Sunday, October 31, 2010

Russia's Greatest Love Machine..

Grigori Rasputin seems to belong to another age, and a medieval age at that. And yet Rasputin was one of the figures who did the most--albeit unintentionally--to usher in the Russian Revolution. In the documentary series Land of the Tsars an entire episode is devoted Rasputin's fascinating rise to power and ignominious demise.

Rasputin was a Siberian peasant with captivating eyes and boundless sexual energy whose charisma charmed local women and eventually led to his angry expulsion at the hands of unsympathetic townsmen. Although Rasputin married, and remained devoted to his wife throughout the rest of his life, he never stopped courting other women, and his wife seemed to accept her husband's infidelities as inevitable. After his expulsion from his native village, Rasputin took a trip to a famous monastery where he experienced a profound religious epiphany. After that, the film relates, Rasputin wandered the length and breadth of Russia for many years, gaining an ability to deal with people from every walk of Russian life in the process.

At the end of his travels, Rasputin arrived in St. Petersburg, where his charisma immediately won him an audience with the Tsar and Tsarina. At their first meeting, the holy monk used startlingly familiar language to address the country's ruler, calling him "papa." Rasputin was a strange sort of holy man, one who developed a theory that one had to sin brazenly in order to earn true forgiveness from God. Rasputin sometimes asked women to strip with him in order to practice their powers of sin-resistance: sometimes they successfully resisted sin, other times they failed. Rasputin's unusual behavior did not stop him from winning the hearts of the tsar and his wife. He did so, in part, by conforming to a long Russian tolerance for the role of a "holy fool" who, notwithstanding his personal eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, had special access to God's will.

Most importantly, Rasputin soon demonstrated an ability to heal the tsarevich, whose hemophilia saddened his parents and threatened to undermine the line of succession. In effect, Rasputin's healing powers seemed to protect the heir to the thrown for the better part of a decade, and even seemed to work at a distance, when the monk was far from the capital. Rasputin was a regular presence at the royal court, but he wasn't unduly influential until the advent of World War, which Rasputin warned the tsar against.

During the war, the royal family's fortunes declined precipitously. When the tsar left to lead the troops at the front, the tsarina assumed a great deal of authority in domestic affairs, and listened attentively to all of her holy favorite's advice. To her, Rasputin spoke for God. On the other hand, Rasputin's disastrous advice carefully mirrored the empress' own political philosophy, so it's impossible to say whether or not Rasputin directly undermined the authority of his peers. Yet Rasputin's deleterious effect on popular opinion is impossible to gainsay. He was seen as sexual profligate, a mad monk, a German spy, and an ally of the devil himself.

When one of his lovers nearly assassinated him, Rasputin made matters worse. In pain, he turned to alcohol and his behavior became still more erratic. Bragging about his influence at court, drinking heavily, chasing women, and even at one point exposing himself in public, Rasputin became the symbol of autocratic immorality and incompetence. Deeply unpopular even within the aristocracy, one leading member of society and a group of supporters eventually conspired to kill Rasputin to save Russia. Famously, Rasputin survived a poisoning, and then two volleys of shots, and then apparently remained alive as he was sent into a frozen river. The tsarina fell into deep mourning, but recovered in a month; the tsar was at least partly relieved to be free of the negative publicity that surrounded Rasputin's nefarious activities. The film ends with Rasputin's strange prophesy, delivered shortly before his death: that if he were to be killed by friends of the tsar, the country would disintegrate the tsar's own family would be dead within the space of two years, which was in fact what happened.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Long Duree

Sometimes it's best to look at an event from the perspective of the long-duree. Marshall Poe's book, The Russian Moment in World History, does just that. His short treatise makes a number of interesting arguments about Russian history in general and the revolutionary period in particular.

First, Poe argues that Russia is quite simply not European. Quite simply, Russia missed out on many of the key experiences of Europe, when Europe is seen as an economic or cultural entity rather than merely a geographical expression. Russia did not participate in the Renaissance, for example, and well into the 17th century, Russian rules essentially banned or severely restricted contact with their more culturally advanced neighbors to the West. Thus the country had no analogous traditions of technology, agriculture, science and education, trade, or even military technology.

For this reason, Russia's autocratic traditions deserve some consideration. For it was Russia alone that managed to hold back the tidal wave of European imperialism in the modern era. Where countless states and empires collapsed in the face of Western capitalism and European industrial power, Russia erected a highly effective deterrent, namely autocracy, that, coupled with an inaccessible heartland and a lack of a warm water coast, allowed the state to survive. The Russian model could be brutal, but it essentially delivered the goods for many Russian citizens. Russia survived a series of invasions by much more advanced countries, including early modern Poland, Napoleonic France, and of course Germany during the Second World War.

Poe makes other tantalizing assertions about Russian history. For instance, he argues that the Mongols did not have a dramatic effect on the course of Russian history. To be sure, the Mongols helped to make its chief tribute collector, Muscovy, the center of Russian Slavic civilization. Yet the Mongols weren't interested in colonizing Russia and therefore did not significantly alter the culture of the place.

In terms of the Revolution, Poe's broad perspective--he begins the account in the early seventh century when the Slavs first appeared in the Europe's written records--seems to emphasize that the Russian Revolution, for all its horrors, actually delivered modernity to most of Russian citizens. His argument is that the madness of Lenin and Stalin don't mean that the majority of Russian citizens didn't feel that their militaristic, autocratic state wasn't once again responsible for defeating an invasion force by a richer and more technologically advanced power. Moreover, the Communist system eventually succeeding in delivering education and a relatively high standard of living to an area of the world that had traditionally been mired in a poverty that was in part the natural outgrowth of geography and climate. Moreover, the Bolshevik Revolution delivered a model for achieving modernity that was to be emulated with success (whatever the cost to human rights) again and again around the world, including China, Vietnam, and Cuba, to name just a few countries that experimented with unrestricted despotism on the road to modernity.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Russian Music for Chameleons

Fran Leibowitz, famed writer for the Village Voice, called her historic but hilarious column, "I Cover the Waterfront." She took the title from Tennessee Williams, who once responded only slightly cryptically to an interviewer's question about his sexuality by using those same wonderful words. Well, as my better readers know (and there are better and worse readers, Charlotte), Soviet Roulette and I similarly attempt to "cover the waterfront." Even so, we don't know music. So it was a wonderful coincidence when I observed one of my college's great lecturers, Adam Gustafson, on the subject of Russian music in the 19th century.

Gustafson is a wonderful teacher. He's confident, entertaining, and frenetic. His theme today dwelt on the differences between the Russian Conservative and Nationalist Schools, which apparently mirrored the Westernizer versus Slavophile debates that overtook most of Russian literary society at about the same time.

According to Gustafson, the Conservative School were reacting to European stereotypes about Russia. At the time, Western Europeans saw Russia as a vast, dirty, ignorant, drunk, dark, cold, and utterly disorganized nation. (If only they had known how far Russia had come from the days of the Mongol Yoke!). In response, the Conservative School thought that Russia's music ought to become truly European, indistinguishable from the civilized music of Germany, Italy, and France.

The St. Petersburg Conservatory--naturally the Conservatory was set up in the country's most Western city--was the cradle of the Conservative attempt to emulate or even someday surpass Western models for musical excellence. And one of its first students--Tchaikovsky--quickly established himself as one of its greatest exponents. The middle class Tchaikovsky, born in 1840, nearly conquered the world with his universal aesthetic. His Swan Lake, Sleepy Beauty, and Nutcracker continue to delight (or haunt, depending on one's perspective--and see the Will and Grace episode where the two are ultimately unable to sit through the mawkish performance despite their longing for a holiday tradition) the world with their popular melodies.

As Gustafson reminded his class, Tchaikovsky was a virtuoso and wrote lots of first-class music, but he is especially well known for creating music for ballets. But to understand what this meant to Russians in the 19th century, Gustafson tell his students that "one has to think in terms of the NFL." At the time, everybody (and of course he means the middle and upper classes) loved ballet. The ballet was "special, popular, sophisticated, complex, and above all, athletic."

The Russians, of course, quickly became masters at the art of ballet. Then, and today, Russian dancers dominate the art. The most famous ballet of all of course is Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. In Gustafson's summary, this is a supremely moving--if also "emotional, romantic, and crazy"--piece of Romantic theater. There's a princess, Odette, who is captured by the evil Rothbart. Rothbart captured Odette and changes her into a Swan, at least by day. Odette lives in a world of swans, other captured women, on a lake that has been created from the tears of Odette's grief-stricken mother.

One day, a hero named Siegfried is out hunting and notices Odette changing from a Swan into a beautiful princess as the evening falls. The two frolic all evening and fall in love. Siegfriend decides to pledge his eternal love to Odette in front of everybody at a grand ball. This pledge would signify the end of Odette's curse. Unfortunately, the evil Rothbart substitutes his daughter, an imposter, for Odette. Thus Rothbart's pledge of eternal love is made to the wrong person, and Odette, peering inside the windows of the ball, is devastated. Her curse can no longer be lifted--ever. Naturally, this being a Romantic work of art, the lovers kill themselves, freeing the other swans from their curses in the process.

Tchaikovsky's ballet, and his tonal music in general, was "easy on the ears," and his melodies, the basis of so much Disney music, were nothing short of infectious. But there was a backlash. Eventually critics of the composer came to see his Romantic approach to music as melodramatic, kitschy. More immediately, work like this was criticized by the "mighty handful", the five chief composers of the largely self-taught Nationalist School. These composers saw Tchaikovsky as a "sell-out," someone not capable of recognizing the special genius of the Russian people or its music. The "mighty five", and Mussorgsky in particular, believed that Russia's music had to be distinctly Russian. Their music was site-specific, predicated on Russian locales, Russian folk tales, and Russian folk tunes.

Gustafson used Mussorgsky's "Night on Bare Mountain" as an example of this other type of music. "Bare Mountain", whose orchestration was created with the help of Nikolas Rimsky-Korskokov, took place at a specific site of memory for Russians, or at least Ukrainians--a mountain that was alleged to be the home of evil demons or the devil himself. In "Bare Mountain" a master demon by the name of Chernobog runs everything. He summons demons demons and only disappears when a church bell rings and the sun rises slowly over the Ukrainian landscape.

Next time, Gustafson promises to tackle Stravinsky. With enough of these wonderful lectures under my belt, Soviet Roulette will truly "cover the waterfront."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Diaspora

With loving and understandable bias, the documentary film series, Russian Choice, tells the story of the Russian diaspora, with loving bias. What does this story consist of? 80 years of exile in destinations as diverse as France, America, Tunisia, Turkey, Brazil, and Bulgaria.

It's the story of bitterness, nostalgia, and the unendurable and perhaps irrational hope of a return to the homeland. Russian Choice explores a number of different aspects of the diaspora, including the murder of the tsar's family, the defense of Siberia, the creation of the volunteer army, the cult of white generals such as Wrangel and Kolchak, the tragic retreat from the Crimea, and the Russian fleets betrayal at hands of the French.

The Russian community abroad was a splendid if also darkly pathetic thing. It consisted of writers such as Bunin and Nabokov, Russian-language newspapers, poets like Touroverev, students, engineers, scientists, officers, French patriots, Russian-language schools, Cossack cultural institutions, impoverished aristocrats, suicides, and cabbies. More than anything, Russian Choice reveals the depth of the community's nostalgia and raw anger at the memory of the Red Terror.

The series reveals the continuing horror of one ancient survivor of Wrangel's retreat from the Crimea with 150,000 Russians. But the film's makers and narrator are, even now, similarly perplexed by what happened to White Russia. Why, asks the narrator, aren't the heroes of the diaspora honored in Russia even now?