Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Abbott Gleason's Young Russia

Although this blog is officially on hiatus, I can’t help but sneak back to writing about Russia from time to time.  Lately, I’ve been delving a little deeper into Russia’s past to provide some kind of historical framework for the violence and authoritarianism of Russia’s twentieth century.  I’ve looked in particular at Peter the Great’s reign, and thought about the extent to which a single sovereign was able to shape the course of events for his nation.  It seems hard to imagine a monarch in another European country who made such a profound impact on his people as Peter the Great had on his.  Of course, this begs the question of whether Peter the Great was in fact really ruling a European power, something many Russians, both then and now, dispute.  In any event, Peter the Great moved his capital, built a navy, defeated Sweden in a prolonged struggle, open some administrative careers to talent, and spread many Western ideas far and wide in his immense nation.

Peter the Great remains a deeply controversial figure in Russian history, and rightly so.  It’s difficult to know for sure whether the energetic man is a reflection of Russia’s ancient autocratic traditions, or the inventor of new, modern forms of despotisms.  Peter introduced Western military ideas and cultural fashions, but also demonstrated once and for all that aristocrats, churchmen, or other societal forces could not challenge the Russian state.  Paradoxically, Peter wanted reform, but this reform was meant to preclude the possibility of any other source of non-state-driven change.  Such at least is the lesson I drew from reading Robert Massie’s magnificent biography of Peter.

If we look at the birth of Russian radicalism in the middle of the nineteenth century, Peter’s shadow seems all the darker.  Abbott Gleason’s much more succinct—but equally fascinating--version of Franco Venturi’s seminal work on the same subject, The Roots of Revolution, helps us to understand the long-term impact of Peter’s autocratic traditions.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia largely lacked a politics.  Part of the problem was that Russia’s aristocracy was dependent on the autocracy to an unusual degree.  Peter had ensured that nobles retained their status in return for their service to the state.  This changed a little over time, but the servility of Russian nobles vis-à-vis their European counterparts was notable.  Russia’s small aristocracy depended on the tsar for status and employment.  This tradition of service isolated its members from other classes, small as they were in a Russia’s relatively backward farming economy.  But more than this, Russia’s aristocracy was isolated from the peasantry by its European culture, French language habits, etc.  The truth is that Peter helped to cement the sharp distinctions between the Russian aristocracy and all other Russian classes, with the peasant class remaining by far the largest segment of Russian society right up until 1917, and beyond.

At first, a critique of the Russian autocracy emerged indirectly, through a literary tradition that acknowledged, or even glorified, aristocratic indolence.  See Pushkin and Lermontov and Gonchorov.  Over time, the critique became more pronounced, more radical.  Interestingly, Abbott sees a unified political culture in nineteenth century Russia, broad enough to encompass both Slavophiles and Westernizers.  In a culture without open politics, the difference between Right and Left policies meant little.  But ideologically, both Slavophiles and Westernizers believed somehow that Russian peasants would somehow liberate Russia from despotism, and perhaps the world as well.  What allows us to group Slavophiles with Westernizers, is their mutual ignorance of the real economic conditions or culture life of the vast majority of the Russian people.  In a sense, perhaps this ignorance is also the legacy of Peter the Great, a tsar whose legacy was always hotly debated in the nineteenth century. 

Abbott’s ultimate argument seems to be that even Lenin was a product of this overwhelming ignorance of the Russian people.  Russian radicals retained Peter the Great’s commitment to transform Russia without consulting, or even attempting to understand, its common people.  This crash course in modernization seems even today to affect Russia.  Its current ruler seems content to rule without reference to a real politics.  One interesting analogy between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century is that in both cases the country’s master was supposedly popular with ordinary people.  Over and over again, Russian radicals tried to account for the mystery of the Russian people’s ostensible love of the autocrat.  The common people hated the Russian state’s representatives, including clergymen and local officials, but they always seemed to preserve their love for the tsar.  If only he knew the horrid abuses that went on in his blessed name, they reasoned, he would surely put a stop to everything and bring about a new and better era. Whether this love for the tsar was ultimately a myth is difficult to say, and needless to say, still bears examination. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Robert Massie's Peter the Great

    Unfortunately I haven't all that much time for Russian literature and history in recent months.  I continue to read haphazardly, but almost all of of my writing time and energy is devoted to another project.  For the time being, my goal is merely to keep this blog on life support by posting something once in a while.  Today, I'll just say that I've fallen in love with Robert Massie's popular histories of two Russian monarchs, Peter the Great and Nicholas.  The Peter the Great biography was a refreshing break from academic writing and a brilliant introduction to not just Peter but his whole epoch.  The book may perhaps be more narrative than analytical, but it certainly helps readers get a sense of the drama of Peter's epoch.

    Interestingly, Massie allows his portrait of Peter to expand into a depiction of the Europe as a whole, at least in terms of its military and diplomatic and dynastic components.  This has its advantages and disadvantages.  While we sometimes lose sight of Peter's perspective on unfolding events, we are able to analyze his statecraft in the context of wider global events.  This is helpful in that we can best understand Peter's brutality and penchant for war against a backdrop of a brutal age of ever-shifting frontiers and alliances.  Peter's drive toward modernity makes sense only if Russia's vulnerability within the European state system is highlighted.

    Massie's treatment of Peter reminds readers that Russia's status as a Great Power, or even a Superpower, is only a recent phenomenon.  At least at the beginning of Peter's reign, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire both overshadowed the developing fragile power, to say nothing of Louis XIV's awesome strength and military sophistication.  As a ruler, Massie's Peter is clever, extremely energetic, curious, restless, and single-minded.  According to Massie, Peter's cruelty isn't particularly noteworthy for the age, and it should be noted that Peter used brutality and political violence as political tools rather than expressions of personal sadism.

    Massie's description of Peter's reign isn't particularly novel, though it is literary, and descriptions of Moscow, the Kremlin, St. Petersburg, Archangelisk, and other Russian locales are vivid and arresting.  For the most part, Massie avoids psychological investigations into Peter's motivations, but Massie doesn't neglect Peter's friendships with Menshikov and others, his dependence upon his second wife, or his early trauma at the hands of angry streltsy.

    Massie doesn't entirely resolve the question of whether Russia's move toward the Baltic (and abortive move toward the Black Sea) was a result of Peter's personal obsession with maritime issues, or the natural result of an expanding empire.  However, he does seem to nicely explain a certain repeating dynamic of Russian history, and that is the Russian state's propensity to use overwhelming force to quash all open resistance to massive change.

    While we should be careful to accept any cliches about eternal Russian styles of government, Massie's Peter does seem to foreshadow Alexander II and Lenin and Stalin and even Gorbachev, by overawing all opposition to the often violent introduction of widespread economic and even cultural change.  For Peter's terrifying and spectacular use of state power, ensured that Old Believers remained at the fringes of society, and that few Russians dared to openly express opposition to new clothes, styles, technologies, capital cities, and military reforms.  Massie's Peter uses the state to engage in almost perpetual warfare.  He uses it to found a new capital and enact countless reforms.   However, everyday Russian resistance to centralized power and even Western cultural norms seems to have been silenced but not destroyed altogether.  Russians can be removed from politics but they cannot be coerced into embracing foreign and unfamiliar approaches to modernity.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Aleksander Wat

I take a somewhat absurd and small-minded, if not downright xenophobic, approach to the study of Russian history and literature. Aside from a few random books ingested on CD during my morning commute, I generally read Russian history and Russian literature and little else.  I tell myself that I need to avoid non-Russian materials to spend more time on a vast and growing subject.  However, my parochial reading list makes it appear as if Russia has always existed in a vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world.  Fortunately, from time to time I pick up a book by a non-Russian author, but only if I can randomly flip through the unread pages but still encounter a number of Russian names and places.  And so it was that Aleksander Wat's brilliant book, My Century, survived the Procrustean bed of my reading regimen.  For Russian connections and allusions and ideas litter almost every page of the long book.  And why shouldn't this be so?  For better or worse (and most Poles would say the answer is clearly, "for worse"), Poland's history is interwoven with Russia's, especially in the catastrophic twentieth century.

Wat's story, like Poland's itself, is in many ways a Russian story. Wat grew to intellectual maturity on a steady diet of lef-wing and Marxist readings.  Like so many other Polish intellectuals and proletarians, Wat, generally a fellow-traveller rather than an outright communist, was also thrilled by the adventure of the Bolshevik Revolution.  The Russian Revolution seemed to promise a brand new, and much improved world. Everything could and would be reinvented.  The Soviet Union was remaking economics, politics, art, culture, gender relations, and indeed everyday life. Eventually, Wat's romance with both the Soviet Union and communism in general came to an end, and Wat even came to reside in the Soviet Union's notorious Lubianka, and then later suffered under Poland's post-World War II communist dictatorship.  Wat's book, My Century, is largely a prolonged apology for his own part in Europe's great experiment with communism.  This informal series of interviews returns again and again to one of modernity's greatest crimes:  It's willingness to sacrifce human rights, and freedom itself, at the alter of an super-rationalist faith in the radical progress of humanity.

A few quotes from Wat's My Century:

"No one knew what communism would be like.  For the time we thought of it as a great nihilism."

"The dark sectarian layers, Russia inundated by sectarianism--all this was very attractive to us in our esthetic, literary revolution."

"Hempel was the first apparatchnik I had ever known."

"[Jansienski] had come as a young man from Russia, very full of himself yet at the same time terribly cynical, and that cannot be called communism.  In any case that's was communism, that was bolshevism, and it certainly wasn't Marxism."

"By analogy with what is happening in physics, just as the atom has ceased to be the simplest unit, subject to no further reduction, so has the event, the fact, become incredibly complex."

"We see a social system dominated by genuine idiots, capitalists.  That is the most fertile ground for laughter and for revolution."

"Doctors can't cure  me, but a good exorcist probably could.  Because my main demon is communism..."

"But from Rousseau on we again see history confused with autobiography.  And isn't that one of the signs of our illness?  The muddying of history with biography.  Isn't that a sin?"

"The Literary Monthly is the corpus delicti of my degradation, the history of my degradation in communism, by communism."

"Now they're turning spies into heroes, but I [Broniewsky] was in Lubyanka and nobody's making a hero out of me."

"Bourgeouis decadence.  And I was afraid of causing infection.  Just as they're afraid to send satellites to Mars so as not to cause any virtal infection there."

"As if it were still possible to write tragedies in the twentieth century..."

"There was only one alternative, only one global answer to negation."

"It was a very simple matter, a matter of mathematics.  There were too much of everything. Too many people, too many ideas, too many books, too many systems.  Too much of everything...absolutely awful multiplicity.  It has become so vast that a refined intellect was unable to deal with it."

"How pure and great must be the cause for which so much blood is spilled, innocent blood."

"Besides, experts in religion know that when great religions are dying, warped religions--sects--emerge."

"Kireevsky, a post-romantic and one of the Slovophiles, wrote that politics was such a crime and a disgrace that it was better for one person to take all that disgrace upon himself."

"It boils down to the Soviet astronaut who said that he had been in heaven and hadn't seen God.  Voila!  That's communism's rationalism in full flower."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Eli Sagan's Citizens and Cannibals

Eli Sagan's book, Citizens and Cannibals, is a fascinating theoretical treatise on the meaning of the French Revolution.  Favoring analysis over narrative, Sagan argues that the French Revolution reveals the fault lines of modernity.  According to Sagan, the French Revolution is representative of the anxiety modern men and women feel when they give us Early Modern sources of corporate identity. Following the logic of Marshall Berman's book, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Sagan maintains that French revolutionaries turned to terror to compensate for the loss of the king, the Catholic church, guilds, and other sources of social and cultural identity. Sagan writes that most people in France accepted the principles of the French Revolution even before it occurred.  Nobles, clergymen, and even the king, all more or less gave up medieval assumptions and joined the bourgeoisie in believing in the rights of individuals and the bourgeois concept of freedom.

According to Sagan, the French Revolution had little or nothing to do with capitalism, which had made few inroads in France by the end of the 18th century, and everything to do with middle class values. The French Revolution was not made by industrialists or great merchants but rather by lawyers. The Revolution was ultimately an expression of a new ethos.  By 1789 most educated people accepted many or perhaps most modern ideas about politics.  Robespierre, for instance, believed in many of the things we believe in.  He hated slavery, favored the separation of church and state, supported progressive taxation, and championed free and universal education.  He believed in civil rights, as they are commonly understood.   Sagan goes so far as to call Robespierre a "moral genius" for his early and eloquent advocacy of so many of the causes we still champion today.  On the other hand, Robespierre, like so many of his contemporaries, hated factionalism.  This hatred was born of a fear that is representative of the widespread fear that accompanied all passages to modernity.

Why was the French Revolution so bloody?  Sagan makes a compelling case that Frenchmen embraced most aspects of modernity but rejected the concept of a loyal ambition.  They believed in individual rights, and Rousseau's famous "general will" of the nation.  What they simply could not abide were factions.  Sagan points out that this suspicion of factions is common even to America's founding fathers.  He also reminds us that France never fully resolved its disgust with factions until DeGaulle renounced the idea of becoming a dictator well over a century later.  With this hatred of factionalism, French revolutionaries were left with no other choice but to annihilate one another.  The stakes were huge:  Girondists knew that they would either kill members of the Mountain, or be killed. Of course, Sagan doesn't let matters wrest there.  He knows that many national histories involved widespread bloodshed, and bloodshed out of all proportion to the struggle for political power.  In France, revolutionaries didn't just kill potential political opponents, but rather killed powerless nobles and other groups.

In the twentieth century, ideological terrorists repeatedly created large groups of people for no reason at all.  The holocaust, for example, cannot be explained by any ordinary logic. The murder of a group of people who offered no resistance to the regime was, strictly speaking, irrational.  How to explain such hysteria?  Sagan offers the plausible argument that Germans, like so many others who encountered modernity, were both exhilarated and terrified by their isolation and freedom. Cannibalism is in a sense the flip side of citizenship.

The logic of modern terror makes sense in a Russian context.  On a narrow level, we see that the Bolsheviks never learned how to deal with factionalism except through radical violence.  On some level, Stalin understood that he would either kill or be killed by political opponents.  Bolsheviks never admitted to themselves that other Bolsheviks had a right to disagree about tactics or ideology in fundamental ways.  The unit of the party and therefore the nation could not be threatened, even if the alternative to disunity was violence.  But more than an explanation for bloody dictatorship, Sagan offers us an understanding of why the Soviet Union embraced violence on such an enormous scale. Sagan offers us an explanation for why there were so many Stalinists in 1930s Russia.  The Russians were hysterical about something.  They required sacrifices to feel better about the earth-shattering, if also exciting, changes they were experiencing.  This is the paradox of the Russian Revolution, a paradox that existed however as early as the French Revolution:  Russians were forging a radical version of equality, but also giving up many of their most familiar sources of social cohesion, including the tsar, the Orthodox Church, the aristocracy, and the peasant commune. How to deal with this level of uncertainty?  Surely violence was chicken soup for the terrified soul.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Brief Hiatus from a Hiatus

This post is just a reminder that Soviet Roulette is currently on hiatus.  I have taken a break from posting here in order to make progress on a competing academic project.  I will try from time to time to post here briefly to update readers on my continued obsession with Russian history.  As we approach summer, I continue to read a variety of different books on Russian or Soviet history.  For instance, I am reading Catherine Merridale's excellent Red Fortress:  History and Illusion in the Kremlin.  The book has reminded me that Russia's modern history is no more interesting than its early modern history, and I hope eventually study Ivan the Terrible's reign and the Time of Troubles, for instance, in much more depth.  The links between early modern and modern, or even contemporary, Russia may sometimes be overestimated by Western observers, but they do exist.

In addition, to Merridale, I've begun Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov.  I tried to begin this book in tandem with Tolstoy's Resurrection to resolve once and for all the eternal question of Russian literature:  who is the better author?  Sadly, both books haven't begun all that well for me.  They both seem to share some sort of heaviness or perhaps didacticism.  I'm sure they are both great books, but even geniuses can produce uneven works.  I think of Oscar Wilde producing Salome after so many other magnificent plays.  One Russian novella that has surprised and delighted me is Leskov's The Enchanted Wanderer, a book that seems to combine adventure, Russian madness, and high comedy.

Russia was also in my mind when the Institute of International Education and the State Department hosted a workshop to assess the success of its Community College Administrators Seminar in Russia.  At this workshop in Washington, D.C., approximately 15 American Fulbright alumni met and discussed their Fulbright experiences and the future of American-Russian collaboration in higher education, with specific reference to the value of America's community colleges in this ongoing dialogue.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Hannah Arendt

Here a few quotations from Hannah Arendt from The Origins of Totalitarianism.  This book seems to demonstrate the usefulness of theory once and for all.  Without Arendt, one could hardly make sense of the plethora of memoirs concerning the absurdities related to Stalinism.

"Real power begins where secrecy begins."

"..the principle of authority is in all important respects diametrically opposed to that of totalitarian domination."

"The complete absence of successful or unsuccessful palace revolutions is one of the most remarkable characteristics of totalitarian dictatorships."

"The multiplicity of offices destroys all sense of responsibility and competence"

"Constant removal, demotion, and promotion make reliable teamwork impossible and prevent the development of experience."

"To be sure, totalitarian dictators do not consciously embark upon the road to insanity."

"They therefore consider no country as permanently foreign, but, on the contrary, every country as their potential territory."

"For economic purposes, the totalitarian regimes are as much at home in their countries as the proverbial swarms of locusts."

"...those who rightly understand the terrible efficiency of totalitarian organization and police are likely to overestimate the material force of totalitarian countries, while those who understand the wasteful incompetence of totalitarian economics are likely to underestimate the power potential which can be created in disregard of all material factors."

"Only after the extermination of real enemies has been completed and the hunt for 'objective enemies' begun does terror become the actual content of totalitarian regimes."

"Multiplication of secret services makes last-minute changes possible, so that one branch may be preparing to bestow the Order of Lenin on the director of a factory while another makes arranges for his arrest."

"Free consent is as much an obstacle to total domination as free opposition."

Friday, January 2, 2015

Eugenia Ginzburg and Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism

Does the literature of the gulag capture the essence of the Soviet experience during the 1930s? Unprecedented numbers of Russian citizens (as well as many other categories of people) found themselves in a Siberia work camp during this period, and those who escaped the gulag were very likely to spend a considerable amount of energy anticipating execution or arrest.  But can arbitrary imprisonment and twenty year terms of hard labor capture the experience of a whole generation of Soviet citizens, many of whom surely supported Stalin and the Bolshevik project in general?  After all, camp memoirs reveal the extent to which even Soviet prisoners could defend the Soviet leader by claiming that Yezhov or Beria, and not Stalin, were to blame for prosecutorial or prison guard excesses.  If only somebody could get word to Stalin about what was happening in his name, the world would be put right again. 

Anya Bremzen, author of a wonderful memoir entitled Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, recently noted the problem with understanding the second full decade of Bolshevik rule.  The 1930s were a schizophrenic episode. You might well have been swept up in the purges, but if you remained “free” from arrest, you were very likely to be immersed in a state of “totalitarian joy,” i.e., an unending series of Communist festivals to celebrate Soviet achievement.  Understanding this dualism, it’s useful to read a book like Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey Into the Whirlwind in the context of a larger book about totalitarianism such as Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism.  On the one hand, Ginzburg’s book details the madness of Stalinism in which a loyal and dedicated Bolshevik leader could find oneself under arrest for no apparent reason at all.  Ginzburg’s classic tale of the Great Terror describes a typical cycle of Soviet justice, including arbitrary arrest, family disgrace (followed by imprisonment of both her husband and parents), psychological and physical torture, summary military trial, extended sentence, prolonged solitary confinement, barbaric transportation to the edges of Siberia, and brutal work conditions in the taiga.  On the other hand, Arendt’s theory of totalitarian government reveals that such a cycle of arbitrary terror was intrinsically linked to the nature of the Bolshevik’s ideology, an ideology that required an unending pool of enemies.

What exactly is totalitarianism?  Arendt’s treatise on the subject, groundbreaking at the time of publication, remains acutely perceptive.  In some ways, Arendt made the original argument that you can’t understand Stalinism without looking closely at Hitlerism.  In both cases, the ruling party became almost synonymous with the state.  Beyond that, the party made radical claims to represent all of humanity.  The case for fascism representing a claim to global government is perhaps controversial.  However, Arendt points out that fascist parties sprang up everywhere in Europe even as the Nazi platform clearly called for the conquest of large portions of the globe.  The communist plan for global government is much clearer,  although Arendt must remind us not to take Stalin’s call for “socialism in one country” too seriously.  Once the totalitarian party makes a claim to global suzerainty, it’s not hard to begin to treat its citizens as traitors, and foreign citizens as either natural saboteurs or spies.

The radical nature of totalitarian government expresses itself in another way.  According to both Nazism and Stalinism, the party is a movement rather than a traditional government,  If the party is a movement, it must continuously encounter new categories of enemies.  Arendt’s claim is that Nazism constantly found new enemies, and would have done so long after it had eliminated the last Jew from any of its territories.  The Nazis, after all, had already declared war against Slavic peoples, and indeed various categories of German people, including Communists and the allegedly “un-hygienic.”  So too did Bolshevism continue to identify new opponents long after subduing any hint of opposition from former aristocrats or bourgeois intellectuals.

In fact, Arendt notes that totalitarian regimes thrive on the logic of arbitrary terror as described by Ginzburg in Journey Into the Whirlwind.  According to Arendt, totalitarian governments are politically powerful but economically chaotic and inefficient.    Ginzburg’s memoir proves this rule.  On the one hand, Stalin had turned all Soviet citizens into potential spies, complicit in the country’s perpetual state of terror.  The fact that all citizens could be arrested for no reason whatsoever also meant that the entire country had reason to worry.  Indeed,  Stalinism, like Nazism, had essentially made the very idea of rebellion irrelevant.  In mere despotism, a man or woman might decide to oppose the government and court death as a consequence of his brave act of defiance.  In totalitarianism, rebels were likely to be put to death for their opposition, but so too were perfectly loyal supporters of the system such as Ginzburg, a professor of Leninist history. If Old Bolsheviks suffered and died, what would genuine opposition to Stalinism have really signified? 

Ginzburg’s memoir also illustrates the chronic inefficiency of totalitarianism.  Over and over again, the Bolshevik government sacrificed economic efficiency at the alter of ideology.   Hundreds of thousands of productive and even largely loyal citizens were thrown into the most barbaric and disastrously inefficient work camps system imaginable.  Many died for little or no reason at every stage of the journey between arrest and productive labor.  The parallel with Nazism is obvious.  As Arendt reminds us, the Nazi economy and war effort were repeatedly undermined by the racist ideological aspirations of Hitler. 

On a mundane level, Arendt explains the logic of totalitarianism by discussing a fictitious request from Moscow for more pipes.  In a traditional setting, an economic logic would dictate why more pipes are needed.  Under totalitarianism, nobody but the secret police can really be certain why more pipes have been ordered.  Does the factory need the pipes to increase output?  Yes, perhaps, but even if this is true, why is more output needed?  Does one agency want to embarrass another by increasing production at this factory?  Does someone in Moscow want to blame the factory’s managers for overproduction?  According to Arendt, nobody but the secret police—ultimately controlled by Stalin—can know the answer to questions such as these.  In fact, both Hitler and Stalin created complex, overlapping, and even competing governmental structures.  These structures were always confusing.  The net result was that multiple and often competing policies were proposed simultaneously, which only the will of the supreme leader (expressed through the vehicle of the secret police) could resolve. 

Whether outlined by Ginzburg or Arendt, totalitarianism doesn’t seen like a very gratifying system of government.  Yet even totalitarianism has its pleasures.  For one thing, a system of perpetual purges and spectacular falls from grace offers unprecedented opportunities for career advancement.  Arendt argues that the purges inevitably implicated large numbers of new recruits in the original crimes of the Bolsheviks and Nazis.  Thus, while your own lifespan might be cut short at any moment, you might well have had the opportunity to rise to great heights before your inevitable fall from the dizzying heights of power.  These then are the joys of totalitarianism. 

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism