Wednesday, January 15, 2014

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.

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