Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Communist Jokes

Ben Lewis, author of Hammer and Tickle: A Cultural History of Communism, collected hundreds if not thousands of jokes by Russians and Eastern Europeans about the Communist experience. Lewis believes these jokes are unique in that each topic implicitly links back to a general critique of the whole communist system. Here are a few of them:

Who dug the White Sea canal?
The right back was dug by those who told jokes...
And the left bank?
By those who listened.

What is the difference between Stalin and Roosevelt?
Roosevelt collects the jokes that people tell about him, and Stalin collects the people who tell jokes about him.

An old housewive joins a queue: "What are they giving out?"
Person in queue: "A slap in the face."
Old housewife: "To everyone? Or just Stakhanovites?"

Who invented barbed wife?
Lysenko, who crossed a snake with a hedgehog.

Will there be a police force when we have achieved full Communism?
No, by then people will have learned how to arrest themselves.

What is the definition of Capitalism?
The exploitation of man by man.
What is the definition of Communism?
The exact opposite.

Trotsky wakes up in the morning.
"How are you?" an assistant asks.
"I don't know," he says. "I haven't read the papers yet."

What were Mayakovsky's last words before he committed suicide?
"Comrades, don't shoot!"

What's the new sign in Kiev hospitals?
Anyone who has come in for radiation therapy, please go outside.

Do you know why Romania will survive the end of the world?
Because it is fifty years behind everyone else.

What is the difference between a Western fairy tale and a Communist one?
The Western one begins, "Once upon a time there was...", and the Communist one begins, "Once upon a time there will be..."

How will the problem of queues in shops be solved when we reach full Communism?
There will be nothing left to queue for.

What are the most constant problems facing the Soviet economy?
Temporary problems.

What is the difference between life in the time of Jesus and life today?
In those days one man suffered for us all. Today we all suffer for one man.

Young Pioneers on Film

Dziga Vertov's silent film, Kino Eye, is revolutionary in its technical as well as social dimensions. The film is one long sequence of innovative cinematographic maneuvers. It's subject matter is twofold: first, early Soviet society, taken as a whole; and second, the beneficent activity of the Communist youth association, the Young Pioneers.

What does the naked eye of the camera reveal about the Young Pioneers? They are, quite simply, selfless, helpful, healthy, ubiquitous, and progressive. The Young Pioneers, the junior of the two official Communist youth organizations--the other being the Komsomol-represent the future of Russian society twice over. First, the Young Pioneers are, of course, future Communists. Second, even as youngsters, they are actively reshaping Russian society according to Marxist principles.

The camera's eye catches the Young Pioneers celebrating new Communist holidays, demonstrating Communist enthusiasm by marching in quasi-military marches, teaching drunkards about the negative consequences of drinking and smoking, putting up propaganda posters related to public health and the merits of buying from economic cooperatives (the First Red Supermarket is cheaper than private enterprise), exercising or grooming, helping widows with their agricultural work, making tin implements for needy villagers, and drilling for the coming conflict with capitalist warmongers. As one woman remarks in text, "...they aren't going to church, but I'm happy anyhow."

The camera's eye depicts the essential role of the Young Pioneers in building Russian socialism. But its canvas is broader than that. Kino Eye takes the viewer throughout urban and rural Russia, depicting technological triumphs such as trolleys, light bulbs, telephones, and radio receivers, realistic scenes such as T.B. sanitariums and mental health institutions, and complex, multi-step economic processes, such as bread making and slaughterhouse activity.

At times, the film's subjects seem to have been chosen purely for their suitability for the medium. How else can we explain an elephant's trip to the zoo, a record player's movement, or a Chinese magician entertaining a crowd? But overall the film retains a visual idea: Communist Russia is complex, forward-looking, and actively overcoming a traditional heritage in the interest of progress. This isn't a simple approach to agitprop; the director shows us drug addicts, vagabonds, alcoholics, seemingly backward-looking peasants, and insane people. Nevertheless, these honest scenes of ugliness only highlight the accomplishments of the Young Pioneers and the worthiness of the Communist project.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Comedy of Communism

Soviet Roulette is biased: it is naturally obsessed with those authors who mix personal ruminations with historical or literary observations about the Soviet Union. See, for example, previous posts on The Possessed and Inside the Stalin Archives. One of the best efforts in this strange genre is Ben Lewis' Hammer and Tickle: A Cultural History of Communism. Lewis, who isn't afraid to describe an illuminating relationship with a neo-communist East German girlfriend, believes that humor lies at the heart of the communist experiment. Lewis' book (which expands on a movie on the same subject) is an open-ended investigation to decades of communist jokes, which were used both to ridicule socialist states as well as their alleged enemies, including capitalists, Western powers, and even foot-dragging apparatchiks.

Lewis doesn't provide readers with any easy answers about the meaning of communist humor. He tracks jokes by topic, regime, era, purpose, and venue. He contrasts competing historical and cultural theories related to the impact of jokes on despotic regimes. Did the ubiquitous jokes undermine the regimes they denigrated or serve them by replacing more meaningful, action-oriented forms of political protest? Lewis offers no simple solution, although he does admit that people seem to have put away humor when they finally took to the streets in the late 1980s to bring down communist rule once and for all.

If Lewis doesn't advance a single thesis about communist humor, he does help to show how his approach to understanding the logic of communism is indispensable. Humor is at the heart of many different facets of the European experience of communism. People told jokes about almost every facet of communist existence, including shortages, shoddy goods, the cult of Lenin, stupid or corrupt leaders, sham elections, police surveillance, and capitalist economic supremacy. Stalin told jokes about his enemies. Communist periodicals derided the state's perceived enemies.

Lewis quotes historian Steven Cohen by saying something to the effect that communism was only serious for about five minutes, but has been funny ever since. If this tongue-in-cheek formulation underrates the tragedy of the gulags, purges, and collectivisation famines, it does point to the essential absurdity that always lay at the heart of communist social and economic theory. By the 1960s, Eastern Europeans understood that in many ways their society was a parody of the Western one. Their economy produced things that nobody needed; hard work had almost no relationship to economic reward; and the continued viability of most Eastern European nations was contingent upon the generosity of the Western ones, who routinely gave out large, sub-market loans.

There is a flawed Woody Allen film entitled, Melinda, Melinda, that unconsciously follows Marx's famous dictum about the nature of history. In this tale, Allen makes the point that the same story can be told in two different but equally satisfying ways; either as tragedy or farce. Although it's sometimes hard to credit--see my previous post on film, The Trotsky--looking at communism as comedy somehow seems worthwhile and long overdue.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Vladimir Nabokov's book of interviews, letters to the editor, and editorials establishes the following: Nabokov... 1) is a genius; 2) knows that he is a genius; 3) doesn't usually make any aesthetic or intellectual compromises; 4) hates communism and other forms of political dictatorship; 5) eschews literary trends and labels and schools; 6) is proud of his scientific publications about butterflies; 7) loves America; 8) thinks The Gift is his best Russian book and Lolita may be his best overall book; 9) believes that Russian liberalism was vibrant on the eve of the Revolution; 10) believes he is better than most other major European or American authors, living or dead; 11) is confident about his translations, and also about his philosophy of translation; 12) is contemptuous of other people's translations; 13) is not interested in religion; 14) dislikes interviews and interviewers, by and large; 15) has a well-established creative process and philosophy of literature; 16) is not particularly found of literary criticism; loathes Freud, Marx, Sartre, et cetera and so on.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Wild East

America and Russia have always resembled one another. Most importantly, the concept of manifest destiny isn't unique to America; Russians think of Siberia in much the same way as Americans think of the Wild West. The "frontier myth" is central to both national identities. In Andrei Konchalovsky's lengthy epic, Siberiade, we get the chance to examine the Russian version of an American cinema cliche up close.

Like the American film, Giant, Siberiade revolves around the quest to open up Siberia by drilling for oil. Beginning in tsarist Russia, the film tracks several generations of Russian frontiersmen (and their love interests) and ends with the discovery of oil in the modern era. It also interweaves this local story of a small and fragile outpost of civilization with that of the broader Russian-or rather Soviet-narrative of progress.

Near this tiny village one man spends his life in a seemingly Sisyphean struggle to carve out a road in the Siberian taiga. But his heroic struggle is a metaphor for the larger Soviet story of development. Throughout the film the director inserts historical footage, or classic black and white film footage that appears to be historical footage, to remind viewers that throughout each of the decades that the film covers, the Soviet Union represents the almost Hegelian ideal of progress, movement, technological innovation, hard work, heroism, and forward motion.

If this small group of Siberians eventually discovers the oil that transforms a wilderness into a "Sun City" of economic sophistication and industrial power, the nation as a whole was experiencing this same metamorphosis on a truly Titanic scale. As the film nears its climax, it's interesting to note that Party officials and bureaucrats (rather than the entrepreneurs and capitalists of American mythology) play a decisive role. Although it's an ordinary driller who heroically throws himself into a harm's way in an attempt to close down a burning oil well, it's a regional party boss who defends the project by asking his superior, perhaps a member of the Central Committee, to remember how, in World War II, the two men used to take "risks" in order to defeat the Germans. Thus, even in 1979, the era of stagnation, the Party's leadership is cinematically represented by intelligent, even daring, apparatchiks. Although Party leaders and politicians honor the workers who make things happen on the ground, it is they who should and do make the future happen in Siberia.

Friday, December 24, 2010

What Would Trotsky Do?

There's a quaint little Canadian movie--and what Canadian movie, with its reverential references to Alice Munro or the Cowboy Junkies--isn't quaint--entitled, The Trotsky. It's a film that makes a playful attempt to reconcile the communist revolutionary tradition and contemporary, bourgeois Canadian society. The film is about a young man, 17 or 18, who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. What would a real revolutionary do when confronted with contemporary social conditions? Would comfortable, wealthy, quasi-socialist Canada warrant revolutionary activity? Leon Trotsky's young avatar never doubts his calling. Notwithstanding a comfortable upbringing, he sets out to organize the workers at his father's business and then eventually attempts to organize the students at his school. His indefatigble efforts to oppose authority in the service of justice bare fruit, reminding viewers that courage, conviction, and the ability to see injustice (whether it's there or not) can have profound effects, even today.

The film has a brilliant leading man, but doesn't quite work. Is the problem that communism isn't very funny? This explanation seems implausible, as a subsequent post on communist humor and the book, Hammer and Tickle, will make clear. But certainly it's difficult to calibrate mirth with a real social message, as this film tries, heroically sometimes, to do. On the one hand, the film's protagonist is a wonderful pastiche of the historical actor, whose encounters with ordinary Canadian high school students and authority figures are often awkward, unexpected, and exceedingly funny. On the other hand, the film is ultimately about how young people can or should organize for social justice in a world of post-modern malaise. (By the way, I didn't invent that term; rather, I was accused of "post-modern malaise" by a job interviewer who thought I was being to flippant about the rhetoric of education and empowerment.)

Using the Bolshevik example in this context can seem perverted against the historical background of communist brutality and democide. The incongruity is more or less disturbing at various points in the film. Take, for example, the scene in which Trotsky's father finally acknowledges his love for his wayward son by giving him a copy of Mao's Little Red Book. It's signed, "From your favorite fascist," or words to that effect. One wants to laugh, but Mao (to say nothing of Hitler) was responsible for so much twentieth century tragedy, one doesn't.

In fact, this film makes one doubt whether the radical revolutionary tradition has anything at all to recommend it. Certainly the Trotsky's successful kidnapping of the school principal doesn't dispel any doubts one might have about this style of school reform. Even so, the film deserves some credit for sketching out a portrait of a modern radical, as opposed to the modern reformer we all know so well. It's still useful to ask questions about the role of radical opposition even after such opposition has become so endangered by parliamentarianism, financial stability, and (Canadian) socialized medicine.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Avoidance Therapy

I once had a friend who was deeply troubled by psychological disturbances. She took medication to stabilize her mood disorder, but her treatment plan naturally included a healthy dose of talk therapy. My friend went diligently to her therapist for perhaps two years. Over time, my friend's mental health improved dramatically, but she still struggled with paranoia and a host of minor but nevertheless troubling mental health issues. For instance, my friend labored under the delusion--perhaps not wholly constructed by her infected imagination but nevertheless distorted by bipolar disorder--that her supervisor and colleagues at work were out to undermine her and ultimately get rid of her. In her opinion, they might even be contemplating active sabotage, subverting her scientific studies for instance to render her experimental data ridiculous. This was the type of delusion she regularly discussed at weekly therapy sessions. Well, one day my friend brought another of her worries to me. She was saddened by a romantic breakup, and missed a former a lover. Further, she now felt at sea when dealing with members of the opposite sex, and consequently worried that she would not be able to "move on" in her romantic life. After some discussion of the matter, I asked her what her therapist made of this complaint, and what he suggested as a remedy. Without hesitation she explained quite forcefully that she never discussed her personal life with her therapist.

My friend meant of course that she used her therapist as a vehicle for stabilization, but only in reference to her more serious, chemically-grounded, mental problems. For the quotidian woes of everyday life, she had her friends and her normal psychological resources. Boy troubles simply didn't rise to the level of professional treatment, and were none of her therapist's business anyhow. Yet still, the statement, which amounted to a general principle or credo, that one should never discussed private life with a therapist, stayed with me, and seemed emblematic of the way many of us approach external scrutiny. Surely, we avoid it whenever possible--even do our best not to discuss that "real thing" that lies at the heart of our neurosis.

Take another example, culled from another conversation with a friend over her therapy, which illustrates the same point. This second friend told me once that she had gone back into therapy with her former psychologist ,even though this therapist lived in another state. When I asked how this was possible, she said that naturally they conversed by phone. Not having heard of telephonic therapy, I asked how well this worked. She said that under ordinary circumstances it wasn't ideal but that her therapist happened to be blind, which meant that there really wasn't much difference between meeting with her therapist in person and talking to her by phone. Somehow, the idea of a blind therapist struck me as a wonderful metaphor of the way most of us go about delving into the truth about ourselves. On some level--the ego, is it?-- want to set up the mechanism for self-discovery and inner investigation, but on another level--if I say Id, do I have that right?--we want to do everything possible to avoid revelation, light, truth, and self-knowledge. In the end, we all want a blind therapist.

In the quest to understand the Revolution, I sometimes wonder if I'm self-sabotaging. If not, why do I constantly move away from the central revolutionary texts to explore distant pre-revolutionary events, nineteenth century literary history, recent Russian films, and even the current dramas of the Putin and Medvedev administrations? Why don't I spend more time getting to know the primary texts of Revolution, such as Trotsky's detailed treatment and the others? Why don't I learn the Russian language in order to explore primary texts? Am I looking for a blind therapist?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stalinism in Film

Burnt by the Sun, a Russian film set in the late 1920s, follows the lives of a communist war hero, famous for his exploits against the Whites during the Civil War, and his small circle of friends. This lively group of friends share a warm and cozy home, and enjoy one another's company. The colonel's wife and small girl seem especially contented. Even so, this happy home is threatened by vague but unrelenting external pressures.

Everyday Stalinism is a creeping, insidious force. In its most brutal form, the state sends tanks to eradicate the fields of local peasants, presumably in order to enforce collectivization. Relying on his seemingly unassailable reputation as an ally of communist, the colonel narrowly averts this disaster. But the state is closing in on his country idyll. Communist propaganda is a constant presence even in this remote area. It arrives by newspaper harangues against Stalin's enemies, by radio propaganda, by children's parades and communist celebrations, by civilian defense force maneuvers. The result is a low level but unceasing state of anxiety and a fear of strangers.

One such stranger turns out to be a long lost lover of the colonel's wife. This man courts his former lover. Soon, however, the lover's past and present are revealed. He and the colonel are rivals in two levels. Aside from their quarrel over a woman, the colonel knows this stranger to have been a spy during the Civil War, a traitor to the Whites with whom he sympathized. The stranger has been corrupted by the Revolution, turned into an agent of the secret police, a man who destroys others in order to survive.

The stranger's animosity toward his rival in affairs of the heart will be compounded by Stalin's animosity for rivals for the affection of the Russian people. The colonel's bravery cannot save him; indeed, that bravery puts him at risk. The stranger soon calls in the Chekist thugs who will destroy the colonel. Not even a signed photo of the colonel with Stalin can save him. As we know, military leaders were more vulnerable than anybody in Stalin's police state. Their charisma and potential authority was a constant threat to the paranoid sovereign's power. In a clumsy visual metaphor, a balloon carries a portrait of Stalin over the beaten colonel as he is taken away to be tortured and executed for mysterious crimes. Stalin, the sun, seems omnipotent, both life-giving and soul-destroying.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tycoon, Gangster, or Liberal?

What is it about Khodorkovsky that makes him so damned intriguing? Surely the fact that he was once Russia's richest man--whose personal wealth topped four billion dollars--but now languishes in a prison cell has something to do with the enduring appeal of his story. Is Khodorkovsky Russia's Al Capone or is he a modern day Herzen, crying out for the rebirth of liberal dissent against a monstrous autocracy? Perhaps he is both. In Keith Gessen's London Review of Books review of Richard Sakwa's book, The Quality of Freedom: Khodorkovsky, Putin, and the Yukos Affair, the erstwhile oligarch emerges as a complex man who has come to represent an ever more complex age, the age of Putin.

For Khodorkovsky is a former komsomol officer who exploited the wild instability of the Yeltsin years with an equal dash of brilliance and knavery to build a spectacularly successful bank and essentially (if not illegally) rob the citizenry of its state-owned oil company. Khodorkovsky's triumph is the story of capitalist Russia. Violence, one of the fundamental themes of early capitalist Russia, seemed to reinforce Yukos' ascendancy, although the correlation between oligarchy and low-level criminal battles seems hard if not impossible to prove.

Over time, Khodorkovsky's business empire became, like the business empires of many other oligarchs, a state within a state. Handsome and always outwardly polite and mild-mannered, Khodorkovsky gained enough stature to resist Putin's attempt to reassert the authority of the state. Eventually, Putin offered oligarchs a deal: stay out of politics, and the state will avoid asking difficult questions related to mega-businesses. Most oligarchs took the deal. A few fled Russia never to return. Khodorkovsky couldn't grasp the limits of his power. Soon, he was imprisoned and stripped of his vast wealth.

Today Khodorkovsky has become an emblem of resistance to Putin and his brand of government. He's a lucid, limpid champion of liberal dissent. Without the fear of losing either wealth or liberty, he seems free to voice his dissatisfaction ever more stridently, naively, and urgently.

A Dignified Hustle

How much talent did modern Russia have? Even after the best and brightest of the country was decimated by the First World War, the Civil War, the Great Hunger, and the Purges, talent survived, even if much of it was forced to sneak abroad. Take, for instance, the case of Nina Berberova, the brilliant author, translator, and writer of biographies of Aleksander Blok, reviewed previously by Soviet Roulette, and Baroness Budberg, a.k.a., Moura.

Berberova, a genius in her own write (though Nabokov reminds us that the word genius, in Russian anyhow, is solely reserved for Pushkin, Tolstoy, and perhaps one or two other supremely gifted literary artists), was a friend of many Russian luminaries, including Maxim Gorky and Khodasevich. She was also a friend if not social equal of an older and more sophisticated Moura, Baroness of Budburg, a translator, cultural consultant for British films, and so much more.

Berberova's admiration for Moura was predicated on the woman's strength, beauty, self-confidence, discretion, intelligence, bravery, and brand sense of adventure. While so many other high-born ladies crumbled under the volcanic pressures of revolution or exile, Moura did not. After discovering that the husband who had given her an aristocratic title had been murdered by peasants, Moura struggled to survive. Neither hunger nor violent social dislocation could put an end to the strange career of this intrepid woman.

Wondering the streets of a lonely, impoverished, and now-alient St. Peterburg, Moura's pre-war ties to Great Britain eventually brought her into contact with the ever-diminishing British mission in Moscow. This in turn led her into a very real love affair with that spectacularly adventurous and eloquent British diplomat and agent, Bruce Lockhart, who plotted to overthrow the Soviet government while it was still in its infancy. If Moura had done nothing more than help her lover, Lockhart, to escape from his Cheka prison, her life would merit some attention. But Moura's fascinating tale didn't stop there.

When Lockhart was let out of Russia, Moura continued to survive in war-torn Russia, eventually finding solace in the intellectually vibrant circle of Maxim Gorky. Gorky, as will be remembered, launched some of the most ambitious publishing enterprises in the history of communism. Once an ardent supporter of Lenin, Gorky opposed the Bolshevik crackdown on liberal as well as leftist political competitors. Eventually, Gorky oversaw the translation and publication of world literature in Russia on a stunning scale, even in the midst of abject poverty. When Gorky eventually withdrew from Russia in protest, Moura found her way to him in exile. But all the while, she maintained innumerable contacts with family, friends, intellectual peers, and perhaps secret agents.

But Moura's life of danger had not yet ended. In its next iteration, the consummate survivor allowed Gorky to return to Russia without her, and eventually became the life partner of one of Gorky's admirers, H.G. Wells. Berberova is naturally in awe of this woman who earned the love of no less than three first-tier interwar actors, Lockhart, Gorky, and Wells. But her admiration stems less from her knowledge of the devotion each of these man held out to Moura, and more from this aristocrat's irrepressible capacity for survival and self-invention. Moura attracted brilliant men, but this attraction was generated by their recognition of the fact that this woman did not come to them with even a shred of dependency. Moura would survive with or without any of them, though she never spoke about her independence in a melodramatic or spiteful way.

Moura's life will perhaps always be shrouded in some mystery. She made up stories all the time, maintained discrete lives, and may also have had ties to the Soviet Union's espionage services. (Berberova even speculates that Moura may have gone back to the Soviet Union to be at Gorky's deathbed). Certainly, she always believed the best years of communism lay in the future.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Melanie Griffith in the USSR

The hit 1980 Soviet film, Vladimir Menshov's Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears, is a tender work of propaganda, a class comedy in post-class Russia. The film revolves around the tension between rural and urban life, but in the hands of Menshov, Moscow, the biggest of all big Russian cities, is a gentle giant. To be sure, the three female protagonists who come to the metropolis understand that city life presents them with a series of challenges, including--ironically for a socialist state--mild but real class distinctions that separate them from doctors, directors, professors, and other urban sophisticates.

And yet this Moscow is the friendliest of all large cities. It's filled with friendship, fun, steady jobs, easy escapes to the idyllic pre-industrial countryside, educated people, a great subway, an excellent health care system (the best in the world, so one character claims, as he points out that an abortion clinic should be easy to locate), and a tranquility and peaceful order that is apparent in the film's opening credits, where Moscow's planned streets and grand but predictable architecture are presented to viewers with a soft, sweet lullaby of a Russian song.

If communist society in this film has a fault, it's a lack of housing--but don't worry, viewer, some of the main characters are actually working on the problem, and two characters actually meet and fall in love as they construct new apartments for those who need a little more space. The film's characters have little to complain about: even at the bottom of Soviet society, they are provided with comfortable rooms in a "worker's dormitory," ample opportunities to advance themselves through hard work and education, and stores that are chocked full of tempting consumer goods and foods.

On the other hand, the film acknowledges at least one trade-off for communist happiness, and that is space. In Moscow at least, the characters live in cramped quarters. When two of the girls gain the chance to see how older, more successful Muscovite lives, it's not a spectacle of overwhelming architectural plenitude. One supposes that Russian audiences would have revolved at the idea of any working class Muscovite girl gaining access to a private bedroom. Even when one of the three women becomes a significant figure in Russian industry and a member of Moscow's city council, she spends her nights in a fold-out sofa. The twenty years that separates the two halves of the film doesn't give anybody much breathing room. But perhaps the film keep its protagonists in tight quarters in order to signal the essential equality of Russian society.

Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears is a sentimental film, redolent of its American counterpart, Working Girl, crossed with the Way We Were. Like Working Girl, Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears is about women. The saving grace of the film is its relatively serious treatment of the dilemmas faced by modern Soviet women. Lenin statues, red flags, and posters of Karl Marx, haven't improved men all that much. They can still break hearts, drink too much, and avoid helping around the house. Of course, the real problem in Soviet society, and one that this film wholeheartedly acknowledges, is that World War II and hard drinking have left Moscow with a severe shortage of men.

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
is a sweet film. But its sweetness is not only revealed by its admiration for the women who work hard, search for love, and take care of one another when confronted with adversity. Rather, it's full mawkishness is reserved for the film's faith in communism even as the system tattered in the edge of collapse. Socialist values are everywhere. The leading man, a tool-and-die maker, is portrayed as a worker-hero, someone who is at least as important as the scientists who depend on his creativity on the shop floor. He's even given a speech about the dignity of NOT seeking managerial opportunities. The leading woman distinguishes herself for her willingness to do the hardest manufacturing jobs, and her ability to do them intelligently and efficiently. The film's portrayal of communism is relatively static but makes gestures toward dynamism. When the leading woman becomes and engineer and high-profile manufacturing leader, she pushes hard to overcome inertia and circumvent shortages. She is, one character says approvingly, "tough but fair." She wants results rather than excuses. Even twenty years previously, while working as a front-line proletarian, a "fitter," she is celebrated for critiquing pay levels and demonstrating a general sense of initiative.

It's easy to feel smug about a film that clearly overlooked or minimized the fault lines of Soviet society. After all, the USSR was on the brink of implosion. However, the film seems to suggest some of the virtues of an alternative path toward modernity, a path in which work and workers have at least some claim to dignity, and women are encouraged to see themselves of fully capable of transforming themselves and their countries through perseverance, hard work, intelligence, and sisterhood.

The Last Holy Fool

Soviet Roulette recently described the rise and fall of Gregory Rasputin, as seen through the lens of a documentary film, Land of the Tsars. Today we revisit the theme by describing the creative film, The Agony, finished in 1975 but released much later due to its politically charged themes. Here, in Klimov's excellent film, Rasputin is seen as the mirror image of Nicholas II and his wife. Rasputin, oily and grotesque but simultaneously charismatic and sensual, is a malevolent force who inevitably seeps into the moral and political vacuum of the monarchy in 1916.

This Rasputin is self-serving but slick--labeled a thief by the wise peasants who remember him upon his triumphal return to the countryside--charlatan. As bad as he is, the film makes his appearance and influence seem almost inevitable. The tsar, portrayed at least a few strokes of sympathy, is utterly lost. Striken by his ill son, and weighed down by the memory of the blood he has shed by earlier decisions related to the Lena Strike, the Russo-Japanese War, Father Gapon's march to the czar's palace, the 1905 Revolution, and the especially the First World War, Nicholas II is clearly lost.

God is everywhere in this film, and no where. The royal family prays, church fathers bless soldiers at the front, and holy icons abound--but God's silence is palpable. What is Nicholas II to do? With his army bloodied and his authority in the duma under attack on all sides of the political spectrum, Nicholas increasingly needs a miracle, the kind of miracle that only a strange and disgusting monk, who speaks in tongues and wallows in the mud, seems capable of delivering. Alas--Rasputin takes a bribe that leads him to deliver bad military advice that leads to catastrophe, and the way is clear for an aristocratic coup that leaves Rasputin murdered. The miracle comes--Rasputin survives poisoning and an initial gunshot before being gunned down once more in a grand courtyard--but it's not what the tsar and his wife had in mind.

As an aside, the film comes with a documentary about the director, Klimov, who is responsible for films such as Farewell and Go and See. Klimov, who grew up in the ashes of Stalingrad, eventually rose to become Gorbachev's man to reform the entire Soviet film industry in the age of Glasnost and Perestroika. His official position under Gorbachev was First Secretary of the Union of Soviet Film Makers. In this short biographical sketch, one sees the complexity of the end of communism in Russia. On the one hand, Klimov supports reform; on the other, he's clearly the man in charge, or at least the man who will deliver Gorbachev's message about the limits of freedom in the new age of aesthetic experimentation. One interesting note that the Klimov film makes is that it's the first time Nicholas II or Rasputin were actually depicted in Soviet film. It's also at least the seventh time in non-Soviet film history that a film about Russia's last Holy Fool was made.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Snippets: Life in the Near Abroad

Please accept my apologies for this post, a series of fragments about nearly contemporary life in Russia and other former Soviet republics. When family members hand me a stack of Economists, I feel compelled to scan them for a description of how things are going seventy years after the October Revolution. The past is prologue, and vice versa.


According to the book, Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal, this area, birthplace of Stalin, has the highest density of languages in the world. In 1900 it was the world’s biggest oil producer. In 1917 three Caucasus states briefly became independent. The area was fortunate to have largely missed direct involvement in the Second World War. After the war, it became a playground for the Soviet elite. The area is home to several "frozen" conflicts; talk of NATO expansion in the area ended after the recent Russian-Georgian War.


NATO intends to have have polish troops defend Lithuania in the event of a war with Russia. Poland and Lithuania, two countries that were united only 440 years previously, maintain frigid relations. Poland has ten times the population of Lithuania and Lithuanians still resent Polish cultural hegemony in the Vilnius area during the Interwar period. Important Polish assets may be sold to Russia, alarming some Lithuanians.


Estonia maintains flat taxes, free trade, and a strong currency board. In 2004 it achieve NATO and European Union membership. In 2011 the country is scheduled to begin using the Euro as its official currency.


Latvia has been practicing relative economic usterity. According to the Economist, it's made sound economic decisions and even wants to adopt the Euro.


Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries to emerge from the wreckage of the USSR, is divided by ethnicity and held together by two roads that link the north with the south of this mountainous country. The north is more ethnically Russian the south, and less Islamic. The country, whose boundaries emerged as late as 1924, must decide whether it prefers a parliamentary democracy or a strong presidency. It has 5.4 million people. Its emigrant remittances are crucial to its economy and, according to the Economist, represent a full 22 percent of GDP. Half a million Kyrgyzs work in Russia and up to 100,000 Kyrgyzs work in Khazakhstan. Most of the country's food is imported. Uzbekistan sometimes closes borders in response to unrest in the country. This, despite that Uzbeks are often a persecuted people in Kirghistan.

Kirghistan has no history of democracy, though a recent election was hotly contested. The Economist says its leaders don't seem to know how the president, 120 seat parliament, and prime minister should work together, if at all. Kirghistan's undemocratic neighbors fear revolution and democracy. Russia, despite a strategic interest in the area, would be unwilling to risk another costly intervention in the area. In some ways, Russia may benefit most from democracy, since this would allow it to gain needed local allies. The states are divided against themselves, the result of Stalin's successful effort to carve up the area into competing ethnic states. The area is awash in water disputes, spies, ethnic enclave rivalries, nomad/farmer tension, and great power intrigue.


Minsk and Moscow claim to love one another but there's tension behind the scenes. Oil prices are one source of friction. Alyakashandr Lukashenka is also upset about documentaries that portray his leadership, and Belarus, in a negative light. Belarus has retaliated by allowing the Georgian president to be interviewed on Belarus TV. There is also some friction about a possible customs union between Russia and Belarus. For their part, Russians are wondering what they have gotten in return for their policy of giving subsidized oil to Belarus. Belarus, for instance, didn't recognize the independence of Georgian breakaway areas.


In April 2010 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former boss of the oil company Yukos faced two trials for the same alleged crime, or "double jeopardy." He was being accused of underpaying his takes and stealing his company’s oil. The man's website www.khordorkovskycenter.com outlines his position. The Economist believes the man is being punished for refusing to submit to Putin as other oligarchs did. He had, for instance, financed some opposition parties. At this time, Khodorkovsky is unpopular with the Russian people as a whole, but very popular with intellectuals and human rights activities. The treatment of this famous dissident and former oligarch is a defining moment for Putin's legacy.

Moscow represents ten percent of the Russian population and a quarter of its economic output. It's also polluted, and full of traffic. The summer was the hottest on record, thousands died from heat stroke or drunken swimming as they attempted to escape the sun. There are 142 million people in Russia, and 400,000 of die from alcohol each year. The population may be shrinking as fast as 700,000 a year according to the Economist. A new road is being built that should speed up traffic between St. Petersburg and Moscow, but are forests being cut down wantonly? Is correction at work? There's a new Moscow mayor now that Yuri Luzhkov was sacked after 18 years on the job. The new mayor, a Putin loyalist, is Sergei Sobya-nin. Oddly, he has no security or oil background and hails from Siberia.


Russian signed a deal with Ukraine to give it gas in return for the use of Sevastopol for its Russian fleet. The majority of Ukrainians support this deal, which blocks Ukraine from joining NATO--but the Economist maintains that this wasn't really going to happen anyhow. The fleet is week but has great historical significance to the former superpower.


President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 70 year old "leader of the nation"--ruler since 1989--is a man invested with special powers for life. Notwithstanding widespread corruption, Kazakhstan's economy maintains a solid rate of growth. It's benefiting from a market economy, banking reform, a generally free market, sound educational policies, and healthy direct investment. There is some uncertainty about who will succeed the president in in Astana.

That Damned Seagull

In order to support the Chicago 2010-2011 Soviet humanities festival, the Soviet Arts Experience, I saw Chekhov’s play, the Seagull, at the Goodman Theater the other night. (No matter that Chekhov pre-dates the Soviet era; the Goodman obviously had nothing to lose by including the play in the festival’s billings).

It’s not my favorite Chekhov play: I’ll take Uncle Vanya or the Cherry Orchard any day of the week. Maybe if I could figure out what the seabird represented things would be different.

I do sympathize with the leading character, the young man who struggles to write something beautiful but ultimately fails to do so. I remember a time in graduate school when I was faced with the prospect of writing a master’s thesis. For as long as I could remember I had considered myself to be a good writer. But then suddenly I was confronted with my first genuine opportunity to prove my worth as a writer and I couldn’t produce more than a single paragraph. I remained glued to my computer for weeks at a time. I’d read my single paragraph over and over again, sometimes softly, sometimes out load. I’d rearrange a few words, change an adjective, and then put things back the way they were. Sometimes I’d leave my desk to grab a bottle of Peach Snapple at the local convenience store, only to return to my project a half an hour later.

The introductory paragraph remained largely untouched as the weeks turned into months. Over time, I came to believe that I was having an almost mystical experience with my solitary paragraph. I felt that by devoting so many countless hours to crafting the perfect paragraph I was coming into contact with some dark, mysterious essence of human communication. The words themselves seemed to break free from their superficial meaning. Like the Sanskrit sounds of the Rg Veda, my paragraph was magical chant, a window onto eternity. I suppose it didn’t help that when I wasn’t staring at my eight lines of text, I was reading the beat prose of modern Sufis such as Celine, Genet, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsburg. At one point I picked up a copy of Camus’ The Plague where, as I now only vaguely recall, another writer was at work on a masterpiece as the city succumbed to quarantine and apocalypse. In the end, they discovered his text and, unless my own experience with words has perverted my memory of the Plague, it consisted of only a few lines.

I’m reminded of what Fran Leibowitz said about a period in her life when she failed to produce anything substantive. She said that she hadn’t really suffered from writer’s block at all. Rather she had been a victim of writer’s blockade. Lynda Barry has something to say on the subject as well. She says that writer’s block occurs when one fails to recognize the seriousness of play. Barry says that we misremember childhood. Play isn’t necessarily light-hearted fun: it’s deadly serious. Children arrange their toys with purpose and serious intent. At any rate, writing requires playfulness. It’s just that playfulness isn’t always, or perhaps isn’t usually, much fun.

This blog is the flip side of my dwarf master’s thesis. Where once I struggled to fit the entire universe of meaning, the whole of my earthly experience, into a single page of prose, now I write out everything, no matter how insignificant, and could deposit 1000 master’s theses. Surely Chekhov’s protagonist wouldn’t have shot himself had he lived in the age of blogs.

Wilson and Nabokov

Nabokov’s letters to Edmund Wilson--published in the book Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940- 1971--are wonderful to behold. They remind us of the genius of both men. In his American phase, Nabokov was busily translating, annotating, lecturing, analyzing, promoting, butterfly collecting, and writing. His work was prodigious. Although he was now writing in a second language, Nabokov wrote an enormous quantity of short stories, novels, poems, commentaries, letters, lectures, translations of Russian classics, and scientific treatises on butterflies and moths. Wilson, in addition to his work as an editor, was equally busy writing poetry, prose, history, translations, lectures, letters, and literary criticism. Together, the two opinionated men seemed to be capable of debating almost every aspect of global, or at least Western, literary culture.

Their letters demonstrate that both men felt extremely comfortable with American, French, German, British, and Russian literary history. Wilson, literary editor of the New Yorker, sometime husband of Mary McCarthy, knew almost every major intellectual of the Atlantic seaboard, including the Caribbean. Not content with translating European modernism for an American public, he ventured directly into the Russian revolutionary project, producing his masterpiece, To the Finland Station, in the midst of dozens of other major and minor literary projects.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to Wilson, is the respect with which Nabokov addressed him in their letters. At first, Nabokov’s fondness for Wilson seems to be linked, at least in some small measure, with the concrete commercial favors Wilson did him throughout their long acquaintance. For instance, Wilson recommended Nabokov for university appointments, suggested him as a translator whenever the occasion arose, collaborated on projects with Nabokov, reviewed his books, provided him with literary introductions, critiqued his English, or made suggestions regarding Nabokov’s many literary contracts.

Over time, the balance of power shifted but Nabokov revealed his ongoing respect for Wilson by his continued intellectual engagement with the man, despite ideological differences. Neither man pulled his punches on the subject of political ideology. For Nabokov, Wilson fundamentally misread the Revolution, which had nothing to recommend it. According to Nabokov, whose father had once served as a high ranking official in the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks had put an end not just to the reactionary aristocracy but also to a very vibrant and viable liberal political tradition that had included parliamentary democracy, a respect for dissenting opinions and human rights, and an independent judiciary.

Wilson agreed with Nabokov that Stalin was a tyrant, but did not agree with the proposition that Lenin’s original project was debased and despotic. Moreover, Wilson thought that Nabokov’s biased refusal to acknowledge the positive aspects of the revolutionary tradition in Europe led him to underrate the importance aspect of the social dimension of literature. I think perhaps that Wilson was on to something though Nabokov’s privileged position in today’s literary canon suggests that Wilson effectively lost both the historical and the literary debate with his Russian interlocutor.

One sympathizes with Nabokov during the 1940s and 1950s. Americans didn’t always take him seriously, thinking that his claim to represent a middle ground between Bolshevism and White Reaction was untenable if not insincere. It reminds one of how bisexuality is treated today. People don’t tend to believe that one can adopt a middle ground between gay and straight. Surely the bisexual is merely covering his tracts, pretending to be something more reasonable than gay? Why, people sometimes ask, doesn’t the bisexual just get it over with and say that he isn’t attracted to women at all? Nabokov repeatedly faced intolerance and disbelief over his claim to be neither tsarist nor Marxist. Why hide things? It was obvious that he hated the Bolsheviks. What could this mean if not a love for the Ancien Regime? At any rate, while we’re on the subject of sexuality, it’s interesting to note that it was Wilson who turned Nabokov on to a fascinating “true confession” of an irredeemable pederast that surely formed the genesis of perhaps his finest English novel, Lolita.