Monday, May 27, 2013

Russia for Kids

A few weeks ago my son's second grade teacher asked parents if they wanted to visit school to talk about a country they had visited.  Naturally, I decided to embarrass my son by speaking to his class, and two others, about Russia.  Not having taught any subject in several years, it took me some time to prepare my PowerPoint slides for this day.  The problem was made worse by my unfamiliarity with the audience.  What were second graders really interested in?  What level of information could they possibly remember?  Would it be worse for them, or me, if the information was too simplistic or too complex?  My son knows I read about Russia, even think about Russia, all the time.  Once he pretended to be me, and his first act of mimicry was to declare:  "Hi, I'm Dad.  I  love Russian history."  In the end, I put together a series of PowerPoint slides that asked the kids seemingly easy questions that were slightly more complex than they appeared.  Was Russia a cold or a hot country?  Russia is, of course, a cold country, at least compared to most other countries, the U.S. included.  But of course Russians can live in the Crimea or other relatively warm climates.  Was Russia far from the U.S. or close to the U.S.?  Well, it would take several long flights to reach Moscow, and several more to reach Yekaterinburg.  However, as Sarah Palin famously reminded us all, at a distance of only four kilometers, Russia is visible from the Alaskan shoreline.  Is Russia flat or mountainous?  Showing both a picture and a map of the steppe, I went with flat, but showed a picture of Urals to provide some "relief."  

Again and again, I asked students questions with more than one answer.  Is Russia an old country or a new country?  When one student said it was an old country, I gave him a postcard of one of the tsar's palaces to acknowledge the correctness of the answer.  "Yes," I said, "Russia was old.  Russians had been around since the Vikings, if not before."  But when another student said it was a new country, she also got a postcard, for in a sense, the current iteration of Russia only emerged when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  Is Russia a place with a few people or a lot of people?  I explained that Russia was a populous country, but also sparsely populated, extremely so in parts.  

Presenting to about 90 second graders was a wonderful experience on several levels.  But it was also interesting to see how tempting it is to reproduce some negative forms of nationalism.  When I initially began preparing to meet my son's class, I thought I should concentrate on Russia's accomplishments, and in a sense I did.  I gave the class a few reasons why I "loved" Russia.  These included Russia's accomplishments in music, poetry, and space exploration.  But of course pointing to aspects of Russian "greatness" can imply that other countries are "less great," so I went out of my way to mention that all countries are wonderful in their own way.  I also talked about oppositional figures such as Anna Akhmatova, whose contribution to Russia included quiet resistance to tyranny, and Tolstoy, who contributed to Gandhi's understanding of nonviolence, and Martin Luther King's too.  

It seems patently absurd to attempt to give second graders a complex understanding of Russian culture and history.  Better by far to stick to the facts, such as this one:  that the coldest inhabited place on Earth is Russia.  But who can say when people start to develop a monolithic or hegemonic view of culture if we don't at least develop the habits of mind which lead students to think about complexity, diversity, and resistance to power?  Thus, when I mentioned Pushkin, Russia's "Shakespeare," I explained that he his grandfather had been African.  It's never too early to teach kids that Russia, like most countries, is a product of mixing, hybridization, and diversity.  For this reason, I also put a photo of a St. Petersburg mosque right alongside photos of Orthodox churches.  Perhaps it says something that ten children volunteered to define the word, "mosque," before one of them seemed to hit on something that approximated a real answer.   All of the kids who ventured an answer got a Russian postcard, of course, except for one enthusiastic child who, when called upon, merely introduced himself.  

I hope the kids got something from the presentation.  It made me feel good but it also made me laugh at myself.  After studying Russia for years, I couldn't answer some of the kids' basic questions.  How had Russians built their churches?  I used that question to talk about serfdom, not really knowing the extent to which serfs had or had not contributed to the construction of Russia's myriad cathedrals.  What did the colors of the Russian flag stand for?  I had no idea.  Where did the Russian language come from?  Luckily, I wasn't asked to teach the kids anything about the language or food.  I would have failed both tests for sure.  I think the main thing I learned from the presentation is that we approach a subject like Russia from various angles and perspectives, but this approach is never an accident.  This choice reveals something about the presenter, the audience, and the subject.  Had I not paused for a second or two before presenting Russia to the kids, I might very easily have reproduced Putin's version of the subject.  And while the kids might not have suffered from the error, I would have been giving myself the green light to make similar errors to older audiences.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Dimensions of Revolution

Revolutions are inherently fascinating phenomena.  Unlike some other historical events or processes, revolutions never unfold in one or two discrete realms of human interaction or meaning.  The power and influence of revolutions can't be easily summed up.  Revolutions seem to impact the destinies of humankind out of all proportion to the political or economic change they engender.  How can we describe the principle ways in which revolutions overrun history?  What are they words that conjure up their complexity?  Let's start with some of the obvious ones.

Revolutions are about VIOLENCE.  They are soaked in blood.  I once wrote a post comparing revolutionary violence to true crime novels.  The comparison makes sense to me.  We read good true crime novels not only to explore the darker aspects of the human story, but also to illuminate the banality of everyday life.  When Truman Capote describes a tragic multiple murder, he tells us something about the nature of evil, but also something about the way ordinary farm life operates on the Kansas plains.  Thus revolutions revolutions shed blood, but in doing so they reveal both the dark underpinnings of civic life while paradoxically shedding light on those factors that keep ordinary social life operating.  The violence compels us, but it has a dual effect.  Some members of society reenact the violence, while others spend an equal amount of energy trying to prevent its recurrence, perhaps even at the cost of dictatorship.

Revolutions are about TIME.  It's no accident that revolutionaries spend a great deal of time examining the nature of time.  Revolutionaries set up new calendars and new ceremonies to remind them of temporal rupture.  Revolutionaries are obsessed with the differences that exist "before" and "after" what they regard as a foundational event.  It takes a De Tocqueville to see continuity between an ancien regime and a new millennium.

Revolutions speed up time, launching their participants headlong into the FUTURE, which is of course its own revolutionary keyword.  For nobody supports a revolution if it doesn't promise to put a people into a different grammatical tense.  For whatever reason, modern men and women are unhappy with both the past and the present;  they generally prefer the future.  No matter that the future established by Russian and Chinese revolutionaries was so much worse than the immediate and perhaps even distant pasts.  People who accept revolution (and few ultimately resist its seductive power) ultimately do so in the belief that revolution represents an airline ticket to a promising future.  Without revolution, the future will eventually come, but perhaps the proper analogy would be a bus or train ride.  And who has time for the bus or train these days?  Without revolution, men and women might as well walk to the future.

Revolutions are about ART.  Revolutions have an aesthetic component.  People who accept the logic or revolutions usually want to live more beautifully.  Revolutions are of course the ultimate form of performance art.  When the outbreak of the February Revolution in Russia is described, contemporaries often noted that the great event interrupted an actual theatre-going experience of the bourgeoisie. This isn't an accident.  The two events--an actual theatre performance and revolutionary spectacle--resemble one another.  Revolutionaries are seeking a more elegant even beautiful solution to ugly social problems.  If revolutions weren't related to beauty, mundane reform would probably be enough.  You pass laws to improve conditions, you participate in revolution if you want to create a lovely future.

There are other words that conjure about the mysterious power of revolutions.  Revolutions are WORDY, CHAOTIC, BLOODY.  They produce CHANGE and EXCITEMENT.  They are GLOBAL, relying on an appeal to the whole of humanity in order to justify spectacular carnage and ordinarily unacceptable carnage.

Everyday Evil

Americans often find themselves working in outlandish moral environments.  Even the typical employer can resemble a Darwinian jungle, a place in which humanism seems incongruous and ethical thinking seems irrelevant to daily life.  In corporate life, power isn’t easily constrained.  Business leaders silence dissent and lay off troublemakers whenever senior leaders feel threatened.  Apart from the fragile safeguards of union membership and employment law, corporate leaders acts as savagely as the markets they navigate.  Marxist theorists always said as much.  Even so, Americans often have access to some sort of ethical discourse.  If they are disempowered at work, they at least exercise the right to participate in civic life by voting, attending church, or joining neighborhood organizations.  The typical American will be terrorized at some point in his or her career, but usually not simultaneously in every segment of his or her life.  Thus it is almost impossible to conceive of the Soviet experience in totalitarian terror, in which the Communist Party and the state intruded into almost every dimension of a Soviet subject’s struggle to make a life.  

What does such surveillance feel like?  How does it work?  We have only to read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir, Hope Against Hope, to understand.  According to the poet’s wife, the Soviet government declared war on the individual, enlisting the active and ongoing support of countless numbers of allies, including bureaucrats, employers, police agents, educators, cultural actors, neighbors, and alleged friends.  The result was victory, at least in the short run.  The individual always lost.  He or she usually surrendered straightaway, but if he or she offered resistance, the result was the same:  destruction. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir is paradoxical of course.  By writing it, she offers some testimony in favor of the long-term violability of individualism, memory, and revisionist history.  But every page of the book makes one feel that odds against the individual are extraordinarily poor.  If the average American sometimes gives up in the face of corporate dishonesty and brutality, how impossible is it to imagine doing battle with the employer when he or she is fully aligned with a unitary government and its myriad agents?  

Below are a few of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s throwaway lines about the unequal contest she wages for decades.  What’s interesting about Hope Against Hope, is the extent to which even this martyr for poetry admits to feeling implicated in the Soviet Union’s ubiquitous system of oppression.  For Nadezhda, the result was this:  that there really was no way to operate “outside” the evil of what Sheila Fitzpatrick called everyday Stalinism. 

“When we met we spoke in whispers, glancing at the walls for fear of eavesdropping neighbors or hidden microphones.”

“And we tried to become adept in Aesopian language.”

“The old Russian proverb that prison or the poorhouse waits for every man has never been more true…”

“It was typical of Elsberg that, after getting his friend S. sent to a concentration camp, he continue to visit S.’s wife and gave her advice.”

“This was the seventeenth year after the creation of our system.”

“Having entered a realm of non-being, I had lost the sense of death.  In the face of doom, even fear disappears.  Fear is a gleam of hope, the will to live, self-assertion.:

“Later I often wondered whether it is right to scream when you are being beaten and trampled underfoot…I decided it is better to scream…Silence is the real crime against humanity.”

“There is a moment of truth when you are overcome by sheer astonishment:  ‘So that’s where I’m living, and the sort of people I’m living with! So this is what they’re capable of!  So this is the world I live in!”

“People are shot everywhere,” the young physicist L. once said to me.  “More so here, you think?  Well, that’s progress.”

“My children love Stalin most of all, and me only second,” Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida Nikolayevna, used to say.” 

“All the murderers, provocateurs and informers had one feature in common: it never occurred to them that their victims might one day rise up again and speak.”

“…life can be far more terrible than death, as we have seen in our times.”

“’How much further must we go?’ and [Arch-priest Avvakum] replies:  ‘Until the very grave, woman.’”

“They are going to behead me, as in Peter’s time.”

“In my long life I have often imagined that we had reached the limit and that things would ‘ease off,’ as I put it.  Nobody likes to part with his illusions.”

“There was in his mind a total contrast between ‘ordinary people’ and the sort he had encountered in the Lubianka.”

“Walking around Cherdyn, he would look for [Akhmatova’s] corpse in the ravines.”

“But does one need to be all that hypersensitive to be broken by this life of ours?”

“When I asked them what she was like, they said she was ‘no worse than anybody else.’  There are indeed circumstances in which it is not possible to display high moral qualities.”

“We all act ‘on instructions,’ and there is no sense in closing our eyes to the fact.”

“Bleeding to death is not the worst way of getting out of this life of ours…”

“Magnificent before the defenseless, they are only good at savaging victims already caught in a trap.”

“’You said to So-and-so that you would rather live in Paris than Moscow.’”

“The interrogator’s first question was ‘Why do you think you were arrested?’”

“Public opinion here has always been conditioned to take the side of the strong against the weak.” 

“Why are we supposed to be brave enough to stand up to all the horrors of the twentieth century prisons and camps?  Are we supposed to sing as we fall into the mass graves?”

“Nothing binds people together more than complicity in the same crime…”

“When they rebuked him for being late, B. would say:  ‘I always fall asleep when I’m in trouble.’”

“Because of this system of ‘interviews,’ people developed two kinds of phobia—some suspected that everybody they met was an informer, others that they might be taken for one.”

“This is how we lived, and this is why we are not the same as other people.”

“…was it my fault for not getting rid of all of the friends and acquaintances, as did most good wives and mothers at that time?”

“…in this country all real poetry is outrageous…”

“In that memorable year I had already come to understand one or two things, but it was still not enough.”

“We have all, from top to bottom of society, learned something, even though we have destroyed our culture in the process and reverted to savagery.”

“…the people who were making history in those days had all the cruelty and inconsistency of the children they were.”

“We were set on our fellow men like dogs, and the whole pack of us licked the hunter’s hand, squealing incomprehensibly.”

“’We must create a type of Russian revolutionary woman,’ said Larisa Reisner…’The French Revolution created its own type. We must do the same.’”

Saturday, May 4, 2013


"He was still a boy, but so alive with ideas that whatever he appeared in those years he always caused a stir. People sensed the dynamic strength fermenting in him and knew that he was doomed."

"At that time relatively few people had experienced at first hand the peculiarities of our legal system."

"Did they really think that posterity, going through these records, would believe them just as blindly as their crazed contemporaries?"

"We never asked, on hearing about the latest arrest, what was he arrested for?"

"Osip, I envy you," Gumilev used to say to M., "you will die in a garret."

"What a great thing is a police station!  The place where I have my rendez-vous with the State." Khlebnikov.

Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope begins with a description and analysis of the nighttime arrest of her husband, Osip Mandelstam, one of Russia’s greatest poets.  Years after the terrifying intrusion of state security agents into her small apartment, Nadezhda’s understandably remembers the search and legal kidnapping bitterly.  To whom does she assign blame?  She identifies a large assortment of culprits.  If success has many parents, villainy has as many bastards.  When evil triumphs, we can almost always assume that it was aided and abetted by dozens of actors, although the guilty go to extraordinary lengths to deny paternity.  With Osip’s arrest, we can blame the agents who accepted the vile mission of going to war with intellectuals and poets.  We can blame the stool pigeons who bore false witness against Russia’s best and brightest.  We can point angry fingers at the apartment building spies who stood ready to certify the legality of the state’s brutal nighttime thuggery.  We can blame the dictator who gave the secret police its orders.  We can even blame, as Nadezhda does, the people who, years later, covered up the matter, justified it, de-emphasized its importance, or even ignored it. 

I have a friend who once worked at a large, multi-campus institution that conducted its own “nighttime raids.” Faculty and staff were frequently called into offices without warning and, after being denied dignity and due process, summarily dismissed for vague, illogical, and sometimes even absurdist reasons.  That enormous institution employed a vast network of spies and informants and bureaucratic niceties to obscure the mysterious disappearances of good men and women. My friend said the culture of anxiety that pervaded every aspect of life at each and every satellite of the place. People worried about taking any action, fearful that anything that attracted notice, good or bad, might lead to an abrupt dismissal.  As in Soviet Russia, even positive change could attract the unwanted attention from jealous citizens. Were you contemplating the possibility of applying for a large grant?  Wonderful, but couldn’t those new computers be put to use by your enemies?   Did you get a new position into the budget?  Perfect—unless that position awoke the appetite of some ravenous bureaucrat at the system’s distant headquarters.  The appetites of key actors at headquarter were so legendary, and so destructive, that my friend said he always pictured them as a group of cannibals.  You did your best to stay out of their line of sight, lest they note that you had somehow caught a glimpse of them in the dark act of devouring one of their own.  If you witnessed the unholy feast, you’d certainly soon appear on the list of daily specials to appear on their menu. 

In Stalin’s time, things were of course much worse.  Informants could earn reasonable salaries testifying to the treachery of whole apartment complexes, sometimes even whole streets of apartment complexes.  The state murdered hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and enslaved many more.  But the analogy isn’t worthless.  Although operating at different scales, evil is perhaps a single substance.  Thus it is that the legacy of Mandelstam’s disappearance at the hands of Stalin’s agents is so very compelling.  The act illuminates the radiating degrees of culpability in all of Russian society, which extends across time as well as space.