Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Dzhan (Soul) of Russian Folk

If it weren't for Orlando Figes' review of Andrey Platonov's works in a recent New York Review of Books article my copy of Platonov's book of short stories, Soul and other Stories, might have remained unmolested for years to come. But Figes' authorative review, "A Great Russian Writer in the Communist Cauldron," assures me that Platonov easily makes the short list for the title of greatest Soviet era author.

Platonov, an early enthusiast for the great Soviet experiment, Civil War railway engineer working to keep the Red Army supplied, and probable participant in the forced grain levys that led to the starvation of so many Russian peasants, believed in communism, movement, machines, and the future. However, his enthusiasm faded and his unpublished novels such as Chevenguv (1929) and the Foundation Pit (1930), are an indictment of Stalinism. Even his early work, Epifan Locks (1927), which was warmly received by Gorky, seemed to suggest a critical analogy between Peter the Great and the rising socialist leader.

According to Figes, Chevenguv portrayed a dystopic world in which communists kill bourgeois inhabitants and then live without direction in obscurantism before Cossacks invade an invite suicide. Plotonov's biography reflects the stresses of the Soviet interwar years: in two decades, the writer went from being a true believe, to skeptic, to critic, to social realist (publically, in order to continue writing), and then finally, inevitably, to grief. In 1938 Platonov's son was sent to the gulag as a terrorist; Platonov contracted tuberculosis and died in 1943. Fortunately, a soul (a Russian one at least) can outlive its corporal shell, and many of Platonov's unpublished works have been uncovered since the fall of communism.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

St. Petersburg Seminar

Two Swans

From time to time I've touched upon the idea of teaching a course about the Russian Revolution and its legacy. I've been unsure about whether this course would delve deeply into the revolutionary tradition in nineteenth century Russia, or spend much time tracing the revolutionary aftershocks that continue to this day in Russia and its "near abroad." Probably, the Revolution proper deserves its own course.

Reading Volkov makes me dream of a topics course or upper division seminar on St. Petersburg. Following Volkov's text, and perhaps Bruce Lincoln's treatise on the same subject, I'd like to explore the history of Russian modernity as that history has been revealed in St. Petersburg. I taught a course called the British Novel at Arizona State (West) that explored modernity (British modernity anyhow) through an exploration of British literature. We read Defoe, Shelley, Dickens, Woolf, Burgess, and various post-colonial authors such as Jamaica Kincaid. We ended spectacularly with Bridgette Jones' Diary and an episode of Absolutely Fabulous.

This class was one of the favorite ones I've ever taught. Aside from appreciating the high percentage of literature majors in the class, I liked looking at history through the lens of history, free of the heavy emphasis on dates and indeed the general question of causation. This class didn't focus on when things happened, or who made them happen. It didn't even stress why they happened. Instead, it looked at what happened, which is a difficult enough question to answer without any other complicating factor. And by using great literature, we looked at each age's most articulate, intelligent, and subtle spokespeople. What a relief to be free of safe, monotonous, and committee-written textbooks!

It would nice to look at Russian history by relying on the writers and artists rather than the historians. Following Volkov, I'd use Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Blok, Bely, Bunin, Mayakovsky, Trotsky, Akhmatova, Lunchacharsky, and of course Stalin--the sinister aesthete, not the sinister politician.

The point about St. Petersburg is that its intelligentia and artistic community experienced and articulated the severe dichotomy of modernity more accutely than any other European city--the glittering hopes as well as the awful suffering. Once the capital of one of the most powerful autocracies in Europe, and the scene of the country's most advanced forms of industrialization, St. Petersburg enjoyed many of the rewards of imperial patronage, including a sophisticated culture of prose, poetry, art, music, and theatre. But in a very short timeframe by European standards, St. Petersburg's privileged position as vanguard of Russian history was overthrown.

Lenin and Stalin de-graded the capital, fearful of its relationship to the West. The Nazi dictatorship starved the re-named city for 900 days. Following that, Stalin attacked the city again, as he had done before the wary in response to the Kirov murder he apparently authored, sending many of its leading writers to death or exile.

Madame Chorand

Monday, April 19, 2010

Russian Women

Vancouver 2010 Olympics: Russia's biathletes win gold in 4x6km relay

I want to thank my colleague in my college's social sciences division for telling me about an upcoming conference on Russian women at Loyola University on 3 May 2010. I've been meaning to test the waters of academia after a long interlude by attending some Russian conference, and this free, local event will have the advantage of offering me some additional material on women's history. As readers no doubt notice, this blog hasn't been very vigilent about posting information or even ruminations about gender, sexuality, or women's history. We hope this will change. Already, I've been searching out texts on Soviet women and I hope to address these books very soon. The conference should give me additional incentives to get serious about gender in modern Russian history.

Information about this conference can be found at this link: It's a political science event thinly disguised as an interdiciplinary happening. But talks on civil society, maternity policies, migration and demography, artic sciences, politics, and law sound promising. Speakers include Yoshiko Herrera, Vicki Hesli, John Ishiyama, Kathyrn Hendley, Janet Johnson, Richard Matland, Michele Rivkin-Fish, and Regina Smyth. It's at from 9:30am to 4:30am. Gannon Center for Women and Leadership, Piper Hall, first floor, Loyola, Lakeshore Campus. Register now and don't be late.

Thanks to the CLC Social Science Department for the alert. Visit their blog at the following link:

Finding Lana Peters

Abandoned Head

Only once before has this blog touched upon the life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, daughter of Joseph Stalin and, less famously, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who died (apparently) by her own hand in 1932. Several months ago I briefly reviewed one of her books that seemed to reveal the soul of a thoughtful but painfully sensitive woman who was doing her best to overcome the bloody legacy of her father's severe rule. Svetlana ended this book with a spiritual journey to scatter the ashes of an elderly husband in his native homeland, India, and a defection to the United States in 1967.

Prior to the time period outlined in this memoir of a single fateful year, Svetlana had fallen in love with a Jewish filmmaker who was sentenced to ten years of difficult exile by her father. Shortly thereafter, Svetlana married a fellow student (also Jewish, and Stalin refused to meet him) but divorced two years later. Soon thereafter, Svetlana married, Yuri Zhdanov, the son of a Stalin crony, Andrei Zhdanov.

Since that time, Wikipedia reveals that Svetlana married Brajesh Singh, sought aslyum in the United States, associated herself with the foreign policy maven George Kennan, and then moved to Scottsdale by invitation of Frank Lloyd Wright's widow. While there, Wikipedia asserts, Wright's widow, a mystic of sorts, encouraged Svetlana to replace her own dead daughter (also named Svetlana) as the wife of Taliesin fellow, William Wesley Peters. She did so, travelling back and forth between Scottsdale and Spring Green, Wisconsin, which is presumably how she wound up living near Madison.

The marriage dissolved, but after two short moves to Great Britain and Georgia, Svetlana returned in Wisconsin, apparently for good. It's hard to imagine Svetlana so close. The feeling can't be too unlike what it must have felt like to have Karensky as a college professor at Stanford in the 1950s. Unfortunately for the woman, the role of Stalin's daughter is awe-inspiring--history incarnate. If it weren't for the fact that Svetlana now understandably shuns public contact of any sort (save for a recently filmed interview), I would be tempted to do a road trip up north one of these days.

I still regret the trip I didn't take to Lawrence Kansas where, inprobably, a high school friend somehow befriended one of my favorite literary heros, William Burroughs. At any rate, in the absence of an invitation to Madison, I'll have to settle for two more of her books, Twenty Letters to a Friend (indirectly dealing with her father's long shadow) and Distant Music (an examination of the Taliesin life with the adopted sobriquet, Lana Peters.)

Modern Capital

Bloody Sunday

This blog has already summarized Solomon’s Volkov’s majestic survey of Russian high culture in the twentieth century, The Majestic Chorus. That work was a supremely sophisticated and beautiful explanation of Russia’s cultural achievements prior to the First World War as well as the aesthetic continuity that somehow survived a frontal attack from the forces of Soviet totalitarianism. Volkov’s earlier book, St. Petersburg: A Cultural history, despite its longer chronology and geographical constraints, is a very similar book.

Nevsky Prospekt
St. Petersburg is urbane, humane, well-written, and well-informed; and Volkov, expatriate musician and historian, is equally at home discussing St. Petersburg’s centrality to European art, music, dance, theater, poetry, architecture, literature, and politics. Even as an exile, Volkov somehow remained the ultimate Russian insider. And now he may be the doyen of the expatriate Russian intellectual community.

In addition to his career as a musician, Volkov has produced a series of books that are predicated on oral interviews with some of St. Petersburg most famous sons, including Shostakovich (See Nick’s previous post on Testimony), Brodsky, Balanchine, and Akhmatova.

Volkov’s purpose in this book is twofold: to assert St. Petersburg’s importance to the history of European and global modernity, even apart from the Revolution; and to explain how the St. Petersburg “mythos” operated in Russian cultural history.

Volkov necessarily begins with the city’s highly unusual founding by the highly unusual emperor, Peter the Great (for whom the city was not actually named). The city was nothing if not experimental: at great human cost, Peter built a new “window to the West” which bore little resemblance to Moscow or the rest of Russia. Its architecture was well-organized, spacious, and elegant, if also cold and sterile. The city immediately found both aesthetic champions and detractors.

Nevsky Prospekt

Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, celebrating the imposing statue of the same name, launched the powerful but ambivalent poetic response to the physical city. Dostoyevsky and Gogol built on what Pushkin had written, although each had severely critical reactions to the city, for despite its grandeur St. Petersburg had its drawbacks. Built at the cost of tens of thousands of serf laborers, St. Petersburg was cold, landlocked during the long Russian winter months, subject to floods, strangely inorganic, and home to brilliant but often superficial court life.

Ultimately, it’s hard to dismiss Volkov’s claims about St. Petersburg. Smaller and newer than cities such as London, Paris, and Vienna, St. Petersburg’s cultural elites eventually became the most articulate artistic exponents of what it meant to live in the modern world. ). Marshall Berman has written very succinctly on the subject, exploring Dostoyevsky’s feverish explanation of modernity: on the one hand, you get freedom born of the anonymity of city life; on the other hand, you get uprooted from the traditional moral and social networks.

Eventually, St. Petersburg’s claim to historical importance would be solidified for all time by the October Revolution, though ironically Lenin hated the city and hasted to move the Russian capital to Moscow (though not entirely for the reasons Volkov suggests). It’s true that many of Russia’s aesthetic innovations predate the Revolution. However, although this may be impossible to prove, it seems likely that revolutionary aesthetics led to revolutionary politics, and of course the reverse is certainly true: once the political revolution occurred, the new political elite alienated traditional artistic elites and therefore coincidentally opened doors for radical artists and poets such as Blok and Mayakovsky.

Winter Palace Duma

St. Petersburg suffered tremendously for its radical pretensions. In some ways, its gloomy artists had expected as much: poets such as Blok has foretold the city’s collapse before it became inevitable. The Revolution, Civil War, Stalinism, and World War II, led to the murder, suicide, death by starvation, exile, flight, or imprisonment of countless artists, writers, and poets. Somehow, the city survived.

The survival was embodied by the great poet, Akhmatova, who refused to leave Russia, although Stalin executed a former husband and imprisoned another husband as well as her son. Volkov’s St. Petersburg is a wonderful reminder that even had the city of St. Petersburg perished, its “mythos” would live on. For better or worse, the city helped to define what it means to be a modern person. The legacy is complex and ambivalent, so perhaps Volkov’s hagiographic tone isn’t quite right. What is certain is that we need to think seriously about St. Petersburg’s legacy to the modern world if we want to understand our place in that world. It was the home of the Bronze Horseman, Mir iskusskva (World of Art), Suprematism, Acmeism, Russian Futurism, Constructivism, the Decembrist Revolt, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Krondstadt Revolt, the Marysky Theater, the Stray Dog, etc. This city meant something important (if not always positive) to people such as Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Belinsky, Herzen, Pasternak, Punin, Mirsky, Tchaikovsky, Balanchine, Lenin, Benois, Chukovsky, Ginzburg, Gumilyov, Mussorgsky, Blok, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Shostokovich, etc. And if meant much to them, it should to us as well.

Friday, April 16, 2010



Let me admit my bias up front: Elif Batuman may have already written the book I’ve been planning to write. Her book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is very similar in form and substance to the work of creative nonfiction that I’d like to inflict on people in a year or so. Batuman’s book has somehow received an extraordinary dose of marketing support and publicity in recent months. Its advertisements appear conspicuously in the New York Review of Books; the product is well placed in many bookstores; and at least three different people have forwarded me one of its ecstatic book reviews.

Is jealous warranted? I’d say so. Batuman has a few advantages over me: she’s a Harvard and Stanford University graduate; she speaks Russian; she’s travelled to Russia; she had previously published a series of well-received articles in prominent magazines; and, most importantly, she’s clever and funny, with more than a dash of David Sedaris in her.

As it turns out, the book is very good, but not quite what either its title or its press promised it to be. More than anything, the book is a darkly comic description of the hell that is humanities graduate school. Batuman’s essays make use of Russian literature, but, like this blog, these essays don’t hesitate to make wide detours whenever the author feels the urge to discuss some of her own intellectual or personal experiences. It’s this mix of the personal, the comic, and the academic that attracts me to the author and the book. When the book works, it’s because the comparative literature or literary theory is shedding light on her autobiography, or vice-versa.

By her own admission, the author once set out to write a novel but failed. The mass of her writings lacked form or structure. Presumably, this unique approach to creative non-fiction, replete with comic interludes, irony, and rich character descriptions, is a second attempt to produce something akin to a novel. Butuman writes well, and her adventures in Eurasia (studying Uzbek literature alongside of a boyfriend), Turkey (she’s ethnically Turkish), St. Petersburg (she visits a replica of a tsarina's’s ice palace), Yasnaya Polyna (there’s a Tolstoy conference there, can’t wait to go someday), and California (she serves as a handler for some of writer Isaac Babel’s kin) are worth reading.

Putting jealousy aside, the book’s critical reception should lend legitimacy to this blog’s project, the attempt to link personal narrative to public history and quasi-academic discourse. Moreover, this isn’t really about Russian literature, and certainly not about other people who are obsessed with the subject. The book is really a treatise on obsession as it gets amplified or distorted by the very strange rituals of graduate school. If you boiled this book down, there might be only 75 pages or so if real Russian literature or history, if that. (But was it Batuman who described some character who said you don’t judge the beauty of a dress by the quantity of fabric its tailor used in its construction?)

So there might still be a vacuum for a book about obsession with Russia, as opposed to obsession about literature in the context of graduate school? The irony for me is that the book’s title, the Possessed, taken from the title of one of the author’s favorite Dostoevsky books, was probably one of the books that launched me on my path toward monomania many years ago. Strangely, when Butuman recounts the plot’s dark, twisted plot, I can recall almost nothing about it. The book stayed with me on some level. I’ve never doubted that it was one of the best books I ever read. Notwithstanding Butuman’s assertion that Joseph Frank and other Dostoevsky critics see it as a deeply flawed book; the Possessed discusses human nature with a brutal frankness seldom seen anywhere else. It’s acutely Russian in the sense that it reveals human depravity with a nakedness found in no other literature.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Communist Party and Left Front mark 91st anniversary of October Revolution

By happenstance I recently joined a small, informal philosophy reading group. They use the term philosophy relatively loosely. From time to time the group’s reading list intersects with this blog’s concerns. Zizek, for instance, has made their syllabus. Look for a post on Robespierre in the not-too-distant future.

Last week, the group started to read Eric Hoffer’s book True Believer. I’ve skimmed an excerpt from the book and its thesis (partly borrowed from German sociologist Karl Mannheim’s Utopia and Ideology.  I would think) seems directly relevant to the Russian Revolution and its aftershocks in the 1920s and 1930s. Hoffer makes the case that mass movements of any epoch or any political orientation are essentially alike. The participants are motivated by a desire to renounce the fragile, insecure, even wounded “self” in the interest of the quasi-religious ecstasy of self-denial and self-renunciation.

The irony of modern movements is that the ideological substance of specific movements is often less important than its psychological message. For this reason, Hoffer is not surprised that fascists and communists often fought for the same slice of the German population;  that is to say, the parties of either extreme were most successful recruiting people who were looking for some kind of messianic response to their own psychological insecurity. The fact is that a fascist often had more luck appealing to former socialists than he did when appealing to the unaffiliated. Mussuloni's own turn from socialist to fascism is the most famous example of this phenomenon.

There was, at bottom, a psychological if not political unity to interwar mass movements. Hoffer makes a number of useful observations about revolutionary upheaval, although his attempt to equate self-denial with all great social and economic transformations, including the Crusades, the Reformation, and Industrial Revolution, might unnecessarily dilute the descriptive power of his theory of modern mass movements. Hoffer notes, for instance, that the disgruntled must be economically aggrieved but not so oppressed that they have no sense of their own power. This distinction is relevant to the French Revolution. Historians argue that this famous revolt occurred either as a direct result of the bourgeoisie’s rising strength or, as Hoffer prefers, as the inevitable outcome of an emerging Enlightenment faith in the power of human reason.

In the case of the Bolsheviks, this idea that oppression must almost paradoxically be combined with empowerment makes a lot of sense. Certainly the Russian intelligentsia gained a sense of its own strength during the 1905 Revolution and later in the midst of the First World War. More importantly, the rhetoric of working class solidarity and entitlement (in addition to institutions such as unions and soviets) gave workers (whether they had fragile egos or not) a very strong sense that the future would be better than the past.

With Max Weber, Hoffer also knows what Sheila Fitzpatrick and other Soviet historians know, and that is that revolutionary enthusiasm has its limits. The people can be whipped up (or can whip them themselves up) for only so long before they stop being “true believers” and respond only to more traditional motivational strategies such as rewards or coercive action. In any event, the initial phases of the Russian Revolution make no sense without a very deep appreciation for its quasi-religious aspects. Russian Marxists, before, during, and after October 1917, were motivated by faith, self-denial, self-surrender, ecstatic hope, belief that the individual could be and should be transcended in the interest of something greater, etc.

They may also have motivated by insecurity. However, how can one go about proving this assertion? Is it really possible to separate out a religious personality from a non-religious one? Is it possible to say that Leftists were more insecure than political moderates?  And, if this is possible to say, what does it tell us? Is insecurity a bad thing if it leads to the overthrow of unjust institutions?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Detente Deferred

With the signing of the new START treaty I think we should all be paying more attention to the legacy of Leonid Brezhnev. It was Brezhnev, after all, who tried to improve relations with the US after the ignominy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an effort that led to detente during the 70s and, meanderingly, to the resolution of the Cold War in the 80s. I just read recently for the first time of Brezhnev's heavy drug use, which probably accounts for the catatonic aura of his last years.

Brezhnev was one of the most incompetent leaders in history. His reliance on oil profits to create a temporary and baseless sense of prosperity, his effort to freeze the borders of Europe at the Helsinki Conference (which unintentionally legitimized human rights throughout the Soviet Empire), and above all his invasion of Afghanistan were the actions of a total bumbler. But we should be grateful to this incompetence because in retrospect the 70s and early 80s were among the most dangerous moments in all the Cold War. Western economic growth was sluggish but technological advance was rapid. That combination could have bred serious instability. Yet Brezhnev simply had no clue how to exploit his relative advantage, and it was soon squandered.

Reagan pushed back at the Soviets, bringing the world dangerously close to catastrophe (particularly during the Able Archer wargames of 1983). But Reagan was able to moderate his rhetoric and step back from the brink and once Gorbachev came to power, things worked out fine. But it was Brezhnev's obsession with pointlessly counting warheads and his strategic oblivion that started the whole process off. Unlike Langston Hughes' dream, a detente deferred fortunately does not explode.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Long Live Mayakovsky

Mayakovsky committed suicide on 14 April 1930 at age 36. His death prefigured the end of creative freedom in Soviet Russia, and the beginning of a deadly new phase in Stalinist repressions against the peasantry. Mayakovsky was a force of nature, a poetic whirlwind that somehow encapsulated the frenzied, optimistic essence of the Soviet Revolution. When he wrote, he still believed that a new, unspoiled Soviet readership was in the process of emerging from centuries of tsarist oppression.

Mayakovsky was a poet, artist, activist, playwright, proto-punk performance artist, political criminal, revolutionary, and sex symbol. Poems don't always translate all that well, but Mayakovsky's poems are given legs by Michael Almereyda's new book, Writings by and about Mayakovsky. Almereyda has placed a few of Mayakovsky's greatest poems---filled with what became known as the "Mayakovsky I"--next to short commentaries by his friends and peers, including Vicktor Shklovsky and Boris Pasternak and Maxim Gorky. The poems are witty, disjointed, socialist, self-aggrandizing, fun, mocking, and always creative.

In one short sketch, a peer remembers how Mayakovsky delivered his prose, with masculine power and drama--his every word a challenge or comic insult to his audience. Mayakovsky's poetry was original and thoroughly modern, and the author remembers how Mayakovsky outwitted everybody in the audience who dared to challenge his claim to represent Russia's artistic future (he was, after all, a Futurist). Almereyda's book also highlights Mayakovsky's artistic powers (he created brilliant advertising campaigns for early Soviet goods) and imposing physical presence: the photos reveal a tall, handsome, swaggering, ever-changing, sensual personality.

The poetry is good, but Mayakovsky the man was pure fun and excitement. This Mayakovsky, brash lover of women, socialism, mechanical things, and modernity, is what the Soviet Revolution was all about, at first. Mayakovsky is dead! Alas, so too is the next generation of brilliant poet performance artist-revolutionaries, like Beatnik Alan Ginsburg.

How to Feed Your Class Revolt

Dockers' Strike

Eisenstein's movie, Strike!, might now be unwatchable without a film critic's expert commentary affixed to it. But with that commentary it's incredibly compelling. According to at least one University of Chicago commentator, Strike is a work of genius despite its disorderly plot and political cliches. Without the benefit of anything other than a symphonic soundtrack, Eisenstein's relentlessly experimental film provides readers with a remarkably coherent and incidentally beautiful visual grammar. In addition to visual continuity,(every shot in the film is carefully and intelligently crafted. There's a not-so-hidden geometry that is fascinating to behold.

And if the plot sometimes stalls, there are some extremely exciting scenes too: chases, fights, visual puns, crude visual jokes, pseudo religious imagery, carefully constructed backdrops, a melodramatic suicide, and even a three level battle in the workers' testaments, where the horses don't always appear on the ground floor.

The film's commentator says that the film can be seen as a manual for workers who are interested in making a strike. To my mind, the film conjures up Dickens's Hard Times more than anything. We see the whole "ideological apparatus" of a capitalist factory at work. We see how the long chain of capitalist exploitation works, how the factory floor boss humiliates workers, receives his orders from on high, encourages disunity among workers, and collaborates with police spies, stool pidgeons, and other allies. As Potemkin shows us how sailors reach their boiling point, Strike shows us that workers must eventually reach a point of no return when dealing with class oppression. The film even teaches us something that lies at the heart of trade union and indeed revolutionary logic: the class struggle works only to the extent that it is in motion; when that motion comes to a halt--as, for instances, when Eisenstein's workers are waiting for the counter-demands of the factory bosses--they begin to lose their clarity about objectives and unity of purpose.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hard Cover

Today I descended into the University of Chicago's Seminary Coop bookstore to check out new titles in Russian history and related subjects. Although I feel some guilt, I never buy much of anything at the bookstore: new books are just too expensive, and the plethora of choices overwhelms my decision-making faculties anyhow. I read outdated history--all in English--and even that task overtakes me. There's just too much out there. But looking at recent titles is even more intimidating. There are so many wonderful Russian history books being released each year, plus some classics that get re-translated or just re-published.

When I visit the Russian history collection at the Seminary bookstore, I feel very clandestine. All I really want to do is take a furtive photo of a few key shelves so I can remember what should go on my Christmas list next year. Feeling like a spy, I struggle to try to memorize everything before I leave the building but, sadly, I remember very little moments later. I do recall an entire row of Sheila Fitzpatrick books, Walter Benjamin's Moscow Diary, a relatively new Boym book called the Future of Nostalgia, books by gulag survivors, academic treatises on Soviet memoirs, Blum's book on Russian serfs and peasants, books on Soviet women, something on post-Soviet consumer fantasies, something else on the once-forbidden landscape of the Soviet Union, stuff on Herzen and Trotsky, a collection of Isaiah Berlin essays on the Soviet experiment, etc.

Somebody give me a cool thousand dollars and I'll carry that whole damned section of shiny new hard cover Soviet masterpieces up the cold, dank Seminary Coop steps to freedom.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ar(k) Films

Russian film festival Literature and Cinema opens in Leningrad Region

Thus far, I've shied away from using film to diagnose and dissect the Russian and Soviet experience. No more! Notwithstanding my lack of currency with the medium, I've finally paid a visit to the film section of my college's library, and it ain't as bad as you might think. If you can resist the temptation to rent Uncle Buck, you can actually find a few Russian treasures. In fact, watching a few of these films takes me back a decade or so to a simpler time, a time when I somehow felt that I had enough time to rent endless foreign, cult, and classic films. Looking back at my early twenties, I wonder why I felt the need to see so many films. I wish I could say it was purely my own passion for independent or classic film. This may be partly true, but it's also true that I had a vague but pressing feeling that I would someday put my knowledge of film to use. What was I thinking? Probably I expected some critical job interview (and what job interview isn't critical?) to revolve around my familiarity with Passolini's Medea. Looking back, I know this is absurd. If I wanted to improve my chances on the job market it would have been a thousand times better to join a fraternity.

Yes, watching Russian films takes me back. I remember seeing a hundred strange films at places like Washington, D.C.'s The Key Theatre and Biograph Theatre (Both closed down long ago), Montreal's Cinema de Paris, and Chicago's Music Box Theatre. Indeed, when I first moved to Chicago I chose a location within walking distance of the Music Box. At the time I had a love of the ten-movie discounted "punch card" and my sister and I affectionately referred to the Sunday morning classic movie shows at "church."

My recent foray into Russian film begins with Sokurov's the Russian Ark. This has all the hallmarks of the non-blockbuster. It's shot in a single, continuous, 90 (or so) minute "take"--a tour of St. Petersburg's famed Hermitage art museum. The director does us all the wonderful service of making us feel as if we also have had the chance to stroll at some leisure through the galleries of the Hermitage. There really couldn't be a better tourism advertisement. The film also takes us on a tour through the centuries, with stops in the St. Petersburg of Peter, Catherine, Alexander I, Nicholas I, Nicholas II, and today. The narrators are a character based on acerbic the Marquis De Custine, that famous French traveller of the early nineteenth century, and the camera (or you, depending on how you look at this first-person narrative device).

The film is necessarily but overwhelmingly biased in favor of tsarist and aristocratic history. A single painting of a peasant is meant to stand in for the whole of the Russian lower classes. On the other hand, the Russian Ark lets you know exactly how splendid Russian grandeur could be. You witness (seemingly first-hand) how the tsars ate, entertained themselves, received diplomatic dignitaries, and even danced. In the film's most impressive scene--impressive for its verisimilitude but also for the fact that it comes at the end of history's longest continuous live-action sequence--we get to see one of those famous mazurkas we've all read so much about!


Eisenstein and Techno-Music

I didn't get into silent films until I discovered that they can be watched on fast-forward while listening to German techno music. Surprisingly, Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin doesn't require any mood music: the actions hold your attention perfectly well without any additives. Whether you're watching the evil ship's doctor ordering men to eat maggot-infested meat, witnessing the evil ship's clergyman giving religious sanction to arbitrary capital punishment, or seeing Cossacks gun down women and children on Odessa's famous steps, the propagandizing narrative keeps you interested in every scene.

Of course, the film is so famous and influential its every scene reminds you of scenes from other movies. All told, how many baby carriages descending down flights of stairs in the midst of gun battles have there been? Battleship Potemkin is a great film, but it has also become something of a cliche.

Alexander Nevsky was infinitely more interesting to me, and not just because it relies on more than a music score to move the action along. Here we drop all pretense to any historical accuracy. The life of late medieval Nevsky seems intricately intertwined with the modern life of Soviet Russia: Alexander Nevsky is merely a handsomer version of Joseph Stalin.

Nevsky's task is Stalin's task: to use every once of his natural heroism, wisdom, and military acumen to inspire ordinary Russians to oppose bestial German intruders. In fact, Eisenstein's Nevsky is confronted with a two-front war: as Soviet Russia braced for a possible invasion from both Germany and Japan, so did Nevsky declare that he would defeat Germany (always the bigger threat) before turning on the Mongols.

Eisenstein's message is so transparently Stalin's message that (without having researched this question in advance of posting this) it seems likely that Stalin was personally involved in crafting its message. First, Nevsky believes in an offensive war against the anonymous, helmeted Germans, who literally throw naked children into fires as they advance toward Novgorod. These Germans are helped by two sinister forces: Catholic priests and merchants. Second, Nevsky understands that Russia is being undermined from within. Like Stalin, Nevsky (the character as well as the film as a whole) is almost as concerned with Russian traitors as he is with the German enemy. The Russian people as a whole--but especially the lower social orders--must be vigilant about those who would sell out the country for a few coins. Third, Nevsky underscores the point that the nation needs security in the form of military leadership more than it needs freedom. Novgorod, that cradle of liberty in early Russia, enthusiastically lays down all claims to independence in the interest of military solidarity with the rest of Russia.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mix Tape

Nina Chusova’s “The Portrait” performance premiered in Moscow

Nick's post on his ten most influential books about Russia inspired this post. Here are my top ten Russian history or literature books:

1) Riasanovsky's History of Russia. I don't recall much about this book, only that it was a magisterial undergraduate introduction to the study of the world's largest country. I took Russian history by a quirk of my undergraduate catalog: it was the only two-semester course that counted as both a Western and non-Western European country. I'm not sure the college understood the depth of the statement they were making about the Russian soul. It's all a blur now (although Vikings, Old Believers, Byzantines, Cossacks, Mongols and the Time of Troubles come to mind), but I saw a copy of the textbook in a used book store the other day, and also heard that Mark Steinberg of University of Illinois had taken over the famed textbook. Bravo.

2) Dostoevsky's The Possessed. This was the first and probably best novel of ideas I'd ever read. Although very little happened, the Possessed (often translated as the Demons) was enthralling. The plot, such as it is, centers around a criminal conspiracy among radical youth to kill one of their own. This criminal act was based on a real scandal of the day and therefore felt "ripped from the headlines" in the best sense of Dick Wolff's oft-repeated phrase. Whether the conservative author intended the reader to sympathize with nihilists or not (and I guess he couldn't have), I suspect that this book retarded my moral development for many years to come.

3) Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Nick and I agree on this one. I am not sure how this book influenced me, but it's one of the most thrilling books I have ever read. It established Dostoevsky in my mind as perhaps the greatest novelist ever born, and made me suspect that Russian literature as a whole might be the greatest literature in the world. I liked the fact that the author seemed to understand radical as well as conservative impulses. (Who else but Isabel Allende in House of Spirits has done this so well?) I liked his noir sense of style and his grim and claustrophobic depiction of St. Petersburg.

4) Trotsky's My Life. The book convinced me that Trotsky's self-aggrandizement was right: there never was a smarter man than he. One wonders if Stalin let him escape Russia alive because he knew that a Great Man needed an equally Great Adversary. Or is Orwell's nastier formulation of this equation more plausible?

5) Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. I share this choice with Nick. I taught this book frequently. It's such a wonderfully easy book to read, but so persuasive and prophetic. I remember thinking that even the Cosby Show didn't make sense without Marx's analysis of the bourgeoisie.

6) Gogol's Dead Souls. It's been 20 years since I read this book. Who knows if it has influenced me or not. But how does one appreciate what it means to be a government bureacrat or modern city-dweller or everyday flim-flam man without referring to Gogol? Would St. Petersburg be St. Petersburg without him? Would we have a proper regard for dark cynicism, gothic ghost stories, and black humor without Gogol? Would later Russian writers have been possible without Gogol? Surely it's time to read him again. I think the magic of Gogol can best be explained with reference to Terry Eagleton's theory of gothic literature outlined in Heathcliff and the Great Hunger. Eagleton says that gothic literature is always inspired by concrete crimes, usually of an economic nature. Murder, slavery, and stolen land inevitably give rise to at least subconscious guilt in the occupying or offending social classes. This guilt, in turn, leads to great ghost stories, or at least haunting story lines. By Eagleton's logic, Gogol owes his strange imagination to Peter the Great's brutal construction of St. Petersburg at the expense of thousands upon thousands of Russian serfs. Perhaps Dostoyevsky, who hated St. Petersburg, also owes his unusually feverish prose style to the original crime that was the founding of St. Petersburg.

Nina Chusova’s “The Portrait” performance premiered in Moscow

7-10) Tolstoy's War and Peace. I think this book took a year out of my life so it deserves a few slots. Immersing myself in the book I realized at long last that I was closeted introvert. For me, the irony of War and Peace is that I read it when I was too young to understand its themes, but now that I am mature enough to handle it, I doubt that I will be able to find the time to re-read it.