Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Isaiah Berlin on Soviet Russia

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Ukrainian Alamo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Romanov Massacre

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

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

Friday, September 16, 2011

It's Hard Out There For An Apparatchik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Memory Is A Bitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Boy Meets Tractor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Let's Try the Sicilian Defense"

"But perhaps love is stronger than chess?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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