Friday, March 8, 2013

Diplomacy at Pushkin House

The other day I met a friend I had not seen in over twenty years.  Insofar as this blog is centered on history and nostalgia, I don’t mind dwelling upon such encounters, even when they aren’t ostensibly related to Russian history.  However, this friend, a pleasant reminder of the distant past, reminded me that I have been enthralled with Russia for longer than I care to admit.  Talking with my friend, I am reminded that Russia has been with me for since early adulthood, if not before. A single dinnertime conversation reminded me of the complex circuitry of obsession.  Long, long ago, this friend had given me a copy of my first Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Possessed.  That book was of course a revelation to me.  At the time, I was stunned that anybody had been able to publish a book like that—full of fire, sexual depravity, and dark nihilism.  The fact that tsarist Russian censors had let the book pass seemed even more incomprehensible, but I suppose conservative aristocrats and radical intellectuals each have different takes on Dostoevsky’s treatment of conspiratorial murder in the service of atheism, nihilism, and revolution.

The evening’s Russian leitmotif doesn’t end there.  This friend had introduced me to Ayn Rand, although she currently denies any affiliation for the Russian objectivist.  At the very least, this friend taught me how to pronounce the thinker’s name, a unique talent in my shady corner of a small Chicago suburb.  Unconvinced that I can stretch my theme even further?  My friend had a brilliant father who invented a popular board game called Diplomacy, a game in which the Russian Empire loomed large.  The game is set in Europe on the eve of the First World War.  In this game, up to seven players attempt to manipulate others into helping to upset the balance of power.  The game depends on the near-equality of all seven Great Powers, which included Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Italy, Turkey, and of course Russia.

As always, Russia was unique.  While all other countries began the game with three armies (or navies as the case may be), Russia alone was granted the privilege or responsibility of fielding four military units.  Looking back, this anomaly seems fitting.  When you played Russia, you were inevitably forced to think in multi-dimensional ways.  Specifically, you became involved in the Balkans and, at the same time, you moved again foes in the Baltic and Northern Europe.  The strategic and symbolic effect of Russia’s position in the game mirrored that of historic Russia, which often balanced forces in these two areas, or balanced forces on its eastern and western flanks.  

The game was always a memorable if exhausting experience.  One played for hours upon hours and often gave up short of a decisive conclusion.  The classical principle of balance of power almost always prevented the game from moving quickly to an end.  If England grew stronger, France and German inevitably combined to overcome the threat before turning against one another.  The Russian position resembled that of all the other powers, except for straddling two fronts.  But its other unique characteristic was its location at the edge of the world.  Although vulnerable on each of its two fronts to potentially superior forces, it faced no enemies to its back and therefore never quite collapsed altogether.  

Thinking about the way Russia was represented on this board game reminds me of the extent to which we think about nations symbolically.  What is Russia?  Russians have of course wrestled with this question for several hundred years.  But even ordinary, armchair gamers are confronted with constructed notions of the Russia nation-state.  In Diplomacy, Russia is a big country,  a threatening country:  by virtue of its four military units, potentially more powerful than any other single country.  In Diplomacy, Russia has a split personality:  its armies and navies are powerful, but hopelessly separated from one another by strategically unfavorable terrain.  Russia is an oriental power, heavily engaged with the other European powers but ultimately unique, situated at the edge of the ideologically constructed zone called Europe.

This notion of a constructed country comes in part from Antoinette Burton, who in turn relies on Benedict Anderson and a host of postcolonial theorists and practitioners.   Burton spends a lot of her time diagnosing Britain.  Who came up with this idea of what Britain means?  Who benefits from this idea?  Who reproduces this idea?  Thinking back on my evening with an old friend, I can’t help but reflect on what Burton might call the contingent or even artificial nature of history.  On a personal level, my idea of Russia, even my love of Russia, was influenced by a hundred different but related circumstances, including a board game, a Russian novel, and the public person of one of Communist Russia’s most famous critics.  If my own definition of Russia has been manufactured in chaotic but not entirely random ways, how should we think about America’s overall perception of Russia and the Russian past?  And why stop there?  Who has gained, and who gains today, by a European or even global thesis that Russia is backward, violent, bipolar, or even soulful?  I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Russia, but much less time thinking about how and why I’ve encountered the texts that I’ve read about Russia. 

I’ll conclude by mentioning one of Antoinette Burton’s books, Archive Stories:  Factions, Fictions, and the Writing of History, a collection of essays by various authors about the strange career of specific historical archives.  Burton’s introductory message reminds us that archives are not themselves ahistorical.  Each archive has a history.  How and why archives were produced and maintained over time, and how they get to us matters a great deal.  If we don’t have Foucault’s understanding of power, which is always already local, and always already contested, we may easily misread the sources, “missing the forest for the trees” as it were. 

Take John Randolph’s essay in Archive Stories, entitled “On the biography of the Bakunin Family Archive.” In Randolph’s essay, we see how Bakunin’s papers have “lived” a long, complicated, and deeply politicized life.  Over time, they have reflected a Romantic cult of sentimentality, supported the Bakunin’s sisters’ intervention in the public sphere, and undergirded Liberal, Bolshevik, and even Thaw political positions.  Looking at the archive as a contested site of evolving political and cultural discursive positions is one way to ensure that the Bakunin papers don’t end up propping up an ahistorical or unexamined myth of Russia as a whole. 

It’s interesting to hear Randolph mix his own personal observations about life in the archive with his broader treatment of the Bakunin papers. For when Randolph reminds us that the women who guard the papers at Pushkin House today are underpaid, we note that the archives not only have a history, but they may have a gender.  At any rate, I remember my own awkward excursion to Pushkin House two years ago.  Not knowing the language, nor even the history of the place, I ventured there as a tourist to the shrine of Russian literary culture.  The goal was mystical, to soak up the religious afterglow of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Bulgakov.

I guess this is the point of Archive Stories, to remind us that such pilgrimages come at a price if they reinforce or reproduce distorted or ultimately harmful views of a people.  For my part, I’ll confess a moment of supreme awkwardness in Pushkin House, a moment that certainly reflects Burton’s concerns about ethnocentric and quasi-imperial attitudes toward the Other.  In the archive, I spoke my own language.  Worse still, I assumed that Russia was in economic free fall, and at one point offered a generous archivist a “tip” for spending so much time walking me through the exhibits.  She refused, of course, but the audacity of my own condescension left me feeling ridiculous.  I too am a part of the history of the Russia “idea.”

This post is dedicated to Alan Calhamer,  inventor of Diplomacy and one of LaGrange Park's finest minds.

1 comment:

  1. It's like Proust says, we always end up doing the thing we're second best at..."