Monday, August 5, 2013

Abram Tertz and Grotesque Stalinism

"But not even the oldest inhabitant has ever seen bison or tapirs or giraffe.  So Dr. Linde's story of coming across a prehistoric pterodactyl at the foot of the Hill must be sheer invention."

"I'd sooner have something by Feuchtwanger or Hemingway."

"Why should a man struggle and exert himself when he can pick up a book on the very first page get himself a new wife and children, a new home and a mass of colorful impressions--all virtually without any risk?"

"Was Lyubimov played out, sunk in its inertia to the end of time?  Had it no ambitions, no trick up its sleeve, no wish to astonish the world by a brand-new Utopia of its own?"

"You can have your mighty and benevolent tsar.  I give you a leader endowed with that intangible power you've been raving about for three centuries!?

"...and what's the use of freedom to a Russian if he is not to have his fling and enjoy himself to the damnation of his soul, the terror of his enemies, and for something to remember at the hour of his death?"

"We Russians are not fond of tippling amateurishly, in solitude, each in his corner, a teaspoonful at a time."

"What kind of a wedding breakfast is this?  Vodka and gherkins!  Where are the signs of our prosperity?  Disgraceful!  What will they say in Europe?"

"a slice of that small-calibre pre-war Crakow salami--just the thought of it turns your spit into mayonnaise and oils your mouth so that you have to be careful not to swallow your tongue!"

"Your task as a writer, as the historian of our city, is to observe reality in its unwavering march towards the future and faithfully to record each event."

Andrei Sinyavesky (a.k.a., Abram Tertz) was one of the Soviet Union's best and brightest authors.  Soviet Roulette has discussed his brilliant Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History previously.  I have also touched upon his treatment of Russian folklore.  Sinyavesky has much to recommend him, but his chief strength is his ability to step back from everyday Soviet criminality to examine its mythical or poetic aspects.  A keen student of Soviet peasant religiosity, read together, Sinyavesky nonfiction and fiction works give readers a good idea of just how grotesque the Soviet experiment really was.  But not grotesque merely in the sense of perverse or evil.  Rather, Sinyavesky helps us to see the Soviet state from the perspective of Russia's myriad peasants, whose lively oral tradition had already conceptualized equally outlandish or even ridiculous entities. Sinyavesky's book, The Makepeace Experiment, depicts Stalinism, and Soviet politics in general, as a cosmic absurdity rather a political tragedy.  And perhaps, over time, this is the way Stalinism will come to be depicted by historians.  At the present moment, Stalinism is hardly something to laugh about:  too many people lost their lives in the gulag or lost relatives to man-made famine or chaotic purges.  But perhaps the peasants' age-old response to official brutality won't someday make sense in the way that the Makeshift Experiment makes poetic sense.  When all is said and done, the Soviet Union was but an absurd experiment in Utopia, and a failed one at that.  In two hundred years, we may well have forgotten Stalin's personal turpitude.  What then?  What will be remembered when we're no longer obsessed with the devil's physical incarnation?  Perhaps we'll accept the peasant worldview, that faraway leaders tried to magically transform the world but necessarily failed.  It's a paradox worth exploring. On the one hand, the Makeshift Experiment seems to be mocking a peculiarly Russian-peasant mentality that could accept a leader's vain promises to transform a river into alcohol.  On the other hand, weren't Russian peasants the only ones who knew that this couldn't be done, notwithstanding the beliefs of intellectuals, workers, and dictators alike.