Wednesday, September 8, 2010

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."

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