Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Helene Carrere d'Encausse on Nationalism

Having never read anything by one of France's most eminent and prolific historians of the Soviet Union, I decided to take a look at Helene Carrere d'Encausse's 1993 book, The End of the Soviet Empire.  Carrere d'Encausse's book analyzes the role of nationalism in the breakdown of the Soviet Union.  The role of nationalism in ending the dream of proletarian internationalism is no secret.  I can remember grading AP exams in European history ten years ago.  At that time every good AP European history student who attempted to perform an autopsy on the Soviet Union pointed to nationalism as its chief cause of death.  The Soviet Union collapsed, they argued, because people never really wanted to trade in their local identity for a Soviet one.  The AP students threw in a host of other poisons, and these included economic stagnation, a hostile pope, Afghanistan, and Reagan's defense unmatchable defense expenditures, but they always mentioned nationalism.  And of course the better answers included internal forms of ethnic resistance as well as the Eastern European variety of nationalism.

Carrere d'Encausse explores the role of nationalism in the Soviet Union's collapse but focuses on the Soviet regime's bad management of nationalism in great detail.   Perhaps no empire can endure forever in the modern world, but certainly the Soviet Union's ruling party managed this. Close examination reveals, perhaps, that the Soviet Union didn't just suffer from nationalism, it often promoted that nationalism, however unintentionally.  That is to say, Stalin and his successors exported ethnic Russians to the peripheries in order to exert control on those areas, but created fearful ethnic tensions in the process.

The irony is that Gorbachev began his report to his first party congress by insisting that although socialism had stumbled economically, and had perhaps unnecessarily stifled other forms of human initiative, it had at least solved the nationalism question.  As Carrere d'Encausse reminds us, although Gorbachev avoided party cliches on a variety of different questions, he entered the age of reform relying almost exclusively on the old rhetoric of proletarian internationalism.  The breakdown of the empire had roots in Baltic memories of independence, a partly Iranian-inspired Islamic revival, Caucasian geography, a Khazak population explosion, and Russian chauvinism.  But Carrere d'Encausse's contribution to our understanding of these ethnic revolts is to show that this wasn't entirely inevitable.  If Soviet leaders in Moscow had had experience in the smaller socialist republics, or Russians hadn't been exported elsewhere, or Gorbachev had thought to do something other than reenergize the drive toward Russification of the cadres, things might have worked out a little differently than they did.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tatyana Tolstaya's The Slynx

"No one likes Jackal Demianich much. Who could like a Murza?  Maybe his woman, and, well,  maybe his little kids, but no one else.  That's not what a Murza is there for, to like or not."

"She batted her lone eye."

"Who needs her, we thought, that little old mean-spirited, communal-apartment crone..."

"The squeals, shouts, laughing--you could piss in your pants its so much fun.  Then you light the candles and take a look at the damage.  There's even more laughter then:  just a few minutes ago Zinovy had an eye--now he doesn't!"

"Don't you sometimes think thoughts like:  We should figure out who's to blame, and crush him or stick his head in a barrel?"

"Maybe that's what he should do:  get married.  So what if she has claws?  Claws can be clipped.  You can clip them...That's not the point....Man isn't without defects."

Tatyana Tolstoya's novel, The Slynx, is set in a post-apocalyptic world of inequality and scarcity. In this future Russian world, mutant humans eat mice, steal from one another, and avoid most forms of critical thinking.  A great event known as The Blast eliminated almost all cultural and technological artifacts.  Books are almost unknown, although a great leader, Fyodor Kuzmuch, pretends to have invented whatever poetry and prose his minions can unearth.  The book reminds me of another great work of fantasy, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I recall reading about twenty years ago.  In both books humanity has all but forgotten the written word.  The analogy on both occasions is the Middle Ages, where monks sometimes strove to preserve literacy, Latin, Christianity, and a Greco-Roman heritage by carefully copying manuscripts in the midst of a sea of barbarity, superstition, and warfare.  

Tolstaya's portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world akin to feudalism naturally also reminds one of Russia's 70-year experience under Communism, where a few poets, novelists, and dissidents sometimes seemed to be acting as the sole preservers of humanism and freedom.  As Lev Tolstoy's great grand niece, the author was well-placed to regret the absence of the robust cultural and humanitarian legacy of the pre-Bolshevik intelligentsia. 

 In Tolstaya's future, the world resembles Soviet society in at least a few particulars.  First, human society, even its degenerated form, is organized under the aegis of a great leader who, much like Stalin, inspires a personality cult and maintains a personal interest in literature.  Second, men and women are organized into classes, just as Soviet society always was if one could see past the rhetoric of socialism.  

In the land of the mysterious and terrifying Slynx, the state's primary defenders are the "murzas," with another group, the sanitorians, functioning as a primitive example of the genus, secret police.  The common folk, or golubushka, are of course strictly forbidden from participating in what they themselves often deride as "freethinking."  But commoners aren't quite at the bottom of the food chain.  Tolstaya's futuristic world includes serfs, or subhumans, severely deformed by mutation and serving others in the most menial capacities.  Most interestingly, Tolstaya has dreamed up a very small group of people called "oldeners" who not only survived the Blast but also gained from that terrible event the ability to survive indefinitely, barring some freak and deadly mishap.  Undoubtedly the author didn't intend to create a replica of Soviet society, but the "oldeners" are certainly redolent of those Soviet citizens who might have remembered pre-Soviet values, whether derived from Christianity, Islam, or democratic liberalism.   

The world of the Slynx reminds one of Soviet Russia, but it's also possible to think of pre-revolutionary Russia or indeed post-revolutionary Russia.  For 19th century Russia was a place in which ignorance, superstition, class exploitation, and illiteracy thrived.  The barbaric state of Russia was of course what made Bolshevik Russia possible in the first place.  So in this sense Tolstaya's dead world refers to Russia's perennial problem.  Although a small minority of Russia's poets, novelists, dissenters, and intellectuals have always aspired to participate in a more enlightened society, these people are usually few and far between, as rare in some ways as Tolstaya's oldeners.  Of course, Tolstaya's age of darkness doesn't depict a total absence of hope for a better future.  However badly interpreted by literal-minded, mice-eating men and women, the poems survive, even Pushkin's hallowed name survives.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New York City, Napoleon, and Big History

Listening to Donald Sutherland’s audio lectures on Napoleonic France, I’m struck by the way in which different time horizons influence the way we evaluate the overall impact of revolutions on human development.  Should we thank Napoleon for burying the French Revolution or condemn him for reviving the notion of royalty?  Was the French Revolution a good thing or a bad thing?  Taken as a whole, did this great event, this frenzy of social innovation and radical ideas, help people or hurt people? 

By analogy, I think of a recent trip to visit New York City for the weekend.  Was that a good idea or a bad one?  If you had asked me a two weeks before my wife had bought the tickets to go on this short tourist excursion, I would have said this was a bad decision:  the trip would be short, tiring, and expensive.  In order to keep the ticket cost low, my wife had even felt bound to accept an itinerary with a Philadelphia layover between Chicago and New York.  If you asked me the night before I got up at 4:00am to catch our plane, my opinion of the decision would have become ever more negative. Even ignoring the cost of transporting five people to the country’s most expensive city, how could many hours of round-trip travel possibly justify or outweigh 36 hours of tourism? 

Sadly, my opinion of the decision deteriorated yet again when we landed in Philadelphia, waited on a delayed plane, and eventually learned that our second flight had been cancelled altogether, forcing us to rent a car and drive the rest of the way to New York.  All told, we had spent about 14 hours to reach our destination, and would need to leave in less than two days.

But different time horizons lead one to radically different appraisals of the same facts.  And nowhere was this more in evidence than when I found my children standing in awe of the electric magnificence of Times Square, sitting on a fence in sprawling Central Square, driving past the historic Apollo Theatre or Guggenheim Museum, or circumnavigating the whole island of Manhattan Island for the first time in any of our lives.  Truly, as we cruised past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, I had no doubt whatsoever that this decision to land in New York was a masterstroke of life wisdom and good planning.   When else would my Tunisian mother-in-law ever see something so quintessentially and recognizably American?  When else would my young children see New York with such youthful exuberance? 

If the reader will bear with me just a little bit longer, the story of this decision to go on a New York getaway may be scrutinized from just a few more vantage points.  On the way home, our plane from Philadelphia was delayed again.  We waited hours before leaving the city and only arrived at home after midnight.  Trying to get my grumpy second-grader ready for school was torture for both of us.  Surely, the decision to go to New York had been a blunder, pure and simple. 

How will I ultimately appraise our trip to the Big Apple?  It’s impossible to say.  One thing seems clear:  there will be no ultimate appraisal.   History is relative.  Past events can only be measured by our present circumstances and current psychology.   The decision to go to New York was a complex, or at least had complex outcomes.  Soon, the credit card bill will come due, and the trip may then eventually be classified as a minor consumer tragedy rather than an innocent blunder.  Going on the trip meant all sorts of petty trade-offs, sacrifices, and what economists call opportunity costs.  By going, one son missed an important soccer tournament, another stayed up so late that he have done poorly on statewide exam, my wife failed to work on a research proposal, and I racked up enough debt that it’s quite possible I’ll cancel a larger trip I had hoped to make in the Spring. 

But the fascinating thing about time horizons is that they can be broadened almost indefinitely, or at least until our deaths. I can imagine that in ten years things the decision to go to New York may look very different once more.  In ten years, will we stare at these happy photos of this little family adventure and be grateful that we took an ailing mother-in-law on a last trip?  Will be content to know that we took such family trips while our children were still in their formative years? 

I’m listening to another set of lectures.  These are on the concept of “Big History.” They make the point that the human story can be told holistically, and from the beginning, from a biological, geological, or even astrological perspective.  The French Revolution should mean a lot to us now, but it’s not exactly clear whether the French Revolution helped or hurt people in the long run.  And the lens of history can be adjusted indefinitely.  We can ask different questions from different vantage points.  Did the French Revolution help people or hurt people?  It is better to ask that question from the point of view of those who lived through it, or is it better to ask that question from the point of view of those who lived with its long-term consequences?  Or should we try to broaden our perspective to level of a bigger history?  If I analyze our decision to go to New York City, I try to achieve a bigger history by imaging how I will feel about things on my own deathbed, on the brink of eternity.  When I do this, New York seems like a wonderful decision.  Like Gogol, I see myself high up in the sky, looking down from the heavens at a troika, or at least a Central Park horse carriage.  Within it, there’s just me, my sons, my wife, and my mother-in-law.   Whither are we going? To Times Square, all together.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Explosive Situations

Americans have a difficult time understanding how revolutions work. This isn't meant to be an ironic assertion.  Although this country was founded on a political break with another country, the break wasn't all that revolutionary.  While Americans adopted a republican form of government, they didn't overthrow a local elite, radically transform institutions, or adopt violence or terror as a political tool of administration.  The term, "revolution," is notoriously slippery, but America's decision to implement local control can't really be equated with the French, Russian, or Chinese models of ideological or social transformation.  When Russia overthrew the tsar, it adopted new political practices, but also new forms of organization, political rhetoric, artistic expression, metaphysical thinking, and economic organization.  And even if there are many points of comparison between the American's War of Independence and the French Revolution, modern Americans, now view this revolt against a now friendly country from the distance of more than 200 years.  We are, as a people, hopelessly if luckily out of touch with the very idea of radical change.

How can Americans imagine what it's like to live in a situation where men and women are willing to resort to violence to solve political problems?  How can modern American understand what a revolutionary crisis looks like?  One way to look at the question is to try to identify situations in which people feel so emotionally charged that they begin to look at political questions irrationally.  Take the recent outbreak of violence in a Connecticut classroom a few weeks ago.  The violence was disturbing.  But how did Americans react to their feels of shock?  The answer was clear to almost anybody with a Facebook account.  People were angry, confused, and saddened.  But I would argue that the most important emotion in this revolutionary cocktail of emotions was fear.  People feared for their children's lives, feared for their own safety and that of their families.  If six year old children could be singled out for execution in the security of a good school in an affluent town, who was safe?

On one level, the shooting wasn't perhaps statistically significant:  people are shot almost every day in almost every major city of this great nation.  On the other hand, people made the understandable, if ultimately irrational, logical leap to thinking that we were all suddenly vulnerable to terrible, unexpected violence.  This fear naturally got translated into words, and not just a few words, but endless electronic, verbal, and print conversations.  This is one of the most important aspects of a truly revolutionary situations.  People need to become deeply afraid of something, and this fear must be translated into a torrent of words.  This is what we recently saw on Facebook and a hundred other platforms for modern discourse.  People lamented, commiserated, prescribed, condemned, and, sadly, relentlessly condemned one another.  The country talked about guns, schools, violent video games, mentally ill people, and godlessness.

What was redolent of a truly revolutionary situation was that people went out of their way to affix blame for the catastrophe.  This is a natural phenomenon. My own political instincts made me particularly sympathetic to those who called for much stricter gun control laws.  However, the calls for justice weren't limited to gun control.  And I was quite stunned to see my friends on Facebook espousing radically anti-secular views in response to the shootings.  One relative, endorsed by approximately 40 other people who immediately "liked" the comment, said that atheists were to blame for the deaths, and that if you were atheist, you could expect to raise another "psychotic" mass murderer.  I also recall the news interview with the alleged killer's barber of many years.  He said that had he known what the killer would one day do, he would have "cut his throat."

Thinking about this sort of totalizing or specifically violent discourse, one can at least imagine a truly revolutionary situation.  Of course, in a truly revolutionary situation, people are perhaps much less constrained than modern Americans.  Russians in 1917, for instance, may have believed that they had nothing to lose by proposing radical solutions to the country's problems.  But the essential element of revolution is this:  people have to believe on some level that if they don't revolt and perhaps kill their opponents, they themselves will be killed. Reading Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary make this issue much clearer.  During the Russian Civil war, still a revolutionary situation by most measures, the Bolsheviks applied unparalleled levels of violence against their political opponents precisely because they believed that losing the Civil War would result in their own physical destruction.  We jail or kill the Right Social Revolutionaries, anarchists, greens, or Whites, or we ourselves will get hanged in the very near future.  The threat doesn't necessarily have to be objectively legitimate:  it's enough that people are deeply afraid of their perceived enemies.

Yesterday, a saw the film, the Iran Job.  This films touches somewhat tangentially on a revolutionary moment of modern Iran.  I suppose this film might indicate that revolutionary energy bursts onto the street only when people have a sense that they have a chance to win.  Why did people take to the streets and risk death in Tehran several years ago?  If we judge by this film's ordinary female protagonists, we might argue that many women in Iran believed that their physical well being was truly imperiled by the religious zealots who dominate the country on the national as well as local level.  If you can't drive safely in the company of male friends, perhaps you're scared on some primal level.  But the movie, The Iran Job, also seems to suggest that a revolution breaks out when a large group of people--in this case Iran's educated youth--almost forget that a regime has any backers.

Of course, the Iranian Revolution failed--let's hope temporarily.  But here again we learn something about revolution.  A revolution is most successful when a government lacks a coherent ideology or a group of determined backers.  Presumably,the old Egyptian and Tunisian governments lacked a systematic ideology, and consequently lacked determined supporters.  This doesn't seem to be the case in Iran.  If even 20 percent of a country is determinedly supportive of a government, whether as a result of ethnicity or ideology, the government may yet summon the will to shoot down opponents and survive.