsed, Sinyavsky's iconoclasm (like Solzhenitsyn's) naturally found expression in criticism of the new order of things. His Russian Intelligentsia is a determined attempt to remind the Russian Intelligentsia of its pre-revolutionary origins and historical mission. As he reminds his readers, in tsarist times, one almost needed to be expelled from university and censored by the political establishment to earn the honor of membership in the intelligentsia. Political opposition, coupled with a genuine love of the people, was what mattered most in tsarist Russia.

Cover of Boris Yeltsin''s Book

To say that the intelligentsia suffered mightily under Stalin is an understatement. Sinyavsky quotes enough early newspaper articles to demonstrate that almost every public intellectual or cultural producer discredited himself at one time or another during Stalin's long reign. The biggest names in Russian literature and poetry--Pasternak and Gorky included--went out of their way to demonized Stalin's opponents as somehow less than human.

To some extent, the Russian intelligentsia regained some of its credibility and dignity in the late Soviet era, when most serious intellectuals and artists ventured to privately distance themselves from the Communist state, if not to criticize that state openly. But Sinyavsky believes that this tradition was lost just as soon as the USSR collapsed. He believes that the whole critical posture was jettisoned with Yeltin's rise to power.

As Yeltsin combated foes on the left and right, Russian intellectuals urged him to forgo democratic forms and institute various forms of censorship and authoritarianism in order to maintain the gains of the anti-communist movement. The intelligentsia, as a class, gave up any pretence of sympathy for ordinary people, who suffered so many profound losses in the era of capitalist "shock therapy." Sinyavsky's ire isn't placated by the fact that many former dissidents feared a decisive return to overtly communist political forms. For him, Russians who voted communist were expressing legitimate concerns over their free-falling standard of living.

Was it acceptable to embrace Yeltsin and his pro-reformer minister, Gaidar, if this meant massive unemployment, the loss of savings, unprecedented crime, widespread graft and fraud, high abortion and suicide rates, and general uncertainty? What shocked Sinyavsky most was that the intelligentsia seemed to have abandoned its historical empathy and even guilt. According to the former dissident, even close friends now assured him that the people had seen worse and could survive. "Nobody has died yet," they said. For the most part, Russian intellectuals were satisfied that they were being left alone and were largely free from censorship for the first time in many decades.

Sinyavsky points out that the Russian people were now expressing a clear preference for socialism that was not a mere byproduct of fuzzy-headed nostalgia. Most people really had lived better under socialism than they were living in "Russian capitalism." They had jobs, pensions, security, and some confidence that the state had their best interests at heart. They no longer felt safe enough to go out at night. In some areas, seven times more people said they preferred the old regime to the new one. And all regions, apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg, registered public opinion majorities in favor of the old order.

Sinyavsky attributes the intelligentsia's reluctance to criticize Yeltsin to a Russian attachment to authoritarianism and even tsarism. No matter that Yeltsin had made serious mistakes in Chechnya, had fired on the duma, and allowed millions of workers to go without pay--he knew best how to defeat fascist and communist revivals. While Sinyavsky may not have given Yeltsin his due, the general outline of his complaints seems to be more relevant than ever in the age of Putin, who is after all, one more product of Yeltsin's own blemmished reign.

Wax Figures of Political Leaders

Roseanne and the Class War

MTV Networks Upfront - Show

Roseanne was one of the best television shows that ever aired. This greatness is linked in my mind to Marxism and this blog in the following way: Roseanne was predicated on the notion that class still existed in America as late as the 1980s.

Only in American do people deny their own class identities and loyalties. In America, everybody is “middle class" since that term is stretched beyond recognition. Whether you make $300,000 a year, or $40,000 a year, you're likely to say that you're an ordinary member of the mythical American middle class.

In Victorian England, the phrase “middle class” was also something of a misnomer in that this Victorian “middle” really only constituted about 10 or perhaps 15 percent of the general population. Moreover, this small sliver of English society was not really positioned in the middle of English social life. In fact, the Victorian middle class, while sandwiched between an even smaller aristocracy and a very large group or “lower classes,” was a privileged caste by almost all objective criteria. This was doubly true insofar as Britain was itself the wealthiest country in the world at this time.

Wedding Party

In Roseanne Barr’s America, everybody claimed to be middle class. I remember working as a volunteer for an extraordinarily wealthy congressman who represented one of America’s wealthiest districts. His wife, while overseeing both a nanny and a cleaning woman as they readied her children for lunch, told me that she was very thankful to have been raised with “middle class values.” What these values were, she did not say. But the Roseanne show demonstrated that class was alive and well in America, despite the rhetoric of the Reagan Revolution.

Roseanne and her fictional husband weren’t really middle class: they were working class. Both bearing the physical signs of their caste—excess weight and, at least in the first couple of seasons, a lack of cosmetic surgery —the couple took a series of odd jobs and struggled to make ends meet. Their cultural tastes—beer, Las Vegas, poker, cars and motorcycles, kitchy seasonal displays, and (above all) television—showed that class is as much about cultural identity as it is about any relationship to the “means of production,” although the fictional Roseanne (whose sharp mouth constantly threatened to undermine her ability to earn enough money to pay the bills) clearly had no such relationship.

If there is another American show about class that deserves comment it is Good Times. The debate about the racial messages in Good Times perhaps rightfully obscures its foundation in meaningful class analysis. The show demonstrated how public housing worked, why people had a hard time finding work, and how Washington and City Hall systematically undermined the future of ordinary working class and unemployed people.

Jimmie Walker As 'J. J.' In 'Good Times'

Cultural Studies theorists say that America used to produce many more sitcoms about class. In the 1950s, Americans still seemed to tolerate and even appreciate comedies that revolved around communal living, tenement housing, ethnic culture, work, and extended families. But by the 1980s these sorts of shows had become nearly extinct. People don’t want to think about work when they are off duty; they certainly don’t want to be reminded about the declining standard of living among America’s so-called middle class.

Did I mention that Roseanne was funny?

East and West

It's interesting that the two dominant powers today, China and the U.S., both have wild Wests. They think about them very differently. For us the West has been a place of promise and escape, where rough virtues conquer nature. For China the West is a little more threatening. That's where Genghis Khan and Tamerlane came from, and where today they keep a lid on simmering Uighur and Tibetan tensions by banning journalists. The terrain is so forbidding it makes the Rockies look like goose bumps. In both countries the East is the region of sophistication, learning, and power.

In Russia--really Europe in general--it is the East that poses a disorderly threat. During World War I German soldiers were shocked at the chaos they found in Lithuania and Latvia. The dirt, disease, and nonsensical languages had to be scrubbed out. Russia replicates this thinking when it comes to Siberia. The orderliness of St. Petersburg clashes with the horrible wonders beyond the Urals. But the one notion we all share is that origins are located in the East. Maybe it's a function of the sun rising there. But for Europeans the East (which ultimately means Russia, and for Russia Siberia) is the primordial slime they emerged from. It's where their nightmares and fairy tales are located. It's where they go to be violent. For the Americans and Chinese the ancestral home is not so disturbing; it is the seat of civilization. Controlling ourselves as we move westward is more of a challenge. So there is a fundamental difference between Europe on the one hand, and America and China on the other.

All this makes central Asia, including former Soviet states like Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, the most interesting place in the world. There East and West face each other with total incomprehension. Our attempts to impose geographical symbolism onto the globe fall apart. Buddhist metaphysics, great art, nuclear arms, and terrorism thrive in places that can't be situated. Nothing originates and nothing develops there and yet, extracted from direction and time, those spots occupy a kind of no-place or utopian ideal.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Russia vs. socialism

This is a good moment to address the tension in this blog between Russia and socialism. The latter has been practiced everywhere from Phnom Penh to Oslo, and it's lived a robust life as an ideal whose partisans didn't always care much for the Soviets. So the nation of Russia, its culture and people, doesn't necessarily have an elective affinity with the political philosophy of socialism, and vice versa.

David Brooks said in the New Republic last fall that Barack Obama was the only Senator he'd met who knew more about political philosophy than he did. Looking back, I'm struck by how little interest I've had in political philosophers. Or at least the political philosophers Brooks refers to. In rough order of importance, judging by nothing more than his columns, I'm guessing they would be: Edmund Burke, Reinhold Niebuhr, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, George Orwell, John Rawls, Michael Oakeshott. I know very little about these people, and it's not just because many of them are conservatives. Fur Coat used to wave around Reflections on the Revolution in France during grad school, but I could never get into it. I read a biography of Niebuhr once but was I supposed to take that Christian militarism seriously? Hayek's Road to Serfdom is a good book; Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution are great. I like John Stuart Mill in theory and wish I had more patience for him. Dewey is excruciating. George Orwell is fine but I'm not sure what makes him a philosopher. Never read a word by Oakeshott or Rawls.

By contrast the people who excited me back in those days were outside the liberal tradition. Marx, Gramsci, Hegel (maybe excited is the wrong word), the Frankfurt school, Croce. Some of these are good writers but I don't know how useful they are in 2010. At this point in life I sort of wish I'd invested a little time in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The above list says something about the cloistered state of humanities graduate programs, as well as the fact that democracy to young people is boring. But the odd thing is that while the authors of socialist texts are alluring, their books are dense and drab. If Das Kapital is hard to slog through, what about Rosa Luxemburg's The Accumulation of Capital? Georg Lukacs is OK and Gramsci is good, but can you imagine reading Ernst Bloch for inspiration? Or Lenin? At least Lenin's books are short, but who in their right mind is going to tackle Althusser?

And yet all these names generate a frisson of delight that is absent from the democratic philosophers. John Dewey is just as impenetrable as Rosa Luxembourg but the idea of reading her, of being admitted to all that conspiratorial knowledge and grasping the secret of oppression and exploitation, is irresistible. Dewey is just a guy wondering how flawed humans can avoid killing each other. I enjoy having her books on my shelf, thumbing through them, imbibing the danger laced in her pages and admiring the perfect logical symmetry of her table of contents. Dewey just sits there ignored, and so would Burke, Niebuhr, Mill and Oakeshott.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Guest Blogger Chef Marc (A Winter’s Night Sustenance)

First Barman's Festival Held In Tel Aviv

You know, as a classically trained chef, tutored under European masters in the late 60's and early 70’s, I have always been fond of the robust, soul-satisfying foods of Russia, and the surrounding lands and cultures. During these dark nights I enjoy hearty soups based on meat and sometimes fish broths, some with a salty-sour base like Rassolnik and Solyanka.

Russian Tea

Or even Shichi ! Cabbage soup, which has been the main first course in Russian Cuisine for over a thousand years! It's made from mushrooms, pickled cukes, or green olives, and of course Smetana ( sour cream). I think even Ivan the Terrible liked it! To your health, Chef Marc

Ivan The Terrible

Women and Horses


One can’t read Isaac Babel without recognizing his suburb craftsmanship. He writes no accidental sentences. In terms of the prose, these stories are all perfect, apart or as pieces of a whole. Each sentence is well-crafted. Each story is a masterful description of what the Soviet campaign against the Poles in 1920 felt like at the level of the individual combatant or civilian. The campaign was masculine, brutal, and fast-moving; and it devastated the countryside.

Court Martial

Babel gets war right: as a reporter, he avoids any trace of glorification or self-congratulation. He’s learned the lessons of modernism: his Cossacks—officers and ordinary cavalrymen alike—aren’t particularly heroic. They are brave and resilient but they are equally inhuman and thuggish. And Babel makes the humane decision to tell his readers as much about the civilians caught up in the campaigns, as he does about the motivations of his protagonists. After completing the cycle of stories, the reader knows as much about the sufferings of the populace as he or she does about the generals.

Most importantly, Babel describes the sufferings of Jewish townspeople, who were victims of Cossack anti-Semitism in addition to ordinary wartime requisitions. Babel, a Jew whose ethnic background wasn’t always known to his fellow communists, seems guilt-stricken by the actions of his Russian compatriots and fascinated by the life and culture of the persecuted. Most strikingly, Babel sees the war from the perspective of civilian women, many of whom were raped in these stories. This is not a war of leaders but of ordinary people. Remembering the way Gorky described Tolstoy’s genius for seeing the world through the eyes of the meek (even the eyes of its farm animals), Babel even has time for the sufferings of the cavalry’s horses.

Two of favorite Red Cavalry quotes:

“You don’t know what you love, Gedali. I’m going to shoot you, and then you will know, and I cannot NOT shoot, because I am the Revolution.”

“We were rattled by the same passions. Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May over which women and horses wander.”

Isaac Babel

Same Time Next Year

Metropolitan Kirill enthroned as 16th Patriarch of Russian Orthodox Church

I’ve never understood poetry, but now that I’m almost forty I prefer poetry to prose. I don’t have enough time left on this earth to waste my time on prose. Artistic statements should be fit neatly into a haiku or limerick. With my new found appreciation of poetry, I naturally found my way right into the epicenter of Russian soul, Joseph Brodsky.

Russian President Medvedev attends an Orthodox Christmas night service

My only widely circulated aphorism is this one: It’s better to write poetry than to read it. But if a second of my aphorisms gains currency some day, let it be this: If you have to read poetry, let it be Russian poetry. And if somehow another one of my aphorisms gets popular as a result of some freak YouTube video, let it be this: If you have to read Russian poetry, let it be Joseph Brodsky’s poetry.

Why do I say that? Because he wrote in Russian and English, like Nabokov, and became a national American institution, like foreign policy czar, Brzezinski. Because he was prosecuted in Russia, and exiled internally, for being a “social parasite.” Because he somehow taught himself English and became America’s poet laureate. Because he won the Nobel prize for literature. Moreover, his poetry is both profound and straightforward, a rare combination.

Swim For Santa

Brodsky’s Nativity Poems are a case in point. They’re artful, and they are (wait for it) Christian, notwithstanding the author’s claims to be a polytheist. Brodsky wrote a poem each Christmas. And something about the fact that he wrote them at the same time each year helps to create the impression of a deep meditation on the nature of time. Moreover, by focusing on the nativity scene (Christmas and Nativity are the same word in Russian), Brodsky seems to be making a deliberate effort to make contact with sacred time, that is, time unrelated to the passing of years. Brodsky's special interest is picturing himself at Jesus' birth, at a time when Jesus was more or less like all other human beings.

Brodsky's Nativity poems are filled with the only worthwhile subjects in poetry: existential dread, religiosity, the passage of time, and death. And of course Brodsky isn’t shy of politics. These poems touch upon Marxism, capitalism, and Soviet politics. Brodsky gives you lines such as these: “KGB, stop jerking off!” “Take out your saints. Take out the GenSec’s portrait!” And: “…in that nation where among the forests of hands the tyrant of the State is voted in, its only candidate, and spit goes ice-cold on the tongue.”

I like Brodsky’s poems in their original Russian, although I don’t understand a word of Russian and can’t decipher a single Cyrillic letter. I like the mystery. One sees the date—that translates into English—and nothing else.

Below are some favorite lines from mostly Brodsky's non-Nativity poems:

“All talk is a barren trade. A writing on the wind’s wall.”

“People are not my thing. I hate the look of them. Grafted to life’s great tree, each face is firmly stuck and cannot be torn free."

“Scythe, skull, and skeleton—an absurd pack of lies. Rather, ‘Death, when it comes, will have your own two eyes.’

“My life has dragged on. In the recitative of a blizzard a keen ear picks up the tune of the Ice Age. Every ‘Down in the Valley’ is, for sure, a chilled boogie-woogie. A bitter, brittle cold represents, as it were, a message to the body of its final temperature.“

“if you dream of a door, you tend to slam it.”

“My life has dragged on. The signs are plenty. They’d make yet another life, just as dragging.”

“..stiffened, sternly preventing the wandering of the future into the past.”

“In space, the deepest inhaling hardly ensures an exhaling, nor does the departure a return.”

“Labor is no commodity. To say it is insults the workers. It’s the goal and form of being. Money’s, well, it’s base. It’s more than just a meal, but let’s try making sense of this. Things are more than their worth in cash.:

The World According to Garp(achev)

Communist Rally

How did Mikhail Gorbachev see the world in 1987, four short years before the union he led fell to pieces? It’s impossible to know Gorbachev’s inner thoughts, but his speech to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in that same year seems surprisingly straightforward. While the General Secretary flatters his audience, he also challenges it. Was Communism really doomed? Very likely, but Gorbachev didn’t think so. The history of Bolshevism was replete with heroic progress; the future could resemble this glorious past. Notwithstanding its challenges, the Soviet Union had done more for human kind in seventy years than any other people had done for it in a comparable period.

Operating Telephones

Possibly a rhetorical flourish, Gorbachev reminded the Party of the significance of October, 1917. This was “humanity’s finest hour,” the “dawn of the real history of mankind,” and a time that “changed man’s inner world beyond recognition.” It was also a summation of everything good and progressive in Russia’s long history. October was peasant rebellion, Decembrist action, worker strike, and cultural protest all rolled into one. Lenin and the Revolution liberated the people, and brought them education, social welfare, equality, freedom, and the first experiment in real democracy in an age of bourgeois imperialism.

Stalin And Lenin

The Communist Party achieved the first successful revolution in the modern, imperialist era. It also modernized Russia and brought it victory in World War II. In Gorbachev’s view, the Party’s successes were predicated on something other than unfettered discipline. For Lenin had taught his disciples the virtues of “revolutionary dialectics,” which is to say he had taught them to use Marxist principles to solve political problems in bold but open-ended, creative ways.

The Bolsheviks had, after all, made a long series of strategic reversals. First, they abandoned their slogan, “all power to the soviets,” when their opponents, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, controlled those quasi-governmental political organs. Second, they turned against the traditional Leftist prejudice against seizing power in a socially backward country such as Russia. Third, they performed a volte-face and withdrew from the First World War in order to salvage the Revolution. Fourth, the Bolsheviks overturned their erstwhile theory of a volunteer militia and created a professional Red Army capable of winning a fierce civil war. Fifth, and most importantly, Lenin ended War Communism and allowed capitalism to coexist with socialism during the period of the New Economic Policy.

Gorbachev thought that the Party was the backbone of progress in Soviet Russia. It was the vanguard of revolutionary change. Therefore, the General Secretary felt justified in asking Party members to help him to correct serious problems in the socialist economy. While admiring the spirit of self-sacrifice that had quite literally “electrified” the Soviet landscape, he thought that Stalinist command economics were not appropriate for an advanced economy. A modern USSR could no longer rely on “enthusiasm alone” to effect change. While previous generations had achieved miracles in terms of hauling the country into the twentieth century, the present generation confronted challenges that required innovation, honesty, humanistic values, self-criticism, and flexibility.

Centralized planning had served Russia well during the Interwar period. Notwithstanding his mistakes, Stalin had led the Party toward essentially sound goals. Stalin’s Party had gotten it right. His Party had ignored Trotsky’s blandishments and built the world’s first socialist state. Stalin’s Party had liberated labor and built dozens if not hundreds of major industrial projects. Following the Great Patriotic War, the Communists overcame the devastation, raised Soviet prestige in the international community, and raised its citizens’ standard of living.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union’s achievements had entailed a dark flip side. The country’s economy became too rigid, too centralized, and too bureaucratic. Stalin’s legacy ran counter to the Leninist path of respecting peasants (Gorbachev saw no irony in this phrase). And it was basically undemocratic. The cult of personality disenfranchised Russians. The centralized economy forestalled initiative. To take the country forward, Russia needed reform and openness. More than that, the Soviet Union needed to “update methods,” create “contemporary forms,” and embrace science, technology, and progress. It needed to encourage independence, initiative, and responsibility among the people. If this prescription seems vague, it was.

What did Gorbachev mean when he talked about improving quality or accelerating social progress? What specific proposals would bring these things about? Was Gorbachev’s unity among Party members compatible with his call for independent modes of thinking? Was his demand that workers take more responsibility over their lives consistent with his desire to keep the Party apparatus together?

Mikhail Gorbachev

Whether his speech reflected personal opinion or political reality, Gorbachev presented his Party with a realistic middle path between jettisoning its historical legacy and submitting to apathy and stagnation. Gorbachev’s understanding of history was profoundly flawed. As late as 1987, he was espousing a Stalinist line about both Trotsky and Bukharin, still insisting that the Party had essentially “been right” in its activities. But who –besides Yeltsin--could have done more than that? Clearly, Gorbachev’s intellect and energy and relative honest was not enough to salvage the Bolshevik project. The country was in very bad shape. Its economy was in shambles, but perhaps more importantly, the Russian people had begun to blame the Party for its troubles.

Russia by Intravenous Drip

MacWorld Conference Opens In San Francisco

My readership is diverse, but the Soviet Roulette multitudes will agree on two things: first, that the Russian Debutante’s Handbook was right, there is no other way to become cultured other than reading Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches; and second, life would be much better if everyone were attached to Russian and Soviet history by intravenous drip. Well, this blogger has recently discovered podcasts. The recognition should have come in 2001, or whenever this phenomenon emerged. But I’m that rare beast, a backward-looking, enthusiast of technology.

Gibson's Pregnant Girlfriend - Oksana Grigorieva - Shows Off A Growing Bump!

Just what is available to the Russophile who’d like to be listening to podcasts at every hour of every day? ITunes University offers quite a few avenues for exploration. For instance, Brown University has put recorded an excellent series on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Other universities have put up standard lectures on Russia, Eastern Europe, or communism in general in general Western Europe survey courses, and one generous has professor put an entire course on the Russian Revolution into podcast form.

ITunes University is also the best route to lectures on contemporary Russia and the other post-Soviet states. These mainly focus on the economic issues and international relations. I’ve also found plenty of relevant if isolated material on some of the more generic, cultural and historical podcasts. Of course, downloadable books on CD are another way to become permanently tethered to Russia. I’ve only just begun to explore the CPS and college library for relevant titles of books that I can download to my IPOD. Thus far, I’m reading Absurdistan and have found a few titles by Tolstoy. I expect to find others.

What Russian-themed podcasts or downloadable books does the reader suggest? Speak up: I can’t hear you.

Hungary in 1956

Sego's Disgust

2006 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. According to T. Mills Kelly's 2007 Podcasted lecture, this invasion was one of Hungary’s two most important historical moments of the twentieth century; the other being the 1919 Treaty of Trianon, which robbed Hungary of a large percentage of its land and people. Hungarian unrest resulted from an internal power struggle within the communist leadership made possible by Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. One leader supported a hard-line position in support of Soviet positions; the other offered the prospect of a very small amount of Hungarian independence within the overall umbrella of socialism and the Warsaw Pact. Eventually, the opposition took to the streets, destroying a statue of Stalin in a display of shocking disrespect to Hungary’s erstwhile liberators.

Hungarian Uprising

Khrushchev decided that toleration wasn’t an option. Tito supported his stance. Soon, Russia sent an enormous invasion force of 300,000 troops into the country, and the violence of the encounter with street protesters overshadowed the later violence of Prague by a factor of ten or more. 25,000 Hungarians died. Austrians tore down border fences to allow untold Hungarians to flee the country. Notwithstanding the pleas of Hungarians, the West did nothing to help. Small wonder. Austria, which stood between Italy and Hungary, had been declared a neutral state several years earlier as a condition for Soviet withdrawal. The West rightly feared Russian nuclear retaliation for any intervention in the Russian sphere of influence. And soon, the West was distracted by the hugely unpopular Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt.
Besieged Station

The moderate leader led the resistance to Moscow, fleeing to Yugoslavia before being deported and eventually executed in Russia. Russia installed a new, sycophant leader who purged the leadership of anyone with any hint of sympathy for the rebellion. But eventually, between 1956 and 1988, the new leader began to move the country toward a very subtle form of quasi-independence from Soviet rule.

Eventually, the Hungarian communist party accepted an informal state of compromise with the Hungarian people. The public sphere was the province of the Communist Party; but Hungarians could exercise a real measure of liberty within their own homes, in the private sphere. By 1989, the Hungarians already had some limited forms of private enterprise. In 1988, an opposition party and soon a multiparty system emerged. In 1989, the executed communist resister was reburied with honors in Heroes Square. One million Hungarians filed past the coffin. Communist leaders were brushed aside by a Young Democrat in his 20s who said Hungarians needed the chance to bury “one of their own.” In 1990, the country held elections.

Flag Burning

Mechanical Chess

Chess Class

The Soviet Union was closely aligned with the game of chess, especially during the 1980s. For all of its flaws, the U.S.S.R. knew how to produce suburb chess players. This was an important public relations victory for the communist system. Being closely related to popular perceptions of intelligence, rationality, and human genius, the glow from the game of chess translated into a grudging respect for the world’s largest nation. Chess was a truly neutral international arena for competition, a place where cultural difference and language hardly mattered. The fact that Russians won Olympic medals as well as chess titles produced no little anxiety among Westerners, who were outflanked on either side of the brain and brawn divide.

Bobby Fischer Returns From Yugoslavia

America had its chess champions, Bobby Fischer most notably, but Fischer’s story was made more compelling by the perception that he was defeating Soviet goliaths. I grew up playing chess. This will shock readers who will think that I must have spent my early years playing football and rugby. When I was young, the two leading world chess players were both Russians, Karpov and Kasparov, which seemed to hint at the general superiority of the country they represented. If the West no longer even proferred a lamb to be slaughtered by Soviet grandmasters, did freedom really have a future?

My obsession with chess reached its apex in the seventh and eighth grade. I remember my very fist life purchase, a beautiful wooden chessboard. (See Larry David's interrogation of Jerry Seinfeld: "Do you value wood?") My fellow geeks and I would play once a week and the school chess “rankings” were announced over the school p.a. system. It was a time of innocence. Somehow we didn't yet know that our social incompetence (and in fact a ranking of social incompetence) was being simultaneously pumped into every classroom in the school.

FRA: World Chess Championships

Thinking back, I recall a memory of humiliation, life being little more than a long string of petty humiliations. I was playing in the championship game when my opponent made a critical mistake early in the game. He begged for a chance for a “do-over,” a term you won’t find in official chess regulations. I obliged, but then made my own critical error and then followed my opponent’s lead and asked for my own “do-over.” My opponent turned me down; I lost the championship and went home (I’m embarrassed to say) nearly in tears.

More embarrassing still, my mother heard my story and decided to complain about the unprofessional chess environment to the teacher who oversaw the chess club. I was mortified. What made the situation even worse was that my mother was on the school board, known to the teacher by her official capacity. I never looked the teacher in the eye again.

The Battle of the Giants: Victor Korchnoi vs Boris Spassky

This, and my fading talent, weakened my enthusiasm for chess. My freshman year of high school I took my last stab at chess. At a tournament, I came up against an empty chair. The clocked ticked away; my opponent had obviously missed the tournament and I was guaranteed an easy victory. My excitement grew in direct relationship to the lack of time left on the clock. Was I on my way to another chess trophy? Suddenly my daydream was interrupted by the unthinkable: my absent opponent showed up and proceeded to defeat me even without the time every chess player needed for thought and analysis.

This was the end of chess for me. I had been beaten by an empty chair. And speaking of empty chairs, the Soviet champion during this period of youthful humiliation, Garry Kasparov, has written a wonderful article reviewing Diego Rasskin-Gutman’s Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind. Kasparov, as we know, has become one of the leading exponents of democracy and opponents of Putin, but he has retained his enthusiasm for the game that made him famous. Recall that at age 22 in the year 1985 he became the youngest chess world champion in history.

Kasparov is especially interested in this book, because he reigned over chess during that short and fascinating period in which computers battled against humans for supremacy in chess. At the end of the twentieth century, computers became competitive, but soon thereafter they quickly outstripped human ability. Computers have changed chess in dozens of ways. Chess players are getting younger; chess coaches and chess culture are less important to would-be grandmasters; people play more like computers, with less attention to style and more attention to doing whatever works to win. Kasparov ends his review with a call for a new kind of chess computer, one that learns to play like a human rather than merely pouring over endless chess combinations with ever greater computing power. Failing that, Kasparov seems to want a new game.

World Chess Champs