Thursday, December 18, 2014

Teffi's Subtly Worded

Some quotations from Pushkin Press's new book by Teffi, Subtly Worded.

"His wife had the hurt and confused look of someone who is constantly being scolded."

"His daughter's large nose slanted slightly to the right, dragging along with it a squinting left eye that peered at the world with suspicion."

"I don't think I've sniffed five kopeks from you since Christmas."

"He's ambitious--even excessively ambitious.  He wants to become a provocateur, but he doesn't know a single revolutionary song."

"The poet was someone very interesting.  He has not yet written any poems--he was still trying to come with a pen name..."

"Oh!  What a woman can get away with when she's wearing a hat like this!  Things that a woman wearing any old hat wouldn't even dare to dream of."

"Varenka felt rich and important, and modestly pursed her lips sot that the passers-by she had splashed with mud would not be too jealous."

"The web was obviously a hammock for flies."

"A fat May-bug, drunk on sunshine, had crashed into Lisa's forehead and fallen to the ground."

"Nanny, I'll never die, will I?  I'll eat lots of soup, and drinks lots of milk, and I'll never die.  That's right, isn't it?"

"They live righteously.  They speak little, and because both are hard of hearing, they both have their say."

"Yes, peasants are peasants.  Is a peasant going to try to eat less?"

"The bee may be a simple, humble creature--but all the same, on her name day she doesn't buzz."

"There once was a life.  It was lived out and it finished."

"She thought about her husband--who was handsome and no good."

"At least we'll still be alive.  Not everyone today can boast of having living relatives."

"That's pretty rich, too. He accredited himself as ambassador to Japan."  "Who appointed him?" "Know one knows."

"You must know waht Tyutchev said all those years ago:  'You cannot understand Russia with your mind." And since the human body has no other organ of understanding all we can do is throw up our hands in despair."

"We--les russes, as they call us--live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people's.  We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics--mutual repulsion."

"Rasputin seemed to me to lack the steadiness needed to manage any kind of strategy. He was too twitchy, too easily distracted, too confused in every way."

"I don't know what [Rasputin] was like at the beginning of his trajectory, but by the time I met him, he was already adrift."

"It was like looking through a microscope at some species of beetle.  I could see the monstrous hairy legs, the giant maw--but I knew it was really just a little insect."

"It's Rasputin's doing," People were saying, "Who else?"  "What's he got to do with it?"  "He profits from everything black, evil, and incomprehensible."

"Raputin was now leaping about like a goat.  Mouth hanging open, skin drawn tight over his cheekbones, locks of hair whipping across the sunken sockets of his eyes, he was dreadful to behold."

"The fools don't understand who I am.  A sorcerer?  Maybe I am.  They burn sorcerers, so let them burn me.  But there's one thing they don't understand:  if they kill me, it will be the end of Russia.  Remember my clever girl:  if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia.  They'll bury us together."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Spies and Commissars

Unfortunately, I have been working on a project that pulls my time away from Soviet Roulette.  My apologies to devoted readers.  However, I will try to recommend a few books on Soviet history even in my hiatus.  For instance, I'be been impressed with Robert Sevice's book, Spies and Commissars:  The Early Years of The Russian Revolution.  Although Service is one of the greatest living historians of Soviet history, I was offput by the title, expecting a small book of the outrageous adventures of a few marginal actors in the employ of the Kremlin or its adversaries.  Instead, Service offers up a comprehensive review of Soviet foreign policy in its early years, something to rival even George Kennan's treatment of the subject.  In fact, Service wisely depicts Soviet foreign policy in the much broader context of the Soviet Union's emerging social tensions.  Service deserves praise for a number of different accomplishments, including his objectivity, and broad understanding of European history.  Service knows the biographies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, but he also understands something about the domestic and foreign affairs of almost every other European power in the interwar era.

For my part, Service's examination of the Soviet elite in the midst of the First World War and the Civil War demonstrates the fact that Trotsky and Stalin may not have been so far apart on the issues. Indeed, Soviet rulers changed their minds on a number of issues, and often changed sides on any number of domestic debates as events unfolded.  The situation was so fluid that not even the infamous Brest-Litovsky Treaty meant as much as modern historians might expect.  The beliefs of Lenin and his chief conspirators are difficult to reconstruct in part because it's hard to remember that they really did believe that all of Europe stood on the brink of revolution.  Indeed, from month to month the Soviet elite was forced to confront new realities, both at home and abroad.  The modern dichotomy between war and peace is in fact a false one when applies to Soviet revolutionary politics. The Bolsheviks were never completely at peace.  Their erstwhile socialist allies were potential enemies, and it wasn't entirely clear whether the Germans would be their enemies or allies from one month to the next.  Service demands a great deal of admiration for depicting the chaos of early Soviet politics in all of its complexity.  In the context of this fluid time, Service's title makes sense.  This was a time in which their were no clear distinctions between politicians and spies (witness Lockhart's strange career), journalists and propagandists, or  soldiers or rebels.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Richard Wright

Taking a break from Soviet history, or so I thought, I recently completed Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy. The book, rich in dialogue and descriptive details and told from the unwavering perspective of a bewildered juvenile, begins with a brilliant and compelling examination of his early years in the Deep South. Growing up in and around Jackson, Mississippi, Wright suffered enormously from a culture of  economic inequality, systematic violence, and psychological terror.  Life in Jackson during the 1920s was extremely difficult.  African-Americans were denied access to almost every basic human right, including meaningful employment, reasonable levels of health care and education, and even the ability to consistently put food on the table.  The Southern culture of terror infected African-American family life, and helped to turn Wright's immediate family, and many of his friends, into co-conspirators.  Wright's sophisticated analysis of white racism is withering.  Under the constant threat of white intimidation or retaliation, Wright's family members lived incomplete lives, engaging in domestic violence, petty crime, and frenzied religious experience. Wright himself grew up hungry, physically abused, undereducated, and fearful of being hurt or killed by defenders of white privilege.

Incredibly, Richard Wright escaped the conditions to which he was born.  His courage, moral genius, work ethic, and budding literary talent helped him to move from the Deep South, first to Memphis, and ultimately to Chicago.  In Chicago, Wright's story perhaps inevitably merged with the subject of this blog, namely world communism.  The second half of Black Boy traces Wright's involvement with Chicago's communist movement.  In Chicago, Wright became heavily involved with Communist, or Communist-inspired cultural and political clubs.  Wright's fascination with Communism is instructive. Although Black Boy's literary talent is perhaps best illustrated by his depiction of his early life in Mississippi, the two halves of the book work together to explain something vital about American and indeed global history.  And that is that Wright found hope in Communism as a result of America's complete moral failure in the area of race relations.  Why did so many black Chicagoans worship the name of Lenin?  Clearly, their general religiosity didn't make this a natural alliance.  Still, America's Jim Crow laws made African-Americans look seriously at any leader who promised to break down barriers of racial as well as class exploitation.

Wright ultimately revolted against some of Communism's worst excesses.  He was appalled, for instance, by the Party's political witch hunts against alleged Trotskyites.  Yet Wright's ambivalence about the Communist Party's peculiar methodology should be set again the writer's interest in the Party's noble goal.  Abrham Terz (a.k.a., Andrei Sinyavsky), the author of a treatise on Socialist Realism, reminds us of just how appealing that goal could be.  For Tertz, Communism offered people the most glorious vision imaginable, better than anything Westerners had invented since the rise of Christianity.  Communism promised utopia, and claimed to make sense of everything, including America's history of racial oppression.

The link between African-American aspirations and Soviet promises is an interesting one, deserving of much fuller exploration.  Only recently, I noted that Koestler met up with one African-American intellectual in the heart of Soviet Asia during the 1930s.  Others have described Robeson's infatuation with the Soviet Union and its constitutional "guarantees" for racial equality.  But the links between African-American intellectual currents and Soviet ones are not simple.  Ironically, in Black Boy, Wright attributes Communist treachery in Chicago to the lessons that the world Communist Party had learned under the Russian tsars.  And of course his most famous novel, Native Son, seems to have been inspired by Dostoevsky's pre-revolutionary--even anti-revolutionary, novel, Crime and Punishment.

Socialist Realism

Some quotes from Abram Tertz's On Socialist Realism.

"Socialist realism is the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism.  It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development."  (Tertz cites the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers, 1934)

"A poet not only writes poems but helps, in his own way, to build Communism..."

"Our art, like our culture and our soviety, is teleological through and through."

"Aimless rivers become arteries of communication.  Aimless trees become paper filled with destiny."

"The modern mind cannot imagine anything more beautiful and splendid than the Communist ideal."

"As Lenin promised, we will make toilets out of pure gold..."

"An iron necessity and a strict hierarchical order harnessed the flow of centuries."

"The man who received a Marxist education knows the meaning of both past and future."

"It is a long time since men had such an exact knowledge of the meaning of the world's destiny--not since the Middle Ages most likely."

" that not one drop of blood be shed any more, we killed and killed and killed."

"Yes, we live in Communism.  It resembles our aspirations about as much as the Middle Ages resembled Christ, modern Western man resembles the free superman, and man resembles God.  But all the same, there is some resemblance, isn't there?"

Friday, September 12, 2014


Orlando Figes is by any account a wonderful historian of Russia.  His Natasha's Dance was a brilliant introduction to the history of Russian culture and aesthetics.  His People's Tragedy:  The Russian Revolution, 1891- 1924 was an equally insightful book about the whole revolutionary era in modern Russian history.  Well-written, well-researched overviews of broad subjects, both books received a great deal of acclaim from various quarters.   Figes' The Whispers was an equally insightful book about private life in the era of Stalin, and offered readers a strong interpretative framework in which to make sense of Stalin's impact on the ordinary lives of Russians.  In light of these ventures, it's no wonder that Figes looms so large in Russian historiography.

In many ways, Figes' The Crimean War is another masterpiece of contemporary Russian history.   The books is of course detailed, objective, and fluid.  However, the book doesn't seem to offer many new perspectives on this important mid-nineteenth century event.  Indeed, the book seems to rehearse what historians have said about the war for many decades.  In fact, the book often seems like an old-fashioned diplomatic and political history.  Of course, one should never discount the importance of personalities.  Nicholas II and Palmerston were certainly key agents in the advent of war.  Yet one hoped that this new excavation on old soil would turn up something new.  

Figes' book on Stalinism wasn't a standard account of the man's murderous personality.  Rather, his book broke new ground, or at least summarized a new trend in the analysis of Russian life in a totalitarian culture.  But Figes' book on the Crimean War is sadly lacking in any kind of cultural analysis.  To be sure, Figes talks about religious discord in the Holy Land, but only insofar as that discord led to the entanglement of foreign powers that represented the various religious constituencies there.  And Figes also covers the Russophobia in the British press, but this phenomenon has obviously been described many times before.  

One has to recognize the strengths of The Crimean War.  Old-fashioned diplomatic, political, and military history isn't easily done.  Only Figes' mastery of dynastic politics, and a keen sense of the interplay between multiple courts, makes the story come alive.  But in the midst of the present crisis in Crimea, one wishes this book told us more about Russia and less about a diplomatic system that has been well-described by less talented authors on many occasions, though not recently.  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Totalitarian Politics

I thought that I had learned something about historiography during graduate school, and that is that different historical eras necessarily produced different kinds of history.  That is to say, if modern historians were interested in politics, they bore witness to the story of American history through the prism of that obsession. If they were interested in gender, they saw history in the light of that interest.  To some extent, this is true. Certainly, current modern debates about controversial subjects are carried back into the distant past. Recently, however, I've become convinced that a different phenomenon is also at work in historiography. On my recent Fulbright trip to Russia I thought seriously about modern Russia, as opposed to historical Russia, for the very first time.  Whither was Russia tending?  More importantly for the purposes of this blog, I thought about how the current state of Russian politics--and specifically Putin's brand of pseudo-authoritarian intrigue--would influence how historians looked at Russia's history during the twentieth century.

But if the current debate about Putin's statecraft will influence the way historians interpret the past, it's probably fairer to say that the current state of Russian political culture actually reveals something new about that past.  The difference may be a subtle one.  In graduate school, I would have expected the current state of Russian unfreedom to force Russians to look back into time to discover the origins of authoritarianism.  Now, I believe that Russia's current political bankruptcy requires such an exploration of the past.  If Russian remains corrupt, illiberal, economically backward, imperialist, anti-Western, anti-semitic, and xenophobic, we really do need to explain this set of interrelated phenomena.  At any rate, I like what Evgeny Dobrenko's essay, "The Literature of the Zhdanov Era:  Mentality, Mythology, Lexicon" suggests about the origins of modern Russian totalitarianism.  For Dobrenko seems to suggest that trauma of the 1920s and 1930s are buried deep within the fabric of Russian literary culture (and architecture, everywhere else for that matter).  We need only to look at modern Russian literature, and specifically post-war literature, to understand his point.

Dobrenko admits upfront that it's difficult to study postwar literature.  However, Dobrenko also believes this is precisely the point:  postwar literature is stultifying boring, and almost intentionally so.  Works of socialist realism pervaded Soviet culture, encapsulating the logic of totalitarianism with their very blandness and political quiescence. By definition, totalitarian culture is unified.  Moreover, it exists without conflict or any possibility of critique.  Naturally, a totalitarian state espoused totalitarian culture, devoid of any possibility of dissent or controversy.  Dobrenko's useful examination of Socialist Realism in literature can be found in a wonderful collection of essays entitled Late Soviet Culture:  From Perestroika to Novostroika.

Another insightful essay in this collection from Boris Kagarlitsky, "A Step to the Left, a Step to the Right," compliments Dobrenko's theme by reminding us that totalitarian political culture is, by definition, "neither left nor right" (to use Sternhell's phrase).  Historians waste a lot of energy debating the political orientation of totalitarian regimes, but in reality totalitarian regimes must always occupy the center of the political spectrum, or indeed all of the political spectrum.  Stalinism is certainly the perfect exemplar of this aspect of totalitarian politics.  He adopted leftist and rightest postures whenever it suited him. Today, people may well ask whether Putin's politics belong to leftist or rightest political traditions.  But as Kagarlitsky tells us, the question is largely meaningless.  Putinism now occupies, or attempts to occupy, all possible political positions.  Putin is a nationalist as well an Soviet imperialist, a capitalist as well as a socialist, a conservative as well as a reformer. On minute he sends in troops to the Crimea and receives authorization to invade the Ukraine, another he calls for peace in the Ukraine. Putin is Russia's chief anti-corruption campaigner, imprisoning oligarchs who have profitted handsomely from the early 1990s and overseeing a regime that routinely imprisoned businessmen for graft.  Another minute, Putin and his close friends are seen to have amassed unprecedented fortunes.  Simply put, Putin, inheritor of Russia's embrace of totalitarianism, represents all possible positions on this and most other political positions.

Now why such totalitarianism still thrives in the Russian sun is another question altogether.  But as Dobrekno seems to suggest, we need to look to psychoanalysis and the repressed and un-grieved tragedies of early Soviet rule for a plausible answer.  Russia suffered enormously from the purges of the 1930s, to say nothing of the Revolution, Civil War, World War II, and other events.  But almost as bad as the suffering is the fact that Russians never had the chance to talk about those sufferings.  The literature of the postwar era is important.  Its very silence speaks volumes about the extent to which totalitarianism remained alive and well in the Soviet Union even in the aftermath of Stalinism.  Viewed in this light, Socialist Realism is nothing less that the positive expression of an ethos of power.  For Dobreno, the expression of that power can be found in Socialist Realism's celebration of the past and future at the expense of the present.  For catastrophe has no present.  When disaster strikes, you know what happened before the disaster, and you know what happened after the disaster, but the actual event is a dark mystery.  And so, by endlessly praising Soviet citizens who were willing to sacrifice the present to build a better future, the literature of the Soviet Union reflects a form of totalitarian apocalpse.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Case Study Socialist Realism

"Comrade Stalin can't show every man personally to his place in the firing lines."  Thomas Lahusen cites Batamov to Kovshov in Far From Moscow.

"We know that the positive hero of socialist realism exchanges his private life for his duty to the socialist society."

"The most important feature of Soviet censorship:  it forbids silence..." Thomas Luhusen citing Andrei Siniavsky in "Samizdat and the Rebirth of Literature."

"Anzheave felt the profound need to describe in one way or the other what he had been witnessing."  Simonov explaining Azhaev's whitewashed description of prisoner labor.

"We never ceased for one minute to be communists."  Mitia Promyslov in The Boxcar.

As mentioned in a previous post, with Gene Kuperman, Thomas Lahusen is the editor of a wonderful collection of essays entitled Late Soviet Culture:  From Perestroika to Novostroika.  Thomas Luhusen's own contribution to the collection is a short essay entitled "The Mystery of the River Adun:  Reconstruction of a Story."  In this essay, Lahusen traces the editorial evolution and public reception of one of the Soviet Union's most popular works of literature, the socialist realist novel, Far From Moscow.  The book was originally a paean to Stalinism, but in the aftermath of the Thaw Stalin's presence in new editions was toned down while the anti-semitic--or "anti-cosmopolitanism--" themes were diluted.  The deepest mystery of the novel, however, remains:  how could a former inmate of Stalin's gulag hide the real conditions of such labor camps and in fact glorify the labor of fellow prisoners?  Ironically, the answer can be found in the introduction of a fellow apologist, Simonov.  According to Simonov, anybody who lived through such a terrible experience as the labor campus naturally strove to find real meaning in the experience.  While many prisoners produced 'prisoner camp" testimonies that outlined in grim detail their sufferings, others inevitably sought to tell others about their experience in the language of power.  The result was a betrayal of those who died and suffered from the communists' arbitrary and capricious penal system, but not altogether unintelligible.  Could all of this brutality have been in vain?  Certainly something noble would come out of all of the pain.  Lahusen's close reading of the different editions of Far From Moscow offers up an interesting approach to other forms of Soviet culture.  After all, it's not enough to analyze only the Soviet Union's dissident art forms.  Complexity must be identified even in the state's most prized works of art.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kremlin Wives

Although the role of women at the pinnacle of the Kremlin society isn't the most important aspect of the history of gender during the Soviet experiment, Larissa Vasilieva's book, Kremlin Wives, is a surprisingly illuminating good introduction to the subject of communist women's history. Published only shortly after the collapse of the Soviet state, Vasilieva was able to interview a number of important Kremlin women as well as to attain relevant files related to their frequent brushes with Stalin's security organs.  Vasilieva, who was herself a relatively privileged member of the Soviet apparatchiki, tells the story of Soviet womanhood through the biography of elite Soviet women.  These women include the wives of Lenin, Stalin, Beria, Budyonnaya, Molotov, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev, to name just a few of Vasilieva's fascinating subjects.

For the most part, the Kremlin wives were highly intelligent leaders in their own right.  Certainly Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, as well as Lenin's mistress, Inessa Armand, made important contributions to the revolutionary movement, and Krupskaya in particular helped to shape the Soviet worldview, especially regarding education.  Even so, both women always put Lenin first, and their willingness to take a back seat to Lenin's political primacy was a portent of things to come.  Although revolutionary history is filled with examples of heroic female Russian revolutionaries, male Soviet leaders were never entirely comfortable  Until Raisa Gorbachev proved that the Soviet Union was able to accept another dynamic, educated, and highly visible woman in public affairs  (and many Soviet citizens retained serious reservations about Raisa's public role), Krupskaya was the last wife of the Party's leader who exercised a clear position of leadership in her own right.  

With the rise of Stalin, the role of elite Soviet women became much more conservative.   Whereas many revolutionaries had at least entertained ideas about free love, female emancipation from child reading duties, divorce, and the link between bourgeois family structures and capitalism, the cult of Stalin soon reconciled Soviet political culture to pre-revolutionary gender norms.  While Stalin's own wife (or his second wife to be more accurate), Nadezhda Alliluyeva, worked, and maintained her own professional identity, her suicide ( if not murder) seemed to mark the limits of Stalin's tolerance for independent women.  

Of course the predominent theme of Kremlin Wives is, almost necessarily, a description of how women dealt with all-encompassing terror.  Marshal Budyonny's second third wife is illustrative. While making the Marshall a happy home by playing the role of a traditional domestic housewife, Maria Vasilievna, also had to contend with the fact that the Marshal's second wife, Olga Stefanovna, had been imprisoned on trumped up charges. Molotov's wife, Paulina Zhemchuzhina, was actually imprisoned even as her husband continued to serve Stalin.  Beria's wife, Nina Beria, had to contend with the fact that her husband was systematically raping young women, in addition to overseeing the state's more formal mechanisms of terrorizing its citizens.  Nina seems to have chosen to live in denial, although the Vasilieva is right to point out that it can be very difficult to pass judgement on any of the Kremlin wives when they were fearful of being sent to the gulag or killed of they voiced any criticism of Stalin or his henchmen. 

With Stalin's death, the daily regime of terror soon subsided.  However, it's difficult to say that the effects of terror didn't last until the very end of the Soviet Union, if not beyond.  Nina Kukharchuk, Khrushchev's wife, had survived the terror by remaining in the shadows.  She wasn't a glamorous woman, but she had once served to promote Soviet power in its infancy.  Born poor,  Nina Kukharchuk remained a stalwart communist functionary who accompanied her husband on a few famous diplomatic missions but mostly strove to support her husband in his domestic life.  Her successor, Victoria Pretrovna, also adopted a low profile, accommodating her husband, Leonid Breshnev, even as he moved from one mistress to another. While not necessarily personally corrupt, Victoria Pretrovna supported her relatives even as they abused the privileges of the communist elite.

Taken as a whole, the Kremlin wives were both similar to, and different from, ordinary Soviet women.  The Kremlin wives were, generally speaking, a confident group of women, at least insofar as anyone living so close to the edge of terror could be considered confident.  The Kremlin women were extremely privileged in many respects, and many made use of the special stores, dachas, and governesses that were available to them.  However, their lives were extremely complicated.  The Soviet Union never fully worked out its attitude toward women.  Were they supposed to work outside the home or in the home?  Were nannies okay or a sign of bourgeois privilege?  Was it possible to play a public role in public affairs?  Did women have an important role to play in the formation of policy related to childhood, education, or family life in general?  How much education, and what type of education, was desirable?  The Soviet Union collapsed even as these debates raged around Raisa Gorbachev.

Some quotes from the book:

"If she doesn't shut her mouth the Party will appoint old Elena Stasova as Lenin's widow in her place!"  Vasilieva citing Stalin.

"Intelligent, beautiful, and as delicate-looking as porcelain, Alexandra Kollontai put women's sexuality at the center of the Communist agenda."

"What is rarely mentioned is that the revolutionaries fought a small detachment of palace gaurds and the Petrograd Battalion of Women.  In other words, the Bolsheviks' victory that night was over women."

"The Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power, was also a vast communal apartment complex."

"Even the best parents ruin their children by bringing them up at home."  Lyadov-Mandelstam.

"Can a collective person be produced in an individual family?  To this we must say a categorical no."  Lyadov-Mandelstam.

"No Kremlin wife's opinion was ever officially welcomed.  Those who challenged that fact--such as Molotov's wife, Zhemchuzhina, as we shall see--were promptly arrested."

"We're creating a new state," she wrote.  "People need us.  It would be hypocritical to deny ourselves the things people always acquire when they come to power."

"Larissa Reisner was a tangle of contradictions.  She could turn simple immorality into an exploit. Osip Mandelstam recalled that Larissa once threw a party solely to enable Cheka agents to arrest the guests."

"She cast her lot with him like a tiny sailboat drawn to a giant ocean-going steamer."  Svetlana Alliluyeva describing her mother's relationship to Stalin.

"He went so far as to offer to shoot his wife, an impulse evidently familiar to many Kremlin men in those days."

"This time she found the beaches empty.  All the fashionable women from last season were now in jail."

"As the Soviet system scythed and leveled its human resources, fear was a daily staple and worked its way deep into the Russian character."

"The personal has no social significance."  Kaganovich.

"A large quantity of male debauchery."  From an official inventory of Beria's office.

"Stalin wanted to create a mighty state, and he succeeded.  Of course there had to be victims.  But no politician then could see any other path that would us to our precious goal without victims."  Nina Beria.

"...Kremlin life is part of a complex distribution system of privilege that must always be kept a secret."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

History for Revolutionaries

"Suddenly, it would seem, the official genealogy was not transnational but hermetically Russocentric.  As it were, once Lenin was dead, the Stalins came out to play."

"The Bolsheviks, however, tended to understand by the point of origin in "ancient Greece" not Athens but Sparta..."

"Hence the paradoxical situation whereby during a thaw whose ostensible aim is to save the country from stagnation and conservatism the main focus of the intellectuals was on the past."

In 1993, only shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Katerina Clark published a short article entitled "Changing Historical Paradigms in Soviet Culture" in a collection of essays entitled Late Soviet Culture:  From Perestroika to Novostroika.  This short article by one of the Soviet Union's most sophisticated cultural historians provides a nice description of the way revolutionaries chose to see their own recent past.  It's a cliche to say that revolutionaries, by definition, reject the past in favor of the future.  Even so, it's seemingly impossible for men and women to ignore the past altogether.   If one historical episode, or mode of historical thinking, is rejected, another almost automatically fills the void. 

 So what past did the Bolsheviks seek to revive and which historical actors did they choose to honor?  As we know, at first, the Bolsheviks eschewed ancient Greece in favor of Revolutionary France.  Everything had a French historical analogy. Indeed, Clark points out that the Bolsheviks, as opposed to some other strands of Marxism, talked endlessly about French history even as they rejected most Russian historical precedents. In their first years in power, the Bolsheviks rarely cited the peasant or Decembrist revolts that had so inspired the radical intelligentsia of the nineteenth century.  

Of course, Lenin and his ilk weren't entirely free to choose their revolutionary antecedents.  Clark reminds us that early twentieth century Russian intellectuals were already obsessed with the French Revolution, and indeed Marx and Engels had already argued that the French Revolution as well as the Paris Commune were the most important models for future revolts. Interestingly, the Bolsheviks favored the Commune over 1789, in part because the Commune seemed to be a brief experiment with the world's first successful Dictatorship of the Proletariat as well as a trial run for the Bolsheviks' theory of  "dual government" of government by the party as well as the soviets.  

After the death of Lenin, Bolshevik historical precedents underwent a sudden transformation.  Suddenly, Russia rediscovered the Russian past.  "Socialism in one country" apparently made socialist history from one country as well.  At this time, the Bolsheviks rediscovered Russian authors such as Pushkin and Dostoevsky, and revised the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, as well as the Revolution of 1905 (in addition to the October Revolution of 1917 which had brought them to power).  

As the 1930s progressed, Clark maintains that the traid of 1825/1905/1917 was overshadowed to some extent with an interest in the Russian Civil War.  The militarism of the Civil War apparently appealed to a Party that was engaged in the brutal transformation of the Russian economy and, to some extent, such that transformation as linked to the rise of aggressive and resurgent foreign powers such as Germany and Japan.  Of course, Russia's participation in World War II overhauled that historical mythology and replaced it with an interest in Russian conflicts with foreign invaders such as the Swedes, Tartars, and French.  Internally, of course, official ideology endured that Russia would remain obsessed with the mythical moment in which Lenin had allegedly passed the torch of leadership to Stalin, a man who he apparently personally disliked at the end of his life.  

Clark doesn't spend much time on post-Stalin memory, but does remind readers that by marginalizing Stalin, Russian leaders gave some attention to remembering other Old Bolsheviks who offered more hope for a humane revolutionary future.  

Clark's article was probably penned too soon after the collapse of communism to offer much insight into historical memory in the so-called "democratic" era of Russian history.  She had witnessed an explosion of interest in the victims of communism, but perhaps couldn't have suspected the victimized but extremely nationalistic version of history Putin and company would soon invent.  

The Power of the Powerless

Although it's not possible to write extensive posts about every manuscript or film project Soviet Roulette receives, I am always to receive review copies of English-language books or films related to Russian or Soviet history, literature, and culture.  On some occasions, Soviet Roulette also analyzes works related to the Cold War, comparative revolutions, international communism, Central or Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central and Far Eastern history.  In this spirit, I would like to thank for sending me a copy of The Power of the Powerless, a documentary that covers the relationship between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution.  The film provides viewers with insight into the means by which totalitarian states intimidate their citizenry at the local level, and how resistance to such intimidation often functions. Of course, the Soviets used brute force to put down the Prague rebellion, but their Czech allies also suppressed dissent in more subtle ways.  Indeed, it's just as important, and more typical of everyday communism, to see a former faculty member who supported reform describe being punished for her political sympathies by being fired from the faculty and then asked to clean bathrooms at the university. One might have hoped for a little more context to the 1968 revolt against hard-line communism, but the dozens of eye-witness accounts of that revolt and its aftermath, and a detailed description of the events leading up to the Velvet Revolution, make this an important film.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Orlando Figes' New Survey, Revolutionary Russia

One of the most highly regarded Russian historians working today, Orlando Figes has written a new survey of the entire Soviet revolutionary experience.  Entitled Revolutionary Russia:  1891- 1991, Figes' book covers the 100 year period between the great pre-revolutionary famine of 1891--a catastrophe which Figes says irrevocably divided the tsarist regime from Russia's intelligentsia--and ends with the formal collapse of the Soviet Union.  In some ways, such a broad survey of modern Russian history functions more like a textbook than a work of original research.  Even so, like Natasha's Dance before it, Figes' offers readers a wonderful narrative and many fresh perspectives on old controversies.  Figes' overall perspective on the revolutionary experience is of course profoundly negative.

Figes, who wrote another wonderful book on the horrific impact of Stalinism on private life, entitled The Whisperers, is naturally appalled by Stalin's record of economic mismanagement, military error, anti-semitism, and terror.  However, Figes' judgement against the Soviet regime places a lot of the blame for the Soviet Union's record of anti-humanism squarely on Vladimir Lenin.  Figes' describes the October Revolution as a military coup and claims that Lenin was almost eager to enter a Civil War in order to expand the Bolshevik base of popular support and undermine all other socialist or peasant party contenders for that support. Figes' perspectives on Bolshevik leaders isn't generally very original.  However, his analysis of Stalin does place new emphasis on the dictator's essential rationality.  Leaving aside questions of morality, Figes seems to argue that Stalin was almost always acting from rational motives.  Even with respect to the Great Terror, Stalin wasn't merely a victim to delusional paranoia. For one thing, the Soviet Union was in fact surrounded by two viciously expansionist enemies, Germany and Japan.   And certainly the Western allies didn't seem to be offering the Soviet Union a dependable alliance.   In this context, Stalin remembered the lessons he had learned from Lenin and the other Bolsheviks during the Civil War:  external enemies--i.e., the French, the Americans, the Japanese, and the British--often had internal counterparts--i.e., the bourgeoisie, the white army officers, and cossacks.

While Stalin understood that the majority of his victims were innocent, he was willing to trade the lives of many innocent people for the certainty that he would also condemn a few "real" spies and traitors from time to time.  The problem wasn't that Stalin was insane.  Instead, the problem was that Stalin had accepted the Bolshevik proposition that individual lives could be traded for the greater good.  Stalin's henchmen also accepted this logic, which was in fact but the radical expansion of Lenin's original approach to politics.  Lenin had of course advocated for the violent suppression of enemies, and often advocated for the use of force against the innocent as well.  Consider his interest in using hostages to enforce the good behavior of family members, or indeed consider his whole philosophy of making the children of the bourgeois and aristocratic classes suffer for the "sins" of their parents.

If Stalin's essential sanity seems hard to accepts in light of his policy of mass murder, consider the fact that Russians today continue to accept the logic of Stalinism.  As Figes points out in the conclusion of his book, when surveyed, a majority of Russians are expound two seemingly contradictory propositions:  first, that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens;  and second, that Stalin was an efficient manager who helped to modernize the Soviet Union.

To conclude, Figes' new book is a wonderful introduction both to the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union as a whole.  However, the books real strengths are its coverage of the February and October Revolutions, as well as Stalinism and the Second World War.  The book is weaker when trying to explain the transition to the less brutal dictatorship of Khrushchev and his successors.  And perhaps runs out of steam when moving into the collapse of the regime.  It seems this weakness might stem from the lack historical distance from the subject matter, or indeed from the failure to analyze the collapse of the Soviet Union in light of what we know know about its Putin-dominated successor state. Figes' book is also primarily a political book, as opposed to a cultural history, which is somewhat surprising if one remembers Natasha's Dance, which was dominated by literary and cultural history.

A few quotes from the book:

"Until the end of their regime, the Soviet leaders all believed they were continuing the Revolution Lenin had begun."

"It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary."

"There is no God any longer.  There is no Tsar!"  Father Gapon.

"Everything has failed.  Let us build jails."  Mirsky.

"One would think that you are afraid a revolution will break out."  "Your Majesty," Bulygin replied, "the revolution has already begun."

"the commune existed because the peasants were poor, it served to distribute the budern of their poverty..."

"All revolutions are based in part on myth."

"The bread queues became a sort of political forum where rumours and ideas were exchanged by hungry citizens."

"The street generated its own leaders--students, workers, cadets, and NCOs, socialists whose names have never made it into the history books."

"The revolution of 1917 should be understood as a general crisis of authority.  There was a rejection not just of the state but of all figures of authority--judges, policemen, government officials, army and navy officers, priests, teachers, employers, landowners, village elders, patriarchal fatehrs and husbands.  There were revolutions going on in virtually every sphere of life."

"Take power, you son of a bitch, when it's handed to you!"  Krandstadt sailors to Chernov.

"insurrection is an art"  Marx

"Lenin's revolution was as much against the other Soviet-based parties as it was against the Provisional Government."

"The Great October Socialist Revolution, as it became known in the Soviet Union, was in fact such a small-scale action, being in reality no more than a coup, that it passed unnoticed by the vast majority of the inhabitants of Petrograd."

"You are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out;  go where you ought to go-into the dustbin of history!"

"We must make life so uncomfortable for them that they will lose their desire to remain bourgeois."  Lenin.

"For the vast majority of the Russian people the ending of all social privileged was the basic principle of the revolution."

"Lenin was prepared for a civil war and perhaps even welcomed it as a chance to build his party's power base."

"By 1920, 5.4 million people worked for the government.  There were twice as many officials as there were workers in Soviet Russia.."

"His political horizon is restricted, his theoretical equipment primitive..."  Trotsky on Stalin.

"Bolshevism has abolished private life." Walter Benjamin.

"Collectivization was driven less by economics than by politics and a general mistrust of the peasantry."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sigizmund Krzhizanavsky's Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanvsky’s Autobiography of a Corpse provides a sophisticated explanation of the impact of war and revolution on the psyche of a Russian intellectual.  One of Russia’s smartest authors ever to put pen to paper, Krzhizhanvsky’s unsettling short story takes the form of a suicide note that the dead protagonist has left to the tenant (i.e., the reader) who is lucky enough to take over the dead man’s flat in the overcrowded interwar Moscow housing market.   The dead protagonist ruminates on a number of different existential subjects but his main concern is that the experience of the World War, Civil War, and Russian Revolution, have created a new type of human being who is isolated from his living peers, but strangely connected to his dead ones.

 If the protagonist can be taken as representative of the new Soviet man, this Soviet man is profoundly disoriented and, consequently, profoundly depressed.  The narrator recalls the original source of his confusion as the First World War.  For the narrator, the shock of the war was enduring.  If you were lucky enough to have survived the war, you never forgot the experience.  The narrator recalls one ostensible survivor who travelled light for the rest of his life, preferring not to carry material possessions that weighed any more than his rifle did.  The death statistics of the World War were astounding, something to be continuously but fruitlessly pondered.  What could all of this death ultimately mean?  Nobody could make sense of it.  The author’s removal from the front lines of war didn’t necessarily make things easier for him.  Were the living--who had escaped the central fact of the modern age--more “alive” than the dead, who had squarely confronted this central fact of modern life by, ironically, dying on the battlefields of central Europe?
 The dead protagonist also speculates about the general dissolution of identity following the war.  What did it say about your identity when the new revolutionary authorities or their opponents in the Civil War, constantly tried to assess you, to verify who you were and what you stood for?  How stable could your consciousness be, when an increasingly intrusive state (as well as the state’s enemies) wanted to check your papers at every opportunity? 

The protagonist’s depictions of the revolution proper, as opposed to the state of post-revolutionary consciousness, are also instructive.  In many ways the Revolution reinforced the themes of the war.   The Revolution was violent, shocking, and all-consuming.  It had “jagged edges” that cut everyone.  More than that, the Revolution shook up the traditional relationship of the dead and the living.  In the Great War, the newspapers did their best to document who was dead and who was alive, but the very process of attempting to document death on such a scale revealed something arbitrary about the division that separated the living from the dead.  Similarly, the protagonist sees the Revolution blurs the boundaries that traditionally separate the living from the dead.  For the dead narrator, the Revolution was the world’s first revolt of the living against the dead.  Presumably, he means to follow Thomas Payne’s understanding of revolution as the rational expression of living men and women who are striving to break the arbitrary and archaic chains of the distant past.   But surely he also means that the Revolution is also a protest against the mass death of the First World War, an act of revenge on the part of the dead against those who had sent them to their deaths.   Viewed in this light, we might say that Stalin’s purges were payback for the original sin of World War.  Or we may at least say that the dead called out to their loved ones to do something more dramatic, more limitless, than reform in order to justify or sanctify the nation’s limitless loss.  And Krzhizhanovsky uses this very language to describe the process of revolution.  He said the Revolution removed all thresholds.  Without thresholds, Russians moved directly from the ancient regime to the modern world.  There was no intermediary stage of political evolution.  The Revolution did what Dostoevsky said atheism would do:  it made everything possible.

Some quotes from Autobiography of a Corpse:

“He knew that on the metropolitan chessboard, squares and not been set aside for all of the chessmen.”
“Naturally you have come ‘to conquer Moscow’; you have the energy and will ‘to gain a foothold,’ ‘to make your way in the world.’”

“I ordinarily sit in a splayed armchair, among my books and boredoms.”

“Space, I reasoned while in earliest youth, is absurdly vast and has expanded—with its orbits, stars, and yawning parabolas—to infinity.  But if one tucks it inside numbers and meanings, it will easily fit on two or three bookshelves.”

“In the country’s northern latitudes the population per square mile is .06 person.  It stuck in my mind like a splinter.

“We lived like separated drops.  Like waifs.”

“The city in which I lived changed hands thirteen times.”

“The more they made certain of my identity, the less certain I became of it myself…”

“Thus from the very first day newspapers and rifles divided us into those who would die and those for whom they would die.”

“But it’s fair to say that the war’s dialectic forced those who were more or less alive to go to their death, and those who were more or less dead the right to live.”

“Even then one sensed the approach of this new, as yet unnamed regime. It was as though the oxygen were being pumped out of the air by a slow, gigantic plunger.”

“The Revolution crashed down like lightening.”

“But then, when the revolution was still new, we were all, willingly or unwillingly, inflamed or burnt by its jagged, all-consuming course.” 

“In an instant, all thresholds had been removed—not only from rooms, cells, and studies but also from consciousness.”

Question 41:  “Ought a burial to take place after sunset? No.  For it is the reward of the dead to see the sun at the hour of their burial.”

“So I’m a corpse.  So be it. For I too shall see the sun at the hour of my burial.”

“Meanwhile the March fury was surging higher and higher, and many were frightened by its violent rise.  What had to happen, happened.”

“Life…seemed to favor the dead.  They better suited the existing order.”

“…and then began the planet’s first struggle or, rather, revolt of the living against the dead.”

“New eyes have appeared.  And people.  They have a new way of looking at you:  not at but through.  You can’t hide your emptiness inside;  they will bore into you with their pupils.”

“We’ve riddled all of Russia with bullets, but here she is again.  Patched—“

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Russia's Past, Present, and Future: Day of the Oprichnik

Fiction often captures the essence of an historical moment more effectively than academic analysis or sophisticated reportage.  Certainly Vladimir Sorokin's novella, The Queue, seemed to tell us everything that we needed to know about everyday life in the Soviet Union.  Behind the mask of ideology, propaganda, socialist economic theory, and militarism, ordinary Russians,and especially ordinary Russian women, waited endlessly in line for basic commodities. It mattered little what stores had to offer, people were willing to spend half the day in the street in the vague hope that they would be granted access to some scarce if banal commodity.  Often, Russian men and women entered lines without even knowing what product they would find, if anything, when they finally arrived at the front of the line.  The Soviet queue was in fact not only a fact of quotidian existence, it was a metaphor for the soullessness of the whole Soviet project:  what, after all, were socialist peoples waiting for? Even if they had solved the basic problem of distribution, what could they expect out of a socialist life?

If Sorokin accurately depicts at least one key aspect of Soviet life in The Queue, he's done an even better job of portraying post-Soviet life in Day of the Oprichnik, a science-fiction novel about a suspiciously familiar Russian society with violent, xenophobic, and autocratic tendencies.  The novel's narrator is a key member of the autocrat's quasi-legal enforcement team.  His job is to celebrate violence, participate in state-sanctioned corruption, and, most importantly, to terrorize private citizens. The narrator, a futuristic version of one of Ivan the Terrible's dreaded oprichniks, lives the energetic life of any state-empowered sociopath.  He partakes in rape, murder, shady deals, communal debauchery, and sycophantic adulation of the head of state. 

Day of the Oprichnik exaggerates many of the worst aspects of Putin's Russia.  For instance, just as Russia has turned its back on the United States and the European Union, the leaders of the Sorokin's Russia have physically cut themselves off from the West (and South) by means of a gigantic wall.  The breakdown of Russia's relationship with the West is accompanied by a corresponding economic and technological reliance on China, which, while perhaps a symptom of the author's own sinophobia, certainly seems to have anticipated today's geopolitical realities.   

The interesting thing about Sorokin's novel is that it doesn't merely ridicule Putin's Russia.  Instead, it conflates all of Russia's worst historical epochs.  For the narrator seems to be living with many of the realities of at least three (and possibly more) different historical situations, including the reigns of such dictatorial leaders as Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, and Putin.  Of course, to put Putin in the company of men like Ivan the Terrible and Stalin is to further vilify him.  In any case, the most frightening thing about the narrator's bloodthirsty pursuits, is that they don't seem out of place in any of these historical eras.  When we witness the protagonist's freewheeling ability to operate outside of the law in service of an autocrat, we know that he might have been at home at almost any time in Russia's long history.  If we note that oprichnik is in violent competition with his peers for the favor of the tsar of the future, we know that Stalin's henchmen were equally willing to kill one another to curry favor with their master.  

Thus Day of the Oprichnik depicts a timeless Russia, but that Russia is victim to a political regime that seems to combine the worst elements of both authoritarianism and lawlessness.  On the one hand, the country's political life clearly revolves around a central figure, the tsar or his modern day successors.  Ordinarily, extreme centralization has at least some benefits:  if men and women suffer from oppression, or live in fear, the state does at least offer a degree of political stability and order.  However, in Russia, the autocratic system of government coexists with, or perhaps depends upon, a certain form of political anarchy. The paradox is this:  the state appears all-powerful, but in reality it is founded upon profound uncertainty and insecurity.  To prop itself up, the government fosters a climate of radical and seemingly random terror at almost all levels of society.  Why did Ivan the Terrible carve out an empire within an empire and put the two at odds with one another?   What was the purpose of Stalin's unprecedented purges of even his closest confidants?  Why does Putin imprison a few of Russia's most powerful subjects from time to time?  This seemingly arbitrary violence is in fact a symptom of Russia's longstanding tradition of wedding bureaucratic centralization with state-sanctioned brigandage, as Sorokin's novel of the future suggests.

If Sorokin's Russia has any saving grace, it is only the Russian literary tradition.  For even in a country with longstanding traditions of corruption, political violence, censorship, anti-semitism, xenophobia, and autocracy, the country hasn't completely forgotten about Russia's great humanistic tradition.  Even the narrator has some familiarity with authors such as Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.  This ineradicable memory of literary tradition seems to be a common theme of many Russian science fiction authors.  In Tatyana Tolstaya book, The Slynx, for instance, a degraded, post-apocalyptic humanity forgets almost every basic element of civilization but can't, apparently, ever forget the names of Russia's most famous authors. Whether authors such as Sorokin or Tolstaya believe the Russian classics will ultimately redeem Russian barbarism is an open question.  For both authors, the names of Russia's great authors survive, but as a form of gibberish.  On the other hand, Sorokin's characters go out of their way to blaspheme the classics, by burning them for example.  But why burn the classics if not out of a fear that these classics do in fact contain some forgotten recipe for humanism in an age of totalitarianism and "perverted science."

Some favorite quotes from the book:

"The Russian people aren't easy to work with.  But God hasn't given us any other people."

"The Russian classics are helpful to the state."

"I look at the fire.  And see The Idiot and Anna Karenina in flames.  I look at the fire.  And see The Idiot and Anna Karenina in flames.  I

"This is our lane.  The government's.  As long as I live and serve the state, I will drive in it."

"Can a foreign oven really bake savory pies like a Russian oven?"

"Just understand, you idiot, we're gaurds.  We have to keep our minds cold and our hearts pure."

"His majesty can't stand cusswords."

"...opponents began to crawl out of the cracks like noxious centipedes.  A truly great idea breeds great resistance.  Our state has always had enemies inside and out, but the battle was never so intense as during the period of Holy Russia's Revival."

"Without you, Your Majesty, nothing works."

"His Majesty awakened in us not simply pride in our country, but compassion for her painful past.  Three Russian children stand streching theird hands out to us from the past of an insulted and injured country.  And we cannot help them at all."

"I blame my brain:  I didn't catch on to an obvious thing!  But then, my education was in the humanities..."

"I tune in to the West.  It's a real stronghold of anti-Russian subversion.  Like slimy reputles in a cesspool, enemy voices team..."

"His Majesty's father, the late Nikolai Platonovich, had a good idea:  liquidate all the foreign supermarkets and replace them with Russian kiosks.  And put two types of each thing in every kiosk, so the people have a choice.  A wise decision, profound.   Because our God-bearing people should choose from two things, not from three or thirty-three."

"Well, this sort of thing isn't for us to decide, but for His Majesty.  From the Kremlin His Majesty sees the people better, they're more visible...His Majest sees everything, hears everything.  He knows who needs what."

"The Kremlin is glorious in clear weather!  It glows.  The Palace of the Russian Government blinds the eyes, it takes your breath away."

"I know all these authors well.  They're famous, distinquished.  Carressed by the love of the people and His Majesty."

""Full and complete transparency,"" as His Majesty says.  And thank God:  We're in our own homeland, nothing to be shy about."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mass Murder in the Bloodlands

I was initially a little reluctant to read Timothy Synder's Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. First, I don't generally spend much time on either German or East European history.  Second, it sometimes seems as if I've spent too much time dwelling on some of the more sensational aspects of Stalin's reign of terror.  I’ve read books about collectivization, the man-made Ukrainian famine, the gulag, the deportations, the Great Terror, and World War II.  What more was there to know about Stalin’s brutal method of governing the country?  The originality of Bloodlands is that it links Europe’s most egregious mass killings into a single coherent narrative.  This is comparative or even regional history at its finest. How can this tale of interwar suffering be contained by any single national memory or history?  Synder's bloody narrative revolves around a specific geographical location centered in Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine, and the Eastern Baltic.  In this broad area, Nazism and Soviet Communism interacted with one another, and sometimes conspired with one another, to produce an unprecedented human catastrophe.

The author is at pains to correct some common historical myths about what actually happened in this area before and during the Second World War.  For instance, Synder's reminds us that Stalinism actually killed far more of its own citizens than Hitlerism did prior to the advent of the war.  The man-made Ukrainian famine is only one of the policies of mass murder inflicted on a vulnerable civilian population.  But Stalinism inflicted countless deaths to various other populations.  By an order of magnitude, Communist Russia proved to be far more deadly even than its fascist counterpart, at least in peacetime.  Synder also proves that Stalinism did have an ethnic or genocidal component,and that the Soviet Union's campaign of murder wasn't entirely random.  More than anything, Synder demonstrates that the Soviet Union targeted and decimated the Polish population, and this decimation included ethnic Poles who always lived under Soviet rule, as well as ethnic Poles who lived under sucessive governments.  Stalinism had many victims, but ethnic Poles suffered very acutely in comparison with most other devastated ethnic or political groupings.  

The author's main argument is that Nazism seemed in some sense to work in tandem with Communism to produce humankind’s worst tragedy in history.  Although the book makes complicated arguments about the nature of this period of mass killings, both regimes clearly used one another to justify their most horrific crimes against humanity.  For instance, both regimes intentionally starved prisoners of war to death on a massive scale, and justified these horrific actions by referring to the bloodiness and alleged inhumanity of the enemy.  

Bloodlands also sheds some light on the Holocaust.  We know of course that Jews suffered more than any other group who occupied the “bloodlands.”   When we examine the tragedies which occurred in both Poland and Belarussia, for example, Jews a far smaller chance of surviving than non-Jews.  It’s unpleasant business to compare the relative suffering of various ethnic groups.  However, the author of Bloodlands helps us to understand that historical accuracy matters.  Take the memory of the modern Russian people as a case in point. While it is certainly true that Russians suffered tremendously from Nazi villainy, the Russian government rarely reminds its citizens of how many of the official “20 million deaths in World War II” figure died at the hands of the Soviet government.  In fact, this figure includes many people who were killed by Russia after it briefly allied itself to Nazi Germany and invaded the Baltic republics as well as Eastern Poland.  And of course the Soviet and post-Soviet Russian governments have almost always tried to submerge the unique stories of Ukrainian, Polish, and especially Jewish suffering in the overall story of Soviet suffering. 

The author of Bloodlands makes a subtle (but well-documented) arguments about tremendously controversial topics. However, the book’s central argument is that we shouldn’t try to analyze twentieth century brutality without acknowledging how Hitlerism and Stalinism worked together, either intentionally or intentionally, to eliminate millions upon millions of people in Eastern Europe.  Certainly Nazi Germany ultimately killed many more innocent people than Soviet Germany did, but both regimes were guilty of mass murder on an unprecedented scale.  Thus to analyze either regime, we must acknowledge that an international phenomenon of mass cruelty was at work.   This being so, Synder reminds us that we shouldn’t forget the specificity of the Eastern European geography of murder.  European mass killing sometimes happened outside of the bloodlands, but the total numbers of victims can scarcely compare to killings that took place in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Passion of Turgenev

My Russian reading club serves troubled students who are operating at a variety of reading comprehension levels.  I'm still learning what works well for these students, and what doesn't.  The fact that at least a few of my students apparently can't read at all complicates matters.  The fact that brand new students show up at the center every month or so also makes planning difficult.  However, recently I've had some luck asking student volunteers to read aloud.   Each week, we go through one Russian short story from the book, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida.  In this way, the stronger readers can practice their pronunciation skills while the entire class, inclujding the weaker readers, can at least learn new vocabulary words.  Although I haven't had time for much literary analysis, we do at least tack back and forth between the text and some of the larger themes of Russian history, or indeed of history in general.  For instance, two weeks ago we read a short story from Turgenev's A Hunter's Notebook, and spent some time discussing the whole concept of serfdom in Russian history.  The students inevitably and profitably made comparisons to American history, and the institution of slavery, in particular.  The class also had an opportunity to discuss aristocratic traditions such as hunting.  

The highlight of the evening came when a fistfight broke out in class, right in the midst of the Turgenev reading.  The fight, which was apparently the aftereffect of a previous verbal altercation, was quickly broken up by trained staff, and thankfully nobody was hurt.  Of course, the fight helped to underscore the essential irony of asking troubled kids to engage with advanced literature.  On the one hand, one asks oneself whether this level of tension precludes serious intellectual work.  On the other hand, one wonders whether serious literature isn't needed most whereever students are struggling the most to find real meaning in their lives.  Whatever the answer, reading Turgenev with a nontraditional audience of novice readers helps shed new light on an old text.  How will these students relate to the hunter, the hunter's servant, the local peasants, and the alleged brigands?  One of my favorite parts about the reading club is hearing how some of the most creative students read the story.  They add accents, invent brand new Anglicized names to replace the difficult Russian ones, and laugh at jokes that may or may not have been intended as such by the author.  To be sure, by the end of any evening with a Russian author, the kids are ready to quit, tired out by the day, and sometimes a little bored by the text they had no hand in picking.  Even so, my hope is that each week they learn a few new words, and gain a little more confidence in their own ability to tackle new and difficult subjects.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pussy Riot Continued

Clips from Pussy Riot song lyrics and courtroom speeches, as cited in Masha Gessen's Words Will Break Cement:  The Passion of Pussy Riot.

"Feminists dispatched on maternity leave."

"Egyptian air is good for the lungs
Turn Red Square into Tahrir"

"LBGT, feminists, stand up to the fatherland!"

"Riot is aborting the system!"

"Fed up with the culture of male hysterics."

"Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist"

"The Church sings the songs of rotten dictators"

"Patriarch Gudnayev believes in Putin
Bitch, better believe in God instead
The Virgin's Girdle can't replace the demos
The Virgin herself is with us in protest!"

"There is a reason Christ was with the fallen women."  Nadya

"I think its the prosecution that is affronting Christianity!"  Nadya

"Here and now, in this court, we are being desecrated."  Nadya

"Pythagoras said that extensive knowledge does not breed wisdom." Nadya

"We serve merely as decorations, as inanimate objects, as bodies delivered to the courtroom."  Nadya

"We were sincere in what we said, as we always are."  Nadya

"Like Solzhenitsyn, I believe that in the end, words will break cement."  Nadya

"The inexplicable pleases us, the incomprehensible is our friend."  Nadya citing Alexander Vvedensky.

"It happens that two possible rhymes come to mind, a good one and a bad one.  I choose the bad one.  It is sure to be the right one."  Nadya citing the poet Alexander Vvedensky.

"[OBERIUs] paid with their lives to show that they had been right to believe that senselessness and lack of logic expressed their era best."  Nadya

"Do you happen to remember why the young Dostoevsky was sentenced to death?  He was guilty only of having immersed himself in socialist theory."  Nadya

"But our rulers are in a rush to judge, never to show mercy." Nadya

"Freedom is better than unfreedom."  Nadya cites Dimtry Anatolyevich Medvedev's famous remark.

"Montaigne expressed it in his Essays in the sixteenth century.  He wrote, "It is putting a very high value on one's conjectures, to have a man roasted alive because of them." Nadya

"The regime has will be made to feel ashamed of it for years to come.  Its every step has been the quintessence of lawlessness."  Nadya

"How did our performance, a small and somewhat absurd act to begin with, balloon into a full-fledged catastrophe? Obviously, this could not have happened in a healthy society."  Maria

"A person learns to forget about his liberty starting at a young age."  Maria

"I have been in jail for almost six months, and I have realized that jail is Russia in miniature."  Maria

"One more thing: the regime is a show that conceals what is in reality chaos.  What looks orderly and restrictive is in fact disorganized and inefficient."  Maria

"Woe unto the country where simple honesty is perceived as an act of heroism at best and a mental disorder at worst."   Maria citing previous dissenter.

"Thus ended our complicated punk adventure at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior"  Kat.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Pussy Riot

Masha Gessen, the Russian-American journalist, has consistently challenged the Putin regime's descent in militarism, xenophobia, authoritarianism and strident homophobia.  Although the Russian president currently enjoys enormous popularity at home, his many years in power have helped to undermine Russia's always fragile democratic traditions.  Under Putin, the Russian government has systematically dismantled everything associated with liberal democracy, including fair elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, a healthy separation between church and state, and even a basic respect for human rights. Gessen is one of Russia's bravest souls, writing about a regime that has repeatedly ignored the law to attack or perhaps even kill its political and sometimes even cultural opponents.  Gessen's book doesn't purport to be dispassionate journalism.  Instead, the book is a systematic indictment of Putin's persecution of a group of young punk activists.

Gessen's book is a collective biography of a group of controversial women whose protest in one of Russia's holiest sites brought them both censure and fame.  While Gessen doesn't try to portray any of the young women as unblemished victims, she clearly believes their treatment by authorities and jail time, was unfairly harsh to say the least.  For the most part, Gessen tries to let the women speak for themselves.  This is fortunate for the women, since they all come across as brave, thoughtful, ethical, articulate, and intelligent dissenters.  Clearly, Gessen believes that the women of Pussy Riot belong in the same category as Russia's most celebrated political or religious martyrs, including Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Brodsky, Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn, and Sinyavsky.  In fact, members of Pussy Riot have written courtroom speeches and letter that would could stand up against even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s justly famous Letter from a Burmingham Jail.  Indeed, the strength of Pussy Riots' appeals are that they do what both King and Sinyavsky did in their trials, that is, they alluded to a long and cherished tradition of moral and political thinking.  Pussy Riots' protest songs are themselves eloquent artistic expressions of dissent.

Of course, one can't help but sympathize with ordinary Russians, many of whom must have been shocked by Pussy Riots' decision to take over a cathedral in an act of performance art and political protest.  After all, how difficult must it be for average folks to understand a message of liberal democracy laced with feminism and punk aestheticism?  And how much more difficult must it be for average Russians to make sense of this strange performance when it has almost no access to independent news sources?  Ultimately, Pussy Riot members may be lucky to have finally been released from jail at all.  Perhaps only the Olympics saved them. The cards were always stacked against them.  The Russian government was always fully prepared to employ every means to harrass its most independent citizens, including unorthodox police and judicial actions and, ultimately, cruel and unusual jail sentences.

In the end of course the author, who uses Pussy Riots' own words to make her point, makes her case. As one of the women asserts at her trial, the turth is inherently more powerful than the combined forces of Russian authoritarianism.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Peter Calvert on Revolution

My previous post gave a very brief description of Peter Calvert's book on the history of the concept of revolution.  This book is a useful introduction to the evolution of the term, somehow redolent of an entry in Raymond William's Keywords. The book is also filled with notable definitions and descriptions of the idea. Below are some of them.

"Revolution is one of the few political concepts of which we can speak before the era of the ancient Greeks."

"...the concept of the state cannot be made fully real until the concept of social dissolution or revolution has first been encountered."

"Rebellion [under the Pharaohs] was not only politically unjustifiable, it was also sacrilege."

"Forsooth, [men's] hearts are violent...Forsooth the wealthy are in mourning.  The poor man is full of joy. Every town says:  Let us suppress the powerful among us."  Leiden Papyrus 344, probably from the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian history.

"Revolution [for the ancient Egyptians] represented a reversion to the primitive practice of sacrificing a weak ruler when he had outlived his usefulness."

'The concept of legitimation received strengths and reinforcements from the existence of revolt and revolution."

"[Under the Greeks] For the first time, revolutionary events were subject to detailed scrutiny."

"What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member;  to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saving one was a coward;  any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character;  ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.  Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence.  Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect...As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive."  Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War.

"For [Aristotle], therefore, revolution is not an exceptional phenomenon, but a necessary fact of political change."

"In revolutions, the occasions may be triffling, but great interests are at stake."  Aristotle.

"Revolutions are effected in two ways, by force and by fraud.  Force may be applied either at the time of making the revolution or afterwards."  Aristotle.

"Revolutions break out when opposite parties, e.g. the rich and the poor, are equally balanced, and there is little or nothing between them; for if either party were manifestly superior, the other would not risk an attack on them."  Aristotle.

"Perception of the balance of advantage in a revolutionary situation may be incorrect.  Furthermore, superiorty is not only a matter of strength, but also of timing."

"Tyranny, however, is strengthened in two contradictory ways:  by the extreme use of force, and the moderate exercise of every other form of power."  Calvert is paraphrasing Aristotle here.

"In terms that seem almost modern he criticized Plato's tendency to subsume all causes of revolution under that of poverty."

"Aristotle, then, is the true founder of the study of revolution."

"The Calvinist state was one in which revolution simply could not exist."

"The French Revolution's most permanent contribution to the concept of revolution, however, lay in the glory and dignity that it gave to it."

"Many individual national identities take as their point of reference some shared 'revolutionary' experience;  a combination of efforts to shake off some form of outside influence."

"If there is one thing that distinguishes revolution in the political sense from disturbances in general it is the fact of success."

"There is not less government during a revolution, there is more government." Calvert cites Lyford Edards' The Natural History of Revolution.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The History of Revolution

Although this blog (like all blogs) frequently strays from its theme, its main purpose is to analyze the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath.  What caused the Revolution?  What did the revolution mean to Russian society?  What impact did the Revolution have on Russian society?  These seem like simple questions but simple questions don't always have simple answers.  What is a revolution anyway?  How should we define the term?  Sometimes it's a good idea to go back to the basics, as the study of comparative revolutions allows us to do.

This week I looked at a relatively old work on the subject, Peter Calvert's Revolution.  It's interesting to see how slippery the definition of revolution can be, and how much it has evolved over time.  Calvert begins his study at the beginning of recorded history, with history's first violent political ruptures.  Dedicating a whole chapter to Ancient Egypt, Calvert looks at humanity's very first documented coup d'etats.  At the time, and for a long time thereafter, the idea of violent political change was utterly detached from the more modern notion of violent political change associated with radical social transformation.  When power changed hands in Egypt, and one dynasty was replaced by another, the foundations of society generally remained in place. Outsiders sometimes conquered Egypt, but conquest doesn't really qualify as revolution, which by definition implies an internal struggle against existing leadership.  Moreover, the term revolution implies successful struggle:  if a revolt fails to achieve power, it remains just that, a revolt, and does not qualify as a revolution.

Although the Egyptians experienced the violent overthrow of one political group by another, they never systematically analyzed the phenomenon.  The Greeks, by contrast, did.  In fact, they took the whole issue of the violent takeover of a government very seriously because, as Calvert points out, any political revolution in a Greek city-state had both domestic and international repercussions.  A democratic revolution meant a new potential member of a democratic alliance, and vice-versa.

Aristotle and other Greek thinkers analyzed the concept of revolution in some detail.  They believed in a cyclical concept of regime change.  Political orders weren't stable, one form of government inherently led to another.  Democracies, for example, eventually led to tyranny, which in turn, gave way to oligarchy.  The Greeks also thought that revolutions were something more than the displacement of one political regime by another.  There was both a governmental and a social aspect to revolution. Whereas the Egyptians believed that weak governments were merely displaced by stronger versions of the same fundamental phenomenon, the Greeks classified different types of political orders.  Moreover, for the Greeks, a revolution represented the class of different social classes, or at least the violent breakdown of social order which resulted from social inequality. Calvert quotes Aristotle thus:  "In revolutions, the occasions may be trifling, but great interests are at stake."  Or again:  "Oligarchy is based on the notion that those who are unequal in one respect are in all respects unequal;  being unequal, that is, in property, they suppose themselves to be unequal in absolutely.  The democrats think that as they are equal they ought to be equal in all things..."

With the rise of the Hellenistic monarchies, and eventually with the rise of the Roman "global" state, revolution lost any sense of being an ethically neutral category of analysis.  In the search for order, Hellenistic thinkers and Roman thinkers accepted the notion that revolution was little more than the breakdown of social order.  And of course anyone who has read Suetonius will understand that even dynastic succession was often violently disruptive for Roman society.  Order and continuity were the appropriate goal of any political theory.

If pagan Romans thought chaos had very little to recommend it, late Roman and medieval Christians also fore swore the concept. According to Calvert, the Christian perspective on the concept of revolution was one of the chief causes of what was once known as the "Dark Ages."  Christian thinkers emphasized social order and obedience.  They also argued that religious change could be unrelated to politics.  One could seek radical spiritual transformation even as he or she accepted God's political representatives on Earth, the monarchs.

Medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas sometimes asked whether regime change could theoretically be justified  by outcomes such as improved governance, but it took the Renaissance, and Machiavelli, to offer Europeans a full-fledged revival of the Greek's ethically neutral interest in violent political transformation. Over time, the term revolution entered all European languages.  The modern concept of revolution was secular one, and it eventually evolved into a belief that revolution was almost inevitable.  Societies changed over time, and sometimes that change was violent.  Now it only remained to make the argument that revolutions were healthy phenomenon, something akin to the fires which, under natural conditions, ensure that prairies remain purged of unhealthy elements and healthy.  The moderns believed, and perhaps still believe, that revolution led to salubrious reordering of a previously disjointed society.   The revolutions in Great Britain, America, and France, actually improved society.  As Calvert maintains, modern people followed Rousseau in thinking that revolution was practically an end in itself.  To be a full member of society, one almost had to be a revolutionary.

Writing in the 1970s, Calvert next examines how the concept of revolution was celebrated within the socialist tradition, and eventually exported to China and most sites of colonial exploitation.  Interestingly, he also tracks the democratization of the term to include personal transformation of the kind young, liberal and radical Americans embraced in the 1960s.  The wars of liberation were fought in various colonial sites of domination, as well as in the minds and bodies of America's exploited classes, genders, races, etc.  The idealistic goal now was to find some way of making revolution permanent and self-sustaining.


Friday, April 25, 2014

Masha Gessen

When I left for my two-week Fulbright visit to Russia, I thought that I'd have a lot to write about.  However, my trip came in the midst of mounting tensions related to Russia's seizure of the Crimea and ethnic tensions in the rest of the Ukraine.  The diplomatic crisis in the Ukraine overwhelmed me and utterly overshadowed my trip.  Where was Russia heading?  Why were U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations seemingly worse than they had been than at many points during the Cold War?  Although I have always been primarily interested in Russia's early Bolshevik history, my work in Russia, coupled with the Ukrainian situation, pulled me into the present.  Who was the man behind the portraits which pervaded Russian academia, and dominated the global headlines?

Upon my return from Russia, I turned toward Masha Gessen's The Man Without a Face:  The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.  To be honest, I don't know enough about the Russian present to be sure that Gessen is the most objective analysis of Putin's legacy.  Although Gessen's journalistic credentials are impeccable, she hardly seems to credit Putin for any sort of political legitimacy.  Upon leaving his job, the editor of The Moscow Times excoriated Putin's undemocratic legacy but acknowledged that the autocrat's Moscow was becoming safer, richer, more culturally vibrant, and perhaps more liveable.  Even so, Gessen's biography of Putin is a good place to start if one wants to examine the worst aspects of Putin's rise to power. She has done her homework on the man who has helped to eliminate a variety of democratic practices and institutions in order to promote a more stable or at least more powerful Russia.  Gessen's Putin is a crude if also wiley man.  While it seems unfair grant too much significance to the fact that Putin spent his early years fighting neighborhood toughs in the streets, Gessen provides a great deal of evidence to suggest that Putin's meteoric rise to power was made possible by his status as an active, or at least reserve, KGB officer.

Gessen's overall critique of Putin in power is that he is a ruthless, Soviet-style, autocrat, obsessed with recovering Russia's lost glory and prestige.  On the issue of corruptness, Gessen acknowledges that Putin had once made a name for himself by refusing bribes, but then proceeds to say that Putin may now be one of Russia's richest citizens, building a $1 billion vacation house on the Black Sea.  Gessen admits that she cannot conclusively prove many of the darkest allegations against Putin, but she seems to several politically-motivated murders, in addition to two incidents of mass terror, either directly or indirectly at Putin's feet. Clearly, Gessen's virulently anti-Putin biography cannot be the last word on either Putin the man or the nation he leads. For many of Gessen's strongest attacks against Russia's strongman aren't contextualized either by Russia's disappointing experience with liberalism, or by the West's imperfect record of respecting the prerogatives of a great power.  Even so, in an undemocratic society, an undemocratically elected regime as the burden of proof when it comes to establishing a record for respecting human rights.

In any event, my own travels made me agree with Vladimir Sorokin's recent article on the matter.  My strongest impression in Russia came when I went to see the Lubyanka symbol of so much Soviet terror. How could this monument to the secret police's criminal past remain in operation under the auspices of the FSB?  In Hungary, the main site of detention and torture is now a museum, appropriately titled The House of Terror.  Not so in Russia.  Sorokin remembers how the anti-Soviet mob brought down the state of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet Union's secret police.  When a few brave members of the crowd scaled the statue to topple the statue of one of the Bolshevik's most repulsive representatives, they were asked to wait patiently for a truck to cart the statue away.  The fear was that a falling statue would damage some wiring under the pavement below it.  Sorokin recalls how he knew the Russia's emerging revolution was in real trouble.  If the Russian people didn't have enough willpower or anger to clarity of historical memory to destroy even this symbol of terror, how would they overthrow the mentality it represented?

Sorokin's perspective corresponds to my own thoughts on the matter.  Soviet symbols are everywhere in Russia today, and the cult of personality surrounding Putin closely resembles that of the Soviet apparatchiks who ruled the country for seventy years.  Perhaps Russia still awaits the revolution that was promised in 1991 but never really occurred.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflections on Moscow

My first trip to Moscow is coming to an end.  My work with Fulbright ended several days ago, but I've spent a couple of extra days here roaming around the city.  I've visited the Kremlin, strolled through Gorky Park, shopped in GUM, popped into a few old churches, entered several museums, and made my way past more than a few literary house museums.  These included the homes or apartments of Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Mayakovsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Bely, and Lermontov.  Overshadowing these relics of old Moscow, are towering apartment buildings, twenty-lane highways, bustling metro stops, and glittering shopping opportunities for Russia's elite citizens.  Moscow is larger, wealthier, and more vibrant than I anticipated.  Although my impressions are no doubt shaped by my literary and historical preconceptions, I can't help but think that Moscow is one of the great cities of the world, on par with London and Paris and Mexico City.  Seeing the State Historical Museum's 1812 exhibition makes one realize what Napeoleon and Hitler failed to understand:  that Russia is a great, and perhaps unconquerable, world power.  While historians often credit the Russian winter for the country's victories, or point to its vast expanses as the source of its strategic power, one can't help but feel that the city of Moscow is representative of the country's creative and military potency.  The city seems perfectly capable of swallowing any number of invading armies.  We read that Hitler was stopped outside of Moscow, but it seems likely that he wouldn't have been able to digest the city even if he had reached it.  

I'm left with one other immediate impression, and that is that this city, and this country, is profoundly befuddled by the Soviet past.  When one visits the Lubyianka, one notes that only a small memorial stands as testimony to the unimaginable suffering that took place there.  Although the statue of the founder of the secret police has been removed, the building remains the headquarters of the country's principle security organ.  In any case, the signs of the Soviet past would be impossible to ignore, even if this was what the country's citizens wanted to do.  Soviet architectual symbols abound, though these statues and hammer and sickle engravings are undoubtedly less permament than memories of global military power and ideological primacy in the non-capitalist world.  

To sum up, Moscow is a powerful engine of modernity.  As the crisis in the Crimea makes clear, Moscow remains capable of providing the world with an alternative to American or even Euro-American hegemony.  Moscow's vitality is vertiginious or even dualistic however.  Probably Bulgakov captured this dizzying quality best, but Sigizmund Krzhizhanivsky also seems to have come to terms with this "third Rome."  In his novella, Autobiography of a Corpse, Krzhizhanivsky already detected a city on the make, where provincials gave up everything just for the chance to occupy some miserable corner of a large and uninviting apartment building.  The result, however, were people who could scarcely hold on to a unified sense of self, or even to a firm grasp on whether they were truly alive or already dead.  Krzhizhanivsky wrote this tale in 1925, when most Moscovites had suffered enormous disruptions to their sense of history, gradual progress, and general well-being.  As the dead narrator relates, the war, revolution, and civil war, had effectively erased the division between the living and the dead, and if that's an unstable mode of being, nothing is. 

Moscow in 2014 isn't quite as unstable as Moscow in 1925, but many Moscovites now live with the memory, historical or personal, of two revolutions, that of 1917 and that of 1991.  And that sense of living revolution will continue to make Moscow a city of endless possibilities, although not all of those possibilities will be benign.