Friday, June 27, 2014

Orlando Figes' New Survey, Revolutionary Russia

One of the most highly regarded Russian historians working today, Orlando Figes has written a new survey of the entire Soviet revolutionary experience.  Entitled Revolutionary Russia:  1891- 1991, Figes' book covers the 100 year period between the great pre-revolutionary famine of 1891--a catastrophe which Figes says irrevocably divided the tsarist regime from Russia's intelligentsia--and ends with the formal collapse of the Soviet Union.  In some ways, such a broad survey of modern Russian history functions more like a textbook than a work of original research.  Even so, like Natasha's Dance before it, Figes' offers readers a wonderful narrative and many fresh perspectives on old controversies.  Figes' overall perspective on the revolutionary experience is of course profoundly negative.

Figes, who wrote another wonderful book on the horrific impact of Stalinism on private life, entitled The Whisperers, is naturally appalled by Stalin's record of economic mismanagement, military error, anti-semitism, and terror.  However, Figes' judgement against the Soviet regime places a lot of the blame for the Soviet Union's record of anti-humanism squarely on Vladimir Lenin.  Figes' describes the October Revolution as a military coup and claims that Lenin was almost eager to enter a Civil War in order to expand the Bolshevik base of popular support and undermine all other socialist or peasant party contenders for that support. Figes' perspectives on Bolshevik leaders isn't generally very original.  However, his analysis of Stalin does place new emphasis on the dictator's essential rationality.  Leaving aside questions of morality, Figes seems to argue that Stalin was almost always acting from rational motives.  Even with respect to the Great Terror, Stalin wasn't merely a victim to delusional paranoia. For one thing, the Soviet Union was in fact surrounded by two viciously expansionist enemies, Germany and Japan.   And certainly the Western allies didn't seem to be offering the Soviet Union a dependable alliance.   In this context, Stalin remembered the lessons he had learned from Lenin and the other Bolsheviks during the Civil War:  external enemies--i.e., the French, the Americans, the Japanese, and the British--often had internal counterparts--i.e., the bourgeoisie, the white army officers, and cossacks.

While Stalin understood that the majority of his victims were innocent, he was willing to trade the lives of many innocent people for the certainty that he would also condemn a few "real" spies and traitors from time to time.  The problem wasn't that Stalin was insane.  Instead, the problem was that Stalin had accepted the Bolshevik proposition that individual lives could be traded for the greater good.  Stalin's henchmen also accepted this logic, which was in fact but the radical expansion of Lenin's original approach to politics.  Lenin had of course advocated for the violent suppression of enemies, and often advocated for the use of force against the innocent as well.  Consider his interest in using hostages to enforce the good behavior of family members, or indeed consider his whole philosophy of making the children of the bourgeois and aristocratic classes suffer for the "sins" of their parents.

If Stalin's essential sanity seems hard to accepts in light of his policy of mass murder, consider the fact that Russians today continue to accept the logic of Stalinism.  As Figes points out in the conclusion of his book, when surveyed, a majority of Russians are expound two seemingly contradictory propositions:  first, that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens;  and second, that Stalin was an efficient manager who helped to modernize the Soviet Union.

To conclude, Figes' new book is a wonderful introduction both to the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union as a whole.  However, the books real strengths are its coverage of the February and October Revolutions, as well as Stalinism and the Second World War.  The book is weaker when trying to explain the transition to the less brutal dictatorship of Khrushchev and his successors.  And perhaps runs out of steam when moving into the collapse of the regime.  It seems this weakness might stem from the lack historical distance from the subject matter, or indeed from the failure to analyze the collapse of the Soviet Union in light of what we know know about its Putin-dominated successor state. Figes' book is also primarily a political book, as opposed to a cultural history, which is somewhat surprising if one remembers Natasha's Dance, which was dominated by literary and cultural history.

A few quotes from the book:

"Until the end of their regime, the Soviet leaders all believed they were continuing the Revolution Lenin had begun."

"It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary."

"There is no God any longer.  There is no Tsar!"  Father Gapon.

"Everything has failed.  Let us build jails."  Mirsky.

"One would think that you are afraid a revolution will break out."  "Your Majesty," Bulygin replied, "the revolution has already begun."

"the commune existed because the peasants were poor, it served to distribute the budern of their poverty..."

"All revolutions are based in part on myth."

"The bread queues became a sort of political forum where rumours and ideas were exchanged by hungry citizens."

"The street generated its own leaders--students, workers, cadets, and NCOs, socialists whose names have never made it into the history books."

"The revolution of 1917 should be understood as a general crisis of authority.  There was a rejection not just of the state but of all figures of authority--judges, policemen, government officials, army and navy officers, priests, teachers, employers, landowners, village elders, patriarchal fatehrs and husbands.  There were revolutions going on in virtually every sphere of life."

"Take power, you son of a bitch, when it's handed to you!"  Krandstadt sailors to Chernov.

"insurrection is an art"  Marx

"Lenin's revolution was as much against the other Soviet-based parties as it was against the Provisional Government."

"The Great October Socialist Revolution, as it became known in the Soviet Union, was in fact such a small-scale action, being in reality no more than a coup, that it passed unnoticed by the vast majority of the inhabitants of Petrograd."

"You are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out;  go where you ought to go-into the dustbin of history!"

"We must make life so uncomfortable for them that they will lose their desire to remain bourgeois."  Lenin.

"For the vast majority of the Russian people the ending of all social privileged was the basic principle of the revolution."

"Lenin was prepared for a civil war and perhaps even welcomed it as a chance to build his party's power base."

"By 1920, 5.4 million people worked for the government.  There were twice as many officials as there were workers in Soviet Russia.."

"His political horizon is restricted, his theoretical equipment primitive..."  Trotsky on Stalin.

"Bolshevism has abolished private life." Walter Benjamin.

"Collectivization was driven less by economics than by politics and a general mistrust of the peasantry."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sigizmund Krzhizanavsky's Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanvsky’s Autobiography of a Corpse provides a sophisticated explanation of the impact of war and revolution on the psyche of a Russian intellectual.  One of Russia’s smartest authors ever to put pen to paper, Krzhizhanvsky’s unsettling short story takes the form of a suicide note that the dead protagonist has left to the tenant (i.e., the reader) who is lucky enough to take over the dead man’s flat in the overcrowded interwar Moscow housing market.   The dead protagonist ruminates on a number of different existential subjects but his main concern is that the experience of the World War, Civil War, and Russian Revolution, have created a new type of human being who is isolated from his living peers, but strangely connected to his dead ones.

 If the protagonist can be taken as representative of the new Soviet man, this Soviet man is profoundly disoriented and, consequently, profoundly depressed.  The narrator recalls the original source of his confusion as the First World War.  For the narrator, the shock of the war was enduring.  If you were lucky enough to have survived the war, you never forgot the experience.  The narrator recalls one ostensible survivor who travelled light for the rest of his life, preferring not to carry material possessions that weighed any more than his rifle did.  The death statistics of the World War were astounding, something to be continuously but fruitlessly pondered.  What could all of this death ultimately mean?  Nobody could make sense of it.  The author’s removal from the front lines of war didn’t necessarily make things easier for him.  Were the living--who had escaped the central fact of the modern age--more “alive” than the dead, who had squarely confronted this central fact of modern life by, ironically, dying on the battlefields of central Europe?
 The dead protagonist also speculates about the general dissolution of identity following the war.  What did it say about your identity when the new revolutionary authorities or their opponents in the Civil War, constantly tried to assess you, to verify who you were and what you stood for?  How stable could your consciousness be, when an increasingly intrusive state (as well as the state’s enemies) wanted to check your papers at every opportunity? 

The protagonist’s depictions of the revolution proper, as opposed to the state of post-revolutionary consciousness, are also instructive.  In many ways the Revolution reinforced the themes of the war.   The Revolution was violent, shocking, and all-consuming.  It had “jagged edges” that cut everyone.  More than that, the Revolution shook up the traditional relationship of the dead and the living.  In the Great War, the newspapers did their best to document who was dead and who was alive, but the very process of attempting to document death on such a scale revealed something arbitrary about the division that separated the living from the dead.  Similarly, the protagonist sees the Revolution blurs the boundaries that traditionally separate the living from the dead.  For the dead narrator, the Revolution was the world’s first revolt of the living against the dead.  Presumably, he means to follow Thomas Payne’s understanding of revolution as the rational expression of living men and women who are striving to break the arbitrary and archaic chains of the distant past.   But surely he also means that the Revolution is also a protest against the mass death of the First World War, an act of revenge on the part of the dead against those who had sent them to their deaths.   Viewed in this light, we might say that Stalin’s purges were payback for the original sin of World War.  Or we may at least say that the dead called out to their loved ones to do something more dramatic, more limitless, than reform in order to justify or sanctify the nation’s limitless loss.  And Krzhizhanovsky uses this very language to describe the process of revolution.  He said the Revolution removed all thresholds.  Without thresholds, Russians moved directly from the ancient regime to the modern world.  There was no intermediary stage of political evolution.  The Revolution did what Dostoevsky said atheism would do:  it made everything possible.

Some quotes from Autobiography of a Corpse:

“He knew that on the metropolitan chessboard, squares and not been set aside for all of the chessmen.”
“Naturally you have come ‘to conquer Moscow’; you have the energy and will ‘to gain a foothold,’ ‘to make your way in the world.’”

“I ordinarily sit in a splayed armchair, among my books and boredoms.”

“Space, I reasoned while in earliest youth, is absurdly vast and has expanded—with its orbits, stars, and yawning parabolas—to infinity.  But if one tucks it inside numbers and meanings, it will easily fit on two or three bookshelves.”

“In the country’s northern latitudes the population per square mile is .06 person.  It stuck in my mind like a splinter.

“We lived like separated drops.  Like waifs.”

“The city in which I lived changed hands thirteen times.”

“The more they made certain of my identity, the less certain I became of it myself…”

“Thus from the very first day newspapers and rifles divided us into those who would die and those for whom they would die.”

“But it’s fair to say that the war’s dialectic forced those who were more or less alive to go to their death, and those who were more or less dead the right to live.”

“Even then one sensed the approach of this new, as yet unnamed regime. It was as though the oxygen were being pumped out of the air by a slow, gigantic plunger.”

“The Revolution crashed down like lightening.”

“But then, when the revolution was still new, we were all, willingly or unwillingly, inflamed or burnt by its jagged, all-consuming course.” 

“In an instant, all thresholds had been removed—not only from rooms, cells, and studies but also from consciousness.”

Question 41:  “Ought a burial to take place after sunset? No.  For it is the reward of the dead to see the sun at the hour of their burial.”

“So I’m a corpse.  So be it. For I too shall see the sun at the hour of my burial.”

“Meanwhile the March fury was surging higher and higher, and many were frightened by its violent rise.  What had to happen, happened.”

“Life…seemed to favor the dead.  They better suited the existing order.”

“…and then began the planet’s first struggle or, rather, revolt of the living against the dead.”

“New eyes have appeared.  And people.  They have a new way of looking at you:  not at but through.  You can’t hide your emptiness inside;  they will bore into you with their pupils.”

“We’ve riddled all of Russia with bullets, but here she is again.  Patched—“

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Russia's Past, Present, and Future: Day of the Oprichnik

Fiction often captures the essence of an historical moment more effectively than academic analysis or sophisticated reportage.  Certainly Vladimir Sorokin's novella, The Queue, seemed to tell us everything that we needed to know about everyday life in the Soviet Union.  Behind the mask of ideology, propaganda, socialist economic theory, and militarism, ordinary Russians,and especially ordinary Russian women, waited endlessly in line for basic commodities. It mattered little what stores had to offer, people were willing to spend half the day in the street in the vague hope that they would be granted access to some scarce if banal commodity.  Often, Russian men and women entered lines without even knowing what product they would find, if anything, when they finally arrived at the front of the line.  The Soviet queue was in fact not only a fact of quotidian existence, it was a metaphor for the soullessness of the whole Soviet project:  what, after all, were socialist peoples waiting for? Even if they had solved the basic problem of distribution, what could they expect out of a socialist life?

If Sorokin accurately depicts at least one key aspect of Soviet life in The Queue, he's done an even better job of portraying post-Soviet life in Day of the Oprichnik, a science-fiction novel about a suspiciously familiar Russian society with violent, xenophobic, and autocratic tendencies.  The novel's narrator is a key member of the autocrat's quasi-legal enforcement team.  His job is to celebrate violence, participate in state-sanctioned corruption, and, most importantly, to terrorize private citizens. The narrator, a futuristic version of one of Ivan the Terrible's dreaded oprichniks, lives the energetic life of any state-empowered sociopath.  He partakes in rape, murder, shady deals, communal debauchery, and sycophantic adulation of the head of state. 

Day of the Oprichnik exaggerates many of the worst aspects of Putin's Russia.  For instance, just as Russia has turned its back on the United States and the European Union, the leaders of the Sorokin's Russia have physically cut themselves off from the West (and South) by means of a gigantic wall.  The breakdown of Russia's relationship with the West is accompanied by a corresponding economic and technological reliance on China, which, while perhaps a symptom of the author's own sinophobia, certainly seems to have anticipated today's geopolitical realities.   

The interesting thing about Sorokin's novel is that it doesn't merely ridicule Putin's Russia.  Instead, it conflates all of Russia's worst historical epochs.  For the narrator seems to be living with many of the realities of at least three (and possibly more) different historical situations, including the reigns of such dictatorial leaders as Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, and Putin.  Of course, to put Putin in the company of men like Ivan the Terrible and Stalin is to further vilify him.  In any case, the most frightening thing about the narrator's bloodthirsty pursuits, is that they don't seem out of place in any of these historical eras.  When we witness the protagonist's freewheeling ability to operate outside of the law in service of an autocrat, we know that he might have been at home at almost any time in Russia's long history.  If we note that oprichnik is in violent competition with his peers for the favor of the tsar of the future, we know that Stalin's henchmen were equally willing to kill one another to curry favor with their master.  

Thus Day of the Oprichnik depicts a timeless Russia, but that Russia is victim to a political regime that seems to combine the worst elements of both authoritarianism and lawlessness.  On the one hand, the country's political life clearly revolves around a central figure, the tsar or his modern day successors.  Ordinarily, extreme centralization has at least some benefits:  if men and women suffer from oppression, or live in fear, the state does at least offer a degree of political stability and order.  However, in Russia, the autocratic system of government coexists with, or perhaps depends upon, a certain form of political anarchy. The paradox is this:  the state appears all-powerful, but in reality it is founded upon profound uncertainty and insecurity.  To prop itself up, the government fosters a climate of radical and seemingly random terror at almost all levels of society.  Why did Ivan the Terrible carve out an empire within an empire and put the two at odds with one another?   What was the purpose of Stalin's unprecedented purges of even his closest confidants?  Why does Putin imprison a few of Russia's most powerful subjects from time to time?  This seemingly arbitrary violence is in fact a symptom of Russia's longstanding tradition of wedding bureaucratic centralization with state-sanctioned brigandage, as Sorokin's novel of the future suggests.

If Sorokin's Russia has any saving grace, it is only the Russian literary tradition.  For even in a country with longstanding traditions of corruption, political violence, censorship, anti-semitism, xenophobia, and autocracy, the country hasn't completely forgotten about Russia's great humanistic tradition.  Even the narrator has some familiarity with authors such as Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.  This ineradicable memory of literary tradition seems to be a common theme of many Russian science fiction authors.  In Tatyana Tolstaya book, The Slynx, for instance, a degraded, post-apocalyptic humanity forgets almost every basic element of civilization but can't, apparently, ever forget the names of Russia's most famous authors. Whether authors such as Sorokin or Tolstaya believe the Russian classics will ultimately redeem Russian barbarism is an open question.  For both authors, the names of Russia's great authors survive, but as a form of gibberish.  On the other hand, Sorokin's characters go out of their way to blaspheme the classics, by burning them for example.  But why burn the classics if not out of a fear that these classics do in fact contain some forgotten recipe for humanism in an age of totalitarianism and "perverted science."

Some favorite quotes from the book:

"The Russian people aren't easy to work with.  But God hasn't given us any other people."

"The Russian classics are helpful to the state."

"I look at the fire.  And see The Idiot and Anna Karenina in flames.  I look at the fire.  And see The Idiot and Anna Karenina in flames.  I

"This is our lane.  The government's.  As long as I live and serve the state, I will drive in it."

"Can a foreign oven really bake savory pies like a Russian oven?"

"Just understand, you idiot, we're gaurds.  We have to keep our minds cold and our hearts pure."

"His majesty can't stand cusswords."

"...opponents began to crawl out of the cracks like noxious centipedes.  A truly great idea breeds great resistance.  Our state has always had enemies inside and out, but the battle was never so intense as during the period of Holy Russia's Revival."

"Without you, Your Majesty, nothing works."

"His Majesty awakened in us not simply pride in our country, but compassion for her painful past.  Three Russian children stand streching theird hands out to us from the past of an insulted and injured country.  And we cannot help them at all."

"I blame my brain:  I didn't catch on to an obvious thing!  But then, my education was in the humanities..."

"I tune in to the West.  It's a real stronghold of anti-Russian subversion.  Like slimy reputles in a cesspool, enemy voices team..."

"His Majesty's father, the late Nikolai Platonovich, had a good idea:  liquidate all the foreign supermarkets and replace them with Russian kiosks.  And put two types of each thing in every kiosk, so the people have a choice.  A wise decision, profound.   Because our God-bearing people should choose from two things, not from three or thirty-three."

"Well, this sort of thing isn't for us to decide, but for His Majesty.  From the Kremlin His Majesty sees the people better, they're more visible...His Majest sees everything, hears everything.  He knows who needs what."

"The Kremlin is glorious in clear weather!  It glows.  The Palace of the Russian Government blinds the eyes, it takes your breath away."

"I know all these authors well.  They're famous, distinquished.  Carressed by the love of the people and His Majesty."

""Full and complete transparency,"" as His Majesty says.  And thank God:  We're in our own homeland, nothing to be shy about."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mass Murder in the Bloodlands

I was initially a little reluctant to read Timothy Synder's Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. First, I don't generally spend much time on either German or East European history.  Second, it sometimes seems as if I've spent too much time dwelling on some of the more sensational aspects of Stalin's reign of terror.  I’ve read books about collectivization, the man-made Ukrainian famine, the gulag, the deportations, the Great Terror, and World War II.  What more was there to know about Stalin’s brutal method of governing the country?  The originality of Bloodlands is that it links Europe’s most egregious mass killings into a single coherent narrative.  This is comparative or even regional history at its finest. How can this tale of interwar suffering be contained by any single national memory or history?  Synder's bloody narrative revolves around a specific geographical location centered in Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine, and the Eastern Baltic.  In this broad area, Nazism and Soviet Communism interacted with one another, and sometimes conspired with one another, to produce an unprecedented human catastrophe.

The author is at pains to correct some common historical myths about what actually happened in this area before and during the Second World War.  For instance, Synder's reminds us that Stalinism actually killed far more of its own citizens than Hitlerism did prior to the advent of the war.  The man-made Ukrainian famine is only one of the policies of mass murder inflicted on a vulnerable civilian population.  But Stalinism inflicted countless deaths to various other populations.  By an order of magnitude, Communist Russia proved to be far more deadly even than its fascist counterpart, at least in peacetime.  Synder also proves that Stalinism did have an ethnic or genocidal component,and that the Soviet Union's campaign of murder wasn't entirely random.  More than anything, Synder demonstrates that the Soviet Union targeted and decimated the Polish population, and this decimation included ethnic Poles who always lived under Soviet rule, as well as ethnic Poles who lived under sucessive governments.  Stalinism had many victims, but ethnic Poles suffered very acutely in comparison with most other devastated ethnic or political groupings.  

The author's main argument is that Nazism seemed in some sense to work in tandem with Communism to produce humankind’s worst tragedy in history.  Although the book makes complicated arguments about the nature of this period of mass killings, both regimes clearly used one another to justify their most horrific crimes against humanity.  For instance, both regimes intentionally starved prisoners of war to death on a massive scale, and justified these horrific actions by referring to the bloodiness and alleged inhumanity of the enemy.  

Bloodlands also sheds some light on the Holocaust.  We know of course that Jews suffered more than any other group who occupied the “bloodlands.”   When we examine the tragedies which occurred in both Poland and Belarussia, for example, Jews a far smaller chance of surviving than non-Jews.  It’s unpleasant business to compare the relative suffering of various ethnic groups.  However, the author of Bloodlands helps us to understand that historical accuracy matters.  Take the memory of the modern Russian people as a case in point. While it is certainly true that Russians suffered tremendously from Nazi villainy, the Russian government rarely reminds its citizens of how many of the official “20 million deaths in World War II” figure died at the hands of the Soviet government.  In fact, this figure includes many people who were killed by Russia after it briefly allied itself to Nazi Germany and invaded the Baltic republics as well as Eastern Poland.  And of course the Soviet and post-Soviet Russian governments have almost always tried to submerge the unique stories of Ukrainian, Polish, and especially Jewish suffering in the overall story of Soviet suffering. 

The author of Bloodlands makes a subtle (but well-documented) arguments about tremendously controversial topics. However, the book’s central argument is that we shouldn’t try to analyze twentieth century brutality without acknowledging how Hitlerism and Stalinism worked together, either intentionally or intentionally, to eliminate millions upon millions of people in Eastern Europe.  Certainly Nazi Germany ultimately killed many more innocent people than Soviet Germany did, but both regimes were guilty of mass murder on an unprecedented scale.  Thus to analyze either regime, we must acknowledge that an international phenomenon of mass cruelty was at work.   This being so, Synder reminds us that we shouldn’t forget the specificity of the Eastern European geography of murder.  European mass killing sometimes happened outside of the bloodlands, but the total numbers of victims can scarcely compare to killings that took place in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus.