Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The TLS in Fragments

Since I don't regularly read the Times Literary Supplement I thought I'd pick through a couple of issues to see what coverage of Russian literature and history the magazine offered. So here are a couple of fragments.

Lewis Siegelbaum’s short review of Claudia Verhoeven’s The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism is entitled “Spectral Enemies.” Verhoeven’s book analyzes a failed attack against Alexander II, the Tsar-Liberator who freed the serfs in the 1860s and was assassinated for his troubles by Karakozov in 1881. Karakozov is less famous than Herzen, Bakunin, Chernyshevsky, Nechaev, and many other opponents of the Old Regime.

On the face of things, the attack led nowhere. Yet although Karakozov’s attack was unsuccessful, the author believes that this violent incident elucidates a new dimension of modernity. For the first time, criminals believed they were capable qua individuals and citizens to shape the very fabric of society through an act of protest. Siegelbaum intimates that Verhoeven over thinks the Karakozov attack but does accept the basic premise that the state and its terrorist foes are paradoxical partners: as the state tightens surveillance over citizens in the interest of security, the citizenry becomes increasingly paranoid and this ultimately reinforces the argument in favor of violent resistance to the state. Clearly, the literature on Russian terrorism—including books such as Russia’s Road to Revolution and the Roots of Revolution--tells us something about our current predicament, and indeed the predicament of Putin’s Russia.

Neal Acherson’s “They’re Just Not Ready” reviews four books, including Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, There is No Freedom without Bread: 1989 and the Civil War that Brought Down Communism, and 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe. As Acherson points out, thinks look good now but looked extremely bleak twenty years ago when economies were in ruins and the Yugoslavian war was raging. These books examine the meaning of the 1989 revolutions.

It seems that it’s still too early to explain them, but Uncivil Society advances the interesting if controversial thesis that Communism did not allow for civil society, with the notable exception of Poland. Mass mobilization did not topple the Soviet Union and its erstwhile allies; rather, the system collapsed and there was what amounts to a “run on the bank” of the system’s remaining political capital. The overall impression of this explosion of historical accounts of 1989 is that we’ve already managed to forget what might have happened at the time. Even Bush and his advisers sometimes worried that Gorbachev might possibly re-invent the Eastern Bloc, making it more dangerous than ever to the Western democracies. And Gorbachev was proposing radical alternatives to the current European system of states with its reliance on NATO and the common market. Was anything possible in 1989 or was nothing but what happened possible? And will archival research reveal contribute to an answer to what amounts to an epistemological question?

There’s also a commentary by Michael Wood on Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments. Is it more than a pale imitation of Lolita? Would it have been?

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