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.

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