Friday, December 28, 2012

Russian Dreams

All revolutions are alike.  In revolutionary situations, the ruling classes always approach the cataclysm of social ferment without deigning to compromise with society's discontents.  Why should this be so?  Tatyana Tolstaya once stated the obvious:  revolutions don't happen in paradise.  She meant, of course, that radicals are only ever able to overthrow a government when its wickedness is compounded by general misery.  Governments that are overthrown by revolution aren't always as stupid as we make them out to be.

Nicholas II, though no political genius, wasn't necessarily as stupid as he is generally made out to be.  The problem for Nicholas II was that the public in early twentieth century Russia had become so radical that its potential empowerment via constitutionalism was a truly terrifying prospect-- not only to the tsar, the royal family, and aristocratic society, but to the governing classes in general.

One can understand the point more fully by examining a recent revolution such as the one that took place in Tunisia two years ago.  One could well wonder why the ousted president never bothered to offer his people a measure of liberalism and a dash of democracy, if only to stave off violent upheaval.  And yet we see today that the gap between the Tunisian demos and the ruling classes had become wide indeed.  Religious zealots easily won the country's recent elections, and their chances for winning the country's next elections go up in direct proportion to their radicalism.

Here again is the evidence of the chasm that sometimes prevents otherwise reasonable leaders from taking steps to gradually reform a political system in advance of revolutionary tumult.  There's a tautology at work here.  Like Tolstaya said, people revolt because they find the political situation revolting.  And others resist surrendering power peacefully whenever they perceive that their political opponents won't accept such a surrender gracefully.  Whoever finds a way out of this political impasse will have solved a major social problem.

So Russians revolted because Russian leaders feared that they were likely to revolt.  What made Russia the kind of place that couldn't be reformed, only overturned?  It's hard to say.  Most historians point to the absence of a well-developed bourgeoisie, although a few venture to argue that Russians were affected by the antidemocratic legacy of the tatars or the utopian dreams of Slavophile or socialist idealists.  Should we look to an economic explanation for Russian exceptionalism or except the idea that the the Russian soul inevitably eschews the banality of constitutional government?

What is Russia anyhow?  What are Russians?  In some ways, Russia is a country of cataclysm, a place where, to quote Tolstaya again, every historical moment feels like "a Lisbon earthquake." It's sad but Russia is a tale that seemingly can't be told without catastrophe.  Take Andrei Makine's novel, Dreams of my Russian Summers.  Like most novels who venture to depict Russia, Makine's Russia is filled with tragedy.  It's not his fault really.  If you're writing a twentieth century story about Russia, and don't make mention of the Revolution of 1905, World War I, the Civil War, collectivization, famine, brutal industrialization, Stalin's Purges, the gulag, and World War II, you've missed something, haven't you?  Russia wouldn't be Russia without war and rupture and apocalypse.

In Makine's wonderful book, the narrator is tied to two countries:  France and Russia.  What's interesting is that the narrator's version of France is bound up with its greatest authors, especially Proust, Balzac, Flaubert, and Hugo.  The narrator's Russia isn't so literary.  This Russia is wrapped up in war, industrialization, police powers, and empire.  It's great men are Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, and not really Tolstoy or other Russian authors.  In Dreams of my Russian Summers, the narrator's poetical vision of France is wonderfully at odds with the mundane brutality of everyday communism.

The difference between Republic France and Communist Russia ought to be striking:  the narrator's preference for France over Russia would be logical enough under any circumstances.  But it strikes me that this is one reason why people generally become obsessed with other countries.  When we read about another country, we're free to construct an imaginary world, or what the author referred to as an Atlantis.

I'm often struck by the mighty divide that exists between Putin's Russia and the Russia of my dreams.  My Russia consists of a long litany of famous names.  And in my childish imagination, all that one really has to do is decide which name is the best, which the second best, and so on.  I've gone so far as to daydream about my top ten Russian authors.  It's a silly exercise, more befitting a botanist or zoologist than a student of literature, but I do it anyhow.  I'm not original in constructing this list.  I'd put the sequence thus:  Tolstoy;  Dostoyevsky;  Chekhov;  Gogol;  Bulgakov;  Nabokov;  Solzhenitsyn; Pushkin;  Turganev;  Babel;  Saltykov-Shchredrin;  Platonov;  Serge;  Gorky;  Grossman;  Lermontov;  Alexei Tolstoy; Shklovsky; Tatyana Tolstaya; Berberova;  Chukovskaya;  Bely; Zoshchenko; Pautovsky; et cetera and so on. I have a separate list for Russian poets of course.

The point is that Makine gets at the nature of obsession by juxtaposing France and Russia, and making the comparison less about cultural hybridity and more about longing, imagination, dreams, nostalgia, and escapism.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

St. Petersburg Revisited

I recently discovered the wonderful website, New Books in Russia and Eurasia, at  Not being a professional historian, it's difficult for me to keep up with recent academic publications on Russian history, but Sean Guillory's myriad interviews help to make this much more possible.  I love the site and hope to listen to most of the interviews there over the next several months.  The site's host, also well-known for his wonderful blog, Sean's Russian Blog at, deserves a great deal of credit for his well-informed and probing questions.

I began with an interview with Mark Steinberg about his book, Petersburg: Fin de Siecle.  Knowing that the author is one of the best-regarded historians of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Russian and Soviet history, I'm sure the book is even better than the interview.  The author's thesis is, apparently, that the city's population had similar fantasies and nightmares about modernity.  My one question is whether these fantasies and nightmares were all that different from those of urban citizens (or subjects) of any other European country at the time.  The interview doesn't suggest that there would be all that much difference between St. Petersburg, Berlin, or New York City for that matter.  The literature of modernity, from Baudelaire to Marx to Berman, suggests that almost every city was caught up in the same drama of masks, movement, and danger.

Perhaps it's enough to know how exactly St. Petersburg expressed the common themes of European modernity, but one does hope that this book helps readers to understand what made St. Petersburg so very special.  I can only add that I have almost no acquaintance with St. Petersburg.  I don't speak the language, never really met any of its current or former denizens, and have only visited there once, a year and a half ago.  And yet somehow this city seems more awe-inspiring, more important, than any other place I have ever been.  I stayed there for less than two weeks, often walking alone, and unfortunately never really speaking to Russians other than to ask directions or order food.  But the city invaded me, and I dare to think that I will never forget it.  In fact, I have the strong urge to get back there as soon as possible, and certainly to read anything and everything about it.  I take lousy pictures, but I've posted a few below in no particular order, as a reminder, mostly to myself, that this city can be compared to no other.  It's wonderful, and tragic, and splendid--and would have been all that even without October 1917.

The Soviet 1970s

It's an odd experience to own a suburban home again.  I grew up in a suburban home, or two homes rather, but left for college when I was 18 years old, and never really got back to a home until now, 24 years later.  I've lived in apartments or condominiums in Washington, D.C., Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Northern Virginia, Montreal, Urbana, Chicago, and Phoenix, but I never owned or occupied a single family home, except on two short occasions when I, with three or four other students briefly shared a rental home.  Today, I can't help but make endless comparisons between my current domicile and my parents' first home.  In fact, I'm obsessed with the differences.  I dream of them.  Memories flood back to me every time I climb a staircase, get something from the garage, change out a storm window, store something in the basement freezer, or water the lawn.

These two homes are like bookends on the life I have lived so far.  The similarities between them are striking:  how different can one suburban home be from any other?  The architect's intention, surely, was to make the buyer feel like he never really left his original dwelling place, and to induce an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.  Live here, and you won't even notice the passing of time.  Is this lawn so different from the lawn to which you were born?  Are the neighbors any different than the ones you first encountered as you left home to play for the very first time?  There's no geography here to remind you that you are anywhere other than where you grew up and first ventured into the world.

Has America changed since 1970 when you entered the world?  If so, you wouldn't know it from the look or feel of your quiet suburban home or its gentle, serene surroundings.  If they play soccer in the local park rather than baseball, is that really so unexpected?  If there's a Meyer's nearby and not a Jewell grocery store, are you really so astonished?  Your home is the same, only slightly refurbished.  Your neighborhood is the same.   You don't believe me?  Do you really know where you are?  Are you really so sure you aren't exactly at the spot where you were born?  They say this is Northwest, Indiana, and not the Southwest suburbs of Chicago, but if you weren't looking at the license plates, how could you be sure?  All Christmas trees look alike;  all fireplace mantles are analogous; all backyards are commensurate.

I was born in 1970.  At that time, the world was divided into two, and America competed for the role of global hegemon with the Soviet Union.   It's hard to go back in time to the early 1970s and analyze the contest objectively.  Did we know that we were destined to overawe the communist way of life?  Did we feel the weakness of our opponents on some subconscious level?  The simple answer is that we couldn't have known.  We were distracted by Vietnam, anti-colonialism, OPEC, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the non-aligned movement, inflation, urban blight, nuclear worries, and a hundred other things.  On the other hand, when one reads a book such as Hedrick Smith's The Russians, one wonders how we ever really worried about Russia at all.  Of course, Russia always maintained a massive nuclear arsenal;  undoubtedly that very real threat to America's suburban paradise is the single great explanation of our inability to grasp that that things in Russia were much, much worse than they were in the U.S., and that Russian communism was already doomed.

Hedrick Smith's famous book was the result of a three-year stint in Russia as the leading correspondent of the New York Times.  According to Smith, Russian citizens (he mean Soviet citizens) were living an almost intolerable life, mired in an anti-consumerist hell.  While he admitted that Soviets had some privileges related to free or subsidized education, food, health care, and housing, and he said many Russians celebrated the fact that they couldn't really be fired or laid off from their jobs, he found a country that functioned poorly, even horribly, in comparison with its Western counterpart.  The Soviet system was of course unfree:  Russians lived in a state of almost perpetual police surveillance and ordinary Russians had little or no opportunity to meaningfully participate in politics or public life in general.  Yet Smith focuses on the intolerable daily life of ordinary Russians, who suffered tremendously from the anti-consumerist mentality of Russian communism as it was practiced in the 1970s.

Most Russians didn't protest against the Soviet system that oppressed them politically as well as economically.  The lack of protest can be attributed to many tools of coercion at the disposal of the Party and the government.  But Hedrick also argued that Russians acquiesced to the system because they knew how far they had come in the past few decades.  Even so,  Russians suffered mightily everyday from the system they had inherited from the Bolshevik founding fathers.   They waited endlessly in lines, endured complex bureaucratic procedures, bought substandard goods, and tried to find clever ways to circumvent endemic shortages in basic consumer goods.  Although Russians enjoyed a high degree of job security, the downside of that security was that factory workers and salespersons had almost no interest in helping people get what they wanted or needed to live better lives.

Although Brezhnev had other leaders made small overtures to make life a little easier for ordinary Russians, most Russians continued to experience the torturous effects of a centralized economy.  For instance, as an average Russian, even in the 1970s you might be expected to live either in a communal apartment (Hedrick says up to one third of all Soviet citizens did so at the beginning of the 1970s), or at the very least live in a very crowded two-room flat, perhaps sleeping with parents or children in a converted living room.  You might also expect to wait years for a poorly made new car, which, sadly, could not easily be repaired since there were few garages and even fewer spare parts.

Soviet citizens were supposed to have access to free health care, but here too socialism failed to produce a good product.  The incentives for quality simply didn't exist.  So people waited years for important surgeries, experienced dreadful care from poorly trained or poorly motivated nursed, and counted themselves lucky if relatives could bring them food while they underwent treatment in a hospital.

Insofar as Russian communism worked, it worked because of graft.  People stole, bribed, and traded favors to survive.  Although statistics were naturally hard to come by, the Soviet underground economy constituted a gigantic proportion of the total economy.   As a rule, everybody stole.  The real question was whether one stole on a small-scale or on a big-scale.  People siphoned gas from cars that were owned by the state, pilfered small amounts of good meat in order to resell that meat to "friends" at inflated prices, or got involved in large-scale efforts to systematically defraud the government by short-changing contractors.  And they also cheated the system in other ways, as they almost needed to do in order to survive.  For instance, Russians were restricted from moving to Moscow without the necessary legal paperwork, which was difficult to attain.  Thus Russians often participated in fictional marriages in order to attain a permit to live in the Soviet Union's most favored city.

The great irony of the Russian system was that society was a split into classes again.  While Hedrick reminds us that official ideology acknowledged only two classes--workers and peasants--Soviet reality contained a sharp division between the nomenclature and ordinary people.  In practice, Soviet citizens didn't really care all that much about money.  The scarcity and poor quality of Soviet goods meant that people craved access to consumer goods and services more than they craved currency.  Party members, military men, and certain other special categories of elite knowledge or culture workers, enjoyed tremendous advantages over their counterparts in the regular Soviet economy.  They had access to special stores, special schools, special hospitals, special camps, and special dachas.  What is more, in the ultimate symbol of special status, the Soviet elite could travel abroad.

The class stratification in Soviet life didn't lead to open rebellion but it was not invisible.  In fact, ordinary Russians often came face to face with their own low status.  Every Soviet institution or activity was touched by favoritism.  Members or the nomenclature could quite openly skip the queues in order to claim tickets to sporting events, seats on Aeroflot planes, seats on trains, and beds in elite hospitals.  They shopped in well-stocked stores and rode around in easily identifiable cars that barely stopped for pedestrians.

Near the end of communism Gorbachev famously exclaimed:  "We can't go on like this."  Reading Hedrick, who, like other American journalists, was restricted from observing most of Russian life by rigorous censorship, travel restrictions, and a general culture of state-inspired fear among Russian citizens, one cannot help but wonder how Americans and others so overrated the Soviet Union's capacity to compete or even survive in a modern world.  Even a reasonably perceptive foreign journalist in the early 1970s could see that Russian communism could do nothing other than eventually collapse under its own weight.  If the Soviet Union could temporarily compete with the West militarily, it could not produce what Soviet citizens wanted, neither in terms of quantity nor quality.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Wit and Wisdom of Tatyana Tolstaya

I've recently discovered that Alexei Tolstoy is much better than his reputation would you to believe.  His Peter the Great, for example, is filled with adventure, historical sensitivity, and human pathos.   I should probably have read one or more standard biographies of Peter before I embarked on Alexei Tolstoy's beautiful but elliptical work on one of modern Russia's founders.  However, even without that background, I have been able to learn a lot about Peter the Great and his historical context from Alexei Tolstoy.  In fact, the book is so good you wonder why we turn at all to historians rather than fiction writers to give us a sense of what it was really like to live and breath in a completely different atmosphere.  In any event, Lev Tolstoy and Alexei Tolstoy are not the only two Tolstoys with great literary talent. Tatyana Tolstaya is a wonderfully gifted writer as well.  Her Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians is filled with wit, wisdom, historical insight, great humanity, and hundreds if not thousands of perfectly crafted bon mots.  I've taken the liberty of placing a few of her gems below.  Pushkin's Children is a collection of disparate writings.  As such, the book sheds light on a variety of different topics in Russian history, literature, politics, and culture.

Her essay on Russian women is particularly revealing. Ostensibly a review of Francine du Plessix's 1990 book, Soviet Women, Tolstaya asks Western readers to avoid easy stereotypes of Russian women since Russian women do possess a great deal of power and historical agency.  Tolstaya's take on Gorbachev is especially enlightening.  Up until this point, I, like many Westerners, didn't quite understand why Gorbachev has been so deeply unpopular in his homeland.  Having helped to dismantle an "evil empire" with less violence than might have been expected, Gorbachev seemed to deserve some level of understanding and respect.  Tolstaya's fiercely indignant assault on Gorbachev serves as a partial anecdote to this outsider's perspective. For to Tolstaya, an unapologetic liberal and "Westernizer," Gorbachev was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the Communist past.  To Tolstaya, Gorbachev's whole career was merely foam on the wave of an undemocratic, privileged, bureaucratic, and corrupt past. Gorbachev had risen to power in a brutal, stupid system, and he wasn't capable of governing without reference to brutal, stupid assumptions.

Tolstaya hated Gorbachev for his sycophantic past, for his ridiculous anti-alcoholism campaign, for his lack of principles, and for his treatment of Yelstin and others.  But it's the hypocrisy of the Western treatment of Gorbachev that seams to call out her deep antipathy for the man.  Gorbachev does not deserve to be lauded for presiding over the end of Communism:  the system had collapsed under its own weight.

Tatyana Tolstaya:

"Women can do everything, and men do all the rest."  Russian proverb.

"Russian men have been recumbent for centuries."

"Of course, I'm a slave, but what right does she have to interfere with my life?"

"Francine Gray, having spoken with dozens of women, noted with surprise that almost all of them talked about men as they would about furniture or other inanimate objects."

"During the four years of war there was only one sex in Russia--women. The men had gone to war."

"Learn to love us when we're filthy dirty.  Anyone can love us when we're clean."  Russian proverb.

"Russia didn't begin yesterday and it won't end tomorrow."

"We Russians don't need to eat.  We eat each other and that satisfies us."  Russian saying attributed by Tayana Tolstoy to Ivan the Terrible's reign.

"...Lenin's initial idea was to hold onto power for no less a period than the Paris Commune once did.  This desire to become a chapter heading in a history text is quite characteristic of bookish, theoretical thinking."

"And how could a Russian revolt be anything other than senseless and merciless, when the Russian government had exhibited a senseless lack of mercy toward its own people for centuries?"

"...In the 1930s, a herdsman was arrested and sent to the Stalinist camps for referring to a cow as "whore" because she made advances to another cow.  His crime was formulated as "slandering the communal farm herd."

"[Russians] mocked the English with their machines, the Germans with their order and precision, the French with their logic, and the Americans with their love of money.  And as a result in Russia we have neither machines, nor order, not logic, nor money."

"Now, our country possess certain peculiarities that verge on the fantastic, and its inner geometry is decidedly non-Euclidean.  Our roads are Mobius strips;  our parallel lines cross as many times as you like;  the sume of the angles of our triangles is infinite."

"When did Gorbachev find out that communism doesn't work?... The answer is simple:  he knew that nothing works while still in his  mother's womb."

"After Stalin's death, people shed genuine tears; after the deaths of Brezhnev and Andropov, people laughed;  after Chernenko's death, they guffawed.  And how could they not?  A man comes to power, declares himself a genius, and kicks the bucket."

"...The struggle of "Russia" with the "West" is a battle with foreign sources of mythic radiation."

"There are no mermaids in parliament."

"...Russians perceive Russian a constant, unending Lisbon earthquake."

"God is free, but that's his own business, and all of you, who love God, are obliged to be His slaves."

"Everyone always says [the Tsar] was such a tyrant.  But why, really?  They always served such fresh creme at court."

"Revolutions don't happen in paradise."

"Russia is, of course, a fantastical country, but not to that extent."

"Prince Michael opts for the tactics of a mad Dadaist:  he draws a horse and captions it a chicken."

"Every cook should know how to run the government."  Lenin.

"The first strikes like a stake, the second dives like a falcon, and the rest flutter around like tiny little birds."  Russian proverb related to swigs of vodka.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lenin Revisited

"Lenin" is not the nostalgic name for an old dogmatic certainty;  quite the contrary, the Lenin who is to be retrieved is the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which the old co-ordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to reinvent Marxism"  Slavoj Zizek

" revolutionary times the limits of what is possible expand a thousandfold." Lenin.

"Do the masses of the Russian workers possess sufficient class-consciousness, fortitude, and heroism to perform "miracles of proletarian organization" after they have performed miracles of daring, initiative, and self-sacrifice in the direct revolutionary struggle."  Lenin.

" performed miracles of proletarian heroism yesterday in overthrowing the tsarist monarchy."  Lenin.

"I would call this raving had not decades of political struggle taught me to regard honesty in opponents as a rare exception." Lenin

"Let us not forget that the issue of power is the fundamental issue at stake in every revolution."  Lenin

Dostoevsky once wrote in his Diary of a Writer:  "Try to pose for yourself this task:  not to think of a polar bear--and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."   I think the opposite is also true:  try to think of the Revolution and everything but the Revolution will come to mind.  This is my excuse for straying so frequently, and so far, from the ostensible subject of this blog.  But today let me reflect on the fountainhead of the Russian revolutionary project, V.I. Lenin.  What kind of man was Lenin?  Like most great men and women of the past, one could spend a lifetime reading his biographies and never get a fixed image of the man.  Was he good or evil?  Was he exceptionally gifted or a product of his times?   Did he predict events better than other people?  Was he capable of shaping events or merely react to them?  Was he better or worse than his Bolshevik peers?  How responsible was he for Stalinism?

Fortunately, Lenin has left us a treasure trove of writing so we can at least return to primary sources to get a sense of how he thought about revolution before it had become monumentalized, or at least a sense of what he wanted other people to think he thought about it.  In fact, Lenin left us so much writing that it's hard to know where to begin.  But why not begin, as Slavoj Zizek begins in Revolution at the Gates:  Selected Writings from 1917, on the very eve of the first revolution of 1917, the February Revolution?  What was Lenin saying then, before he had become the chief spokesperson of a new government, and a political institution?  What did he say before he had any clue what would ultimately become of Russian socialism?

When one reads Zizek's selection of writings one is struck by the moral dichotomy of Lenin.  For clearly the framework of Marxism had allowed him to understand Russia's participation in the First World War with some degree of historical detachment.  Lenin's belief that the global conflagration was the inevitable consequence of bourgeois imperialism may not have been, strictly speaking, correct.  However, Lenin's Marxist perspective did allow him to see that the great conflict wasn't helping ordinary Russians, and not even Russian control of the Black Sea Straits--one secret goal of the war--would change that simple fact.  Lenin's refusal to choose sides in the First World War speaks to the central paradox of his approach to morality.  Lenin got the First World War right because he believed that moral decisions could only be decided with reference to long historical processes, especially as these related to the rise of the proletarian class.  This big perspective had its advantages.  One sees quite clearly that Lenin's support for peace and radical land reform were, historically speaking, correct.  On the other hand, we know that Lenin's detachment from ordinary politics led to authoritarian policies and devastatingly cruel decisions.

Lenin's writings also reveal his remarkable ability to demonstrate certainty about the future in the midst of political chaos.   Revolutionary Russia was a chaotic place, but Lenin's uncertainty only applied to tactics, which he was willing to change as circumstances changed.  On the big questions, Lenin didn't waver.  He knew Tsarism was bankrupt, that the Provisional Government was scarcely any better, and that even fellow socialists were unable to grasp the real historical logic of Marxism.   Lenin's writings are highly polemical.  In each letter or broadside the Bolshevik leader mocks his opponents unceasingly.  Lenin's opinion of anything that smacks of bourgeois influence is brutal.

It's interesting to compare Lenin's antipathy for bourgeois with the antipathy French revolutionaries expressed toward their political and even perceived social opponents. In the Price of Liberty, historian Donald Sutherland spends a great deal of time discussing conspiracy theories among French revolutionaries.  In that great upheaval, revolutionaries turned to violence at multiple stages in order to solve political problems.  They did so for several reasons apparently.  First, revolutionaries believed that the ancien regime, and specifically the king, had always used arbitrary power to solve problems.  If the king had been able to use violence to solve problems, why shouldn't the sovereign people do the same? After all, the people had a hundred times more political legitimacy than a king.  Second, revolutionaries, believing that their political settlement was invisible insofar as it had been established by the whole nation, could only conceive of defeat as a consequence of perfidy from within.  With this mindset, the French radicals attacked their enemies viciously, even condoning mob violence.  If perceived enemies perished without a trial, so be it.  The forms of justice were less important than the results.

Lenin's unflinching attacks against not only bourgeois politicians, but against those socialist politicians who could be seen as collaborating with the bourgeois ones, is redolent of the spirit of 1789, or at least 1792.   This shouldn't surprise us.  We know that Lenin, like Marx and all students of revolution, studied the French Revolution.  And if one studies the French Revolution, and accepts it as something that did more good for humanity than harm, it's hard to totally disavow violence.  The French Revolution had various phases, but violence underpinned most of these phases.  The king was killed, the queen was killed, aristocrats were murdered, peasant counterrevolution was suppressed, armies were defeated, and suspected agents of counterrevolution were guillotined.  Lenin, like most revolutionary thinkers, must have thought long and hard about the violence inherent in revolution well before 1917.  In fact, both the Provisional Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution were surprisingly bloodless.  With relatively few causalities, Lenin in power might well have wondered if he gotten revolution right.  A true revolution needs enemies it would seem.

At any rate, Lenin's writings reveal a man who believes that revolution is a social phenomenon which is inherently just, and which, paradoxically, remains both open-ended and predictable.  True revolutionaries know that revolution follows certain historical patterns first outlined by Karl Marx.  True revolutionaries side without reservation on the side of revolution, and true revolution is always radical, violent, and anti- accommodationist.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Civil War, War Communism, NEP, and the 1920s

In the Civil War period, the Party put an end to its experiments with popular sovereignty at the local level.   The soviets lost their independence and influence, worker control of factories subsided, and an officer corps reemerged in a professionalized Red Army.  War Communism helped the Reds to win the Civil War, but extreme centralization decimated the Russian economy, leaving the cities barren and devoid of adequate food.  In this period of plague and famine, the harvest almost completely collapsed.  Peasants refused to plant for want of incentive, and many turned to open revolt against the Bolsheviks.  Peasants frequently attacked grain requisition teams sent from the cities.  Then came the Kronstadt Rebellion, in which radical sailors now turned against Bolshevism in favor of a free, collectivist, decentralized form of political organization, and the emergence of the Workers' Opposition movement, in which proletarian leaders advocated for a form of democratic centralism.  Then came a series of workers' strikes.

In response to these political challenges, Lenin wisely coupled political coercion with N.E.P., or the New Economic Policy of the 1920s.  During this period, the Party loosened the reigns on economic control and the economy quickly rebounded.  During the mid-1920s, trade revived, shops proliferated, cities grew, cafes and services sprang up everywhere, grain requisitions ended, and economic activity finally reached pre-war levels in 1926.  The Party's stated goal in this period was to control "the commanding heights" of industry, including banking and large-scale manufacturing and international trade, but leave the local merchant or small-time manufacturer relatively free of governmental interference.

Bukharin, "the Party's darling," advocated policies that were roughly commensurate with NEP assumptions, which favored market surpluses, the production of consumer goods, gradualism, and evolutionary socialism. According to Steinberg, Bukharin offered economic, political, and even ethical objections to more radical Leftist currents in the Party.  Bukharin wanted to avoid violent class struggle.  The goal was a "bloodless path to socialism."

Notwithstanding the economic successes of N.E.P., the country's new found freedom led to widespread discontent in the Party.  Old Bolsheviks were appalled at rampant crime, which Steinberg reminds us, orthodox Marxists could only attribute to the reemergence of capitalism.  The Bolsheviks also resented widespread prostitution, which they also believed resulted from exploitative economic relationships.  Party members generally believed that NEP had been a necessary evil, but it had to be overturned if the country ever hoped to become truly communist.  The majority of Bolsheviks believed that Russian backwardness needed to be forcefully overturned by an aggressive and intrusive state apparatus

Although Soviet institutions were affected by the violence of the Civil War, Bolshevik thinkers of the 1920s remained sincere about the transformation of society and they therefore pursued a wide variety of radical artistic projects and anticipatory social reforms.  These reforms included granting women equal legal rights, making divorce and abortion freely available, organizing communes, and vigorously attacking domestic abuse.  Steinberg even mentions Soviet "belt burying ceremonies" in which peasants publicly committed to end domestic abuse by turning the burial of peasant belts into a public ritual.  The Soviets didn't stop there.  In the 1920s the Party faithful and communist sympathizers launched a whole series of social projects, including campaigns to reduce swearing, drinking and fighting.  Steinberg even mentions one campaign to get Soviet citizens to eat with proper kitchen utensils.

Steinberg's overall take on the 1920s was that it was a time of experimentation, when the Party's overall direction had not been completely determined.  Could the Party contain any seeds of democracy?  How much discipline was required of Party members?  Could factions exist in the Party? How coercive should the socialist state be?  What was the right balance between the urban and rural economy?  In other areas of social life, debates about the communist future were even more speculative.  What did a liberated man look like?  What were the hallmarks of a newly free Russian society? The 1920s were an even more experimental time for the arts. The future seemed unlimited.  In this era, an avant garde still hoped to use aesthetic innovation to reflect social change and, more importantly, encourage it. Plans for a "Monument to the World's Suffering" would have made this edifice the tallest building in the world.  Musicians organized "an orchestra without a conductor" to express egalitarian principles in music.  One group attacked the convention of wearing clothing.  Others experimented with urban planning, factory production, and a hundred other things. In summary, Russian communism between War Communism and Stalinism remained surprisingly fluid, creative, and open-ended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Steinberg on the Nature of Bolshevism

Who were the Bolsheviks and why did they outsmart, outplay, and outlast their socialist competitor parties? And why indeed was this small party able to prevail in the country's civil war?  According to Mark Steinberg, the Bolsheviks were a party that offered clear solutions to their beleaguered country, including strong, unified government and firm authoritarian solutions to complex problems.  They were also a party that offered wildly popular slogans to garner a great deal of popular support, including calls to create a bread monopoly to help the common people, plans to inaugurate worker councils to end exploitation at the factories, and a decree to institute land redistribution to improve the lot of the peasantry. The land redistribution was the Bolshevik's most popular program.  The 26 October 1917 Decree on land offered landowners no compensation.  Hired labor was ended.  Everyone who worked the land, not excluding former landowners, were entitled to a plot of land.

The Bolsheviks also originally offered all national minorities in the Russian Empire the right to self-determination.  Finland and Poland were granted total independence.  At first, government was decentralized and localized.  The Bolsheviks were anti-religious but they weren't above using the sacred language of resurrection to explicate their Marxist creed to the masses.  As Steinberg reminds us, they depicted their cause as a moral struggle to deliver the country from the greed, egoism, and moral turpitude of the ruling classes, who had, they said, repeatedly insulted the virtue and dignity of their fellow countrymen.  Bolsheviks were especially popular with rank-and-file soldiers, who were fed up with the tsarist officer class.

The Bolsheviks were a complex phenomenon but the Party embodied many of the trends in Russian Utopianism.  Even more than other Russian radical groups, the Bolsheviks were supremely self-confident about their abilities to learn to govern on the job.  Lenin had taught them that a tiny group of dedicated, heroic, professional revolutionaries could change the world.  The Bolsheviks had a touch of Nietzsche in them.  In Steinberg's words, they believed they could channel the creative energy of the lower classes, creating organizational miracles by their energy, daring, willpower, and general decisiveness.

Some analysts have argued that the Bolsheviks were cynics who used the vocabulary of the Enlightenment to obscure dark motives. Steinberg argues the contrary:  Bolsheviks were true-believers.  They believed in Utopia and were therefore willing to do almost anything to bring that Utopia about.  Censorship, dictatorship, authoritarianism, and almost anything else was permissible if it was in the service of radical social transformation.  Revolution, Lenin argue, was the most authoritarian phenomenon on earth. Everything was justified that served the goal of socialist liberation.  And the Soviet leadership used this logic to nationalize banks, create a master plan of economic regulation, and institute disciplinarian approaches even to factory governance and union management.

But of course the Bolsheviks didn't stop there.  They moved inexorably toward violent solutions of political problems.  By Steinberg's reckoning, at least 13,000 Russian were executed by the Cheka without trial between 1918 and 1920, including some who died for their social origins or political sympathies.

Origins of the French Revolution

Moving from general historical interpretations to specific causes of the French Revolution, Sutherland discusses a wide array of disparate phenomenon.  It's interesting to think about the ways in which social, political, dynastic, economic, intellectual, and ideological factors all merge together to cause revolution.  Sutherland, for instance, discusses Montesquieu and Voltaire's Enlightenment ideals while also spending a considerable amount of time analyzing France's backward financial system, which gave the clergy as well as the nobility almost complete freedom from taxation.  Provinces too could resist central taxation whenever local nobles, secure in their local judicial (parlement) positions, invoked medieval prerogatives.  More importantly, France's central government had limited knowledge of its own expenditures, and to this day historians are unable to fully account for the amount of French spending on the eve of the Revolution.  The fact is that minsters spent what they wanted to spend until France's costly invention brought the state to the verge of insolvency.  France also lacked adequate credit, and its monarch borrowed money at the rate of ten or twelve percent rather than the two percentage points of interest that Britain's government enjoyed.  Of course, France's ancien regime was undermined on a variety of other fronts as well.  Louis XV and Louis XVI were both personally unpopular, and Marie Antoinette, of course, was seen as a frivolous but dangerous Austrian spy.

One of the most surprising triggers of revolutionary activity was the monarchy's rising pretensions to absolute power.  This is a paradox.  For Louis XIV had been the very definition of an absolute monarch, and yet the French monarch had been limited by certain aristocratic privileges, and these privileges threatened to give way on the eve of 1789.   Thus Enlightenment ideals related to human dignity and  limited government butted up against the monarchy's desperate need to assert its power in order to raise the funds needed to run a modern nation-state.

 All of this is a bit abstract.  As in Russia, and perhaps every truly revolutionary situation, the mood of the street mattered too.  And this was dangerously affected in France by the rising price of bread.  Sutherland's analysis of the central importance of the price of break in France is useful.  According to Sutherland, a large percentage of France's public lived in poverty, spending as much as 60 percent of yearly income on the purchase of break, and more than 60 percent in times of particular economic distress.  Thus ordinary French men and women were in no position to tolerate dramatic increases in the cost of break, and would easily riot whenever this cost increased. In fact, the French government and French poor made similar assumptions about how the bread economy should work.  The government intervened mightily in the regulation of break markets, ensuring that the cost rarely rose, or did so in a predictable way.  In times of shortage, break moved from place to place in order to be sold by local speculation.  The high visibility of bread in times of general scarcity added fuel to the fire of revolutionary sentiment.  Looking at Sutherland's analysis of the origins of the French Revolution makes one wonder how one can ever dissever the diverse causes of one general event.

Sutherland on the French Revolution

Studying other revolutions can help to put the Russian Revolution into perspective.  To what extent was the Russian Revolution unique?  To what extent did Russian revolutionaries correctly understand the model they were emulating?  I've just finished listening to the first lecture in Donald G. M. Sutherland's Modern Scholar lecture series, The Precise of Liberty:  Understanding the French Revolution.  The first lecture is a wonderful review of the historiography of the French Revolution.  In the lecture, Sutherland reminds his listeners how often historians have changed their minds about the causes and significance of the French Revolution.  Prior to the French Revolution, people had a very different definition of revolution than they did afterward:  they believed that any significant political change at the top of the political hierarchy was worthy of the word.  Sutherland uses the Catherine the Great's coup e'tat against her husband, Paul, as a case in point:  although the regime did pursue new domestic and foreign policies, the monarchical form of government was not substantially altered.

The French Revolution was of course a much more sweeping form of realignment.  However, Sutherland claims that the scope of realignment was perhaps overstated by Marxist historians.  Marxists, of course, claimed that the Revolution represents the triumph of the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy, or the capitalism's victory over feudalism, but this isn't quite what happened.  As we now know, the fundamental character of the ruling classes in France were not radically rearranged by the Revolution.  The social elite of 1820, for instance, bore a striking resemblance to the social elite of 1789.  Moreover, historians have not been able to detect much of a difference in the investment activity of the two classes.    Bourgeoise elites invested their capital in land just as often as aristocratic elites invested their capital in trade or mining.

If the French Revolution wasn't really only about class, what was it about?  Augustin Cochin believed it was a product of conspiracy.  Francois Furet believed in was a question of ideology:  French thinkers demanded utopian social transformation and these demands inevitably led to radicalism and unprecedented forms of violence.  Furet's theory of revolution has some explanatory power when applied to the Russian Revolution.  While Sutherland thinks Furet ignores some of the basic historical data of the French Revolution, it seems impossible to miss the fact that Bolshevik ways of thinking, and  broader pre-1917 Russian utopianism, had something to do with the gulags and purges.  Certainly, the experiences of the First World War of the Russian Civil War, legitimated violence in a way that ideology alone could never do.  But Marxism itself, especially when adapted by Russian thinkers such as Lenin, was likely to lead to extreme forms of violence.

In this first lecture, Sutherland also asks his listeners to give credence to the importance of the regicide itself.  Killing the king was an act of unparalleled importance in terms of its symbolic importance, at once an act of political rupture and a theatre of extreme violence.   One thinks instinctively of the Russian Revolution's even more savage treatment of its former monarch and the rest of his family, murdered wholesale in the basement of a Siberian home.

Sutherland concludes arguing that the French Revolution was different than the Russian Revolution in terms of its central tradeoff:  for while the French sacrificed civility and moderation at the alter of revolutionary violence, they also gained a commitment to liberty and The Rights of Man.  There may be something to this, but the Russian Revolution offered humanity a similar tradeoff, which is what makes Bolshevism different than another ghastly twentieth century political doctrine, Nazism.  The Bolsheviks advocated extreme forms of violence but gave the world a theory--and often it was only a theoretical proposition in the motherland of communist insurrection--of empowerment for proletarians, occupied peoples, and peasants.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Smele's Long View of the Revolution

Now that my wedding is over, and my in-laws from Tunisia are settling in to life in America by enjoying Arabic Internet radio and at least one Arabic cable t.v. channel, I have the opportunity to return to Russian history.  I'm doing this gradually, by reading a few of Lenin's speeches and listening to audio books of Jonathon Smele's The Russian Revolution:  From Tsarism to Bolshevism.  Smele's examination of the Russian Revolution takes a long view of the causes of the Russian Revolution.  In fact, Smele's exploration of the roots of revolution is so rooted in the nineteenth century that one cannot help but reflect upon the arbitrary decisions historians routinely make whenever the attempt to explain a major event or global phenomenon.  When did the Russian Revolution become inevitable?  When did it become likely?  When did it become possible?

Some historians scarcely admit that radical revolution succeeded in Russian in 1917 by anything other than extraordinary bad luck couple with a long series of tragic missteps by Russia's liberal bourgeois and aristocrats. Smele sees things differently:  he argues that Russia's October Revolution cannot be assessed without reference to the profound economic backwardness of the Russian Empire.  Smele's tale begins as early at the mid 19th century, when the Russian state failed so spectacularly to deliver the goods in the Crimean War.  In this war, the Russian intelligentsia realized that serfdom had done nothing to produce a modern society that could compete on any level with its Western European counterparts such as Britain and France.  Russian trains didn't work efficiently;  Russian conscripts were uneducated and ill-equipped;  Russia's factories, insofar as they had any, weren't producing reliable supplies.

Over time, Russia's backwardness vis-a-vis the West was only slightly remedied by Nicholas I's success, Alexander II, who instituted a series of sweeping judicial and government reforms and "freed the serfs." For Russia remained an absolutist state in which the church and gentry exercised inordinate authority over the peasantry.  Moreover, despite some economic activity in St. Petersburg, the Baltic areas, Moscow, and the Southern Ukraine, at the end of the nineteenth century, the peasants continued to lack educational opportunities and, more importantly, adequate land to feed themselves.  Indeed, the peasant commune continued to act as a conservative social and economic force in Russian society right into the twentieth century.

In the end, Smele's main point is that Russia possessed an extremely dysfunctional social system when it declared war against Germany and Austria in 1914.  The 1905 Revolution had revealed as much.  So, notwithstanding the best efforts of Witte and Stolypin in the years leading up to the Great War, the uneducated, dissatisfied, impoverished Russian peasantry remained the dominant social factor in pre-revolutionary Russia. And, despite the long cherished beliefs of Nicholas II and his aristocratic sycophants, the peasants were politically radical.  They proved this when they confiscated land from landowners in 1905 and 1917, and also when they voted for Social Revolutionary or other socialist representatives to the Dumas or the Constituent Assembly.

The Proletariat were another radical force in Russian society, although Smele seems to recognize that this radical social force has been given quite enough attention by Marxist and Western historians alike.  To sum up, Smele's exploration of the revolutionary victory of 1917 rightly places the emphasis squarely on the fragility of Russian society.  Even before the Russian state's catastrophic failures of the Great War, the Russian ancien regime was teetering.  The tsar, Nicholas II, was unintelligent, stubborn, and politically out of touch with his nation.  The proletariat class was angry and alienated.  The peasantry were underfed and uninterested in the political fortunes of either the tsar or the liberal intelligentsia.  Russian intellectuals were dangerously enamored with all-or-nothing political philosophies:  according to Smele, reform held out few attractions for most Russian political theorists.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Steinberg and Applebees

I left my doctoral program in modern British history many years ago.  My decision to leave this program was a long and painful one.  I had logical reasons to quit, but just as many logical reasons to stay.  On the one hand, I was unhappy, profoundly unhappy, with life in Urbana, Illinois.  I hated living in Central Illinois, and doubted whether I had the capacity to conduct substantive research over a long period of time.  On the other hand, I had a master's degree in history already, and was poised to pass my preliminary exams, get my thesis proposal excepted, and get on with the business of overcoming the last real hurdle to earning my doctorate.  What should I do?

In the end, a friend helped me to make the decision by using a peculiar argument:  once I had passed my preliminary exams and gotten my proposal accepted by my doctoral committee, why shouldn't I move to Chicago to begin the process of research?  After all, if moving to Chicago distracted me from my goal of writing my dissertation, then I wouldn't have ended up finishing my dissertation anyhow, not even if I had stayed in Urbana.  I accepted the argument.  Truly, I was living in an intolerable state of indecision and couldn't handle Urbana any longer.  I needed to clear my mind and get to civilization as quickly as possible.

I sometimes suspect that my dread of Central Illinois stems from my profound and therefore unsettling familiarity with the place.  Although I hated to admit the fact, living in Urbana felt like home on some primordial level.  I had lived in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Montreal, but as a young boy, I was taught to love the heartland by both of my parents, each of who had spent plenty of time among farmers.  As a boy, I remember hearing my mom extoll the virtues of the smell of cow manure whenever we drove through open farmlands.  My dad too loved, and still loves, the farmlands.  When I asked him whether he wouldn't have preferred to live someplace with mountains or at least hills, he said matter of factly:  "Not at all.  I've always felt that this is the way land out to be.  Flat."

The realization that I was home came to me once when a friend and I walked into an Urbana diner and some stranger, guttural greeting unconsciously escaped my lips, something akin to what "howdy" must be like in the South.  My California friend turned to me and said:  "You're one of them.  You belong here."  And so I did. My ability to blend in with my Central Illinois surroundings did nothing to make me want to stay in town.  Even now, well over a decade later, I find myself unsettled by my Indiana surroundings, and unsettled precisely because I feel that I know my neighbors too well.  If I don't prick myself to keep from lapsing into a Midwest stupor, I could be content to spend every Friday night for the next forty years hanging out at the local Applebees.  These are my people.

But let me return to the narrative of leaving my doctoral program.  In a sense, I made the right decision.  Although I may never be able to explain the fact that I don't have a doctorate, I know I needed to leave Urbana in 1999.  Life in graduate school was too enfantalizing, and I was probably right to fear that graduation might well lead me to take a job in Nebraska in order to keep my frail academic career afloat in a difficult job market.  What's strange about my decision to end six years of graduate study with no terminal degree, is that I've never, ever been able to finalize the decision.

The year after I left my doctoral program, I hadn't quite made up my mind that I wasn't about to write my dissertation.  Two years after that, I was still pretending to be on the verge of returning to the dissertation in order to secure jobs from employers who wanted to hear that from prospective adjunct professors.  But even ten years later I bump into employers who want to hear about the dissertation I never wrote.  "What was the dissertation about?  Do you think you can go back to finish it?  Will you go back to finish it?"

These questions pop up over and over again.  In my last interview, I answered truthfully that my dissertation was supposed to be about the connection between British politics and literature in the Interwar period, especially with respect to the way the two discourses understood the way time works.  When the audience expressed an interest in the topic, I quickly explained that if I had had a better grasp of the topic, or could it explain it more clearly, than certainly I would have finished the project.  The audience didn't seem to mind the self-defeating sarcasm:  I got the job.

I got the job, but getting the job by talking about a dissertation that was now ten or more years old, made me think about how traumatized I was by graduate school.  Like my mother, perhaps, my dissertation never dies.  It's everywhere, even in this blog, which is of course some kind of retroactive attempt to right a wrong and write something wonderful that would warrant a doctorate, though the distance between this blog and doctoral level thesis research may be apparent to all of my readers.

In recent months, I'm thinking about this undead dissertation more than ever.  I've actually gone on to University of Illinois' website to explore the possibility of returning to the scene of the crime to complete my doctorate.  The idea sounds good at first, inexpensive and imminently logical.  And then a sick feeling sets in, and I can't think of anything more ludicrous than trying, once more, to make the same bad decision I made so many years ago.  Yet still I ponder the return of the prodigal son, the historian manque redeemed.

I am watching Mark Steinberg's lectures about Russian history this week. I never met Professor Steinberg when I was in Urbana, where he continues to teach.  I think he arrived only shortly before I left, and in any event I wasn't then a student of Russian history.  His lectures are excellent, part of the Teaching Company's scholarly lecture series.  I'm hearing the professor's takes on World War I.  The crisis obviously made some radical solution to Russia's problems extremely likely:  misery has a breaking point, and after that, workers, soldiers, and peasants are likely to listen to brutal proposals such as those of Lenin and Trotsky.

Steinberg's take on the Revolution puts the emphasis on ordinary people, which is where it should be.  Yes, Lenin was a brilliant theoretician and tactician.  But it's ordinary Russians, not Bolshevik captains, who really made radical alternatives to autocracy plausible.  Soldiers hated officers;  workers hated capitalists;  peasants hated landlords.  Steinberg places the emphasis on ordinary people again when it comes to Stalin's triumph in the mid-1920s.  Rank and file communists came to distrust the arrogance of Trotsky while favoring the gentle style of Bukharin and the non-flashy competence of Stalin.  And, with the temporary excesses of NEP, rank and file communists eventually accepted Stalin's radical solutions for the economy, borrowed from the Left Opposition, including rapid industrialization and collectivization.

In the end, Steinberg helps us to notice that ordinary people got what they wanted out of both the Revolution and Stalinism.  Although many suffered and died as a result of Soviet brutality, common people had asked for a government of action, mobility, class solidarity, severity toward the "exploiting classes," and power.  Steinberg is at pains to mention that Party members and others had many important choices to make in the 1920s.  This was, after all, a time of social, cultural, economic, and political experimentation.  On the other hand, Steinberg's narrative reinforces the notion that nothing good could come out of the Bolshevik Party's failure to incorporate any of the tenants of liberalism into its ethos.  Neither Trotsky nor Lenin nor Stalin had any reservations about using coercion, power, dictatorship, militarism, discipline, and indeed the methodologies of the Great War as well as the Civil War, to bring Russian out of its perceived backwardness.

It's hard to say how I will ever be able to wrap up my unresolved grief over leaving graduate school.  I can't help but think about returning to write a dissertation, or applying to some similar program to do the whole experience all over again, only this time with more discipline.  But when I think this way, I soon realize that it was graduate school that killed my life-long love of history.  This blog may be a substitute for real historical research, but it's also a tribute to a real love of history, which is, for me at least, undermined by making history into a career.

I'm getting married in two days.  And I can't help by notice that irony that I'm marrying an academic, and one who slaves away each night on some new grant proposal or academic paper.  It's funny that I am not pursuing this career myself.  I have lived under the shadow of the University of Chicago's campus, and am marrying a professor, but somehow I resist the notion that I am as at home in academia as I am at Applebees.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Russian Poems


"And in a drunken stupor, shameless and uncontrite, I embrace a little birch, like someone else's bride."

"He who has loved cannot love again, consumed by flames, he cannot be relit."

"Yet nothing in my past regret
Neither the years of futile waste,
Nor my soul's high lilac-time."

"I'm as tender as before..."

"In life it's been my lot to suffer
Loss too early and weariness."

"And don't teach me to pray.  What need?
There is no going back to then."

"They lay me in a Russian shirt
To die beneath an icon's face."

"I'd have been a thief and a cheat
If I'd not turned out a poet."

"Ashamed I once believed in God,
I'm bitter I no longer do."

"Here on earth I wished to marry
The white rose and the black toad."

"If devils roosted in my soul
It means that angels live there too."

"I do not regret, complain, or weep,
All passes, like smoke off the white apple trees.
Autumn's gold has me in its withering grip.
I shall never be young again."

My Soul's High-Lilac Time

I'm getting re-married in several days.  My family, and the family of the bride, is coming in from out of town.  The link to Russia isn't so great:  my brother, having just moved to Georgia, is travelling directly from the territory of the former U.S.S.R. to be here with me on this special day.  I've asked him to bring a Georgian poem for the ceremony.

And it was in Russia that my fiancee and I became serious about one another.  And how can one not be serious, when one is travelling on the Neva, staring at Falconet's Bronze Horseman?  If my lovely, wife could compete with Russia of her share of my attention, wasn't that the essence of love?

My in-laws are coming to town too, all the way from Tunisia.  I've never met them before, and we have no common language:  I can only wonder whether this fact will help or hurt our relationship.

Tomorrow, the madness of entertaining guests begins.  I'm happy.  I've never loved someone so much as I love my wife to-be.  She's lovely, intelligent, and supremely wise.

The wedding is basically planned. Today, I am sitting silently, writing wedding vows, rifling through a stack of Russian poetry books, and trying to listen to the silence around me.  That silence is hard to hear.  Most days, the kids, the television, and daily errands make the silence impossible to hear, which is unfortunate, because silence is the matrix of cosmic living and the stuff of poetry. However, it's easy to see why people avoid silence.  Silence can be enlightening, but it can also be terrifying, overpowering, and awful.  When are we truly ready to face life, existence, the gods, or even ourselves?

Mandelstam wrote:

"Nobody knows what silence is.
Silence is words and music.
It's the thing that links all things alive,
the link that lasts forever.

Let me open my mouth and let nothing come out,
Silent as an unborn baby.
Let me be a perfect crystal note
that lasts forever!

Do nothing, love, don't ever change.
Change only words to music.
And let my heart of hearts grow still
as a life I can barely remember!"

Two days ago, I began preparing for the union with my fiancee in earnest by seeking approval for the marriage from my departed mother.  With a conference in Rockford, Illinois, I remembered that my mom's surrogate mother lived there too.  I hadn't seen her in years but called her up and, at the age of 92 (her husband was no less than 96), she opened wide the doors of her house to me.  I felt as if the grave had opened up to me, or that, like Orpheus, I had been allowed to walk down to Hades to bring back my dear, departed mother, if only for a half an hour.

We talked at length about my "great aunt's" daughter, son, and grandchildren, and about her seventieth wedding anniversary celebration, to which she wore her original wedding dress.

We also talked, of course, about my mother.  Her memories are happy ones, but they become tinged with my tragic framework as soon as I hear them.  Grace's "play mother" recalled how she lost her own mother at age three, but that she "did remember her."  What kind of memory a three year old could have is impossible to tell.  Certainly she never told me a thing about her mother, except for a few stray details she had learned from family members.

When Grace was eight, she lived with her father, her younger brother (born only weeks or perhaps a few months before his mother's death from cancer), and family friend and caretaker.  Unfortunately, my mother didn't get along with that caretaker:  my mother's "Aunt" told me that Grace soon asked if Grace could come to live with her.  It's hard to imagine how a father could part with his daughter but it happened, if only briefly.

Following Sergei Yesenin's poem, Letter to My Mother:

"Ah, old lady, are you still alive?  I am, and I give you welcome.  May this unearthly evening light Flood down on the old home."

Grace's "aunt" shared other memories with me, including a family vacation with Grace that involved raine and a bad case of lice, a trip to see Grace's graduation from Radcliff, a conversation about Grace's love affair (with my dad), and, her attendance at Grace's funeral and visitation.  She could still recall, twenty-five years later, what she was doing when she got the bad news:  she was moving.

The memory that struck me most was that Grace's "uncle" had also married her.  It struck me dumb to think that it might still be possible for him to marry me all these years later.  At the age of 96, Grace's "uncle" had already, it seemed, sanctified my marriage the following week.

On the way home to Indiana my nostalgia must have overwhelmed me, because I found my car veering off the interstate highway toward LaGrange, to the site of the home I had lived in as a teenager, no more than two years after my mother's death.  This house was now on sale, for the first time since my father and stepmother had sold it over a decade previously.  Being on sale, I could review the photos online.  The house was smaller than I remembered, and the new owners and uncovered some wood floors, built a deck, knocked out a kitchen wall, and refinished at least part of the basement.  All in all, it wasn't the home I remembered.  I wondered at whether the new owners understood that I still lived there in some way, and always would.

Driving through LaGrange, I think about how my age now, on the even my second marriage, so closely resembles that of my mother on the eve of her death at age 45.  This town, and its sister town--the place of my mother's last words, LaGrange Park, isn't so different from the way it was when she died.  There's a Chipotle now, a Trader Joe's, and a Pier one:  but the main drag, LaGrange Road, isn't a stranger.  The train is still there.  The local "hobby shop" too.  As Alexander Blok once wrote:  "Live five, ten, fifteen years more--Nothing will change. There's no way out.  Die, you only start all over, and it's all the same as before;  Night, ice in the dark gutter, the street, the street light, the store."

Grace's uncle told me he remembered one of the last things she said to him in November 1984, a month before she died.  "I would be okay," she said, "if this pain in my back would just go away."

The wedding is in six days.  I've written the vows.  I have ruminated on the past.  I will prepare for the future.  But it's this silence that unites everything, and diminishes the distance between past, present, and future.  And it's Russian poetry that gets me in touch with this unity.

Some random snippets from an afternoon of reading and contemplation:

Vladimir Maykovsky

"Let Time tear past
like rockets shells
blazing in the ar!"

"Our planet was poorly designed
for happiness
We must snatch delight from days to come."

"I want the silver of years made very clear.
I hope, I believe, I will never attain
the same of common sense."

"Look at the heavens!
A night-time shakedown
and the sky pays off in stars.
The whole wide world is still.
It's times like these you want to talk
to Time, to History, and to the Universe.."

Marina Tsvetaeva

"Seryhozha dear...dear boy...
Let's light the fuse
that will blow up Paradise!"

Friday, November 9, 2012

CliffsNotes on Kennan

It's not easy to remember the details of an audio-book:  you listen intently to every twist and turn of a good novel but soon you're distracted by memories from a day of unparalleled cynicism and next you're thinking about what ingredients you'll need to make truly exceptional fajitas when you finally arrive home.  This is what happened to be me while reading John Lewis Gaddis' epic biography of the foreign service bureaucrat, historian, and diplomatic theorist, George Kennan.  Be that as it may, I'll recount what I do remember in case you, dear reader, are setting out with a stack of Kennan CDs.

Let these bullet points be the CliffsNotes you need to retain something meaningful from your experience.  Here are the salient points to remember:   1)  Kennan was born in Milwaukee, grew up without his mother, spent some family vacations in Germany where he learned the language, never got to know his famous namesake, retained traces of antisemitism, and went to Princeton, before entering the Foreign Service (which helped him to weather the Great Depression originally);  2)  Kennan spent some time in Germany and was interned there briefly when Germany declared war on America;  3) Kennan learned the Russian language well, mastered Russian history and culture, and used this knowledge to make himself invaluable to the State Department;  4)  Kennan criticized amateur diplomats such as Davies and often took risks by sometimes overriding instructions from Washington;  5)  Kennan was a truculent opponent of Bolshevism; 6)  Kennan conducted speaking tours and tried to override America's World War II-bred sympathy for Communist Russia;  7)  Kennan's analyses helped to shape some of the key American policies of the Cold War, including Containment,  the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan; 8) Kennan criticized some of the very policies with which he became associated, advocating for a nuanced, flexible response to Soviet power; 9)  Kennan was a prolific writer and one of the best academic lecturers of his age;  10) Kennan lived to be 101 and died in 2005.  There it all is, all that I can remember after listening to about twenty CDs.  Sad, really.

Commuting with Catherine

There's no easy way to measure the soul-destroying, planet-enervating effects of a long commute.  Like many Americans, I've spent much of my adult, working life driving to and from my job.  One of the worst elements of a long daily drive is that one has lots and lots of time to think about the negative impact of the drive on one's life, and on the life of one's loved ones.  I've had long commutes in many different cities, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, three of the worst offenders on the list of horrible places to drive.  In Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., I listened to Howard Stern, who somehow seemed to help me forget the drudgery on hand.  I can still recall how much I preferred driving to work, when Howard Stern ruled the radio, to driving home, when the terrible monotony of N.P.R. nearly forced me to fall asleep at the wheel.  But while I was in Chicago, Howard Stern made the fateful decision to leave commercial radio in favor of subscription radio, and I've been left to fend for myself ever since.

The worst commuting experience I've ever had involved driving, on average, about two or two and half hours a day, each way, from the South Side of Chicago to one of Chicago's northernmost suburb.  The grueling travel was almost unbearable, and eventually I rented an extra house to avoid the burden of adding five hours a day to earn my daily bread.  Indeed, a snowstorm or presidential motorcade or grisly accident could mean that I was sitting on the road up to six hours in a single day, or more if my work routine involved inter-campus travel during the midday, as it often did.  What does one do with all of that time in the car?  Truth be told, I resorted to almost any device to kill time, including flossing, listening to podcasts, eating fast food meals, jotting down blog ideas, calling friends and coworkers with alarming regularity, and dreaming of a future that involved teleportation or helicopters that took people right to the doorsteps of their offices whenever traffic seemed problematic.

In my previous job, I was on the road so frequently I managed to drive both a car and a marriage right into the ground.  One of the signs of my road-weariness appeared when I realized how quickly I managed to finish exceptionally long audio-books.  Even today, with a more manageable commute,    I sometimes glance down to the floor of the passenger seat and notice a pile of completed or nearly completed audio-books, some nearly thirty CDs long.  Currently, I'm finishing a twenty-volume biography of Catherine the Great.  It's not quite revolutionary history, but one takes Russian audio history where one can find it, and Catherine certainly participated in a general debate about whether Russia was going to become a modern society or not.

On the one hand, the author, Robert Massie, reminds us that the German-born Catherine the Great spoke beautiful French, corresponded with Voltaire, Becaria, and Diderot, put important breaks on the use of torture to elicit information from suspects, and theoretically condemned the idea of serfdom.  Like Peter the Great, Catherine wanted to move her subjects in the direction of Western philosophy and economic modernity.  And of course in her day, many philosophes believes that Enlightened Despotism was not out of alignment with modernization.   If anybody was putting a roadblock on the path to modernity, it was the priesthood and local nobility, and certainly not the autocrat, who represented centralization, rationalization, and perhaps even secularization, more than anything. Not even Catherine's aggressive attempts to expand her empire at the expense of the Ottomans could undermine this sentiment, although her Polish annexations were viewed less charitably.

On the other hand, Catherine the Great's interest in French Enlightenment thinking didn't preclude her from upholding serfdom and relying on the nobility to brutally suppress the Pugachev Rebellion.  In the end, Catherine the Great even discarded the implementation of her Nakaz, or "Instruction," in which she personally outlined many of the legal principles of the Enlightenment.  Although Catherine was genuinely interested in Enlightenment ideals, and never stopped patronizing the arts, she eventually came to the realization--whether right or wrong--that Russian society was simply too backward and unformed to be transformed by rational government in the 18th century.  Russia might well benefit from reason, but only when society had been prepared for it by education.

On a personal level, Massie's portrait of Catherine is generally very sympathetic.  Surviving years of court intrigue, uneven treatment at the hands of the Empress Elizabeth, and neglect and mistreatment by her husband, Peter III, Catherine used her courage, intelligence, tact, good judgement, and fidelity to friends, to exploit the weaknesses of her enemies and overthrow her husband, who, however, died under mysterious circumstances within days of the coup.  Catherine was also extremely generous, and seems to have avoided revenge even when her heart was broken by philandering favorites, as it repeatedly was.

Friday, October 26, 2012


"In France, it is not only the ancien regime that produced the revolution, but in some respect the revolution produced the ancien regime, giving it a shape, a sense of closure and a gilded aura."

" about the repetition of the unrepeatable, materialization of the immaterial."

"The word nostalgia comes from two Greek words, yet it did not originate in ancient Greece.  Nostalgia is only pseudo-Greek, or nostalgically Greek."

"In nineteenth-century America it was believed that the main reasons for homesickness were idleness and a slow and inefficient use of time conducive to daydreaming, erotomania and onanism."

"A contemporary Russian saying claims that the past has become much more unpredictable than the future."

"Nostalgia is to memory what kitsch is to art."  Charles Maier (Cited by Svetlana Boym.)

"We long to prolong our time, to make it free, to daydream, against all odds resisting external pressures and flickering computer screens." 

"Conspiracy theories, like nostalgic explosions in general, flourish after revolutions."

"Dinosaurs are the ideal animals for the nostalgia industry because nobody remembers them."

"Displacement is cured by a return home, preferably a collective one.  Never mind if it's not your home;  by the time you reach it you will have already forgotten the difference."

"A modern nostalgic can be homesick and sick of home, at once."

"One remembers best what is colored by emotion."

Svetlana Boym's book, The Future of Nostalgia, is, ironically, a history of nostalgia.  It's a brilliant but haphazard tour de horizon of the literature of nostalgia (which she firmly tethers to the literature modernity) and, as such, The Future of Nostalgia wrestles with a variety of theorists of modernity, including Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, Pierre Nora, Marshall Berman, Eric Hobsbawm, and Charles Baudelaire. The book's main thesis is that nostalgia--the natural byproduct of capitalism, technological change, clock-time, and modernity in general--is a politically promiscuous and socially disruptive phenomenon which bears some scrutiny by anyone trying to understand the tragedies of the twentieth century.  Although we commonly understand nostalgia to be a solitary and victimless activity, more a matter of innocence and self-indulgence than political division and social unrest, Boym maintains that men and women use nostalgia to exclude social groups from their vision of the future.  Of course, Boym doesn't have any easy fixes for nostalgia.  Nostalgia is the process by which we misremember the past, and yet nostalgia seems to be part and parcel of the experience of living in the modern world.  

In a second irony, reading Boym's book about nostalgia makes me nostalgic for that time in graduate school many years ago when I studied nostalgia myself.  Although I never really had a command of the subject, I became fascinated with the idea of analyzing my own fascination with the past.  Indeed, I took a graduate seminar in nostalgia, and quickly decided that my doctoral dissertation (which was never really begun in earnest) should diagnose this general topic.  I even remember reading Svetlana Boym's earlier book, Common Places, which dissected the concept of banality in 1930s Russia.  Thus reading this second Boym book, The Future of Nostalgia, takes me back in time, the academic equivalent to the "Proustian madeleine pastry" which once upon a time unleashed thousands of pages of recollections.  But what time does it take me to?  Boym would suggest that we can't really return to our real pasts, that nostalgia is more about escaping the present to fantasize about a misremembered personal idyll than it is about recovering what actually happened.  

I've also been obsessed with the past.  This blog, for instance, takes dozens of detours away from Soviet history toward my own memories of childhood and early adulthood.  Sometimes I rationalize this fact by telling myself that I would like my son to grow up to read this blog in order to know me more fully.  The blog dwells on my mother, or rather on my nostalgic memory of my mother, but it may be more about my son, and for my son, than anything else, a love letter to him in fact.  Looking through what my mother left me, I once encountered a college notebook filled with her theology lecture scribbles.  I wondered then how it is that somebody could have lived 45 years, and held such an importance place in my heart and mind, yet leave so little by way of a direct testimony?  I had to do better.  I had to write more, leave my son more.  If I could, I would have saved every scrap of paper my mother ever wrote.  Or so I think.  How odd, even horrible, would it be to be privy to a dead family's member's exhaustive email records today?

I shouldn't have been surprised by the limited records my mother left behind.  Many people have lived and died without leaving behind any writing at all.  And yet nostalgia, as Boym reminds us, is a form of obsession, so it's not so strange to long for any and all manifestations of a lost mother.  When nostalgia was first diagnosed in the 18th century, people thought of this form of remembering as a medical disease:  the patient wanted to return home (space, rather than time, was the nostalgic's first Eden) and became increasingly incapacitated by this inordinate desire.  Rather than serve productively in the military, for instance, a nostalgic dreamed, fantasized, and lamented away his time, remembering even the most mundane details of his homeland, including songs, smells, and textures.  

Loss in general is interesting to me.  I lose my keys on a perpetual basis.  Is there any significance to this form of loss?  A psychoanalyst might say that this form of forgetting is linked to some broader sense of loss.  What have I really lost?  What does my id gain from this perpetual quest for something that's missing?  I once theorized that my lost keys might be discovered in the least amount of time if I would adhere to a rigidly logical, strictly empirical, map of discovery.  That is to say that instead of allowing my subconscious mind to thwart all attempts at recovery, I should play the statistical odds.  Where once I would allow myself to skip over those areas of the house I had already ransacked in my feverish search for my lost keys, now I would calmly set aside all preconceptions and search (again) the most obvious places, such as my pockets and my bag.  When applied to an equivalent search for misplaced glasses, my statistical model of article recovery would force me to begin at the beginning, with my face.  

My brother suffers from the same affliction of forgetting all the time.  He loses keys and similar objects on a regular basis.  Observing the phenomenon of a desperate search for something that was almost impossible to lose (such as glasses) is disorienting.  How is it possible to lose the same thing so often?  Surely my brother is complicit in this process of systematically forgetting.  Once, while camping, my brother announced that he had lost his wallet somewhere.  The whole family spread out over the campsite to find the errant object but found nothing.  Giving up, I eventually encountered the wallet in the middle of the forrest, next to nothing at all.  Finding the wallet in such a random place is perhaps evidence that partially invalidates the statistical model for the discovery of lost artifacts.  For when I walked into the wallet I was walking without purpose through the forrest, not even following any discernible path.  When I saw the wallet, it seemed as if somebody must have deliberately placed in there, as a sort of religious sign or warning about the inescapable chaos of the world.  

I suppose there are three different ways to lose an object.  One either loses an object entirely by accident or happenstance (e.g., they are left out on the kitchen table but a squirrel breaks into the house and spirits them away to his nest);  one innocently forgets where one put them (e.g., I  always put my keys on the kitchen table but I forgot that I loaned my keys to my wife earlier in the day);  or one actively forgets (e.g., I would put my keys on the kitchen table if my subconscious wanted my to find them, but instead I put them under a pillow so that my subconscious can enjoy--in some way--the difficult search for them that will inevitably pursue).  

I think whole societies forget things using this last category of forgetting, the active one. These days, Russians actively forget what happened under Stalinism and what happened under Communism in general.  They seek to return to that place which never existed, a stable, prosperous, happy and unified Soviet past.  It takes some effort to conjure up this place in the mind's eye but Russians seem to be willing to put in the work to misremember their own history.  I suppose we all do that sort of thing on a personal level, although my own nostalgia is perverse, and I only seem to obsess over a tragic past. (Boym point out, by the way, argues people only have the luxury of obsessing over pain when they aren't in suffering very badly). When I remember the past, it hardly seems idyllic.  But perhaps I'm doing the opposite of what modern Russians are doing.  While Russians ignore the gulags, purges, and displacements, I ignore the love and fun I experienced as a child.  

The other day my son announced that he had a Dia De Los Muertos project.  He had to bring a photograph or object to school that recalled a diseased family member.  I found a penant that belonged to my grandmother and tried to explain something about her to my child.  I remembered her as a nice woman who let us play with cowboy and indian toys in the basement, watched us sometimes, gave us Coke to drink (a privilege at the time), and taught special education.  Although I had known the woman for many years, and she was always good to me, I couldn't seem to remember any of the details of her life or personality.  I stammered out that she had once visited Guatamala with her sister, but this hardly seemed to define her as a person.  How strange it is to forget so much.  But when one forgets so much, how easy it is to invent a recollection?  As Boym reminds us, "Only false memories can be totally recalled" anyway.

The other object I found for my son was a tiny penant with a picture of my original family on it, my father, mother, and two biological siblings.  How strange to be so removed from this family.  Who were they?  When did they live?  What were they like?  As Boym books tells us, there's a vast chasm between history and nostalgia.  I can easily recover the facts of my family history.  I can determine when my parents married, when my brothers were born, and when my mother died, but I can't do anything to view these people as anything other than strangers in a strange time, the past.  And yet the distance between me the boy in the picture doesn't prevent me from dwelling constantly on him.  Ah well, as Boym tells us, "As for the labor of grief, it could take a lifetime to complete."