Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Vysotka Prism

I've spent the past few years getting to know the Russian Revolution, Soviet history, and Russian history in general. The blog reflects my ongoing struggle to make sense of this enormous and enormously important topic. But Soviet history is slippery. One can approach the topic from the point of view of revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, expatriates, foreign enemies, foreign sympathizers, intellectuals, peasants and workers, male Russians, female Russians, ethnic Russians, non-ethnic Russian Soviet citizens, victims, apologists, or even post-Soviet or "New Russian" citizens. I am often overwhelmed by these diverse perspectives, and I'm overwhelmed without even mastering the historiography of recent years. But I like Anne Nivat's approach to Soviet history, which is to tell the story or revolutionary and post-revolutionary Russia through the prism of one of the iconic addresses of Stalinist Russia, the Vysotka, one of seven skyscrapers that housed, and continue to house, some of the most important people in Russia.

In reality, Nivat's essay on Russian history isn't really about this architectural landmark, although she describes its features in some detail, not neglecting to note the role slave labor played in its construction. Rather, Nivat's tale is about the Russian people. Interviewing her neighbors, Nivat discovered many of the fault-lines between old and new Russia. The occupants of the Vysoktka include dissents, intellectuals, artists, Stalinists, former apparatchiks, traditionalists, nouveau riches, and everything in between. In the earliest years of the 21st century, Nivet's subjects are understandably obsessed with economic survival. With the collapse of Communism, many of the Vysoktka's residents are immersed in a complex and ever-shifting economic landscape. Does it make sense to privatize the building? Should one sell off one's address, rent it to wealthy foreigners, or hang on in order to avoid larger condominium fees at other addresses? All in all, Privet's interviews reveal the complexity of Russian history, a history filled with memories of suffering (but also faith in collectivist ideals) and also fears (and hopes) about the un-mapped future.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Omnivorous censorship, Implacable propaganda

"Horrors Of Making The Mistake of Expecting To Find In Russia What You Elsewhere Find Without Expecting"

"My dear fellow, let me beg you most earnestly not to make the ridiculous mistake of judging by appearances; the thing to realize, that here people run themselves: they are truly--for the first time in human history--free."

I have returned to reading E.E. Cummings' satirical travelogue and modernist manifesto, Eimi. While many other foreign writers came away from Russia with positive impressions of "the world's first proletarian state," Cummings was obviously appalled by what he saw during his sojourn in Moscow. Cummings saw a culture of surveillance, falsehood, propaganda, atheism, bureaucracy, and xenophobia. He also encountered a number of naive expatriate defenders of the communist dictatorship. These sycophants were utterly enthralled with their hosts, and willing to forgive almost everything if it meant that they could continue to believe that the Russian Revolution had brought humankind one step closer to utopia. The quotes below are, more often than not, the apologias of foreigners who decided to see progress where in fact there was only sacrilege, a dearth of consumer goods, an acute housing shortage, a runaway personality cult, torture and murder, a dead artistic climate, and countless other banalities and horrors. Forgive me for stringing such a long series of random quotes together. I sometimes remind myself of the man in my office who underlines every single word of his daily newspaper. The point of Eimi is that Soviet Russia was indeed a brave new world, but it was an absurd and dreadful one.

Soviet Apologia

"You must realize that we, we the Russians, have over us no sovereigns; we are not compelled; we are striving for IDEAS."

"What you've noticed is that each of us has an INNER DISCIPLINE, not a discipline which has been imposed by some outer authority. Let me make this point perfectly plain--people talk of Stalin as if he were a dictator! why, you can't imagine how small he is at a workers' meeting."

"You mean, I presume, that comrade Stalin is not imposing his power on others, but is expressing their power."

"Well, what if prohibition is a failure in America? That's the fault of America's social system: the burdens imposed upon the workers by capitalist society are enough to weaken anyone's character."

"..anyone who still wants to serve The Lord can do so, but the Lord's servant must have a useful occupation or starve; people have awakened to the fact that religion is opium: in a worker's republic there;s no place for parasiites..."

"Well, ten years ago I was born. Do you know what that means? I became a communist."

"Would you like to see the vast industrial plants by which Russia is trying to get her place in the world? Russia is striving; a whole race, a vast part of the earth..."

"...I always feel that we haven't any right to criticize: the point is, you are now in a workers' republic which is bound to make mistakes like anything else; but the mistakes are being rectified as quickly as possible--and after all, the ideal is what counts, isn't it!"

"They're not police at all, they're guardians of the proletariat, and quite the most spending organization in Soviet Russian--altogether noble and unselfish--why I've even been accused of being in the Gay--Pay-Oo myself.."

"Do you realize that without some sort of guidance you will not see anything, let alone understand?"

"Yes, that's a radio: there;s one in every room: the programs are mostly propaganda, but very interesting"

"Of ocurse, I shouldn't dream of living like this anywhere else: the point is, what you spend here enriches the government instead of some private individual who has a great deal too much already.."

"You probably don;t realize that coffee is a tremendous luxury!--not that things aren't getting better every day; it's really nothing short of miraculous, what they've done."

"mymymymymymym, How I envy you, Seeing Moscow for the first time...."

"...he was much impressed and showed a genuine understanding of the basic principles on which this worker;s republic is founded...really. yes...[T]hese mischievous correspondents (at least the Russians are honest thieves) got hold of poor Gene Tunney and they took him to a place where ecclestical refuse of one sort and another was being burnt--not the really good things, of course: the good ones are carefully preserved by the government, it;s extraordinary what they;ve done, really extraordinary.. By the way, this is a dead secret--I'm interested in icons, myself, but from a purely business standpoint, you understand--even my worst enemiescan't accuse me of being religious! O: well, and the correspondents arranged it so that, just as poor brother Tunnney came walking in, a life-size statue of Our Lord Jesus Christ rolled right out of the flames clear to Gene's most Catholic feet. Giggle. At least that's the story. Tunney, of course, was horribly shocked--it spoiled his entire Russian trip."

"Oh well...but we who've seen Russia before--they can't fool us!"

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Humble Servants of the Revolution

"Please, please let me visit him. After all, you're a human being."
"There are no human beings here, Eliena Petrovna, only humble servants of the revolution."

"Try as I would to exorcise it, the knowledge that she was a secret police agent was ever a ghost at the banquet of our affections."

"Within a year Nikopol seemed not so much an industrial establishment as a hunting ground for the police and their secret informers."

"Only a modern Dante in a pessimistic moment could evoke in words that picture of the secret underground factory of the Commissariat of Munitions, operated chiefly with slave labor."

"Thanks, Mother, and don't worry about me. I'll be all right. I know revolution is no picnic."

"Suddenly I found myself among men who could eat ample and dainty food in full view of starving people not only with a clear conscience but with a feeling of righteousness, as if they were performing a duty to history."

"A lush, ripe obscenity is the most striking and sometimes the only reminder of the 'proletarian' origins of our regime."

I had never heard of Victor Kravchenko's brilliant postwar polemic, I Choose Freedom, until I read John Fleming's The Anti-Communist Manifestos. But Kravchenko's autobiographical attack on the Soviet Union was enormously popular, both in the United States and Europe, and did more than almost any other book to undermine Russia's reputation in the West. Fleming is slightly incredulous that French and American Leftists were unable to believe that Kravchenko, a relatively high level Soviet bureaucrat, had personally written the book that so powerfully undermined Western confidence in their erstwhile ally.

However, even today it's hard to believe that a translator--however free the translation--could have transformed the biography of an engineer and bureaucrat into such a perfectly complete indictment of Bolshevism. Yet however much Kravchenko was aided, the autobiography is historically accurate and essentially true. Kravchenko really witnessed what he said he witnessed; and the Soviet Union really was as bad, if not worse, than his testimony suggests. It's only the horrific facts of the Soviet economic and political system that make Kravchenko's story seem incredible today.

Kravchenko's slow rise to bureaucratic prominence gave him a tour de horizon of Soviet malevolence. Over the course of a decade, Kravchenko witnessed collectivization and man-made famine, purges and super-purges, police state surveillance and torture, class warfare and Party privilege, bureaucratic over-centralization coupled with economic chaos, propaganda disassociated from social reality, judicial crimes and slave labor camps, and diplomatic hypocrisy and military incompetence.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

8 Pieces of Empire: A Dissent

Long-time readers of Soviet Roulette are accustomed to Fur Coat's insightful analyses of Soviet culture and politics. But I have to take issue with his reading of Lawrence Sheets' 8 Fragments of Empire.

Fur sounds disappointed at the absence of a comprehensive analysis of the decline of the Communist regime. But I found here a profound evocation of the peculiar change-in-stasis and stasis-in-change that marked the Soviet collapse. Sheets' characters manage to reinvent themselves over the past twenty years, but the cloaks they don are never altogether different from their Leninist-Stalinist models. The Petersburg petty hustler, the Chernobyl tour guide, the thugs of Georgia and Chechnya, even Eduard Shevardnadze and the other post-Soviet satellite leaders, all appear to have internalized the forms and features of empire. Fragments of it get recycled, grafted onto local cultures (even that of nomadic Sakhalian Island reindeer herders).

The chapter on Chernobyl is especially profound: despite the stubborn insistence of a handful of natives to return to the ghost towns lying in the shadow of the blown reactor, we get a creepy reminder that no Soviet monument will survive nearly as long as the strontium and cesium in the soil of Pripyat. One local booster claims that more people died from the resettlement process than from the accident itself. It's hard to imagine a better symbol of the post-Soviet era.

One irony of Sheets' account is that he himself seems frozen in this vast space, incapable of looking away from the horror or seeking out a normal life. As in Dexter Filkins' "The Forever War", the correspondent becomes a victim of trauma and suffers alongside his subjects.

Finally, I have to call into question Mr. Coat's claim that Afghanistan and Chechnya are "ungovernable." That seems to commit a basic fallacy of historical reasoning. The fact that they haven't been governed well doesn't prove they can't be, and I find Sheets' suggestion that empire is both inescapable and yet fated to die more illuminating than piles of politico-economic analysis.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Soviet Pursuit of Happiness

"Fortune forever refuses my company."

"Who gave you permission to die all alone? Who gave you the right to an improvised death?"

"If the moujik dies, who will feed Russia?"

Having recently watched Chris Marker's excellent documentary about Alexander Medvedkin, The Last Bolshevik, I was eager to see Medvedkin's 1934 silent masterpiece, Happiness. The quirky film is filled with folklore allusions, slapstick comedy, visual jokes, and satirical depictions of every level of Ukrainian society. In this rural comedy, we see half-naked nuns, watermelon projectiles, a polka dot horse, a woman attached to a tilling harness, a runaway tractor, and dueling holy persons.

According to Marker's film, Happiness was deeply controversial with leading Bolsheviks. It's not difficult to see why: while Medvedkin's Happiness isn't overtly critical of collectivization, the surreal film treats peasants as the subject rather than the object of history. while satirizing almost every aspect of Soviet village life, the hero of Happiness, Khymr, dreams anti-socialist dreams that revolve around food, kingly privileges, and private ownership in an era of mass starvation. While not a kulak or counter-revolutionary, Khymer wasn't originally drawn to the kolkhoz, as prosperous as this kolkhoz turns out to be. Rather, Khymer wants what all peasants want: independence.

Like millions of other peasants who resisted collectivization, we suspect that the impoverished but absurdly stubborn Khymer might risk his own life rather than embrace a Soviet-style version of happiness. At any rate, the transition from Tsarism to Communism did not magically transmogrify Khymer's hardships. Nor did they alter the existential facts of Khymer's life struggle. Khymer, the Ukrainian peasant, confronts his myriad enemies--police, clergymen, bureaucrats, thieves, and soldiers--alone.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sheets' 8 Pieces of Empire

"A return to these horrors was unthinkable, save for the fact that nothing in Russia was unthinkable." Isaiah Berlin, The Soviet Mind.

Lawrence Scott Sheets was a foreign correspondent whose beat somehow became the whole of the former Soviet Union. As such, Sheets had a unique vantage point over the disintegration of the "prison of nations." Over and over again, Sheets visited corners of the former empire which were awash in internecine violence. Sheets' account of the conflagration of the last twenty years, entitled 8 Pieces of Empire: a 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse, isn't overly theoretical: Sheets offers neither historical backdrop nor overarching explanation of two decades of murder, mayhem, militarism, neocolonialism, political fraud, religious extremism, and ethnic anarchy. On the other hand, Sheets' deeply personal, war correspondent approach to the topic of post-Soviet history sheds invaluable light on the horror of the Soviet implosion.

Sheets claims that his book deliberately avoids meta-narrative. That is to say, he argues that if one seeks to tell a single story about the Soviet Union's collapse and political aftermath, one has already missed the main point about the former Soviet Union, and that is that the Empire was fragmenting into many more than the "eight" pieces. Although we can't ultimately afford to do without a unifying theory of post-communist collapse, Sheets' fast-moving, journalistic descriptions of widely discrepant ethnic conflicts gives readers a sense of both the complexity and horror of the events he describes. In fact, Sheets' journalistic forays to far-flung ethnic battlefields is in many respects a useful corrective to the existing meta-narrative of Russia's journey through financial and political chaos into the coercive but putatively stable present of Putin and Medvedev.

What are Sheets' 8 pieces of empire? They include the Russian mainland (St. Petersburg in particular), Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Sakhalin Island, and Afghanistan, but almost all of these fragments of empire threaten to splinter (or have already splintered) into even small pieces. The irony of the book's title is that this isn't really a tale of empire or even geopolitics at all, but rather a very personal examination of one incredibly brave war journalist's decent into a wide variety of humanitarian hells. Over and over again, Sheets put himself in harm's way in order to show the world how bad things had gotten in remote areas of the world.

Chechnya, of course, was the worst place of all. In Chechnya, there were no winners. Grozny, like the rest of the country, was almost completed destroyed by two waves of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Almost nothing, either physical or psychological, was left standing. Kidnapping became endemic. Terrorist attacks, both inside and outside of Chechnya, commonplace. Over time, the staunchest rebels forgot seemed to forget what they were fighting for, other than bloody revenge. Indeed, the only semblance of a moral code in the country now seems to belong to the radical Islamic groups. Having overthrown any hint of secularism or traditional Sufism, the radical Islamic groups advocate Sharia law (which ironically has been implemented by Moscow's puppet government) and jihad in the name of some future pan-Central Asia caliphate.

The saddest element of Sheets' life as a reporter has surely been the number of personal friends, professional colleagues, and sources he has lost over the past twenty years. The juxtaposition of personal and public loss is extraordinarily depressing. Sheets often hints at the psychic toll of these losses, even suggesting that he had to leave field journalism as a result of these numerous traumas, but it is probably impossible to explain how these senseless deaths have ultimately changed him. We may or may not know how the accidental or even deliberate death of a single friend or relative can irrevocably change us. How can we approximate the impact of terrorism, torture, air attacks, and genocide on the soul of the reporter who so often "got there first" to report the news back to an indifferent West?

As a memoir of political reportage, the book makes few political arguments. Sheets has somehow maintained an incredible posture of objectivity in the midst of his travels. While he's not shy about pointing out the faults of an Uzbek dictator or Georgian politician, he seldom offers a prescription to end the chaos. As a reporter rather than a public policy expert, one cannot blame him for doing his job. However, Sheets' brief description of the Soviet and early American experience in Afghanistan is an implicit indictment of American foreign policy. How is that America, then or today, could have so completely overlooked the Soviet experience in that country? Like Chechnya, Afghanistan is unconquerable. As Sheets points out, even some of our closest allies in the country have changed sides countless times over the past few decades. And whatever else we know about the country, it is no oversimplification or ahistorical stereotype to assume that Afghans will go on fighting outsiders, and one another, for many, many more years to come.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Romantic Russia

"Can this be the same Gizella? Where are those joyless, sad, exhausted eyes?"

"All my life I have been searching for death and I have found it in your dance."

"The most sublime peace is death."

Although most of Evgeni Bauer's silent films precede the Russian Revolution, they shed some light on Russian film aesthetics during the First World War. They may also shed some light on the essence of romanticism and its impact on a generation of political revolutionaries. Bauer's films--which are filled with ghostly apparitions and feverish dreams--are powerfully romantic representations of love, but Bauer's idea of love is never very far removed from unhappiness, pain, and even death.

Evgeni's film, Twilight of a Woman's Soul, tells the haunting tale of a lovely but lonely woman, Vera, who cannot seem to find meaning in a life of luxury. That life of luxury is depicted by the backdrop of fashionable outfits and richly decorated homes. The heroine's natural habitat is filled with furs, hats, flowers, rugs, lampshades, well-dressed suitors, recitals, social engagements, elaborate window treatments, and comfortable furniture. Yet luxury does nothing to ease the existential pain of this particular woman. And this existential pain is made worse when she is deceived by one of her philanthropic projects, a shiftless conman named Maxim whose natural habit is the opposite of everything to which Bauer's heroine is accustomed.

The con man's milieu involves cards, alcohol, bad eating habits, and crowded, dilapidated housing. In the end, the forlorn heroine is deceived by this man she is trying to help, even raped for her trouble. This brutality devastates Bauer's already tortured soul, but she is alive enough to fall in love with a wealthy, titled suitor. The tragedy, of course, is that she is too ashamed to reveal her status as a victim. After marrying her true love, she confesses, revealing her dark past. Her new husband is appalled, and refuses to be reconciled to her.

The protagonist does the only thing that is left to be done: she becomes a famous actress and tours Europe to wild applause, still perhaps troubled by her failure to find happiness in the arms of a man. Meanwhile, her husband responds to the disaster as any man would: he lives a profligate life, entertaining women of ill repute.

In the end, the man comes to understand that only true love can cure his malaise and he searches Europe for two years to find his lost love. In the final scene, the heroine--now using a theatrical pseudonym--makes a triumphant return to perform for her native country. By some romantic fate, the deeply depressed husband finds himself at the theater. Seeing his beloved, he makes his way into her dressing room but is, alas, spurned by the great love of his life. For although she continues to hold his memory sacred, she has her pride: it's too late, she tells her husband. "I loved you once. I don't anymore."

The plot of Twilight of a Woman's Soul seems anachronistic, irrelevant to the cynical modern era, but even out of place in the traumatized world that succeeded the First World War. So is another of Bauer's films, Dying Swan. In this darkly erotic film, a speechless ballerina falls for a man who betrays her love by meeting a second woman for a romantic tryst. Devastated, the heroine turns toward her art, winning over her audiences with a hauntingly depressing rendition of, presumably, Tchaikovsky dying swan.

At the same time, an equally morose gentleman, a count no less, is relentlessly pursuing some kind of aesthetic rendition of death itself, painting skeletons to pass the time. When he sees the heroine's perfectly morbid representation of a dying bird, he is smitten, wanting only to capture this incarnation of death on a canvas. Alas, the ballerina's perpetual state of sadness--the inspiration for her art--is broken by a happy reconciliation with her original, and now repentant, suitor. The count, displeased with his model's new-found joie de vivre, kills the ballerina in order to preserve some semblance of her psychological attachment to the netherworld. For the director at least, love is a supremely serious matter: in fact, it's a matter of life and death.

A similar plot structures the Bauer film, After Death. Here, a solitary, bookish man named Andres emerges from his seclusion only to fall immediately and completely in love with an emerging actress named Zoia. The man and woman meet briefly at a park but somehow fail to unite. This, of course, plunges the actress into a deep and unbreakable downward spiral. Notwithstanding her success as an actress, the woman despairs and takes poison right before going on stage. Her death is undoubtedly her most spectacularly successful performance to date. She swoons, and then retreats from stage before being carried to a dressing room sofa where she expires, surrounded by adoring (and Roman garb-clad) actors, who would of course have appreciated the performance more than anybody.

But of course Bauer's romantic theatricality does not rest there. Like a scene from Wuthering Heights, the actress relentlessly haunts her suitor even in death. The hero cannot rest but seeks out his beloved's family to retrieve two mementos of his lover, a diary and a framed picture. Possessing these two reminders of the departed does nothing to help his obsession. His lover beckons him from the grave, and in a recurring dream sequence his lover, clothed in a long white dress and standing in an endless wheat field, calls him to her. Naturally, he doesn't try to resist, knowing that true love demands that he follow his lover to the grave.

It's interesting to analyze the Russian Revolution in the light of this type of unadulterated romanticism. Was the Russian Revolution, or at least its destructive aftermath, a repudiation of this kind of soulful earnestness? Or, on the contrary, did revolutionaries create an unprecedentedly complete social upheaval precisely because they expected their dreams to be tinged with tragedy? Whatever the answer, one suspects that Bauer's brand of dark Romanticism somehow shares some affinity with Russia's revolutionary utopianism.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Holy October

Although I have been obsessed with the Russian Revolution for several years now, it's only now that I have gotten around to watching Sergei Eisenstein's classic silent film, October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Created in order to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, Eisenstein's great film (now set to Shostakovitch's music) distorts history in order to create a powerful mythology of socialist insurrection.

In October, we see all of the iconography of St. Petersburg, cradle of the Revolution. We see Bolshevik Party headquarters, the Finland Station, the Winter Palace, the Neva River, the Smolny Institute, the Tauride Palace, the Bronze Horseman, the Aurora, the Kazan Cathedral, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Nevsky Prospect. We also witness many of the great events of the era, including the February Revolution, Lenin's return to Russia at Finland Station, the July Days, Kornilov's alleged counter-revolution, and the storming of the Winter Palace.

The film chronicles both the February and October Revolutions, although the bourgeois heroes of the first revolution quickly become the villains of the proletarian second one. With the rise of the Provisional Government, we see a sinister but also somewhat clownish Kerensky, whose ambitions are inevitably compared with those of Napoleon who, like Kerensky, cynically betrayed a popular revolution.

Eisenstein's Provisional Government is bourgeois, dictatorial, and closely aligned with church and monarchical ceremony. It's also a little bit ridiculous. As the Bolsheviks are seizing power, the film depicts one of John Reed's most famous vignettes: a parade of old bourgeois dignitaries is turned back by a proletarian solider with the threat of a good spanking. The film also pretends that Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government, was spending his time in tsarist luxury (he's ensconced in Alexandra's bed for instance) which was only mired by his fear of the Bolshevik future.

In contrast to Kerensky's absurdly isolated antics in the Winter Palace, Lenin, when he arrives at Finland Station, is greeted with overwhelming popular support. As a speaker, Lenin is portrayed dynamic, popular, and steadfast. In the Party's Central Committee meetings, Lenin is bold and decisive. When his proposal to seize power succeeds, we watch as Mensheviks cower and Bolsheviks bravely move toward their date with destiny. And that destiny is encapsulated in the film's ending. As Lenin returns to power, a clock in Moscow--and indeed clocks around the world follow suit--is frozen at 25 October 1917.


The two-part documentary, The Russian Revolution in Color, highlights the role of the Kronstadt sailors in the Russian Revolution and Civil War. The island naval fort that protected St. Petersburg from foreign ships housed about 30,000 well-trained and well-armed military men with deeply held socialist ideals, many of whom with revolutionary pasts. The sailors helped to ensure that the tsarist regime collapsed and later guaranteed that the second Russian revolution, the Bolshevik coup against the Provisional Government, was successful.

In March 1917, the sailors formed a revolutionary committee that coordinated a bloody overthrow of the hated officer corps. The sailors, committed to direct democracy and radical egalitarianism, formed their own laws, printed their own newspapers, policed their small island village, and supported the Bolsheviks who tried to take power in July but only succeeded in October.

After seizing power, Lenin's authoritarian tendencies further alienated the Kronstadt sailors, who were appalled by the Red Terror, War Communism economics, the Bolshevik monopoly on power, and peasant mistreatment and famine in the countryside. Although the sailors had rallied around the besieged Reds in the Civil War, they weren't prepared to forget that they had participated in t in order to obtain in the first two Russian revolutions in order to obtain freedom, direct and multiparty democracy, Soviet (as opposed to Bolshevik) power, and economic justice. In the end, the tension between the Bolsheviks and the radical sailors led to one final sailor rebellion, which Lenin and Trotsky put down ruthlessly, executing thousands and forcing others to flee to Finland after a heroic resistance.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Collapse of Western Communism

"Such people, such terrible people," she sobbed. "And that is the material out of which we must make the Revolution."

"There's good and there's bad in Revolution as in everything. The question is who will come out on top when the Revolution settles down, the honest people or the beasts..."

"Poverty, it appeared, was a most inappropriate godmother to a new world." From I Choose Freedom.

"If you believe, there is a god; If you don't, there isn't." Maxim Gorky from The Lower Depths.

I believe that a strong Israel is the best guarantee that peace will someday be possible in the Middle East. If Israel weakens, or is undermined in any serious way, what incentive will its neighbors have to someday end tensions and make a lasting peace with the Jewish people?

Ever since I was politically conscious, I have had a sympathetic view of the nation of Israel. My sympathy for Israel is predicated on the bellicosity of its neighbors but also on the history of the Jewish people, who have suffered frequently and grievously at the hands of non-Jewish Europeans. The holocaust was of course the ultimate expression of Europe's extraordinary capacity to inflict harm on a minority religion. But Russian history, including its tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet iterations, has witnessed countless episodes of egregiously bloody or vicious Anti-semitism.

Of course, my sympathy for Israel doesn't preclude sympathy for the Palestinian people. If European anti-Semitism made Israel necessary, local Arabs--not Europeans--were the ones who were forced to cede territory to the Zionist project, however legitimate that project was. So, although I continue to believe that a strong, secure Israel is a prerequisite for peace in the Middle East, I understand that the Palestinians have strong, legitimate claims against the Israeli state. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are entitled to civil rights, free economic development, and self-governance.

As the tide of world opinion continues to turn against Israel, I wonder about my support for Israel. Will history make my support for Israel seem ill-considered, ridiculous, or even immoral? Will Israel's sins in the West Bank and Gaza, sins related to colonization and police-state regulation, outweigh the sins of the terrorists and belligerent enemy states who oppose her? I continue to support Israel, but nervously, sometimes even guiltily.

By analogy, I think about how liberals and progressives in the 1940s and 1950s continued to support or excuse Soviet Communism in the face of overwhelming evidence of Stalin's brutality. Why were so many Western intellectuals sympathetic to the U.S.S.R. long after it became clear that the world's first socialist state was guilty of man-made famine, bloody purges, the gulag system, and a Nazi-Soviet diplomatic alliance? The answer, I think, is complex and multifaceted, but Western intellectuals generally believed that socialism was the best antidote to a wide variety of evils, including colonialism, militarism, unregulated capitalism, and fascism. They weren't always blind to the evils of Stalinism, but they assumed that the world's first workers' state needed to be protected against its enemies, its flaws overlooked. As the British journalist and Soviet sympathizer Walter Duranty famously said, "you must break a few eggs to make an omelet."

Opposing the sentiments of men like Walter Duranty were a small number of highly influential anti-Communist writers, many recent apostates from the quasi-religious socialist faith. John V. Fleming's beautifully written and exhaustively researched book describes four of the most important books in the under-appreciated canon of Western anti-communism. These books, which include Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Richard Krebs' Out of the Night, Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom, and of course Whitaker Chambers' Witness, help to explain how and why American and even French sympathy for the Soviet Union and its philosophical creed began to wane.

Koestler's book argued that Bolshevism was so inherently anti-humanistic that many of its chief theoreticians rated the Party as inherently more important than self-interest or indeed truth. An anti-Stalinist might be innocent of a specific criminal action against the state, but if he opposed the will of the Party, he was guilty of the larger crime of resisting human progress and the general course of history. In fact, even a loyal Bolshevik might be called upon to sacrifice himself for some broader Party goal, even if that goal was dimly comprehended.

Kravchenko's book, I Choose Freedom, was the autobiography of a Soviet official who defected from the Soviet Union while working as a trade official in Washington, D.C. The Ukrainian Kravchenko had lived through the entire Soviet experience and witnessed the worst aspects of the Soviet dictatorship first hand. His book is an indictment of Bolshevik politics as well as economics, and discusses collectivization, man-made famine, show trials and purges, economic inefficiency and chaos, ruthless Party discipline, and the overall transformation of Communist hope into dark Communist cynicism and despair. Amazingly, Kravchenko was forced to defend the very idea that Soviet Russia maintained prion labor camps in a French libel court. His victory in court--reinforced by a grudging $1 dollar fine to the Leftist French journal that attacked him--did at least give Gulag survivors the chance to testify about their experiences in open court.

The other two books in Fleming's wonderful book are Krebs' Out of the Night, which is an outrageously exciting if slightly fictionalized account of Communist as well as Nazi activities in the interwar years. Krebs' international adventures in communism revealed a highly unsympathetic and decidedly undemocratic German Communist Party, German Communist Party, and Comitern.

Fleming's greatest praise is reserved for Whitaker Chambers conversion narrative. Chambers, the famously controversial accuser of the allegedly communist state department official, Alger Hiss, was a disheveled, overweight, secretly bisexual, former communist spy. But he was also a brilliant and deeply learned writer. It seems hard to credit, but Fleming, a Princeton scholar of medieval literature, claims that Chambers' indictment of communism is a literary triumph on par with the greatest memoirs of all times, including St. Augustine's Confessions. I have yet to read Chambers' Witness to judge whether this is hyperbole or not. But it's certainly hard to understand how anybody connected with Richard Nixon might warrant a comparison with a Church father.

In the end, all of these books are worth reading, if only to remind us that there was a time when ordinary American and European intellectuals had to be convinced that Russian Communism was a positive menace to the most elementary forms of Western freedom. One wonders what, in our own time, is analogous to the war against communism.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Varieties of Communist Experience

"Look! A beautiful bourgeois apartment filled with ugly things produced during Communism."

Slavenka Drakulic's exploration of Eastern European communism, entitled A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, A Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, & a Raven, examines the varieties of post-war Communism through the lens of fiction. Although Draukulic's analysis of Eastern European Communism isn't strikingly original, her fictive device of using animals to narrate important facets of each country's unique national experiences is highly original.

From the mouse, the readers gets a tour of the Czech Museum of Communism. The mouse jokingly suggests that the museum ought to display household items such as diapers, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper, since these things were often extraordinarily difficult to locate in Communist countries. The Parrot, a personal pet of the Yugoslavian dictator, Tito, tells the readers something about Tito's international celebrity and charisma. According to the pet, Tito possessed thirty-two residences and put thousands of his citizens into political prisons, and yet still deserves some recognition for founding the global nonaligned movement and steering his country away from unmitigated Stalinism.

The bear, part of a Roma circus act, is Bulgarian, and tells about more about Bulgaria's first secretary of its Communist Party, Todor Zhivkov. On the whole, Zhivkov's thirty-three year rule was a period of economic stagnation. The dictator was wise enough to allow his charismatic daughter, Lyudmila, to disguise this impoverishment of material conditions with bread and circuses.

In many ways Lydumila reminds one of Imelda Marcos. Like Imelda, Lydumila held many official governmental posts. Like Imelda, Lydumila strongly believed that symbolic and even spiritual remedies could serve as effective antidotes to poverty. If you view a recent documentary about Imelda Marcos, you see that her thousand-plus pairs of shoes were not exactly spontaneous purchases. Instead, Marcos has created a full ideological defense of aestheticism. Believing that the last thing her miserable people needed was a reflection of their poverty, Imelda Marcos went out of her way to project an image of beauty. On a personal level, Marcos always made a concerted effort to live up to her reputation for glamour. And at the level of state policy, Marcos tried to create large public projects related to culture that could deflect the public from focusing--too narrowly in her view--on bread and butter issues. No matter that one palace of culture actually collapsed, killing more than a few of Filipino citizens, in her haste to impress the world. Lydumila adopted a similar approach to politics with her "national program for aesthetic education." Beauty mixed with nationalism could surely prevent the counter-revolution.

Drakulic's other animals have similar tales to tell. The cat describes Poland's difficult path to freedom, and subsequent attempts to come to terms with a legacy of collaboration in the face of Soviet intimidation. The mole points to the absurdity of the Berlin Wall, which humans, strange organisms that they are, often tried to surmount or breech by way of air balloon, tunnel, secret car compartment, or other ingenious devices. The escapes, or attempted escapes, continued right up until the wall came down in 1989. Before that, East Germany employed some 189,000 "informal employees" to ensure the regime's continued existence in the face of its unpopularity and economic backwardness.

The pig discussed Hungary's "goulash" Communism, which was essentially a reversal of traditional Communism ideology. Whereas the Bolsheviks always claimed that "whoever was not with us, was against us," the Hungarian dictator rather generously decided that "whoever is not against us, is with us." In these circumstances, the Hungarian Communist Party could overlook individual opinion and indeed private enterprise, just so long as the state's monopoly of public power was preserved in tact. The Romanian situation is explained by a dog, one of many thousands who roamed the streets of Bucharest as a result of the dictator's brutal decision to raise the homes of their owners. As the dog explains, having made the decision to treat his citizens like dogs, Ceausescu and his wife couldn't quite stomach the idea of inflaming domestic or foreign opinion by killing off this enormous and quite rapid dog population. Such was the absurdity of Romanian Communism, which of course ended with the savage death of the married tyrants.

The book concludes the story of a raven in tiny Albania. The raven witnesses the murder of one of Albania's leading politicians at the hands of his more powerful rival, the first secretary of the Communist Party. According to Drakulic's bird, the man, who was murdered for no other reason than that his son had decided to marry an Albanian with relatives who lived in the suspect West, left the following note, which might serve as an epitaph for any Eastern European victimized by Communism: "Oh, you ravens devouring me, don't touch my black eyes."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A World of Would-Be Communists

"His was a tragedy of a pure communist in a world of would-be communists."

Chris Marker's documentary, The Last Bolshevik, gives us a window into the creative life of one of the Soviet Union's best early film directors, Alexander Medvedkin's whose adult life corresponds almost exactly with the life of the Soviet state.

According to Marker, Medvedkin was an artist, innovator, atheist, propagandist, Civil War veteran, and, notwithstanding his aesthetic independence, a communist true-believer. Medvedkin is perhaps most famous for his masterpiece, Happiness, which incorporates elements of Russia's long folk tradition to satirize peasant life before and after the Revolution. But his career was filled with aesthetic highlights. For instance, Medvedkin staged the storming of the Winter Palace prior to Eisenstein's famous film, October, attached film cameras to soldiers' rifles, and turned a propaganda train into a miniature film studio. One experimental film sequence seems to incarnate Medvedkin's aesthetic daring: reversing footage of the 1931 demolition of a cathedral in Moscow, the Church of the Christ of the Savior, Medvedkin called attention to the high cost of the Soviet Union's march toward the future, and indeed pointed out that Russia's past might yet be resurrected.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"There were so many surprises..."

"Today's crooks aren't expected to repent."

"Now I think: Did Vermont exist?"

"There were so many surprises...Because we never knew anything."

"There was a tacit agreement--they delivered dialectical materialism lessons, and we acted like sheep."

Alexander Solzhenitsyn possessed remarkable wisdom and moral courage. He wasn't always right, but he got one big thing right: the Soviet Union was a morally bankrupt, blasphemous enterprise from start to finish.

Alexander Sokurov's television documentary, Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, gives us a window onto the soul of this brilliant if opinionated man. In the film, we get a snapshot of Solzhenitsyn's rich but tortured life, including his university education in physics and mathematics, his early dedication to socialist ideals, his brave leadership in the Second World War, his trial for slandering Stalin in personal letters to a friend (they burned his war diaries), his eight years in the gulag and exile in a small town in Kazakhstan, his emergence as a powerful new voice in Russian literature, his subsequent persecution as a dissident writer, his eighteen year exile in Vermont, his second marriage and family of three boys, and his dramatic return to a free Russia.

Sokurov's quiet film treats the grand old man of Russian letters with awe and reverence. Sokurov allowed the camera to languidly follow the Nobel Prize winner as he slowly moved along a nature trail or sat at his desk in silence working. We see two studies, an old-fashioned typewriter, hand-written manuscripts, a green and red pen, bookshelves, and windows that overlook a forest.

In conversation, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates his obsession with the Russian language (he says he learned Russian again, in prison, from a dictionary--from the ground up) God, nature, ethics, repentance, Russian literature, and his bitter past. Some of the film's most powerful moments occur when the writer's memories are stirred by some banal topic and he seems to be transported back in time the Gulag, which never seems far away. Solzhenitsyn wife explains that she and the author receive thousands of letters from former political prisoners, and actually systematically contacted former inmates or their families to offer them financial assistance.

Solzhentisyn's second wife is also interviewed. She describes her husband as a simple, quiet, modest, orderly, grateful, and easy-to-please man, a creature of routine. But what a routine!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Stray Dogs Attacked Me

"Autocracy is a socioeconomic system that exists only to the degree that we are convinced of its inevitability"

"The highest government officials make the very existence of innovation possible only as a result of serendipity."

Alexei Plutser-Sarno's brilliantly original, Notes from Russia, is an semiotic analysis of the collapse of Russian communism. Plutser-Sarno, a lexicographer and folklorist, tells the story of this brutal transition by dissecting the myriad hand-written or printed notes, posters, fliers, and graffiti that covered the walls of Russia's public places in the early 1990s. Although a few of these cris de coeur could be found anywhere in the world, taken in the aggregate, these idiosyncratic messages reveal a troubled, crisis-ridden citizenry trapped half-way between the worst aspects of capitalism and communism. What kind of place was Russia in the early 1990s? Which aspects of Soviet culture survived the political downfall of the Soviet political system, which aspects of capitalism emerged immediately after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., and how did the two elements coexist with one another? Plutser-Sarno's handwritten notes and petty bulletins tell us that everyday life in this period frequently entailed a brutal struggle for survival. The authors of Plutser-Sarno's vast collection of street messages are all conditioned by an assumption that life in Russia was impoverished, unequal, venal, cynical, conspiratorial, bureaucratic, and chaotic. Russia in 1991 was a veritable landscape of despair, replete with runaway inflation, financial scandal, alcoholism, unemployment, ill health, police corruption, prostitution, violence, fraud, and every other form of social malady known to modern society.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the post-Soviet moral economy is that although Russians were actively participating in the marketplace, they seemed to deeply resent capitalism. Consumers resented producers and sellers, but the reverse was also true: store owners had all sorts of nasty things to say to their would-be customers. Post-Soviet Russians were not yet willing to accept the notion that they were obliged to be courteous to others in exchange for currency.

The flip side of the brutality of Russian life in the early 1990s was that many formerly Soviet citizens were desperately naive. I am reminded of the strange sensation I get every time I see a sloppy, hand-written cardboard sign that advertises easy work or a quick real estate sale. I often wonder about the dual naivete of such egregiously unprofessional attempts to make money at someone else's expense. Who exactly deserves my sympathy when I see the uneven lettering on these hastily constructed signs? Is is the potential customer who is apparently so downtrodden that he or she might actually be lured in by such crude overtures? Or is it the would-be flim-flam man who actually pins his own hopes to such transparently unsophisticated ploys?

On hard times:

Peepl! [sic] I hav [sic] a request for you. I just did my term. I was on my way home. Stray dogs attacked me. I'm hungry. Pleez help me out if you can.

I have been informed that the hot water will be cut off for 30 days starting May 6th. Floor Chief.

Attention! The lifts are old and might get stuck. Don't get in with more than four people, because if you get stuck you'll suffocate.

Working breaks from 9:30am to 10:30am, 10:40am to 11:40am, 2:30pm to 3:30pm, and 3:40pm to 4:40pm.

Attention Superintendents of Condominium -- 337! Please write down the apartment numbers where the radiators are not working (no heating): Apt 1, 2, 3, 20, 16, 28, 71, 80, 121, 18, 93, 146, 108... [etc.--the list goes on and on and on].

Looking for a girl with a tent. Will provide canned meat and massage. You should bring hope; sex is not obligatory. Meet me by this message board at 10pm. I look a lot better than I write!

On the marketplace and marketplace values:

In this apartment we don't sell moonshine, buy fish, or know the whereabouts of granny Ann! Now clear off!

Liquidation sale! I am going back to Vietnam for good.

For sale. Ural motorcycle. RUNS. No Wheels.

No vodka sold from 11pm to 8am. And stop cursing and shouting! Don't even ask! We're all in this together.

Announcement. Dear public, so you don't complain, we would like to warn you beforehand that the meatballs are from the day before yesterday. Kitchen Manager.

No entry; Not receiving today; I don't answer questions.

This register only rings up eggs.

Payphone accepts only metro tokens.

If you're still closed tomorrow, you're fucked! I'm not alone. There are many of us. Why fuck do you put up a schedule, if no one's ever there? You should notify people beforehand, like it says in the contract--the one you don't give a shit about. With services like this, we're going to stop giving a shit about you. We can easily put an end to your monopoly. You've been forewarned.

We enforce selective admission. The Management.

To patrons: people wearing tracksuits are not allowed in the bar.

High paying job for slender girls with no problems.

On the Russian culture of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and regulation:

From 10:00pm to 6:00am the life jacket is kept in the chief of lifeguard's office. The key is with the janitor in apt. 43.

If you drown, you're not swimming here again. Ever!

...The minimum temperature of the water for swimming must be 64 degrees Fahrenheit....You must enter the water only on the command of your superior officer and only to the designated must swim in the direction and manner determined by your commanding officer.

On the general lack of civility in civil society:

Information for imbeciles, morons, and other Moscovites: The Rubbish dump is across the street, 500 meters.

Slam this door and you'll need a disability pension.

No toothpaste protects your teeth better than paying for your ride.

Warning! Don't park your cars near the entrance, or you'll pay with a broken windscreen. The Management.

Stop! Warning! Posting notices on these walls of pavilions is forbidden. A fine of 1000 roubles will be enforced and physical force will be used against those who post ads here! The Management.

Please return the ATM bank terminal for a reward. The Management.

Dogs! Don't allow YOUR OWNERS TO EMPTY THEIR BOWELS in the courtyard.

Gentlemen junkies, please do not throw used syringes and other paraphernalia through the letter boxes!

A note to whoever is stealing the light bulb: I'll kick your your teeth out one by one, arsehole!

Warning! It is a sign to kiss holy icons while intoxicated! If you do so, it will incur the wrath of God!

On Russian politics:

I vow to smash the system of bureaucratic and criminal outrages.

On Russian hopes:

Do you want to talk to God? Call 916-70-09.

Jesus is waiting for you.

Magic and sorcery. Cheap.

We offer an easy ride to other worlds....Materializer of Spirits and Distributor of White Elephants, who kills bedbugs with his gaze and collects empty bottles by willpower alone....

From bathroom messages:

Don't flatter yourself--come closer.

Fellow Pharaohs! Please push your pyramids after you!!!

Attention office staff! Please flush the toilet regardless of goals set and results achieved. The Management. If the result have exceeded all expectations, please use the toilet brush. The Janitor.

Guys visit us all the time, so please wipe off your monthly traces of the Red Army.

This place is cursed. Soiling it will cause impotence and incurable diseases of the prostate gland.

Dear customers. If you are not satisfied with the condition of our toilet, push down the handle to summon assistance. The Management.

It is not just immortal to stand on the toilet bowl with your feet (you could use some toilet paper); it is very dangerous! There have been numerous occasions when feet have slippe--and broken, dirty tiles can cut your arse like butter. A gruesome death from lock-jaw is not worth the price of your ignorance.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Isaiah Berlin on Soviet Russia

"[Pasternak] had spoken to his sons. They were prepared to suffer."

Isaiah Berlin seems to have gotten Soviet Russia just right. Although the one-time diplomat and long-time Oxford intellectual historian wrote about Russia at the height of the Cold War, his subtle analysis of Soviet culture balanced a clear-sighted critique of the USSR's illiberal political regime with a deep appreciation for Russia's brilliant and enduring literary and intellectual heritage.

Berlin's richly informative essays are collected in the book, The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture Under Communism, edited by Henry Hardy. The essays were composed at various times and for various purposes. The general theme of the collection is that the Soviet regime of the severely restricted artistic and literary freedom in support of Marxist orthodoxy and Stalinist ideology, although the chastened Russian spirit somehow lived on in the form of Pasternak, Akhmatova, and at least the memory of people like Mandelstam--someone who "compromised less than others."

The Communist system undermined the dignity of the Russian people but in many ways it functioned extremely well. The Party made extraordinary sacrifices but preserved its monopoly on power. At first, Communism didn't seem to be antithetical to artistic excellence. The 1920s were a time of experimentation, vitality, energy, and anti-capitalist aesthetic innovation. In the 1930s this restlessness was quashed. The Soviet leadership, Stalin mainly, institutionalized art. The Party's instrument, the Writers' Union, enforced conformism and orthodoxy. The Russian intelligentsia lost contact with the West. The Great Purge and Terror of 1937-38 almost destroyed what little artistic independence remained.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Ukrainian Alamo

"But you are Ukrainian aren't you?" "Yes, [but] a worker."

Without commentary from Vance Kepley, noted film historian, Alexander Dovzhenko's Arsenal, a film that depicts a heroic encounter between doomed Bolsheviks and their Ukrainian nationalist opponents, is a difficult film. Created in honor of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Dovzhenko's silent film--which Kepley tells us met with critical acclaim despite its sometimes bleakly neutral depiction of the human cost of civil war--intentionally departs from conventional narrative film-making strategies in favor of allusion, ellipse, and montage. The film has a proletarian hero, Timosh, who realizes that the Bolshevik Party is his friend and soon decides to help that cause. But Dovzhenko often strays from that hero's journey of understanding in favor of interesting if confusing visual and narrative digressions.

The film's story isn't impossible understand. Dovzhenko, who originally supported the nationalist cause, explains the Bolshevik cause in the following way: World War I decimated the country--wounding or killing millions--and clarified the class warfare that pitted peasants, proletarians, and ordinary soldiers against tsars, officers, churchmen, and the bourgeoisie. (In one scene, the director contrasts the difficult life of a munitions worker with the frivolity of Nicholas I who, notwithstanding his supreme authority, is lazily writing in his journal: "Today I show a crow.") After the collapse of the Russian Empire, the Ukrainian nationalist party cynically attempted to use national and religious sentiment to prop up a regime of bourgeois exploitation. Finally, the workers--led by party workers and proletarian martyrs like Timosh--take a stand against capitalism's apologists and die in the process, only a short while before red partisans might have come to their rescue.

Dovzchenko's artistic vision fell into disfavor soon after this film. Vance Kepley reminds us that his next film, Earth, was harshly critiqued for ideological and aesthetic reasons. Who could ever hope to keep up with the Party's erratically shifting positions? Neither its political message, not its non-narrative style, were quite correct in the context of unmitigated Stalinism.

But even in this film Dovchenko's propaganda film featured some moral ambiguity. One understands from this film that revolution is made from the ground up. It's not party leaders that play a part in Red Ukraine's Alamo. Indeed, none of the Party's leaders warrants even a cameo in this film. Moreover, war, and the Civil War in particular, has obviously destroyed men and women, despite the Red Victory. Men are maimed, machinery falls into disuse, women are listless, and the economy in general is clearly decimated. Kepley tells us that this lack of clarity may mirror the political history of Dovchenko and countless other Ukrainians, who vacillated and switched sides in the shifting and chaotic political landscape that emerged at the end of the First World War.

The film's mythical was more acceptable to the Bolsheviks. The worker hero Timosh takes on the marauding nationalists and, echoing Cossack folklore of the seventeenth century, the bullets bounce off his chest.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Romanov Massacre

For many people, the brutal murder of the Russian royal family in July, 1918, was the quintessential act of the Soviet regime. It of course a heinous act. With Lenin's approval, the Bolsheviks took almost twenty minutes to shoot and stab to death the tsar, his wife and children, and even a few royal servants. Robert Alexander's novel, The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar, is only the latest in a long series of books and films that deal in some way with this Gothic horror scene. Alexander's book isn't particularly inventive, but it doesn't need to be: people are enthralled by this true crime story above all others. The murder of this Victorian family was bloody, and premeditated, and the only mitigating factor is that the victims didn't really expect to be cut down when they were asked to go into the basement to take a photo in order to prove to the capitalist press that they were all alive and well.

Focusing on the end of the Romanov family is necessarily fascinating. We wonder why the murderers did what they did. We wonder how the Romanovs felt as they contemplated their imprisonment and compared the Special House of Detention, their Siberian jail, with the life they had know in St. Peterburg's multiple palaces. We wonder if the any of the members of the Royal Family knew--whether consciously or subconsciously--that their collective liquidation was a very real possibility. But when we focus on the end of the royal family we seem to forget that Nicholas II and his wife were guilty of dozens if not hundreds of crimes. This of course is the byproduct of despotism: whenever you inherit or assume total power you are ultimately responsible for everything that happens on your watch. Nicholas--decent family man that he was--can therefore be blamed for pogroms, spies, Raputin and everything that he represented, civilian massacres, and perhaps Russia's disastrous participation in World War I. Notwithstanding these mistakes, he didn't deserve the death he got, nor of course did his family and their servants. But focusing on this single act of picturesque inhumanity seems to distract us from that which briefly lay between Romanov and Bolshevik, and that is Liberal Russia. Although we sometimes forget Kerensky, Nabokov, and the Kadets, their destruction during the October Revolution is in some ways a greater tragedy than that of this doomed family.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It's Hard Out There For An Apparatchik

What was it like to be one of Stalin's henchmen? Did Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov, Kaganovich, Molotov, Zhdanov, and the others actually enjoy being in power? In the Soviet Union it was always better to be in power than out of power, but life for the oligarchs wasn't all vodka and caviar. The 1990 documentary, I Worked for Stalin: Songs of the Oligarchs, interviews the children of many of Stalin's closest political allies to explain why.

The advantages to being in power were clear enough. The oligarchs received something much better than a large salary. Rather, they received direct and therefore almost unlimited subsidies from the state treasury. They also enjoyed a number of very visible perks in a politically stratified country. One aging official, deputy to Zhdanov, remembers riding around Moscow in a splendid car. Being driven in a certain type of car meant nobody in town would dare to stop you. You were recognized immediately as a member of a very privileged class. Oligarchs had permission to go wherever they wanted, which wasn't of course the case for most ordinary Russians, who required passes to move about the country and were subject to police searches.

The chief benefit of belonging to Stalin's group of chief political advisers was of course power. While Stalin was always in charge, and was called "the master" in recognition of this fact, individual oligarchs often participated in the decision-making process, or could at least promote allies to key political positions, or block the advancement of potential enemies.

The flip-side of power was the risk of losing that power at a moment's notice. During the 1930s, vast sections of the Communist Party were exiled, imprisoned, or shot. In fact, one put one's own family members in harm's way by blindly devoting oneself to Stalin's whims. As the film reminds one, Molotov's wife was imprisoned at one point, as was another Politburo member's sister. Another peril of the job was being forced to attend to an isolated, elderly, and paranoid Stalin's dull dinner parties. At the end of Stalin's life, each of the oligarchs was forced to eat, drink, and watch movies with Stalin into the wee hours of the night to preserve one's political position.

This is the principle theme of the film. The oligarchs worked very hard--sometimes 17 hours a day, sometimes without vacations, and sometimes sleeping at the office--but even hard work could not guarantee one's political future. In fact, Stalin distrusted even his closest colleagues. At the end of his life, he would specifically dis-invite one member of the Politburo to his nightly gatherings. The result of Stalin's distrust was a state of perpetual tension. As his son remembers, Malenkov stood to take Stalin's calls, even though he couldn't be seen. He also made sure never to mention any individual even at home, since the "walls had ears" as every Soviet official knew. In fact, the secret police were never far behind the oligarchs. Even the children were followed by the GPU.

In the end, Stalin's death created one final challenge for his cronies. Everyone was at risk in the new and radically unstable political situation. Beria, who controlled the local guards, frightened his erstwhile comrades most of all, but was famously outflanked by the man this film claims was his own protegee, Nikita Khrushchev. In the end, most of the oligarchs experienced an ignominious political end, although only Beria was executed outright. Malenkov found himself demoted and exiled to extremely remote posts in Eastern Russia. Perhaps, as his son asserts, he was was even killed by secret police posing as doctors.

One political heavyweight who was interviewed in the film sums up the ambiguous testimony of this political group. This man, although sent to prison on trumped up charges, still believed that many of his disgraced colleagues--Yezhov for example--had actually been foreign spies, as the Stalinist legal system so often asserted. And, despite the fact that he himself eventually wound up beyond bars and without friends after years of political service, he felt good about the hard work he had done on behalf of the Soviet Union. Since when, he must have asked himself over and over again over the long years of political isolation, can hard work ever be a bad thing?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Memory Is A Bitch

"Don't turn a scientific problem into a common love story."

"What a ghastly sight. I can never get used to all these resurrections."

Solaris is perhaps the Soviet Union's best modern film. Based on Stanislaw Lem's science fiction masterpiece of the same name, the 1972 film deals with inter-species communication and, more importantly, humankind's relationship to the past. The planet Solaris is home to a living sea, a vast pink fluid with some indeterminate level of cerebral activity or consciousness. The sea has made contact with the men who occupy the station that orbits the planet, but its message is ambiguous, impossible to decipher.

Over time, the scientists of Solaris lost patience with their mysterious host, and decided to irradiate it. The planet's reaction, while not perfectly comprehended, is decidedly hostile: the pink sea enters into the individual memories of the station's crew members, with disturbing results. Shockingly, the planet has the ability to create physical manifestations of a human being's most personal memories. Over time, Solaris' scientists are driven insane by these tangible memories. By the time the film's protagonist, Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, arrives at the station, only two other crew members are left at the station to welcome him. His close friend has only recently committed suicide.

The meaning of the film, Solaris, is as open-ended as the planet's mode of communication. Is the film about how we necessarily fail to communicate effectively with one another? Is it about the power of the past to subvert the present? In the film, Kris Kelvin encounters his wife, Haris, who committed suicide ten years previously. Hari represents the planet's best effort to communicate with Kris, although it's impossible to say whether the planet has a positive or negative message for its most recent visitor: the deceased woman, after all, is both a source of intense joy and intense pain for Kris. Presumably, she reminds Kris of good times, bad times, love, and brutal separation. In any event, Hari incarnates another type of communication, or perhaps miscommunication. This is the inevitable flawed intercourse (pardon the expression) between man and woman. Although Tarkovsky's style is always elliptical, one senses that Kris and the original Hari understood each other almost as poorly as Kris now understands the pink sea below him.

The darkly comic essence of memory in Solaris is encapsulated by Kris Kelvin's doomed efforts to overcome the past by shoving this alien avatar of his ex wife into a rocket in order to ship it into outer space. Needless to say, Kris burns himself in the process. But who wouldn't like to do as Kris did and ship the memory of a beloved girlfriend to a distant star?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Boy Meets Tractor

"And we'll sing new songs of the new life."

Socialist Realism literary conventions are often derided. Typically, Soviet literary cliches involve masculine heroism, technological progress, capitalist vilification, and reaffirmation of the collective or socialist political project. Boy meets tractor. Boy falls in love with tractor. Soviet films often followed suit. Alexander Dovzhenko's powerful and influential 1930 film, Earth, is a case in point. This silent black and white film revolves around the introduction of a tractor to a small peasant farming town.

When the film opens, the steppe peasants are laboriously bringing in their wheat harvest. The people are poor, although the scene isn't portrayed without charm. Wheat waves beautifully in the wind, sun pours down from above, sunflowers rise up toward the sky, and apples weigh down the nearby trees. The peasants are dignified. The men have beards, their printed idiom is intelligent.

Soon, the local chairmen of the farm soviet has helped to secure a tractor for the people. This tractor is a revolutionary force in the village, which had been employing animals and scythes which had probably been in use for centuries. The tractor is the very symbol of the new socialist order. It's modern, efficient, and purchased for the benefit of the whole town, as opposed to any single individual. The people recognize the tractor's power. They gather around it, examine its part, and laugh in joy and wonderment.

Soon, one man, Basil, takes the tractor out for a spin. It's efficiency is immediately apparent, impossible to underestimate. The whole town floods out to pursue the tractor and its soon apparent that this technological breakthrough will drastically reduce the work of the peasants. Unfortunately, Simon plows over a rich farmer's fence, symbol of capitalist greed. The rich farmer, enraged by the offense and probably aware that the tractor symbolizes his own weakness in a socialist order that the tractor represents, kills Simon.

The film concludes with the funeral of Basil, who has become a martyr to socialist progress. Basil's old father, Simon, appalled by the old order that has killed his son, leads a massive demonstration in memory of his son, and by extension Soviet collective farming. The women are in white, sign of the purity that stems from the people's collective willpower and concerted action. Simon even makes a point of excluding the town priest from participating in the event. The priest, a self-evidently evil figure of superstition who presides in a temple of gold, impotently calls down a curse on the village. The murderer goes insane, obviously driven to desperation by his untenable place in the new world that was ushered in by the arrival of the communist tractor.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Let's Try the Sicilian Defense"

"But perhaps love is stronger than chess?"

"When I see a beautiful woman, I too start to hate chess."

"Remember that chess is a danger to family life."

Surely there is nothing so tragic as watching a beautiful woman get dressed. And yet, who among us has not peered over a naked woman's gentle curves to get a better look at one's closest shelf of Russian history and literature books? It's a strange sensation to find one's two dearest passions, physical love, and literary obsession, so proximate to one another. But there it is, the ultimate reminder of the erotic essence of a love for all things Russian.

One is reminded of the early Soviet film, Vsevolod Pudovkin's Chess Fever. This 1925 silent film is the last word in obsession. The film opens with a neurotic protagonist frantically playing both sides of a chess game, forgetting in his madness that he has a date with his beloved. The musical score, created decades later, is manic but also ecstatic. Eventually, the film's hero realizes that he must leave his favorite game, but his checkered clothes--handkerchief, socks, cap--remind him, and the audience, that chess fever will pursue him.

The frenzied protagonist marches toward his romantic appointment but is delayed by a sign in a store which reads: "Halt, chess player." The man obeys the order, and soon finds himself immersed in a hotly contested chess game with the chess store's proprietor, who only comes to life when somebody sits down across from him at the chess board.

Eventually the chess player arrives at his fiancees house. The woman, upset by the delay, feigns anger but then decides to forgive her suitor. Sadly, the supplicant has forgotten the woman he was trying to soothe. Instead, he is studying a chess problem that has fallen from his pocket. Enraged, the heroine throws all of the man's chess problems out of the window. These problems, falling from the window, find their way to various men, who are delighted by them. The whole world, or at least the male portion of that world, are infected with the chess disease.

After stripping her lover of all chess problems, the woman throws him out of her flat. "I love only you. You love only chess," she says. It's all over between us." Distressed by his dismissal, the chess fanatic marches toward the river, ostensibly to commit suicide. He drops a checkered handkerchief into the icy river. The woman, for her part, seeks solace from her enemy, chess. Her father gives a giant book which, he says, has always been a great comfort to him. But alas, the book turned out to be an encyclopedia of ancient chess problems. She runs to another room, but sees that a caregiver is presiding over two children who are just being introduced to the insidious game: "Kolya has just made a Queen's Gambit. I can hardly believe it!"

In despair, the woman rushes to the pharmacy and demands poison. But chess is the order of the day even here, and the pharmacist, engrossed in the game, mistakenly hands her a chess piece instead of poison. When she notices, she screams, but just then the god of chess delivers her from her agony. A world famous chess champion takes her under his wing and shows her the magic of the game. The film closes when the woman and man find themselves at the same chess tournament. "Darling. I never knew chess was such a fascinating game. Let's try the Sicilian Defense."

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Secret Life of Mass Murderers

Soviet Roulette has a very high regard for Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter. Previously, this blog described Svetlana's gentle book, Only One Year, which chronicled the author's third marriage, journey to India to bury her husband's ashes, and painful decision to defect to the United States in the 1960s. But Alliluyeva's first book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, is an even more poignant set of reflections and reminiscences about private life in the inner circles of Stalin's brutal dictatorship. As the author admits, the memoir isn't an objective history of her father's life. As a teenager during World War II, and someone with only limited access to her father at the best of times, Alliluyeva isn't well placed to explain her father's political life. And what kind of a child could have come to terms with a mother's suicide (or perhaps murder) and the quiet elimination of countless friends and family members?

Notwithstanding its lack of objectivity, Alliluyeva's limited perspective is fascinating and perhaps useful in terms of understanding how evil operates. From the author's perspective, and this perspective is contested by some well-placed eyewitnesses, Joseph Stalin had the capacity to behave tenderly toward those around him. In fact, in the first six years of the author's life, Stalin was often happily surrounded by his wife's large extended family. Moreover, Joseph enjoyed the company of children and frequently sent the young Alliluyeva tender notes. According to the author, Stalin felt especially close to Alliluyeva's mother, Nadezhda Allilyuva, although the dictator could be stern and aloof to her as well, until Nadezhda Alliluyeva's committed suicide, isolating Stalin from her family members and perhaps feeding his sense of victimization.

Alliluyeva's portrayal of her father may not be strictly accurate in all respects. In the author's opinion, Stalin was severely manipulated by Beria, who constantly pushed the dictator to destroy Beria's enemies, many of whom were members of the Alliluyeva's immediate family. Even allowing for Allilyeva's natural prejudice, there's a ring of truth about her analysis of the mechanics her father's sinister decisions.

According to Alliluyeva, Stalin had many healthy tendencies, but he simply could not forgive or forget anything that smacked of betrayal. If men like Beria whispered that a close friend or relative of Stalin had turned against him, Stalin turned his back on that person and was unable to change his opinion. One imagines that the independent minds of the Alliluyeva clan sometimes voiced criticism of the Soviet leader, and that even mild criticisms were reported to the cynical leader who then turned the matter over to someone like Beria. As it turns out, Alliluyeva lost dozens of her closest friends and relatives to this strange pattern of destruction. When her brother was captured by the Germans, Stalin couldn't help but believe that perhaps his son was to blame. He felt little sympathy for him, and, even worse, decided that his son's wife must have pushed his son to surrender to the Germans. She was promptly sent to the gulag, as so many others were.

In the end, this gentle, moving memoir demonstrates that Stalin's murderous regime was born of relatively banal impulses. With no culture of democracy or civil rights, why shouldn't one ordinary man's lonely, unforgiving, and suspicious temperament lead to disappearances on a vast scale?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker

Stanislaw Lem's acclaimed science fiction book, Solaris, made a huge impression on me twenty years ago. As a rule, I read little science fiction, but this book seemed to say something very meaningful about the nature of knowledge and communication, to say nothing of life in outer space. Unlike most boilerplate science fiction, Solaris is about the failure of species or civilizations to communicate with one another. Resistant to all analysis, the alien presence on Solaris remains inscrutable, subject to human speculation but little more.

Literature in general seldom acknowledges that good will and good intentions doesn't always lead to positive results. But remember E.M. Forster's brilliant exception, Passage to India? In that book--if my hazy memory serves me--the heroine sets out to understand a foreign culture, India, but is soon overwhelmed by the exotic magnitude, feinting in a cave and then, in her confusion and fear, falsely claiming that her Indian minder had raped her. There is a field of human inquiry and action, or several overlapping fields, that deals with the science or perhaps art of compromise, communication, and conflict management. The theory is that negotiation is a skill that can be learned and shared in order to mitigate or end conflict between warring groups.

I've always wondered whether this field is a sham. Aren't there some conflicts or human divisions that cannot be mitigated or bridged? More often than not, spousal wars end only when a brutal external force, the court, intervenes. And when did the Irish really come to terms? Wasn't this great compromise really only the recognition of colonial exhaustion and a different balance of power?

Andrei Tarkovsky is famously concerned with communication, or the limits of communication. His film, Solaris, is his masterpiece on the subject. Yet an earlier film, Stalker, deals with a similar theme. Stalker, a 1979 film loosely based on the short science fiction book, Roadside Picnic, follows three men, "Professor," "Writer," and the Stalker, as they enter a mysterious area known as the Zone. The Zone, cordoned off from surrounding areas by military forces, is alleged to contain an area that grants visitors wishes.

In the movie, as opposed to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's book, the Zone is not clearly defined. We know little about it. It's unusual, deserted, eerie, awesome, and dangerous. It's also thoroughly unknowable. The Stalker, a term used to denote those unique individuals who risk their lives to take visitors into the Zone, has some rough familiarity with this area. Yet his knowledge is generally not positive. This is to say, the Stalker, for all of his journeys into this center of almost religious mystery, has only learned that the Zone requires its supplicants to behave with humility and respect, if not awe.

The film, I think, acknowledges the wisdom of the Stalker's worldview, which is essentially a religious one. The world is unknowable: we cannot do more that accept the mysteries of life reverentially. As we've said, at the heart of the Zone lies a room that grants its visitors their innermost wishes. However, in order to enter the room, one adventurer--the first to enter the space--must be sacrificed in the "meat-grinder," a space in which the normal rules of physics are suspended long enough for a man to be twisted and crushed by invisible forces. Just as worrisome, the room grants someone their innermost wishes, but these wishes are not their conscious ones, but rather their subconscious ones. And who, after all, can vouch for the health and goodness of one's unconscious?

The Stalker seems to understand the problem. Unlike the men he leads, he personally refuses to enter the room. Does he intuit that in the last analysis people don't know themselves, let alone their fellow human beings? According to Wikipedia, the book upon which the movie is based, Roadside Picnic, gets its title from a striking metaphor. According to the Strugatsky brothers, the Zone is one of six sites of alien visitation, a place of extraordinary mystery. How can human being possibly come to terms with the refuse that the aliens left behind when they departed from the planet? The Zone is like a roadside picnic: when humans stop by the side of the road to eat, they leave behind debris. The human picnickers don't notice the insects all around them when they eat, and the insects don't know what to make of the garbage and other artifacts left behind. The result of the picnic--the Zone--is mystery, the mystery of incomplete communication, which is perhaps the most typical kind of communication on planet Earth.

Where the Crayfish Sleep

I think proverbs represent the essence of all human wisdom. Effective Soviet politicians, like Stalin and Khrushchev, seem to have had mastery over all of them. When threatened both men could almost always defend their rhetorical position with a choice aphorism or proverb. Below are a few Russian proverbs I've discovered via Wikipedia, Wikiquotes, and

Quality goods advertise themselves

Masha is good, but she's not ours.

Call me a pot. Just don't put me in the oven.

He wants to eat a fish but doesn't want to get into the water.

A bad compromise is better than a good lawsuit.

Bad news doesn't rest.

The further into the woods you go, the more firewood you find.

One can't wash a black dog until it turns white.

Whatever a fool does, he does it wrong.

Whether you hit an owl with a stump, or a stump with an owl, it's the owl who will get hurt.

What fell off the cart is as good as gone.

The cat knows whose meat it has eaten.

You can't hide an awl in a sack.

This story happened long ago, and it's true.

Berry by berry, a basket will become full.

Eggs don't teach a chicken.

I'm not me, and this is horse isn't mine.

It's easier for the mare when the woman gets off the cart.

Poverty is in want of much, avarice of everything.

For a mad dog seven versts aren't a long detour.

God won't give it away, pigs won't eat it.

For a big ship, a big voyage.

A beard doesn't make a philosopher.

Every barber knows that.

Since the times of Tsar Green-Pea.

To show someone where the crayfish spends winter.

Shchi and kasha are our food.

Every sandpiper praises his own swamp.

It's the still waters that are inhabited by demons.

Nobody goes to Tula with one's own samovar.

Only the grave will cure the hunchback.

A goose is not a pig's friend.

God is far up and the Tsar is far away.

Debt is beautiful only after it's repaid.

When you are home, even the walls help you.

Friendship is friendship, but keep your tobacco separate.

I have kvass, but not for you.

A beaten person is worth two unbeaten ones.

Law is like the shaft of a cart, it points wherever you turn it to.

They don't hit you in the nose for asking.

If I knew where I would fall, I'd lay some straw.

The wolves are sated, and the sheep are okay.

You can't drop a word out of a song.

The turkey was also thinking but he ended up in the soup.

One can't spoil porridge with butter.

Beware of the goat from its front side, a horse from its back side, and an evil man from every side.

The less you know, the more soundly you sleep.

I would have had no luck but for misfortune.

The wolf is beaten not for being grey but for having eaten the sheep.

Better 100 friends than 100 rubles.

The place doesn't adorn the man, the man adorns the place.

Don't try to get into hell ahead of your father.

A pig will find mud.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lion Feuchtwanger and the Festival of Revenge

"There can be no question that in the great majority of cases this exaggerated veneration is genuine. The people feel the need to express their gratitude, their infinite admiration. They do in truth believe that they owe to Stalin all they are and have, and however incongruous and at times distasteful this idolatry may seem to us of the West, no where have I found anything to indicate that is in the least artificial or ready-made."

"The future lies before them like a well-defined and carefully tended path through a beautiful landscape."

"They are unable to repress the happiness which fills them."

"[Moscow is a] city built from its foundations in accordance with the dictates of sound sense, and the first of its kind since man wrote history."

"Everything is from the first an essential part of an intelligently conceived plan."

"In itself there is nothing remarkable in the unanimous optimism of the Soviet people."

"Stalin laughed a little at those who demanded many written documents before they could bring themselves to believe in a conspiracy; practiced conspirators, he said, were not in the habit of leaving their documents lying around for all to see."

"Many of my friends, who are otherwise intelligent people, find these [the Show Trials], from beginning to end, in substance and in form, tragic-comical, barbaric, incredible, and appalling."

"But when I attended the second trial in Moscow, when I saw Pyatakov, Radek, and his friends, and heard what they said and how they said it, I was forced to accept the evidence of my own senses, and my doubts melted away."

"It at once becomes as clear as daylight that this modest, impersonal man cannot possibly have committed the colossal indiscretion of producing with the assistance of countless performers so coarse a comedy, merely for the purpose of holding a sort of festival of revenge with Bengal lights to celebrate the humiliation of his opponents."

"There is one eternally true legend," [Stalin] said, "that of Judas."

Lion Feuchtwanger, author of Moscow, 1937: My Visit Described for My Friends, was one of Stalin's chief international apologists. To apologize for the apologist, one should remember that the Jewish-German theater critic, novelist, and playwright was one of NAZI German's earliest and most vociferous enemies. With intimate knowledge of Hitler's monstrous villainy, Feuchtwanger is at pains to explain the Soviet Union's antidemocratic shortcomings as a natural outcome of its struggle against fascist Germany and Italy.

Feuchtwanger's description of his ten week visit to the "Union"--his pet name for the U.S.S.R.--is an aggressive, comprehensive defense of the world's first experiment in socialism. Feuchtwanger's apologia makes extensive use of economic and social statistics to tell the story of the revolutionary regime. Although the author admits that Russia suffers from a deplorable lack of adequate housing, he praises Russia for its alleged progress in public transportation, education, new housing construction, electrification, food production, water usage, good reserves, wage levels, and access to consumer goods.

Russia's superiority over its fascist and capitalist competitors is manifested in countless ways. Most importantly, Feuchtwanger believes that Soviet citizens appreciate their place in a fair, secure, rational, and planned society. While even wealthy Westerners suffer from the knowledge of their neighbors' poverty and joblessness, Soviet citizens understand that their modest prosperity is not purchased at the expense of the less fortunate. They know, or at least Feuchtwanger says they know, that they are organically connected to the whole of society, and that Party decisions are made on their behalf, and not on behalf of wealthy individuals. According to Feuchtwanger's vision, capitalist planning--if we overlook the oxymoron inherent in the term--is disorganized, unfair, irrational, and inefficient. But most importantly, capitalist planning is soulless and cruel.

For Feuchtwanger, the 1930s were an exciting time for Russians. Led by leaders of genius such as Stalin, Soviet citizens had just received one of the most progressive constitutions in the world in 1935. While the German writer admits that the 1935 Constitution is not yet fully implemented--a spectacular understatement to say the least--he admires the extent to which the Soviet legal framework asserts broad civil rights and demonstrates the way in which they will be guaranteed. If the Russian people had the right to freedom of expression, the Soviet government ensured that this right was tangible by maintaining public ownership over the press organs. It's a strange logic, but Feuchtwanger is generally content that the Soviet state is at least acting in the interest of its citizens.

Of course, the German playwright is impressed most of all by Stalin. Although claiming to be dissatisfied with crude Stalin-worship, Feuchtwanger argues that Soviet citizens merely seek to praise their country's accomplishments by heaping honor upon honor upon a concrete symbol of their good fortune. Stalin is allegedly a steady man and a builder, in touch with both the peasants and the proletarians. Feuchtwanger claims Stalin is Augustus to Lenin's Caesar, responsible for the defense of Tsaritsyn in the Civil War, and several brilliant socialist theories, such as Socialism in One Country, and the reconciliation of nationalism with socialist internationalism.

Most bizarrely, the author also credits Stalin with magnanimity. In the contest with Trotsky, Stalin claims that Stalin ordered that Trotsky be included in the official, Gorky-edited History of the Civil War, while pointing out that Trotsky spitefully uses all of his writings to defame the great Stalin. We know of course that Stalin erased Trotsky from the history books, and was ultimately responsible for Trotsky's death, as well as his children's deaths, but Feuchtwanger's test belies Stalin's pretensions to goodwill. In this same chapter on Stalin and Trotsky, Feuchtwanger allows that Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rydek and others were executed. And yet, he's not ashamed to write: "[Stalin] is supposed to be ruthless, but for many years he has been striving to win over competent Trotskyists rather than destroy them, and it is in a way affecting to see how doggedly he is endeavoring to use them for his work."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Kerensky's Signature

My copy of Alexander Kerensky's autobiography, Russia and History's Turning Point, is apparently signed by the author around 1965. Kerensky's signature appears along side the hand-written date of 7 August 1917, the tangible reminder of just how close we remain to that seminal event in world history. Kerensky, who was the most important member of the Provisional Government, was one of Russia's most eloquent speakers. His book, released in the 1960s, reflects the intelligence and rhetorical power of its famous author. It's also a fascinating glimpse at the pre-war history of Russia.

Kerensky, a student activist, radical lawyer, and budding politician, makes the convincing case that Nicholas II was personally responsible for at least some of the tragedies that later befell his country. Prior to the war, Kerensky believes that Nicholas supported a blind, atavistic policy of antidemocratic and anti-modern conservatism. To Kerensky's mind, Nicholas II was absurdly attached to a dying political class, the landed gentry, and scattered elements of chauvinistic and anti-Semitic Russian society. More specifically, the Emperor allowed his government to slaughter miners (Lena Fields Massacre), shoot proletarians (Bloody Sunday), and prosecute Jews for the insane myth of the blood libel (Mendel Beylis), while it simultaneously encouraged the police and secret organs of the state to harass, detain, imprison, and otherwise intimidate any hint of political opposition.

Karensky is kinder to Witte and Stolypin, two of the tsar's only competent and forward-thinking advisers, who nevertheless failed to fully embrace the concepts of constitutionalism and parliamentary democracy that alone might have saved the monarchy from its own incompetence. Kerensky's main contention, a contention supported by the novelist Nabokov and many others, is that without World War I, Russia would have, one way or the other, been transformed into an a liberal democracy.

Contrary to the opinion of the Bolsheviks, history was not on the side of radical revolution. After all, even though Russia was officially governed by a man of limited intellectual subtlety, a man who listened to the likes of Gregory Rasputin, Russia was rapidly becoming a country with a healthy public sphere, including active political parties, rising literacy rates, a freethinking student population, and an active Duma. Kerensky's self-interested argument is that a rapidly industrializing country was bound to be at odds with the medieval concept of unlimited government.

One irony of Kerensky's book is that its obsession with the origins of World War I helps one to understand one of the Provisional Government's primary weaknesses. If Russia's peasant masses failed to care about Russia's commitment to the allies, how much less should historians care whether or not Russia's diplomatic posture was correct or not in the Serbian crisis. In the end, the war could not have been good for Russian under even the best of circumstances. But after several years of military and economic disaster, Kerensky's honorable commitment to continue the war may well have been preposterously misguided.