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.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Russia Will Be Russia

Losing twenty million citizens in the course of a single war makes an impression on a country. It's not therefore surprising that Russia continues to come up with so many war films. The 1997, The Thief, isn't set during the war but nevertheless takes place in the context of the war. In one telling scene, the hero of Pavel Chukhraj's award-winning film, a boy name Sanya, asks his family's communal apartment roommates whether they had children who had been killed in the war. The father shrugs, as if to say that there's nothing about his personal tragedy worth commenting on: everybody in Russia lost their children in the war. Additionally, the film's plot makes sense only in the wake of the war. Sanya's mother Katya is a war widow; Tolyan, a war veteran, exploits his status, and the confusion of the immediate postwar years, to ply his trade as a thief and conman.

If the aftermath of the war provides the context for this twisted love story, Stalin's reign is never irrelevant to it. Stalin appears in communal apartment posters, statues, treasured souvenir portraits, tattoos, and drunken toasts. He is also indirectly influential insofar as his police state requires citizens, and even (or even especially) veterans, to constantly produce their papers in order to justify their movements.

More ominously, Stalin's presence can be felt when the Thief is caught for a small transgression and yet receives seven years in a Siberian presence. In one scene, mother and son await Tolyan in a crowd of women who hope to catch even a fleeting glimpse of their loved ones as they pass between a holding prison and a transport truck. As Tolyan emerges, he is forced to keep his eyes to the ground while moving quickly through what can only be described as a gauntlet of vicious dogs.

In the end, this is a film which, like Tarkovsky's much earlier film, that details the psychic pain Russian citizens have been forced to endure as a result of World War II. Katya eventually succumbs to her psychological wounds, and dies as a result of what may have been a "botched abortion." Her young son, in a scene of overwrought pathos, desperately tries to build a fence around her grave. Later, as if demonstrating that Russia's war wounds will never heal, Sanja emerges from his orphanage to enter a military career. In that capacity, the film shows Sanja facilitating the evacuation of Russian citizens (including wounded children) from some unspecified, war-torn, former Soviet Republic. Leaving this area, Sanja witnesses the summary execution of three men. Whether or not the Soviet Union exists, this film seems to suggest that Russia remains Russia.

Tarkovsky's War

This blog suffers from one mortal wound--its author's unfamiliarity with the Russian language--and dozens of lesser injuries, which include the author's unrelenting dilettantism in the dozens of fields related to Soviet intellectual history, including music and film. Nevertheless, Soviet Roulette has one merit: it doesn't use ignorance as an excuse for quitting. Thus, this entry, on Andrei Tarkovsky's first feature film, Ivan's Childhood, made in 1962, in the midst of Khrushchev's Thaw.

According to Vida T. Johnson, coauthor of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky and featured guest in Criterion's Film Appreciation segment of the its DVD of Ivan's Childhood, the Thaw period marked a strong revival of Russian film-making. At the end of Stalin's life, film making was both heavily censored and heavily restricted to older men who had earned the Party's trust. In fact, in 1953, the year of Stalin's death the Soviet Union, only released about 50 or 60 films. During the Thaw, that number had been increased to over 100, with a corresponding increase in intellectual excitement over the industry's artistic and creative potential.

Tarkovsky's film, about a young boy who, reacting the massacre of his mother and and sister during World War II, seeks vengeance against the Germans before (spoiler alert) being tortured and executed in Berlin, maintains some of the elements of socialist realism. As Johnson argues, Tarkovsky's film, while highly inventive and subjective, retains some of the key socialist realist storytelling conventions, including heroism, Soviet patriotism, a clear moral message, and unsympathetic enemies. On the other hand, Tarkovsky, like some of his contemporaries in the Thaw period, was experimenting with different kind of war film than the grand, heroic films of the early 1950s.

In Ivan's Childhood, the war is personalized, and its searing trauma highlighted. Tarkovsky, Johnson reminds us, was about ten, roughly Ivan's age, during World War II. This film is therefore a very personal account of war's impact on the mind of a child who would have been representative of the millions of other Soviet children who lived through the war. Over time, Johnson tell us that Tarkovsky's unique style of film-making became more developed, revolving around complex narrative styles, pronounced subjectivity, dream sequences, cinematic poetry, moody images, and invitations to enter the director's inner world. But even in Ivan's Childhood the director was testing the limits of what a genre war film could be. His story (originally Vladimir Bogomolov's tale) is nonlinear, filled with innocent, light-filled dream sequences which are contrasted with dark, brutal, styled portraits of Ivan's horrific waking life.

The contrast, between life as it should be for a young boy, and life as it is, isn't particularly subtle, but it transforms an action story about a boy hero who risks his life to go on a scouting mission behind enemy lines, into a more intimate description of profound psychological loss. The child-killing enemy remains, and the film doesn't hesitate to use historical footage of the Soviet Union's ultimate victory celebration in Berlin; but Ivan's Childhood is ultimately successful as a result of its personal, subjective account of Ivan's damaged personality. Ivan, courageous and vengeful, is also beset by anger, sadness, loneliness, and, above all, loss. Of course, this mental landscape is beautifully rendered by Vadun Yusov's brilliant visual metaphors, including dark battlefields, ruined natural landscapes (see Yusov's interview in the same Criterion DVD), eerie birch groves, luscious apples, and pristine beeches.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Pugachev the Raving, Raven

"That's just the beginning. We'll give Moscow a real shaking yet."

"At Ozernaya an old Cossack woman would wander along the Yaik everyday, pulling the floating corpses to the bank with her crutch and chanting "Isn't that you, my child? Is it you, my Stevie? Is it your black curls that the fresh water is washing?" And seeing an unfamiliar face, would gently push the corpse away."

"What's this?" said Pugachev. "You want to betray your sovereign?" "What is to be done?" the Cossacks answered, and suddenly rushed him.

"Who are you?" he asked the pretender. "Emelian Ivanov Pugachev," he answered. "How did you dare, you raving thief, to call yourself the sovereign?" "I'm not a raven," replied Pugachev, playing on words and expressing himself, as was his habit, in allegory; "I'm a raven's chick, and the raven himself is still flying."

Twenty one years ago I read Alexander Pushkin's The History of Pushkin for a Russian history course at Georgetown University. The book stayed with me. Although I couldn't have been impressed with its illustrious author--Russia's most famous poet, Alexander Pushkin, a name I didn't yet know--I loved the short book. Who wouldn't have been impressed with this well-told tale of outlandish courage, bloody rebellion, and almost picaresque adventure? Pushkin's The History of Pugachev is a matter-of-fact description the Cossack insurgency which shook the foundations of Catherine the Great's empire at roughly the same time as the American colonies were doing the same to George II's Great Britain.

Emilian Pugachev, pretending to be the murdered Peter III, forged a loose and chaotic alliance between a host of dissatisfied elements in the Russian empire, including Cossacks, serfs, and Asiatic nations such as the Kalymks and Bashkirs. With this alliance, Pugachev managed to conquer the imperial stronghold of Kazan, and temporarily disabled Catherine's authority over the huge expanse of land that lay between the Volga and the Urals. With unbelievable personal daring, Pugachev seemed to be everywhere, and eyewitness accounts often placed him on the front lines of his many encounters with tsarist troops. In Pushkin's awed if condemnatory account, Pugachev's forays in unaffected Russian lands, while ordinarily unsuccessful in the face of regular Russian troops, almost always led to large-scale social upheaval. Wherever Pugachev went, Cossack soldiers defected from Catherine's cause and serfs took revenge on their masters.

As a class, the rural gentry suffered grievously from the great social conflagration. Pugachev, who was never really master over the Cossack leaders who exploited his royal mystique, was eventually defeated, betrayed, and turned over to the crown's representatives to be executed. For all his triumphs, Pugachev, whose forces were disorganized, ill-equipped, and untrained, turned out to be no match for the professional Russian armies sent out from the West to subdue him.

Pugachev's Revolt had a long-lasting impact on Russian history. In the wake of the revolt, which had been contemporaneous with conflict with Turkey and Europe, Catherine turned away from social reform and toward a closer alliance with the nobility. Pushkin, living not so long after Catherine the Great's death, seems to sense the historical import of the episode. While Pushkin's Pugachev is a rogue, his meets with so many successes because the serfs (especially factory serfs) are so mightily oppressed by the local gentry. Were this not so, why did Pugachev (or any of dozens of his representatives) only have to appear in an area for the serfs to rise up to join the insurgency.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Holy, Holy, Holy (Nevsky)

Nevsky Prospect is the chief artery of St. Petersburg, a straight, broad avenue that bisects the city and runs from the Admiralty Spire and the Winter Palace to god only knows where. On Nevsky Prospect one encounters: Strogonov Palace, Anchikov Palace, Kazan Cathedral, the Moyka and Griboedov and Fontanka canals, bridges, parks, Russian and American fast food joints, open air dining, shopping malls (Gostiny Dvor), metro stations, museums, souvenir shops, pickpockets, street performers, etc.

To talk down Nevsky Prospect is to have something akin to a religious experience. At some point, all of the following must have strolled this same street: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Grigori Orlov, Potemkin, Alexander I, Nicholas II, Alexander III, Nicholas II, Rasputin, Aleksandr Pushkin, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Kuzmin, Fydor Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, Aleksander, Aleksander Blok, N.V. Gogol, Osip Mandelshtam, Isadora Duncan, Sergei Esenin, Prokofiev, Vladimir Mayakovski, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Shostokovich, Igor Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Karl Faberge, Kerensky,Feliks Dzerzhinsky, V.I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Kamanev, Zinoviev, Rinaldi, Rossi, Falconet, Rastrelli, Trezzini, Diagilev, Benois, Andrei Bely, Merezhkovsky, Zinaida Gippius, Repin, Nikolai Berdaev, Soloviev, Viacheslav Ivanov, Anastasia Verbitskaya, Alexei Tolstoy, Boris Eikhenbaum, Putilov, Olga Berrgolts, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Zhadanov, Yury Lotman, Vladimir Nabokov, Miulikov, Vera Figner, Antsiferov, Victor Schlovsky, Maxim Gorky, Antsiferov, Plekhanov, Ginzburg, Axelrod, Ilya Ehrenburg, Khodasevich, Kornei Chukovsky, Father Gapon, Kroptkin, Herzen, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Joseph Brodsky, Nikolai Tikhonov, Panin, Stroganov, Iusupov, Sergei Esenin, George Balanchine, Lunacharsky, Chernychevsky, Volkov, Mirsky, Aleksander Fadeev, Pavlov, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Briusov, Ivan Bunin, et cetera and so on.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Communist Ruins

"There will rise, believe me, comrade
A star of captivating bliss, when
Russia wakes up from her sleep
And when our names will both be written
On the ruins of despotism."

(Pushkin to Chadeev, 1818, cited by Orlando Figes in in the introduction to Pushkin's History of Pugachev)

What does the term, ruin, connote? What makes something worthy of being called a ruin? A ruin is something more than a collapsed or demolished building. To be a ruin, something must hold our sentimental attention and call forth feelings of awe and wonderment. A ruin is a collapsed architectural structure--with pretensions to grandeur.

Visiting St. Petersburg, one would expects to find ruins everywhere. Since the city was only founded in 1703, we can't expect to find any building fragments with ties to antiquity. Even so, since we know that one of the world's grandest and most destructive experiments in living was launched here in the city, we expect to see the physical fragments of the greatest social phenomenon of twentieth century on almost every street corner. Surprisingly, these fragments aren't all that easy to find, at least in the historic heart of the city.

Of course, the physical manifestations of seventy years of Soviet rule do in fact exist; they are just less prominent than one might expect, at least in the city's tourist areas. The vast majority of Lenin statues have been removed, though a few still remain. Totalitarian governmental buildings and monstrous housing projects do the landscape, but are overshadowed in the historic heart of St. Pete by the works of Italian and French masters of the eighteenth century. Here and there we notice a socialist realism frieze or statue. Here and there a hammer and sickle or red star adorn a building wall or metro stop. But the era of the Soviet Union isn't all that easy to spot unless you know what you're looking for.

There are a few museums that bear witness to the triumphs and tragedies of the birthplace of Bolshevism. The Museum of Political History, for example, is housed in the famous palace of ballerina Mathilda Kshesinskaya, where the Bolsheviks once convened, and where Lenin once preached to his followers from one of the balconies. But the home of the Petrograd Soviet, the Tauride Palace, is no longer a monument to the Soviet idyll, but rather a working governmental building dedicated to the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. The nearby Smolny Institute, Lenin's home for a brief period, site of the Kirov assassination, and home to the Bolshevik Party during 1917, still exists. And a Lenin statue there hasn't been removed. But the Smolny Institute, as opposed to the cathedral, doesn't seem to be on anybody's tourist agenda. The guides don't mention the Institute at all.

To be a ruin, something must be much more than merely a remnant of the past. A ruin is a Romantic concept, a monument to a great (though not necessarily good) but defeated cause. St. Petersburg is home to myriad physical reminders of an important era in the life of the nation. However, the Russian people haven't apparently had either the time or the inclination to romanticize their grim past by highlighting the ruins in their midst.

Bruce Lincoln's St. Petersburg

Readers of the blog will know that Soviet Roulette holds the late, great Russian historian, Bruce Lincoln, in high regard. Lincoln is the author of about a dozen excellent books on modern Russian history. Readable, informative, and exciting, his exciting yet scholarly trilogy on the Russian Revolution and Civil War is representative of Lincoln's huge talent. Lincoln's last book is a testament to his lifelong love affair with Russia's imperials city, St. Petersburg. In Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia Lincoln demonstrates a sensitivity and mastery of cultural history that has wasn't on display in the majority of his treatises on modern social and political history.

In Sunlight at Midnight, Lincoln argues that St. Petersburg's story is simultaneously unique and central to the story of Russia's evolving identity. Lincoln's book is less than four hundred pages long, and yet somehow seems far longer, notwithstanding its scintillating prose. This is because St. Petersburg's history is rich, dense, and complex. This invented city has always been Russia's "Window on the West," which of course means that it has always stood at the very apex of Russia's struggle to come to terms with its divided Eurasian cultural identity. On the one hand, as a result of the geography, St. Petersburg is closer to Western Europe than the vast majority of the Russian or Soviet Empires. On the other hand, St. Petersburg has traditionally been an epicenter of imperialism, and one that necessarily communicated with all of Russia's Eastern, Asiatic, Islamic, Caucasian, and Siberian constituencies. It's strange to note that visitors to St. Petersburg can still feel this divided cultural heritage today. As it turns out, the 19th century debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers is not a cliche. While St. Petersburg plays host to hundreds of thousands of Western tourists each year, its tourist industry seems to depend at least as much on Russian travelers. While anecdotal, the fact that many young Russian workers in the tourist economy--hotel desk personnel, restaurant hostesses, and museum employees--speak almost no English, French, or German, may suggest that the city remains uncertain about the role the West could or should play in its future. The city, like the country at large, remains uncommitted to the West even three centuries after Catherine the Great conducted her famous correspondence with the literary giants of the Western Enlightenment like Diderot.

In the end, the historic significance of St. Petersburg transcends the story of Russia, as important as that story is in its own right. This is of course because St. Petersburg experienced the vertiginous process of industrialization and modernization in unique ways. Although other European capitals had been transformed by factory life and the rise of the bourgeois and proletarian classes, St. Petersburg was practically overwhelmed by social and economic change in the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1900, St. Petersburg was not only divided between its imperial and Westernizing destinies, but also by its proletarian outskirts and bourgeois or bureaucratic center.

Part of Russia's inability to gracefully adapt to modernization is related to Russia's historic economic backwardness; after all, the serfs were only legally liberated in the 1960s. But part of Russia's fragility is related to Russia's political immaturity. At first, the Russian autocratic model helped backward Russia to weather the challenge of Western power, but later relying on autocracy led to severe class tensions. With no legitimate avenue to effect political change through democratic processes, proletarians and even bourgeois often turned to radical or even violent forms of dissent. St. Petersburg's Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, which marks the spot in which the Tsar Liberator Alexander II was assassinated despite his efforts to reform and modernize the state, is one testament to the impasse Russia confronted as early as the 1880s.

Bruce Lincoln doesn't attempt to explain the October Revolution in this book. The First World War obviously deserves a great deal of the blame for this event. Had Russia not suffered so grievously against German armies, who can say that a liberal revolution might not have succeeded? Lincoln indirectly suggests that St. Petersburg's cultural experimentation at the turn of the century--the Silver Age--is in some way related to radical political experimentation. The causal relationship between the poetry of the Straw Dog and Isanov's Tower and the political decisions of Lenin and Trotsky doesn't exist. Even so, Lincoln, following Marshall Berman, know that cultural radicalism may at least be a reflection of the kind of pressures that eventually legitimate radical political innovation. Certainly Andrei Bely's modernist novel, St. Petersburg, foreshadowed confusion, disorientation, and even disaster even before the First World War.

Mawkish Literary Museums in St. Petersburg

To visit St. Petersburg is to confront its monumental and almost undifferentiated architecture of grandeur. Whether neo-classical, baroque, art deco, or Stalinist, St. Petersburg's vast catalog of historic buildings--most in the process of being architecturally refurbished in some way--seem to resemble one another in their heaviness, height, and scales. And why not? The city was created out of thin air, and unlike Paris or Moscow or almost all other European cities had no centuries-long process of natural and therefore haphazard architectural evolution. Notwithstanding decades of relative decline vis-a-vis Moscow, St. Petersburg remains the imposing capital of its energetic founder, Peter the Great, and his immediate successors, especially Catherine the Great.

St. Petersburg--or at least its "historic heart"--is a city of palaces, governmental buildings, and elegant but intimidatingly large apartment buildings. It's also a city of bridges, canals, monuments, and the great Neva river. Having ironically lost its vitality in the wake of its own historical moment October Revolution, St. Petersburg has somehow evolved into a city of museums. The Hermitage, most famous of all Russian museums, and one of best museums the world has to offer, is the centerpiece of St. Petersburg's obsession with the past. The fabulous State Russian Museum, repository of so much of Russia's unique artistic heritage, is another of the city's most important historical treasures. But it's the smaller cultural museums--not Yusupov's Palace (magnificent site of Rasputin's legendary murder), not the Stroganov Palace (now a wing of the State Russian Museum), not the Menshikov Palace, and not Peterhof or Tsarskoe Selo (just two of the tsar's multiple Versailles-like retreats)--that ought to attract our attention.

At the risk of appearing too sentimental about an unsentimental town, St. Petersburg's greatest museums are perhaps its smallest ones, although one wonders whether cynical tourist authorities have invented a few of these museums to pray on the heightened emotional sensitivity that Russophiles must always feel when visiting the city of Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. The Pushkin museum, for example, features five small pieces of wood that Pushkin allegedly collected from the gallows used to execute five friends who died as a result of their participation in the Decembrist Revolt against tsarist tyranny in 1825. Did someone make this up? It seems almost too moving to be true. And should one experience a sense of awe and wonder, or merely check for one's wallet, when one notices a box of cigarettes on Dostoyevsky's desk (at the writer's own museum) on which one of his children has written: "Papa died today..."?

St. Petersburg's many wonderful apartment museums are filled with similar touching if mawkish artifacts. Alexander Blok's museum, which takes up space on the second and fourth floor of a still-in-use apartment building, contains copies of some his earliest publications. Anna Akhmatova, patron saint of suffering in a town that has known more than its share of trauma, has her own museum, which prominently displays the coat of her second husband, who was taken away to die in the gulag, and calls attention to the hallway in which her son was forced to shelter due to the brutal facts of communal living. The museum reminds us that Akhmatova suffered through the beginning of the Siege of Leningrad, saw her son taken away to the gulag more than once, suffered from the Bolshevik execution of the man who had been her first husband, Gumilyov, in 1921. Most affectingly, Akhmatova's museum presents us with her famous letter to Stalin, in which she implores him to release her son from imprisonment, as well as the newspaper articles that viciously and officially denounced her writing following World War II. Of course, the heart of St. Petersburg's literary nostalgia industry is Pushkin House. Here one can see a hundred artifacts and photos of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Nekrasov, Belinsky, and all of the other great figures of Russian cultural achievement.