Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mission to Moscow (and also Kaliningrad, Arkhangelsk, and Saint-Petersburg)

On Saturday morning, I'll be travelling to Russia for the second time in my life.  I'll be making short visits to Kaliningrad, Arkhangelsk, and Saint-Petersburg.  In the space of two weeks, my small Fulbright delegation of community college administrators will visit Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, Kalinigrad State Technical University, State Polytechnical University, Smolny College (The Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences), the University of Information Technologies (Mechanics and Optics), Northern (Arctic) Federal University, and Krasnogorsk State College.  We'll also the American Center and the American embassy in Moscow.  Over the past eight years, I've gradually become obssessed with Russia, but I'm always reminded of the Don DeLillo novel, White Noise, in which a professor invents a brand new academic field of inquiry, Hitler Studies, only to become increasingly embarrassed by the fact that he knows no German whatsoever. On my second visit to Russia, I'm acutely aware that it's time to learn Russian.  Like DeLillo's character in White Noise, the academic conference is about to begin, I'm headed for ever greater levels of humiliation if I don't find myself a Russian language course or immersion experience in the very near future.

As I prepare for my Mission to Moscow, I reflect on my professional life.  Shouldn't everybody have a chance to go abroad for professional development?  I think so, and to this end I secured permission for my college to join a consortium of international programs.  This consortium will allow my college to send a faculty member and a staff member to Holland, Finland, or China, each and every year.  More than that, the consortium will allow my college to host international vistors from each of these countries.  I'm also excited by the consortium's student exchange programs.  Over time, my hope is to send many of my college's unprivileged students overseas to add a truly global dimension to their programs of study.

Leaving for Russia also comes in the context of my newly formed Russian literature book club.  This club takes place in the context of a youth services facility for at risk high school students.  This week, I showed a few slides about Russia, and we read the first half of Gogol's famous work, The Greatcoat (i.e., The Overcoat).    On my first recent reading of this book, I was struck by how Gogol ridiculed Akaky Akakiyevich as a penny-pinching, pendantic clerk whose only joy in life seemed to be copying what other people had written.  Gogol seemed to be critiquing everything about the poor soul, including his asceticism, materialism, penury, slavishness, and sexless life.  If Akaky Akakiyevich was consumed with the ideal of possessing a new coat, how small was his inner life?  Shouldn't everybody, nobody how poor, be interested in something beyond a new coat?

On a second reading of the short story, I started to see the other side of Akaky Akakiyevich.  Perhaps my move from Robert Chandler's translation to Christopher English's translation of the story helped me to gain this new perspective.  Certainly Richard Peace's introduction to Gogol's Plays and Peterburg Tales made a difference.  For Peace argues that Akaky Akakiyevich couldn't have been as poor as his is made out to be.  After all, he wasn't unemployed, didn't spend money unnecessarily, and he had absolutely no family to support.  So perhaps A.A.'s lifestyle was a choice.  Perhaps he actually enjoyed his spartan life.  At the very least, we can say that the hero of The Greatcoat had a Zen-like ability to take pleasure in life as it is.  If one is a copyist, shouldn't one throw oneself in the work?  If he wasn't a Zen Buddhist, perhaps his abstemious lifestyle had elements of the Christian martyr.  Although St. Petersburg was clearly a status-obssessed, bureaucratic world of rank and privilege, Akaky Akakiyevich lived a humble life of service toward others, free from any hint of sensuality.  His life was a life of service, and included regular bouts of mockery from those who immersed themselves in St. Petersburg usual routines.

At any rate, the students haven't finished the story yet.  We're waiting for the ghost to show up to spice up the story.  In the meantime, they seemed interested in my trip to Russia.  None of them has had the chance to travel overseas, and few of them seem interested in venturing abroad.  They asked me whether I thought I'd be kidnapped overseas, or why I even wanted to go anywhere else.  Surprisingly, I was grateful for the chance to talk about some of the prejudices Americans regularly encounter when deadling with other societies.  I also had the chance to discuss some basics concepts of international law and diplomacy.  Upon my return, I'll show the students pictures of my visit and hopefully get them interested in learning more about Russia, or about any foreign people.

Some snippets from Gogo's The Greatcoat:

"As for his rank (and with us rank is the first thing that has to be declared), he was of the genus eternal Titular Councillor..."

"The boy was duly christened, and in the process he started crying and pulled an awful face as if he were having premonitions that one day he might become a titular councillor."

"The young officials would mock him and make fun at his expense to the limits of their clerkish wit..."

"...for no Russian, regardless of his condition, can ever renounce high society.."

[He] "had been hitting the bottle, the one-eyed devil."

"Thus the whole of Holy Russia is polluted by imitation--everyone copies and apes his superior."

"And Petersburg was left without Akaky Akakiyevich, just if he had never been there at all."

"Dead and gone was a being whom no one, not even a naturalist always ready to mount even an ordinary fly on a pin and examine it under a microscope, had ever shown an interest;  a being who had patiently endured the mockery of his office colleagues and who had gone to his grave without excessive fuss..."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Catriona Kelly on St. Petersburg

Below are a few favorite quotations from Catriona Kelly's book, St. Petersburg: Shadows of the Past. See my previous post on the book as well.

"Communist myth was starting to lose the struggle with materialism of a kind inimical to Marxism-Leninism:  the passionate attachment to unconsidered historical triffles."

"You've showed me St. Petersburg, and it was magnificent.  As for Leningrad--I've never seen the place."  Kelly cites a British teacher in the 1980s.

"If Moscow, proverbially, does not believe in tears, Leningrad-Petersburg has never been inclined to notice them."

"Soviet culture was highly integrated, and had a strong drive to homogeneity."

"As Academician Dimitry Likhachev...put it in 1965, few people who had actually seen pre-revolutionary Petrograd would have called it a beautiful city."

"..the late Soviet period was a time of deficit.."

"Given what Antony Cross calls 'the Russian aversion to walking'..."

"From the sea, Leningrad is an appalling city.." Kelly cites a local historian.

"She said as she left," "I would give up everything to be Anna Akhmatova."  "What a silly thing to say, eh?  Everything?  Three windows on the Neva?"  Kelly quotes Ahkmatova, who in turn satirizes Larisa Reisner.

"The city was not built for cars," he concluded.  Kelly cites Colin Thubron, a race-car driver.

"But walking to get somewhere (as opposed to promenading) was a great anti-tradition in this city."

"Just a little more patience, a decade or so, and the factory will find you a flat, and then you can get yourself a family, have children, bring them up."  Kelly cites Vyacheskav Reznov.

"Indeed, the pod'ezd, or entryway, was one of the key sites of Soviet collectivism..."

"In many ways the kitchen was the most 'Soviet' room in the Leningrad apartment."

"In Leningrad literary tradition, the communal dump had a humble but secure niche."

"One might live in squalor in the old centre, but there could be compensations:  'One loo between twelve people, no hot water in the bathroom, and a single stove with four burners.  But in return, the Summer Garden was five minutes' walk away."  Kelly cites the poet Nonna Slepakova.

"It was hard to seem counter-cultural when sitting at a table neatly set with doilies, while one's solicitous mama pressed tea and cakes on guests."

"I owe everything worthwhile in myself to vodka."  Kelly cites Lev Losev.

Everyday St. Petersburg

I’m scheduled to go to return to return to St. Petersburg in about a month.  If all goes accordingly to plan, my two-week administrative Fulbright will take me to Kaliningrad, Archangelsk, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.  As some of my readers may know, I am not conversant in Russian and have only been to Russia once in my life.  On my single visit to Russia I stayed in St. Petersburg, which quickly became my favorite place in the world.  To a large extent, my love of the city is predicated on my fascination with what Solomon Volkov called “the myth of St. Petersburg,” which focuses on a long series of interconnecting legends of monarchical power, aesthetic and political inventiveness, and resistance to Nazi (and even Stalinist) totalitarianism.  The power of the St. Petersburg myth rests on the firm foundations of dozens of brilliant historical and quintessentially modern actors, including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, and Anna Ahkmatova, as well as on Leningrad’s 900 day siege.  As I walked up and down the Nevsky Prospect, or took a boat tour of the city’s famed canals, I hardly needed to interact with the “real” St. Petersburg at all.   At first, I thought that the St. Petersburg I visited two years ago was oddly historical.  Only interacting with people when I needed to order a sandwich or ask for the way to a hidden museum entrance, I was the archetypal tourist, staring at the city’s bridges, cathedrals, and palaces—many of which were utterly impervious to time.  But perhaps my second visit to St. Petersburg will allow me, or force me, to catch at least a glimpse of life beyond the myth.    This is of course easier said than done.  I have encountered St. Petersburg many times, but always through the lens of literature.  These encounters, and even those which are mediated by the work of literary theorists, are in a sense of a form of concentrated mythology.  The house museums in St. Petersburg are a case in point.  My first visit to St. Petersburg put me in one writer’s flat after another.  Genius (the genius of Blok, Ahkmatova, Pushkin, Nabokov, and Dostoyevsky—I never could locate Leskov’s pad) permeated the city. 

If there’s any academic anecdote to the myth of St. Petersburg, it is certainly Catriona Kelly’s recent book, St. Petersburg:  Shadows of the Past.  In this book, Kelly does her best to circumvent the city’s legacy of aesthetic and political brilliance.  Instead, she takes an almost anthropological tour of the city, explaining how ordinary Russian and Soviet citizens lived everyday life.  Kelly’s tour de horizon of Leningrad/St. Petersburg takes us into the most quotidian aspects of the city’s existence.  Relying on insights from scholars in the field of cultural studies and related fields, Kelly breaks city life down into its simplest parts.  Where did people live?  How did they make use of their shared and private space?  What did they eat?  How did they get to work or move around the city?  What entertainment did they seek out?  The value of Kelly’s work is immense, especially in light of the fact that the city has been subjected to so many one-sided treatments in the past.  St. Petersburg’s denizens did not (and do not) spend their lives at the ballet; nor do they always fret about politics.  More often than not, men and women are navigating complex rituals related to their kitchens, television sets, and recreational activities.  Kelly’s treatment of everyday life in St. Petersburg is encyclopedic, although it deliberately deemphasizes those aspects of city life that have already been documented, including work as well as politics and art.  While Kelly, a scholar of language, is intimately familiar with St. Petersburg’s poetry scene, she only quotes specific poems to illustrate some detail of the people’s most banal experiences.  One downside of Kelly’s approach to her subject matter, is that St. Petersburg often seems to be the mirror image of every major, modern city.  Although Kelly explores many of the city’s peculiarities, one is left with the overall impression of urban sameness.  If you take away the political and artistic myths, and spend no time admiring the city’s famed Bronzed Horseman, you might be anywhere.  Her argument might be summed up this way:  if you live in Chicago, how much time do you really spend dwelling on the significance of the lion sculptures that adorn the Art Institute?  As somebody who recently left the city to take up residence in a distant suburb, located in what one scholar labeled “the geography of nowhere,” I can’t fully embrace her line of thinking.  Cities are more than the sum of their parts.  While it’s interesting to note that the citizens of St. Petersburg rarely actually use its famed canals in the service of business interests, the canals have been, and remain, vitally if ineffably linked to what it means to inhabit (as well as visit) this special place. 

Friday, March 7, 2014


In a recent post, I mentioned above six or seven books that delve into the nature of terror and its relationship to revolution.  I maintained that terror and revolution couldn't be separated, and indeed that terror and modern Russian history couldn't be disentangled.  I would be remiss if I didn't say something about Maximilien Robespierre in this context.  Robespierre, of course, was the both the chief architect and loudest champion of revolutionary violence.  His influence on generations of revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries is impossible to overestimate.  You can hear shades of Robespierre in Marx, but more especially in Lenin and Trotsky and Mao.  Slavoj Zizek's book on the subject, a collection of Robespierre's most representative speeches, is an excellent introduction to Robespierre.  Virtue and Terror gives Robespierre a chance to speak for himself, without the rancor and condemnation modern historians so often attach to his name.  The unmediated Robespierre is shockingly prescient about the nature of power.  Like Machiavelli, Robespierre seems to have an excellent grasp on politics:  he knows how and why the Committee of Public Safety's Reign of Terror is functioning, and he seems to know also how vulnerable that power is to both internal and external enemies.  One appreciates Robespierre's articulateness.  In the midst of chaos, Robespierre the Incorruptible is able to translate Enlightenment philosophy into a clear governmental program.  One also appreciates Robespierre's boldness:  here is a man who seems to have honestly assessed the costs of revolution.  If one wants to overthrow centuries of despotism, one should be prepared to overthrow God, king, aristocracy, and even peace.  Trotsky, in his 1920 defense of revolutionary violence, Terrorism and Communism, echoes Robespierre's brave logic.  Revolutionary terror is, ironically, the shortest way to peace.  Irresolution in the midst of civil war means a longer civil war, not a shorter one.  Of course, the consequences of Robespierre's ethics have been influential, and their impact on subsequent revolutionary movements far-reaching.

Below are are a few quotations drawn from Robespierre, as presented by Slavoj Zizek.  In a subsequent post, Soviet Roulette will look at Leon Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism.  The similarities between Robespiere and Trotsky demonstrate a clear line of thinking between the two great revolutionaries.

"The theory of revolutionary government is as new as the revolution which brought it into being.  It should not be sought in the books of the political writers, who did not foresee that revolution, nor in the laws of tyrants who, satisfied with abusing their power, are not much concerned with its legitimacy.."

"The function of government is to direct the moral and physical forces of the nation towards the goal of its appointing."

"The goal of constitutional government is to preserve the Republic; that of revolutionary government is to found it."

"Revolution is the war of liberty against its enemies:  the constitution is the system of liberty victorious and at peace."

"Revolutionary government needs extraordinary activity, precisely because it is at war.  It is subject to less uniform and less rigorous rules, because the circumstances in which it exists are stormy and shifting, and above all because it is continual forced to deploy new resources rapidly, to confront new and pressing dangers."

"Revolutionary government owes good citizens full national protection; to enemies of the people it owes nothing but death."

"Temples to the gods are not meant to provide sanctuary for the sacrilegious who come to profane them;  not is the constitution supposed to protect the plots of tyrants who seek to destroy it."

"Above all we must be careful not to kill patriotism by trying to cure it.  Patriotism is ardent by its nature.  Who can love the homeland coldly?"

"The foundation of the French Republic is not a game for children."

"All the vices are fighting for them:  the Republic only has virtues on its side."

"And with what rapidity the seeds of division they throw among us could develop, if we do not hasten to stifle them!"

"And for some time, the foreign courts have been vomiting over France all the cunning scoundrels they have in their pay."

"Yesterday they were murdering the defenders of liberty;  today they are attending their funerals, and demanding divine honours for them..."

"So that France, once illustrious among enslaved countries, eclipsing the glory of all the free peoples that have existed, may become the model for all nations, the terror of oppressors, the consolation of the oppressed, the ornament of the universe;  and that in sealing our work with our blood, we may at least glimpse the shining dawn of universal felicity."

"In the French Revolution's system, that which is immoral is impolitic, that which is corrupting is counter-revolutionary."

"Perhaps the most dangerous reef we have to avoid is not the fervour of excessive zeal, but rather the lassitude of well-being".