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.