Friday, January 24, 2014

Olga Andreyev Carlisle's Under A New Sky: A Reunion with Russia

One of my greatest pleasures is to stroll into my office library to select another book to read on Russia.  I love reading so much it has utterly overshadowed my ability to conduct real research.  My wife, a very succesful researcher in the field of electrical engineering, tells me that I should stop reading for a period of several months to do some sustained thinking about Russia.  This time away from books would allow me to decide what it is that I wanted to contribute to the study of Russian history or literature. The time away from books would afford me the chance to separate out my thoughts from those of my favorite authors.  What is it I have learned about Russia and the Russian Revolution?

It's difficult to know for sure if one never pauses long enough to reflect on one's own opinions.  Sadly, my love of reading is difficult to surmount.  As soon as I've finished one book, I long to take up another one, or several of them simultaneously.  Perhaps my compulsion to reach for another book is a symptom of fear.  Do I have something original to say about Russia or revolution in general?  If I were afraid of the answer, I'd naturally never want to settle down with my own thoughts very long. 

In any case, for the time being, I remain a serial reader of Russian books, always in danger of favoring historical breadth rather than depth.  And this week, I made my customary visit to my office library and stared at its various sections.  What book to select, and from which section?  My Russian books are organized haphazardly under the following headings:  the Revolution proper, memoirs, poetry, theatre, literary criticism, contemporary fiction, Soviet fiction, anti-Soviet or diaspora fiction, Stalinism and the history of the gulag, Russian women and gender studies, academic tomes, intellectual history, late imperial Russia, the Cold War, international communism, regional studies, and comparative revolution, contemporary Russian fiction, the literature of the Russian diaspora, late and post-Soviet Russia, complete histories of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov (works by those two writers overwhelmed neighboring shelves), nineteenth century fiction, generic histories of Russia, Russian history and literature journals, etc.  

Understandably, the choice of a next book can be a difficult decision.  Last week I settled on something from my late Soviet/post-Soviet shelf, although the book might just as easily have been categorized under memoir. Ordinarily, I don't expect much from my modern Russian books.  I don't read a lot in this area, and so don't spend a lot of time or money ensuring that I've acquired the best books on Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. What's more, so many books were churned out in response to the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union, that many of them have not withstood the test of time.  Even so, I always feel that one can't quite make sense of the whole of the Soviet experience, or even the Revolution proper, unless one understands its concluding chapters, or indeed its epilogue.  This of course is my problem as a researcher.  I can't settle down to even a single era.  As soon as I finish a book on the Revolution, I wanted to know what happened before these events, what happened after them, and what happened in other areas of the world simultaneously.  

But I digress.  In this instance, I picked up a short book by Olga Andreyev Carlisle, granddaughter of the best-selling late imperial author, Andreyev.  The book turned out to be a real find.  While not terribly poetic or original, Andreyev Carlisle's family ties form a tangible link in the chain of pre-revolutionary Russia, Soviet Russia, and post-revolutionary Russia.  They also bind Russians who moved abroad to those who stayed behind.  Incredibly, the Andreyev clan also turns out to form a link between liberal and nationalist insofar as Olga's aunt turned away from the liberal and democratic traditions of her husband's family and moved toward spiritual mysticism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism.

The focus of Olga's memoirs is the virtues of the Russian intelligentsia. The book depicts Olga's interactions over the years with Akhmatova, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky, Askoldov, Lydia Chukovsky, Nadezdha Mandelstam,Vasilyn Aksyonov, and Joseph Brodsky.  In fact, Olga has family ties to authors and poets as well as socialist revolutionaries such as the famous Victor Chernov, one of Lenin's fiercest critics on the left.  Her book testifies to the continuing power of the idea or myth of the intelligentsia.  Although Olga's hopes in the 1960s were dashed after the Soviet Thaw came to an end, she was intimately involved with Russian intellectual resistance to totalitarianism, both at home and in the diaspora.  This book is an attempt to document the survival of liberalism in Russia against all odds.  On the other hand, Olga's second homecoming at the end of the Soviet period, her "reunion" with Russia, is clouded by the resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism.  At the time, many Russian Jews had real reason to fear the advent of Russian "democracy."  Resurgent Russian nationalists were blaming Jews for the entire Soviet experiment, and using only thinly veiled threats to drive many Russian Jews into exile.

This reminds me of my attempts to follow one popular Russian news service.  Reading the RT news is an unnerving if profitable experience on many levels.  For the RT press seems to exist only to retaliate against American and West European attacks against Russia.  If Russia is criticized for human rights violations, Russia's news organs make counterclaims about American human rights violations.  In a sense, reading the Russian news is salubrious.  Russia's unique, non-European, vantage point can unveil hypocrisy and highlight American foreign policy errors and abuses.  But of course the news is often disingenuous.  Russia really does make outrageous mistakes in its treatment of minorities, for example, with the recent anti-gay laws being only the most egregiously hurtful of these laws.  But worse still is to read the website feedback sections, filled as they with endless and flagrant anti-Semittic, racist, and homophobic rants.  Reading these neo-Nazi diatribes of hate, one is reminded of the paradox which has confounded Olga and all other members of Russia's intelligentsia.  If Russia is the land of Tolstoys and Gorkys and Bunins, it's also the land of the Zhirinovskys and Black Hundreds.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Leonid Dobychin's The Town of N

While Leonid Dobychin is today a footnote in the book of Soviet literature, his short novel, The Town of N, is a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of pre-revolutionary life on the outskirts of the empire.  The novel tells the story of a child who grows up in the decade prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.  The Town of N is a bildungsroman:  the child narrator is coming to terms with sex, politics, religion, education, and culture. He's also coming to terms with European and Russian literature.  In the course of 100 odd pages, the narrator tackles almost canonical work of Russian prose, and many European classics as well. Although the child doesn't ordinarily understand what he's reading, he's moving through them, and wrestling with their meaning on some rudimentary level.  Whether or not he has understood them, the narrator is familiar with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, Andreyev, Chukovsky, and other Russian writers, as well as Dickens, Nietzsche, Pinkerton novels, and a variety of other Western writers and artists.

As Dobychin's title is redolent of Gogol, so too are his cast of small-minded provincial characters.  Richard Borden's introduction to the European Classic edition of the book, argues that Dobychin's protagonist is beset by a veritable circus of venal, self-important, and grasping of Russian bourgeois.  Certainly the protagonist's family and immediate circle of acquaintances is bourgeois, anti-Semitic, and nationalist if not xenophobic.  The child has grown up in an atmosphere of deep suspicion.  As town-dwellers, the protagonist and his mother regard both workers and peasants--to say nothing of Japanese, Poles, and Jews--as dangerous elements which threaten to overturn the natural order of society.  Once, after the disturbances of 1905, the protagonist regurgitates his mother's disgust that the poor, who lived in dark and smelly basements, were beginning to feel that they had a right to open their windows for air once in a while.

Notwithstanding the protagonist's limited worldview, my own (admittedly first) reading of The Town of N suggests that Dobychin is mainly concerned with depicting his protagonist's world realistically; after all, from a youthful vantage point, adults almost always appear as inscrutable, mysterious, and vaguely threatening, beings. If his protagonist's mother doesn't trust her own maid, and blames Witte's for purposefully landing Russia in trouble with the Japanese in order to appease his Jewish wife, what middle class adult in later imperial Russia did not also harbor similar prejudices?

What's interesting about Dobychin's take on a classic coming-of-age story, is that his narrator is confronting modernity as well as adulthood.  In fact, the plot of The Town of N revolves around mico as well as macro-level events, which often intersect.  On the one hand, he's monitoring the progress of the construction of a local church or paying attention to the activities of his neighbors;  on the other hand, he's bearing witness to the introduction of new technologies, Eastern fashions, political trends, and even social facts, to borrow from Durkeim's terminology.  In the space of just a few years, the character observes the appearance of cinema and electricity and notes the arrival of a new level of political violence characterized by strikes and assassinations which culminate in the Russian-Japanese War and the failed revolution of 1905.

Richard Borden tells us that Dobychin was disgraced by the Soviet literary established and committed suicide shortly thereafter.  His work clearly did not conform to the conventions of socialist realism. Certainly it did not glorify Soviet workers or Soviet construction projects.  Whether or not The Town of N reflects badly on Bolshevik Russia is difficult to say.  Borden points out that comparing modern Russia to Gogol's Russia demonstrates that the Soviet regime would ultimately fail to transform or even improve the dismal circumstances of the Russian people.  The Russian people remained what they had been in Dead Souls. Russian lives remains short, nasty, and brutish.  Their society remained authoritarian, elitist, superstitious, and lubricated by patronage.  (In the Town of N, the police commissionar has his own designated box at the theatre!) But of course this novel isn't set in Soviet Russia.  It's failures are prevolutionary and as such they inherently testify to the Soviet Union's raison d'etre.  The Town of N is in fact a site of intense and rising political dissatisfaction, confusion, and conflict, symbolized by politicized funerals, strikes, terrorist bombings, police shootings, school closings, mobilized soldiers, anti-war literature (i.e., The Red Laugh), expressions of monarchical support, police-issued "certificates of political loyalty," and Black Hundreds marches. If anything, Dobychin's adolescent narrator is observing (or perhaps reflecting) a flawed, divided society in search of radical or event violent transformation.

Some quotes from The Town of N:

"One said he had not sorrrows and wept bitterly:  "God has forgotten me," he grieved."

"Maman told her about how the count had caught two peasant women mushroom picking in his forest and had beaten them up, and she was indignant."

"That fall Father was infected doing a postmortem and died."

"She died there.  She left me three hundred rubles, and maman told me not to spread this fact around."

"Have you read the book "Chekhov"?--she finally asked, reddening."

"Whenever it fell silent, the people near us would discuss England and condemn her. --A Christian nation--they would say--and she's helping the Japanese."

"He was a ragamuffin, and it occurred to me later that he might have a knife and that he could help me take revenge on my penmanship teacher."

"--You've got to eat more rice--maman now said at dinner--and then you'll be strong.  The Japanese eat only rice--and look how they're defeating us."

"Ladies, stopping by the cartloads of food, were sampling.  Peasants were saying foul things out loud.  I was seeing them up close for the first time.--They're like beasts--said Olov, and we had a chat about them."

"We asked Kanatchikov to keep an eye on Evgenia [the family servant]."

"Peasabnts were harrowing.  Ravens revolved around them.  I pictured to myself Chichikov's travels."

"The common people are rebelling--we said. --Measure that can be taken are few."

"I was forbidden to go beyond the gate, and I didn't aspire to.  It would have been terrifying suddenly to encounter peasants alone."

"Father Nikolay explained to us that all creeds had been granted freedom, but that didn't really have much significance and, as before, the principal religion would remain ours."

"I've noticed that I'm already becoming like a grown-up. Sometimes I'm already reminded of childhood."

"I was a bit surprised to hear peasants conversing, just like we did."

"In a cupboard I found a book called "The Life of Jesus."  It astonished me.  I didn't think it possible to doubt in the divinity of Jesus Christ...--Whatever, then--I said to myself--can you be sure of completely?"

"I noticed now that mamam has begun spying on me.  From that day on I tried to behave in such a way that it would be impossible for her to find out anything about me."

"After that they conversed about how sad it is when you suddenly learn that somebody is against the government..."

"--I recall--she said--the year '05.  It was terrible.  People were impertinent then, like wild beasts."

"A policeman came along and made everybody remove their caps."

"One hundred years had passed, it turned out, since the birth of Gogol."

Friday, January 17, 2014

Douglas Smith's Former People

Douglas Smith's book, Former People:  The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, is a wonderfully well-researched account of the tragedy that befell Russia's nobility during the Revolution and the subsequent decades. Smith acknowledges the fact that aristocratic political traditions and economic practices alienated peasants and workers, and even goes so far as to say that most nobles predicted a revolutionary apocalypse even before World War I.  Nevertheless, Smith also helps readers to understand that noble-born Russians suffered grievously.  Indeed, Smith makes a compelling case that the Soviet Union's brutal treatment of nobles foreshadowed the racial cruelty of the Nazi regime.  For the Soviets harassed and hounded anybody with even the slightest biological ties to the Old Regime's nobility, and that included even the children and grandchildren of former nobles. Although the Bolsheviks used class rather than biological terminology to attack their perceived enemies of state, they clearly came to believe that any level of cruelty and coercion was justified if it meant that the Russian people could become purer, less burdened by unproductive and potentially dangerous counter-revolutionary classes.

Smith's book is a compendium of suffering but many so-called "former people" struggled to maintain at least some of the traditions and practices of their past lives.  In some case, former members of high-society met to participate in elaborate balls.  Sadly, Soviet informers caught wind of the events and eventually used them as evidence of an aristocratic conspiracy to undermine socialism.  Smith's treatment of some of the rapid decimation of Russian aristocratic culture is heart-wrenching.  Peasant violence against former aristocrats who tried to survive in the countryside was often deadly, propelled as it was by a desire to ensure that former landlords could never again return to their lands. Of course, all Russians suffered during the Civil War, and most suffered during Collectivization and the Great Terror.  Former aristocrats suffered more than most. Interestingly, Smith's analysis of the letters and diaries of individual families reveals the extent to which many noble families refused to consider emigration.  While some nobles did escape the Soviet Union, many others preferred systematic persecution and even repeated jailings to the idea of "betraying" Russia by emigrating abroad.

In the end, the spirit of the Russian aristocratic culture did survive Bolshevism, and even Stalinism.  That spirit was weakened and bloodied, but alive. Smith's greatest contribution to the historiography of the Soviet Union in general is to remind us that aristocratic culture wasn't always a bad thing.  Undoubtedly romanticized by many in the Russian diaspora, Russian noble culture was often educated, modern, international, phlegmatic, and, to a surprising extent, liberal.  Many Russian nobles even supported the idea of revolution, even suspecting that Bolshevism was a form of cloaked counter-revolution. As Smith reminds us, even Lenin was a product of noble culture, and in fact Lenin claimed noble privilege on more than one occasion in his eventful life.

Some quotations from the book are below:

"For many Russian nobles the revolution came as no surprise."

"Today there are more Golitsyns in North America than in Russia."

"...between 1861 and 1905, the rural nobility lost an average of 1 percent of its land a year through either sale or foreclosure."

" 1900 the working class numbered roughly 1.7 million, about 200,000 fewer than the number of Russia's nobles."

"Exiled to Siberia in 1897 for his political activity, Lenin claimed noble status in order to soften the harshness of his punishment."

Smith quoting Nabokov's father:  "To be for the tsar meant to be against Russia."

Smith quoting Nicholas II:  "Do you meant that I am to regain the confidence of my people, or that they are to regain my confidence?"

Smith quoting a 1917 peasant song:

"And from the bitter aspens shall we hang
Every last lackey of that Vampire-Tsar."

"The children of Count Pavel and Natalya Ignatiev saw the February Days as a "wild street carnival that they could not wait to get outside to see."

"We shall not get out of it this time!  one landowner said.  "What will become of us without our rent-rolls?"

"The next month, the eighty-year-old son of Ivan Kireevsky, one of the founders of Slavophilism, was murdered together with his wife at his estate in Moscow Province..."

"She stroked them, reassuring her littles ones it was nothing to worry about.  "It's just the revolution," she whispered, and they turned over and "went blissfully back to sleep.""

Smith citing Gorky.  "Oh, how hard it is to live in Russia!  We are all so stupid--so fantastically stupid."

Smith citing General Ruzsky.  "Great Russian Revolution.  All I can see is nothing but one great robbery."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ehrenburg's The Stormy Life of Laz Roitshvantz

Below are a few favorite citations culled from Ilya Ehrenburg's The Stormy Life of Laz Roitshvantz. Please also see my other post on the subject, Laz Roitshvantz's Russia.

"She can claim such early Party adherence that it makes you dizzy to think of it.  Just look at those eyes!  What relentless determination lurks there!"

"It was not his surname that ruined Laz.  A sigh was to blame.  Or perhaps not a sign, perhaps the economic system, or the heat wave, or even some high-level problem."

"For how could old Hershanovich claim to be a craft worker (self-employed)?  What did he produce?  Nothing but circumcisions of innocent little boys, at three rubles a-piece."

"That fellow Schatzman stared at me ten minutes without blinking, either he means to marry you or he wants to get me beyond the Artic Circle."

"Time is not money.  Time is more than money.  You have robbed me, and consequently the workers' State as a whole, of five valuable minutes."

"In the old synagogue school I was taught the Talmus.  Of course, that is all deception, and since then I have read the ABC of Communism from one cover to the other."

"Surely you don't really think that I, Lazar Roitshvantz, who have survived eight different regimes, do not know so simple a thing?"

"From the standpoint of eugenics, a marriage consumated in a graveyard is likely to produce abnormal offspring."

"I will even promise never to sigh again and to devote the rest of my not unlimited life to the Chinese Question."

"Laz knew very well what had ruined him in court, and he had now solemnly sworn to himself in future to reduce thought to a minimum."

"As we say in Gomel, there can even be honor in spitting."

"I am a victim just like Beilis, except that America took Beilis' part, but who's going to take mine?  Nobody."

"Not to lead lesser men into temptation, Chebyshev only wore his English suits in the home behind tightly closed shutters."

"Before the Revolution I occupied myself exclusively with Roman Law.  That's quite a bit different from planting cabbages."

"How is a man like me going to earn his living, a simpleton, a naive Russian, amid all this impudent Jewish confraternity.  How, I ask you!"

"Your wisecracks are not to my taste.  They are tiresome and middle-class."

"But my vision beheld those eyes, and in a flass all my class-consciousness evaporated."

"...he was not really human flesh, he was nothing but elevated thought."

"...though you and I are both good Marxists, we are, pardon me, also real human beings..."

"You have just not got a glimmering of the most elementary dialectics."

"I have had six different domicilary visits about those accursed trousers, and if anything saved me in the end it was having a pure red past."

"...I am merely a non-established addressee."

"Will you claim to be as clever as Trotsky?"

"It's good pre-war stuff, and it has withstood eight very assorted regimes."

"Laz was quite clear that when the imperialists of Paris wriggled their feet, that was merely the death spasms of corpses already in a state of putrefaction."

"..I am a Party candidate without a stain on my name..."

" are interested in diseased pleasures, erotic excesses, the scum thrown up by the NEP policy."

"I am devoted to the resplendent ideal, and I am wriggling my way towards it."

"...instead of stupid sturgeon we have before us men like Kant and together with him are 1,071 other criminals."

"There you have it," he cried, triumphantly, "typical rose-water of a petty-bourgeois superstructure."

"Like a mangy sheep you should drive from your presence any man who sinks so low as to substitute love skilly like that for iron materialism."

"In the shrubberies were couples totally divested of Party, locked in kisses."

"And where is it written that I have the right to purchase the happiness of the whole of complex mankind with old Hersch's life?"

"Laz could not have lived a day here by his scissors.  He was saved by his brilliant dialectics."

"Well, and what do you feed your rabbits on?"...Nothing but official imagination," he said.

"Roitshvantz, you lie as if you were not human, you might be a newspaper."

"I am not a divinity.  I do clerical work."

"When all was said and done, dear Fanny was fruit of a reactionary tree..."

"Now explain exactly who you really are!"..."Very simple.  If you're the foundation, I'm the superstructure."

"I can carve anything up from the Marxist angle."

""I am just coming to the end of the sixth volume of a Marxist critique of a variety of configurations."  In some this excited respectful alarm, in others, envy."

Laz Roitshvant's Russia

Ilya Ehrenburg published his rollicking satire, The Storm Life of Laz Roitshvantz, in 1928.  The novel, st in the Russia, Poland, Britain, Italy, and France, serves as a useful antidote to biographies and histories of Europe in the period, and the Soviet Union in particular.  What did Soviet intellectuals know about their society a decade after the October Revolution?  If Joshua Rubenstein's meticulously-researched biography, Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg, is any guide, even ostensibly loyal Soviet intellectuals were often deeply unsettled by the Soviet experiment.  But perhaps Rubenstein's book doesn't go far enough.  If you read Ehrenburg's prose, you get a devastating if satirical portrait of a delusional police state bent on the intrusive subjugation of its monitored, overregulated, and distrusted citizens.  Of course, The Stormy Life was written and published prior to Collectivization and the Great Terror, but Ehrenburg's portrait of Russia at the end of the New Economic Policy is already deeply pessimistic about the world's first experiment in socialist government.  Ehrenburg's Russia is a land of censorship, propaganda, suspicion, surveillance, bigotry, and empty ideological jargon.  The protagonist, an apolitical Jew, butts up against the state with darkly comic results.

Laz Roitshvantz's tragedy is that he has somehow remained human in an utterly inhuman environment. Roitshvantz's individualism crashes repeatedly against the rock of Soviet totalitarianism.  Time and again, Roitshvantz is confronted by inhumane Soviet officials, institutions, and ideological assumptions.  Soviet officials are depicted as cruel, anti-Semitic obscurantists.  Soviet institutions are portrayed as irrational, unnatural, and inefficient, but also impersonal if not diabolical.  Worst of all, Soviet ideology hampers Soviet citizens from living productive or happy lives.  Ehrenburg's Russia sometimes seems to move from traditional satire toward dystopian science fiction.  Although filled with jokes, Laz Roitshvantz's adventures in the Soviet Union show that Soviet citizens routinely suffered from Soviet assumptions about good government.  For Ehrenburg in the 1920s, Bolshevik ideology was, paradoxically, both crassly materialistic, and absurdly Utopian.  The Soviet creed was seemingly tailor-made  to undermine the human spirit. Dostoyevsky once said that if God did not exist, everything would be permitted.  Similarly, Ehrenburg seems to be arguing that Marxism as a faith permits everything, including class prejudice, censorship, empty ritualism, arbitrary justice, arcane and scholastic ideological debates, Party bureaucracy, and meaningless sloganeering.

Roitshvantz's humanity ultimately lands him in jail. His run-in with Soviet authorities is of course predicated on a satire which is at least partly softened by extending the ridicule to a number of other countries, including Germany, France, Italy, and to some extent, America.  Ehrenburg's barbs against the Soviet Union are also mitigated by attacks on the White Russian diaspora, which is portrayed as insular, militaristic, archaic, and vengeful.  Ehrenburg's critique of Soviet life is also set against a larger critique of European civilization as a whole.  For Ehrenburg sees Soviet anti-Semitism as a variation on a common European theme.  If the Soviet Russians and Ukrainians are anti-Semitic, so too are the Poles, Germans, Exiled Russians, and French. Ehrenburg's decision to compare Judaism with Marxism is also intriguing.  If the Jews continued to faithfully practice a set of empty rituals, weren't the communists guilty of doing exactly the same thing?  When all was said and done, Eherenburg didn't see the difference between the Talmud and Bukharin's ABC of Communism.

The Stormy Life of Laz Roitshvantz is a wonderfully witty book and deserves a wider readership. Although the book sometimes can sometimes stray from satire to didacticism, its central comedy of adventure reminds one of Saul Bellow.  When Laz Roitshvantz tries to sell his share of the communist utopia, it also demonstrates kinship with Gogol's Dead Souls.  Alas, Laz's adventures really reveals that interwar European intellectuals were able to forsee a future which was far darker than anything even Gogol could have imagined.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Berdyaev's Russian Revolution

Nikolai Berdyaev book, The Russian Idea, provides readers with a wonderful survey of the Russian revolutionary tradition.  Its central thesis, that the Russians are an almost inherently millenarian or eschatologically-minded people, and therefore naturally produce social conflagrations that prefigure religious apocalpyse, is ultimately unconvincing. Notwithstanding, the long-standing tradition of fixating on the myriad characteristics of the "Russian Soul," Berdyaev's attempt to assign unique properties to the Russian people is anything but scientific or even rational.  Ironically, by tracing the history of Russian exceptionalism in such detail, Berdyaev highlights the fact that his theory of Russian messianism is in some respects merely the latest chapter in a flawed intellectual tradition.  If the Russians were victims of certain strands of Enlightened thinking, they certainly weren't alone in their victimhood.  Even so, Berdyaev's intellectual and theological perspectives on the Russian Revolution remain thought-provoking.  Certainly the Russian Revolution bears striking similarities to a religious awkening.  Shouldn't we be skeptical of any overtly atheistic political phenomenon in a religion-soaked land?

Berdyaev's attempt to synthesize religion and atheism is intriguing. What, ultimately, is the difference between a militant, evengelical atheist and a militant, evengelical Christian? Can anything as all-emcompassing and explosive as a revolution be devoid of religious content?  Over and over again, Berdyaev asks us to consider the relationship between religion and its antithesis, socialist  or anarchic atheism, in the annals of revolutionary activity.  Were outraged members of the materialist or even nihilist intelligentsia more or less spiritual than the members of the Orthodox clergy who practiced empty rituals while defending absolutism?  Didn't Russian communism express at least some vital elements of the Christian agenda, including brotherhood and radical, otherworldly, justice?  Berdyaev's central question is this:  why do we find it necessary to take revolutionaries at their word by accepting the false premise that revolution springs from purely materialist considerations?  Shouldn't intellectual history be taken seriously? Shouldn't religion and philosophy be incorporated into our understanding of the revolutionary dynamic?Although Berdyaev's book isn't free from muddled assertions about the essential and unchanging Russian personality, his book makes important contributions to our understanding of both Russia and the Russian Revolution.  If nothing else, Berdyaev's investigation into the broad currents of nineteenth century religious and philosophical history, remind us that one can't study the Bolshevik Revolution without studying Russia. That is to say, one cannot understand 1917 without delving deep into the history of Russian ideas. Of course, the reverse is also true: one can't study Russia without studying revolution.  For Russia has always been on the brink of apocaylpse, witness the Pugachev Rebellion and the aborted Decembrist revolt and the 1905 Revolution.  What is 1917 if not a link in a long, unbroken chain of revolutionary events or at least potential events.  But perhaps this isn't a pecularity of Russian history.  Perhaps all societies stand on the brink of apolaypse.  What is modern European Civilization if not a chain of revolutionary moments such as 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1905, 1917, 1968, and 1989?  And shouldn't even these moments be seen as the visible peaks of partially submerged volcanos of revolutionary ferment waiting to erupt?

Nikolai Berdyaev on Russian Identity, Revolution, and History

Below are some choice phrases culled from my first reading of Nikolai Berdyaev's famous treatise on the Russian revolutionary tradition, The Russian Idea.

Russian Identity

Berdyaev citing Tyutchev:  "Russia is not to be understood by intellectual processes.  You cannot take her measurements with a common yardstick, she has a form and stature of her own:  you can only believe in Russia."

Berdyaev citing Khomyakov:  "The Russians are a people in the highest degree polarized:  they are a conglomeration of a contradictions."

"The unexpected is always to be expected from them.  They are as a people capable in the highest degree of inspiring both intense love and violent hatred.  As a people the Russians have a dusturbing effect upon the peoples of the West."

"The Russian people is not purely European and it is not purely Asiatic."

"In the Russian soul there is a sort of immensity, a vagueness, a predilection for the infinite, such as is suggested by the great plain of Russia."

"Russia was never an aristocratic country in the Western sense, and equally there was no bourgeois."

"The burning oneself alive, as an exploit in religion, is a Russian national phenomenon…"

"That the Russians have a leaning to debauchery and to anarchy with a loss of discipline is well known."

"Messianic consciousness is more characteristic of the Russians than of any other people except the Jews."

Berdyaev citing Pushkin upon completion of Gogol's Dead Souls:  "Oh, Lord, how wretched our Russia is."

"The Russian emotional bent for revolution was the outcome of the unbearableness of the actual conditions in which they lived, of their wrongness, and their ugliness."

Berdyaev citing Chaadav:  "At the present time we constitute a gap in the moral order of the world."

Berdyaev citing Chaadav:  "Looking at us it might be said that the general law of mankind had been abrogated so far as we are concerned."

Berdyaev citing Pechorin: "How sweet is is to hate one's native land, and eagerly to await its annihilation."

"The vocation of Russia presents itself as connected with the fact that the Russian people are the most humble people in the world.  But there exists among that peopler a pride in their humility."

"Among the Russians and it may be among the Russians only, there exists a doubt about the righteousness of punishment."

"It is the property of the Russian people to indulge in philosophy."

"The vocation of Russia is a world vocation."

"Russia alone lives not for herself, but for thought…"

"The Russian people are a people of the future;  they will decide questions which the West has not yet the strength to decide, which it does not even pose in their full depth."

"The Russian has a greater capacity for enduring suffering than the man of the West, and at the same time he is especially sensitive to suffering;  he is more sympathetic than the Western man."

"Spengler described Russia very acutely and very well when he said that it is an "apocalyptic revolt against antiquity.""

"Among the Russians there is always a thirst for another world;  there is always discontent with that which is."

"An eschatological bent is native to the Russian soul."

"Russia took shape in grevious historical circumstances;  the Russian land was surrounded by enemies;  it was made use of by the evil forces of history."


Characteristics of Russian History

"Interruption is a characteristic of Russian history.  Contrary to the opinion of the Slavophils the last thing it is is organic."

"The very manner of life of the landowning nobility was a thing incomprehensible to the people."

"The history of the Russian people is one of the most poignantly painful of histories."

"The development of Russia has been catastrophic."

"The State grew strong, the people grew weak, as Kluchevsky says."

"Among us the Intelligentsia could not live in the present;  it lived in the future and sometimes in the past."

"In the second half of the century the Intelligentsia, keyed up to a revolutionary frame of mind, was obliged to lead an existence which was almost heroic…"

"There was no Renaissance among us…"

On the Nature of the Revolution

"History is not only traditional and it is not only guardianship;  a lack of basis has a basis of its own;  revolution is part of the flow of history."

"The Russian Intelligentsia…endeavored to find a way out of the unbearable sadness of Russian reality into an ideal reality.  This ideal reality was either the Russia before Peter's the, or the West, or the coming Revolution."

"[Herzen]…regarded Hegel's philosophy as the algebra of revolution."

Berdyaev citing Belinksy:  "I am beginning to love mankind in the manner of Marat.  To make the smallest part of it happy I think I would exterminate the rest of it with fire and sword."

"The makers of the French Revolution lived by the up-to-date ideas of the time, the ideas of J.J. Rousseau, of the eighteenth century philosophy of the Enlightenment.  Those who made the Russian Revolution lived by the ideas of Chernishevsky, Plekhanov, by a materialist and utilitarian philosophy, by an outworn and tendentious literature; they were not interested in Dostoyevsku, Tolstoy, Solovyov;  they knew nothing of the new movements of Western culture."

The real content disappeared from the official phrase:  "Orthodoxy, autocracy and the people;"  such has an expression had become insincere and false.

"In the Russian communist revolution it was not the actual proletariat of experience which was in control but the idea of the proletariat, the myth of the proletariat."

"Followers of Lenin exalted the revolutionary will and regarded the world as plastic and fit for any changes you like..."

"There is in communism its own truth and its own falsehood."

"To the Russian Intelligentsia of the left the Revolution has always been both a religion and a philosophy."

"The Russian Revolution awakened and unfettered the enormous powers of the Russian people."

Berdyaev citing Tyutchev:

"The abyss now yawns across the path we tread
With all its terrors and its gloomy mist.
Between the gulf and us no barriers exist
And hence to us the night is filled with dread."

Berdyaev citing Tyutchev:

"O!  rouse not sleeping storms,
Beneath us quivering chaos moves."

Berdyaev citing Lermontov:

"The day will come, for Russia that dark day
When the Tsar's diadem will fall, and they,
Rabble who loved him once, will love no more,
And many will subsist on death and gore."

Berdyaev citing Blok:

"Wild passions are let loose
'Neath the yoke of the crescent moon.
I see over Russia afar,
A broad and gentle fire."

Berdyaev citing Blok:

:A sphink is Russia;  sorrow and joy embrace
Her both; and she is darkly drenched in gore"


"It was a particularity of Herzen that truth presented itself to him as sad."

"It is astonishing that the Christian writer Gogol was the least humane of Russian writers, the least humane in the most humane of all literatures."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Antony Beevor's The Mystery of Olga Chekhova

A friend of mine once confessed to me that he loved to play the "lottery game" as opposed to playing the lottery itself.  That is to say, this friend liked to imagine what he would do if he won a million dollars.  Up until that time I had naively imagined this game of fantasy to be something that I had personally discovered.  What is the source of our passion for this kind of counter factual activity?  Is the "lottery game" a  form of unhealthy escapism or does it actually propel us to investigate his core values?  What would we do if time and money didn't prevent us from living the life we really want, deep down?  Is it only money that prevents us from taking a different kind of job?  Do we really want to be free of work altogether?  The answers  to these and similar fanciful questions can be revealing.  For me one Russian history equivalent of the "lottery game" is to imagine the survival of a figure of nineteenth century Russia into the twentieth century.  What would Pushkin or Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Chekhov or Turgenev have made of the Russian Revolution?  How would liberal sympathy for Russia's oppressed masses have been translated when confronted with street violence, civil war, and purges?  Of course, most if not all nineteenth century writers did wrestle with revolutionary ideas as well as events, and at least a few "nineteenth century" men and women actually lived long enough into the twentieth century to see the 1905 Revolution first hand.  But we can't ultimately know how Tolstoy would have reacted to the lived experience of Bolshevik insurrection and Bolshevik government.  On the other hand, Tolstoy's family did encounter real revolution, so we can get at least a glimpse of what Tolstoy himself might have thought about the communist experiment.  So too did Chekhov's family encounter the world's first communist government.

The best overall treatment of these way aristocratic families--Tolstoys and Nabokovs and Bunins included--suffered at the hands of the Reds is provided by Douglas Smith's wonderful new book, Former People:  The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy.  But although Smith's book deserves the scholarly attention it is already getting, Antony Beevor's smaller book, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, deserves some attention as well.  To be sure, the Chekhov/Knipper family was not an aristrocratic clan.  However, the Chekhovs and Knippers, representatives of the famed Moscow Art Theatre, came to embody Russia's creative aristocracy.  Their ambiguous position between Old Russia and New Russia is tantalizing to say the least. On the one hand, the Moscow Art Theatre symbolized Russia's enduring claim to greatness even in the midst of economic and political confusion.  If the West had doubts about the Bolsheviks, let them remember that Russia had only recently invented some of Europe's most prized expressions of modernity.  On the other hand, the Moscow Art Theatre had been a product of the bourgeois, not proletarian, imagination.  How valuable any cultural institution be if it predated the proletarian revolution of 1917?

Ultimately, Antony Beevor devotes his book to one Chekhov/Knipper in particular, Anton Chekhov's niece, Olga Chekhova.  Fascinatingly, Olga left the Soviet Union and soon emerged as a film star in Wiemar, and then Nazi, Germany.  Olga's strange career tells us a great deal about how extraordinarily difficult it could be to bridge the gap between nineteenth and twentieth century Russia, and nineteenth and twentieth century Europe in general.  For Olga, who traded on her uncle's fame in order to establish her bona fides in the Central and Western Europe industry, ultimately found it necessary or perhaps desirable to become a Soviet "sleeper" spy even as she attended celebrity events with Hitler, Goebbels, and other high-ranking Nazi officials.  At one point, Stalin and Beria were apparently intent on using her to help assassinate Hitler. Of course, the niece's precarious life choices don't really tell us what Anton Chekhov would have thought about either the Soviets or the Nazis, but the fact that his cultural heirs were obligated to weave their way between two of modernity's greatest monsters, Hitler and Stalin, tells us something dreadful about how degraded European culture had become since the Moscow Art Theatre first opened its doors in 1898.