Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Interview with Jim Pinnells, Author of Saturn's Daughters

Many thanks to author Jim Pinnells, author of Saturn's Daughters, for the following interview.

What first prompted you to write this book?  And was there something missing in either the contemporary coverage of terrorism or the historiography on the subject? 

I completed the first version of Saturn’s Daughters not long after I left university – many years ago. At that time I knew very little about revolution and even less about women so the book was little more than an adventure story. What attracted me to the subject was the romantic self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries, the hopelessness of their quest, and the superb arrogance of a handful of students taking on an Empire. I returned to the theme in middle-age, rewriting the story from the point-of-view of Countess Anna. A solitary, scheming, rich, beautiful aristocrat now takes on not only an Empire but the forces of revolution as well. Fortunately by this time I’d learned a lot more about revolution and a shade more about women. In my late sixties I gave the novel its final shape. It becomes now a tragedy: noble idealism that necessarily destroys the idealists. Three women share the heroine’s burden, two fictional and one historical. What attracts women to self-destructive violence? Why do women feature so prominently in the ranks of revolutionaries? How closely linked are violence and sexuality?  By this time I’d had a good look at terrorism from the practical, preventive side and I’d thought a great deal about female psychology – which is not to say that I’d understood women. Far from it.

As to contemporary coverage of terrorism, the press never seems to get much beyond the question: Why? “Why did these young Chechens, to whom the United States had so generously opened its arms, repay this kindness by bombing the Boston Marathon?” The question is an accusation and no answer is offered. Scholars probe deeper than journalists, but they seldom have access to terrorists in the same way that Truman Capote had access to the Dick and Perry. Journalists, scholars – and novelists. A writer such as Dostoevsky in The Possessed (and in the unwritten but planned sequel) can probe the psychology of terrorism in an unscientific but highly provocative way. That is the approach I’ve tried in Saturn’s Daughters.
How did you go about researching this book, and specifically the history of terrorism in nineteenth century Russia?

Half a century of reading, asking and discussing with practitioners on both sides of the terrorist fence have been distilled into this book. I’m a story-teller, not a historian, but the great libraries (British Museum, Cambridge University Library and so on) are open to researchers of all kinds. I try to read not only about the period, but also to read what my characters would have read. Newspapers, magazines, manuals. Sometimes, though, a request slip for books can get you into trouble: Make Your Own Dynamite, Explosives for Home and Farm, Letter Patent No X dated 1868 for IMPROVED EXPLOSIVE COMPOUND. Even the sleepiest librarian begins to wonder. What I wanted to know, of course, was what information was publically available to Kibalchich in 1880. His nitroglycerine was superior to anything available on the market. How did he do it?

One of things I liked most about the book was your careful treatment of the relationship between women and terrorism.  What do you think most historians misunderstand about the role of women in the history of either Russian or global terrorism?

One of the women in Saturn’s Daughters, Evgenya, takes up boxing in a gym where her man of the moment (known as the Hangman) earns money sparring. She enjoys the physicality and the punishment her body has to take. She wins a couple of professional fights, fighting with bare fists and punches, kicks and head butts all allowed. Professional women at that time mostly fought naked. Later in the story Evgenya tides herself over financially by sparring in a women’s gym in Moscow. Yes, in 1880. Women as fighters and killers. I find little or nothing about that in the standard treatments of terrorism. Especially treatments of terrorism in the nineteenth century? It isn’t there. And again, revolutionary sexuality (“free love” as it was called) is also sidelined. No contemporary source discusses it in detail, though What is to be Done? comes close. Was free love the “norm”? In Saturn’s Daughters the subject is at least addressed.

Although your book is primarily concerned with the nineteenth century roots of Russian terrorism, what does this history reveal to you about revolutionary violence and state-sponsored terrorism under Stalinism?
When I first visited Leningrad in 1970, there were streets named after Perovskaya and Zhelyabov (now renamed). In 1967, Leo Arnshtam made a film with the title “Sofya Perovskaya.” Lenin’s older brother, Alexander, carried terrorist credentials. Vera Figner, Mikhail Frolenko and others lived in the Soviet Union well into the Stalin era. Obviously the subject of revolutionary terrorism was not taboo in Soviet times, but it sits uncomfortably with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Under Stalin, the Narodnaya Volya had little or no press. Under Krushchev and Brezhnev it was only a shade warmer. To me this embarrassed half-silence is part and parcel of the great Soviet paradox: the way in which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union positioned itself as a revolutionary party and clamoured for revolution on the international stage while maintaining the strictest control on revolutionary (aka counter-revolutionary) activity at home.  In the Spanish Civil War, paradox collapsed into grisly farce. Though farce is the wrong word: it had no funny side. Terrorism from below and terrorism from above have nothing in common: no common goals, methods or underlying political beliefs. That the Soviet Empire traces its origins, at least in part, to the Decembrists and the Narodnaya Volya is one of the great ironies of history.

Your book seems to link terrorism to both regressive and progressive social factors.  Would you say that Russian terrorism should be linked more to Russia’s so-called “backward” political traditions, or, paradoxically, to its fascination with hyper-modern forms of politics? Or is this a false choice?

Regressive – progressive. To put your question a shade more concretely, is it progressive or regressive when young and privileged members of a hereditary nobility reject their wealth, reject their privileges, and sacrifice their lives in an attempt to put things right with their society? In a sense, of course, it is a higher paternalism: the insulted and injured cannot change the world, so, in our superior wisdom, we must do it for them -- even if we die in the attempt. That is our feudal duty. It is easy to mock such high-mindedness. When Andrei Zhelyabov, a genuine peasant, joined the movement he was lionized. Sofya Perovskaya went to the length of falling in love with him. It is easy to mock, but mockery misses the point. Personally I don’t see these young people as drawing-room poseurs sucked into unwilling action by their own progressive rhetoric. They were not toying with Utopias. In Saturn’s Daughters I‘ve tried to imagine myself (and the reader) into their skins. “Excuse me, could be tell me how it feels to be a member of the Narodnaya Volya? Progressive? Or regressive?” “Just let me get this load of mud to the end of the mine tunnel, just let me get this suitcase of dynamite to Moscow, and I’ll try to answer your question.”

What, if anything, does your book reveal to students of terrorism today?  What are the parallels to nineteenth century Russia?  What are the differences?

In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles famously regrets that he is “Part of that Power which always wills evil, always procures good.” For the Narodnaya Volya, I think the situation was the opposite: they willed good but inevitably procured evil. Saturn’s Daughter’s examines for each of the characters the mechanism that kicks in when terror is adopted as a political weapon. A group decides to blow up a factory after work so that no one is injured. The political impact is trivial, but the members of the group are now criminal and permanently “on the run.” To stay free and continue the good work, it will perhaps be necessary to kill an occasional policeman and certainly to execute spies within one’s ranks. To move the work forward, bigger bangs must be created within ever riskier contexts. The logic of events extinguishes the voice of “conscience” – or of common humanity if the word conscience is no longer appropriate. “I know it is wrong to put the lives of innocent bystanders and children at risk, but we have no choice.” This self-brutalization, doing evil knowing it to be evil, in the long run, and sometimes in the short run, turns an idealist into a psychopath. The mechanism is clear in the lives of the women and men who coalesced into the Narodnaya Volya with the single goal of murdering the Tsar – at no matter what cost. And when Tsar Alexander was dead, Tsar Nicholas set to work perfecting the police state. As usual, the fruit of terror was repression, not enfranchisement.

Not much has changed. Political terror still attracts idealists. Whatever they may become later, few terrorists start out as the “perverts and savages” of the popular press. I think this idealism deserves far more attention than it gets. Also unchanged is the fact that political terror still induces repression, as the lines at every airport and the NDA “scandal” so clearly illustrate. On the other hand, the technology of terror has been upgraded. The three basic requirements – a big bang, fast communication and fast transport – have not changed, though full fuel tanks have replaced dynamite, the internet has replaced the telegraph, and planes have replaced trains.

Would it be fair to say, looking at terrorism then and now, that political terror is worse than a crime and worse than a sin – it is a mistake?

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