Friday, July 30, 2010


One of my favorite short stories is entitled, Bliss. It's the story of a woman who arrives home in a state of heightened sensuality. She notices every smell, texture, and sound around her; she appreciates the beauty and magic of everyday domestic life. It's as if she has never before noticed the safety and comfort of her ordinary surroundings. The air is somehow alive: there's a crackle in the air, even as she does absolutely nothing other than unload groceries (as I recall--it's been years since I read the story) and prepare for a dinner party. The story ends when the wife catches her husband and one of the guests looking briefly but inappropriately at one another. In an instant the wife presumably realizes that at least in some sense, ignorance is bliss, to cite the story's title. However, somewhat paradoxically, the wife wasn't truly ignorant: the heightened appreciation for her environment would only have been possible if she had, on some unconscious level, already understood that her husband was having an affair that would soon shatter her domestic idyll.

This short story reminds me of the spy thriller, Gorky Park, which was written before the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1981. Martin Cruz Smith's famous spy thriller works as a detective novel, but its power is enhanced by prophecy. In 1981, few if any Soviet experts predicted the complete collapse of one of the world's two superpowers. However, Smith's Gorky Park shows a society that knew, however unconsciously, that its days were numbered. As the chief investigator goes about the business of solving a triple murder in one of Moscow's most famous parks, he encounters dozens if not hundreds of Soviet illnesses, including alcoholism, ideological blindness, economic inefficiency, rampant corruption, consumer shortages, housing shortages, class stratification, anti-semitism, haunting memories of Stalinism, police state surveillance, KGB arrogance, runaway bureacratism, a war in Afghanistan, and party cynicism. So, like the heroine of the short story, Bliss, it seems that on some level perhaps both Soviet citizens and foreign novelists understood that the end of socialism was at hand, even though this knowledge was sublimated to the level of the unconscious. (Of course, it's possible that if America collapsed tomorrow, historians might use our own noir detective fiction to explain that this collapse was inevitable, the result of capitalism's own illnesses.)

One of the best things about reading a thriller about crime in the Soviet Union is that socialist ideology had proclaimed the end of crime. In a capitalist society, crime made a lot of sense--it was the natural byproduct of alienation and exploitation. In a socialist society, there really was no reason for people to move aggressively and illegally against their neighbors. People worked for one another; the state and property in general was merely a reflection of the socialist citizen. If crime exists, Smith reminds us, Soviet forensics experts could only turn to psychology for answers. Mental illness was the only valid explanation. The real irony about Soviet crime was that it seemed impossible to ignore the criminality of the Russian state itself, though perhaps this is true for any modern state to some degree or another. Is it more telling to examine America's criminals or to look at the state's interest in locking up such an enormous percentage of the population at all times?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Christian Russia's Birthday

According to the Washington Post, Russia has created a new holiday to celebrate the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Christianity in 988. This is one more sign the orthodox church is tightening control over the once proudly atheist society. Muslims, who make up a seventh of the country's population, are worried, and so are secularists who think the state is using religion to enhance its authoritarian proclivities.

It must be strange to have buried religion for so many decades and suddenly feel it reviving like a long-dormant seed (or virus the marxists might say) now exposed to sun and moisture. But an aggressively Christian Russia is appealing in a way; it's supposed to be a country of pious patriarchs with long beards and robes. And Europe's blandness owes something to its general repudiation of Christianity. There is a complete disconnect there between the artifacts of its built environment and the agnosticism of its (non-Muslim) inhabitants. People wander amidst ancient Christian buildings but concern themselves only with the material and the present. It would be ironic if Russia, which suffered such momentous breaks with its past in 1917 and 1989, the most schizophrenic of all the nations of the world, would bring the idea of historical continuity back to Europe.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Russian Frost

A Jewish violinist from St. Petersburg with a profound understanding of Russian literary history, Solomon Volkov seems to have earned the respect of Russia's greatest exiles, including the Nobel prize winning poet, Joseph Brodsky. This book, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, documents a long series of informal interviews he conducted with Brodsky over the course of several decades. Clearly, Brodsky did not suffer fools gladly. The fact that the supremely self-confident Brodsky earnestly and respectfully debates Volkov throughout these encounters, says a great deal about Volkov's own stature, intellectual judgement, and mastery of the Russian cultural cannon. In fact, this book would not be half what it turned out to be without Volkov's own commentary on art, music, dance, and poetry.

Volkov's book showcases Brodsky's opinions on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from poetic influences, the impact of a number of early biographical episodes from a famous life, the nature of Soviet despotism, important friendships, translation work, the creative process, the history of Russian and western poetry, music, dance, and life in exile from his native St. Petersburg. In each instance, Brodsky is articulate, erudite (notwithstanding his very limited formal education), and opinionated. For example, Brodsky adores Venice, Auden, Frost, Akhmatova, Tsevaeva, Walcott, Zoshchenko's prose, Platonov's prose, Mandelstam's anti-Stalin poem, Barynikov as dancer and intellectual, Cavafy, Tvardovsky, Zamyatin's essays, Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago poetry, Isaiah Berlin, Naipaul, Herzen as stylist (if not thinker), and Joyce, but Brodsky either actively dislikes or believes the following to be overrated: Yevtushenko, Mayakovsky, Blok, Nabokov's poetry, Gumilyov, Nabokov's Speak, Memory (and Russian equivalent), etc. Perhaps the only thing about which Brodsky maintains an ambivalent or indifferent attitude is ballet.

The poet is never more opinionated than when discussing poetry. Brodsky doesn't apologize for his unwavering belief that poetry remains the most difficult and important form of expression available to the human species. As a teacher as well as master craftsman, it's no surprise that Brodsky has a relatively fully formed aesthetic philosophy. He's a partisan of Frost and Auden as well as Mandelstam, Tsevateva, Pasternak, and his friend and mentor, Akhmatova. And he sees his poetic legacy and opinions as infinitely more interesting than any of the famous events of his life, although this life included work at a morgue, geological expeditions in search of uranium, a famous trial in the Soviet Union for "social parasitism", exile to Siberia, arbitrary imprisonment in a mental institution, friendship with the internationally acclaimed Anna Akhmatova and other Russian luminaries, exile to America, friendship with Baryshnikov and dozens of other famous artists, and a Nobel Prize.

Ultimately, this book can only lead one to the obvious conclusion that one needs to read Brodsky's poetry to see what the man is all about. Brodsky's appreciation for Akhmatova says volumes about his bias against confessional poetry. When, for example, Volkov brings up Akhmatova's son's famous critique of his mother, that her poetry would have benefitted from his death more than from his prolonged imprisonment in the gulag, Brodsky is unsympathetic. He thinks Akhmatova's role as a poet supercedes her role as a mother. Her job is to privilege the universal over the purely personal. As Brodsky knew, Akhmatova suffered profoundly from the destruction of two husbands and a son at the hands of runaway Stalinism. Even so, her voice was never associated with a wounded heart. She was a great poet, and nothing less. As Brodsky says elsewhere, he agrees with another poet's sentiment that a great poet (such as Ezra Pound) should be awarded a medal and only then be hanged for his crimes. And that just about captures my feelings with respect to Woody Allen, who remains a great artist more than a bad or even criminal father.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Maine Thing

Apologies for not posting more in between jobs. I haven't had much time. But be assured, dear readers--or is it reader?--I have remained loyal to Russian Studies. Even on a family trip to Colorado, I stopped in the very same bookstore where I picked up a copy of Solzhenitsyn's The Oak and the Calf a year or so before. This time, I came up with a book on 1968 to shore up the blog's limited coverage of comparative revolutions. After that, I went to Maine where I visited no fewer than seven small, used bookstores in pursuit of cheap Russian books. The suitcase bulged with finds and I was even kicked out of one gigantic used book emporium on my way to Acacia National Park. The best--and by best I mean creepiest--store was run by a widow who apparently made a living by selling off her husband's vast book collection. The store made me seriously think about throwing out all my books and succumbing to the magic of a Kindle.

I've also kept reading. For instance, I completed Philip Longworth's Russia's Empires: Their Rise and Fall, Fry from Prehistory to Putin. I mean to focus on the Revolution but survey texts can give one a little context. Longworth's book reminded me of Russia's long entanglement with Orthodox Christianity, Byzantium, and colonial expansion. I'm embarrassed to deal so briefly with this text, but honestly I intend to remain grounded in the Revolution and only use longer histories to ensure that commentary on the Revolution highlights continuity as well as rupture. At any rate, Longworth's book is a reminder that Russian power waxes and wanes, and is sure to wax again despite demographic trends and geopolitical setbacks.