Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Saints, Rituals, Liturgies, and Heretics

Patrick Rotman's 1999 documentary, Faith of the Century: A History of Communism, is a wonderful testimony to the transnational appeal of the Russian Revolution. As the title suggests, Rotman describes twentieth century communism as a great religious movement, akin to the explosive early moments of the Christian, Islamic, or Mormon religions. Communism had its own saints, rituals, symbols, liturgies, heretics, schismatics, pilgrimages, and dogmas. And like other great religions, its message of freedom transcended all international boundaries by promising hope and salvation. The Bolshevik Revolution, for all its faults, became a beacon of hope to people throughout Europe and the developing world.

The communist faith threatened to overtake Germany, Hungary, and other nations in the interwar era, and yet ultimately the Soviet Union was left alone before World War II to guard Marx's inheritance in the face of capitalist encirclement. Building "socialism in one country," Stalin stunned the world with collectivization, urbanization, and industrialization. To the faithful, he seemed to have overcome some of the basic problems of capitalism, including inequality, exploitation, unemployment, lack of economic planning and coordination, and boom and bust cycles.

The Soviet Union in the 1930s built gigantic projects and promoted itself as a paragon of public hygiene, military strength, worker volunteerism, and public enthusiasm. It also promoted working class people into the upper echelons of society. Its support of the beleaguered Spanish communists proved particularly attractive to left-wing and moderate Western Europeans, who little suspected that Stalin was capable of eliminating anarchist allies and ultimately signing a non-aggression pact with Franco's fascist ally, the Nazi Germany. The chief message of Faith of the Century is that communism was never limited to the Soviet Union. In fact, communism might have triumphed in the heart of what came to be seen as the democratic West, France.

Chinese Communism

If Soviet Roulette had any readers, I imagine they'd be asking why we don't place the Russian revolutionary experience within the context of global history more frequently. Why, for instance, don't we talk more about 1789 or 1848? Why don't we talk about the impact of 1917 on the developing world? While the Bolsheviks may not have ignited successful revolutions in Western Europe, they did inspire successful imitators in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and countless other newly independent nations. But of course China remains the most significant communist victory. Its size, strength, and longevity make China worthy of comment.

So too does the fact that the Bolsheviks were involved in China's internal struggles before and after China's communist party defeated its Old Regime, Japanese, and nationalist rivals. But how does a non-expert approach the history of China in the twentieth century? I began with UCLA Professor Richard Baum's Great Courses lecture series, The Fall and Rise of China. In these lectures Baum notes Mao's political intelligence, charisma, and military prowess, but Baum emphasizes that Mao led his party into a long series of economic and political disasters. Under Maoism, the Chinese people suffered mightily, although they almost always attributed their suffering to internal or external enemies. While Mao successfully confronted American military might during the Korean War, and eventually established political and economic autonomy from the Soviet Union, his large-scale cooperatives and frenetic efforts to industrialize the country, led to massive starvation in the countryside and many, many engineering and economic disasters.

The Cultural Revolution, when launched, destroyed any semblance of political or economic order in the country, and only Deng's masterful political comeback and his slow reputation of Maoist economic principles (if not Mao himself) eventually set China on the path to relative stability and economic progress that we see today. When viewed in the light of the Soviet Union's experience, one can't help but think that Lenin and Stalin's worst crime was to inspire the Chinese Communist Party. For the Chinese Communists, for all their military courage and prewar respect for the peasantry, killed many millions as they did away with any semblance of democracy, political dissent, or economic decentralization.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Nothing Heavier Than a Purse

In some ways the Soviet Union became a cultural wasteland after the brief twilight of experimental enthusiasm that came to an abrupt end with the collapse of NEP and the advent of collectivism and industrialization. The deleterious effects of totalitarianism and socialist realism were impossible everywhere manifest. And yet the Bolshevism continued to encounter some of the world's most brilliant thinkers and artists right up until the empire's dissolution in 1991. Like Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky, aka Abram Terz, was one of the world's best minds. His brilliance had aesthetic, moral, and critical dimensions. A novelist, anthropologist, literary critic in the broadest sense of the word, and dissenter, Sinyavsky was famously tried and then jailed in labor campus for publishing his daring work in the West. His notes from prison, entitled A Voice from the Chorus, rank among the best works of philosophical resistance the modern world has ever produced. His censored thoughts are fragmented, perhaps even discordant, but generally related to freedom (or its absence), love, criminality, violence, language, God, ontology, literature, and Russian identity. Sinyavsky's greatest talent is to listen closely to his neighbors, for truth, it turns out, can be found everywhere, even, or perhaps especially, in the Soviet Union's prisons. Indeed, truth is intimately related to form. Thus, the best critics should be analyzing prisoner-told tales and peasant folklore with as much care as they do one of Tolstoy's massive tomes. Most of the quotes below were first uttered by prisoners, but it was Sinyavasky who knew enough to take them seriously, and to hear complexity in even the most brutally straightforward jokes, threats, laments, or epigrams.

Love and Women

She has a house in Rostov and a husband who doesn't drink.

Don't expect a picnic, what have I got but a soul and a prick?

But mathematics I loved terribly, like a wife.

Only whores like a man who smokes in bed.

The girls really loved me: I always let them have a puff on my cigarette.

They were all sorry later that I didn't fall in love with them.

She was more than I could have expected for the likes of myself. But pretty easy she was with everybody, as it turned out.

Nothing but beautiful words should be coming out of her mouth. But she swears like a trooper.

I looked at the dame and saw she was a real doll. But right then I had no times for dames or the flicks because I was on the run.

I added her to my collection.

Is this your girl? God knows! My wife writes and says she is.

If a woman has given a man her heart she will give him her purse. (From Balzac).

Ah wives. Wives. They may have the kindness to lie with you every now and again.

I was lucky to get quite a good husband, I do admit. I'd even agree now, she writes, to having one half as good. True, he was a pretty heavy drinker.

All the same, women enjoy great popularity in this world!

I don't know what a woman is. And my life is over. You may laugh, but it's a fact.

If you want to understand women read the Decameron, and then you'll know what kind of birds they are!

Women of the Madame Bovary type are more to my taste.

Our cashier girl has pink knickers. I saw them in a dream!

Life and Philosophy

When I first heard of death I didn't want to live.

We long to be not ourselves. That is what matters most.

Strange that every time I wake up I turn out to be myself.

We came into this world to understand certain things: very few, but exceedingly important things.

To understand it to go mad.

Me? Interested in a cat? I haven't even got it in my soul to live.

Oh! I did laugh in 1959: a man fell in a hole and then his wife fell in after him.

It is always interesting to speculate how a man will behave after his life has collapsed in ruins.

Man is engaged in a constant process of dying, and yet does nothing but dream of reaching a point where he will really begin to live.

To go through life is not as easy as crossing a field. (Russian proverb).

Sometimes you feel as if you must be reading a book, and that once you have finished it and looked around -- life will be over.

Andrei, what do you think of dragons? I mean, where did they all go?

In the past people did not cling to life as much, and it was easier to breathe.


The fortune teller looked at the water and said: "He will live, but it would be better if he didn't."

What I am grateful to the lord for is that I never killed anyone in the whole of my life. And the number of opportunities I had!

Even in his sleep he was all the time trying to prove that he was not guilty.

I managed all this without a mother or a father!

In school me and my brother managed two and a half classes between us.

There used to be more fun in the camp in the old days. Someone was always being beaten up or hanged. Every day there was a special event.

One thief to another, smugly: "I've never held anything heavier than a purse in my hand!"


Art is insolent because it is so clear. Or rather, it is insolent to make itself clear. First it sticks a knife into a table and then says: there you are -- that's what I am like.

The hardiest of all man's creations art turns even death, its enemy, into an ally.

In ancient times death centered around the two extreme poles of human life.

Art, I think, does nothing but turn matter into spirit and vice versa.

A diffident man cannot allow himself to work badly, in slipshod fashion--as a genius can.

Art is thus the intermediary between generations.

Life is more significant than we think, oh yes, more significant than we think.

God and Religion

Oh yes, God exists alright. If anybody says there's no God I'll poke his eyes out.

And at that moment my prayer failed to reach God, because I couldn't take my eyes off that dirty Jew. (Said at Christmas).

The Soviet State

Apropos of the "Declaration of Human Rights" a gaurd in charge of the work-party said: "You don't understand. It's not for you. It's for Negroes.

The doctor was there in his white coat and I said: "I'm going blind." "It's just mania," he said.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Platonov's The Foundation Pit

Platonov's novel, The Foundation Pit, is a bitter critique of Soviet ideology. In the book, the proletarian enthusiasts are materialist, utilitarian, collectivist, and atheist; somewhat paradoxically, they are also future and death-obsessed. Platonov's foundation pit workers inhabit a world which is appallingly similar to Stalin's historical Soviet Union. The pit workers are virulently anti-individualist, anti-bourgeois, anti-priest, and anti-peasant. They imbibe and spread large amounts of socialist propaganda, the tenants of which are almost all related to the violent transformation of society in the service of a mythological future that almost by definition cannot exist. The absurdity of the central project of Platonov's society, a gigantic housing complex for working-class people, scarcely overshadows the absurdity of Stalin's real-life economic plan, including famine-inducing collectivization, super-centralized and unrealistically ambitious five-year plans, industrial giganticism, mass deportations and slave labor, etc. And yet somehow Platonov's book, as illustrated by some of the strange quotes below, seems to explain something serious about the Stalinist project. Notwithstanding its extraordinary violence, Stalinism proved attractive to many Russians precisely because the Stalinist vision was so absolutist, so eschatological, so future-oriented, and so mythological. To quote the Marxist philosopher Althusser, the future lasts forever.

"Happiness will originate from materialism, comrade Voshchev, not from meaning."

"A man who's never seen war is a woman who's never given birth--soft in the head!"

"After all, we're not animals--we can live for the sake of enthusiasm."

"Sadness is nothing, comrade Kozlov," he said. "It means that one class senses the whole world, and anyway happiness is a bourgeois business. Happiness will lead only to shame."

"...in a year's time the entire local class of the proletariat would leave the petty-proprietorial town and take possession for life of this monumental new home. And after ten or twenty years, another engineer would construct a tower in the middle of the world, and the laborers of the entire terrestrial globe would be settled there for a happy eternity."

"Pruchevsky ensured the indestructibility of the future all-proletarian dwelling and felt comforted by the sureness of the materials destined to protect people who until then had lived on the outside."

"At the time of the Revolutio dogs had barked day and night all over Russia, but now they had fallen silent: Labor had set in and the laborers slept in quiet."

"You're lying, you class superfluity!"

"He even began to doubt the happiness of the future, which he imagined in the form of a blue summer lit by a motionless sun"

"I'll go ahead and knock those shepherds and clerks into working class shape. I"ll have them digging so hard that all their mortal element will show on their bare faces."

"...at the same time he felt deeply agitated: Wasn't truth merely a class enemy? After all, the class enemy was now capable of appearing even in the form of dream and imagination!"

"What kind of nerve-ridden intelligentsia is present here that the least sound grows straight into?"

"...he had calculated his revolutionary merits to be inadequate and his daily contribution to social benefit to be minimal."

"You, Kozlov, clearly live on principles of your own and are leaving the working mass behind while you crawl into the distance."

"The working class isn't the tsar," said Chiklin. "It's not afraid of uprisings."

"The proletariat, comrade Voshchev, lives for enthusiasm!"

"And why are you dying, Mama? From being bourgeois--or from death?"

"Ay, you masses, you masses! It's difficult to organize you all into the gruel of communism!"

"But I didn't want to get myself born--I was afraid my mother would be bourgeois."

"And our Soviet power goes deep indeed if children, even when they have no memory of their own mothers, already sense comrade Stalin!"

"That's enough, you petty bourgeois, of you and your grieving...Do you not realize that sorrow among us has been abolished?"

"He believed in a near-at-hand day when the entire proletariat would take on the image and likeness of its own vanguard; this, he knew, would be socialism."

"We no longer feel the heat from the bonfire of the class struggle, but there has to be a blaze..."

"The womb matrix for the house of the future life was already complete..."

"..afraid of being taken for a man who still lived according to the tempos of the epoch of he economy regime."

"..thanks to the disciplinarian calculation that is it better for a thousand men to take a hundred strides than for one man to walk three miles."

"...suffering torment over the solitary cows, sheep, and fowl, since in the hands of an elemental kulak privateer even a goat can be a lever of capitalism."

"I used to be a priest, but now I've detached myself from my soul..."

"It's no use, comrade, for me to live," the priest replied with reason. "I no longer feel the charm of creation."

"Well then?" patiently said the activist from up above. "Or are you going to stand there forever in between capitalism and communism? It's time to get moving..."

"So are these activists of yours sleeping?" "An activist can never sleep," replied Yelisey.

The Soviet Shining

I just recently watched my favorite horror movie, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Stephen King's invented term, the shining, indicates a predilection for telepathy as well as a supernatural ability to detect traces of previous events, especially violent crimes. In King's horrific tale, a little boy feels the reverberating presence of a triple murder that occurred in the 1920s even as he witnesses the effect this historical tragedy appears to be having on his own father's menacing behavior. I think the shining is a useful metaphor for the relevance of history as an academic discipline or mode of inquiry. The intermingling of past and present lies at the heart of human existence.

King's story--or at least Kubrick's interpretation of that story--includes more than a healthy dose of psychoanalytic theory. Before ever setting out to manage an isolated hotel, Jack Nicholson's son meets with a psychoanalyst. As it turns out, the boy has developed an alternate personality, an invisible friend who lives inside the boy's mouth and speaks through his finger. Tellingly, this invisible friend only arrived on the scene when his angry father dislocated his shoulder. To my mind, the point is that "the shining," or rather the generic connection between past and present, is more psychoanalytic than supernatural. The past matters to us. I relearn this lesson each December 7th, the anniversary of my mother's death. Each year, as the date approaches, I feel vaguely uneasy, vaguely depressed. In fact, this date seems more potent the less I consciously remember its existential significance.

Revolutions are related to this concept of "shining." The past, and in particular the criminal past, bubbles forth. It only takes a little revolutionary telepathy to conjure up the blood of the martyrs to inspire fresh slaughter. In the movie, the Shining, historical pain is the agent of activity and plot in general. Marx famously said that revolutions are the engine of historical change. They come about as a result of past trauma, or a sensitivity to past trauma.

I'll close by making one more strained, tenuous connection between The Shining and Bolshevik Revolution. Take the movie's most important line, delivered by Jack Nicholson. In response to a terrified Shelley Duvall's desperate request to be given the chance to retreat in order to "think things over," Nicholson replies thus: “You’ve had your whole fucking life to think things over, what good’s a few minutes more gonna do you now?” The line is powerful because it's not just menacing sarcasm. It's true on a philosophical level. It's offered as Flannery O'Connell wisdom. Here's the translation: You've lived for years with a violent, sarcastic, and generally evil man, and yet you've never been honest or courageous enough to admit this fact and save yourself or even your defenseless son from me. Why start to live authentically now?

Nicholson's devastating truth reminds me of Andrey Platonov's novel, The Foundation Pit. In The Foundation Pit, communist true believers have long ago surrendered the ability to live honestly or authentically. They are busily constructing an enormous hole which will serve as the base of an enormous workers' housing structure, symbol of the proletarian future. Their lives are empty and boring, filled with parades, propaganda, empty ideology, coercion and violence, and meaningless motion and random activity. Platonov's portrayal of Stalinist Russia seems absurdist, but the cruelty and spiritual emptiness of Platonov's invented world is a close parallel of the real political entity he knew. And somehow the citizens of Platonov's commune, who are so ready to destroy kulaks in order to serve a "future" they cannot know, seem in need of a Flannery O'Connell-style epiphany. Or perhaps the reverse is true? Perhaps they see themselves in the role of Jack Nicholson, using extreme violence to help show the kulaks how empty or useless their lives have been? I remember another Flannery O'Connell line. It goes something like this: "She would have been a good woman...If someone had been there to shoot her every minute of her life." Maybe this is what Stalin, and Platonov's Stalinists were really all about. Maybe they believed that Russians could only be good if someone was there to shoot them every minute of their lives...