Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Vysotka Prism

I've spent the past few years getting to know the Russian Revolution, Soviet history, and Russian history in general. The blog reflects my ongoing struggle to make sense of this enormous and enormously important topic. But Soviet history is slippery. One can approach the topic from the point of view of revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, expatriates, foreign enemies, foreign sympathizers, intellectuals, peasants and workers, male Russians, female Russians, ethnic Russians, non-ethnic Russian Soviet citizens, victims, apologists, or even post-Soviet or "New Russian" citizens. I am often overwhelmed by these diverse perspectives, and I'm overwhelmed without even mastering the historiography of recent years. But I like Anne Nivat's approach to Soviet history, which is to tell the story or revolutionary and post-revolutionary Russia through the prism of one of the iconic addresses of Stalinist Russia, the Vysotka, one of seven skyscrapers that housed, and continue to house, some of the most important people in Russia.

In reality, Nivat's essay on Russian history isn't really about this architectural landmark, although she describes its features in some detail, not neglecting to note the role slave labor played in its construction. Rather, Nivat's tale is about the Russian people. Interviewing her neighbors, Nivat discovered many of the fault-lines between old and new Russia. The occupants of the Vysoktka include dissents, intellectuals, artists, Stalinists, former apparatchiks, traditionalists, nouveau riches, and everything in between. In the earliest years of the 21st century, Nivet's subjects are understandably obsessed with economic survival. With the collapse of Communism, many of the Vysoktka's residents are immersed in a complex and ever-shifting economic landscape. Does it make sense to privatize the building? Should one sell off one's address, rent it to wealthy foreigners, or hang on in order to avoid larger condominium fees at other addresses? All in all, Privet's interviews reveal the complexity of Russian history, a history filled with memories of suffering (but also faith in collectivist ideals) and also fears (and hopes) about the un-mapped future.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Omnivorous censorship, Implacable propaganda

"Horrors Of Making The Mistake of Expecting To Find In Russia What You Elsewhere Find Without Expecting"

"My dear fellow, let me beg you most earnestly not to make the ridiculous mistake of judging by appearances; the thing to realize, that here people run themselves: they are truly--for the first time in human history--free."

I have returned to reading E.E. Cummings' satirical travelogue and modernist manifesto, Eimi. While many other foreign writers came away from Russia with positive impressions of "the world's first proletarian state," Cummings was obviously appalled by what he saw during his sojourn in Moscow. Cummings saw a culture of surveillance, falsehood, propaganda, atheism, bureaucracy, and xenophobia. He also encountered a number of naive expatriate defenders of the communist dictatorship. These sycophants were utterly enthralled with their hosts, and willing to forgive almost everything if it meant that they could continue to believe that the Russian Revolution had brought humankind one step closer to utopia. The quotes below are, more often than not, the apologias of foreigners who decided to see progress where in fact there was only sacrilege, a dearth of consumer goods, an acute housing shortage, a runaway personality cult, torture and murder, a dead artistic climate, and countless other banalities and horrors. Forgive me for stringing such a long series of random quotes together. I sometimes remind myself of the man in my office who underlines every single word of his daily newspaper. The point of Eimi is that Soviet Russia was indeed a brave new world, but it was an absurd and dreadful one.

Soviet Apologia

"You must realize that we, we the Russians, have over us no sovereigns; we are not compelled; we are striving for IDEAS."

"What you've noticed is that each of us has an INNER DISCIPLINE, not a discipline which has been imposed by some outer authority. Let me make this point perfectly plain--people talk of Stalin as if he were a dictator! why, you can't imagine how small he is at a workers' meeting."

"You mean, I presume, that comrade Stalin is not imposing his power on others, but is expressing their power."

"Well, what if prohibition is a failure in America? That's the fault of America's social system: the burdens imposed upon the workers by capitalist society are enough to weaken anyone's character."

"..anyone who still wants to serve The Lord can do so, but the Lord's servant must have a useful occupation or starve; people have awakened to the fact that religion is opium: in a worker's republic there;s no place for parasiites..."

"Well, ten years ago I was born. Do you know what that means? I became a communist."

"Would you like to see the vast industrial plants by which Russia is trying to get her place in the world? Russia is striving; a whole race, a vast part of the earth..."

"...I always feel that we haven't any right to criticize: the point is, you are now in a workers' republic which is bound to make mistakes like anything else; but the mistakes are being rectified as quickly as possible--and after all, the ideal is what counts, isn't it!"

"They're not police at all, they're guardians of the proletariat, and quite the most spending organization in Soviet Russian--altogether noble and unselfish--why I've even been accused of being in the Gay--Pay-Oo myself.."

"Do you realize that without some sort of guidance you will not see anything, let alone understand?"

"Yes, that's a radio: there;s one in every room: the programs are mostly propaganda, but very interesting"

"Of ocurse, I shouldn't dream of living like this anywhere else: the point is, what you spend here enriches the government instead of some private individual who has a great deal too much already.."

"You probably don;t realize that coffee is a tremendous luxury!--not that things aren't getting better every day; it's really nothing short of miraculous, what they've done."

"mymymymymymym, How I envy you, Seeing Moscow for the first time...."

"...he was much impressed and showed a genuine understanding of the basic principles on which this worker;s republic is founded...really. yes...[T]hese mischievous correspondents (at least the Russians are honest thieves) got hold of poor Gene Tunney and they took him to a place where ecclestical refuse of one sort and another was being burnt--not the really good things, of course: the good ones are carefully preserved by the government, it;s extraordinary what they;ve done, really extraordinary.. By the way, this is a dead secret--I'm interested in icons, myself, but from a purely business standpoint, you understand--even my worst enemiescan't accuse me of being religious! O: well, and the correspondents arranged it so that, just as poor brother Tunnney came walking in, a life-size statue of Our Lord Jesus Christ rolled right out of the flames clear to Gene's most Catholic feet. Giggle. At least that's the story. Tunney, of course, was horribly shocked--it spoiled his entire Russian trip."

"Oh well...but we who've seen Russia before--they can't fool us!"

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Humble Servants of the Revolution

"Please, please let me visit him. After all, you're a human being."
"There are no human beings here, Eliena Petrovna, only humble servants of the revolution."

"Try as I would to exorcise it, the knowledge that she was a secret police agent was ever a ghost at the banquet of our affections."

"Within a year Nikopol seemed not so much an industrial establishment as a hunting ground for the police and their secret informers."

"Only a modern Dante in a pessimistic moment could evoke in words that picture of the secret underground factory of the Commissariat of Munitions, operated chiefly with slave labor."

"Thanks, Mother, and don't worry about me. I'll be all right. I know revolution is no picnic."

"Suddenly I found myself among men who could eat ample and dainty food in full view of starving people not only with a clear conscience but with a feeling of righteousness, as if they were performing a duty to history."

"A lush, ripe obscenity is the most striking and sometimes the only reminder of the 'proletarian' origins of our regime."

I had never heard of Victor Kravchenko's brilliant postwar polemic, I Choose Freedom, until I read John Fleming's The Anti-Communist Manifestos. But Kravchenko's autobiographical attack on the Soviet Union was enormously popular, both in the United States and Europe, and did more than almost any other book to undermine Russia's reputation in the West. Fleming is slightly incredulous that French and American Leftists were unable to believe that Kravchenko, a relatively high level Soviet bureaucrat, had personally written the book that so powerfully undermined Western confidence in their erstwhile ally.

However, even today it's hard to believe that a translator--however free the translation--could have transformed the biography of an engineer and bureaucrat into such a perfectly complete indictment of Bolshevism. Yet however much Kravchenko was aided, the autobiography is historically accurate and essentially true. Kravchenko really witnessed what he said he witnessed; and the Soviet Union really was as bad, if not worse, than his testimony suggests. It's only the horrific facts of the Soviet economic and political system that make Kravchenko's story seem incredible today.

Kravchenko's slow rise to bureaucratic prominence gave him a tour de horizon of Soviet malevolence. Over the course of a decade, Kravchenko witnessed collectivization and man-made famine, purges and super-purges, police state surveillance and torture, class warfare and Party privilege, bureaucratic over-centralization coupled with economic chaos, propaganda disassociated from social reality, judicial crimes and slave labor camps, and diplomatic hypocrisy and military incompetence.