Friday, December 28, 2012

Russian Dreams

All revolutions are alike.  In revolutionary situations, the ruling classes always approach the cataclysm of social ferment without deigning to compromise with society's discontents.  Why should this be so?  Tatyana Tolstaya once stated the obvious:  revolutions don't happen in paradise.  She meant, of course, that radicals are only ever able to overthrow a government when its wickedness is compounded by general misery.  Governments that are overthrown by revolution aren't always as stupid as we make them out to be.

Nicholas II, though no political genius, wasn't necessarily as stupid as he is generally made out to be.  The problem for Nicholas II was that the public in early twentieth century Russia had become so radical that its potential empowerment via constitutionalism was a truly terrifying prospect-- not only to the tsar, the royal family, and aristocratic society, but to the governing classes in general.

One can understand the point more fully by examining a recent revolution such as the one that took place in Tunisia two years ago.  One could well wonder why the ousted president never bothered to offer his people a measure of liberalism and a dash of democracy, if only to stave off violent upheaval.  And yet we see today that the gap between the Tunisian demos and the ruling classes had become wide indeed.  Religious zealots easily won the country's recent elections, and their chances for winning the country's next elections go up in direct proportion to their radicalism.

Here again is the evidence of the chasm that sometimes prevents otherwise reasonable leaders from taking steps to gradually reform a political system in advance of revolutionary tumult.  There's a tautology at work here.  Like Tolstaya said, people revolt because they find the political situation revolting.  And others resist surrendering power peacefully whenever they perceive that their political opponents won't accept such a surrender gracefully.  Whoever finds a way out of this political impasse will have solved a major social problem.

So Russians revolted because Russian leaders feared that they were likely to revolt.  What made Russia the kind of place that couldn't be reformed, only overturned?  It's hard to say.  Most historians point to the absence of a well-developed bourgeoisie, although a few venture to argue that Russians were affected by the antidemocratic legacy of the tatars or the utopian dreams of Slavophile or socialist idealists.  Should we look to an economic explanation for Russian exceptionalism or except the idea that the the Russian soul inevitably eschews the banality of constitutional government?

What is Russia anyhow?  What are Russians?  In some ways, Russia is a country of cataclysm, a place where, to quote Tolstaya again, every historical moment feels like "a Lisbon earthquake." It's sad but Russia is a tale that seemingly can't be told without catastrophe.  Take Andrei Makine's novel, Dreams of my Russian Summers.  Like most novels who venture to depict Russia, Makine's Russia is filled with tragedy.  It's not his fault really.  If you're writing a twentieth century story about Russia, and don't make mention of the Revolution of 1905, World War I, the Civil War, collectivization, famine, brutal industrialization, Stalin's Purges, the gulag, and World War II, you've missed something, haven't you?  Russia wouldn't be Russia without war and rupture and apocalypse.

In Makine's wonderful book, the narrator is tied to two countries:  France and Russia.  What's interesting is that the narrator's version of France is bound up with its greatest authors, especially Proust, Balzac, Flaubert, and Hugo.  The narrator's Russia isn't so literary.  This Russia is wrapped up in war, industrialization, police powers, and empire.  It's great men are Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, and not really Tolstoy or other Russian authors.  In Dreams of my Russian Summers, the narrator's poetical vision of France is wonderfully at odds with the mundane brutality of everyday communism.

The difference between Republic France and Communist Russia ought to be striking:  the narrator's preference for France over Russia would be logical enough under any circumstances.  But it strikes me that this is one reason why people generally become obsessed with other countries.  When we read about another country, we're free to construct an imaginary world, or what the author referred to as an Atlantis.

I'm often struck by the mighty divide that exists between Putin's Russia and the Russia of my dreams.  My Russia consists of a long litany of famous names.  And in my childish imagination, all that one really has to do is decide which name is the best, which the second best, and so on.  I've gone so far as to daydream about my top ten Russian authors.  It's a silly exercise, more befitting a botanist or zoologist than a student of literature, but I do it anyhow.  I'm not original in constructing this list.  I'd put the sequence thus:  Tolstoy;  Dostoyevsky;  Chekhov;  Gogol;  Bulgakov;  Nabokov;  Solzhenitsyn; Pushkin;  Turganev;  Babel;  Saltykov-Shchredrin;  Platonov;  Serge;  Gorky;  Grossman;  Lermontov;  Alexei Tolstoy; Shklovsky; Tatyana Tolstaya; Berberova;  Chukovskaya;  Bely; Zoshchenko; Pautovsky; et cetera and so on. I have a separate list for Russian poets of course.

The point is that Makine gets at the nature of obsession by juxtaposing France and Russia, and making the comparison less about cultural hybridity and more about longing, imagination, dreams, nostalgia, and escapism.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

St. Petersburg Revisited

I recently discovered the wonderful website, New Books in Russia and Eurasia, at  Not being a professional historian, it's difficult for me to keep up with recent academic publications on Russian history, but Sean Guillory's myriad interviews help to make this much more possible.  I love the site and hope to listen to most of the interviews there over the next several months.  The site's host, also well-known for his wonderful blog, Sean's Russian Blog at, deserves a great deal of credit for his well-informed and probing questions.

I began with an interview with Mark Steinberg about his book, Petersburg: Fin de Siecle.  Knowing that the author is one of the best-regarded historians of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Russian and Soviet history, I'm sure the book is even better than the interview.  The author's thesis is, apparently, that the city's population had similar fantasies and nightmares about modernity.  My one question is whether these fantasies and nightmares were all that different from those of urban citizens (or subjects) of any other European country at the time.  The interview doesn't suggest that there would be all that much difference between St. Petersburg, Berlin, or New York City for that matter.  The literature of modernity, from Baudelaire to Marx to Berman, suggests that almost every city was caught up in the same drama of masks, movement, and danger.

Perhaps it's enough to know how exactly St. Petersburg expressed the common themes of European modernity, but one does hope that this book helps readers to understand what made St. Petersburg so very special.  I can only add that I have almost no acquaintance with St. Petersburg.  I don't speak the language, never really met any of its current or former denizens, and have only visited there once, a year and a half ago.  And yet somehow this city seems more awe-inspiring, more important, than any other place I have ever been.  I stayed there for less than two weeks, often walking alone, and unfortunately never really speaking to Russians other than to ask directions or order food.  But the city invaded me, and I dare to think that I will never forget it.  In fact, I have the strong urge to get back there as soon as possible, and certainly to read anything and everything about it.  I take lousy pictures, but I've posted a few below in no particular order, as a reminder, mostly to myself, that this city can be compared to no other.  It's wonderful, and tragic, and splendid--and would have been all that even without October 1917.

The Soviet 1970s

It's an odd experience to own a suburban home again.  I grew up in a suburban home, or two homes rather, but left for college when I was 18 years old, and never really got back to a home until now, 24 years later.  I've lived in apartments or condominiums in Washington, D.C., Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Northern Virginia, Montreal, Urbana, Chicago, and Phoenix, but I never owned or occupied a single family home, except on two short occasions when I, with three or four other students briefly shared a rental home.  Today, I can't help but make endless comparisons between my current domicile and my parents' first home.  In fact, I'm obsessed with the differences.  I dream of them.  Memories flood back to me every time I climb a staircase, get something from the garage, change out a storm window, store something in the basement freezer, or water the lawn.

These two homes are like bookends on the life I have lived so far.  The similarities between them are striking:  how different can one suburban home be from any other?  The architect's intention, surely, was to make the buyer feel like he never really left his original dwelling place, and to induce an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.  Live here, and you won't even notice the passing of time.  Is this lawn so different from the lawn to which you were born?  Are the neighbors any different than the ones you first encountered as you left home to play for the very first time?  There's no geography here to remind you that you are anywhere other than where you grew up and first ventured into the world.

Has America changed since 1970 when you entered the world?  If so, you wouldn't know it from the look or feel of your quiet suburban home or its gentle, serene surroundings.  If they play soccer in the local park rather than baseball, is that really so unexpected?  If there's a Meyer's nearby and not a Jewell grocery store, are you really so astonished?  Your home is the same, only slightly refurbished.  Your neighborhood is the same.   You don't believe me?  Do you really know where you are?  Are you really so sure you aren't exactly at the spot where you were born?  They say this is Northwest, Indiana, and not the Southwest suburbs of Chicago, but if you weren't looking at the license plates, how could you be sure?  All Christmas trees look alike;  all fireplace mantles are analogous; all backyards are commensurate.

I was born in 1970.  At that time, the world was divided into two, and America competed for the role of global hegemon with the Soviet Union.   It's hard to go back in time to the early 1970s and analyze the contest objectively.  Did we know that we were destined to overawe the communist way of life?  Did we feel the weakness of our opponents on some subconscious level?  The simple answer is that we couldn't have known.  We were distracted by Vietnam, anti-colonialism, OPEC, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the non-aligned movement, inflation, urban blight, nuclear worries, and a hundred other things.  On the other hand, when one reads a book such as Hedrick Smith's The Russians, one wonders how we ever really worried about Russia at all.  Of course, Russia always maintained a massive nuclear arsenal;  undoubtedly that very real threat to America's suburban paradise is the single great explanation of our inability to grasp that that things in Russia were much, much worse than they were in the U.S., and that Russian communism was already doomed.

Hedrick Smith's famous book was the result of a three-year stint in Russia as the leading correspondent of the New York Times.  According to Smith, Russian citizens (he mean Soviet citizens) were living an almost intolerable life, mired in an anti-consumerist hell.  While he admitted that Soviets had some privileges related to free or subsidized education, food, health care, and housing, and he said many Russians celebrated the fact that they couldn't really be fired or laid off from their jobs, he found a country that functioned poorly, even horribly, in comparison with its Western counterpart.  The Soviet system was of course unfree:  Russians lived in a state of almost perpetual police surveillance and ordinary Russians had little or no opportunity to meaningfully participate in politics or public life in general.  Yet Smith focuses on the intolerable daily life of ordinary Russians, who suffered tremendously from the anti-consumerist mentality of Russian communism as it was practiced in the 1970s.

Most Russians didn't protest against the Soviet system that oppressed them politically as well as economically.  The lack of protest can be attributed to many tools of coercion at the disposal of the Party and the government.  But Hedrick also argued that Russians acquiesced to the system because they knew how far they had come in the past few decades.  Even so,  Russians suffered mightily everyday from the system they had inherited from the Bolshevik founding fathers.   They waited endlessly in lines, endured complex bureaucratic procedures, bought substandard goods, and tried to find clever ways to circumvent endemic shortages in basic consumer goods.  Although Russians enjoyed a high degree of job security, the downside of that security was that factory workers and salespersons had almost no interest in helping people get what they wanted or needed to live better lives.

Although Brezhnev had other leaders made small overtures to make life a little easier for ordinary Russians, most Russians continued to experience the torturous effects of a centralized economy.  For instance, as an average Russian, even in the 1970s you might be expected to live either in a communal apartment (Hedrick says up to one third of all Soviet citizens did so at the beginning of the 1970s), or at the very least live in a very crowded two-room flat, perhaps sleeping with parents or children in a converted living room.  You might also expect to wait years for a poorly made new car, which, sadly, could not easily be repaired since there were few garages and even fewer spare parts.

Soviet citizens were supposed to have access to free health care, but here too socialism failed to produce a good product.  The incentives for quality simply didn't exist.  So people waited years for important surgeries, experienced dreadful care from poorly trained or poorly motivated nursed, and counted themselves lucky if relatives could bring them food while they underwent treatment in a hospital.

Insofar as Russian communism worked, it worked because of graft.  People stole, bribed, and traded favors to survive.  Although statistics were naturally hard to come by, the Soviet underground economy constituted a gigantic proportion of the total economy.   As a rule, everybody stole.  The real question was whether one stole on a small-scale or on a big-scale.  People siphoned gas from cars that were owned by the state, pilfered small amounts of good meat in order to resell that meat to "friends" at inflated prices, or got involved in large-scale efforts to systematically defraud the government by short-changing contractors.  And they also cheated the system in other ways, as they almost needed to do in order to survive.  For instance, Russians were restricted from moving to Moscow without the necessary legal paperwork, which was difficult to attain.  Thus Russians often participated in fictional marriages in order to attain a permit to live in the Soviet Union's most favored city.

The great irony of the Russian system was that society was a split into classes again.  While Hedrick reminds us that official ideology acknowledged only two classes--workers and peasants--Soviet reality contained a sharp division between the nomenclature and ordinary people.  In practice, Soviet citizens didn't really care all that much about money.  The scarcity and poor quality of Soviet goods meant that people craved access to consumer goods and services more than they craved currency.  Party members, military men, and certain other special categories of elite knowledge or culture workers, enjoyed tremendous advantages over their counterparts in the regular Soviet economy.  They had access to special stores, special schools, special hospitals, special camps, and special dachas.  What is more, in the ultimate symbol of special status, the Soviet elite could travel abroad.

The class stratification in Soviet life didn't lead to open rebellion but it was not invisible.  In fact, ordinary Russians often came face to face with their own low status.  Every Soviet institution or activity was touched by favoritism.  Members or the nomenclature could quite openly skip the queues in order to claim tickets to sporting events, seats on Aeroflot planes, seats on trains, and beds in elite hospitals.  They shopped in well-stocked stores and rode around in easily identifiable cars that barely stopped for pedestrians.

Near the end of communism Gorbachev famously exclaimed:  "We can't go on like this."  Reading Hedrick, who, like other American journalists, was restricted from observing most of Russian life by rigorous censorship, travel restrictions, and a general culture of state-inspired fear among Russian citizens, one cannot help but wonder how Americans and others so overrated the Soviet Union's capacity to compete or even survive in a modern world.  Even a reasonably perceptive foreign journalist in the early 1970s could see that Russian communism could do nothing other than eventually collapse under its own weight.  If the Soviet Union could temporarily compete with the West militarily, it could not produce what Soviet citizens wanted, neither in terms of quantity nor quality.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Wit and Wisdom of Tatyana Tolstaya

I've recently discovered that Alexei Tolstoy is much better than his reputation would you to believe.  His Peter the Great, for example, is filled with adventure, historical sensitivity, and human pathos.   I should probably have read one or more standard biographies of Peter before I embarked on Alexei Tolstoy's beautiful but elliptical work on one of modern Russia's founders.  However, even without that background, I have been able to learn a lot about Peter the Great and his historical context from Alexei Tolstoy.  In fact, the book is so good you wonder why we turn at all to historians rather than fiction writers to give us a sense of what it was really like to live and breath in a completely different atmosphere.  In any event, Lev Tolstoy and Alexei Tolstoy are not the only two Tolstoys with great literary talent. Tatyana Tolstaya is a wonderfully gifted writer as well.  Her Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians is filled with wit, wisdom, historical insight, great humanity, and hundreds if not thousands of perfectly crafted bon mots.  I've taken the liberty of placing a few of her gems below.  Pushkin's Children is a collection of disparate writings.  As such, the book sheds light on a variety of different topics in Russian history, literature, politics, and culture.

Her essay on Russian women is particularly revealing. Ostensibly a review of Francine du Plessix's 1990 book, Soviet Women, Tolstaya asks Western readers to avoid easy stereotypes of Russian women since Russian women do possess a great deal of power and historical agency.  Tolstaya's take on Gorbachev is especially enlightening.  Up until this point, I, like many Westerners, didn't quite understand why Gorbachev has been so deeply unpopular in his homeland.  Having helped to dismantle an "evil empire" with less violence than might have been expected, Gorbachev seemed to deserve some level of understanding and respect.  Tolstaya's fiercely indignant assault on Gorbachev serves as a partial anecdote to this outsider's perspective. For to Tolstaya, an unapologetic liberal and "Westernizer," Gorbachev was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the Communist past.  To Tolstaya, Gorbachev's whole career was merely foam on the wave of an undemocratic, privileged, bureaucratic, and corrupt past. Gorbachev had risen to power in a brutal, stupid system, and he wasn't capable of governing without reference to brutal, stupid assumptions.

Tolstaya hated Gorbachev for his sycophantic past, for his ridiculous anti-alcoholism campaign, for his lack of principles, and for his treatment of Yelstin and others.  But it's the hypocrisy of the Western treatment of Gorbachev that seams to call out her deep antipathy for the man.  Gorbachev does not deserve to be lauded for presiding over the end of Communism:  the system had collapsed under its own weight.

Tatyana Tolstaya:

"Women can do everything, and men do all the rest."  Russian proverb.

"Russian men have been recumbent for centuries."

"Of course, I'm a slave, but what right does she have to interfere with my life?"

"Francine Gray, having spoken with dozens of women, noted with surprise that almost all of them talked about men as they would about furniture or other inanimate objects."

"During the four years of war there was only one sex in Russia--women. The men had gone to war."

"Learn to love us when we're filthy dirty.  Anyone can love us when we're clean."  Russian proverb.

"Russia didn't begin yesterday and it won't end tomorrow."

"We Russians don't need to eat.  We eat each other and that satisfies us."  Russian saying attributed by Tayana Tolstoy to Ivan the Terrible's reign.

"...Lenin's initial idea was to hold onto power for no less a period than the Paris Commune once did.  This desire to become a chapter heading in a history text is quite characteristic of bookish, theoretical thinking."

"And how could a Russian revolt be anything other than senseless and merciless, when the Russian government had exhibited a senseless lack of mercy toward its own people for centuries?"

"...In the 1930s, a herdsman was arrested and sent to the Stalinist camps for referring to a cow as "whore" because she made advances to another cow.  His crime was formulated as "slandering the communal farm herd."

"[Russians] mocked the English with their machines, the Germans with their order and precision, the French with their logic, and the Americans with their love of money.  And as a result in Russia we have neither machines, nor order, not logic, nor money."

"Now, our country possess certain peculiarities that verge on the fantastic, and its inner geometry is decidedly non-Euclidean.  Our roads are Mobius strips;  our parallel lines cross as many times as you like;  the sume of the angles of our triangles is infinite."

"When did Gorbachev find out that communism doesn't work?... The answer is simple:  he knew that nothing works while still in his  mother's womb."

"After Stalin's death, people shed genuine tears; after the deaths of Brezhnev and Andropov, people laughed;  after Chernenko's death, they guffawed.  And how could they not?  A man comes to power, declares himself a genius, and kicks the bucket."

"...The struggle of "Russia" with the "West" is a battle with foreign sources of mythic radiation."

"There are no mermaids in parliament."

"...Russians perceive Russian a constant, unending Lisbon earthquake."

"God is free, but that's his own business, and all of you, who love God, are obliged to be His slaves."

"Everyone always says [the Tsar] was such a tyrant.  But why, really?  They always served such fresh creme at court."

"Revolutions don't happen in paradise."

"Russia is, of course, a fantastical country, but not to that extent."

"Prince Michael opts for the tactics of a mad Dadaist:  he draws a horse and captions it a chicken."

"Every cook should know how to run the government."  Lenin.

"The first strikes like a stake, the second dives like a falcon, and the rest flutter around like tiny little birds."  Russian proverb related to swigs of vodka.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lenin Revisited

"Lenin" is not the nostalgic name for an old dogmatic certainty;  quite the contrary, the Lenin who is to be retrieved is the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which the old co-ordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to reinvent Marxism"  Slavoj Zizek

" revolutionary times the limits of what is possible expand a thousandfold." Lenin.

"Do the masses of the Russian workers possess sufficient class-consciousness, fortitude, and heroism to perform "miracles of proletarian organization" after they have performed miracles of daring, initiative, and self-sacrifice in the direct revolutionary struggle."  Lenin.

" performed miracles of proletarian heroism yesterday in overthrowing the tsarist monarchy."  Lenin.

"I would call this raving had not decades of political struggle taught me to regard honesty in opponents as a rare exception." Lenin

"Let us not forget that the issue of power is the fundamental issue at stake in every revolution."  Lenin

Dostoevsky once wrote in his Diary of a Writer:  "Try to pose for yourself this task:  not to think of a polar bear--and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."   I think the opposite is also true:  try to think of the Revolution and everything but the Revolution will come to mind.  This is my excuse for straying so frequently, and so far, from the ostensible subject of this blog.  But today let me reflect on the fountainhead of the Russian revolutionary project, V.I. Lenin.  What kind of man was Lenin?  Like most great men and women of the past, one could spend a lifetime reading his biographies and never get a fixed image of the man.  Was he good or evil?  Was he exceptionally gifted or a product of his times?   Did he predict events better than other people?  Was he capable of shaping events or merely react to them?  Was he better or worse than his Bolshevik peers?  How responsible was he for Stalinism?

Fortunately, Lenin has left us a treasure trove of writing so we can at least return to primary sources to get a sense of how he thought about revolution before it had become monumentalized, or at least a sense of what he wanted other people to think he thought about it.  In fact, Lenin left us so much writing that it's hard to know where to begin.  But why not begin, as Slavoj Zizek begins in Revolution at the Gates:  Selected Writings from 1917, on the very eve of the first revolution of 1917, the February Revolution?  What was Lenin saying then, before he had become the chief spokesperson of a new government, and a political institution?  What did he say before he had any clue what would ultimately become of Russian socialism?

When one reads Zizek's selection of writings one is struck by the moral dichotomy of Lenin.  For clearly the framework of Marxism had allowed him to understand Russia's participation in the First World War with some degree of historical detachment.  Lenin's belief that the global conflagration was the inevitable consequence of bourgeois imperialism may not have been, strictly speaking, correct.  However, Lenin's Marxist perspective did allow him to see that the great conflict wasn't helping ordinary Russians, and not even Russian control of the Black Sea Straits--one secret goal of the war--would change that simple fact.  Lenin's refusal to choose sides in the First World War speaks to the central paradox of his approach to morality.  Lenin got the First World War right because he believed that moral decisions could only be decided with reference to long historical processes, especially as these related to the rise of the proletarian class.  This big perspective had its advantages.  One sees quite clearly that Lenin's support for peace and radical land reform were, historically speaking, correct.  On the other hand, we know that Lenin's detachment from ordinary politics led to authoritarian policies and devastatingly cruel decisions.

Lenin's writings also reveal his remarkable ability to demonstrate certainty about the future in the midst of political chaos.   Revolutionary Russia was a chaotic place, but Lenin's uncertainty only applied to tactics, which he was willing to change as circumstances changed.  On the big questions, Lenin didn't waver.  He knew Tsarism was bankrupt, that the Provisional Government was scarcely any better, and that even fellow socialists were unable to grasp the real historical logic of Marxism.   Lenin's writings are highly polemical.  In each letter or broadside the Bolshevik leader mocks his opponents unceasingly.  Lenin's opinion of anything that smacks of bourgeois influence is brutal.

It's interesting to compare Lenin's antipathy for bourgeois with the antipathy French revolutionaries expressed toward their political and even perceived social opponents. In the Price of Liberty, historian Donald Sutherland spends a great deal of time discussing conspiracy theories among French revolutionaries.  In that great upheaval, revolutionaries turned to violence at multiple stages in order to solve political problems.  They did so for several reasons apparently.  First, revolutionaries believed that the ancien regime, and specifically the king, had always used arbitrary power to solve problems.  If the king had been able to use violence to solve problems, why shouldn't the sovereign people do the same? After all, the people had a hundred times more political legitimacy than a king.  Second, revolutionaries, believing that their political settlement was invisible insofar as it had been established by the whole nation, could only conceive of defeat as a consequence of perfidy from within.  With this mindset, the French radicals attacked their enemies viciously, even condoning mob violence.  If perceived enemies perished without a trial, so be it.  The forms of justice were less important than the results.

Lenin's unflinching attacks against not only bourgeois politicians, but against those socialist politicians who could be seen as collaborating with the bourgeois ones, is redolent of the spirit of 1789, or at least 1792.   This shouldn't surprise us.  We know that Lenin, like Marx and all students of revolution, studied the French Revolution.  And if one studies the French Revolution, and accepts it as something that did more good for humanity than harm, it's hard to totally disavow violence.  The French Revolution had various phases, but violence underpinned most of these phases.  The king was killed, the queen was killed, aristocrats were murdered, peasant counterrevolution was suppressed, armies were defeated, and suspected agents of counterrevolution were guillotined.  Lenin, like most revolutionary thinkers, must have thought long and hard about the violence inherent in revolution well before 1917.  In fact, both the Provisional Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution were surprisingly bloodless.  With relatively few causalities, Lenin in power might well have wondered if he gotten revolution right.  A true revolution needs enemies it would seem.

At any rate, Lenin's writings reveal a man who believes that revolution is a social phenomenon which is inherently just, and which, paradoxically, remains both open-ended and predictable.  True revolutionaries know that revolution follows certain historical patterns first outlined by Karl Marx.  True revolutionaries side without reservation on the side of revolution, and true revolution is always radical, violent, and anti- accommodationist.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Civil War, War Communism, NEP, and the 1920s

In the Civil War period, the Party put an end to its experiments with popular sovereignty at the local level.   The soviets lost their independence and influence, worker control of factories subsided, and an officer corps reemerged in a professionalized Red Army.  War Communism helped the Reds to win the Civil War, but extreme centralization decimated the Russian economy, leaving the cities barren and devoid of adequate food.  In this period of plague and famine, the harvest almost completely collapsed.  Peasants refused to plant for want of incentive, and many turned to open revolt against the Bolsheviks.  Peasants frequently attacked grain requisition teams sent from the cities.  Then came the Kronstadt Rebellion, in which radical sailors now turned against Bolshevism in favor of a free, collectivist, decentralized form of political organization, and the emergence of the Workers' Opposition movement, in which proletarian leaders advocated for a form of democratic centralism.  Then came a series of workers' strikes.

In response to these political challenges, Lenin wisely coupled political coercion with N.E.P., or the New Economic Policy of the 1920s.  During this period, the Party loosened the reigns on economic control and the economy quickly rebounded.  During the mid-1920s, trade revived, shops proliferated, cities grew, cafes and services sprang up everywhere, grain requisitions ended, and economic activity finally reached pre-war levels in 1926.  The Party's stated goal in this period was to control "the commanding heights" of industry, including banking and large-scale manufacturing and international trade, but leave the local merchant or small-time manufacturer relatively free of governmental interference.

Bukharin, "the Party's darling," advocated policies that were roughly commensurate with NEP assumptions, which favored market surpluses, the production of consumer goods, gradualism, and evolutionary socialism. According to Steinberg, Bukharin offered economic, political, and even ethical objections to more radical Leftist currents in the Party.  Bukharin wanted to avoid violent class struggle.  The goal was a "bloodless path to socialism."

Notwithstanding the economic successes of N.E.P., the country's new found freedom led to widespread discontent in the Party.  Old Bolsheviks were appalled at rampant crime, which Steinberg reminds us, orthodox Marxists could only attribute to the reemergence of capitalism.  The Bolsheviks also resented widespread prostitution, which they also believed resulted from exploitative economic relationships.  Party members generally believed that NEP had been a necessary evil, but it had to be overturned if the country ever hoped to become truly communist.  The majority of Bolsheviks believed that Russian backwardness needed to be forcefully overturned by an aggressive and intrusive state apparatus

Although Soviet institutions were affected by the violence of the Civil War, Bolshevik thinkers of the 1920s remained sincere about the transformation of society and they therefore pursued a wide variety of radical artistic projects and anticipatory social reforms.  These reforms included granting women equal legal rights, making divorce and abortion freely available, organizing communes, and vigorously attacking domestic abuse.  Steinberg even mentions Soviet "belt burying ceremonies" in which peasants publicly committed to end domestic abuse by turning the burial of peasant belts into a public ritual.  The Soviets didn't stop there.  In the 1920s the Party faithful and communist sympathizers launched a whole series of social projects, including campaigns to reduce swearing, drinking and fighting.  Steinberg even mentions one campaign to get Soviet citizens to eat with proper kitchen utensils.

Steinberg's overall take on the 1920s was that it was a time of experimentation, when the Party's overall direction had not been completely determined.  Could the Party contain any seeds of democracy?  How much discipline was required of Party members?  Could factions exist in the Party? How coercive should the socialist state be?  What was the right balance between the urban and rural economy?  In other areas of social life, debates about the communist future were even more speculative.  What did a liberated man look like?  What were the hallmarks of a newly free Russian society? The 1920s were an even more experimental time for the arts. The future seemed unlimited.  In this era, an avant garde still hoped to use aesthetic innovation to reflect social change and, more importantly, encourage it. Plans for a "Monument to the World's Suffering" would have made this edifice the tallest building in the world.  Musicians organized "an orchestra without a conductor" to express egalitarian principles in music.  One group attacked the convention of wearing clothing.  Others experimented with urban planning, factory production, and a hundred other things. In summary, Russian communism between War Communism and Stalinism remained surprisingly fluid, creative, and open-ended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Steinberg on the Nature of Bolshevism

Who were the Bolsheviks and why did they outsmart, outplay, and outlast their socialist competitor parties? And why indeed was this small party able to prevail in the country's civil war?  According to Mark Steinberg, the Bolsheviks were a party that offered clear solutions to their beleaguered country, including strong, unified government and firm authoritarian solutions to complex problems.  They were also a party that offered wildly popular slogans to garner a great deal of popular support, including calls to create a bread monopoly to help the common people, plans to inaugurate worker councils to end exploitation at the factories, and a decree to institute land redistribution to improve the lot of the peasantry. The land redistribution was the Bolshevik's most popular program.  The 26 October 1917 Decree on land offered landowners no compensation.  Hired labor was ended.  Everyone who worked the land, not excluding former landowners, were entitled to a plot of land.

The Bolsheviks also originally offered all national minorities in the Russian Empire the right to self-determination.  Finland and Poland were granted total independence.  At first, government was decentralized and localized.  The Bolsheviks were anti-religious but they weren't above using the sacred language of resurrection to explicate their Marxist creed to the masses.  As Steinberg reminds us, they depicted their cause as a moral struggle to deliver the country from the greed, egoism, and moral turpitude of the ruling classes, who had, they said, repeatedly insulted the virtue and dignity of their fellow countrymen.  Bolsheviks were especially popular with rank-and-file soldiers, who were fed up with the tsarist officer class.

The Bolsheviks were a complex phenomenon but the Party embodied many of the trends in Russian Utopianism.  Even more than other Russian radical groups, the Bolsheviks were supremely self-confident about their abilities to learn to govern on the job.  Lenin had taught them that a tiny group of dedicated, heroic, professional revolutionaries could change the world.  The Bolsheviks had a touch of Nietzsche in them.  In Steinberg's words, they believed they could channel the creative energy of the lower classes, creating organizational miracles by their energy, daring, willpower, and general decisiveness.

Some analysts have argued that the Bolsheviks were cynics who used the vocabulary of the Enlightenment to obscure dark motives. Steinberg argues the contrary:  Bolsheviks were true-believers.  They believed in Utopia and were therefore willing to do almost anything to bring that Utopia about.  Censorship, dictatorship, authoritarianism, and almost anything else was permissible if it was in the service of radical social transformation.  Revolution, Lenin argue, was the most authoritarian phenomenon on earth. Everything was justified that served the goal of socialist liberation.  And the Soviet leadership used this logic to nationalize banks, create a master plan of economic regulation, and institute disciplinarian approaches even to factory governance and union management.

But of course the Bolsheviks didn't stop there.  They moved inexorably toward violent solutions of political problems.  By Steinberg's reckoning, at least 13,000 Russian were executed by the Cheka without trial between 1918 and 1920, including some who died for their social origins or political sympathies.

Origins of the French Revolution

Moving from general historical interpretations to specific causes of the French Revolution, Sutherland discusses a wide array of disparate phenomenon.  It's interesting to think about the ways in which social, political, dynastic, economic, intellectual, and ideological factors all merge together to cause revolution.  Sutherland, for instance, discusses Montesquieu and Voltaire's Enlightenment ideals while also spending a considerable amount of time analyzing France's backward financial system, which gave the clergy as well as the nobility almost complete freedom from taxation.  Provinces too could resist central taxation whenever local nobles, secure in their local judicial (parlement) positions, invoked medieval prerogatives.  More importantly, France's central government had limited knowledge of its own expenditures, and to this day historians are unable to fully account for the amount of French spending on the eve of the Revolution.  The fact is that minsters spent what they wanted to spend until France's costly invention brought the state to the verge of insolvency.  France also lacked adequate credit, and its monarch borrowed money at the rate of ten or twelve percent rather than the two percentage points of interest that Britain's government enjoyed.  Of course, France's ancien regime was undermined on a variety of other fronts as well.  Louis XV and Louis XVI were both personally unpopular, and Marie Antoinette, of course, was seen as a frivolous but dangerous Austrian spy.

One of the most surprising triggers of revolutionary activity was the monarchy's rising pretensions to absolute power.  This is a paradox.  For Louis XIV had been the very definition of an absolute monarch, and yet the French monarch had been limited by certain aristocratic privileges, and these privileges threatened to give way on the eve of 1789.   Thus Enlightenment ideals related to human dignity and  limited government butted up against the monarchy's desperate need to assert its power in order to raise the funds needed to run a modern nation-state.

 All of this is a bit abstract.  As in Russia, and perhaps every truly revolutionary situation, the mood of the street mattered too.  And this was dangerously affected in France by the rising price of bread.  Sutherland's analysis of the central importance of the price of break in France is useful.  According to Sutherland, a large percentage of France's public lived in poverty, spending as much as 60 percent of yearly income on the purchase of break, and more than 60 percent in times of particular economic distress.  Thus ordinary French men and women were in no position to tolerate dramatic increases in the cost of break, and would easily riot whenever this cost increased. In fact, the French government and French poor made similar assumptions about how the bread economy should work.  The government intervened mightily in the regulation of break markets, ensuring that the cost rarely rose, or did so in a predictable way.  In times of shortage, break moved from place to place in order to be sold by local speculation.  The high visibility of bread in times of general scarcity added fuel to the fire of revolutionary sentiment.  Looking at Sutherland's analysis of the origins of the French Revolution makes one wonder how one can ever dissever the diverse causes of one general event.

Sutherland on the French Revolution

Studying other revolutions can help to put the Russian Revolution into perspective.  To what extent was the Russian Revolution unique?  To what extent did Russian revolutionaries correctly understand the model they were emulating?  I've just finished listening to the first lecture in Donald G. M. Sutherland's Modern Scholar lecture series, The Precise of Liberty:  Understanding the French Revolution.  The first lecture is a wonderful review of the historiography of the French Revolution.  In the lecture, Sutherland reminds his listeners how often historians have changed their minds about the causes and significance of the French Revolution.  Prior to the French Revolution, people had a very different definition of revolution than they did afterward:  they believed that any significant political change at the top of the political hierarchy was worthy of the word.  Sutherland uses the Catherine the Great's coup e'tat against her husband, Paul, as a case in point:  although the regime did pursue new domestic and foreign policies, the monarchical form of government was not substantially altered.

The French Revolution was of course a much more sweeping form of realignment.  However, Sutherland claims that the scope of realignment was perhaps overstated by Marxist historians.  Marxists, of course, claimed that the Revolution represents the triumph of the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy, or the capitalism's victory over feudalism, but this isn't quite what happened.  As we now know, the fundamental character of the ruling classes in France were not radically rearranged by the Revolution.  The social elite of 1820, for instance, bore a striking resemblance to the social elite of 1789.  Moreover, historians have not been able to detect much of a difference in the investment activity of the two classes.    Bourgeoise elites invested their capital in land just as often as aristocratic elites invested their capital in trade or mining.

If the French Revolution wasn't really only about class, what was it about?  Augustin Cochin believed it was a product of conspiracy.  Francois Furet believed in was a question of ideology:  French thinkers demanded utopian social transformation and these demands inevitably led to radicalism and unprecedented forms of violence.  Furet's theory of revolution has some explanatory power when applied to the Russian Revolution.  While Sutherland thinks Furet ignores some of the basic historical data of the French Revolution, it seems impossible to miss the fact that Bolshevik ways of thinking, and  broader pre-1917 Russian utopianism, had something to do with the gulags and purges.  Certainly, the experiences of the First World War of the Russian Civil War, legitimated violence in a way that ideology alone could never do.  But Marxism itself, especially when adapted by Russian thinkers such as Lenin, was likely to lead to extreme forms of violence.

In this first lecture, Sutherland also asks his listeners to give credence to the importance of the regicide itself.  Killing the king was an act of unparalleled importance in terms of its symbolic importance, at once an act of political rupture and a theatre of extreme violence.   One thinks instinctively of the Russian Revolution's even more savage treatment of its former monarch and the rest of his family, murdered wholesale in the basement of a Siberian home.

Sutherland concludes arguing that the French Revolution was different than the Russian Revolution in terms of its central tradeoff:  for while the French sacrificed civility and moderation at the alter of revolutionary violence, they also gained a commitment to liberty and The Rights of Man.  There may be something to this, but the Russian Revolution offered humanity a similar tradeoff, which is what makes Bolshevism different than another ghastly twentieth century political doctrine, Nazism.  The Bolsheviks advocated extreme forms of violence but gave the world a theory--and often it was only a theoretical proposition in the motherland of communist insurrection--of empowerment for proletarians, occupied peoples, and peasants.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Smele's Long View of the Revolution

Now that my wedding is over, and my in-laws from Tunisia are settling in to life in America by enjoying Arabic Internet radio and at least one Arabic cable t.v. channel, I have the opportunity to return to Russian history.  I'm doing this gradually, by reading a few of Lenin's speeches and listening to audio books of Jonathon Smele's The Russian Revolution:  From Tsarism to Bolshevism.  Smele's examination of the Russian Revolution takes a long view of the causes of the Russian Revolution.  In fact, Smele's exploration of the roots of revolution is so rooted in the nineteenth century that one cannot help but reflect upon the arbitrary decisions historians routinely make whenever the attempt to explain a major event or global phenomenon.  When did the Russian Revolution become inevitable?  When did it become likely?  When did it become possible?

Some historians scarcely admit that radical revolution succeeded in Russian in 1917 by anything other than extraordinary bad luck couple with a long series of tragic missteps by Russia's liberal bourgeois and aristocrats. Smele sees things differently:  he argues that Russia's October Revolution cannot be assessed without reference to the profound economic backwardness of the Russian Empire.  Smele's tale begins as early at the mid 19th century, when the Russian state failed so spectacularly to deliver the goods in the Crimean War.  In this war, the Russian intelligentsia realized that serfdom had done nothing to produce a modern society that could compete on any level with its Western European counterparts such as Britain and France.  Russian trains didn't work efficiently;  Russian conscripts were uneducated and ill-equipped;  Russia's factories, insofar as they had any, weren't producing reliable supplies.

Over time, Russia's backwardness vis-a-vis the West was only slightly remedied by Nicholas I's success, Alexander II, who instituted a series of sweeping judicial and government reforms and "freed the serfs." For Russia remained an absolutist state in which the church and gentry exercised inordinate authority over the peasantry.  Moreover, despite some economic activity in St. Petersburg, the Baltic areas, Moscow, and the Southern Ukraine, at the end of the nineteenth century, the peasants continued to lack educational opportunities and, more importantly, adequate land to feed themselves.  Indeed, the peasant commune continued to act as a conservative social and economic force in Russian society right into the twentieth century.

In the end, Smele's main point is that Russia possessed an extremely dysfunctional social system when it declared war against Germany and Austria in 1914.  The 1905 Revolution had revealed as much.  So, notwithstanding the best efforts of Witte and Stolypin in the years leading up to the Great War, the uneducated, dissatisfied, impoverished Russian peasantry remained the dominant social factor in pre-revolutionary Russia. And, despite the long cherished beliefs of Nicholas II and his aristocratic sycophants, the peasants were politically radical.  They proved this when they confiscated land from landowners in 1905 and 1917, and also when they voted for Social Revolutionary or other socialist representatives to the Dumas or the Constituent Assembly.

The Proletariat were another radical force in Russian society, although Smele seems to recognize that this radical social force has been given quite enough attention by Marxist and Western historians alike.  To sum up, Smele's exploration of the revolutionary victory of 1917 rightly places the emphasis squarely on the fragility of Russian society.  Even before the Russian state's catastrophic failures of the Great War, the Russian ancien regime was teetering.  The tsar, Nicholas II, was unintelligent, stubborn, and politically out of touch with his nation.  The proletariat class was angry and alienated.  The peasantry were underfed and uninterested in the political fortunes of either the tsar or the liberal intelligentsia.  Russian intellectuals were dangerously enamored with all-or-nothing political philosophies:  according to Smele, reform held out few attractions for most Russian political theorists.