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.

1 comment:

  1. Am I allowed to dissent from the dissent? In the first place, I argued that Afghanistan was unconquereable not ungovernable. I think there is an important distinction there. Also, although I agree with N.B. that Sheets finds many characters using Lenin-Stalinist models, I can't say that Sheets' depiction of Chernobyl can compete with other books on the subject, such as Voices from Chernobyl. Then again, the genius of Sheets' book is that it somehow makes Chernobyl look like just another ordinary tragedy in the parade of tragedies that was the Soviet collapse.