Friday, September 28, 2012

Westerman's Engineers of the Soul

“Our tanks are worthless if the souls who must steer them are made of glass. This is why I say:  the production of souls is more important than that of tanks.”  J. Stalin.

There is an Andrei Tarkovsky film about a few forlorn humans who make their living by trying to navigate mysterious, unintelligible, alien-crafted zones. In these zones, the normal laws of physics do not apply. Nothing is predictable.  

These zones, utterly bereft of our ordinary understanding of cause and effect, reminded me of something a former colleague once told me about an old employer of mine.  He said:  "Derek, take everything you've learned over the years;  take your three graduate degrees, years of college teaching experience, and decade of administrative experience--take all that you have learned from mentors of the years, and...set all of this aside. These experiences are of no value to you here."  He meant that trying to be good in a truly bad place didn't work, and in fact might make both my life and the place itself worse than it had been.  Ia bad place, even good intentions can be mistaken for cynical ploys and interpreted as aggressive overtures.  

I think sometimes of what Afghanistan must be like, 1960s Vietnam, or Iraq.  Without, I hope, descending into xenophobic, cultural short-sightedness, I think it's safe to say that from time to time a place lapses into prehistoric, moral anarchy.  In such situations, it's impossible, or almost impossible, to tell right from wrong.  Does one side with a criminally corrupt central government, a reprehensible rebel group, a vicious warlord, a distorted religious creed, a foreign colonizer of incalculable power, or one's own backward and bloodthirsty clan?  

In such a moral vacuum, isn't any decision to side with one group against another bound to be a bad one?  And what if the landscape of alliances changes from one year to the next?  What then?  What is right this year might very well prove to be wrong next year. And even if, like Demosthenes, I've managed to encounter  a good man with whom to ally, if that good man in turn is allied to criminals, is my alliance a worthy one or not?  The answer isn't easy to discover, even if one is, against all self-interest, inclined to honesty.

I've worked in such conditions here in America, even though American civilization isn't, as a rule, bereft of morality, or at least moral checks and balances.  We have, after all, an active press, free elections, an independent judiciary, separation of church and state, a written Constitution and Bill of Rights, and a reasonably healthy tradition of civil rights.  So, having worked in places where moral decisions are seldom made, I wonder how much worse things were in places like the U.S.S.R., where no leader was bound by anything other than the fear of Party hierarchy or state authority.  

Reading Frank Westerman's book, Engineers of the Soul:  In the Footsteps of Stalin's Writers, I wonder how sensitive souls navigated even the most pleasant years of the Soviet regime, the period of the so-called Thaw.  Westerman's book reminds us that most Soviet writers were obligated to celebrate Soviet civilization, which more often than not meant praising its most conspicuous hydraulic engineering projects, namely its many canals.  Even Maxim Gorky--who almost always tried to wed his tremendous writing talent to moral causes--wound up writing a paean to a canal, and one that had been built by slave labor.  Paustovsky also wrote about a massive engineering project.  And if Plotonov failed to get much work related to these Stalinist engineering feats, it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Of course, the best Soviet authors found a variety of ways to remain more or less connected to their own understanding of objective (as opposed to Socialist Realist) truth, their own dignity, and the dignity of literature in general.  Some, like Pasternak, avoided poetry and focused on the ideologically safer work of translation, although he famously also took the approach of writing clandestinely.  Some, like Paustovsky, wrote different types of books, some directly pleasing to the apprachniks, others more personal.  But all Soviet writers, with the possible exceptions of Solzhenitsyn a few others, made significant moral and of course aesthetic compromises.  The Ghetto Boys famously rapped that “the world is a ghetto.”  For Soviet authors, the world they knew was “a gulag.”  And it’s a prison or prison camp that most clearly conjures up the perfect collapse of a morally intelligible universe. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Soviet Spring

As I said in my last post, I'm slowly adjusting the shock of living in suburbia.  There's a lot to like about the suburbs, and a friend once said that I was a "suburban tourist" because I seemed utterly entertained and delighted by the simple pleasures of the suburban lifestyle, including easy access to shopping malls, safe playgrounds and schools, enormous basement storage areas, and neighbors who, although frequently inebriated, do their best to look out for one another.

I'm still amazed by the suburban house I've purchased.  When I walk into the garage, I stand in wonder, thinking that my car has never had it so good:  having spent the better part of its life sleeping on the streets of Woodlawn, my car must at times ask itself if it has not taken up permanent residence in a spa, padded slipper, or cocoon.  When I walk outside my new home, I'm stunned by the fact that I can see stars in the sky, although I can hear almost nothing.  In all my life, I've never lived in such a remorselessly quiet environment.  Suburban life is no doubt much inevitably more quiet than urban life. When I lived in Lakeview, the whole apartment building shook as the trucks drove by, and television shows were often interrupted by car accidents or screaming matches that spontaneously erupted around three a.m. at the transvestite bar across the street.  When I lived in Woodlawn, the neighbors talked to one another right outside our windows, involving me, quite against my will, in the most intimate details of their lives.  Now, I live in silence, surrounded by silence.  With only one entrance to my subdivision, my home isn't even exposed to the fleeting noise of random traffic.

I experience suburban life as a form of exile and estrangement.  I lived an urban life with my first wife, got divorced, got engaged, then moved to the suburbs.  The difference in lifestyle underscores the difference between my pre-divorced and divorced selves.  Living here in this place, another byproduct of divorce, I wonder how people decide to get divorced in the first place.  One dreads separation from one's family, but when it comes it's much worse than one could have imagined.  If people knew how bad it would be, how hard it is to live apart from one's children, would they proceed with the rupture?

With apologies for the strained and awkward transition between my personal life and my passion for Soviet history, I see a connection between the decision to divorce and the decision to dismantle a country.  The decision to embrace the pain of separation and exile may have its analogy in Soviet history. I think of Gorbachev.  How was it that the statesmen, and men like him, finally decided to pull the plug on the Soviet system?  The decision can't have been an easy.  Taking the plunge would ultimately lead to the end of an empire, the loss of economic stability, and the misery of millions.  The decision to reform Russia led to consequences which, in the short run at least, were even worse than the  problem of communism.

Of course, Gorbachev and his supporters could not have known exactly where they were headed when they decided that "things can't go on like this."  They were even determined to salvage something good from the wreckage of Russian communism. Even so, these Soviet reformers knew the country was sick, mortally sick perhaps, and they eventually decided to risk killing the patient in order to move forward.  They wanted to see around the next corner of history.  

I wonder how long people like Gorbachev waited they made even the first tenuous moves to upset the status quo.  Notwithstanding the myriad indications of Soviet malaise, Soviet would-be revolutionaries or reformers must have trembled as they contemplated undermining the system they knew so well.  Like the decision to divorce, people have a good reason to pause before pursuing radical change.   Change in a deeply flawed system--whether that system be a regime or relationship--breeds pain and suffering, almost in direct proportion to the degree of malaise that permeates the system.  

My fiancee is Tunisian.  When we first met, she was excited about the revolution that was overtaking her country.  She knew her people deserved freedom and change.  But the pain of that change is already evident.  The Soviet experience of revolution wasn't irrelevant.  Somewhat cynically, I told her that the Russians had also been excited about the prospects of radical change in their corrupt society.  This was true both in 1917 and 1989, but in both cases the revolution brought about an enormous harvest of bitterness.  My fiancee was not deterred:  the future could certainly be better than the past.  How could things not get better?  Sadly, Tunisia is now threatened by religious extremism and a strong measure of violent anti-Americanism. Probably the future will be better than the recent past.  Probably the Arab Spring was worthwhile.  And yet one can at least sympathize, if only for a moment, with those moderates who hesitated, if only for a moment, before throwing in their lot with the future.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Soviet Spirits

The other night a friend gave me a flight of Soviet vodka bottles from the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Although I'm not quiet certain that even 40 proof Vodka can kill off the germs that might have accumulated over the decades, I cannot resist the urge to try something that will form a visceral link to the Soviet past.  The ties that bind us to the past are a strange blend of the tangible and the spiritual.  And life is full of strange, unexpected portals to seemingly ancient history.  If we're open to the experience, we're bound to stumble upon the ghosts of our ancestors many times a day.

Take my recent move from the South Side of Chicago to the wilds of Northwest Indiana.  As I spent the day packing, I paused for a moment to consider an object that took me back in time over twenty-five years, a plant that my uncle had sent to my family from Japan upon the death of my mother, his sister.  This plant, which wasn't looking too long for this world, had survived for a very long time at my dad's home, and then eventually wound up living a peripatetic life with me. How odd then that during the move it vanished forever, a lost physical link to a world which included--almost--the physical avatar of my mom's spiritual essence.

The phrase physical avatar sounds peculiar, but it reminds me that I'm now much, much more acquainted with mom the ghost than with mom the concrete, flesh and bones, human being.  At any rate, the plant is gone, but I'll continue to stumble over physical reminders of this absent family member for years, or decades, or perhaps forever.  I'm reading the autobiography of Fidel Castro--a series of interviews really--in which Castro happily, nostalgically relates the fact that some curator or local librarian or archivist had managed to uncover a book of pictures of Napoleonic generals   with which he had played endlessly as a child.  He thought the book was either the actual book he had owned fifty years previously, or at any rate an exact replica of the one he had once possessed.  Castro feigned indifference on this question of whether the book was the one his former self had touched so often, but he couldn't help but ask the question:  was this the very same book he had once won in a trade with a friend?  Could this book be a message from the past, or conversely, a message from the future into the past, that things had turned out alright, that Castro the boy would prosper and become one of the world's longest-serving dictators?

The plant, my uncle's gift, is now gone for good.  And the loss can't help me but think of the original loss of that thing which this plant replaced.  But history will continue to resurface in my house.  I will find pictures, and objects, and perhaps a piece of furniture that will transport me back to that magical time when mom lived.  And if there aren't many physical objects left, I will be more creative about inventing them.  Wasn't this one of mom's books?  No?  Did she at least read it?  Was this the dish mom used to own?  No?  Had she had least owned one much like it?

I'm in the suburbs now.  It's deadly quiet.  The windows are open.  The stars are visible, the crickets chirping, the yard is wide and long.  I used to live in a house much like this one.  As a child, my family lived on two floors, as I do again.  My mother and I were suburbanites, as I am again.  What does all this have to do with the Soviets?  Not much.  But when mom lived, the Soviet Union lived.  I conflate the two things.  Faulker once wrote:  My mother is a fish.  I sometimes feel that my mother is the USSR.