Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Politics of Leaving

My office is nearly empty now. I've put away books and dismantled all elements of bourgeois display. I've packed up all of the family photographs, files, and antiques that adorned this space over the past three years. I've put away a fencing trophy my maternal grandfather (the Left-Wing inspiration for this blog perhaps) won at Harvard in 1912. I've packed up a set of clay cats my paternal grandfather made in the impoverished, smoke-filled twilight of his life. I have cleaned up a war ration card my mother received at five years old. There's a stripped down table that sat in my paternal grandmother kept in her cluttered basement for many decades. Family photos, antique (but not valuable) clocks--everything must go.

There are only a few Russian books left here. I've uncovered a stash of excellent political works. There is William Taubman's biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, which demonstrated that this Cold War leader was as complex and contradictory as any modern leader. Khrushchev was all things, impossible to sum up. He was guilty of monstrous crimes as one of Stalin's henchmen, and yet helped to put the Soviet Union onto a much more humane path after Stalin's death. He was incredibly clever and funny, but somehow also capable of extremely foolish, impetuous, and boorish behavior. The ultimate sycophant under Stalin, Khrushchev somehow demonstrated real bravery, not only on his path to power, but also in his efforts to publish his memoirs while in the political wilderness.

On the Khrushchev theme, I've got Guiseppe Boffa's laudatory account of the Khrushchev era as a whole called, somewhat dramtically, Inside the Khrushchev Era. Boffa was an Italian journalist and fellow travellor who praised the Soviet Union for its technological and industrial achievements, and heralded Khrushchev as a practical and humaine leader--just right for the age of detente.

On Stalin himself, I see Simon Montefiore's two equally good books, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar, and Young Stalin. Montefiore has quickly established himself as one of the deans of Russian history, and rightly so. These two works somehow reveal sides of Stalin that hadn't yet emerged, especially Young Stalin. Montefiore managed to uncover dozens if not hundreds of previously undiscovered sources about Stalin, some by former lovers and others with almost as much personal knowledge about the legendary autocrat. The whole course of history seems to have reversed itself with this book. One somehow comes to see a Stalin who wasn't destined to become the master of Russian's destiny but who, nevertheless, possessed a real and multi-faceted genius, for politics, but also for organization, criminal activity, revolutionary propaganda, and even, perhaps, poetry.

Next, I've got two of Isaac Deutcher's three books on Trotsky here, The Prophet Unarmed, Trotsky 1921- 1929, and the Prophet Outcast,Trotsky 1929- 1940. Although undoubtedly biased by sympathy for the man's political perspectives, these are tremendous books, thoroughly researched but vivid tales of political courage and indeed heroic opposition to Stalin's ascendancy. Of course, Deutcher doesn't criticize Trotsky's crimes nor even his personality flaws that ensured his defeat by opponents. Deutcher also wrote the unfinished Lenin's Childhood, a short potrait of Lenin, his father and mother, and, most importantly, his terrorist brother who was executed for his involvement in a plan to assassinate the tsar.

Other political books on hand are Milovan Djilas' Conversations with Stalin, which illuminates the ties that originally bound Eastern European strains of communism to Moscow, but also shows how Yugoslavian leaders became alienated by Stalin and Russian primacy in general. And, to follow up the story of dissillusionment with Djilas' ant-communist treatise, written from a Yugoslavian prison, there's The New Class. Somewhat more globally, I also have Walter Laqueur's book of political essays here, Out of the Ruins of Europe. One of these is even titled Russian Roulette. So glad I went with Soviet Roulette instead of Russian Roulette, the title which first came to me when I presented the idea for this blog to my wife and one of her best friends (who said, quite correctly, that I needed a hook for the blog a la Julia and Julia: ideas anyone?).

Down to my last few books, I see that the majority of these are in some fashion political works as well. As I've said before, I grew up believing that politics was everything. I don't practice that belief anymore, but my obsession with the Russian Revolution is a form of nostalgia for a time when everybody shared my early belief in the primacy of the political over the cultural. (A time when most people didn't think that Real Housewives of New York, Orange County, Atlanta, and New Jersey would trumps everything remotely political in terms of its watercooler or Facebook appeal). I've got the book, The Lost Politburo Transcripts, which shows Stalin's mastery of a unique form of political discourse, the politburo debate and group decision-making process. And another, The Death of Uncle Joe, which describes the progressive disillusionment of some (but definitely not all) of the British communist intellectuals, especially in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. It's a book that inspired me to think about why my Left-of-Center friends and family didn't come down harder on the Soviet Union for its massive human rights violations. On the same theme of disenchantment with communist ideals, I have Robert Conquest's book of short, anti-communist essays and editorials, Tyrants and Typewriters: Communiques from the Struggle for Truth. It's filled with dozens of short Conquest essays on subects such as Koestler, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko, Grossman, Sakharov, and Djilas.


  1. just found your blog, and love it, thanks for posting =)

  2. oh, and PLEASE continue to post =) i'm loving it and can't wait for more