Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Russophilia and Mortality

Two days ago I came to the sudden and startling realization that I would be reading about Russia for the rest of my life.  I have of course already been reading Russian history and literature almost exclusively for the past seven or eight years.  But somehow the thought that I would never, ever break the spell of Russia came to me as a shocking revelation.  What could it mean to be certain that nothing would ever—indeed could ever--take the place of Russia in my imaginative or quasi-scholarly interior life?  In a sense, this epiphany is an adumbration of mortality: when one is young, one often assumes that all learning will one day be meaningful, important, and (supreme conceit) above all, useful.  If I take a course in Japanese, I do so because I will some day encounter a Japanese theme in my life, be in a Japanese girlfriend, a Japanese business opportunity, or a inescapable current of Japanese academic, cultural, or educational ideas.  For a young person, or a person who at least sees himself or herself as young, life is open-ended and pregnant with possibility.  As one grows older, life becomes increasingly scripted.  If I take a Japanese course now, I don’t expect that I will actually find a way to build on this knowledge; my potential life as a fluent Japanese-speaker is limited, almost non-existent.  If I’ve worked hard at Spanish for about a decade and never mastered that relatively easy project, how likely is it that I will find myself in command of an unfamiliar alphabet and grammar? 

To be sure, one’s attitude toward the future isn’t determined by biology.  Age is at least partly a matter of attitude.  The genius of some chronologically advanced men and women is that they retain a youthful capacity to engage with multiple futures and to remain hopeful that every encounter with new learning will sooner or later prove to be significant.  On the other hand, getting old has its advantages.  Believing that the future will resemble the past isn’t an entirely misguided or deleterious enterprise.  Embracing the idea that “this is all there is,” is the first step to a kind of emotional or even spiritual maturity.  If life does have a trajectory, one might do well to study it if only in order to “know thyself.” More concretely, if my future life will continue to resemble my current one, what illusions can divert me from making wise decisions related to living my life as it should be lived?  Russophilia has forced me to take Russian poetry seriously; one simply cannot understand Russia without at least accepting the idea that Pushkin, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, and Tsetaeva somehow articulate Russia’s essence.  We often think of poets’ as expressing the ideals or values of youth.  But true poetry seems to hail from a place of pessimistic maturity rather than optimistic youth.  Poetry emerges only after a man or woman has fully embraced the idea that life is fleeting, time is finite, and adventure is, at least one some level, fictional.  That is to say, a poet knows what priest knows:  we’re born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. 

Fatalism is a very Russian idea.  It’s off-putting to many, but it shouldn’t be entirely repellent.  The Russian poet (and I’ll include writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the broad Russian poetic project) merely asks us to live our lives as if we were going to die someday.  For some reason, this is remarkably difficult for most of us to do.  For my part, I recall reading Tolstoy’s short book, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  As I recall, the book does nothing more than (spoiler alert) describe a man who discovers that he is going to die.  It took a Russian, and a Russian genius at that, to tell us the simple truth that people die.  Moreover, the book’s streamlined plot ensures that few or no readers can miss the point. 

The American equivalent to this revelation can be found in Woody Allen movies, which are of course directly inspired by Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.  But I remember the conclusion to the series, Six Feet Under.  Of course, this series took up the theme of death by setting up its protagonists as a family of funeral parlor owners.  But (second spoiler alert) the series finale, which allowed viewers to witness the chronologically disparate death of every single character on the show, drove home Tolstoy’s point about the ubiquity of death.  What does it matter?  Why should we focus on the fact that we will someday perish? Although pessimism has its downside, it also allows us to study our lives and weigh our options carefully.  At age 43, I’ve begun to study my life, and I’ve determined that nothing would be more profitable than to ensure that my intellectual and spiritual life continues to revolve around Russia, as it has done now for many years.  As the Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky says:  “God grant that tomorrow be exactly the same as today.”  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Boris Pilnyak's The Naked Year

Boris Pilnyak's The Naked Year is a short, elliptical novel depicting the first year of the Revolution.  Pinyak depicts the Revolution in its natural habitat, that is to say, in rural or small-town Russia rather than in urban St. Petersburg or Moscow.  Although Marx believed that the proletariat constituted the truly revolutionary class, Russia's savage fury was, first and foremost, a peasant affair.  This was, after all, where the vast majority of Russia's people lived and worked and suffered.  For generations, peasants had been ruthlessly exploited by a small landowning class, so when the tsar's authority waned, the peasants grabbed land and often brutally suppressed anybody even remotely connected to the rural status quo.  Pilnyak, who was initially well-received by at least some Bolshevik cultural authorities, seems to capture some vital component of the Bolshevik's conception of the revolutionary process.  The landowning class must expire in order to prepare the way for a bright proletarian future.  If representatives of the old order die gracefully, as they do in The Naked Year, so much the better.  After all, beauty, or at least sublime beauty, hurts!  If revolutionary trends confused and confounded members of the gentry or their allies, this was only to be expected. Tragedy--the the laments of a dying class--are, after all, the surest sign that the Revolution was real.  Like the landowners in Chekhov, or the brave heroes of Last of the Mahicans, the truest sign of historical change is pitiful expiration.

If Pilnyak's depiction of the revolutionary dynamic is commensurate with the logic of Marxist ideology, his depiction of revolution as a phenonmenon is compelling.  For Pilnyak presents the Revolution of 1917 as something more than the sum of its parts.  According to Pilnyak, the Revolution can't be broken down into a series of events or a mass of details.  The Revolution is an image or symbol or myth rather than a storyline or or economic event.   But if this is so, how should we interpret the myth of the Revolution?  First, and foremost, Pilnyak's characters seem to recognize that the Revolution isn't, primarily, a Bolshevik phenomenon.   Although the Bolsheviks are referenced on many occasions in The Naked Year, they are clearly overshadowed by the awesome dynamism and scope of Russia's great upheaval.  The Naked Year is, therefore, nothing less than a Russian phenomenon.  In what sense is it Russian?  Pilnyak's characters recognize that the social cataclysm cuts the Russians off from neighboring peoples, especially the European ones.  Whether this isolation is a sign of desperation or hope isn't entirely resolved, but the point is that the Revolution reflects if not shapes Russia's very identity vis-a-vis other nations.  Moreover, The Naked Year reminds Russian inhabitants of their ties to the past and their hopes for a uniquely Russian future.  Revolution functions like some kind of cosmic black hole, pulling the past and the future into its gaping maw.  The laws of time are bent by the gravitational pull of the Revolution's density and energy.  And why not?  If the Revolution has animated the peasants, men and women whose folklore largely alludes even the Orthodox Church, why shouldn't it dredge up something from Russia's most distant past?

The myth of Revolution extends beyond national identity and time.  The Revolution is a vortex around which everything and everyone in Russia swirls. It demolishes some classes, lifts up other ones, and alters all human relations.  Its extreme violence underscores its impersonal nature.  While some may regret losses associated with violent revolt, the image of a new age somehow makes all individual lamentations seem inappropriate, out of place, irrelevant.

Below are a few quotes from The Naked Year:

"Among the house, the shop, the Bible, the thrashings, his wife, Mashuka--forty years passed."

"...in the forest flared up the red fires of the manor houses..."

"I am dying because I cannot live without vodka.
Citizens and comrades of the new dawn!--when a
class has outlived itself--death to it!  better it should
go away by itself.
I am dying at the new dawn!"

"In the town it's town-like, like any other town."

"a sign of the times--leather people in leather jackets (Bolsheviks!), --all the same size, each one a leather beauty, each one strong."

"Russia agains the whole world?  In Russia isn't there hunger, sedition and murder?--and there will be for twenty years!...Swear--you'll learn the secret!..."

"Twenty years from now there will be a saviour.  Russia will cross breed with a strange nation."

"In this house his youth was spent, which always seemed immeasurably bright and clear--and is now cut off by the gloom of the Revolution."

"Everything is done for!  But what kind of truth has come upon the earth!"

"They called us vultures, but dead bodies are called carcasses when they're skinned!"

"I've done some vile things, I've raped young girls, exorted money, beaten my father.  Do you blame me, Gleb?"  "I cannot.  I cannot judge," answers Gleb, hurriedly."

"..if such a war could take place in Europe, then is it not the aspen stake to all European bowler hat CULTURE?"

"--was our Revolution not a May storm?--and weren't they March flood waters which washed away the scab of two centuries?"

"Russia, you say? --but Russia--is fiction, a mirage, because Russia is the Caucasus, the Ukraine and Moldavia."

"..our government was formed out of a fear of institutionalized government--they ran away from institutionalized government as from the plague! So there!  And then when authority arrived, they rebelled, split up into sects, ran away to the Don, to the Ukraine, to the Yaik."

"And the Revolution set Russia against Europe."

"But revolutions were unnecessary for popular rebellion--alien.  Popular rebellion is the seizing of power and creation of their own genuine Russian turth--by genuine Russians."

"Do you hear the revolution howling--like a witch in a blizzard!"

"Prince Boris does not drink from glasses when he's on a bender."

"I'm twenty-eight.  I've still got some living to do.  Anyone who's alive must go."  "Go where?" "To the Revolution.  These days won't come again."

"I've been all around the world, and nowhere is there a countwy [sic] like Wussia [sic]."

"Let the trains in Russia come to a halt--surely there's beauty in a burning torch, hunger, sickness?"

"Somehwere there is Europe, Marx, scientific socialism, but here beliefs which are a thousand years old are preserved."

"Natalys spoke about the scorching heat, about the Revolution, about the days:  with all her blood she felt, accepted the Revolution, wanted to create it..."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Return of Lenin

Studying the Russian Revolution has rarely led me to examine current debates among the "New Leftists."  Those debates have ordinarily struck me as either esoteric (even by the lax standards of this unread blog) or morally abtuse (after all, both Stalinism and the collapse of planned economies can't be lightly dismissed).  Reading Lenin Reloaded:  Toward a Politics of Truth convinces me that this has been a mistake on my part for two reasons:  first, by embracing many of Bolshevism's core values, the New Leftists help contemporary historians to get a better feel for the now ostensibly discredited values of the Revolution;  and second, the New Leftists continue to say highly original and remarkably productive things about the Revolution and its main architects.  Right or wrong, today's generation of Marxists give one a lot to consider about the Revolution.  Indeed, if the essays in Lenin Reloaded are any guide, their current debates about Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky are anything but sterile.  Of course, some modern Marxists are more thoughtful than others, but certainly Lenin Reloaded employs more than a few of best of them, including Zizek and Eagelton.

The book's essayists advance diverse arguments about the legacy of Lenin and, by extension, the Revolution.  But perhaps the overriding argument is this:  Lenin was too great a thinker, and too important a thinker to too many other serious thinkers, to be discarded altogether.  The authors' other claim about Lenin, that he can't really be blamed for the excesses of either the Revolution or, more especially, its statist legacy, aren't really convincing.  In fact, whatever the reason, the authors don't spend much time refuting the notion that Lenin can in any way be blamed for Stalinism.

What makes Lenin a great thinker, worthy of continued study?  Most of the essayists remind us that Lenin got a lot right.  He was rightly a serious critic of Tsarism, anti-semitism, colonialism, nationalism, and globalized warfare, to say nothing about his critique of capitalism.  Most also note that Lenin had a tremendous talent for operationalizing theory, or indeed for theorizing operations.  What they mean, is that Lenin adjusted theory according to experience, and used theory to open up a space in which actual and substantive change finally became possible.

The whole point of the New Leftism of course is that Lenin, or at least his immediate interpreters, didn't get everything right.  But reviewing this rich collection of essays, all of which analyze mistakes in the light of what they take to be a very valid project, sheds an immense amount of light on the whole subject of revolution.  If we take it to be no more than a bloody pathway to the gulag, we miss something vital about the aspirations of millions of people who then, as now, are searching for something better than the everyday barbarism we so often accept as our inescapable reality.   Do we have to be perpetually at war in the Middle East?  Is it necessary for Africa to be impoverished?  Is radical income disparity in the United States and a racialized prison system unavoidable?  Lenin the quintessential revolutionary might have argued otherwise.  More than that, he might have tried to do something about the sad situation.  

Alain Badiou, "One Divides Itself Into Two." 

"Extreme violence is, therefore, the reciprocal correlative of extreme enthusiasm, since what is at stake is indeed, to talk like Nietzsche, the transvaluation of all values."

"The century is lived as the century of victories, after the millennium of attempts and failures."

"For a revolutionary, the world is an ancient world full of corruption and treachery.  One has constantly to start again with purification, with disclosing the real under its veils."

"What is new?  This is the obsession of the century."

"The new man is either restored or his is produced."

"...the new man..resists all categorization and characterization.  In particular he resists the family, private property, and the nation-state."

"Marx..stresses that the universal singularity of the proletariat is to resist categorization, to have no characteristics, and, in particular, in the strongest sense, to have no particular nationality."

Citing Gide:  "To all families, I hate you!"

Alex Callinicos, "Leninism in the Twenty-First Century?  Lenin, Weber, and the Politics of Responsibility."

Citing Lenin:  "There are no miracles in nature or in history, but every abrupt turn in history, and this applies to every revolution, presents such a wealth of content, unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignments of forces and contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that much appear miraculous."

"History, as Hegel argues in his dialectic of master and slave, is a struggle to the death:  the institutionalized violence of class society can only be removed through revolutionary violence."

Terry Eagelton, "Lenin in the Postmodern Age."

"Yet both literature and revolution are of course art forms.."

"Anyone can revolt, but not everyone can carry through a successful revolution."

Fredric Jameson, "Lenin and Revisionism."

"Lenin does not know he is dead."

"...it is for one thing allegorically improper for a collective movement to be represented by a single named human individual."

Francois Furet, "Leaps, Leaps, Leaps."

Citing Furet:  "The idea of another society has become almost impossible to conceive of, and no one in the world today is offering any advice on the subject."

"Be ready for the improbable, for the unexpected, for what happens."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sylvain Lazarus on Revolution

"...revolution is the unheard-of experience that the end of the state is possible.  It is unheard-of because the state itself asserts its inalienable perpetuity..."

It's difficult to digest Sylvain Lazarus' short but theoretically sophisticated essay, "Lenin and the Party, 1902 to November 1917," in Lenin Reloaded:  Toward a Politics of Truth.  However, Zylvain Lazarus' brilliant little essay makes me think that I put far too little emphasis on analysis and far too much emphasis on description.  What does Lazarus have to say about the October Revolution?  I think Lazarus' main point is this:  that the truly revolutionary moment is over almost as soon as it begins.  The point is best illustrated by Lenin himself.  Who was Lenin?  There are many versions of Lenin, even in terms of his political philosophy. The principle versions of Lenin are these:  first, there is the Lenin who modified Marxism in an anticipation of radical freedom from bourgeois social control;  second, there is the Lenin who consolidated power by wedding the newly formed socialist state to the communist party;  and third, there was the Lenin who was incorporated into the Stalinist philosophical project, namely Marxist-Leninism.

The point here is that there is, at least, a before and after in any revolutionary moment.  Is it fair to analyze Lenin as a political thinker, or revolutionary politics in general, from the vantage point of 1918, 1924, or even 1938?  Perhaps not, or at least not entirely.  Lazarus reminds us that in the nineteenth century the very notion of politics implied revolution.  No where was this more true than in Russia.  To be political, was to be opposed to the Russian status quo, to the monarchy, to the state in general.  This Lenin's thinking prior to November, 1917, is truly revolutionary in the sense that it pushes us to be free, free of colonialism, class oppression, and tyranny in general.  But after the Bolshevik takeover, Lenin's thinking means something else entirely.  Although the Bolshevik Revolution invented new forms of state activity, including the soviets and the Communist Party, in power the Revolution was no longer, well, revolutionary.  In other words, before taking power, Leninism represented something brand new, something perhaps inherently better than world war and colonial exploitation;  but in power, Leninism became another expression of state activity, not quite as bad as the Marxist-Leninist variety, but certainly not revolutionary as we should really understand the term.

To sum up, as a category of analysis, revolution is something more than what the "revolutionaries" made of it.  It's that rare break in the continuity of the state, a promise of freedom that can't really be reduced to the actual events that unfold in its name.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

George M. Young on Fedorov and Company

E.L. Doctorow once wrote that Melville's genius lay in the fact that he broke every book in the writer's rulebook when he wrote Moby-Dick.  For instance, Melville doesn't introduce one of his central characters, the White Whale, until the final pages of his book, and doesn't hesitate to continuously stray from the plot in order to describe some arcane facet of nineteenth century American life in minute detail.  Doctorow goes further, suggesting that all truly great literature is a product of radical excess.  Ordinarily, a digression distracts a reader from his or her interest in the mechanics or action of a developing plot.  However, if you stray often enough from that plot, and spend enough energy in the attempt to escape the main storyline, you may very well discover something wonderful about American life or modernity in general by the radical and unsettling juxtaposition of dozens of overlapping explorations.  If radical excess is akin to genius in literature, why shouldn't this also be the case in philosophy?  Certainly one of modern Russia's most original of thinkers, Nikolai Fedorov, was also one of its most absurd ones.  For, as George Young writes in The Russian Cosmists:  The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers, Fedorov spent his life cultivating one very extreme idea, namely that human beings would someday conquer death itself.

The concept of resurrection isn't of course a recent invention, but Fedorov talked about resurrection in a physical, even literal way.  He believed that all of humankind needed to direct its creative and technological energies into the project of staving off death and raising our ancestors from the dead.  The idea didn't end there. Fedorov believed that men and women would eventually become so successful at the project of physical resurrection that they would be able to bring back our remotest ancestors, not excluding Adam and Eve.  Indeed, Fedorov's vivid imagination conjured up a picture of a retrofitted planet earth that could be steered toward the stars in an attempt to collect the cosmic dust of the earliest humans, dust which would be scientifically engineered to come back to life.  If Fedorov's project sounds a little off putting, we must remember that it inspired countless men (and presumably many women) of genius, including Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and isn't so very far removed from the current science of, say, the human genome project. Fedorov never wrote all that much, but many polmaths and renaissance men followed in his footsteps, some of whom made significant contributions to Soviet science.  Even today, Young tells us, the ideas of Fedorov, and other thinkers who also demonstrated an interest in resurrection or other semi-occult projects, are appealing to Russians.  

The overall impression left by reading Young's book, the Russian Cosmists, is that Russia really does deserve its reputation for producing large numbers of hugely original if slightly irrational thinkers.  Fedorov was clearly a brilliant and unique philosopher and indeed religious thinker.  But there were others whose brilliance closely paralleled the librarian recluse and at least shared some of his peculariarly Russian notions about religion, Russia's special destiny in the world, the cosmos, and the occult.  These include what Young calls the "Religious Cosmists," a category broad enough to include Solovyov, Bulgakov, Florensky, and Berdyaev, as well the "Scientific Cosmists," who include Tsiolkovsky, Vernadsky, Chizhevsky, and Kupevich.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Nadezhda Mandelstam on Poetry and Socialist Morality

Some random samples of Nadezhda' Mandelstam's musings on poetry and socialist morality:

"If this life was given to us, it must have a meaning, although the very idea was dismissed out of hand by everybody, young and old, whom I have ever known in my lifetime."

"He always had children's socks hanging up to dry on his balcony, and I remember being astonished that people should have children during all this turmoil."

"Our grim-faced parents went to their doom while we enjoyed life hugely."

"I had the impression that death for him was not the end, but a kind of justification for one's life."

"Cruelty is anathema to any true artist.  I could never understand how Mayakovsky, who certainly was one, could say the brutal things he did.  He probably keyed himself up to utter such words, believing it was the modern and manly thing to do.  Weak by nature, he trained his delicate soul to keep up with the times, and paid dearly for it."

"The peculiar feature of this society--after it had been gripped in any iron vise and reduced at breakneck speed to a state of what is called here "unanimity"--was the fact that it proved to consist of individuals working for their own self-advancement either singly or in small groups."

"Nationalism is at a lower level of consciousness.  When it comes to the forefront, crowding out fundamentals, it is a sign not of health but of sickness;  not of depth but of shallowness."

"...bogus poetry is a poison."

"Poets should not be murdered, but neither should they be overpraised."

"It is said that every nation gets the rulers it deserves.  This is even truer of its poets."

"Briusov, it must be said, really had become a Leader (all my life there has been no getting away from Leaders!)."

"The mania for innovation always leads to speculative traffic in arbitrary notions;  and reliance on pure inventiveness invariably brings with it the spurning of man's accumulated riches, with all the fateful consequences this entails."

"In 1922, when this was written, everybody around us was talking about the new regime being hard, but nobody paused to consider that we are each one of us responsible for what happens in the world."

"The "strong" men of our heroic age always demanded praise from their womenfolk.  This was by way of compensation for all the indignities inflicted on them in their public life."

"This is a very good poem, Osip, but when it is finished, not a single one of the present words will remain."  Gumilev to Mandelstam.

"In the terrible years she had been  much more courageous, but now, with age, she had turned into a real specimen of Soviet womanhood."

"I do not fancy myself as the historian of Acmeism.  I think it can do without a history."

"...leading him back to a normal way of life, on one side or other of the barbed wire..."

"In our life, civic courage is a much rarer things than military valor."

"The Union of Poets applied to Gorky on his behalf for a pair of trousers and a sweater.  Gorky agreed to the sweater, but the trousers he crossed out with his own hand."

"They smelled too much of dust and a kind of prosperity strange in a city that was dying so catastrophically."

"...hauled of at night to the incredible jails of the twentieth century..."

"Evil is never greater or lesser--evil is always simply evil."

"..everybody now dreamed of a strong regime, so that they could rest and digest the experience of the years of chaos."

"In Kharkov we were struck of the fact that nobody conversed any more.  Conversation had come to an end--forever.  On the other hand, there was no end of talkers, all vying with one another to tell their stories."

"This apparat has stood the test of time and exists to the present day, even though the individual members of it have constantly been replaced by more efficient ones, like cogs in a machine, their predecessors being thrown out to moulder in concentration camps or in the provinces."

"All the same, I am glad that my capital is Moscow, not Kiev--my native language, after all, is Russian, and if the Jews are going to be slaughtered in both places, better it happen to me in Moscow.  In Moscow there will always be some kindly old soul who will try to stop the mob with a good good-humored oaths.  "Don't touch this one," she will say, "you so-and-so sons of bitches!:"  It will be easier to die to the familiar sound of Russian swearing."

"One can already see the tooth-mark of the times on you."  Nadezhda citing Sologub.

"The new regime's call for complete openness in public affairs--particularly in international relations--was followed by an unparalleled mania for secrecy about absolutely everything, down to the prettiest of details."

"One can live only with people one is close to--though better still is to live alone.  I rapidly learned the art of doing this and discovered that the worst part is sitting down to eat by yourself.  You never accustom yourself to that, but living with a person you are not close to is even harder."

"No woman without her folly," as the Russian saying has it.

"There are still many ordeals ahead, and nobody should be allowed to forget that you have to put all of yourself into the battle for another man's life--as Frida Vigdorova's example showed."

"We were on the threshold of a new era in which "men" ceased to exist."

"It brought home to us that madness is contagious--one madman just hands over to the next, as in a relay race.  The nature of the mania may change, but the torch of lunacy has been passed on and continues to burn."

"M. could not stand "omnivorousness in anything, and he regarded a capacity to select and define the components of one's inner world as the most important thing about a person."

"But if you think about it, a society is no better than its rulers.  It would be well for people to remember this, instead of putting on a resigned air or an innocent smile--nothing strikes me as more indecent."

"It does not matter what place a poet has in it, however small it may be.  The very smallest place--just a couple of successful lines, one good poem, a single well-said word--entitles him to enter the fellowship of poets, to be one of "us," to partake of the feast."

"Another things that distinguishes a poet is a sense of his own sinfulness--particularly important in the twentieth century, now that the very concept of sin has been abolished."

"Living in Petersburg is the same as lying in a coffin."  Nadezdha citing Mandelstam.

"It is easier to live with a pistol pointing at your head than in a necropolis with an immigrant, constantly shifting, always lifeless population, its citizens walking the streets like automons, their already dead eyes glazed by the worst terror in the country."

"A certain philosopher noted for his inordinately brilliant insights once publicly declared that an eschatological mood is the hallmark of dying classes."

"...poetry, even more than philosophy, is a preparation for death."

"The highest honor they can confer on a writer is to steal his body--as happened with Pushkin--or throw him in a mass grave.  A nation which has chopped up icons to light its stoves has given proof of an incredible failure of love."

"And there was not one of us who did not weep real tears when the high heel--a legacy from a very different life--broke on her beloved only pair of those foolish shoes which had once been designed for stepping from one's gracious residence into a waiting carriage, and no farther."

"But do you have any icons?"  "I don't believe in icons," she said.  "I believe in Soviet power."

"I did not understand the difference between a husband and a lover, and I must confess that I still don't."

"Today all my ideas are out of date."

"I have been told about an old man who walked out on his wife after forty years with her.  He left a note saying the past has been one big mistake."

"We all lived on a volcano--and still do.  Love and passion apart, a wife is there to build a home and organize a domestic routine.  In our times a girl friend was handier than a wife."

"He knew everything from all the cannibal talk he heard in the houses of his wife's relatives.  The only people who knew nothing were those who did not want to know--and that's no excuse."

"I think that at the beginning our rulers still believed in the rightness of their cause--hence their willingness to let out some of those who wanted to go."

"The great beauties of the day must all have managed to get away after the Revolution--at least I have seen only the leftovers, all of whom struck me as funny in a somewhat excruciating way."

"Poverty trying to look its best is comic."

"I have read in Sergei Trubetskoy that miracles convince only those who believe already."

"We answer for everything-for every deed and every word--and memory invites us to consider why we have lived, what we have done with our lives, whether we had a preordained purpose, and if so, whether we have fulfilled it;  whether our life had a unifying thread of meaning, or whether it consisted only of random and absurd happenings."

"Fifty years hence nobody will ever be able to clean up this gigantic mess."

"...but I lied and hid my real thoughts every day and every hour:  in the classroom, in the lecture hall, at home, in the kitchen.."

"This whole experience of the age of nihilism is highly significant, and it is most important that we fully understand it, as something eventually destroying life altogether."

"It clearly pays to read only as M. did:  turning only to the best and passing over the bad and the bogus."

"Those who once advocated realism and called on us to fight prejudice were quite remarkably quick to lose all sense of reality, and none are now so mortally afraid of facts."

"...the greater the success of the plans, the worse everybody lived..."

"I would like to think that all of today's scoundrels, murderers, and bureaucrats are descended from domestic serfs, not from real peasants."

"Ahkmatova and I once confessed to each other that the most powerful sensation we had ever known--stronger than love, jealousy, or any other human feeling--was terror and what goes with it..."

"A man possessed of inner freedom, memory, and a sense of fear is the blade of grass or wood chip that alter the course of the swift-flowing stream."

"In Russia," he used to say, "there is no space, only kilometers."

"...everything that goes on in our literature smacks of something concocted in a monstrous kitchen."

"But with us peace was always accompanied by unspeakable outbreaks of self-destructiveness."

"The funeral of Lenin was the last flicker of the Revolution as a genuine popular movement.."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Abandoned

Nadezhda Mandelstam's twin memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, are two of the best pieces of writing ever produced by Soviet citizens.  (See my earlier post on Hope Against Hope).  The poet's wife writes beautifully, but it's the power of her intellect, as opposed to the power of her prose, that overpowers the reader.  They say that writing and thinking are essentially one and the same thing, but I doubt that this is precisely true.  In Hope Abandoned, we are seldom impressed by the texture of the author's words, or the grace of her images, but we are often impressed by the wisdom and clarity of her arguments and the power of her moral vision.  Nadezhda's memoirs accomplish several related tasks:  they defend the literary and humanistic legacy of one of Russia's greatest poets;   they analyze and contextualize Mandelstam's poetic oeuvre;  they depict the tyranny of the Soviet system;  and they analyze the individual's moral responsibilities in a totalitarian age.  If the poet Mandelstam was a master of verse, his wife may approach the level of her husband's competence with respect to the genre of memoir. There's something akin to St. Augustine's Confessions here.  Just as St. Augustine analyzed his own moral failures at every age, including infancy, Nadezdha applies the moral scalpel to her own behavior at various stages of life. However, Nadezhda isn't merely interesting in self-analysis:  her main concern is understanding how Russians allowed the moral catastrophe of Stalinism, and Bolshevism more broadly, to engulf them.  Mandelstam approaches this question on many different levels.  She's concerned with the broad and narrow questions of evil.  She wants to know why Russia became a land of totalitarian suffering, but she also insists on exploring how evil operates from one day to the next in the lives of Russian citizens.  In the last analysis, Nadezhda believes that all Russians bore responsibility for Stalinism.  Why did Russians kill and degrade one another?  Nadezhda argues that this became a possibility only because ordinary Russians co-signed Stalin's bloody check. If Nadezhda believes that all or almost all Russians bear responsibility for the state's brutality, she is also interested in how and why so many Russians went above and beyond the call of duty to monitor, denounce, harass, and torture one another.  Nadezda's explanation of evil isn't economic but entirely moral.  Russians placed their own self-interest above that of their neighbors.  This selfishness is complex:  sometimes collaborators hoped for social or economic advancement, sometimes they hoped merely to survive, but in all cases the root of the matter was narrow-minded selfishness.  Nadezhda's examination of Russian criminality remains relevant in the twenty-first century.  When one reads Russian blogs today one is quickly immersed in raging rivers of homophobia and anti-semitism, to say nothing of generic expressions of xenophobia.  While Russia's root problems may be economic in nature, related as much to a crisis of capitalism as to a legacy of communism, there's clearly a continuing failure of moral imagination in Russia's citizenry.  Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Abandoned may be one of the best remedies for this sad situation.  And if moral analysis doesn't work, perhaps poetry will.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ilya Ehrenburg

Perhaps no other writer's career illuminates so many facets of the Soviet experience as that of the prolific Ilya Ehrenburg.   For many decades, Ehrenburg was one of the Soviet Union's most internationally recognized writers.  His various successes as a writer neatly correspond to many of the Soviet Union's most important milestones in socialist government.  For Ehrenburg was a poet and avant-garde novelist when the Soviet Union was itself a sort of experimental project;   Ehrenburg was a patriotic propagandist when the country was engulfed in Nazi atrocities;  Ehrenburg was a court flatterer when almost everybody in Russia was collaborating on some level or another with the phenomenon of Stalinism;  and Ehrenburg was a humanist when the country made its fateful, if short-lived and uneven, move away from unbridled totalitarianism.

Joshua Rubenstein's portrait of Ehrenburg, Tangled Loyolaties:  The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg,  sheds light on a dozen different aspects of modern Soviet history.  Most importantly, Rubenstein's biography demonstrates the pervasiveness of anti-semitism throughout modern Russian history.  In his early career, Ehrenburg was a Bolshevik and rebel, but quickly became revolted by revolutionary successes, only to return to Leftist politics when confronted with the violent Jew-baiting of the Whites.  Although Ehrenburg compromised his integrity over and over again in order to survive Stalin's extraordinarily dangerous regime, he worked hard to temper political violence and ideological extremism, and never more so than when this violence and extremism was directed against Jews.

It's remarkable to trace the history of anti-semitism in twentieth century Russia, but Ehrenburg's life bears witness to its tenacity.  Although never a religious man, Ehrenburg grew up in a Russia which prevented Jews from living outside of the "Pale of Settlement" without special permission from the government.   He then watched much of the Civil War's fury directed against Jewish civilians. After that, Stalin's regime proved decidedly unfriendly to Jewish interests before Nazi Germany took anti-semitism in the East to hitherto unimagined extremes.  This orgy of bloodshed wasn't the end.  After winning the Second World War, Stalin moved decisively against Russia's large Jewish population, labeling them "rootless cosmopolitans" with no allegiance to the socialist state. The so-called "Doctor's Plot," in which Stalin and his henchmen falsely accused Jewish doctor's of plotting the medical assassination of several leading communists, Stalin included, was certainly the signal for a wider campaign against Russia's defenseless Jewish population.

Ehrenburg, almost alone among the Soviet Union's leading Jewish writers and other cultural leaders, survived.  Rubenstein speculates that this was because Ehrenburg demonstrated his usefulness to the regime as a bridge to Western cultural figures.  But he also wonders whether Ehrenburg's fame helped Stalin to cloak the destruction of most other leading Jewish writers, actors, and cultural leaders.  In any event, Rubenstein's title, Tangled Loyalties, is descriptive.  Ehrenburg did repeatedly demonstrate some measure of political courage, notwithstanding his decision to remain publicly loyal to the Soviet Union's political establishment.  In fact, throughout his career, Ehrenburg defended countless intellectuals and writers who demonstrated some level of autonomy in the Soviet Union.  He was, for instance, a champion of Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova.  More importantly, he helped to document the holocaust in the East.  In the end, Ehrenburg may be best known for writing the book, The Thaw, which gave a name for the liberalization that the Soviet Union experienced after Stalin's death, and for producing a memoir which, while politically cautious by today's standards, were filled with liberal, modernist, international, and humanist sentiments, sentiments that inspired a generation of Soviet dissidents and reformers and artists.

One thought that stayed with me is that Ehrenburg's humanity, like that of the Russian people, somehow survived Stalinism.  At the same time, Ehrenburg was honest enough to avoid any simple claim that he had been duped or overawed or purely victimized by Stalin's villainy.  Although Stalin was a brutal dictator, Ehrenburg believes that the Soviet people participated in their own degradation.  Why?  Many have argued that the Russian people were spoiled by centuries of rural ignorance.  To his credit, Ehrenburg rejects this thesis.  Germany had no such excuse:  an educated populace was no barrier to Hitler's charism.  Whatever the case,  on some level the Russian people liked Stalinism, even embraced it. While Ehrenburg couldn't explain why this should be the case, and even expected historians to wrestle with the questions for several decades if not more, he acknowledged that this paradox of what Terry Eagleton calls "holy terror" (i.e., desirable, even transcendent, brutality) must eventually be resolved if people are ever to avoid the horrors of modern totalitarianism.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Viktor Shklovsky and the Sound of the Cicadas

One of my favorite Soviet writers is Viktor Shklovsky, dean of soviet literary theorists.  I've reviewed many of his books on this blog, or at least celebrated them.  Shklovsky's most important contributions to literary theory may well be over my head.  Even so, you never read one of his book without appreciating dozens if not hundreds of bon mots.  Rarely is Shklovsky anything other than poetic. Bowstring is filled with witticisms and poetic throwaway lines.  If he had been a television writer, he would have had no trouble writing the final line of every single episode of television's most prolific series, Law and Order, as well as its numerous and long-running spin-offs.  Here are a few scattered lines from Bowstring that seemed to call for careful consideration.

"When one is old, one likes to reread.  Old age will come to an end."

"A grateful crawfish or a frightened devil won't bring back the golden rings, tossed into the water by the imprudence of youth."

"Nightingales sang below my window, or maybe they weren't nightingales at all.  They don't care that they have been in exhausted in poetry;  they don't know that they've been refuted."

"I was born in 1893, before the Revolution of 1905, but was awoken by the first revolution and anticipation of the new...In our poems, we tried to guess the date of its arrival."

"The Drosophila flies are not sent into space for a vacation.  They enable the study of how the cosmos affects living organisms."

"There are names of people in my old phone book that I can't call anymore."

"[Boris Mikhailovich Eichenbaum] was poor, but he wasn't burdened by poverty."

"He was passionate about music and kept his violin, despite passionately hating it."

"He was a man of politely extreme convictions."

"The empire was coming to an end."

"He was headed toward a bright future.  I ruined his life by engaging him in an argument."

"[Osip Brik]  Not quite a soldier, not quite a futurist."

"..a moldering displeasure was quietly brewing inside.."

"I witnessed everything from the very beginning, I began to understand things much later."

"Uplifted by the wave of the revolution, without really comprehending it, we were immersed in it, and we were in love with it as a young people can be in love."

"During those years he passed his library through fire.."

"The dejected, grotesque Russia of Nicholas I stretches outside its windows.  The wind of the empire bursts into the novella's structure."

"It is possible to live without the life-sensation of one's existence."

"We were in love, we experienced death, we saw our children die, and we saw our own history unfold."

"The sound of the cicadas is not art (yet), but it has potential."

"Barefooted, Socrates rested under the plane tree, listening to the cicadas, turning its pages anew."

"Going over Tolstoy's diaries, you get a sense of looking at the blueprints of an experimental shop in a huge factory."

"The whole world was moving.  The Soviet Union was pulling the world and it was changing slowly--from our perspective, and quickly--from the historical point of view."

"Our generation of people who were sent in the wrong direction by a casual passerby because they were lost.."

"Death replaces the rows of people; it is preparing a new edition, restoring life."

"Eugene Onegin is a river, the shores of which have been described, but which hasn't been fully explored yet."

"The young Tolstoy noted that there wouldn't be enough ink or paper in the world had he recorded everything a person goes through in a single day."

"But then Socrates says how beauty can be found in the way that shoes are lined up or coats are sorted."

"We still use religious terms to say something antireligious."

Hope Abandoned

It’s been about fifteen years since I took my last graduate course in the University of Illinois’ History Department.  I’m dwelling on my graduate student experience today.  It didn’t turn me into a successful historian, but it did help me to become a more serious reader of European history, someone capable of maintaining a passionately informed “tribute band” blog about Soviet Studies.  

I hated being in Urbana.  I hated the smallness of the place, hated its deep familiarity.  But how can I forget what Urbana taught me? Three and a half years in the place worked miracles on my knowledge of the past and forever altered my relationship to the world in general.  Years after my last course in Urbana, I walked into Gregory Hall and realized with awe how fortunate I had been to have received an education, however unfinished it remains, from so many first-rate historians.  As it turns out, I won’t be going back there.  But I don’t think I regret my time there, as depressing, isolating, and difficult as full-fledged scholarly work turned out to be. 

Let me illustrate my point by talking about zombies.  Last night I watched another episode of the television show, The Walking Dead.  Seeing that show, and loving that show, I somehow realized that my enjoyment of the script, and of countless other popular as well as literary or historical artifacts, is fully predicated on the serious effort I made to learn more about the world in graduate school.  As I thought about the show, I realized that its claim to greatness rests not only upon its stunning cinematography and Shakespearean plots, but also upon its relationship to history, literature, and culture.  It’s the creator’s awareness of context that makes the show truly great. 

Zombies are always fascinating.  In one sense, we like them because they are, all things considered, among the safest horrors of human invention.  The living dead are gruesome, but they move slowly and awkwardly, and apply absolutely no mental aptitude to the project of human extermination.  In The Walking Dead, we experience a strange sense of joy even in the midst of the apocalypse when we realize that not even 1,000 or zombies can murder a former police officer with even a dash of ingenuity and pluck. 

But this television series offers an even richer source of pleasure when it comes to zombies.  In the Walking Dead, the zombies offer up the viewer a series of fast-shifting metaphors.   By turns, the zombies represent natural disaster, disease, genocidal victimhood, the natural dignity of animals, the status of immigrant or foreigner, and, with one zombie loping gracefully and peacefully across an open field at sunset, sometimes even the beauty of the natural world.

Analyzing the Walking Dead, I know that I wouldn’t be half the culture fan I am today without some exposure to the great thinkers I encountered at the University of Illinois.  So that’s what this blog post comes down to, a recognition that sometimes it’s enough to work very hard to become the kind of audience that great historians deserve.  When I look at my library of Soviet history books, I am sometimes struck by the absurdity of my voracious habit of collection.  What am I doing with all these books?   If I don’t speak or read Russian, why bother with Russian history?  If I’m not getting a doctorate in history, why keep this up?  If I’m not planning on publishing anything, what’s the point of it all?  I think Nadezhda Mandelstam’s second memoir, Hope Abandoned, asks and answers an analogous argument.  Although Nadezhda turned out to be a great author in her own right, it’s clear from her memoirs that her success as a witness to the life of a great poet would have made her life worthwhile even if she had never herself written a word.  She makes this point when discussing the value of even the most untalented of poets:  “…there was also the whole of world poetry, which knew no bounds of time and space.  It does not matter what place a poet has in it, however small it may be.  The very smallest place—just a couple of successful lines, one good poem, a single well-said word—entitles him to enter the fellowship of poets, to be one of ‘us,’ to partake of the feast.”  This then is the point of my blog, to someday utter a single, well-said word, in order to “partake of the feast” of Soviet scholarship. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Mikhail Bulgakov's Moscow

I've been woefully amiss in posting lately but I never leave off my exploration of Soviet history and so I'll at least try to post a few nuggets of Russian or Soviet wisdom in the coming weeks.  A couple of months ago, I was reading Mikhail Bulgakov's letters and diary entries, entitled Manuscripts Don't Burn. I can't say that the book was particularly illuminating but the book does give one a sense of Moscow intellectual life, and Moscow life in general, in the 1920s.  Bulgakov's genius isn't readily apparent in his diaries and letters. Clearly, he saved his best work for his plays and novels.  However, the reader does come to understand that Bulgakov was unflaggingly hard-working, dedicated to his vocation as a writer, unflappable, and prolific. By the standards of his age, he was also brave, even writing directly to Stalin (and not in inordinately craven language) asking for permission to emigrate.  Below are a few quotations from the book.

"And the country will be liberated.  For there is no such thing as a country with no heroes, and it would be criminal to think that the motherland has died."

"I wish you a happy New Year, and with all my heart I wish this new year should not resemble the old one.."

"I have begun to develop a strong suspicion that my 2,000 rubles are going to be engulfed in the ocean of the Russian Revolution."

"I saw crowds smashing the windows of trains, and saw people being beaten.  I saw ruined and burnt-out houses in Moscow...I saw hungry queues outside the shops, hunted and pitiful officers, and I saw news-sheets where in effect they write about only one thing:  about the blood that is flowing in the south, in the west and in the east...The new year is coming.  I send you a big kiss."

"Until I have my own apartment I will not be a human being, but half of one."

"This was my first appearance in the boggy cesspit of specifically Soviet journals."

"A pamphlet is not a lampoon, and the Chief Repertory Committee is not the Revolution."

"Those dreadful traits of my people, which, long before the Revolution, caused the most profound pain to my teacher M. Ye. Saltykov-Shchedrin."


"The Crimea is just as nasty a part of the world as ever."

"There is no such thing as a writer who falls silent.  If he falls silent, he was never a true writer."

"How am I to sing of my country, the USSR?"

"I am writing all this with the aim of showing you in what conditions I have had to realize my idee fixe.  And that consists in re-establishing the norm within three years--an apartment, clothes, food and books."

"But maybe we'll survive!"

"...the whole of Moscow is still naked and barefoot and is trading ephemerally."

"In Moscow they count only in hundreds of thousands or in millions."

"...it is impossible to go on living just with one job.."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tertz and Arzhak on Trial

“Now Daniel—he fought in the war, he was wounded, but you had a very easy war.”

“For Tertz, the Soviet Union is a madhouse.”

State:  “Sinyavsky!  Now tell the court, when did it become clear to you that your works were being exploited by bourgeois propaganda?” Sinyavsky:  “I’m still not completely clear about this.”

“You say, for instance:  “Stalin made Lenin’s metaphors come true.”

“And who was the greatest authority on linguistics and economics and music?  Wasn’t it Stalin?”

“Here is an edition of the essay and the story, The Trial Begins.  Two-thirds of the book jacket is black and only one-third is red.  Is this meant to show that the dark aspects predominate in the Soviet Union?”

“Soon they will be comparing you to Shakespeare.”

“It seemed at times as if for the sake of a complete victory of Communism all we had to do was to give up the idea of Communism.”  How are we to understand this?

“That’s not the only passage in which you besmirch the bright name of Lenin.”

“You talk as if they used to think in the West that we were a sober people…”

“What I value most of all in my fellow Russians is their inner spiritual freedom and what one might call their fantastic nature..”

“My work reflects my feelings about the world, not politics.”

“The literature of the Stalin period was religious and mystical in character.”

“I regard Communism as the only goal that can be put forward by the modern mind;  the West has been unable to put forward anything like it.”

“…I cannot think that a couple of books by us, or even a score, could inflict substantial damage on a country like this.”

“Who is it that you hate so?  Who do you want to destroy?”
“To whom are you talking?  To me or to my hero, or to someone else?”  Daniel

For several weeks or perhaps even months I have neglected this blog.  Even the lifelong Russophile reaches the point at which his concentration begins to flag or fail.  After all, I’ve been doing this for several years.  Recently, I’ve allowed my suburban idyll of a life to crowd out my writing time and sap my creative energies.  Some combination of office work, laundry, dishes, recalcitrant weeds, child soccer games, and French grammar study, has apparently gotten the better of me.  I’ve dabbled in a few Russian books recently, but haven’t really felt inspired to write much about any of them. 

That said, I’ve resolved to get back to Soviet Roulette today, if only to get back into practice.  What have I been up to lately?  Well, for one thing I’ve thought a little about this blog, and realized that I lack a thesis statement for what I’m intending to do.  Lately I’ve decided that this blog is, more than anything, the literary equivalent of a tribute band:  although I don’t pretend to do original scholarly work, I do claim to be a serious fan or even groupie of such scholarship.  That is to say, when somebody logs on to this site, he or she will enjoy the experience more if, at the onset, I admit that I’ve opened up the garage door rather than given anybody seats to the All-state Arena.

Although I’ve not done all that much reading lately, I’ve recently finished Max Hayward’s On Trial:  The Soviet State versus “Abram Tertz” and “Nikolai Arzhak.”  I’ve written several times about Abram Tertz, a.ka. Andrei Sinyavsky.  Reading Hayward’s translation of the Soviet Union’s criminal case against one of its leading authors and intellectuals is a surreal experience.   Even now, one really can’t believe that one of the world’s two superpowers would have stooped to prosecute a writer for mocking a fictional regime.  Yet this is what happened.   And in some ways the trial became one of the author’s finest creative acts.  

To be sure, there’s an irony here.  For “Tertz” and “Arzhak” both defended themselves on the somewhat facetious grounds that fiction has almost nothing to do with the real world.  But even so, On Trial, the journalistic record of a decidedly political phenomenon of persecution, is almost naturally transmogrified into the poetic or even mythological expression of the Russian individual’s resistance to tyranny.  In the age-old conflict between the Russian state and its citizens, the state almost always wins the battle.  But does it always win the war?  For the Kremlin’s every exertion produces a long-lasting myth of freedom or poetic counter-narrative.  Witness the current Russian regime’s awe-inspiring expression of homophobia:  while the innocent are currently being overawed by Putin’s mighty authoritarianism, the absurdity of the Russian leader’s unrivaled insecurity will certainly be remembered for generations.