Friday, April 8, 2011

Militant Bolshevik Atheists

As mentioned previously, Alexander Yakovlev's diatribe against Bolshevism, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, breaks down the Soviet Union's crimes against humanity in the following categories: the assault on childhood, Jews, intellectuals, fellow travelers, peasants, and the clergy. With respect to the clergy, Yakovlev succinctly outlines his case against the Bolsheviks, a case which is more systematically investigated in another book, The Plot to Kill God.

The attack against the Church was brutal and opened as early as 1918 when forty-seven clergymen in the Yekaterinburg diocese were shot, axed to death, or drowned. As the Civil War raged, scores of Church leaders were murdered, and often in unspeakable ways. Some clergymen were frozen in ice water, others castrated. In some cases, the churchmen were placed into boiling water, burned, strangled, scalped, tied to paddle-wheels, or even crucified, with the naked corpses sometimes being strung up on trees as a gruesome message to other would-be religious leaders. According to Yakovlev, 3,000 priests were killed in 1918 alone, and a great many of these murders occurred with deliberate religious sacrilege. The murders were sometimes spontaneously conceived by local communists, but Lenin directly encouraged the bloodshed, on one occasion asking that a religious holiday celebration be suppressed by violence.

In 1919, the Bolsheviks toyed with the idea of establishing a Red Church, a version of the traditional church that would be loyal to the Communist Party and the goals of the Revolution. But the effort failed, largely because Soviet ideology was so vehemently anti-religious. The assault on religion also took the form of a large-scale confiscation of church property in 1922, which had predictably disastrous consequences for Russia's cultural and historical heritage. In the end, 2.5 billion was stolen from the Church, but the money never went to famine relief as promised. That same year, the Church's patriarch was arrested, allegedly for fomenting rebellion. 32 archbishops and metropolitans were executed in that year. Patriarch Tikhon ultimately died in the purges of 1937.

The Communist Party's war on religion was formalized with the creation of the Union of Militant Atheists as well as the Degliryal society, which presided over actual five-year plans for atheism. The Soviet government also attacked religious bodies--including Islamic and pagan ones--by implementing draconian taxes on religious bodies, and policies related to collectivization, purges, urban planning and building, and ethnic displacement. Famously, the war against religion was relaxed during World War II, although Stalin's end came in the midst of anti-Semitic paranoia. In the 1960s, anti-religious persecution resumed, unaffected by the so-called Thaw.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Rachel Polonsky's Russian Obsession

Rachel Polonsky's book, Molotov's Magic Lantern, is a long series of poetical reflections on the nature of Russian leaders, artists, places, and ideas. Here are just a few quotations drawn from the book. Note that her own prose is almost as magical as that of the poets and writers she quotes so liberally and admires so greatly. She seems to capture the essence of the Russophile obsession and bibliophilia that pervades this blog. Here are a few gems in Polonsky's own words:

"Is there a set of secret maps to be found among a person's books, a way through the fortifications of the self?"

"Old books are objects of a mysterious and compulsive kind of desire, fed by a stubborn intuition that the past might yield its secrets to the touch, as though some further meaning or spirit dwells in their very matter."

"Each place I have explored has beckoned me towards the next, toward some further arrangement of landscape, politics and myth, which I have reassembled in this book of travels. All my expeditions have been half-blind shadowings of the pursuits of others, sometimes tracing lines leading to places of exile, quest or crime..."

"Thinking about the meaning of the scene on the staircase, I sense that this house was not merely a setting for history, but a player in the drama. These apartments were velvet cases fashioned for the families of the bourgeoisie, for love and peace and the accumulation of possessions."

"They register the fear of all those who face the prospect or the memory of years spent over books: the fear that their reading might be no more than a sterile game, an escape from life, leading nowhere, as thought dissolves to nothing with the passing of time."

"In the intimate relationship of ownership, a person lives inside his possessions, makes a dwelling place for his spirit."

"The nonreading of books, as Benjamin said, is characteristic of collectors, who can become invalids if they lose their books and, in order to acquire them, can easily turn into criminals."

"A weary impatience with the unknowability of other people is sometimes a characteristic of the bibliophile, who loves with fervor publication dates and catalog numbers, all the categories of exact knowledge that a book can be made to represent.."

"In a city dizzy with fashion, this library is a carnival of anti-fashion."

Perhaps Polonsky is on to something about why I love books so dearly. Perhaps book collecting is a mild form of Asperger's syndrome or another kind of mental dysfunction. Certainly reading in general draws one away from one's social obligations or dating opportunities. How much worse is it to collect books one doesn't even have time to read? What does it signify, especially in the age of the Kindle, when one fills every nook and cranny of a home with unread books on arcane subjects? Polonsky's quotations offer many convincing explanations for the mania, but I am convinced that book collecting is ultimately related to a fear of mortality. For somehow it seems unlikely that we will die before we have a chance to complete the books we've purchased. So if we purchase enough books to last us the next fifty years, surely the Grim Reaper will, out of respect to learning if nothing else, be patient and hold off on executing his appointed task.

Before I finish this post, let me just cite a few random passages Polonsky quotes in her adventures through Russian time and space:

"After all, an entire nation consists only of certain isolated incidents, does it not?" Dostoevsky from Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.

"Everywhere the soul of Onegin
Involuntarily reveals itself,
Whether by a brief word, by a cross
Or by a question mark..." Pushkin.

"A body has been given to me, what am I do to do with it?
So single and so my own?" Osip Mandelstam from Stone.

"Ask me my biography and I will tell you the books I've read." Osip Mandelstam from a letter.

"You know, Moscovites are a people who, more than any other, like to talk about their city--the streets, the ice rinks, the houses, the Moscow River.." Varlam Shalamov from the short story, "Dry Ration."

"The state is not pure spirit." Leon Trotsky.

Mankind will leap from "the kind of necessity" to the "kingdom of freedom" where the "extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself." Frederich Engels.

Socialists believe that historical materialism "leads inevitably to the crumbling away of historical reality." Berdyaev. The Meaning of History.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Molotov Meets Chekhov

I am not sure when I first decided to go to graduate school to get a master’s degree in history. But it must have happened when I was waiting tables in Washington, D.C.. Perhaps the moment of crisis came when I was so burned out on waiting tables that I actually followed a smug customer out into the street to inquire whether it was on account of poor service that I had been left no tip on a bill of several hundred dollars.

Of course, as a dean of arts and sciences at a community college, I still have occasion to use my experience as a waiter in my day-to-day life. For instance, just yesterday I apologized to an esteemed colleague, a biology faculty member, for not giving her more information about a decision I had made the previous week. What else could I tell her but that I had been “in the weeds”?

At any rate, I did go to graduate school, escaping to Montreal where I hoped to get some semblance of a feeling that I was living the life of an adventurer and expatriate. Once there, I did lead an interesting life, but academically I did very little more than read several hundred books. These books fell into a bifurcated but extremely predictable pattern. First, I read dozens upon dozens of incredibly outdated biographies and memoirs of completely irrelevant British politicians of the 19th and 20th century. It’s “ghastly” (to coin a British phrase) to contemplate how similar these books were: everybody went to Eaton and Oxford, adopted one of two (or perhaps three) political philosophies, and then exploited aristocratic and business connections in order to accept a long series of political and diplomatic appointments.

Although I picked up a few wonderful turns of phrase, and still call people “damp squibs” or refer to easy teaching assignments as “rotten boroughs,” I learned very little of substance from my early years in graduate school. However, my autodidactic tendencies extended to another form of biography, that of poets and authors of the twentieth century. So my readings in Castlereagh (“I saw death on the way, he had a face like Castlereagh”), Palmerston, Gladstone, and Disraeli, were closely shadowed by parallel readings in Kerouac, Genet, Gide, Joyce, and Burroughs.

If I had a split personality, I once tried to reconcile these opposing trends by writing a dissertation proposal that rather pretentiously and unrealistically claimed that I would one day apply the tools of literary theory to analyze political rhetoric as if it were the modernist prose of Virginia Woolf. Of course, British political figures were closely aligned to their artistic counterparts: The Bloomsbury Group included John Maynard Keynes, for instance, and he was not without political juice in the Interwar years.

At any rate, the project of unifying my own interest in politics and arts was a failure, which is why I appreciate Rachel Polonsky’s new book, Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History. Molotov’s Magic Lantern is a strange but pleasant mixture of travel writing, history, literary theory, unbridled Russophilia, and autobiography. The premise of this work of creative nonfiction is that Polonsky, living in Moscow, once gained access to the personal library of Stalin’s evil sidekick and onetime Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Molotov. By gaining this access, reading widely in Russian history and literature, and travelling to cities such as Vologda, Archangel, Ulan Ude, Novgorod, Rostov-on-the-Don, and Taganrog, Polonsky breathes life into the whole sweep of (mostly) modern Russian history, a history that is alive in interlocking and tragic political and literary drama.