Tuesday, November 15, 2011

8 Pieces of Empire: A Dissent

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Soviet Pursuit of Happiness

"Fortune forever refuses my company."

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sheets' 8 Pieces of Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Romantic Russia

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

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

"The most sublime peace is death."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Holy October

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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