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.