Monday, July 16, 2012

The Good Soviets

I don't know if anybody can explain the source of their obsessions, interests, or passions, but the Soviet Union is undoubtedly one of the most important phenomena in modern human history.  This is true for a variety of reasons.  In the first place, the Soviet Union represented in some imperfect way the culmination of the wider socialist project of European intellectual history.  Bolshevism is related to all of the modern processes of European history, including industrialization, rationalization, colonization, and modernization.  We simply cannot analyze the meaning of the generic, ongoing Leftist critique of capitalism and modernity without understanding the Russian ideology of October, leaving aside none of its spectacularly visible triumphs and none of its egregiously terrible failures.  Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the other Old Bolsheviks were the inheritors of a revolutionary tradition that stretched back at least as far as Robespierre and the French revolutionaries.  They understood the Enlightenment tradition of political economy and participated fully in a historical dialogue about equality, fraternity, and liberty.  1917 is inextricably linked to 1789 and 1848.  What's fascinating is the extent to which the Soviet Union's collapse, in 1989, is also tied to 1789, although twenty years of introspection hasn't exactly helped contemporary Russians to understand their own place in the continuous history of revolutionary aspirations.

The Russian Revolution is a big moment in the history of humankind for a second reason:  it led, in short order, to the radical expansion of the revolutionary dream.  The expansion of this dream was so radical, that China is only one of many different countries that was transformed by their contact with Marxism.  While European power would have collapsed under any circumstances, Bolshevism helped to inspire some of its most successful opponents.  The Soviet Union has played a central role in twentieth century global history.  The country was one of the largest empires in the history of the world, and of course defeated Europe's second Napoleon, Adolph Hitler.  This alone would justify intensive introspection about the role of the Russian Communist Party and Bolshevik state.  The crimes of the regime are also intrinsically worthy of study.  Lenin's system of government led to unmitigated tyranny, famine, political terror, and demographic catastrophe.  To have lived through the early decades of the Soviet Union's existence, was to have survived revolutionary spontaneity, Civil War, economic dislocation, purge, colonialism, collectivization, famine, and global war.

The Soviet Union was an exercise in black government.  But it was also an engine of unprecedented experimentation.  At the time, there had been few similar adventures in atheism, central planning, socialist economics, or proletarian mobilization.  The Soviets attempted to re-write history.  Their faith in technology was absolute.  However misguided, Russian Communists produced something radically different from other villainous regimes:  they produced a serious critique of Western modernity.  In some ways, the Soviet Union remains the only plausible alternative to capitalism the world has ever known.

Understanding the full horror of Stalin's purges and gulag labor system makes it difficult to sympathize with the Bolshevik dream, but not impossible.  To understand Bolshevism, we must look to the revolutionaries of 1917.  Although Lenin made a long series of cruel decisions, his opposition to colonial exploitation, capitalist economic theory, tsarist oppression, and global militarism are admirable. But after Lenin and his colleagues had been swept away by Stalin, we must wait until the 1960s to rediscover the Soviet impulse for positive change.  In the 1960s, bloody Khrushchev became an unlikely champion of a benign future.  Notwithstanding his personal participation in Stalinist mass murder, Khrushchev had imbibed something good from his Party upbringing.  Indeed, he believed that the Soviet Union could successfully compete with its American and European rivals in the production of economic wealth.  The Soviet Union was, after all, outrunning the American economic growth rate by a factor of two or three, or so it appeared to both American and Russian economic experts.

Like Khrushchev, ordinary Russians in the 1960s had every reason to believe in their country.  We might well ask how this belief was possible when so many average citizens had relatives who had suffered so terribly at the hands of Stalin's lieutenants.  But Americans believed in the U.S. Constitution  even when millions of African-Americans were legally enslaved.  In fact, it was hard for Soviet citizens to ignore their government's propaganda about the unequal status of the slaves' ancestors even in modern, 1960s, America.

The novel, Red Plenty, helps us to understand this moment in 1960s Russia, after Stalinist brutality had faded, but before the limits of Soviet economics had been reached.  In the 1960s, Russia remained a heroic alternative to the imperialist West, friend of Cubans, Vietnamese, Polish, and struggling peoples all over the world.  In the 1960s, Russia was still a leader in nuclear armament, space exploration, and athletic competition.  The Russian economy wasn't perfect, but it wasn't apparently propped up by unemployment and inequality.  The secret was centralized planning.  During the 1960s, Russian life was good and getting better.  Housing shortages were getting better;  wages were getting higher;  consumer goods were becoming more plentiful.

If you read the Soviet Constitution, you get a sense of the Soviet promise.  According to that constitution, the Soviet regime was democratic but orderly, planned, and unified.  While Western critics talked about tyranny, many Soviet citizens may have once accepted their government's foundational documents at face value:  Russians, Ukrainians, and Uzbeks alike were heirs to a civilization of radical, proletarian equality, and logical, rational, and technocratic good government.  In the 1960s, most Russians understood that their system of government had overcome a dark past to overcome fascism, educate a backward country, and produce a space-age material culture.

Khrushchev's visit to America, which is discussed at length in both K Blows His Top and Red Plenty, is symbolic of this high water of Soviet pride.  Khrushchev landed in American in a gigantic airplane, larger than anything in the American commercial or military fleet.  The plane was so large he needed to climb down from it with the help of a ladder.   Khrushchev's visit was a strange mixture of braggadocio and insecurity.  Like many of his countrymen, the Soviet premier both admired and pitied America.  America was a truly great power, more dynamic by far than its decadent counterparts in Western Europe;  and yet Russia had come much farther in a much shorter space of time than America had.  If the trend continued, surely the Soviet Union and its communist imitators had nothing to fear from peaceful competition.  Khruschev had seen the future, and it worked.

Monday, July 9, 2012


A few months ago my stepmother told my fiancĂ©e that Grace Shouba, my mother, was a constant presence at her home.   The statement struck me as odd at first:  Grace died twenty-five years ago, and of course had never even visited my stepmother’s current home, let alone my stepmother’s previous home.  Her pictures were not on any wall.  Her things--what few inherited objects that were left to us--were mostly relegated to the basement.  But of course my father’s “new” wife had helped to raise my brothers and me, and so had lived for the past two decades with hundreds of shared remembrances of our most cherished memory.  

When I thought about my stepmother’s statement, I had to admit that Grace was everywhere in her home.  My father and two brothers talked about Grace a lot; and when we weren’t talking about her, the omission was sometimes glaringly obvious.   After all, Grace was the unifying theme of our shared past—a collective experience, a familiar ghost, and a sometimes all-consuming memory.   In fact, after twenty-five years, Grace had become something bigger than a dead loved one:  in many ways, her name had become a mythological symbol for childhood itself, with all its myriad joys, sorrows, adventures, and tragedies.  

For me at least, the memory of Grace now represented the best and worst parts of life, and her spiritual presence seemed to permeate my every interaction with my parents and their home.  The past is always present, and this certainly is part of the message of Montefiore’s novel about the Russian heroine, Sashenka.  Montefiore, who wrote a brilliantly researched book about Catherine the Great’s favorite, Potemkin, as well as two of the best recent biographies of Joseph Stalin—The Court of the Red Tsar, and Young Stalin, clearly believed that any twentieth century Russian novel must inevitably lead to a dialogue between Russia’s tragic past and uncertain present.  

Sashenka, who grows up in a rich, Jewish St. Petersburg family, throws herself into the revolutionary struggle against the Tsar.  Thus, in the first part of the book, Montefiore takes us back and forth between tsarist excess (Sashenka’s mother is one of Rasputin’s dissolute admirers) and puritanical revolutionary responses.   We come to understand why Russians had become exhausted by economic inequality, bourgeois decadence, autocratic stupidity, military catastrophe, and capitalist exploitation.  Yet we are also introduced to a Marxist-Leninist conspiracy, and its dangerous moral and ideological assumptions about class warfare.   Although we know why Sashenka is attracted to change, we also understand that this attraction is darkened by the Bolsheviks’ antidemocratic and violent approach to politics. 

Montefiore skips over the Civil War, Collectivism, and the Great Terror proper, and introduces us to fully formed Stalinism.  As World War II approaches, Sashenka and her  bigwig NKVD husband have become the model Soviet citizens.  Their attitude toward Stalin and Stalinism are no doubt typical of the time.  In awe of the Great Leader, they somehow managed to both love and fear the man and his political regime.  They understand that many of their close friends and colleagues had disappeared during the past two years, but they hoped against hope that these disappearances were justified according to some greater Party imperative or logic of history.  When they themselves wind up in Stalin’s cross hairs, they perish, victims of the same deadly and often arbitrary game that Sashenka’s NKVD husband had been playing for so long to prop up the Bolshevik regime.  Montefiore’s larger story, however, is about historical memory.  

In the final part of the book, Montefiore shows that Sachenka’s torture and savage death did not erase her memory, or the significance of the millions of other innocent Russians who died at the hands of Stalin and his criminal colleagues.  Indeed, Sashenka’s children and grandchildren miraculously uncover the tragic story of their ancestor’s past.  And somehow Sashenka emerges again, irrepressible, insistent, and all-consuming.  History, and especially Russian history, always demonstrates the simple fact that death doesn’t really end anything.  The living have an urgent need to make contact with the dead, and the level of this urgency is related in some morbid way to the abruptness and unjustness of the death.  And perhaps the dead—like Hamlet’s father who famously said:  oh, horrible tale!--also have an urgent need to make contact with the living.

The Triumph of Atheism

One of the Revolution’s crowing achievements was atheism.  After centuries of cruel economic and ideological exploitation by the Orthodox clergy and its political allies, Russians finally liberated themselves from an outmoded belief in God.  This liberation was at the heart of the Revolution’s appeal to the liberal-minded, urban intelligentsia.  How free must men and women have felt to be able to escape centuries of magical thinking and religious mumbo-jumbo in one spontaneous moment of rational action?  How joyous an epoch:  to overthrown a god as well as a tsar in one tumultuous year?  Rasputin, the tangible link between God and tsar in the last days of the old regime, was the living embodiment of everything that had been eating away at Russia for so many centuries.  For many educated Russians, Rasputin’s mysticism and magical thinking were inextricably tied up with his depravity and amorality, which, in turn, were firmly linked to the charismatic but bizarre man’s autocratic, reactionary politics.  Religious Russia meant Grigory Rasputin, or worse. 

I remember the moment in time when I first realized there was no God.  Strangely, my religious education occurred in public school during my freshman year of high school.  Assigned two essays about the existence of God—one theist, the other atheist—I was immediately and totally convinced of the truth of the atheist document.   I was shocked and upset by my conversion to godlessness.  Until that time, I had been a believer from a relatively liberal Protestant sect, Methodism.   Looking back, it’s clear that the collapse of my faith had very little to do with the essayist’s arguments, and everything to do with my mother’s recent death.  Reading the essay, I was left with that simple question everyone must ask himself in the wake of a personal tragedy:  if there is a God, how could he have taken away my mother?  My answer was as simple as the question:  there cannot be a God. 

Looking back, I am struck by the oddness of losing one’s religion as a response to death.  For religion is nothing if not an elaborate attempt to give people solace in the face of death, or mortality in general.  Yet my mother’s death opened up a curtain on existence and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that God was no longer a factor in my mortal life.  The irony perhaps is that my mother went into the final weeks of her life as a Christian, even calling for a minster to visit her sickbed to sing Christian songs with her.  That’s my memory anyhow--forgive the distortions that have accumulated over the course of twenty-five years.

One doesn’t really lose one’s faith in a single instance.  There are no “road to Damascus” experiences, as it were.  When I learned from my grandmother than my mother had died, I went to seek solace from my father, asking whether it was true that Mom was actually much better off being in heaven.  My father’s look, filled with pity and a certain incredulity at my naivete, said something different than his hesitant words:  “Yes, Derek.  She must be in heaven.  Yes, she must be better off.”  He probably never meant to deliver such a condescending message.  He may not even have meant anything at all.   Although he was a half-hearted believer at best, attending Church for his wife’s sake, his answer couldn’t have really turned my mind away from  the depressing fact of my growing distrust of the Christian response to tragedy.  The truth was this:  I didn’t really trust in God’s existence.  The bible picture book Mom kept downstairs seemed as relevant to my life as my book of Greek mythology or any Dungeons and Dragons book. 

Being freed from religion was an awesome responsibility, and one I couldn’t handle for many years.  At first, I wondered whether I even needed to bother about morality and ethics if God wasn’t around to punish or reward me.  Of course,  leaving religion had its upside:  I had a confident, independent, open-minded, and even creative approach to my surroundings and toward men and women from other religious traditions .  I also eventually started to think more deeply about right and wrong:  since the bible wasn’t inherently right or wrong, one had to think very deeply about what separated the good from the bad.  And of course I soon realized that Christians, and religious folks in general, were often capable of doing very bad things at the behest of their god.  As Kurt Vonnegut said, and I can only paraphrase him:  sooner or later gods have got to be held accountable for the actions of their followers.

In Russia, state-sponsored atheism led to ideological coercion, anticlerical cruelty, and anti-religions brutality on a scale not even the pogrom-tolerant autocracy could have imagined.  Godless Russia, it turned out, was even worse than Godly Russia.  In my own life, atheism didn’t make things better.  In some ways, atheism merely became the mirror image of my earlier Christianity:  I became as intolerant of different religious viewpoints as Christians generally seemed to be.  To me, Christianity itself—a religion I was born to—seemed as strange as the cult of Santaclaus, if people had continued to believe in Santa after entering adulthood.  At times, I barely understood how people ever maintained their faith in the supernatural in the face of overwhelming scientific and physical evidence.  

Just recently, an erudite Catholic friend came to visit and attested that there simply was no evidence that Jesus had NOT risen from the dead, or even evidence that he or his disciples had intended to perpetuate some kind of hoax that he had done so.  The absurdity of this line of reasoning even now overwhelms me.  If this friend, one of the smartest people I know, is able to frame a problem in such an illogical way, how much less thought do other Christians use when thinking about the existence of God?

Notwithstanding my occasional incredulity, over time I have mellowed.  I’ve come to think that atheism and theism are two sides of the same coin;  and that the quest for ultimate, metaphysical truth, must necessarily involve both a belief in transcendent reality and some kind of paradoxical belief in the physical sameness (and therefore anti-religious structure) of the universe.  Little by little I’ve made room in my life for a little religion.  I’ve lit a votive candle or two, spoken to my dead mother from time to time, and fallen for the Hindu god, Ganesha, whose small statue stands on my bookshelf as a reminder of how little I know or will be able to know about life and the cosmos.  Somehow an elephant-headed God, rather than an historical man-god, seems like a better indicator of the inner truth of religious sentiment. 

I guess I’ve come to understand that atheism will not make him a happier person.  It didn’t transform Russia into a utopia, nor did it lead me to inner bliss.  To the extent that I remain an atheist, I do so because atheism is a true doctrine and not because it leads to paradise on earth.   Where my son is concerned, I hope to teach him something that is neither theist nor atheist, or is perhaps both.  This is a complicated task.  I guess if I have my way my son will be something akin to the characters in an Isabel Allende novel, rational people who believe in ghosts and spirits and operate in a world of magical reality.  

Reading a book by Abram Tertz on Russian folklore, I see the kind of person I’d like my son to become.  Tertz was a deeply analytical man who applied the tools of anthropology and literary criticism to collect and objectively assess the religious traditions of the Russian folk,  a people who believed in all manner of major and minor religious, mythological, and spiritual activity.  Tertz did not merely respect the Russian peasants’ ability to incorporate the sacred into his daily life.  Rather, he crossed that threshold on occasion and saw life through their pantheistic gaze.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James said that men and women were either religious or irreligious;  that is, they either lived in an enchanted world or they lived in a rational one, but never both.  But Tertz showed that it’s possible to live in both worlds at the same time, which is all that anyone should hope for.