Sunday, February 27, 2011

Laminating the USSR

When I was a child my two brothers and I played endless boardgames such as Dungeons and Dragons and Risk, and read endless fantasy and science fiction novels such as J.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune. This decidedly geeky comportment will surprise those of you who understand that writing a blog about Soviet intellectual history in one's more mature years is the quintessence of chic and modish behavior. One day, thirty some years ago, my brothers and I purchased a map of some mythical and quasi-medieval land that was redolent of the imaginary cartography of the Lord of the Rings. This was wonderful. My brothers and I gazed at the mountains and oceans for hours upon hours. Then, without warning, my father announced that as a high school teacher he had access to a lamination machine that would allow us to draw on our map with erasable marker, thereby moving elf and monster armies into complex and ever-shifting strategic displays. At that moment in time, my father's job seemed like the most important position in the world. Would a fireman or astronaut or president have access to a lamination machine like my father did? My father is now seventy. But this year, he and my stepmother gave me a map of the USSR for my birthday and, once again, it was laminated. The laminated map reminded me of how much I love my father and am awed by him. He may be a retired high school teacher rather than a movie star or army general, but there is dignity in all work, and I am reminded this year that not everybody has the privilege of working in a position that grants special access to laminating machine...

This map is of the USSR in its final years, in the era of Glasnost and Perestroika. It highlights the ethnographic, linguistic, political and features of the country, and contains some smaller sub-maps of historical periods in the history of Russia and its neighbors. The map explains that the USSR was made up of the following major linguistic groups: Indo-European (Baltic, Slavic, Iranian, Armenian, German, and Greek); Uralic (Ugric, Samoyetic, and Finnic--Estonian, Finnish, Karelian, Lapp ),; Altaic (Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungus); Caucasian (Georgian, Dagestan, Chechen, Ingush); Paleo-Siberian); Semitic; and Siberian. It also documents various historical eras, including that of Slavic expansion, Kievan Rus, the origins of the Russian state, the growth of Muscovy, Western growth, Eastern colonization, war and revolution, and Russia at the height of its power and influence in Asia and Eastern Europe.

The larger constituent republics, and some of their identity problems, are also featured. The National Geographic map makers say the following about the USSR republics: The Russians feel resentment for having paid for Soviet industrialization and modernization; the predominantly Lutheran Estonians regret their lack of independence but now share their republic with ethnic Russians who make up a third of the population; Roman Catholic Lithuania remembers its glorious history as one of the most powerful states in the 1700s; industrial, urban Latvia also recalls its inter-war autonomy; forested Byelorussia, which has never previously been independent in modern times, was a component part of the Soviet Union as its birth in 1922, and lost a quarter of its population during the Second World War; the Ukraine, the second largest republic by population, accounts for only three percent of the USSR's territory, but was enlarged at the end of the Second World War and in 1954 with the addition of the Crimea; ethnically Romanian Moldavia was forced to use a Cyrillic alphabet until 1989; Armenian identity revolved around the Armenian Apostolic Church; Shiite Azerbaijan maintains cultural affinities with Iran; Kirghizia only came under Russian domination in the 19th century; environmentally degraded Uzbekistan is the country's third largest ethnic group, and joined the USSR in 1924; Turkmenistan, suffering from a lack of national identity or ethnic solidarity, is 90 percent desert; Iranian-speaking Tajikistan has the highest population growth in the USSR; Turkic-speaking, ethnically Mongolian Kazakhstan was home to the Virgin-Lands campaign and grows one-third of the country's wheat.

Revolutionary Adjectives

How does one describe a revolution? What are the best adjectives to capture the essence of one? Let's examine the words of the brilliant dissident author used in his Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History. Sinyavsky intermittently uses the following adjectives, among others, to explain the Bolshevik Revolution to his readers: elemental, volcanic, revitalizing, organic, wild, irrational, creative, explosive, bursting, nonsensical, senseless, chaotic, murderous, spontaneous, emotional, primitive, powerful, metaphysical, sensuous, sublime, inspiring, popular, passionate, spontaneous, anarchic, visceral, atavistic, cataclysmic, seductive, miraculous, expansive, and rapturous.

What's interesting about listing revolutionary adjectives in general is that they fall into three categories: some are positive, some are negative, and some are value-neutral. To his credit, Sinyavasky, a severe critic of the Revolution and its historical legacy, uses a large number of neutral descriptors to capture the essence of Revolution. The Revolution may have hurt Russia, but it was akin to a natural disaster as much as it was the work of a malevolent conspiracy of amoral or immoral men. Moreover, it had a life or dynamic of its own that is not reducible to the intentions of any or even all of its component parts, the revolutionary and anti-revolutionary actors.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Use Their Skulls As Ashtrays

Andrei Sinyavsky's book, Soviet Civilization; A Cultural History, provides us with one of the most sophisticated analyses of the Evil Empire ever written. The book's arguments will be examined in future posts. For now, here are a few of the quotations Sinyavasky uses to explain the essence of the USSR for his readers.

Leon Trotsky. "If the symbol is a concentrated image, then the revolution is the supreme maker of symbols, since is presents all phenomena and relations in concentrated form."

Aleksandr Blok. "To smoke the nobs out of their holes we'll light a fire through all the world, a bloody fire through all the world--Lord bless our souls!"

Aleksandr Blok. "To redo everything. To organize things so that everything will be new; so that our lying, dirty, ugly life will be just, pure, merry, and beautiful."

Feodor Dostoevsky. "Here, my dear, a new religion is coming to replace the old. That's why there are so many soldiers about."

Vladimir Kirillov. "We're drunk with a rebellious, brutal passion; Let them scream: "You are the hangman of beauty, In the name of our tomorrow, we'll burn Raphael, Destroy museums, crush the flowers of art underfoot."

Yury Olesha. "We young poets didn't understand what a frightening world we were living in. This world hadn't been explained as a world. Now I lived in an explained world. I understand the causes. I am filled with a feeling of enormous gratitude, expressible only in music, when I think of those who died to make the world explained, to explain it and reconstruct it."

Konstantin Balmont. "You were utterly mistaken: your beloved people are not at all the people you dreamed of, not at all."

Mayakovsky. "We'll destroy you, old romantic world! In place of faith in our soul we have electricity and steam. In place of misery, pocket the riches of all worlds! The old men? Kill them! And use the skulls as ashtrays!"

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Statistics of Modern Russia

Permit Soviet Roulette a digression. What does the chief successor state of the USSR look like today? Here is what the Economist's 2010 Pocket World in Figures has to say about the world's largest country. Here is the story of Russia as told in randomly generated statistics....

Russia is the largest country in the world, by far, at 17,075,000 square kilometers.

It has the largest lake in the world, the Caspian Sea, as well as the seventh largest lake, Lake Baikal.

It has the eighth largest population in the world at 141 million. In 2025 it will drop to ninth place but will have dropped to 133 million. Not surprisingly, Russia also has the ninth slowest growing population in the world (surpassed, principally, by many former USSR republics.)

The average Russian woman has 1.46 children, the 20th lowest number in the world.

There are 86 men for every 100 women, the second lowest ratio of men to women in the world.

The average age of a Russian is 37.9.

Moscow, with 10.5 million people, is the 18th largest city in the world.

Russia also boasts the slowest growing city in the world, Ufa, which is shrinking at the rate of .7 percent each year.

Russia has the 20th largest refugee population, at 930,200, and Russians abroad account for the second highest number of asylum applications in other countries at 188,000.

Russia has the eleventh biggest economy in the world, at $1,290 billion (which is slightly smaller than the economy of Brazil.) It has the seventh largest economy by purchasing power.

Russia has grown by 7.4 percent, on average, in recent years. This is the 39th highest growth rate in the world.

Russia accounted for roughly 2 percent of global exports, and was the 14th largest exporter in the world.

Russia is the 12th largest trader of goods, at 2.65 percent of the global economy. It has the sixth largest surplus in balance of payments, at $76,241 billion.

Russia receives $4,100 million in workers' remittances.

It has fourth highest level of official reserves, at $476 billion, the most gold reserves in the world, at $12.1 billion, and the fourth most undervalued currency in the world.

Russia has the second highest foreign debt, at $370 billion, the eighth largest industrial output, at $426 billion, and the ninth highest growth in manufacturing output, $211 billion

Russia has the eleventh largest service output, $629 billion, and the seventh largest agricultural output, at $53 billion.

Russia is one of the leading global producers of copper, lead, nickel, aluminum, gold, platinum, palladium, rubber, raw wool, oil (second only to Saudi Arabia, and just barely, at 9,866,000 barrels per day), natural gas (leading the world), coal, and wheat.

Russia has 52.9 percent of its population in the labor force, which is the eighteenth highest in the world. It has the tenth highest percentage of women in the workforce.

Gazprom, worth $330 billion, is the fifth largest non-bank corporation in the world.

Sberbank is the sixteenth largest bank in the world, at $90 billion.

Russia has the seventh largest stock market, valued at $1,322 billion.

Russia has the eighteenth highest growth in listed companies.

Russia has the eighth longest road network, at 933,000 kilometers.

It has the third most rail traffic in the world, and the second longest railway.

Russia has the fifth largest merchant fleet.

Russia is the tenth biggest tourist spender.

75 percent of Russia's tertiary population is enrolled in college; and this makes it the twelfth highest in the world.

Russians have the fifth highest rate of cardiovascular disease in the world.

Russia has the seventh lowest ratio of citizens to doctors and the third highest rate of hospital beds to citizens.

Russia has the fifth highest divorce rate in the world.

It has 53 million households; 24 million of those households are single occupation households.

Russia has six million Internet hosts..

Each year Russians account for 98.5 million movie attendances.

The USSR received 440 gold medals; Russia, including the pre- as well as post-revolutionary state, received 109 gold medals.

Russia has received six Nobel prizes in physics.

Russia has the eighth highest per capita beer consumption in the world and the fifth highest alcoholic drink consumption.

Russia has the second highest cigarette consumption and on average the Russian smokes 7.2 cigarettes a day.

Russia has the third highest prisoner population 880,000, which is the third highest number as a percentage of the population.

Russia has the ninth biggest defense expenditure at $32 billion and the fourth largest regular army, at 1,027,000. Russia's reserves are 20,000,000.

Russia is the fourth worst water pollutant and the third worst emitter of carbon dioxide.

Russia has a population of 8.3 per square mile. Seven per cent of its land is arable.

Russia GNP is 9,000 per head.

6.1 of Russian workers are unemployed.

Russia's adult literacy rate is 98.5 percent.

73 percent of Russia is urban.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Serfs Into Soldiers

In the London Review of Books, Dominic Lieven says that Geoffrey Hosking's book, Peasants in Arms, Russian Against Napoleon: The Battle For Europe 1807 to 1813, explains Russia's victory over France in the Napoleonic Wars in refreshingly Russian terms. France was not merely defeated by the Russian winter, or by Napoleon's hubris. Rather, Russia succeeded as a result of its officer corps and peasant army.

What did that army look like? It was, of course, enormous. It was built by recruitment, which happened once a year in the Russian villages. The serf communes regularly surrendered one in 100 or so villagers to the levy. Ordinarily, married serfs were exempt from the draft. But the Napoleonic Wars meant that even married serfs could expect to be inducted, although their wives could be expected to suffer terribly from the nearly permanent absence of their husbands, who could no longer help in the fields. When a serf was inducted, he served for a period of twenty-five years and was, therefore, severed from his kinfolk and the life of the commune in general. To signify the separation, villagers held a kind of a funeral for him.

The czar and aristocracy naturally encouraged a complete separation between soldiers and serfs. For it was a well-established historical fact that armed serfs were dangerous to the Russian political order. Serfs who took up arms for the czar were subject to severe discipline but technically earned their freedom, becoming citizens in a manner of speaking--but Geoffrey Hosking reminds us that this wasn't true in the Napoleonic Wars. Here, Alexander only very reluctantly created serf reserves to support the regular army, but insisted that these recruits would remain serfs.

The Napoleonic Army had a lot to recommend it. The former serfs bonded with one another and retained many of the traits of their communal life. In fact, they entered into military cooperatives, who pooled their salaries to pay for clothes, food, and other essentials. The collective life of the Russian army led to solidarity, good morale, and collective action. The Orthodox Church, and personal loyalty to the czar, supplied ideological reinforcement to Russian camaraderie. All this was observed by foreign experts as well as Russian ones. The peasant soldiers even had the opportunity to be promoted, but only to the level of NCOs. Coupled to the strength of its soldiers, the Russian army specialized in intelligence work.

Notwithstanding the strengths which helped the large Russian army to overwhelm Napoleon, the Russian army had flaws. The army was not, after all, built up by passionate volunteers. Moreover, its officer class was by ethnicity and affiliation to one of two major centers of political authority: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Aristocratic intrigue and unrest also weakened Alexander's hold over the direction of military policy. And again, the possibility that the serfs might rise up against the landowning class severely limited Alexander's willingness to create a large system of military reserves. And yet the Russians officer corps and peasant soldiers and Cossack cavalrymen did prevail.

"A Bacchanalia of (Russian) Indifference"

Tony Wood reviewed Anna Politkovskaya's Nothing but the Truth: Selected Dispatches in the 24 June 2010 issue of the London Review of Books. Politkovskaya was killed by an unknown assailant or assailants on 7 October 2006 but wrote over 500 articles or editorials in Novaya Gazeta and other journals between 1999 and her death. Most, but not all, of these articles focused on the Russian assault on Chechnya, which she believed had killed countless innocent civilians and poisoned the Russian state. As we know, Politkovskaya was a tenacious reporter whose brave criticism put her life in danger on more than one occasion. She regularly received death threats and was probably poisoned in 2004 according to Tony Wood. The book, Nothing But the Truth, is part of a much larger work that was published in Russia back in 2007. It was filled with tribute articles, reports, testimony, and lots and lots of pieces about Chechnya. In Politkovskaya's opinion, Chechnya was a national disgrace that dishonored the country "from top to bottom."

Who was Polikovskaya? Tony Wood briefly describes her life story. Born in New York in 1968 as a result of her Ukrainian father's translator assignment in the UN, Polikovskaya grew up comfortably in Moscow and eventually studied journalism at Moscow State University. But, in her own words, she became a woman "who observed the Soviet Union as its most disgraceful in the 1970s and 1980s."

Politkovskaya's first job was at Izvestia. Her husband, also a journalist, was another intrepid reporter and, as Wood tells us, was among the first journalists to arrive at the scene of Chernobyl. The two eventually divorced because, in her laconic telling of it, "he partied a lot. Then he left." Of course, Polikovskaya's incorruptible, humane approach to journalism soon brought her some measure of national and even international fame and indeed made her one of Putin's main opponents.

Politkovskaya's reputation as a writer was made by Chechnya. Her stories were profoundly humane, often focusing of the impact of the war on its most vulnerable victims. She was, said one observer quoted by Wood, "like a person without skin, receiving all the signals of misery from everyone." If this heroic woman had blind spots, Wood suggests these were related to Yeltin's grotesque flaws--he bombed the Duma, invaded Chechnya before Putin ever did, chanelled money into the hands of friends, and sold out the country to oligarchs for instance--and the first war in Chechnya, which she failed to condemn.

Of course, Russians as well as Chechnya were suffering mightily during the period in which Politkovskaya wrote. The country had a ruinous social welfare and healthcare system and Wood says that 40 percent of the population was living in poverty. The murder rate was many, many times higher than it was in Western countries such as France and Germany. Fifty-two journalists were killed since 1992 and 80 or 90 of them are assaulted each year. Their vulnerability stemmed from the country's runaway corruption and lack of any other checks to this corruption save independent journalism. So Politkovskaya, martyr of a more humane Russia, had a terrifying job but certainly no lack of materials to write about.

When Vampires Slept

In the July 22, 2010 issue of The London Review of Books, James Meek analyzed a bevy of Tolstoy books, including William Nickell's The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910, The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (as translated by Cathy Porter), Leo Tolstoy's A Confession (as translated by Anthony Briggs), and Anniversary Essays on Tolstoy (as edited by Donna Tussing Orwin). According to Meek, Sofia married a significantly older Tolstoy at the tender age of eighteen, and then proceeded to have thirteen children with her famous husband, although five of them would never see age eleven.

Sofia was an intelligent woman who loved her husband, hand copied his many manuscripts, and may even have helped to edit them. Sofia was charged with running a complex household and acting as Tolstoy's business manager. Toward the end of her marriage with Tolstoy, Sofia became increasingly jealous and tormented by her husband's ethical precepts, religious admirers, and business partners. Sofia was a difficult woman to be around at the end of Tolstoy's life. She lied about taking an overdose of opium, said she couldn't go for a swim because she might drown herself, asserted that her husband was having a homosexual relationship with Chertkov, his protégée, lay down in the middle of the road to court death or at least draw attention to herself, went on freezing stakeouts to secretly monitor her husband's behavior, and nearly went catatonic.

At his death, Tolstoy was an international superstar, "as if Picasso at the height of his artistic fame had mutated into Gandhi and retained artistic talent and fame." On the other hand, James Meek seems to accept the view of some of Tolstoy's critics, that he was a "second-rate moral philosopher" who was "reinventing the philosophy wheel" with his endless tracts, treatises and novellas dealing with religious and philosophical matters. If the Kruetzer Sonata's long-winded sermonizing is any indication of the quality of Tolstoy's philosophical work, Meek has a point.

On the other hand, as Meek confesses, Tolstoy did very important work in helping a persecuted sect, providing famine relief, opposing the death penalty, and so on. And this Tolstoy's death, some important part of Russia--perhaps the best part--also died. Meek quotes Blok who wrote: "While Tolstoy is alive, and gong along the furrows behind a plough, behind his white horse. the morning is fresh and dewy, nonthreatening, the vampires sleep, and -- thank god."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From Bourgeois to Socialist

Returning to theme of an earlier post on Jochen Hellbeck's book, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, let’s examine the autobiography of one ordinary Soviet citizen, a teacher from Voonezh named Zinaida Denisevskaya. Zinaida, a member of the intelligentsia in pre-revolutionary Russia, kept a diary from 1900 to 1933. That diary, which documents a lonely woman's search for self-fulfillment in a highly politicized environment, amounted to almost six thousand pages of prose. When the Revolution arrived, Zinaida was mildly critical of its methods if not its goals. During the Civil War, for instance, she expressed outrage at the violence and crudeness of the Bolshevik agents. However, over time she became acclimated to the Proletarian ethos and even attempted to conform to it.

For a member of the pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, the move away from bourgeois values and toward socialist ones was not an easy or uncomplicated psychological task. To be sure, a traditional member of the intelligentsia could be expected to share a few traits with the new Soviet political class. For instance, Zinaida already assumed that her life would only be meaningful if she served the people of Russia. But would the intelligentsia's traditional concern for individuality, liberalism, education, and humanism be relevant in the new socialist order? And would the newly emerging bourgeois and even feminist values of the early 1900s, including freedom, self-reliance, self-assertion, sexual expression, and professional development, be appropriate to an emerging collectivist sensibility? And, even more concretely, would her original occupation as a librarian allow her to remain relevant in a socialist society?

According to her diary, Zinaida feared she was not on the right path. Being a librarian might indicate that she was a "useless" bourgeois, unconcerned with the manual and socially meaningful work of the Revolution. She continued her education and soon took up work as an experimental station in the domain of agriculture. The work at the experimental station fitted nicely with her evolving self-understanding. Although she had not, and never would shed, all of her bourgeois inheritance, including her intellectual snobbery and refined manners, Zinaida believed she had made a good choice by casting off abstract intellectual work in favor of applied labor in the service of a modern social order. Increasingly, her diary embraces official communist philosophical imperatives. Her old outlook had been negative, individualistic, egotistical, and inappropriately apolitical. Now, for the first time, through useful public service and systematic self-criticism, she was becoming linked to society as a whole.

As Hellbeck's analysis reveals, Zinaida's love life documents another important step in the subjective life of an emerging Bolshevik. Although her bourgeois cultural and intellectual background seems to have limited her ability to fall in love with a young Party member named Alyosha, Zinaida believed that Alyosha represented the future of Russia. Although he was awkward, low-born, and uneducated by the traditional standards of the intelligentsia, Alyosha was an emerging Bolshevik leader. In Zinaida's eyes, he had all the qualities of the New Man who would bring
reform and progress to backward Russia. He was political in the broadest sense of the word; in other words, he understand what Bukharin meant when he said that culture and politics were inextricably linked to one another. Moreover, he was sincere, pure, vital, and irrepressibly active in the construction of a new society.

Fascinatingly, Hellbeck links Zinaida's complex attitudes toward Alyosha, and love in general, to Soviet literature of the period. According to Hellbeck, in the 1920s Soviet protagonists were unbalanced, strained, and even overwhelmed by the work of transforming Russia into a socialist utopia. They were "wounded warriors" who had difficulty maintaining personal relationships in the midst of social rupture and change. Zinaida's diary echoes this literary diagnosis of socialist change when she says that she and others have sacrificed personal happiness at the alter of social improvement. Zinaida was a lonely woman, and her diary is a record of this personal loneliness. However, as she became enthralled with the Soviet project, she thought she had at last discovered that loneliness had a social meaning as the byproduct of modernity.

Helleck characterizes Zinaida's diary as the record of a Soviet woman who became invested in Stalin's Utopian project. In Helleck's estimation, Bolshevism was not something that was foisted on an apathetic or antagonistic population. At least that was not all it was. Rather, large segments--key segments--of Russian society responded positively to Bolshevik ideology and took up the challenge of self-transformation even as they attempted to fulfill the extraordinary demands of the first Five Year Plans.

Zinaida's diary seems to have a tragic denouement. In 1930, Zinaida's agricultural institute came under political attack by forces associated with Stalin. The institute was associated with the Communist "Right Opposition" and its leaders fell victim to a national purge, accused of "kulak-capitalist" restoration aims and links to foreign imperialism. Zinaida struggled to make of the accusations against her colleagues and former mentors. Eventually, she uneasily accepted the error of her former heroes. Although she couldn't make sense of the specific allegations, she understood that it was an ideological mistake to privilege the observed details of everyday life to the detriment of deeper socialist truths and social theory. Indeed, it was hubris to imagine that the individual activist could understand what was happening in Russia at the level of economic and political progress as interpreted by the Communist Party. In short, her colleagues were guilty. The attitude was almost religious: your child dies, but, as God has a plan for all of us, it must be for a good reason.

Zinaida's life came to a close in 1933 as a result of cancer and, more sinisterly, by a food shortage that affected her because her livelihood was undermined by the political attack that shut down her place of employment. However, Zinaida was comforted in her final years by a sense of connection to socialist society. She supported socialist attempts to help women by implementing collectivized childcare and communal kitchens. She enjoyed socialist holidays and parades, and even participated one despite her illness. Notwithstanding the individualism that somehow never quite disappeared from the pages of her diary, Zinaida felt that she was privileged to have participated in the dawn of a new and better age of collectivism, social interconnectivity, and human progress.

Bolshevik Assault on Childhood

As a high-ranking Soviet official for many decades, and one of Mikhail Gorbachev's chief political lieutenants during the era of Perestroika, Alexander Yakovlev often came face to face with many of the worst features of Soviet political life. For instance, even as a successful party leader he often came very close to being cast in the role of scapegoat for bureaucratic or even anti-Semitic purges. Written in the twilight of his life, Yakovlev's brilliant diatribe against his country's seventy year experiment in Communism, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, is a damning indictment of the whole of Soviet history. According to Yakovlev, the Soviet experiment was morally bankrupt right from its inception, with Lenin sharing in much of the blame for what went wrong. Yakovlev's polemic against the Bolshevik Party is neatly organized into chapters that explain the Soviet government's villainy toward specific social sectors, including children, peasants, clergymen, intellectuals, and non-Bolshevik socialists.

Let's examine one of these oppressed social sectors. Social historians often concentrate their attention on the peasantry, who suffered so mightily at the hands of the proletarian brothers. To be sure, the collectivization campaigns, kulak repressions, and man-made famine deserve to be studied in depth by historians of early Bolshevism. However, Yakovlev asks readers to consider Lenin's brutal treatment of children, since their defenselessness was cynically and fully exploited by the Communist regime at its inception.

The exploitation of children may be a byproduct of any form of authoritarian government. But Yakolev points out that the Bolshevik government deserves special opprobrious for its legalistic approach to hurting children. In the first place, Bolshevik decrees consistently lowered the legal age at which children could be held accountable for any number of so-called crimes against the state, including vague formulations related to anti-Soviet "sedition." This of course inevitably led to the legal execution of ever-younger children, to mention only the most extreme of a host of execrable Soviet punishments. Accordingly, a twelve year old could be punished severely, perhaps even killed, for a crime. The fact that this crime might be little more than stealing food to survive or observing a religious holiday adds another dimension to Soviet conceptions of justice and legality.

In the second place, Bolshevik morality made children as well as other family members accountable for the crimes of parents and other relatives. Therefore, it was very common for children to be exiled or imprisoned for something their parents were alleged to have done. The sins of the father were truly the sins of the sons. The Bolsheviks even created the concept of "disgraced childhood." If your parents had been a political or even class enemy, you could expect social ostracism and economic handicaps at the very least. Another common practice during the Civil War was for children to be held hostage to encourage the good behavior of their parents, although it should be noted that the White Guard was guilty of equally abominable actions. And Yakovlev is at pains to demonstrate that this type of policy was explicitly endorsed by Lenin and other top Bolsheviks.

In the end, Soviet children suffered most from the generic policies of a government that sponsored violence as a matter of course. Collectivization, the Ukrainian famine, ethnic deportations, purges, and the similar policies, directly or indirectly led to the death or suffering of countless Soviet children throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Most of these policies did not deliberately target children, but children could be expected to die more quickly and frequently than adults during periods of state-sponsored violence, disease and famine. And when children survived, often their parents did not. The result, a large population of unregulated juveniles in Moscow and other cities, were dealt with mercilessly by Soviet authorities. So-called delinquency was unacceptable in a socialist paradise in the making.

Yakovlev is right to examine Bolshevik attitudes toward children, for they certainly provide a clearer picture of the consequences of illiberalism. The classic story of the tsar's murdered children--Alexei was only fourteen was he was shot to death with his parents and siblings--was merely the opening salvo in a century of violence against the most vulnerable segment of Russian soviety. The mythic story of the Soviet child hero Comrade Pavlik, who denounced his parents and was then martyred for his troubles by an enraged uncle, is another sad reflection on the state's attitude toward children. Encouraged to privilege the nation over loyalty to parents, generations of Soviet children were taught to admire the example of the murdered child whose schooling had eveidentally helped him to become detached from his own family members.

One irony of the Soviet Union's early brutality toward children can be seen in the fact that Stalin not only killed his leading enemies, who were shared responsibility with Lenin for the policy of targeting children for political and legal persecution, he had their children killed as well. Thus died the sons of Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, among countless others. One final grim irony is that the children of the politically suspect were frequently educated by the Cheka or its successors in what amounted to re-education barracks.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Russian Beer Review

I suppose it was inevitable that the nationwide inferno of enthusiasm Soviet Roulette has sparked over the Russian past would make its way to the brewing industry. Nonetheless, I've been surprised to find such different aspects of that past emphasized in two recent appearances in the Portland, OR area.

Bridgeport's "Hop Czar" is incongruently labeled an "Imperial India Pale Ale". Apparently "Hop Moghul" didn't have the same ring, or maybe they couldn't find appropriate graphics. As it is, the label bears an Ivan-esque, ermine-draped figure, dagger tucked under the arm, carrying a stately bottle and a green sceptre. It's slogan is "All Hail the King", which again seems like a clunky translation of Czar, but Bridgeport is now owned by a big beer conglomerate and they must not have time to worry about the details. I've been drinking Hop Czar for a few months, mainly because it has been selling for Budweiser prices.

Today I was in the grocery store and found Widmer Bros. KGB Russian Imperial Stout. What's interesting here is the kitchy quotes attributed to the brewmasters: "KGB, so good we can't talk about it"; and "KGB: The beer that single-handedly won the Cold War." This minimizing of the brutality of the police state makes me a little uncomfortable.

But brutality in fact is a good word to describe the flavor of these beers as well. Hop Czar assaults the palette with a wave of hops, while KGB has a thick, malty, musky aspect that is equally unsubtle. Both beers push the envelope on alcohol content too. For bottled beer that sells in the $7-$8 range, it is kind of unusual to find alcohol levels of 7.5% (Hop Czar) and a whopping 9.3% (KGB). But then that has always been an unmistakable aspect of Soviet and Cold War nostalgia: the world is a rough place, and you might as well just seek obliteration.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Nation of Dictators

As a blogger, I’m interested in understanding what light diaries can shed on the Soviet historical era. The diary, as we know from the British historiography on this subject, is a historically conditioned, quintessentially modern, literary genre. The diary, much like the daily newspaper, only came into being with the horological progress that occurred in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In medieval or ancient eras diary-keeping would hardly have made sense: in the absence of clocks, people didn’t usually think about their lives in terms of the passing of twenty-four hour cycles, but in the modern era, the progress we believe we are making from one calendar day to the next is one of the most vital components of contemporary subjectivity and self-understanding. What resolutions are we most likely to scribble down in our own diary next January 1st? Tune in to the Oprah Winfrey show or its successor to find out.

In this sense of measuring the impact of Soviet on personal ideology, Jochen Hellbeck’s book, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Dairy under Stalin, is a brilliant contribution to our understanding of the Soviet Union during the 1930s. For it is one thing to analyze the state’s ubiquitous propaganda, and quite another to see how that propaganda did, or did not, affect the most private recesses of a citizen’s mind. Of course, as Hellback points out, other historians have rightly argued that Soviet diaries were not always freely produced, but were often constructed with some level of fear about the ends to which an intrusive state apparatus might put to this potentially self-incriminating material.

Even so, Hellback’s book makes a convincing case that many Soviet diarists, including those who supported the regime and those who opposed it, continued to write voluminously throughout the 1930s, frequently disregarding or directly countering official ideological strictures. Moreover, Hellback shows that the majority of these diarists were creating these precious historical documents because they were actively supporting the state’s authoritarian project. In other words, their diaries record a daily struggle to conform to Soviet ideals related to self-actualization and personhood, which included values such as hard work, optimism, socialist realism, social activism, proletarian purity, brotherhood, and collectivity.

What’s interesting about Soviet diaries is that they reflect a philosophy of self-criticism that emerged in a somewhat perverted but essentially consistent form in the purge trials of the late 1930s. Again and again, diarists accused themselves of selfishly placing their own private interests above those of the Party and historical necessity in general.

What Hellback’s analysis makes clear is that Soviet citizens were active participants in everyday Stalinism, and often accepted its most illiberal tenants. While Stalin’s enemies publicly confessed to failing the Party in grotesque ways, many ordinary citizens were making similar self-accusations on a private level, struggling mightily to shed any hint of bourgeois atavism in an effort to be a part of socialist modernity. Notwithstanding recurring doubts about the system’s flaws, which sometimes rose to the level of state-sponsored famine, economic slavery, or political terror, Soviet citizens went out of their way to put aside their reservations. They did so because they believed two things: first, that the advantages of a socialist future would ultimately outweigh the temporary setbacks of “subjective” Soviet reality; and second, that focusing on the socialist future would incorporate their own petty, private lives into the much more rewarding and meaningful platform of collective historical progress and social change.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Your Mother Was a Communist!

Maxim Gorky's 1905 play, Mother, was an international phenomenon: his most popular play, Mother captured the imagination of liberal and socialist audiences who recognized the Russian autocracy the play critiqued as one of the center of European conservatism and even despotism prior to the First World War. Perhaps inevitably, in 1926 Gorky's polemical play was turned into a Soviet film, which received a soundtrack and score when it was restored by Mosfilm in 1968.

The film revolves around a personal drama of political radicalization. As the film opens, a drunken and impoverished father, Vlasov, terrorizes his miserable wife in his search for money to feed his alcoholic addiction, but the outraged son eventually drives him off with a hammer. Later, Vlasov inevitably finds himself in a tavern whose unsavory patrons are plotting to brutally suppress a strike. The father, who pathetically offers the bartender a domestic iron he has purloined for a drink, is soon recruited by the "black hundreds" goons who recognize his size and strength. When the son, Pavel, declares his solidarity with the strikers, the stage is set for a family conflict in the midst of a wider drama of political and economic confrontation.

At first, the two sides are decidedly unequal. The workers, while numerous and determined, are unarmed. In contrast, Vlasov and his right-wing partners carry arms, including brass knuckles, and enjoy the confidence of the armed police as well as the wealthy factory owner. The organization of the workers proves to be almost a match for the forces of reaction. However, a military force overawes the strikers, and strikers die. Soon, strikers are on the run, and Pavel heroically decides to hide weapons and other contraband in his home to aid the cause of resistance to tyranny. When the tzar's gendarmes arrive to search the house, Pavel's mother is distraught. She seeks to save her son by revealing the weapons cache in exchange for her son's freedom.

Unfortunately, she has naively underestimated the brutality of the government and its representatives, who ignore her deferential bows and take her son away, to be put on trial. The trial, attended by bourgeois spectators who enjoy the courtroom drama as entertainment and spectacle, is fixed in advance. The judges are prejudiced, one expressing his lack of interest in justice by drawing doodles as the evidence is heard; the defense lawyer is young, inexperienced and so nervous that he hiccups throughout the trial. When her son receives a sentence of hard labor, in her melodramatic anguish she cries: "Is this justice?"

The mother, watching the proceedings in horror, moves to a rupture with the old regime. As things get worse for her son in prison, who confronts the prospect of eating bug-infested food, the mother becomes an active opponent of the regime for the first time by distributing fliers and joining a May Day protest at the prison, which soon frees Pavel and the other prisoners. The film provides viewers with a visual metaphor for this revolutionary act by showing river ice breaking up in a spring thaw. Pavel, now free, dramatically flies across the ice to escape the tzar's troops and join his comrades.

The final rupture between the mother and the government occurs during the last sequence of the film. With Cossack cavalrymen charging revolutionaries, Pavel is killed by a bullet and dies in his mother's arms. But rather than collapse in grief, the mother valiantly confronts the charging Cossacks, flying the red flag of revolt and daring the soldiers to trample her to death. Her transformation into a stoic revolutionary is complete: free from all illusions about the the nature of autocratic government and exploitative capitalism, she is prepared to die for her son and the revolutionary cause he supported.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pasternak Samples

To follow up on a previous post related to George Reavey's translations, here a few favorite snippets of Pasternak's poetry.

The dawn, a venomed, famished viper,
Crawled into holes,
And jungles held moist air of requiem
And finer incense.

O silence--you're the best
Of all I've ever heard.

How soporific it is to live!
To kiss--what utter insomnia.

Who knows if the riddle's answered
Of what's beyond the grave;
But life--like autumn silence--
Is always deep in detail.

There's no nostalgia in the world
That snow will not completely cure.

Were I a man--and not a mere collection here
Of lips and temples, eyes, hands, shoulders, fingers, cheeks!--
Then I'd let rip in crackling verse, in strident lines,
In the boisterous strength and freshness of nostalgia:
I'd have succumbed to them, and led them to the assault;
I would have stormed your citadel, my staggering shame!

Like--Time. For suicide she finds no cause,
And thinks it slow--a tortoise at best.

For in these days the very air reeks of death.
An open window is an open vein.

We were people. But now we are epochs.

An avalanche of diary sheets cast yearly into the fire?

What if the universe wear a mask?

We gave so much to Christmas trees!
If only we could get some back.

These days were like a diary.
One read them at a guess.
At any page.

I was not born to look three times
In different ways into men's eyes.
Far more ambiguous than song,
The dull, blunt word of "enemy."

I'm now oblivious to the day
When, in the deep Pacific depths.
Of gaping Japanese abyss,
A telegram could tell the class
(What an erudite sea-diver!)
Of workers from the class of Octopi.

My life is no faint-figured draft--
It's something solid teeth will crack on.

So, for a time become immortal,
We're numbered in the face of pines:
From epidemics, plagues, all ills
And death, we're now for once immune.

Creation is as subtly deceptive
As a story with a happy ending.

Passion of Pasternak

Pasternak's longevity as a Soviet poet is remarkable. Few gifted writers or poets of the first order of talent survived the age of Stalin, who knew Pasternak well enough to call him from time to time. Pasternak, famous in America for his romantic novel Dr. Zhivago, was a brilliant poet, worthy of the Nobel Prize nomination he declined out of deference (or fear) of the Soviet government and literary establishment.

Soviet Roulette hasn't yet hired a poetry editor, so I'll have to do the work of analyzing George Reavey's translations of The Poetry of Boris Pasternak. In brief, I'll call this poetry inventive, intelligent, and exceedingly obtuse. (Reavey adds the adjective, optimistic, here too). At times, Pasternak seems to have bowed to political and social pressures in produce poetry that transparently served the interests of the the Soviet state. Although his political poems (on 1905, Stalin, and World War II) are limpid, they somehow seem uninspired and far less profound than his lyrical treatment of natural themes. But when Pasternak addresses a natural topic, he's in his element: confident, impersonal, reverent, and expressive.

While it's usually very difficult to discern the author's meaning with any certitude, line by line Pasternak is almost always rewarding. The phrasing is complex, rich, and relentlessly unexpected. To me, Pasternak's poetry resembles Virginia Woolf's prose, which, at the level of the sentence, is sometimes so beautiful and complex that it overpowers the meaning of the paragraph in which it finds itself. In fact, the comparison need not end there. In both cases, the sound of the words--the alliteration, the rhyme, the cadence--is at least as important as its communicative purpose. This isn't a criticism: perhaps poetry is supposed to work this way; perhaps a poem ought to resemble a riddle more than an an article or treatise.