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?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Eagleton Reflects on Terrorism

As a recent post suggests, I'm enthralled with Terry Eagleton's take on the origins and meaning of terrorism.  In some ways, Eagleton helps us to understand something extremely important about Soviet history.  Sometimes, when you read Soviet history, you're rendered almost mute by the repetitive nature of the Soviet tragedy. But what sense can you make of that tragedy?  Why did it occur?  What does it mean?  Is it a peculiarity of Russian history?  I think sometimes it's important to look at the problem in multiple ways to get some perspective on it.  Terrorism can't be explained by political history alone.  In fact, terrorism is a philosophical question, and a literary one, and a psychoanalytic one.  I remember reading a bit of Foucault's The Order of Things, which taught me nothing so much as that different phases of history don't necessarily evolve or dissolve into one another.  Rather, whole epistemes emerge in which humankind's imaginative settings get fundamentally realigned.  This is surely the case with terrorism.  In the age of the Russian Revolution, something almost without precedent happened.  While the French Revolution isn't irrelevant to the Bolshevik experiment with power, the scale of French political murders doesn't look anything like the scale of the Russian catastrophe.  In the end, the Russian experiment was the fulfillment of the modern approach, or at least one particularly modern approach, to liberty.  Lenin and the Bolsheviks were philosophically committed to total liberty, freedom on a scale never hitherto taken seriously. In every age governments have been brutal and oppressive.  Even today, Russia callously passes laws to persecute sexual minorities and restricts basic civil rights and freedoms.  But in the Soviet age, the ruling party embraced a totalizing creed of absolute freedom which would transcend the rights of individuals, groups, classes, and religious identities.  In the name of a transcendent, universal goal, every form of violence was permitted. The fact that the Soviet state was one of the most articulate exponents of the twentieth century's most cherished beliefs, that nothing whatsoever should stand in the way of emancipating humankind, makes Soviet history so compelling. Of course, the death of the Soviet Empire doesn't signify the death of the mentalite that made it possible.  People today still regularly embrace terror--and Eagleton acknowledges that terror has some legitimate if restricted used--whether on behalf of the state or on behalf of stateless people or, most frequently, on behalf of religion.  It's an irony of the present that God is at forefront of both sides of the modern debate on terrorism.  On the one hand, belief in God sometimes acts as a break on the state's right to use violence to solve political problems. On the other hand, the boundlessness of God's claims on his followers is terrorism's chief inspiration today.

Some of Eagleton's quotes from Holy Terror:

"To be called a terrorist, then, is to be accused of being cleaned out of ideas, conjuring a grandiloquent doctrine instead of the simple act of butchery."

"History for Hegel is forged by a succession of mighty legislators who are forced to transgress the moral frontiers of their time simply because they are in the van of progress."

"Almost nothing in Freud's writing--certainly not the idea of infantile sexuality--is as offensive to common sense, as likely to leave the mind as outraged and incredulous, as the scandalous proposal that men and women unconsciously desire their own demise."

"Reason, faced with the libidinal riot, goes berserk, as one kind of excess (anarchy) provokes another (autocracy) into being. Pentheus, one might venture, reacts to the cult of Dionysus rather as the FBI reacted to the cultists at Waco."

"If you greet the violence of others simply with red-necked repression, you are likely to have your buildings blown to pieces, as Pentheus's palace is shattered by Dionysus, while crazed religious zealots (the Bacchic women) tear you to pieces and dabble elbow-deep in your blood in a grisly parody of the eucharist."

"I am sane and you are mad,' Dionysus coolly informs the incredulous king.  It is sane to acknowledge madness, and lunatic to imagine that such madness could ever simply be bulled into reason."

"Without resistance, power ceases to be present to itself and suffers an inward collapse;  with resistance, it can no longer dream of its own perfection."

"We are dealing here with a desire which provokes the very turbulence it seeks to quell."

"It is not in fact true that the dead cause no trouble:  the dead cause us an infinite amount of trouble."

"It is in our nature to be in excess of our natures.  There is a surplus to our biological needs and drives which we call culture, and it is this superfluity which makes us the peculiar animals that we are."

"Mercy in its superfluity must not look too uncomfortably like vengeance."

"Justice, then, can be quite as lunatic as revenge."

" the case of Judaeo-Christianity at least, Yahweh is boundless in his love and mercy, and all boundlessness is potentially a form of terror."

"Human bodies are comically interchangeable in an orgy, but tragically so in a terrorist bombing or concentration camp.  As far as both the predatory and the promiscuous go, any old body will do...In massacres as in mass orgies, everyone is just a stand-in for everyone else. Both kinds of event exemplify the abstract logic of modernity."

"The Bacchic revelers are positive slaves to emancipation, as driven in their pleasures as any compulsive or neurotic."

"The fundamentalist, whether Texan or Taliban, is the flip-side of the nihilist:  unless it is founded on cast-iron first principles.  It is just that the fundamentalist believes in such principles, whereas the nihilist does not."

"Anarchy and absolutism are the recto and verso of each other.  Both suspect that chaos is our natural condition."

"The command to live is a traumatic one because it is a universal imperative, and thus is bound to be implacably indifferent to the individual...We are commanded to love indiscriminately, which is why the paradigmatic case of such conduct is the love of strangers.  Anybody can love a friend."

"The New Testament is notably hostile to family values."

"As one who consorts amicably with whores, Jesus has strikingly little to say about sex..."

"The cosmos could quite easily never have happened.  Instead, God could have devoted his considerable talents to, say, figuring out how to create square circles."

"For St. Augustine, the fact that human beings are 'created' means that their being is shot through with non-being...Since this is a potentially debilitating condition, ideology exists among other things to convince us that we are needed."

"For this rather warped theology, God is a terrorist who demands the blood of his own son as the price for having been immortally offended.  Even two-legged terrorists can be less insanely excessive than that."

"For Thomas Aquinas, God is a kind of nothingness about whom nothing really intelligible can be said, even if Aquinas himself managed to say it at extraordinary length.  There is a sense in which he would have endorsed Lenin's scathing comment that theology is 'a subject without an object.'"

"The sublime is a glimpse of infinity which dissolves our identity and shakes us to our roots, but in an agreeable kind of way."

"...Nietzsche, as usual, presses the matter a stage further:  to see others suffer, he gleefully suggests in the Genealogy of Morals, is a joy inferior only to making them suffer."

"For Kant, sublime eruptions like the French Revolution could be admired as long as they were aetheticized, contemplated from a secure distance."

"The truly terrible sublime, however, is the lawless revolt which established the political order in the first place..."

"...insanity can be a surfeit of reason, not such a shortage of it."

"Terrorism is among other things a reaction to a politics which has grown vacuously managerial."

"The defusing of politics is countered by the denial of it, as too little passion yields ground to a monstrous excess of it."

"As Bertolt Brecht once inquired:  what's robbing a bank compared to founding one?"

"Bourgeois morality spells the death of the imagination."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Vasily Grossman's Russia

"Russia has always evolved in a peculiar way;  what has evolved has been the degree of non-freedom."

"So, is the Russian soul still as enigmatic as ever?  No, there is no enigma.  Was there ever an enigma?  What enigma can there be in slavery?"

"Russia was no longer drinking in the spirit of freedom from the West.  Instead the West was gazing in fascination at this Russian spectacle--of modernization through non-freedom."

"...amid Russia's tragic vastness..."

"It is time for the students and diviners of Russia to understand that the mystique of the Russian soul is simply the result of a thousand years of slavery."

"What hope is there for Russia is even her great prophets were unable to distinguish freedom from slavery?"

Vasily Grossman's short, unfinished novel, Everything Flows, is a nice little compendium of Soviet criminality.  I'm always amazed to see that novelists are often so much better than historians at capturing the essence of a complicated and multifaceted historical subject.  Watching my first episode of Downtown Abbey last night, I was reminded of fiction's myriad advantages over nonfiction.  In the space of one hour of television, we're exposed to a complicated and evolving world in which complex class relations are played out against the backdrop of the fading legacy of the Boer War, the tragedy of the Titanic, the advent of electricity, and so much more.  And the exciting specificity of Britain in 1912 is rendered perfectly clear only when encapsulated in the life trajectories of individual people who don't yet expect World War I.

At any rate, Grossman's novel isn't so very far from traditional history, but perhaps Soviet history inherently conflates the boundaries between fact and fiction.  As Will Rogers once wrote, "Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, is true."  If this true about Russia in general, how much more true is it about Russia in the twentieth century?  After all, the typical Soviet citizen was exposed directly or indirectly to dozens of competing horrors.  I often reflect on this quintessential aspect of the Soviet experience.  If you were unlucky enough to be born at the turn of the century in Russia, you might very well know people who had been killed in World War I, persecuted during the Revolution or Civil War, deported (for being a kulak or for some other reason), subjected to forced collectivization and man-made famine, subjected to state-sponsored antisemitism, or locked away in a gulag for many decades.  Grossman's talent is for helping us to understand that Soviet men and women grappled with whole constellations of horrors, not having the historian's privilege of addressing each of these discreetly, one at a time, in a series of well-received if dry monographs.

Grossman's fictive take on Soviet history also benefits from his ability to enter into the realm of philosophy without compunction.  According to Grossman, Stalinism can't really be blamed on Stalin.  Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, tongue in cheek, that people always get what they deserve.  Without impugning the innocent, Grossman argues that Russia's long disregard for liberty led to a call for the one man who could produce and deliver cruelty.  "It seemed as if Stalin was constructing the Russian State--the State founded by Lenin--in his own image and likeness.  In reality, however, it was the other way around.  Stalin's image was the likeness of the Russian Stat--which is why he became Tsar."  But on the level of the individual, Grossman also has an explanation for Stalinism.  Why did so many people collaborate with the regime?  He doesn't favor easy blame.  He explains that most Soviet citizens had been traumatized or terrorized into behaving the way they did.  Did somebody spy on his neighbor in order to earn his daily bread?  Had he not himself barely survived a famine only a few years previously.  Did somebody persecute a fellow communist?  Perhaps so.  But who can say whether the persecutor wasn't himself terrified of being uncovered as the son of a bourgeois or the child of a kulak?  The point is that the misery of Russia fed on itself.  Almost everybody was implicated in Stalinism.

According to Grossman, one of the saddest aspects of Russia's slavery was that the slaves were forced to play act at being free.  As we know, Soviet citizens constantly engaged in a replica of free activities.  Stalin produced his Constitution, and on paper this constitution looked as good as anything else in the world, or better.  People voted, made resolutions, participated in local government and union functions.  But all of this meant nothing.  As Grossman writes, "It was like the way savages, after getting their hands on the most delicate of sextants and chronometers, use them as jewelry."