Thursday, February 28, 2013


Every once in a while I like to see what version of Russian history appeals most to ordinary Americans.  Neither Barnes and Nobles stores nor local public libraries maintain large Russian history collections, but what they do carry is instructive.  Whether it tells us more about Russia or more about American is hard to say.  By and large, Americans seem to thirst for information about Putin, the Russian mafia, the Romanovs (especially Nicholas and Alexandra), Stalin, and the gulag.  I understand the appeal of gulag history:  this particular tragedy is at once a quintessentially Russian experience of Arctic suffering and reflective of humankind's overall misery in the twentieth century.  I often wonder how it is that we can ever understand the richness and diversity of Russian history when it seems to be so deeply buried underneath the burdensome weight of camp literature.  There's an irony here:  Russians seem to go out of their way to avoid any reference to the gulag system, while Americans seem to go out of their to avoid reading anything other than gulag history.

At any rate, I read a lot of books about the gulag, and recently picked up both Slavomir Rawiz's The Long Walk:  The True Story of a Trek To Freedom and Karl Tobien's Dancing Under the Red Star.  In both books, the story of the Soviet gulag system is told from the point of view of an eye witness, although of course The Long Walk centers on an epic (if not well documented) journey across Central Asia to freedom, Karl Tobien's story about his mother is more firmly grounded in the labor camps.  I haven't researched The Long Walk, but a cursory glance online reveals some discussion of the historical authenticity of the actual events it purports to describe.  I have nothing to contribute to this discussion, other than the comments that if the events of the passage to India aren't strictly accurate, one is still left to wonder whether this dream of flight doesn't say something important about prisoner escape fantasies qua survival strategies, or indeed about how the families of gulag survivals might themselves have fantasizes about the escape of loved ones who had long ago disappeared into the silence of the Soviet penal system.  In fact, Karl Tobien's tale about his mother's life, helps to explain just this phenomenon of longing.  As American living in Stalin's Russia, Margaret Weiner was still a teenager when her father was spirited away by the secret police and never heard from again.  Without the benefit of even a proper farewell, it's evidence that Werner never got over the loss, and lived in a state of shock bordering on denial for years to come.

 Karl Tobien's story is useful insofar as it helps Americans to understand the arbitrary and sinister nature of Stalin's Russia.  Tobien's story also gives us clues about gulag survival strategies, which included callousness to potential enemies, friendship, and religious belief.  Of course, this atheist blogger isn't really in a position to analyze Tobien's theme of religion as a tool of resistance.  It seems to have served Margaret Werner well, giving her the fortitude to hope for something better in the midst of terror and hunger.  On the other hand, this writer is saddened to think of a god who is actively helping one Gulag innocent to survive while presumably ignoring the plight of countless others.  If any god had been active in the Gulags on any level, this fact doesn't speak well of him or her. As Kurt Vonnegut famously asserted, sooner or later people have got to start holding gods accountable for the actions of their followers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Workers in a Workers' Paradise

Diane Koenker's book, Republic of Labor:  Russian Printers and Soviet Socialism, 1918- 1930, reveals a number of flaws in my own approach to Russian history.  For somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the history of the Proletarian Revolution but neglected to spend much time getting to know the history of the Soviet working people.  The irony is as lamentable as it is comic. I'm reminded of my first and only trip to Russia, in which I strolled the streets of St. Petersburg for nine days but failed failed to say anything in the Russian language or to make any contact with any living Russians.  I suppose this is generally the logic of tourism:  we generally try to go on trips in which our leisure or sense of adventure isn't complicated by the threat of substantive dialogue with living people.  On vacation, we interact with service staff, fellow tourists, and perhaps a local guide or two who hastily conducts us a tour of the place as it existed in a previous century.  We make contact with foreigners, but these foreigners are generally ghosts--spectral architects of vanished civilizations. Thus, like a tourist, I read about the Russian Revolution, but often avoid its realities.  In truth, I've befriended historical tour guides such as Lenin and Trotsky, but failed to engage the Revolution's ordinary denizens, not even excepting laborers.  Diane Koenker's book, and many others like it, is a partial remedy to an elitist approach to the great socialist experiment.  By tracking the progress of one large group of workers, Russian printers, Koenker helps to give the period between 1918 and 1930 both color and character. 

Examining printers' efforts to shape their own destiny in an unfamiliar socialist economic landscape has a number of benefits.  In the first place, we realize that socialism as a lived experiment wasn't entirely a "top down" process.  Rather, ordinary men and women responded to the challenges of bureaucratic or statist centralism in a variety of ways, and not all of them were related to accommodation or capitulation.  In some ways, the case of the Russian printers helps to illustrate the fluidity of the Soviet system in the decade following the October Revolution.  Soviet workers and labor leaders and were asking a number of fundamental economic questions about the new economic order.  These are but a few of these questions.  What role would trade unions play in a socialist society?  How should the Communist Party interact with trade unions?  How would the central or local governments relate to trade unions?  How should a local trade committee interact with the union?  Was it okay for a trade union to strike against a proletarian state, and, if not, what was the proper manner of managing conflict with the government under socialism? Was it okay for two unions to represent one group of workers?  What level of democracy was appropriate within a factory?  Who should manage the productive work of a factory?  Should workers collectively decide on production methods or was it appropriate for an individual manager to make all decisions in the interest of economic efficiency?  How should workers be motivated in the regime?  Should wages be paid based on basic need, skill level, productivity level, or some combination thereof?  Were women entitled to play a leadership role in the new unions?  Did female workers require anything different from their male counterparts?  Should managers make more than shop floor workers?  How should local unions relate to a national alliance of workers in a single trade?  How should national trade unions relate to one another?  What was the purpose of socialist production?  Were workers primarily trying to raise their own standard of living or were they attempting to raise the standard of living of their trade or, indeed, of the nation as a whole?  And what working conditions were appropriate in an embattled but never-the-less proletarian nation?  

We know of course that many of the debates of the 1920s were decided in favor of bureaucratic centralism.  The Soviet Union ultimately rejected Menshevik and Anarchist economic philosophies of trade union autonomy and worker democracy.  In a time of economic crisis and civil war, Soviet leaders sided with Communists who argued that the first duty of all trade unions was to rally behind the nation's collective vision of economic productivity.  Anything less than total commitment to the state's economic plan, was sacrificing the collective good of the Soviet people for the narrow, selfish interests of narrow-minded or even treacherous groups of workers.  Even so, it's interesting to note that this vision of the new socialist economy wasn't entirely preordained.  The printers were one relatively large interest group in Soviet society who actively resisted this future, and did so with some degree of success notwithstanding increasingly levels of coercion at various levels of society, for over a decade.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Urbana Revisted (Or: Russia Seeks Warm Water Seaport)

History is at once a social science and a humanity.  I suspect that the humanistic dimension of history is related to the mysterious nature of human existence.  Historians marshal evidence about the past into order to make persuasive, plausible arguments about economic, political, or cultural causation.  However, the laws of deduction never completely capture how people have behaved in the distant past.  In fact, we can't always explain personal decision-making--not even when we've only just emerged from the process of choosing one path over another one.

Take for instance a bizarre decision I made two or three weeks ago to contact a few historians at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in order to reanimate my doctoral candidacy, now well over ten years out of date.  If you had asked me one or two weeks prior to that decision, I would have told you that I had no intention whatsoever of seeking readmission.  The very idea would have seemed implausible:  I left the program of my own accord and hadn't ever regretted the decision.  In fact, I can remember a string of unpleasant memories associated with my time in Urbana. But the past (even, or perhaps especially, or our own) is mysterious.  Something changed and I made my first inquiries about returning to something I quit over a decade ago.  How do I account for the change?  Was it the encouragement of a new wife?  Was it my interest in gaining a new job that requires a completed doctorate?  Was it the fact that I have been accepted into another doctoral program and therefore had to clarify my thoughts about the old one?  Was it this blog which, over the course of time, finally helped me to see how much value I place on formally connecting with a scholarly community?  It might be any one of these things, or all of them.  Who can tell?

As I say, I left the history program a very long time ago.  The decision to leave was extremely difficult, but my years at Urbana-Champaign saddened me, or at least failed to cheer me up. One problem with life at the University of Illinois related to geography.  I desperately missed seeing any physical differentiation in the landscape.  I needed mountains, islands, forests, and coastlines--or at least a few very tall buildings.  Instead, Urbana featured one very tiny creek.  I wanted to see cities as grand as the ones I had lived in--Washington, D.C., Montreal, Los Angeles.  Instead, I took day trips to Savoy to see a movie, or to Danville to visit a local park.  

The second issue that confronted me was related to scarcity.  Receiving about ten thousand dollars a year, year after year, I felt humiliated by my perpetual poverty.  While I now admire the fact that people in Urbana-Champaign aren't snobs, at the time I hated the fact that I no longer had enough money to travel or purchase much of anything.  Looking back at my life in the late 1990s, I realize how arbitrary consumer fantasies can be.  When you have no money, you make due with minor acts of consumerism.  In the end, it doesn't really matter what you buy, only that you do buy.  The trick to feeling good is to purchase something, anything really, that you don't really need.  I remember buying incense, Hindu icons, and CDs in the pursuit of consumer satisfaction.  

The third issue I had was lack of structure.  The faculty tried to help keep you on track, but ultimately doctoral work is up to you.  The anarchic structure of my day drove me to despair.  The irony of the flexible schedule is that you ultimately end up without any real sense of rest;  although nobody expects anything of you on any given day, you know you could be doing something at every hour of the day, so you work late into the night, or you don't work late into the night but therefore feel perpetually guilty.  

The freedom is so extreme that my fellow graduate students sometimes disappeared for months at a time without any obvious consequence.  Once, a close friend dropped out of sight.  When I saw him in the street and asked him how he was doing, he calmly noted that he had needed a break and had therefore "played video games" for a couple of semesters.  When I eventually left the program by moving to Chicago, the lack of external oversight was so pronounced that friends called me several semesters later to say that my mailbox was getting full.  Apparently, nobody had even noticed my disappearance.  In this spirit, I'm only half joking when I say that rather than formally request readmission into my doctoral program, I ought to have pretended that I never left. Instead, I should have chosen a particularly busy faculty member and boldly requested an audience, saying something to this effect:  "Excuse me, Dr. X, but I've been waiting quite some time to get your thought on my next moves. What do you mean you don't remember me?  We've been working together for years now. Really, it's one thing to be ignored, but this level of insouciance is really too much. "

In the end, it's wasn't really the nature of graduate work that drove me to despair.  I lacked confidence, direction, and, above all, an uncomplicated.  (Read:  At the time I couldn't reconcile my sexuality with Central Illinois.) All in all,  I must admit that I was seriously depressed.  Strangely, seminars in nostalgia, postcolonial theory, historiography, literary theory, STEM issues, and cultural studies didn't help.  At any rate, Urbana wasn't really the problem:  when you're depressed, the depression colors everything. Once I was left in charge of a cat when a colleague was away.  I remember thinking that I couldn't leave the cat alone overnight because it would suffer terribly as a result of its loneliness.  Apparently, I had lost track of where I left off and where domestic animals began.  

Returning to the present, I find it strange to be reapplying to the department I left so willingly over a decade ago.  This desire to repeat the past says something else about the past.  The past repeats itself.  As Viktor Shklovsky reminds us, it doesn't really have a choice.  At the beginning of this post I talked about the mysterious nature of the past.  But realizing that I am excited about the prospect of potentially returning to graduate school reminds me of the deep structure of history:  we like to think that we are more complicated than we really are, but in reality we drive on toward the same essential goals.  Whether in the 18th century or the 20th century, Russia always sought a warmwater seaport.  And whether I'm 33 or 43, I have always wanted to engage with thinkers who I admire and, as this blog must surely suggest, I have always wanted to write for an audience.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Three Things to Know About Revolutions

Below are three things experience has taught us about revolution.

First, revolutions are violent affairs.  To paraphrase something somebody in the Godfather once said, after the rhetoric of evolutionary reform breaks down, “things get rough.” A revolution is an explosive situation in which men and women decide that violence is a legitimate method of solving a set of political problems.  Strike that:  a revolution is an explosive situation in which men and women decide that violence is the only appropriate method of addressing a set of political problems.  As Chairman Mao said, "Revolution is no dinner party."  People die in revolutions, and after revolutions, more people die.  

Second, revolutions are exciting. Revolutions are extraordinarily creative affairs in which broad swaths of the population feel empowered to participate in civic and cultural life in new and creative ways.  In fact, segments of the populations experience liberation in surprisingly diverse ways.  If the political regime required radical reformation, why not do the same in art, architecture, prose, poetry, international relations, economics, family relationships, and gender relations? 

Third, revolutions are predictably unpredictable.  When a revolution breaks out, people often falsely believe they know what will happen to the revolution over time.  That is to say, they believe that there is an ahistorical sequence to revolutionary events or a natural mechanism of revolt, something akin to the stages of grief.  We get angry, we blame others, we feel guilty, we accept; or, in the case of revolutions, we suffer, we lose control, we dream and hope of a better future, we collapse into stale routine. There’s a paradox here.  On the one hand, many analysts--Marx and Lenin included--believe that revolutions are the most predictable of all human events.  That is to say, revolutionaries study previous revolutions in detail precisely because they believe on some level in an unalterable historical pattern.  A revolution in ancient Rome looks like a revolution in modern Germany, or a revolution in Mongolia.  A revolution is a revolution is a revolution.  

If you read the Russian revolutionaries, to say nothing of Hegel or Marx who help to invent the trope of revolutionary historiography, you can’t help but be struck by their arrogance.  They know what happened in France so they can predict what will happen in Russia.  There will certainly be a Thermidor, and if there isn’t one, it’s only because the revolutionaries will change natural flow of history by enacting ingenious new dams or levies, usually in the form of draconian systems of surveillance and terror.  But of course the revolutionaries weren’t simple people.  They thought about revolution a lot, and lived closer to them than we do today.  Lenin didn’t predict either of the revolutions of 1917.  Instead, he and the other Russian radicals were like modern storm-chasers, driving toward political maelstroms even though they didn’t quite get to any of them in time to bear witness to their awesome power.  But Lenin, and Trotsky more than Lenin, did see enough of the immediate aftermath of revolution to understand their chaotic, elemental power.  Notwithstanding all of their stubborn attempts to diagnose something ahistorical about revolutions, Russian revolutionaries understood that revolutions were truly terrifying, unwieldy, and unpredictable.  Their knowledge of this dark side of revolution was surely what made them so willing to turn to terror in attempt to try to prevent their recurrence once they were installed in power.  

The Bolsheviks said they were suppressing opposition at Krondstadt out of a fear of counter-revolution and reaction, but one has to suspect that their brutal strategies of containment were born of their own involvement in history’s only real contact with almost primordial chaos.  Viewed in this light, one almost comes to terms with the paradox of Bolshevik interest in making a science of revolution.  After all, it’s only a scientist who hopes that we can conduct the same experiment with revolution over and over again but gain the same result. 

Revolutions aren’t purely local affairs.  Reading Antoinette Burton’s book, A Primer for Teaching World History, I am reminded that revolutions shouldn’t ever be seen as occurring in a purely national context. The Russian revolutionaries accepted Marx’s early take on this international thesis:  revolutions were the product of modernity, global economic processes, and transnational class struggle.  Lenin added something important to this line of argument by exploring the relationship between colonialism and international militarism.  But even modern scholars understand that we can’t truly comprehend the nature of any revolution without exploring how the event, or series of events, is connected to global processes.  These processes can be direct, and uncomplicated.  For instance, the Russian Revolution was the outgrowth of processes and movements that affected men and women in almost every corner of the globe, including urbanization, industrialization, colonization, and world war.  But they can also be more intricate.  The Russian Revolution had analogies both inside Europe and outside Europe.  Turks, Egyptians, Hungarians, Germans, and Chinese—to say nothing of Georgians and Uzbeks—all strove to initiate political and economic reform, to overhaul gender relationships, and recast their relationship with the global economic order.  Moreover, if we don’t accept the fact that each revolution only exists in relationship to other revolutions—whether those revolutions are historically distant, such as 1789, 1848, or 1870, or nearly coterminous, such as that of Germany, Turkey, Hungary, Spain, Cuba, or China—we miss one of their most characteristic and important markers, i.e., their truly world-historical character.    

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chaos and Creation

As I wrote a week or so ago, I once worked at a dysfunctional university.  This was many years ago but the memory remains fresh.  On most days my colleagues and I would complain bitterly about the university's almost complete absence of policies and procedures.  We couldn't believe how little structure the organization had.  Wherever we turned, we uncovered bureaucratic lacunae.  If you asked a colleague if you could see a copy of the university's registration policy, you were likely to meet with an amused look of astonishment.  If you asked the administrative assistants for the web address of the university's official refund schedule, your answer might well be little more than an embarrassed silence or a pair of rolling eyeballs.  The organizational immaturity was a constant source of irritation.  We couldn't help but wonder why people had failed to adopt even the most rudimentary standard operating procedures that were necessary to serve students and protect the faculty and staff from potential lawsuits.  On some days, we were worried by the chaos;  on others, we were afraid that it would lead to institutional collapse.

One day, I tried to look at things differently.  While it was certainly true that our workplace was extraordinarily fluid, there was an upside:  we were lived richly creative lives, at least compared to other administrators.  In fact, we created more policies in one month than most administrators would create in the course of several years.  Within the space of a week or two, I might well find myself inventing a new tenure policy, launching a distance learning endeavor, or revising a rudimentary faculty handbook.  Every day was an adventure, witness to countless acts of self-definition and creation.  What better work environment can one have than one in which one is allowed to invent new artifacts on a daily basis?

What's the tie in to Soviet history?  Well, one day it occurred to me that this was how most revolutionaries must feel.  Although revolutions often coincide with human tragedy, there is an upside to the anarchy--the opportunity to create dozens if not hundreds of new institutions. Notwithstanding their vertigo, revolutionaries undoubtedly feel like gods, empowered to create new worlds.  Just as administrators in immature institutions create policies without the usual constraints of time or due diligence, revolutionaries suffer through street violence, bureaucratic chaos,  and civil wars, but also enjoy the thrill of building new educational systems, military hierarchies, political mechanisms, urban planing schemes, economic policies, policing philosophies, and religious structures.  

The Russian Revolution was an awful event.  Its consequences were much worse than the event itself.  But the Revolution cannot be understood without acknowledging the joyfulness of creating brand new things in a vacuum.  Political leaders like Derzhinsky, and creative leaders like Mayakovsky, all got lost in the joyful if disorienting act of revolutionary creation, where everyday was a new beginning. In this sense, there's a mythic component to revolution.  As we all remember, every myth of origin centers around order emerging from chaos.  Revolutionaries are therefore modern-day gods in an almost literal sense, emerging only after World War I had created a mythical void of almost primordial disorder.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Karl Scholgel and Me

Last week I went to Los Angeles to attend a conference about student success.  Before and after the conference, I toured the city and some of its near neighbors, including Hollywood, Santa Monica, Malibu, Oceanside, and Santa Barbara.  Readers of this blog won't be surprised to hear that the author, who lived briefly in Southern California about twenty-three years ago, quickly became entangled in what Abraham Lincoln once called the "mystic chords of memory."  Everywhere I turned I discovered a new memory, a new association, a new reminder of my former lives.  The experience wasn't unpleasant but I felt like a snorkeler who treads over the surface of a vast, deep ocean, only occasionally peering down into the depths to discover magnificent but dark and vaguely threatening shapes moving about on the ocean floor.  One can't help but think of Marcel Proust, who merely sipped a cup of tea before getting hit by a tidal wave of recollections.  Everywhere I looked in the City of Angels unleashed new bubbles of memory from the depths of my previously unconscious mind.

While in Hollywood, I visited my old place of work on Sunset Boulevard.  I remember how excited I was on the day of my interview for that job.  Not knowing anything at all about Southern California, I only knew that I was going to be interviewed by somebody in the film industry on one of the most famous streets in America.  Driving from Santa Monica, I soon found myself on the border between Bel Air and Beverly Hills, and couldn't believe my good fortune.  The street gently rolled between a series of magnificent mansions until finally emptying out a stretch of Hollywood that featured cafes, giant billboards, a famous Tower Records store, and storied corporate headquarters.  Even then, I knew my future was bright:  I had a beautiful girlfriend, a sunny commute, and now, I felt sure, a spectacularly glamorous job.  Little did I know that Sunset Boulevard, like life itself, has a dark side.

My job, it turned out, was in a dark, seedy corner of Hollywood.  At the corner of Sunset and LaBrea, my new employer looked out at the historic Seventh Veil strip club which was regularly patrolled by crack addicts, whores, and various Bukowsky lowlifes--"pimps and magicians," as Joseph Brodsky might have written.  The job itself was worse than its environs, sheer hell:  my introduction to the unrelenting awfulness of working life.  A post-production studio, I soon learned, was a collection of small, dark edit bays and related mechanical rooms.   My particular post-production studio was worse than that, a random assortment of decaying, dishevelled buildings.  And I worked in the worst part of this bad place, in a small, windowless room called "the vault," which was literally surrounded by steel bars in order to protect the company's vast collection of films and VHS tapes.  

My job, and the job of my equally unfortunate friend, Mitch, was to act as video and film archivists, finding specific versions of a film whenever the technicians were asked to format or otherwise alter some version of a film or tape.  At the bottom of the food chain, Mitch and I envied everyone, except perhaps for the shipping clerks, the couriers who not infrequently turned out to be former child stars or other Hollywood riffraff, and the guy who sat in the company's warehouse on the other side of town,  disturbed only two times a day by my visits to collect tapes.

The tragedy of the place wasn't merely in the dark, thankless, underpaid work.  Putting stickers on tapes, and going blind from searching for the endlessly misplaced stock, wasn't the worst thing in the world.  No, the tragedy of the place was that it was located in Hollywood, and half of the employees had come here in the hopes of becoming actors, cinematographers, and directors.  One colleague, Shawn, wanted to be a director.  Once he told Mitch and me that his mother had sent a high school VHS film he had produced to Steven Spielberg with a note, explaining that her son was a protege and deserved Spielberg's patronage.  The only thing sadder than this, I felt, was the actual VHS film, a bleak, nostalgic "music video" of his former high school sweetheart twirling about a park to the accompaniment of Shawn's crude camera effects.  The homely, red-headed receptionist aspired to be an actress.  One of the video technicians had a distant cousin who helped to produce the show, the Simpsons, and so he naturally assumed he'd be offered a job on staff at any moment.  In Hollywood, everyone had come to the city for the same reason:  they wanted to strike it big.  

But like Proust, my mind wanders.  Driving around the city, every spot seems to trigger some volcanic eruption from the past.   I only lived in Los Angeles for about a year, but in that year a thousand things happened, or so it would seem from the volume of memories that overwhelmed me on my short visit.  

In twelve short months I lived in Santa Monica, Westwood, and the edge of Beverly Hills, worked in Beverly Hills and Burbank, volunteered on a federal senate campaign, worked for a UCLA professor, babysat, saw movies, strolled the Third Street Promenade, went dancing, bore witness (if only from the comfort of a Westwood chair) to the L.A. riots, smoked weed for the first time, saw movie stars walking around town (once a roommate reported that he partied with Gary Coleman, who allegedly wore a purple cape and surrounded himself with women--the image stuck with me), traveled across the state, visited Tijuana for the first time, spent New Year's Eve in Vegas, flew to Missouri to see an old friend, traveled up the 101 all the way to Vancouver and back again, hosted friends and family, got a dog, moved in with a girlfriend, got dumped by a girlfriend, rode a horse, spent time at Disneyland, toured Venice Beach and Marina Del Ray and Pacific Palisades, applied to graduate schools, interviewed for countless jobs (at a congressman's district office, at a congressman's campaign office, at an assemblywoman's district office, at the Israeli lobby's office, at the State Department, at the L.A. City Treasurer's Office), and yes, dear Soviet Roulette fans, read Tolstoy's War and Peace--all of it, every page--although I was sometimes sorely tempted to skip the domestic scenes in favor of those which were set in the Napoleonic Wars.  (For what's worth, I remember thinking that there were two types of people in this world, those who wanted to read about Natasha, and those who preferred to read about Napoleon.)

What should the reader make of this surfeit of memory?  What's the connection to Soviet history?  I can scarcely find any.  But on my recent trip, I stopped into a Hollywood bookstore and bought Karl Scholgel's Moscow 1937.  This book takes a synchronic rather than a diachronic look at the events of 1937.   That is to say, the author tries to look at a constellation of overlapping events rather than a line up of incidents.  At first I wondered what the difference in approaches might look like, or mean.   But then I thought about my own experience in Los Angeles.  In many ways my life in 1991-1992 wasn't connected to my life in either 1990 or my life in 1993.  I wasn't the same before or after L.A.

In fact, when you visit Southern California you instantly understand how and why a piece of history can't always be understood in relationship to that period of time which precedes it or succeeds it. I remember the first time I landed in L.A.  The plants weren't the same, the girls weren't the same, the weather wasn't the same, the homes weren't the same, the geography wan't same, the work wasn't the same.  My job was a case in point.  In Chicago or Washington, D.C., your boss was generally older, more educated, and better dressed than you.  In L.A. the reverse was true:  you expected your boss to wear horrible Hawaiian print shirts, swear constantly, and eventually reveal that he had dropped out of high school in his junior year of high school.  I remember one such boss who called my colleagues and I into a conference room to give us his best rendition of a motivational speech.  "This firm is like a family.  I want you all to know that.  However, if you f##k up you'll be fired.  It's that simple."  

At any rate, I suspect that Russia in 1937 wasn't quite the same as Russia in any other year.  It's certainly possible to explain the year of the purges by referring to Lenin's brutal philosophy of politics.  It's also possible to explain 1937 with reference to Russia's tortured experience with Tsarism and global war.  But these explanations hide something unique about the chaos and terror of the worst years of show trials, purges and gulags.  In fact, Scholgel's tour de horizon of Moscow in 1937 helps us to isolate something rare and terrifying about this moment in time.  And that is that this society at this time was terrified, disorganized, and hovering on the brink of collapse.  Ordinarily, we think of Soviet Russia in 1937 as brutal but efficiently totalitarian, moving the country inexorably toward victory over the NAZIS and global superpower status.  But isolating 1937 from the Soviet Union's glorious short-term future deflects us from the realization that Stalin and his colleagues were desperately trying to manage demographic anarchy, cultural and social change, international isolation, technological vertigo, and colossal economic failure. 

If you look at 1937 as one moment in a long string of moments, you might just miss the main point.  As one moment in a string of moments, 1937 is the year in which Stalin employed terror to consolidate his hold on power as he moved his country toward superpower status.  But viewed without reference to either the past or the future, 1937 was a moment in which Stalin and Bolsheviks in general struggled desperately to remain in power by blaming others for the general disarray of their world.  The Revolution was twenty years old in that year, but it hadn't brought peace, prosperity, security, or even the basic promise of socialism:  planning.  In fact, things were anything but well planned in the age of five year plans.  Nothing was where it was supposed to be;  no one was doing what he was supposed to do;  everything seemed to be falling apart.  There were only two explanations for the chaos:  either socialism wasn't effectively managing modernity, or socialism was being sabotaged.  Stalin, and perhaps Russians to a greater extent than we might like to acknowledge, choose sabotage.  

Fade back to L.A.  The year was 1991.  1991 was like no other year, before or since.  It wasn't the continuation of my high school life;  nor was it an anticipation of my Midwest or East Coast or even Southwestern lives.  It was a year like no other.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Brodsky quoted from Less Than One:  Selected Essays.

"The past doesn't radiate such immense monotony as the future does.  Because of its plentitude. the future is propaganda."

"The real history of consciousness starts with one's first lie."

"A one-syllable word can't do much in Russian.  But when suffixes are applied, or endings, or prefixes, then feathers fly."

"Four years in the army (in which men were drafted at the age of nineteen) completed the process of total surrender to the state."

"There isn't a Russian executioner who isn't scared of turning victim one day, nor is there the sorriest victim who would not knowledge (if only to himself) a mental ability to become an executioner."

"In a centralized state all rooms look alike:  the office of my school's principal was an exact replica of the interrogation chambers I began to frequent some five years later."

"...along with all the complexes of a superior nation, Russia has the great inferiority complex of a small country."

Still, according to the seven veils of secrecy that blanker almost everything in Russia that has to do with heavy industry, the factory had a code name, Post Office Box 671."

"In a sense, there never was such a thing as childhood."

"I have always envied those nineteenth century characters who were able to look back and distinguish the landmarks of their lives, of their development."

"A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic."

"They all got various sentences.  The Jew, naturally, got capital punishment."

"The same idiotic lot befell millions and millions.  Existence as such, monotonous in itself, has been reduced to uniform rigidity by the centralized state."

"I remember once standing behind his chair, thinking that if I killed him all his books would become mine, since he was then unmarried and had no children."

" the puritanical atmosphere of Stalin's Russia, one could get turned on by the one hundred percent innocent Socialist Realism painting called Admission to the Komsomol."

"...Russians--at at least in my generation--never resort to shrinks...Psychiatry is the state's property."

" the country where I spent thirty-two years, adultery and movie-going are the only forms of free enterprise.  Plus Art."

"The formula for prison is a lack of space counterbalanced by a surplus of time."

"If the standard of living during that period amounted to 15 or 20 percent, the improvement in weaponry production could be expressed in tens of thousands of percent."

"If there is any reason for pride in my past, it is that I became a convict, not a soldier."

"Bikes were old, of pre-war make, and the owner of a soccer ball was considered bourgeois."

"This country, with its magnificent inflected language capable of expressing the subtlest nuances of the human psyche, with an incredible ethical sensitivity (a good result of its otherwise tragic history), had all the makings of a cultural, spiritual paradise, a real vessel of civilization.  Instead it became a drab hell, with a materialist dogma and pathetic consumerist groupings."

"You cannot cover a ruin with a page of Pravda."

"There were no supplies, there was sheer demand."

"Also, the more one remembers, the closer one is perhaps to dying."

"At least its been my impression that any experience coming from the Russian realm, even when depicted with photographic precision, simply bounces off the English language..."

"History, no doubt, is bound to repeat itself:  after all, like men, history doesn't have many options."

"I merely regret the fact that such an advanced notion of Evil as happens to be in the possession of Russians has been denied entry into consciousness on the grounds of its convoluted syntax."

"...a map with who hemispheres, of which only one is legal."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Poets and Historians

One cannot understand an historical event merely by accumulating facts.  If this were possible, I would, by now, know what the Russian Revolution was all about.  The trick is to think about an event from multiple perspectives, to use varied theoretical frameworks, analogies, and creative techniques to gain new vantage points on a historical moment or temporary pause in the remorseless flow of time.  The process is akin to therapy.  A patient enters therapy with a single explanation for his or her current predicament.  "Doctor,  I can't form meaningful relationships. Why not?  Because my mother purposefully dropped me when I was a small child and ever since that day I can't trust anyone." It's the therapist's job to apply new interpretations to an old story.  "Are you sure this is what happened?  Is it possible that she merely made a mistake?  And even if this did happen, are you sure this story isn't really a story of liberation from your mother?  Sure, she dropped you, but maybe drop is too strong a word.  Maybe she was trying to get you to take your first steps, trying to make sure you were able to move independently from her."

The possibilities for creative interpretation, story-telling, and even myth-making, are endless.  We use multiple perspectives to get a handle on larger phenomena in much the same way.  Take the case of my analysis of a dysfunctional institution with which I was, long ago, once affiliated.  I always wondered what it was about the place that made it so ungovernable.  The numbers didn't really offer any clear explanation for the chaos.  Since one couldn't merely use statistics to identify the source of the institution's abiding malaise, I was forced to come up with theoretical frameworks to make sense of the fundamental problem.

I started with Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  At first I believed the college was foundering as a result of one or two cynical individuals who had over time gone rogue, eventually eschewing even the lowest common denominators of higher education "civilization," in this case the minimum standards and requirements of accrediting bodies and higher education associations.  I naturally thought of Kurtz who, in the context of higher education, would have said:  "Fail them all.  Let God sort them out."

My next explanatory framework was predicated on archeology.  I often wondered why previous administrators had done so little to provide the university with even a rudimentary system of policies and standard operating procedures to keep things going from one day to the next.  I wondered this, until one day, while working on a brand new system for budgeting and planning, I accidentally uncovered a budgeting and planning model that looked remarkably like my own, although it had apparently been abandoned only shortly after its adoption.  I felt like a petty prince of the Middle Ages, smug in his mud-hut sovereignty, until one day unearthing the ruins of a vast system of Roman roads, aqueducts, temples, and amphitheaters.

It's not that people never got around to creating policies and procedures:  they did so, and in fact they did so over and over again, but time had swept all evidence of their progress away.  In a sense, the university had always been staffed with good people.  It's just that this culture was pre-literate:  no one kept records, and, sadly, even oral tradition had faded away.  We were in a sense like Easter Island.  Although a great people had once lived there, nobody knew how or why the great stone figures had come to exist, or what they were meant to do.

Not believing that Conrad and archeology had fully explained my situation, I turned to the social theorist Jurgen Habermas.  Habermas had authored the idea of a public sphere to explain something about modern politics.  According to his construct, the French Revolution wasn't really a tale of capitalism, although the growth of the bourgeoisie wasn't insignificant to Habermas' theory of Enlightenment. Instead, the French Revolution was the inevitable consequence of the emergence of a public sphere, in which men and women participated in a general dialogue or even debate about what was good for the body politic.  In most institutions, Habermas would explain a lot.  The faculty senate of most institutions really does mirror a public sphere.  The president, or monarch, has a great deal of power, but he or she doesn't rule in a vacuum:  ordinary men and women--the faculty in this case--help to shape a healthy culture by debating policies geared toward the health of the institution as a whole in a public forum.

Viewed from this perspective, this former institution suffered from the complete absence of a public sphere.  At this small institution, all politics were local.  Every decision was a personal one.  The faculty senate did not debate great issues.  Overall, the college was home to an anti-public sphere.  That is to say, even when one might have expected people to move away from their own private, day-to-day interests to a more generalized discussion of issues that threatened the place as a whole, that shift never happened.  Whether the institution was too small for a public sphere, or people weren't properly trained for it, the institution was mired at all times in personal rather than public discussions.  If a student success initiative was being proposed, nobody asked how many students it would help, what the opportunity costs would be, or how success would be measured.  Instead, they asked:  who had the idea, and is he or she my friend?  Would payment for the work go to me or my enemy?  Habermas the theoretician remained relevant, but the college had created an anti-public sphere rather than the ordinary variety.

Another way of explaining the university's troubles related to post-colonial theory and the experience of newly independent nations in the 1960s and 1970s.  In the age of colonial independence, observers and participants alike were often shocked to discover that Utopian aspirations of previously subjugated people broke quickly against the rocks of apparently local violence, despotism, and corruption.  Often, newly independent peoples were introduced to governments that competed on equal grounds with the former colonial powers in terms of both cruelty and economic inefficiency. How could this be the case?

Historians continue to struggle with this question. A million people died soon after the birth of India and Pakistan, but who is to blame?  Colonial powers intentionally created many of the divisions that ultimately led to catastrophe in the age of independence.  But it may also be true that many of the new colonial elites were merely emulating the cynicism and indifference of their former colonial masters.  This may have been the trouble with my former institution.  The original evil may have been perpetrated by a select group of bad or self-consciously hypocritical leaders, but eventually many other actors, some of them benevolent in other contexts, learned to emulate their ostensible superiors on the job.  Of course, many actors behave in bad faith on purpose:  they know how and why they are defrauding the system.  But others are merely reflecting the values of their ostensible betters.

Another way to take a bite from the apple of post-colonial theory, was to postulate that the university suffered from an inert or disempowered student body, and that this study body resembled a colonized people prior to independence.  To put matters another way, Belgium was able to mistreat Congolese because these men and women weren't citizens of the motherlands:  poor, uneducated, illiterate, and disqualified from any political representation whatsoever, Belgian officials and businessmen had nothing to fear from even the most extreme forms of exploitation, up to and including torture, enslavement, and mutilation.  Did the same principle hold true for my former employer?  The institution served working-class, African-American students, who had relatively little previous experience with higher education.  Do institutions atrophy without the stimulus of criticism from people empowered by either racial or class privilege to demand more from their teachers and administrators?

Another explanation for the university's ill-health came straight out of the pages of Soviet history.  When we look at the example of glasnost and perestroika, we ask ourselves why the Soviet apparatchik  class didn't rise up and overthrow Gorbachev.  If Gorbachev was threatening to undermine the Party's historical monopoly of power and even subvert the foundations of the Soviet empire, why not depose the man?  The answer hardly makes sense to Americans who who have never experienced anything like Soviet rule, but the simple fact is that for all of their arrogance to ordinary Russian citizens, Communist Party members were conditioned to accept orders, not to challenge them.

This is how the logic of Soviet-style obedience worked at my former institution.  Once, at the beginning of a search process to fill the position of vice president of teaching and learning, a well-placed colleague, one of the campus leaders, came to me in genuine consternation, asking:  "I haven't heard who we are supposed to nominate for the position, have you?"  Although outranking me by several administrative layers, this university apparatchik apparently never thought for a moment that he was entitled to do anything other than try to discern the will of some higher political power.  Perhaps here lay the institution's greatest weakness:  the system of informal authority precluded all forms of independent thinking or local decision-making.  As under Gorbachev, no matter how unhappy they were, not even key academic administrators believed they were entitled act independently to solve problems.

Once, when listening to a colleague complain about the institution's weaknesses, I realized that looking at an institution as dysfunctional can itself be a limiting mode of explanation.  Historians are familiar with this line of thinking.  If we ask, why did the Russian army do so well in the Second World War, we fail to see the reverse of the question, which is equally valid:  why did the Russian army do so badly in the contest, especially in the first phase of the war?  In terms of the ailing university, I urged my colleague to try to approach the problem of the college's weaknesses differently.  Instead of asking about the source of a university's dysfunction, why not ask how it was that the university has persisted in the face of enduring problems?

Educational theorists call this capacity for survival in the face of heavy odds "resilience." Students in the inner city face overwhelming odds.  They may suffer from hunger pangs;  they lack educational role models;  and they may need to overcome violence, both at school and at home.  And yet, despite all of these challenges, many students do overcome these barriers and ultimately achieve real success.  What makes them so resilient?  Perhaps this is the real question that requires an answer.  To return to the case of our troubled university, we knew that the university suffered from a dozen or so different challenges, but ultimately it hadn't collapsed under the weight of its disadvantages.  Instead, it survived.  What ultimately accounted for this resilience?  Were there good-intentioned people holding the place together?  Did the unions offer a measure of stability?  Did the university have a base of support from the local community?  Whatever the explanation, something accounted for the institution's endurance.

If this level of complexity attends the analysis of an individual in therapy, or an institution in crisis, what level of complexity attends a major world event such as the Russian Revolution?  In truth, global phenomena require persistent attempts to employ creative explanatory frameworks.  I'm struck by this truth every time I put aside histories of the Russian Revolution and pick up a fictional account of the same event.  It's impossible to overstate the degree to which Serge's novels or Mayakovsky poems tell us what the Revolution really meant.

I think of Joseph Brodsky's explanation of the attitude of poets toward political events.  He said that Anna Akhmatova had sometimes been accused of opposing the Revolution, but that this wasn't accurate.  Instead, Brodsky said that great poets raised themselves above the fray.  They could be neither friendly or unfriendly toward everyday politics, at least when it came to their artistic posture.  Instead, they accepted the age in all its imperfections.  They saw the world from the perspective of God, as St. Augustine might have written, outside of time.   This is why history is too important to be left to the historians.   It's something that needs to be evaluated, diagnosed,  told, mythologized, created, debated, and portrayed frenetically, and on an ongoing basis.  There is probably no single way to explain the meaning of the Russian Revolution, but if there is, it won't be an historian who stumbles upon that meaning.

Special note:  This post is a work of fiction.  Any similarity to any actually existing institution, real or imagined, is pure coincidence.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Liza Knapp on Russian Literature

Looking at my poor blog's record of annual activity, I noticed a marked decline in productivity from on year to the next.  Determined to reverse the trend, I will post something very brief today about Liza Knapp's audio lecture series, The Giants of Russian Literature:  Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.  What shall I say about this Modern Scholar course?  Only that it left little impression on me.  No matter:  today I'm going to be a good student of Soviet production by committing to the quantity rather than the quality of my posts.  Dear reader, the problem is not all on my side:  audio courses about literature rarely seem to succeed.  I'm all for literacy criticism, but most audio courses dealing with novels seem to offer little more than thinly disguised synopses.  While I have nothing negative to say about this particular course, I can't see how it benefits anybody to spend more than fifty percent of a lecture describing how characters move through time toward marriage, or worse, death.  

At any rate, Knapp gives us some biographical detail about these four authors of genius.  We're reminded that Turgenev was a master stylist, an unrepentant Westernizer, the father of an illegitimate girl, the lover of an opera singer (the physical aspect of this relationship not absolutely proven), and the author of a book, Notes of a Hunter, which helped to discredit the institution of serfdom. We're also reminded that Dostoevsky--Christian mystic, Slavophile, and literary innovator (Knapp uses Notes from the Underground as well as the Diary of a Writer to prove the point)--was once condemned to death for joining the ranks of a minor conspiracy against the government.  And Tolstoy?  Knapp discusses his multidimensional life, in which he played a shockingly large variety of different parts, including moralist, landowner, author, aristocrat, Christian penitent, autodidact, translator, bee-keeper, ersatz peasant laborer, patriarch, and saint.  Knapp's emphasis with Chekhov is his dualism as both doctor and writer.  

Knapp's course is long on description but just a little short on analysis.  Her purpose, however, may be limited to getting us interested enough in Anna Karenina or the Underground Man or the Lady with a Dog to go out and read the novels or short story.  Her thesis about the nature of the Russian literature is that it offer English readers something special:  an expanded understanding of the nature of love.  That is to say, the great Russian writers don't limit discussions of love to physical and romantic love.  Instead, they explore many other kinds of love, including love for one's fellow human beings, love of personal or social transformation, and love for the transcendent.