Monday, May 24, 2010

Baseball in Moscow

Revolutions are rare events so when they fail, as they most always do, they merit prolonged study. But when they succeed, they create thousands upon thousands of new social facts. This makes the Soviet Union inherently interesting. There is nothing ordinary about any aspect of the Soviet historical experience, whether we touch upon politics, economics, education, women’s history, class relations, philosophy, or the arts. On the other hand, the Soviet Revolution quickly degenerated into abject brutality. And to stand Tolstoy’s famous dictum about families on its head, all happy societies are different, but all really unhappy societies are the same. When a violent dictatorship overcomes any pretence of political or ideological opposition, what is there to differentiate it from any other violent dictatorship?

If Nazi Germany isn’t an exact replica of Soviet Russia, there are pronounced similarities. After all, when a government assumes total authority over the lives of its subjects—when any hint of ideological resistance will likely summon the executioner or, worse still, the torturer—people tend to act in exactly the same way: with fearful, understandable, and nearly total obedience. In some ways, Soviet genocidal authoritarianism tends to shut down historical inquiry. It’s one of the central problems of this blog. Since Stalin’s security forces shot between two to seven million citizens, dispatched many millions more to their almost certain deaths in the gulags, and killed off six million or more peasants via violent grain requisitions, we know that in many ways the average Russian who lived (emphasis on these two words: “who lived”) in the early decades of the Soviet experiment was frequently called upon to do one of two very simple things: suffer in silence or assume the posture if not the role of a psychopath by participating, directly or indirectly, in the murderous logic of Soviet ideology.

If this blogger sometimes forgets to dwell upon the astonishing dimensions of Soviet tyranny, it is largely because this tyranny was so lamentable that is blunts the imagination and resists the very thing that historians do, which is to “make meaning” of the past. At least on one level, there can be no meaning, or little of it, when a mass murderer is a country’s supreme leader and demi-god. Even so, the dead demand testimony. When the Polish President and his colleagues crashed in Katyn forest, where 15,000 Polish officers were murdered on Stalin’s orders, one is tempted to think that the dead may sometimes testify to the nature of crime when the living fail to do the job. At any event, many historians have done an admirable job of explaining how thoroughly immoral the Soviet regime could be.

The book, the Forsaken, is one of the best in this genre. Although it focuses its attention on the thousands of American immigrants who tried to flee the Great Depression by seeking work in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, it manages to document American suffering without losing a sense of the larger Soviet tragedy.
The author is tireless in his exposition of Stalin’s crimes. More originally, the author indicts America’s politicians (especially F.D.R. and Henry Wallace), state department and embassy officially (especially George Kennan), artistic elite (especially Robeson), business leadership (especially Ford), and journalists (especially Walter Durante) for their decisions to systematically ignore the fate of these “forsaken” Americans. In the end, the author makes a very convincing case that broad segments of America’s leading citizens bare directly moral responsibility for failing to come to terms with the evidence in front of them.

Clearly, we knew, or in some cases could easily have known, that the Soviet Union had become a grotesque and sinister parody of the original socialist dream that inspired so many people around the world, Americans included. Nevertheless, the author doesn’t fully acknowledge the validity of the real politick position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. If it was hard enough to get Americans to endorse war with Nazi Germany or Imperialist Japan, how hard would it have been to have been to move Americans toward diplomatic isolation or even war with the Soviet Union? And, even if diplomatic isolation was possible, would this have made sense during the 1930s and early 1940s?

Although it’s hard to come to grips with the fact that the Soviet leadership was evil incarnate, it is perhaps even harder to remember that the most dynamic powers in the world were as just as evil, and perhaps more powerful. After World War II, the nuclear threat and the memory of two world wars added new reasons to find ways of living with Stalin. The author’s riposte would be that he isn’t suggesting that America’s presidents should have courted war with Russia, only that they should have been more vigorous and public about their concern for Americans who had been forced to renounce their American citizenship or sent to the gulag for unspecified reasons and unspecified durations. He has a point.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Gift

Thus far I've not had all that much luck with podcasts related to Soviet history. I did however stumble upon a good Standford lecture by historian Nancy Shields Kullmann entitled "Dealing with Corruption in Early Modern Russia." Kullmann's lecture builds upon similar studies in France and England. As she points out, if tiny, prosperous England was undergoverned and underpoliced, we can only imagine how hard it was for the tsar's to exend their influence to remote corners of their vast empire. Indeed, Russia was both vast and hard to navigate. Roads were few and far between, and the long winters made them impassable for large portions of each year.

Corruption is perhaps inevitable; sociologists say that the phenomenon exists in every kind of society. Even so, early modern Russia was awash in it. The tsars did what they could to raise revenues and enforce laws throughout the land. They sent agents with very limited authority to the furthest reaches of Siberia. But for whatever reason the tsars relied on a very limited pool of well-connected or well-educated servants to do their bidding. This mean that they often re-appointed their agents even when these agents amassed a great deal of wealth at the expense of the areas they administered.

In theory, the tsar's agents were entitled to some graft. The concept of the gift--see Marcel Mauss' book of the same title--was well established. Kullmann points to the scene in the Godfather: "don't insult me with money but allow me to do this favor for you and then, perhaps, one day, I'll ask a favor in return." The tsar's agent arrived on the scene, and received gifts from the locals who needed his favor. Their were limits, of course. Early modern populations could become disgusted with the enforced gift-giving if it exceeded custom. They could become irritated if favors were not granted in return for gifts. They could become offended if the government official granted assistance to only one faction or group in the area. They could complain if the tsar's agent beat or arrested local people too frequently.

But in general local people knew that they needed to give gifts to the tsar's agent (or more usually his wife or children) on birthdays or festivals, or at times when a legal dispute was likely to occur. Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great, made some inroads against corruption. However, the depiction of local government in Russian novels isn't far from the mark. These officials were somnolent at best, and venal at worst. The Russian Center never erected the bulwarks that Western states used to limit the sphere of corruption in their realms, such as reasonable state salaries, a culture of public disgust for scandal, an active press, pluralistic civil society, reform movements, and general transparency in the arena of government.

Kirov and Richard II

Please forgive me for discussing the early Soviet era with little or no reference to the dean of Stalinist History, Robert Conquest. Conquest helped to document the Great Terror and Collectivism and indeed almost every dark facet of Soviet authoritarianism. His books include Power and Policy in the USSR, Common Sense About Russia, Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair, Russia After Khrushchev, The Great Terror, the Nation Killers, Where Marx Went Wrong, V.I. Lenin, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, Present Danger: Towards a Foreign Policy, We and They: Civic and Despotic Cultures, What to Do When the Russians Come, Inside Stalin's Secret Police, and the Harvest of Sorrow.

Conquest was one of the most honorable Cold Warriors ever to have put pen to paper in the service of history. His short book, Stalin and the Kirov Murder, is my first foray into the Conquest's work, although almost all other historians of the era refer to Conquests many discoveries. The work helps to illuminate the importance of Kirov's assassination in Stalin's evolving plan to terrorize ever widening circles of Russian citizens.

The book, written in 1989, is helpful in terms of explaining Stalin's rise to absolute power. But it's also useful in terms of explaining how the decline and fall of communism began to influence the historiography of the era. For Conquest is careful to document the limits to what we previously knew about the Kirov assassination. We learned what we knew from defectors, emigrants, propaganda, or, eventually, Khrushchev's Secret Speech and memoir. By 1989, Soviet artists and some academics began to leak accusations against Stalin. In the end, the book assumes that even Glasnost will not produce all of the details about the Kirov Affair.

On the other hand, Conquest assumes that the basic outline of the story are clear enough: whether or not we find the conclusive proof of Stalin's personal responsibility for the murder, that responsibility appears highly probable. Stalin saw Kirov as an obstacle to his unlimited authority; Stalin benefited from his demise; no other actor benefited from Kirov's fall or had the opportunity to remove his NKVD guard at a critical moment in time; Stalin behaved as if he feared any sort of honest investigation into the incident.

Eventually, Stalin used the murder to kills his old opponents, especially the remnants of the Zinoviev Opposition, the Trotskyites, and Bukharin and the Right Opposition. Indeed, Stalin went further and soon annihilated Kirov's allies, while publicly canonizing the man. Conquest believes that the murder of Kirov opened the door to the Great Terror that consumed millions of Soviet lives. Rather romantically, he also assumes that the murder reveals a special brand of Stalin's villainous personality. While observers might claim that Stalin destroyed his enemies for reasons of state, the murder of his former friend and political ally, was cynical and hypocritical (to say nothing of being anti-socialist) as well as ruthless. The story of the Kirov murder had a complicated history in Russia.

After Stalin's death, official history soon had nothing whatsoever to say about the matter. Clearly, claims that Stalin was killed by Zinoviev or Bukharin or Trotsky or even Kirov's political allies made no sense at all and had no evidence (save for the ridiculous testimony of the Show Trials) to support them. But Stalin, preserver of the nation during World War II, was too important a historical figure to tarnish with this kind of Shakespearean evil. Who would kill his friend and rush off the next day to carry the coffin? Who would kill his colleague and then blame that murder on his colleague's own friends?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Thirteen Years

Dear reader, take comfort! I've attended my first academic conference on Russia. This blog is now legitimate.

Some may protest that eight or so speakers and twenty or so attendees makes for a workshop rather than a conference, but this event was billed as a conference so that's how I will report it.

The conference was necessarily intimate. It was unnecessarily concerned with methodological questions as opposed to theoretical or even factual ones. Although billed as interdisciplinary, Women in Russia was devoted to political science more than any other competing field of inquiry.

One speaker analyzed specific women's parties in Russia and the "Near Abroad." The statistical model was impressive; the significance of her quantitative approach into women's political parties less so. Probably she needed more time to explain why women's parties in Russia and other locations mattered. Her research seemed to suggest that they operated very similarly to non-women's parties.

Another speaker made a fascinating presentation on legal issues. Her work hasn't yet centered on Russian gender issues, but her general approach to the culture of legality (or illegality) in Russia seems likely to be extremely rewarding. She asked basic questions such as: When and under what circumstances do you seek legal redress? What are the hidden costs of using the law to solve your problems? She had already discovered that women were less likely to name an insult, claim a remedy for that insult, or seek to litigate then men were. They tended to self-incriminate: "This law suit was partly my fault." They saw themselves as non-conflictual and, to invoke a Russian cliche about inherent fatalism, believed that it was important to be resigned to one's fate.

One speaker rehearsed the gender discourse of the Soviet Union in the 1960s. At the time, the country experienced a sharp drop in fertility. The country counted on growth for prestige, labor, and military power, but divorce reated were up and it seemed that people didn't care enough for society, which was an intolerable proposition for a socialist society. This led to incomplete but real gender analyses. Did women have it too hard? Were they bearing a double or triple burdern? On the other hand, the women who had the fewest children tended to be the richest and most educated of Soviet women. Were women too overworked to think about families, or, conversely, were they too selfish or consumerist to embrace the joys of motherhood and family? The Soviets embarked on moral, values-based education to encourage women to have more children. They created "sexual socialization" courses. They looked for ways to make children more economically useful. The media took up these themes.

The hosts--always gracious--presented on their travels to the peripheries of the Russian state. The work was disciplined and methodologically sophisticated but one can't help but wonder if the whole field of political science might research a dead-end if its practitioners merely measure each and every question in ever greater mathematical detail. In their own presentation, they seemed to admit that gender and ethnicity didn't play a large role in the way Russian ethnic populations viewed the capacity of mayoral candidates. One admires the researchers' interest in the Russian periphery but wonders if there aren't more important things to measure.

Who knows? Perhaps this is how all interdisciplinary conferences turn out: each representative of a discipline doubts the methodological imperatives of the other disciplines. Certainly the conference's lone anthropologist received no sympathy from the political scientists in attendance. They doubted whether women's clinics in Russia (and the movement that supported them) said much of anything at all about the health of Russian civil society. They thought that the government had picked up the slack and now offered these services.

The conference raised all kinds of other issues in contemporary gender politics. For instance, is it legitimate for a nation to worry about dying in terms of population collapse? Do Russian women support Putin and the United Russian Party as well as this party's gender policies? And if so, why? Does Russia have a patriarchal culture that will inevitably lead to a search for strong, authoritarian leaders such as Putin? Are Putin's policies related to education, workforce development, and training helpful to women? Does it hurt women when the nation defines what a family should look like? What are the dimensions of gender violence in Russia? Why is Putin directly advocating for women and is this advocacy entirely useful or merely patronizing? His decision to grant women money for having more children was hotly debated. Would this help women, hurt women, or have no discernible effect on their lives? Was it inherently racist, since Russian women received payments for second and third children, but not for more than that (as some non ethnic Russian women were likely to do)? Why did the state think Russian women would send their children to orphanages if the state payment for children occurred before the age of three? Was Putin's attack on abortion bound to undermine the position of women in Russia, who currently have one of the highest abortion rates in the world? Did modern Russian women have even more problems than their Soviet counterparts had had? Did modern Russians fully accept the need for women to remain in the workforce to support the Russian economy? Were subway posters encouraging Russian women to have families having any positive or negative impact on society? Would Russian women always see the decision to have more than a couple of kids to be uncivilized or un-modern? How strong was the Russian state in terms of its influence on women?

A geographer took a generic approach to Russian women, just pointing out the trends without too much commentary. Russian men greatly outnumbered Russian women in the border regions due to the predominance of the extractive industries; Russian men died far earlier than Russian women (the gap in life expectancy is thirteen years, the highest in the world); Russia continued to suffer from a high mortality rate in general; Russian women had children late in life; Russian fertility rates were finally rising; the effects of World War II and Collectivization could still be seen in demographic tables; Russian life expectancy, always low, had risen slightly during the anti-alcohol campaign of the 1980s; 70 percent of Russian men smoke (27 percent of Russian women smoke); Russia has the second highest migrant stock (those living abroad) in the world at 9.8 percent of the population; Russian women migrated to Italy and Spain while Russian men went more frequently to Germany; Russian Jews had the lowest birth rate in Russia, Chechnyians had the highest, but only at 2.4 children per couple. The geographer's interlocutor, a former Harvard professor, seemed to be speaking a different language. The same numbers mean something entirely different when presented to a geographer and to a political scientist. But the fascinating thing was that Russia seemed to be a huge experiment for geographers on their age old debate: How low can fertility go?

At any rate, this blog has been woefully undernourished in the area of gender studies. The conference's participants suggest a remedy. Some of their books include: Women's Health in Post-Soviet Russia: the Politics of Reproduction, Dilemma's of Diversity: Analyses of Culture and Difference by US and Russian-Based Scholars, Post Soviet Women Encountering Transition, Ruling Russia, and Russian Civil Society, Women's Access to Political Power in Post-Communist Europe, Gender Violence in Russia, etc.

I also learned about the following journal: Post-Soviet Affairs. Who knew?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Master and The Man

The first meeting of the newly established Lake County Tolstoy Reading Group met for the first time. Eight readers met at a private home and discussed Tolstoy's late short story, The Master and the Man, in the Penguin Classics edition. Two readers were Ukrainians who shared a few tales of communist-era life. For example, they lived inter-generationally and share a stove top with at least one other family. When that family was out of the flat, they sometimes dared to use all four burners, but not usually. They also remembered that, contrary to popular belief, it was dangerous to arrive at work late. "It wasn't like in the days of the gulag but it could could get you into trouble."

As for Master and the Man, the group liked the story. Whether flattering or not, comparisons to Jack London's short stories were made. The discussion focused on Tolstoy's admirable command of language, foreshadowing and suspense, characterization, and biblical imagery. There was some debate about whether or not the master in the story was portrayed realistically. Wasn't his character a bit too one-dimensional? Wasn't Tolstoy relying on an old cliche about peasant virtues to deride bourgeois ones? Overall, the group didn't seem to mind the liberties Tolstoy had taken with the bourgois master. Moreover, they liked the peasant man's earthiness, folk wisdom, religiosity, and common sense. And they embraced the master's conversion to Christianity.