Thursday, August 23, 2012

Francis Sufford's USSR

I've been buy packing up my Soviet books again, preparing to take them to their new home.  As I put them away I feel deeply nostalgic.  The books have travelled quite a lot.  These past two years have been difficult ones for them, and for me.  In about twenty-four months my son and I established a new home, and set out to create a new family, a family of two, with surrounding circles of love and support,  but a history of loss and sorrow.  Of course, my son now has two wonderful, and deeply interconnected, families.  What have these two years been like?  My quick-witted, strong-willed son and I have created new rituals, eating patterns, and patterns of work and fun.  We've even thrived.  What's strange is to realize this:  in two years my son and I left a family of three, landed in a family of two (actually, he found himself in two different families of two), and now my son and I are launching into a brand new family of four.  It's amazing how much life can change for a boy of seven.  I take comfort in knowing that my son's journey involves love and growth and family and adventure--all the best parts of living.

But enough about us... We all deal with change, and in many ways change and development are the preconditions of nostalgia.  In the Soviet Union, every man woman and child experienced change on an almost unprecedented level.  The average citizen dealt directly or indirectly with some terrifying combination of war, famine, political terror, and economic revolution.  Francis Stufford's Red Plenty, a book I've discussed previously, captures the essence of this radical change.  Even after the brutal Stalin left the stage of history, the Soviet Union innovated on an unimaginable scale.  According to Stufford, the Party had given its leaders the right to determine almost every aspect of its citizens' lives.  Like Plato's Philosopher Kings, Russia's leaders felt obliged to make decisions about the people's spiritual, cultural, political, military, and economic life.  They believed that Marx had taught them a special theory of social change, and that leaving history to the uninitiated was a ridiculous and even immoral proposition.  History had refuted the quaint nothing that individuals and bourgeois freedom would get a people where it wanted--indeed needed--to go.

To be create a happy civilization, Philosopher Kings needed to ensure that ordinary people weren't allowed to make mistakes, be inefficient, or exercise some kind of misguided and chaotic will to power.  The result was that a very tiny group of people (but primarily Khrushchev,  and later Brezhnev) road roughshod over any pretence of human rights or autonomy.  For a while, the system seemed to work.  Economic centralism produced growth.  Eventually, the limits of Gosplan, and its inherent absurdities, were reached.  The economy began to stall, even grinding to a virtual halt at the end of Khrushchev's rule.  People had little incentive to work.  Notwithstanding the massive planning bureaucracy, the various parts of the economy never seemed to fit together.   Lines and shortages proliferated.  Innovation was rare.  Agriculture fell apart.  The end might have come sooner, but according to Stufford, the USSR's massive oil reserves and new petroleum discoveries during an oil boom hid the underlying sickness of the socialist economic regime.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Russian Gloom

Jaspers wrote "[there] exists a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each co-responsibile for every wrong and every injustice in the world...If I fail to do whatever I can to prevent [crimes], I too am guilty.  If I was present at the murder of others without risking my life to prevent it, I feel guilty in a way not adequately conceivable either legally, politically or morally.  That I live after such a thing has happened, weighs upon me as indelible guilt."

"Dostoevsky was convinced that there was not a "villain or scoundrel among the Russians that did not know that he was disgusting and vile," whereas among other peoples a person who does evil congratulates himself and pretends he is a flower of civilization."  David Satter.

[Chaadaev wrote that] "there is in Russians a lack of stability, a lack of a certain consistency in mind, a certain logic.  The Western syllogism is to us alien.  In our minds there is something worse than superficiality.  The best ideas, in the absence of connections and consistency, like sterile outbreaks, paralyze in our brains."

[According to Chaadaev,] "Alone in the world we gave the world nothing and took nothing from the world.  We did nothing to assist the movement forward of human reason, and everything we received from this movement we distorted."  David Satter.

Having recently overcome a small health crisis, I have felt a little more gloomy than usual.  Looking at my DVR memory, which consists of dozens upon dozens of different crime shows, I wondered if I shouldn't consider turning toward some more cheerful entertainment.  Watching 30 Rock helped, but I eventually realized that twentieth century Russian history doesn't contribute to cheerfulness.  David Satter's sophisticated book on historical guilt, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, was particularly depressing, even by the high standards of modern Russian historiography.  As mentioned previously, the book is a catalog of criminal state activity, including mass executions, man-made famines, and the sometimes random violence of the great purges.  The author's conclusion of present-day Russia is equally depressing.  As Satter writes:  "The passivity on the part of ordinary Russians, combined with a seeming inability to make moral judgements, gives Russia's rulers the conviction that they never will be held to account."  Of course, if both the recent past and present are closed, one can and should start reading 19th century Russian history and literature.  This is what I've done.  I'm reading Oblomov and finishing Henri Troyat's biography of Gogol as a start.  Reading the classics of Russian literature soothes the soul, although it's sad to think that the chicanery of Gogol's Chicharev and the laziness of Goncharov's Oblomov are dependent on serfdom.  How is it that even a country's tranquil century is predicated on slavery, to say nothing of imperialism, war, famine, and social turmoil?  At any rate, Gogol and Goncharov are funny and so a lot to lighten one's mood.  Here are a couple samples from Gogol's letters, as translated by his biographer, Troyat.

Here is Gogol's advice to a young acolyte:

"For the love of God, don't sit in one place for more than an hour and a half at a time, and don't lean over the tables:  you have a weak chest, you must know it.  Try always to be in bed by half past eleven.  And do not dance at all, especially not these wild dances!  They stir up the blood but do not allow the body to move enough, and you are not light enough on your feet.  You are not pretty.  Are you quite sure you know that?  You are only pretty when your face expresses some elevated emotion.  Your features were patently made to express the nobility of your soul;  as soon as you lose that expression, you become plain.  Therefore, give up all social functions, however modest.  You must see that society can give you nothing.  Keep your childlike innocence;  that is worth more than everything else."

Here are his reflections on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land:

"What have all these Stations of the Cross of Our Savior got to say to us know;  the Holy Sepulcher, Golgotha, the place where Christ was shown to the people by Pontius Pilate, the residence of the High Priest, where he was taken, the site of the Holy Cross--when all these places have been fathered together under the roof of a single church?  What is there for artist or poet in the landscapes of Judea with their monotonous hills, like the gray waves of the sea in a gale?  No doubt, it was all very picturesque in the Savior's lifetime, when Judea was nothing but gardens and every Jew sat in the shade of the tree he had planted himself;  but today, when you met five or six olive trees straggling up the mountain slope, gray and dusty as the rocks themselves, when a thin membrane of moss and a few tufts of grass showed green in the middle of a barren, irregular plain strewn with stones, when after five or six hours' travel you saw some tiny Arab hut glued somewhere to the hillside, looking less like a human habitation than a terra-cota pot, an oven, or some animal's lair--where in this could you see the land of milk and honey?"

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fainting Into the Past

Someone once said that the past is a foreign country.  I think this expression means that the present is not merely a logical extrapolation or even natural continuation of the past.  Instead, the past is alien, mysterious, and unknowable if one doesn’t know the language.   We feel, or should feel, more like tourists than residents even when we delve into our own personal histories.  In some ways, investigating former modes of living is as difficult as trying to get to know our own subconscious or unconscious lives.  

A few days ago I came face to face with this form of foreign territory when I fainted dead away, collapsing face first on the floor of my apartment.  The doctors told me that the incident was caused by an electrical event in the heart unrelated to the machinations or strivings of a promiscuous subconscious motive.  Be that as it may, loosing control of one’s physical movements, even for a moment, is a reminder that we are not always authors of our own storyline; more often than not, we are puppets of the past, or characters in somebody else’s play, or even victims of a set of circumstances we hardly seem to recognize.  

The past, when it bursts through to the present, is dark, furtive, powerful, and even terrifying.  The strange thing about the past is that it cannot be ignored for very long.  You can spend a lot of time and effort trying to remain in the present, but sooner or later you lose the battle and “faint” into the past.  It’s as if you went up to the bartender and asked for a beer but he served you a freezing blast of high-powered water from the hydrant instead.  I think the point of therapy is to introduce you more gradually and gracefully to the foreign country of your own history.  You can’t help but see a foreign country as strange and unpredictable, but you can become slowly acclimated to its bizarre rituals and traditions.  

What happens when a whole country “faints” into its own past rather than slowly comes to terms with the archeology of alien memories?  What is the national equivalent of individual therapy?  I think most nations try to manage the jarring effect of historical consciousness by erecting sites of memory and mourning and fostering some sort of ritualized collective remembrance.  Some nations are better than others at remembering.  Remembering takes courage of course.  It’s easy to celebrate a one-sided, triumphal arcadia, and much harder to admit to national pain, loss, conflict, and guilt.  Complicating the question of remembrance is the fact that some countries have more to remember than others;  or, to put matters another way, some countries have more subconscious motivations to avoid remembering than others.  

Russia, of course, is traditionally seen as one of the most tragic nations ever to walk upon the stage of history.  Perhaps this is an unreasonable cliché:  is it really possible than one group of people have had it harder than any other?  Whatever the case, Russian intellectuals and non-Russian observers note that the Russian nation’s understanding of the past, both recent and distant, is extraordinarily dark.  An elderly Russian today may indeed remember the chaos, humiliation, and corruption of the early 2000s; spectacular geopolitical collapse of the 1990s; the moral and economic stagnation of the 1970s;  the apocalypse of WWII;  the abject horror of the Great Purges;  the decimation of  the Collectivization famine;  the bloodiness of the Civil War;  and the trauma of the Revolution.  The Russian past is truly monstrous in many respects.   

Although it’s easy to dismiss the triumphs of Russia’s modern history—including the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the creation of a modern economy for instance—most Russians did not, and could not, afford to dwell on national tragedy.  In fact, David Satter’s book, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened. Anyway, Satter's book shows that even twentieth century Russian history contains ample evidence of objective historical achievement.  For instance, Russians today often correctly remember that the Soviet government offered them job security, educational benefits, health benefits, and a general sense of international prestige.  Satter even argues that Russian working class citizens in the 1970s might well say that they had it has good as their counterparts in the West; while they certainly earned less, and possessed fewer objects than their Western brethren, they also worked far fewer hours, and at a much slower pace.  In the end, Soviet citizens may not have had much apartment space, but they did get paid vacations and never sweated about whether or not they would get fired for poor performance.  

Satter’s analysis of Russia’s complicated relationship to the past, and to Soviet history in particular, is nothing short of masterful.  Russia’s problems are manifold.  First, Soviet history is particularly (though of course not uniquely) horrific.  The author draws upon seemingly hundreds of discrete episodes of Soviet political terror and mass murder to explain the tangled web of Russian past and present.  Second, notwithstanding the fact that Russians played a leading part in The Soviet Union’s Party leadership circles, Russia has tried to detach itself from the wider story of the murderous Soviet Empire.  While the USSR may have been the “prison of nations,” Russia was allegedly only one of the many victims of international communist conspiracy.  Third, Russians, before, during, and after the Soviet experiment, have celebrated the principle of raison d’etat and autocracy;  almost every crime has been justified in the context of Russian power., and many today celebrate the Rise of former KGB leader, Putin, as some sort of paradoxical anecdote to the historical angst of the Russian people.  Fourth, so many Russians were involved in Stalin’s bloody tyranny, or its heirs, that the process of repenting, confessing,  or publicizing past crimes seems confusing or even overwhelming to most Russians.  If almost all of the country’s leaders (and many of one’s own family patriarchs) participated in abuses, can we reject them all? Are there really no heroes in a 73 year period of history in which the Soviet Union triumphed over Hitler and became a superpower?  

The confusion is Russia is all-consuming.  As one citizen asked:  how is it possible to erect a monument to both Stalin and his victims?  Fifth, the Russian people often seem to prefer to blame others for the sins of the past, including Jews.  If even the great writer Solzhenityn could ignore historical statistics in order to ask the Jews to accept responsibility for vicitimizing the enormous Russian population, how are ordinary Russians expected to blame their own state for their present predicament?  In the end, the past in Russia is more of a foreign country than almost anywhere else.  This is understandable.  The Soviet past beggars the imagination for its bloodiness and cruelty.  According to Satter, Russians have been victims of an ideology that devalues human life in favor of the state and its alleged needs.  Even the greatest of Russian writers, including Pushkin, Gogol, Chaadaev, Berdyaev, and Solzhenitsyn, have sometimes embraced this sad logic, accepting the cruel and antihumanist notion that Russians were born to suffer.  Until the Russians learn to grieve the past, and repent of their countrymen’s enormous mistakes, it seems they will be likely to faint repeatedly into the past.