Monday, October 8, 2012

The Great (Bed, Bath and) Beyond

I often wonder whether I should not attempt to write my way out of my present predicament.  I think that if I could stop thinking for a moment, and only write page after page of nonsensical prose something more meaningful might emerge from all of the dross.  I have a blog that nobody—except for you, gentle reader—notices.  And who can wonder why my blog doesn’t reach more readers?  I confess here that the purpose of my blog was never well formulated.  After several years of work on Soviet Roulette, I can scarcely explain its premise to friends or new acquaintances.  Why does Soviet Roulette exist?  For whom is it written?  What pretense of authority does it possess?  

I can answer none of these questions with any degree of certainty.  When a friend recently asked me what Soviet Roulette was about, I answered that it was an investigation of everything that connected my own life experience to the Bolshevik Revolution and the history of the Soviet Union.  His response—“but your life is not related to either of those topics in any way”—was not without merit. In many ways, my own life, filled with long stretches of stagnation and occasional trips to supermarket, is the antithesis of Soviet history, with its drama, upheaval, and bloodshed. In fact, I had no response to that criticism, that my life bears no resemblance to Russian reality, and I often notice that the two halves of my blog posts (the first half dealing with some memory of mine, and the second half analyzing some Russian history book I’ve recently read) are obviously, even crudely disjointed.  When I re-read a post, I cannot help but be jolted by the rough transition between personal reflection and public history; indeed, it’s as if the seems of each essay were sown together by a blind person.  

One or two readers (and there aren’t many more than that) have suggested that I try to solve the problem by dropping one part or the other of the blog’s general act.  While the blog might never be a huge success, if only I’d stop mentioning Russian history I might manage to say something interesting every now and again.  The comment reminds me of something Shock Jock Howard Stern used to say all the time to guests.  After listening to somebody for a period of time, he’d finally hear something that interested him, exclaiming with inexhaustible supply of condescension, “NOW you’ve said something,” as if nothing that had been said up until that point had been worth saying at all.  

The point of course is that this attempt to fit one’s personal narrative into a grander narrative about human beings in general is worth doing, even if one fails in the end to make the case.  At any rate, it’s how my mind functions.  I go to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to buy a waste basket, storage bins, and shelf dividers, but I think simultaneously about what I’ve read recently, what I may have read long ago, or what I’m currently reading, which in this case is Paul Froese’s The Plot to Kill God, about Russia’s great secularization campaigns of the previous century.  While I’m in Bed, Bath, and Beyond, I fall in love with the kitchen utensils, colorful shower curtains, clever closet organizers, and ingenious tie holders.  

(Sidebar…The genius of Bed, Bath, and Beyond’s tie holders reminds me my fiancee’s criticism of American ingenuity:  she says after decades of educational softness and mathematical decline, modern Americans now believe that adding a cup holder to a sectional sofa is received as a major invention. The episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which revolves around the idea of adding a periscope to cars in order to navigate around stalled traffic, and also includes Larry David’s idea for skies that travel more easily by screwing apart in the middle, mirrors my engineer-girlfriend’s point.  But I, unabashed, reply that I have my own plans for adding to the storehouse of global intelligence by unleashing virtual shopping experiences that combine Facebook-like social interactions with video game-like graphics.)  

But to return to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, when I shop I’m looking for the latest and greatest in home storage systems (my exasperated ex-wife once asked the condo association board members to forgive me for my rabid insistence that we purchase a dedicated file cabinet—“you’ll have to excuse my husband,” she said, “he believes that all of life’s problems can be solved by putting papers in filing cabinets”).  But while I look for paper sorters, spice racks, and key holders, I’m also thinking about the Soviets.  Why did they get so tired of religion?  Why did they exhaust so much energy attacking that institution when they assumed it would eventually die away under the pressure of education, science, and technology?  And why did religion survive the onslaught?  I assume the answer has something to do with Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  

When you live in the suburbs, you have certain advantages when it comes to analyzing spiritual crises.  You can spend your way out of a day or two of serious thinking, but sooner or later you’re obliged to look for some form of social and metaphysical meaning that’s greater, more urgent than unaltered consumerism.  As Paul Froese points out, even the Soviets soon realized that religion wasn’t just going to disappear under the weight of state-sponsored persecution.  Eventually they recognized why Emile Durkheim and other social theorists have argued, that ritualistic activity is an essential component of what it means to be human.  That is to say, God may not be necessary in the suburbs, but His church certainly is.  

People everywhere and in all historical circumstances seek to participate in something greater than their immediate surroundings.  They want to be reminded that they are part of something much grander and more intense than spending time with soccer coaches, real estate agents, contractors, mail carriers, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond store clerks.  They want ritual to make them feel that their lives have real significance.  So that’s why the Soviets didn’t merely undermine the Russian Orthodox Church and traditional Islamic courts.  Rather, they created what many have seen as a new, Marxist-Leninist religion.  

In what ways was this creed religious?  Paul Froese reminds us of the many parallels that can be drawn between the Soviet Union’s official creed of so-called “scientific atheism” and religious thinking.  The obvious place to begin is the Soviet Union’s sacred texts, written by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and eventually Stalin.  These texts, like religious texts, could be interpreted but never critiqued.  Beyond, the texts, Lenin, Stalin, and other state-sanctioned leaders were treated like religious prophets.  With more deliberateness than often credited, the portraits were nearly ubiquitous, but found with special frequency in the corner of peasant homes that had traditionally been reserved for Orthodox saints.  Marxist-Leninism displaced Christianity as a religion in many other respects.  The Communist leadership created a new calendar of semi-sacred worker holidays, new rituals of initiation and status, new atheist songs and catechisms, and new atheist organizations.  

The Communist effort to create a new form of collective worship met with mixed success.  Traditional Soviet religiosity, measured by church attendance, certainly declined precipitously.  And Froese is quick to remind us that all fifteen of the Soviet successor states have, up until now at any rate, avoided any overt conflation of church and state.  On the other hand, the Soviets did not quash the religious instinct in their citizens.  While Russians and other Soviet peoples largely (but not entirely) stopped attending churches, synagogues, and mosques, until the 1980s, they did participate in many forms of ritualistic if Communistic worship.  And when Communism collapsed, they quickly turned back to the old forms of religious practice, with new Protestant and Islamic sects outpacing even these impressive gains.  In the end, the Soviet experiment with secularization proved what suburbanites instinctively know:  sometimes one needs Church to make life in the suburbs (or life on the Steppe) bearable.  `

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