Tuesday, September 28, 2010

History Channel

This blog has only just begun. In future months, we'll be exploring the vast Russian-related archives of Netflix. I've begun with Land of the Tsars, Part I, a documentary that does a pretty good job of covering the whole of Russian history, right up until the Revolution of 1917.

It's got everything: ninth century viking trading networks; the emergence of "Rus;: the influence of Constantinople; five centuries of Mongol rule; the overthrow of Mongol rule in the 1480s; orthodoxy; the Time of Troubles; the rise of the Romanovs; Peter the Great as reformer, Westernizer, and tyrant; Peter's daughter Elizabeth (who assumed power at age 32 and ruled confidently for 16 years); Peter III (stupid, crude, and Russophobic, he forced his brilliant wife to play toy soldiers in bed and hanged a rat in front of her for treason--worse, he made peace with Frederick the Great when Russian forces were poised to obliterate Prussia, forced priests to dress like Lutherans, and threatened his wife with the nunnery); Catherine the Great (conspirator, lover, Enlightened Despot, and reformer, she created some organs of local government and challenged elite traditions, but nevertheless engaged in ceaseless wars to expand the kingdom in all directions, and put down peasant insurrections--Pugachev's primarily--without compunction); etc.

The Land of Tsars spends a great deal of time on Catherine. After all, her reign so Russia occupy the Black Sea Coast and the Crimea as well as Alaska. There were 30 million Russians living within the Empire at the time, and Russia seemed unlikely to stop expanding in several different directions. Catherine's successor, Paul, was horrendous. He was exceedingly cruel and, like his father, pro-Prussian. He was also in a hurry to revenge his father, even burying Catherine with the man she had overthrown and effectively killed. Paul's brief reign saw hurried and ill-considered reforms that led to his own death. The indirect cause of his murder in 1796 was none other than his own son, and Catherine's favorite, Alexander I. The historians in the film claims Alexander was wracked with guilt over his accession to the thrown and compulsively indecisive, toying with reform but always rejecting it in the end. According to one historian, he was "born confused." Alexander's one great decision was to renew a war with Napoleon, a decision which nearly cost him all of Russia. In the end, Alexander's Russia emerged victorious of course, and Russian armies effectively became the guardians of the conservative, Christian, dynastic order throughout Europe.

What was next for Russia? Some thought liberalism, reform, or at least a constitution were in order. However, the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, inspired by the liberal currents of Western European politics, was put down ruthlessly. Nicholas I had leaders of the movement either executed or exiled to Siberia. Politics remained illegal. Even educated Russians were legally unable to discuss political change of any sort. Where there was no public sphere to debate liberal ideas, and economic and social elites felt humiliated by the autocratic atmosphere of Russia, politics turned inward. Secret societies sprang up. Even so, while the rest of Europe eventually exploded in liberal and democratic revolt in the fateful year of 1848, Russia remained quiescent, the autocracy triumphant. Nicholas I even sent troops to restore the Hapsburg monarchy.

In light of Russia's recent history, the Crimean War came as a shock. Russians were out-gunned by the French and British. The myth of Russian invincibility, born at Borodino, was overturned at a stroke. The Russian elites felt humiliated. Clearly, Russia had become a backward state. Its technology, economy, and perhaps even its whole social and political framework, were pre-industrial, pre-modern. When Nicholas II died, Alexander II conceded defeat to the Western powers and began an ambitious program of national reform and modernization. He encouraged private enterprise, liberal ideas, and the rule of law. Most importantly, he "liberated" the serfs in 1861. At first, the film tells us the Russian educated classes were elated. The tsar was known as the Tar-Liberator. Later, after it became clear that Russian peasants remained impoverished and deeply indebted to landlords under the terms of their emancipation, and that Russian agricultural production was plummeting, the tsar's popularity sharply declined.

Of course, the Tsar Liberator was soon hounded by assassination attempts (the streets emptied whenever he moved about St. Petersburg) and he was eventually murdered by a child of elite parents, illustrating what one historian calls one of the central paradoxes of modern Russian history: the fact that members of the Russian social elite--Lenin included--often became the regime's opponents.

Alexander II was replaced by his son, Alexander III, was cracked down hard against the regime's opponents and reversed Alexander's modest movements toward political devolution. The assassins were executed. Over the next 15 years, Alexander essentially assured that the regime's critics would remain violent, radical, and underground. After all, even as the country hurdled toward industrialization and modernization, the country had a single source of political authority: the person of the tsar.

When Alexander II died in 1897, he was replaced by his son, Nicholas II, who was completed unprepared for the responsibility and admitted as much to himself. The film's historians believe he was completely unsuited to power and, as importantly, unable to compromise his belief in his divine right to rule. His wife, compulsively shy, was a further hindrance to him, and her complete faith in the mystic Rasputin did nothing to enhance her reputation, insofar as her son's hemophilia (which Rasputin seemed to be able to contain) was a state secret.

Nicholas II was indecisive but he gambled by threatening Japanese geopolitical ambitions in the Far East. The Japanese victory in the 1904-1905 war came as a devastating shock to the country. An entire armada was destroyed. The country was racked with labor and peasant unrest. When father's Gapon's enormous rally--ostensibly loyal to the tsar at least personally--was met by gunfire and Cossack sallies, the country erupted in revolt. Revolutionary Councils made bids for power in about 50 cities. Peasants burned estates. Reluctantly, the tsar made peace with Japan and granted a modest but very real constitution in October. A duma was eventually elected, and power was, for the first time and despite the tsar's continuing authority, officially divided.

The tsar's tenuous grasp on power did not withstand the first World War. 16 million soldiers were lost at the front. In the bloody civil war that followed, the tsar and his family eventually lost their lives as well.

Monday, September 27, 2010

ee cummings in 1931

One of the best depictions of Soviet Russian in the 1930s comes from ee cummings. The poet went to Russia to see how humanity's greatest social experiment was fairing. The result is a Beat novel, Emie, avante la lettre and a ruthless but comical attack on everything related to the new communist society. The Soviet Union, as a whole, was depicted as hell on earth, a place where humanism and individuality were on the verge of excinction. In the hands of ee cummings' diurnal writings, homo sovieticus was depicted as the ultimate "nonman," living in fear of the state's security apparatus and the whole culture of conformity that official ideology celebrated. The books is a frantic and riotous assault against the Soviet state, even without any direct discussion of that state's already bloody crimes. It's also a great read. Sadly, I've left my copy of the book behind at a children's birthday party. It's probably covered with birthday cake frosting at the bottom of a gigantic garbage dump. I'll have to find another copy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Conventional Fantasies

This blog wouldn't survive five minutes in the bright light of academic scrutiny. It's a blog after all. It's meant to be filled with slandor, urban mythology, unsubstantiated rumor, and misinformation. However, there is a fan dimension to this blog so I have to eventually improve coverage of the biggest names in Russian Studies and related fields, right? For this reason I've joined the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, whose annual convention takes place in late November in Los Angeles. Aside from recurring fantasies of bumping into University of Chicago's doyen of Russian History, Sheila Fitpatrick (as if I could recognize her), while taking a stroll in Hyde Park, learning Russian overnight, actually visiting Russia someday, attending the ASEESS Convention is my number one daydream. A glance at the itinery will explain why.

There are panels on the following subjects: science in Petrine Russia; World War II resistance; social and economic change in the era of so-called "stagnation;" the Silver Age; identity-formation in the Far East; recent Trotsky scholarship (with Lindy Laub's new Trostky documentary, Planet without a Visa;" Jewish Commerce in Pre-Revolutionary Russia; masculanity in the Napeolonic Wars and Steel Age; first-person narratives and their meaning; war poetry; war prose; art from 1850 to 1900; Soviet and Eastern European political recruitment of elites; post-communist justice; Medvedev's economics and defense policies; historical time and Stalinism; literature and the sublime; the state of translation studies; St. Peterburg between at peace; and various other Eastern European topics.

It would be fun to go, but I'll have to make do with my copy of Slavic Review, the association's official journal. Articles in the Summer addition covered Liddia Ginzburg, the Seige of Leningrad, Bulgakov and Eizenshstein, Ivan the Terrible and the debate on historical periodization, the end of Muscovy, etc.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Cult of Tolstoy

I recently purchased a membership to Netflix and was surprised to discover a fairly large collection of modern Russian and classic Soviet films. I expect to be including more references to cinema in the near future. I began with a relatively formulaic documentary of Trotsky, which nevertheless helped to put the man into context as an international symbol of the proletariat and global hero for would-be revolutionaries in every inhabited continent. From there, I watched the Last Station, and was pleasantly surprised to see how the film captured some of the importance of Tolstoy's later life as well as its complexity. To the end, Tolstoy was waging an idiosyncratic and sometimes muddled but always admirable war against violence, war, and various other forms of human iniquity.

The film helps one to see how close Tolstoy came to becoming the fountainhead of a sustainable religion and we see his family and network of close supporters in a state of quasi-religious exhalation over his charismatic presence and undisputed reputation as novelist, social critic, and quasi-religious thinker. There's a fine line between cult and formal religion, and the Tolstoyans walked that line. The film reminds readers of Tolstoy's importance to pre-revolutionary Russia as well. As he fled his wife and fell ill, the whole country followed the melodrama. Tolstoy's celebrity is witness to the fact that Russia had developed, despite its autocratic government and calcified Orthodox Church (which had excommunicated Tolstoy for his beliefs), a powerful public sphere of ideological opposition, relatively free intellectual inquiry, and social criticism.

With the benefit of hindsight, to see Tolstoy die in the film is to see liberalism die. But the real subject of The Last Station is Tolstoy's marriage. As the film begins, Tolstoy and his wife have been married for decades. She, much younger than he, had born him a huge brood of children--and lost five children in the process--and these children have become surrogates in a marital war, ostensibly over Tolstoy's literary inheritance. Tolstoy, although conflicted, hopes to turn over a large portion of his writings to the people at large, and is, he says, ashamed of the privilege he retained.

Strangely, at this time Tolstoy had essentially renounced all wealth, and yet he remained a denizen of an aristocratic estate, now ostensibly owned by his family. It puts one in mind of a quote about Gandhi, one of Tolstoy's most important admirers. It was said that although Gandhi was poor, it took a vast fortune to keep him that way. Tolstoy's marriage was grueling: despite a deep and abiding love and decades of intellectual cooperation, the two had become bitter antagonists. The film gives us a sense of the dimensions of the complexity involved here. When they were young, Tolstoy encouraged if not forced his wife to read his diaries related to his sexual adventures. Now, notwithstanding the fourteen or so children, his wife suspects her husband of harboring inappropriate feelings toward other men (not entirely without reason). The marriage endured, but it existed in the physical presence of strange sycophants and religious devotees, as well as the children, and with national and even international humanistic causes in the background.

Even the madness of Tolstoy's final flight from his wife (who claimed to have almost drowned herself in response), highlights his greatness, or at least the uniqueness of his contribution to Russian and Western history. Even as the stage is set for this final drama, Tolstoy is profoundly interested in humankind, at the individual level of one of his protégées as well as at the abstract level of the Russian narod. And, although he may well be partially blinded about the faults of his own admirers, he retains a healthy skepticism about his own reputation, and also tolerates his wife's mockery of that reputation. It's this spirit of honest and searching self-criticism (which isn't ever entirely successful of course, but it's the heroic effort at honesty that is so exceptional) and empathy for others that made him one of Russia's finest novelists.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Comedy by Chernychevsky

Nabokov’s last Russian novel, The Gift, is often said to be one of the greatest twentieth century novels. For me, it’s been a long struggle to even complete the book. Nabokov, genius though he is, pains me with his lack of concert for plot or suspenseful pace. Indeed, I freely admit that I only kept reading to see what Nabokov’s protagonist would say about Russia’s famous nineteenth century radical and godfather of Bolshevism, Chernychevsky.

Chernychevsky was Lenin’s nineteenth century hero, a widely-read, hard-working man who wrote the influential if badly written novel, What is to be Done?, which first spelled out the ascetic path to revolutionary sainthood so many zealous, socialists would eventually follow. The first portion of the book takes place in Berlin and seems, at least in a general way, to be autobiography. The second portion purports to be prose from the author’s study of the famous editor of the liberal organ, The Contemporary. This, interestingly, is followed by a short series of post-modern rants against this same history.

Nabokov’s interest in Chernychevsky is not hard to understand. The utopian socialist’s theories, as well as his whole intellectual milieu, have everything to do with what came later, although it’s hard to tell whether Bolshevik communism was an extension of this milieu or a reaction to the fuzziness and innocence of it. Chernychevsky, the materialist philosopher who had been born the son of a priest, believed in peasant communalism. He was an important interlocutor of men such as Herzen (they lived together in London briefly), Belinsky, and others.

According to Nabokov’s book, which is written with such irony and perhaps subtlety that it’s hard to know precisely where he stands on the man’s legacy, Chernychevsky was extremely popular with liberal opponents of autocracy in the age of peasant emancipation, rampant conspiracies, censorship, and millennial aspiration. His famous novel (there was at least one more) was very well-received—more popular than anything Tolstoy or Dostoevsky wrote his protagonist claims--as the incarnation of everything chic at the time. What was this thinker like? Nabokov’s protagonist is condescending, saying that for all his magnetism and courage, he was awkward, badly dressed, and unsophisticated as a thinker. He critiques his poetry, understanding of the natural world, shallow esthetic philosophy (he believed that art should always serve life), and philosophical pretensions.

In the end, Chernychevsky suffered for his unrelenting radicalism. He was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, exposed to a mock execution, and exiled to Siberia. While he was imprisoned, fellow radicals dreamed of freeing him. They didn’t understand that he couldn’t even ride a horse. His wife came to see him in Siberia, as so many Decembrist wives had done for their husbands, but apparently slept with somebody on the way. (Chernychevsky loved his wife deeply, perhaps more intensely as a result of his status as a cuckold).

Nabokov’s treatment of this phase of socialist activity is redolent of E.H. Carr’s treatment of another famous Russian radical, Bakhunin. In both instances, the radical hero appears sympathetically but ridiculously. It’s hard to know whether this understanding of the past is fair or not. Does an intellectual current that took itself so seriously—and had such a serious opponent—deserve to be laughed at? Perhaps the comedy of that gentler century only became emerges in relation to the decidedly “un-funny” legacy of its heir, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In any event, the paraodox of a comic tragedy or a tragic commedy reminds me of Woody Allen's bad film, Melinda and Melinda, which had at least a wonderful premise: that any story can be told, or perhaps it's all in how the story is received, as a happy comedy or a depressing tragedy. That's how history works.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What To Do

After staring into a bright light for the past 12 hours, I realize that I have committed a grievous intellectual error. I was seduced by capitalist marketing into reading non-Russian authors to fuel the ravenous global market for paper and ink. The imperialist powers, with their viperous subtlety, implanted the idea that their lackey hacks could illuminate my self. I now see that such a notion is based on a grammatical fallacy. There is no "I" in a truly just system. I repudiate all my past acts of heresy and resolve to improve.

What is to be done?

Today I discovered that my blog co-author has betrayed me and, more importantly, you the reader. I caught him, in flagrante delicto, reading a non-Russian novel. It's not the first time he's prostituted himself like this. He has a habit and belongs on the HBO reality show, Intervention. I mean, he can't seem to leave non-Russian novels alone. Lord knows where he gets them. I suppose the fact that he works at a library is too much for his feeble will-power. You might as well send a recovering alcoholic to an Irish wake or a Blues club. As you can imagine, I had a stern conversation with him, evening issuing a formal written warning about his offense. I told him that it sometimes seemed to me as if he had never heard of Russian literature, or didn't know that he was surrounded by the stuff. After the anger and shock wore off, I realized I had what they call in my business "a teaching moment." So I asked Nick to sit down and spread out about three dozen first-class Russian works of fiction in front of him, including Russian classics, contemporary works, short-stories, and novels. I told him he had lost his capacity for rationale judgement when he overlooked books by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Babel, and Gorky. Too tired for the classics? I pushed his face into a pile of twentieth century masterpieces, including stacks of books by Nabokov, short stories by Bunin, prose by Platonov and lesser known novels by Troyat, Montefiore, Simonov, and Berberova. From time to time I lost my cool. Who can blame me? Had he even read a single book by Alexei Tolstoy? Has he forgotten that an obscure man named Mandelstam (to say nothing of Pushkin) had written some prose that might be worth a glance every now and again? Could he really claim to have sucked the marrow from the bone of Solzhenitsyn's brilliance? Did he somehow think he was above reading another work by Pasternak? Some of my readers may believe my co-author didn't know any better, but I submit to you that he does know better. This is a man who, after all, can't pick up a copy of Brothers Karamazov without noting the translation. This is a man who stared back at my stack of novels and commented dryly: "Well, I wouldn't mind reading Pnin a fourth time..." Trust me, he knows better. The only question to ask is that which Lenin's favorite novelist asked, What is to be done? (Note that Lenin, whatever his faults, read that book five times in a single summer). Chernychevsky, help me understand how my co-author could do what he has done--and what is to be done...

Friday, September 10, 2010


Recently a relative asked me whether or not it was a good idea to accept a job in Kyrgyzstan. I told him that I couldn't see an upside to the offer, but admitted that, this blog notwithstanding, I knew nothing at all about the place. Since then I've meant to conduct a brief Internet search to learn more about the republic. Although I never did get around to it, the new issue of Russian Life has offered me my first glimpse of the area.

Apparently, Kyrgyzstan is home to ethnic diversity (Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Cossack Russians primarily), religious diversity (Islam and Orthodox Christianity), Communist-era ruins (Lenin statues, Communist-era street names), Mosques and Orthodox churches, various tourist activities (dead goat polo, horse trekking, yurt camping, opera, watersports, mountain climbing), a unique and short-legged horse species (Przewalski's Horse), a spectacular mountain range (Tien Shan), and a beautiful lake, Issy-Kul, which is enormous and never freezes over. The country is as large as Nebraska but almost all of it is over 1500 meters above sea level, according to Russian Life. Historically, the area lay along the Silk Road and was once home to Mongols, Turkic nomads, and Scythian. Russian influence in this former Soviet Republic is not hard to detect, although the editor claims that the ethnic Russian population has already fallen from 22 percent in 1989 to 9 percent today. That influence was initiated by Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky, a Russian explorer, geographer, naturalist, Sinophobe, and soldier.

And what of Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyzstan Republic? According to Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare of Russian Life, the city is home to one fifth of the country as well as Russian and American air force bases. It's also a somewhat gloomy city, filled with ancient cars, slush and ice, and Stalinist-era apartment buildings. Bishkek, formally named Brunze in honor of a local man who became a leading Bolshevik and Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, was once home to an ethnic Slavic majority (Russians, Ukrainians, etc.) who helped to modernize the country and integrate its economy with that of the Soviet Union, at great cost to local nomadic traditions of course. In fact, as late as 1991, the authors say that 89 percent of the population voted to remain within a renewed post-Soviet federation. At independence, Bishkek suffered a severe shock when it was cut off from its main trading partners. Overnight, the economy shrank, GDP fell, and professionals and ethnic Europeans fled. Worse, the country soon fell victim to political-ethnic rivalries and one of the worst corruption rankings in the world.

The attacks of September 11 had an immediate impact and Kyrgyzstan and its beleaguered economy. America's military and political presence expanded rapidly, and Russia's own diplomatic and military presence soon followed suit. What is more, America's involvement triggered contact from a host of NGOs and businesses. Since then, the country has been torn by fierce political, ethnic, and Great Power rivalry.

It is my hope that this relative, or his spouse, will in the near future provide Soviet Roulette with more specific reports on the country and the legacy of its Soviet past.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Soviet Arts Experience

Soviet Roulette was initially founded to revive what seemed like an unfashionable subject, i.e., Soviet history. But perhaps inevitably the Soviet experience has been garnering an enormous amount of attention lately. This is great news. Take, for example, the Chicago cultural festival entitled, The Soviet Arts Experience. Between October 2010, and January 2012, the city of Chicago will be immersed in twentieth century Russian culture. The sponsoring, or collaborating, institutions include the following: The Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the Goodman Theatre, The University of Chicago, the Russian Foundation of Chicago, the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, Northwestern University, Chicago Sister Cities International, the Court Theatre, Roosevelt University, etc. and so on.

What fun! Russophiles and Kreminologists and Soviet Roulette readers can plan now to take in a Mayakovsky play, a Gulag art show, a Shostakovich performance, a Chekhov play, a Soviet silent film based on an Aleksei Tolstoy's futuristic novel Aelita, a lecture on War and Peace, a Prokoviev Symphony, a brand new Russian play, a performance of Swan Lake, a Russian choir concert, propaganda poster exhibit, an exhibit on the Soviet avante-garde artistic process, an exhibt on Soviet political posters and cartoons, a show on Soviet book arts, an exhibit on Soviet imagery related to children's art and other materials, a show on Soviet artist Victor Koretsky, a musical comedy by called Moscow, Cheryomushki, a quartet, and much, much more. Hope to see everybody soon at one of these many fine Soviet-themed events.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Slave Labor

The gulag lies at the heart of the Soviet experience. There are dozens or perhaps hundreds of excellent gulag memoirs but of course Alexander Solzhenitsyn's memoir remains the masterpiece against which all other treatments of the subject will forever be measured. Although Solzhenitsyn's brilliantly bitter indictment of the system will remain the world's best passport into Russian Communism's greatest moral disaster, Anne Applebaum's acclaimed book, Gulag: a History, is an objective and comprehensive account of the institution. Applebaum's book is nuanced and relies on almost every important historical source related to Soviet internment over the entire span of the Soviet Union's long life. Like Solzhenitsyn, Applebaum takes readers though every phase of the prisoner experience, including arbitrary arrest, painful and perfunctory trial, inhumane transportation, brutal acclimation, deadly slave labor, hospitalization, and eventual death or release.

Applebaum's book also covers the changes that occurred in the Soviet penal system over time, documenting the essential viciousness of Lenin's early policy of exile and punishment, but also acknowledging that the gulag changed over time, becoming better or worse, on the whole, according to circumstances related to political schism, collectivization, the Great Purge, industrialization, war, ethnic cleansing policies, demobilization, and peace.

Moreover, Applebaum's achievement lies in her ability to explain the diversity of experience within the camps. Not all camps were the same; and many if not most prisoners moved between them, if they did not die immediately of disease, exposure, starvation, abuse from guards and prisoners, and overwork. Additionally, the survivors' circumstances often changed dramatically, with little warning, only to change again a short while longer. Thus a prisoner could be exposed to the deadliest form of mine labor at one moment, and just a short while later put to life-saving work in the camp kitchen, before being sent to cut trees in the bitter cold without adequate clothing.

Applebaum's overall thesis seems to be that the camps were not all that far removed from the Nazi camps in terms of the suffering and death they inflicted. Even so, Applebaum acknowledges that the Soviet system was qualitatively different from the Nazi one insofar as the Soviets were often motivated by the desire to exploit slave labor as opposed to killing off enemies as an end in itself.

To be clear, the total number of gulag deaths is astronomical. However, Applebaum finds ample evidence to show that, notwithstanding an ideology that frequently dehumanized and vilified perceived class enemies, racial groups (ethnic Germans for example), or political opponents, Soviet officials not infrequently condemned overtly murderous policies, if only to improve economic results. In the end, Applebaum makes the case that the gulag was grotesquely inefficient, even as a method of achieving rapid industrialization. She also suggests--though the evidence seems somewhat more speculative--that the system functioned as it did because Stalin was personally committed to it. Involved in many details of camp policy, Stalin was a true believer in the value of the gulag economy. At first, Communists paid lip service to the notion that the labor system could transform class enemies into loyal communists and dedicated proletarians. Later, that pretense was dropped: class enemies were traitors to the state and deserved the very worst forms of punishment.

Stalin, of course, had no sympathy for class enemies, and thrived on the almost Hegelian notion that the thesis of communism depended on the antithesis of treacherous class opposition. Yet it's hard to say if his primary interest in the gulag archipelago was based on his belief that they represented a pure form of class and party justice, or whether his unrelenting support for slave labor was predicated on his rational if completely erroneous belief that slave labor represented the single most effective economic response to the problem of modernization and industrialization.

Antithesis, Anti-World, Anti-Self

Jonathan Brent's Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia is a perfect little book. Like the Elif Batuman's Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them--and hopefully, modestly, this blog--it's a blend of the personal and the historical. That is, Brent discusses the historical controversies surrounding issues such as the Kirov Assassination, the Doctor's Plot, the destruction of the literary and artistic elite, Lenin's role in establishing a police state, the Comintern's level of activity in various nations, Isaac Babel's demise, the legacy of the KGB, moral responsibility for the gulag, etc., while also documenting his confused but sensitive reactions to the alien and shifting landscape of post-collapse Russia. It's a landscape of suffering, fear, poverty and economic hardship, strident anti-Semitism, burgeoning consumerism, and general shabbiness. In one telling scene, the author moves about his host's apartment cautiously, less he break or destroy any one of the dozens of poorly made consumer items or delicate pieces of furniture that litter the place. In this ill-constructed country, even turning a faucet on or off can result in a major plumbing disaster.

Brent went to Russia at the end of the Cold War as Yale University Press' chief negotiating dignitary. As such, Brent has a keen sense of the importance of his mission. Although he could not have known with certainty that Russia's archives would soon be closed to outsiders, he did understand that the world's ability to see many of these rare and precious documents was fragile and tenuous. Blessed with a novelist's rhetorical powers, Brent is able to articulate that which this blog sometimes struggles to assert, that Russian archives and Russian history lies at the heart of all quests at modern self-understanding. Russia was not only the mirror-image of the West throughout much of the previous century, it was also the boldest experiment in "engineering men's souls" ever attempted. That the experiment failed so disastrously is merely one more reason to persevere in our attempt to explain its origins and results.

As Inside the Stalin Archives is so closely aligned to the worldview of this blog, perhaps a few quotations are in order.

First, here is Brent discussing Russia's place as the Russia as America's alter-ego:

"...I had grown up under the sign of the Cold War; I had hid under my desk as a child in fear of a nuclear attack from an unknown enemy; I had watched on television the U.S. and Soviet ships off the coast of Cuba in their fateful standoff; I had gone to bed many nights fearful of the invisible particles of radiation raining down on us continually from the skies from our atom bomb testing; I had protested the Vietnam War and spend a night in prison as a consequence; as a child I had ridden the bus to school every morning trying to make out the import of the words, "We will bury you," that were printed on an advertisement for the United Nations along with a picture of a small, round man standing at a podium with one first raised as if in anger..."

Second, here is Brent stating this blog's central premise:

"..the history of the Soviet Union was, in my view, the entryway into understanding the history of the world for the last seventy-five years of the twentieth century. I emphasized that for me this was not only a project of understanding Soviet history but also of understanding my experiences and those of my generation growing up in post-Sputnik America."

Third, and finally, here is Brent discussing the proper ambivalence with which we should confront Soviet history:

"Never clearly seen, never understood, a mortal enemy--yet for those who fell in love with the revolution and its literature and music, not only an enemy. It seemed the inevitable reflux of everything around us. It was that which had always existed contra to us, an anti-world, an in some ways an anit-self. It formed the natureal complement, the necessary antithesis that mirrored our every move and made us conscious of ourselves."