Thursday, October 12, 2017

Master and Margarita

As a Russophile, I'm embarrassed that I've not read Bulgakov's Master and Margarita until now.  Although I recognize that countless Russians believe that this book is the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century, I never seemed to get very far with this book until now.  In fact, I only managed to finish the book by "reading" it on Hoopla, and unfortunately audio-books can be difficult to follow even with much simpler plot structures.  Notwithstanding the book's imposing reputation, or perhaps because of that imposing reputation, my impression of the book wasn't very positive.  I recognize that Bulgakov was one of the Soviet Union's most competent modernists.  I recognize that the imaginative elements of the book, including its rich cast of bizarre characters, deserve my appreciation.  I also recognize that Bulkagov deserves praise for producing such a creative work in the midst of Stalinist oppression.  However, Bulgakov's masterwork was a little too chaotic for my taste.  Someday I hope to re-read the book.  Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, assigned to me in my first Russian history class at Georgetown University, was probably one of the first Russian books I ever read.  Like Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog comes across as an absurdist fairy tale, a modernist version of Gogol's strange tales of walking noses and the like.  But Heart of a Dog's shortness seems to make its strange conceits more believable.  Master and Margarita's endless flights of fancy seem to lead nowhere and to distract the reader from any sustained sense of direction or purpose to the plot.  I recognize that this is a relatively shallow reading of a novel that no doubt contains complexity and richness.  I certainly can understand that the book is representative of a type of modernist prose that has been immensely influential in the last fifty or so years.  It was clearly ahead of its time, and perhaps extremely influential.  Yet when laid side by side with a masterwork of the nineteenth century, it seemed lacking to me.  The author's inventiveness lacked purpose to my mind.  I do hope to learn more about the work, reread it, and post on this book again.  I also hope to hear from readers who are interested in explaining their enthusiasm for the book.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Russia in World War II

Richard Overy's history of Russia in World War II is a useful primer to one of the largest and bloodiest battlefronts in world history.  Written in the late 1990s, the book may well have been superseded by newer historical analyses of World War II's Eastern Front.  However, Russia's War is a wonderful overview of many different aspects of the conflict.  It offers extended treatment of Stalin's decision to forge a diplomatic pact with NAZI Germany.  From Overy's viewpoint, Stalin's decision was an obvious one, not quite worthy of the moral and historical condemnation it has engendered.  The product of realpolitik, Stalin's decision to partner with Hitler was almost inevitable.  According to Overy, Stalin's diplomatic overtures to France and Britain were repeatedly rebuffed or at least stalled to the point of absurdity.  Without France and Britain, Stalin naturally preferred to pit NAZI Germany against the Capitalist powers, whom he and most other Bolsheviks naturally distrusted anyhow.

Over also weighs in on the Stalin's military purges, arguing that these did do quite so much damage to the Russian military as is commonly supposed.  Overy's argument is that many purged officers, especially of the middle rank, eventually returned to service after being only temporarily dismissed.  What is more, while the purges were bloody, they were not actually the cause of all of the Soviet Union's poor military leadership.  Overy here contends that the Soviet military leadership was inclined toward fear and passivity as a result of the general situation in the country, but not merely as a result of the military purges of the late 1930s.  Overy's other point about the purges is that the military leadership couldn't have overcome some of the army's more general problems even if they had avoided Stalin's paranoid bloodthirstiness. This is to say that the Soviet military lack of preparation for major military conflicts resulted from bad morale and poor supplies as much as it did from the loss of top generals. 

Needless to say, Overy's account of the Eastern Front expends considerable energy describing Stalin's horrific strategic mistakes.  The initial phases of the German invasion was helped immeasurably by Stalin's refusal to take the threat of a surprise attack seriously, despite a wealth of evidence of overseas spies.  Stalin's failure to defend his territory in depth, and his repeated refusal to allow Soviet troops to retreat, led to catastrophic losses.  In the end, Russia fought better as the war went on, aided by the weather, the country's vast geography, German over-extension, Lend-lease, and Russian and Soviet patriotism and bravery.  But one of Overy's most haunting conclusion is that the Russia lost so many troops precisely because its political culture placed almost no value on human life. 

According to Overy, in the initial phases of the war, Russia lost 20 soldiers for every one German soldier. In one telling episode of the war, a contingent of 2,000 Soviet horseman attacked a German position and were annihilated.  All 2,000 Soviet cavalrymen died without the loss of a single German.  Overy's next notes that Soviet military losses amounted to the same daily losses the Russian Empire experienced in World War I, approximately 10,000 soldiers a day.  Overy's point is that these numbers are only possible when a government treats its own people as if their lives mattered very little.  Without proper equipment, and without adequate training or food, Russian losses were bound to be extraordinarily high, regardless of who was in power.   Of course, Hitler's homicidal barbarism made things worse for Russian soldiers, who died in prison in terribly high numbers, and for Russian peasants.  But Overy believes (and this does smack of blaming the victim) that the overall Russian attitude toward life was partly to blame to the scale of Russia's human catastrophe. At any rate, the tale of the 2000 cavalrymen tells two different tales at once.  First, it may describe a cavalier attitude toward the loss of military lives.  Second, it describes a form of bravery that shocked event the Germans, who, Overy claims, were deeply disturbed by the battle, which ended with an absolute tactical victory but seemed to portend something dreadful for the course of the war as a whole.  If Soviet troops had so little regard for their own lives, how could Germany ultimately triumph against the populous nation?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Igort on Russian and Ukrainian History

I recently wrote on a post on Svetlana Alexievich's book, Secondhand Time, which, like all of Alexievich's books, describes the past from the point of view of ordinary men and women.  Alexievich's books use the speech of ordinary men and women to describe extraordinarily painful events.  Igort's two graphic novels, published as The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks:  Life and Death under Soviet Rule, do something similar.  The first graphic novel, The Ukrainian, describes Russian and Soviet violence in the country, both currently and in the Ukrainian past.  The graphic format of the book lends a unique dimension to the tragic stories students of man-made famine already know so much about.  We don't just read about the tragedy, we see an artist's depiction of their impact on individuals and communities.  The similarity between Igort's approach to history and Alexievich is particularly evident when Igort interviews varied impoverished Ukranians who have suffered mightly from the transition to capitalism.  These illustrated interviews are powerful, and the reader would love to see whole libraries of such interviews done, both for the Ukraine, and for America too.

When one visits the countries of the former Soviet Union, one sees countless old folks selling their wares by train stations, along busy streets, or outside of stores.  Igort describes one lady who, in her late seventies, sells nothing more than the use of her scale for a few seconds.  Igort does these people, and everyone, a service by listening carefully to women like these.  How is it life ended up this way for this particular women?  Of course, The Ukraine is largely a story of Russian aggression, and not really about the generic tragedy of age and poverty.  The Ukraine begins with Stalin's efforts to starve the country into submission, and ends with Putin's invasion of the Crimea and Eastern provinces.  

Igort, an Italian, is a partisan of a free and independent Ukraine.  He's also a partisan of a free and independent Russia, and devotes a large portion of the Russian Notebooks to describing the heroism of one of Russia's most famous murdered journalists, Anna Politkovskaya, who risked her life repeatedly to describe the horrors unfolding in Chechnya.  Igort visited the journalist's apartment complex, and the elevator in which she was gunned down, in a kind of pilgrimage.  And certainly Igort convinces us that the woman deserves to be known as a kind of saint.  For what are most saints, if not men and women who somehow overcome human fear and cowardice in the service of something higher, such as the Tolstoyan tradition of peacefulness and human rights?

Arkady Ostrovsky's The Invention of Russia

From time to time someone asks me how I became obsessed with Russian and Soviet history.  I struggle with the question in that I know on some level that historical interest is a matter of personal taste.  When asked, I will shrug and mumble something about reading a Dostoyevsky novel in high school or taking a two-semester survey of Russian history as an undergraduate at Georgetown University.  I will also mention that I was a European history major as both undergraduate and graduate student of history, and therefore regularly encountered Russian history even though I never studied the language or really focused on the subject in any great detail.  However, lately I have wondered whether I shouldn't turn the question around and ask people why they are not obsessed with Russian and Soviet history.  I have been thinking about asking people this question ever since reading Arkady Ostrovsky's brilliant book, The Invention of Russia:  The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War.  Although I have never been particularly well-informed about post-Soviet history, Ostrovsky's survey of the recent past reminds me that even contemporary Russia continues to generate fascinating if sometimes tragic historical cycles.  After all, even after the Soviet experiment collapsed, Russia and the other former Soviet states have been immersed in chaotically fascinating efforts to reinvent themselves.  These reinventions are nothing short of revolutionary.  For all its authoritarianism, Putin's Russia is the product of the fascinating post-Soviet life of a people in turmoil.  What other history could compare with the Russian peoples these past thirty years?  

Ostrovsky's description of the post-Soviet era is rich beyond measure.  It's a well-told tale filled with fascinating character sketches of some of the most intriguing men (unfortunately, few women are mentioned) of the modern epoch.  It's also filled with historical references to Russia's turbulent literary and political past.  Ostrovsky's dramatic personae include Gorbachev, Yakovlev, Yeltsin,  Chubais, Gaidar, Putin, and the Russian oligarchs.   But both Ostrovsky  and many of the modern politicians he analyzes make frequent references to pre-Soviet and Soviet politicians, authors, and poets.

Ostrovsky's book starts with an analysis of the Russian people's fascination with words.  To describe the invention of (modern) Russia, Ostrovsky thinks his readers should be reminded of the Russian people's unusual experience with different media.  Under Stalin and his successors, Russians had almost no contact with free or open debate or discussion in print.  Ostrovsky's describes some Soviet versions of printed dialogue, but demonstrates that most independent thought was banished from the public sphere, except insofar as it could emerge in illegally produced and illegally circulated novels or poetry verses.  Ostrovsky describes the virulence of the government's repression, but also notes that this repression gave Soviet men and women an unrivaled reference for independent poetry and prose.  The state produced television to dull the senses, but men and women referred the poets and singers and novelists who continued to produce unofficial expressions of creativity. 

The Invention of Russia is a complicated work of history, and deserves to be read several times to understand its many overlapping themes.  On my first reading, I came away thinking not only that the Soviet state lives on in the present Russian regime, but that the pre-Soviet state had permeated the Soviet one.  I'm reminded of Overy's book, Russia's War, where he describes the appalling loss of Russian and Soviet life in World War I.  According to Overy, in the first phases of the war, Russia lost twenty soldiers for every German soldier they killed.  This is a shocking loss of life, made possible by Stalin's military decisions as well as the country's economic and technological limitations.  But more shocking than this figure is Overy's contention that the Soviet loss of life in World War II was on par with the Russian Empire's loss of life in World War I.  In other words, we can't really understand Russia's tragedy in World War II purely in terms of the NAZI war machine's effectiveness, or Stalin's absurd strategic mistakes.  For Russia performed equally badly in World War I in terms of its capacity to lose human life out of all proportion to military necessity.

Ostrovsky's book reminds me of Overy's assertion that we need to see the overall arch of Russian cultural history to understand why Russia lost so many more men and women than was strictly necessary to defeat the Germans in World War II.  Thus, we can think of Gorbachev's decisions as analogous to Peter the Great's several centuries before.  Gorbachev attempted to reform the Soviet Union, but his "Westernizing" ways were accomplished, paradoxically, by relying on non-Western, authoritarian political and cultural traditions.  Gorbachev succeeded in reforming Russia not because either the political classes or the people in general supported his political projects. Rather, he succeeded because the Russian people were accustomed to following orders even when these orders made no sense to them.  Yeltsin, for all his democratic flair, also relied on authoritarian traditions from time to time, most notably when he used violence to suppress a parliamentary revolt, or employed his allies' media empire to quash political opponents.

Viewed in this light, "The Invention of Russia" becomes an ironic title, since Russia never really went anywhere.   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia briefly flirted with the West but remained profoundly (and understandably) suspicious of its putative new friends, including America.  In the end, however, it was unremarkable that Russia quietly handed off power to a former KGB officer, Putin.  Russia remains Russia.  As in the days of Tsar, Russia remains in the hands of oligarchs, police forces, and a state-controlled media.  Of course, Russia also remains a land of independent thinkers.  If Russia continues to be governed by tsars, it also continues to produce Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys, men and women of exceptional moral fortitude and even genius.

The Zhivago Affair

I seldom analyze the types of sources I rely upon to learn about Russian history.   This is probably a mistake.  The sources of one’s knowledge are important, perhaps as important as the content these sources reveal.  In general, I rely upon non-academic press books rather than academic monographs to teach me about the Russian past. I spend still less time on scholarly articles or popular press articles.  I also tend to read history or memoir, as opposed to fiction.  In fact, I recently thought about why I read so-called classic fiction as opposed to current fiction, and realized that I probably approach literature as an historian.  In other words, I prefer older works precisely because they can be treated as primary sources rather than consumed as works of imagination.  This tendency to look upon a novel as an historical artifact no doubt reveals a poverty of creative or imaginative insight on my part.  Nevertheless, it’s helpful to take a step back and think about why one chose to read the books one has read. Another point of analysis is to examine the format of the books in question.  Not surprisingly, as a man in his late forties, I tend to read old-fashioned print books. I collect books, and like to mark them up in pencil, so traditional books feel right to me.  On the other hand, I have listened to quite a lot of books on CD in recent years.  Generally speaking, these books are not about Russian, since my local libraries don’t maintain specialized collections.  But now and again, I pick up a book about Russian and listen to that book.  I’ve read a biography of Catherine the Great and tried to reread Anna Karenina on CD for instance. 

Reading books on CD can be difficult.  One gets distracted, and loses one’s place.  I find that I can follow history better than fiction, since I tend to know enough about historical events to make up for any momentary distractions on the road.  I have also tried Russian history and literature in podcast format, and on video, but with a few notable exceptions, I have not found enough there to sustain me.  Recently, I have overcome my technological backwardness to do Russian books on Hoopla too.  So far, so good. I am often distracted, and sometimes wonder whether I haven’t read my Hoopla books too quickly, or too superficially.  However, Hoopla saves me some money, and allows me to “read” when I’m cooking, washing dishes, driving, or walking. 

My first Hoopla book was the Zhivago Affair:  The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.  The book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, chronicles one of the most famous incidents in modern Russian literary history, Pasternak’s controversial publication of Dr. Zhivago overseas.  The affair is relatively well-known to Russophiles, but Finn and Couvee have done an excellent job of describing the context of the event.  Clearly, the two authors think the publication of Zhivago reveals a great deal about post-Stalinist Soviet history, and post-Stalinist literary culture in particular.  The book's plot reveals that at least some Soviet intellectuals were able to rethink even the foundational events of the Soviet state, i.e., the Revolution and the Civil War.  The book's negative reception by Soviet publishers reveals how difficult it was for independent thinkers to get anything into print long after Stalin's death.

For me, The Zhivago Affair is primarily about fear.  The creation of the book reveals to Soviet and foreign readers alike that Soviet culture had somehow failed to crush Pasternak’s spirit.  However, its dismal reception by the Soviet literary establishment also reveals the extent to which fear and cowardice continued to permeate the Soviet intellectual world long after Stalin had disappeared from the scene.  People remembered what had happened to their friends and family under Stalin and went out of their way to be sure they were not in any way associated with Pasternak when he fell afoul of the authorities with Dr. Zhivago.  The book also demonstrates the extent to which Dr. Zhivago really did get picked up by American Cold Warriors—the CIA in particular—but the point of the Zhivago Affair is more about the lasting damage Stalinism did even when the Soviet people had re-entered vegetarian times. 

Again, reading The Zhivago Affair on Hoopla helped me read the book quickly, but I certainly wonder whether I wouldn't have retained more by encountering the print version.  Sometimes readers are forced to make a trade off between the quantity and quality of the reading they intend to do.  In this case, my sense of the book was definitely shaped by the audio experience.  I felt as if I had encountered the book in snapshots, with less continuity than I normally experience.  Looking back at my reading experience, I remember the authors' portrayal of Pasternak's famous phone call(s) to Stalin, their description of Pasternak's state-funded home and close circle of family (two primary companions) and friends (Akhmatova, Lydia C., etc.), their portrayal of complicated Italian, Swedish,  Russian, and American literary intrigues, their illustration of Pasternak's translation work (Shakespeare, etc.), their depiction of Pasternak's isolation, and their portrait of Pasternak's famous funeral.  Hoopla perhaps robbed me of the storyline but not the images of Pasternak's independence, creative integrity, and complicated and sometimes heroic relationship with an authoritarian regime.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trotsky in New York

Trotsky in New York

When I picked up Ackerman’s book, Trotsky in New York, I feared that it would be tremendously boring.  As a Russophile, I never relish the idea of spending too much time and attention on American history, even if that history deals with international socialism.  I thought in particular that Ackerman’s account of Trotsky’s six-month sojourn in New York would get mired in very technical and parochial details of New York politics.  Notwithstanding my fears, Ackerman’s book is anything but boring.  The excitement of this book stems in part from Ackerman’s exceptional writing abilities.  The book crackles with excitement, intrigue, controversy, and fascinating research.  As a writer, and as an expert in modern American history, Ackerman’s book commands the reader’s attention.  

But Trotsky in New York is also an important book. Its description of Trotsky on the edge of victory in Russia helps to put the Revolution its proper global context.  For Trotsky’s six-month stay in America demonstrate that the Russian revolutionary movement was firmly tethered to American history.  Thus, when Trotsky arrived from Spain in New York City, Ackerman reminds his reader that he was already famous as the hero of the 1905 Russian Revolution.  With such fame, Trotsky was able to make a serious challenge for hegemony in America’s Socialist Party even without the ability to communicate effectively in the English language.  Trotsky’s approach to American politics was, not surprisingly, unrelentingly radical.  That is to say, Trotsky proclaimed himself to be a radical not only in terms of mainstream American politics, but also in terms of the American socialist and labor traditions.  

Although Trotsky had previously criticized the Bolsheviks for their refusal to seek common ground with broader socialist political trends, once in America Trotsky made a bold attempt to force the American Socialist Party to advocate illegal actions against America’s effort to join Britain, France, and Old Regime Russia in the First World War.  Trotsky’s radicalism in America tells us a great deal about the man who would, along with Lenin, lead the Bolsheviks in their takeover as well as in the Civil War that followed.  Trotsky’s refusal to compromise with bourgeois Western society was precisely the type of ideological commitment that would lead to triumph in October and terror thereafter.  Trotsky’s popularity in New York, especially within the Jewish socialist circles that had been established in the wake of late nineteenth century tsarist pogroms Russia, tells us a great deal about global politics in 1917.   

The thinking behind Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” may not have been characteristic of a majority of Russians in 1917, but he did represent an important strain of thinking in Russia, as well as New York City.  In other words, if Trotsky made sense to men and women in New York City, an urban center far from the front lines of World War I, how much more seriously would Russians, who had already lost millions of men in battle, have taken him?  Ackerman’s book is therefore both biography and history.  Reading Trotsky in New York, one understands Trotsky’s many gifts.  In New York, Trotsky wrote constantly, agitated perpetually, and generally demonstrated intelligence, perseverance, fearlessness, and a talent for publicity.  He may also have demonstrated an inability to compromise or even moderate his pre-formed opinions.  

If Revolution made sense in Russia, it also made sense in America.  But Trotsky’s New York is also treated biographically in Ackerman’s book.  And Trotsky’s New York, despite its relative removal from the storm and stress of World War I, was ripe for change, new ideas, and extremism.  Even without the influence of European radicals, America’s working class thinkers were already fairly open to viewing the world in terms of class conflict. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War

"They say to me:  Well, memories are neither history nor literature:  They're simply life, full of rubbish and not tied up by the hand of an artist."  S.A.

Svetlana Alexievich has done something special in her career and certainly deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature she received in 2015.  When I read her book, Voices from Chernobyl:  The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, several years ago, I was awestruck, but didn't know how to characterize the experience.  What was it exactly that I had encountered with this small book?  In some ways, the book's witness testimonies about the Chernobyl disaster seemed almost too frightening to be believed.  There was an irony in the fact that the one author who approached the nuclear catastrophe by soliciting eye witness accounts of its impact on ordinary people seemed particularly unbelievable. That is to say, when you read Voices from Chernobyl, you are stunned by the way ordinary people are able to articulate the horror of their lived experience.  You assume only great authors could distill the essence of tragedy into such precise formulations.  In the introduction to Secondhand Time, Alexievich attempts to resolve the seeming paradox in her approach to history by claiming that there her job as oral historian is to discern when everyday speech is transformed into literature.  If we listen carefully enough, Alexievich seems to be arguing, even the most ordinary life becomes extraordinary.

In the Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, Alexievich demonstrates just how powerful her methodology can be on the way we remember or record the past.  Alexievich has in fact helped to refine our understanding of one of the most important events in either Russian/Soviet history or the history of the modern world:  World War II.  By including women in the story of World War II, Alexievich helps to enhance our understanding of what happened in the Soviet Union's titanic struggle with Nazi Germany.  Women were involved in many if not most aspects of the armed struggle with Germany, and this involvement extended to front-line combat operations both on land and in the air.  However, Alexievich is not content merely to include women in her history of World War II.  Rather, she seeks to use ordinary women's memories of their combat experience to get us closer to the actual, and therefore completely unromantic, conditions that existed on the front lines.

When she visited veterans, Alexievich wants to know everything about their experience in war, or at least their memories of that experience.  Doing her best to weed out the official version of the past, Alexievich seeks out deeply personal memories, whether or not these memories seem useful, appropriate, honorable, or heroic. Alexievich wants to know why women signed up for the war, what their families thought about their intention to volunteer, and what their first experiences in combat were like.  She also wants to know what women remembered most decades later.  She wants to know what stuck in their minds, even if these fixed memories revolved around very simple things, such as losing their to army barbers or experiencing menstruation in the middle of a battle.  She also wants to know how living with the memory of war affected their lives, or the lives of those around them.

Other quotes from the author about her methodology:

"I write not about war, but about human beings in war."

"I have to discern the eternally human in them.  The tremor of eternity.  That which is in human beings at all times."

"At least three persons participate in the conversation:  The one who is talking now, the one she was then, at the moment of the event, and myself."

"When you look back you feel a wish not only to tell about your life, but also to fathom the mystery of life itself.  To answer your own question:  Why did all this happen to me?"

"The neighbors' boy once asked me:  'What do people do under the ground?  How do they live there?'  We, too, wanted to unravel the mystery of war."

"War is first of all murder, and then hard work."

"I listen to the pain...Pain as the proof of past life.  There are no other proofs, I don't trust other proofs.  Words have more than once led us away from truth."

"I think of suffering as the highest form of information, having a direct connection with mystery.  With the mystery of life.  All of Russian literature is about that."

"I listen when they are silent...Both words and silence are the text for me."

"...our memory is far from an ideal instrument.  It is not only arbitrary and capricious, it is also chained to time, like a dog."

"They are still paralyzed not only by Stalin's hypnosis and fear, but also by their former faith.  They cannot stop loving what they used to love. Courage in war and courage in though are two different courages.  I used to think they were the same."

"We still do not know (or else forgot) that revolution is always an illusion, especially in our history."

"But the history of the war has been replaced by the history of the victory."

"I'm sorry for those who will read this book, and for those who won't..."

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


"What does it mean to say we want to be decent?  How can we be decent when we're in debt?" [Anna]

I recently posted about Chekhov in the context of an analysis of Russian attitudes toward boredom. Generally, speaking, my thoughts on the subject of Russian boredom were formed by reading Chekhov's most popular plays, including Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, and Three Sisters.  But recently I took up the less popular play, Platonov, as adapted by David Hare.  Platonov also deals with turn-of-the-century boredom.  Its characters also struggle with aristocratic attitudes toward work, and suffer from the absence of meaning that often pervades their lives of leisure.  When Platonov arrives in town, he asserts that he has survived a winter that felt like an "eternity" and could could only be compared to an "Antarctic of boredom."  Another character, Nikolai, is so bored it colors all of his other activities.  "What can I say?" asks Nikolai, "We talk.  We walk in the woods.  Is is boredom?  Is it love?"

But unlike Chekhov's other plays, Platonov sometimes reads like an Oscar Wilde play in terms of its wit, irony, and high comedy. Although Platonov ends in tragedy, its pages are filled with ferociously clever banter of the kind only found in The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere's Fan.  From an historical perspective, Platonov demonstrates that Russian literary elites were clearly participating in the same aesthetic moment that English or French ones were.  In Ellmann's magisterial biography of Wilde, the biographer once asserted that Wilde's genius was to make almost every received social truism seem ironic.  Chekhov was obviously interested in doing something similar, at least early in his career--at least in Platonov.

Chekhov's early play also demonstrates that gender was as much on the minds of Russian writers as it was on English ones.  The women who amorously pursue Platonov are, after all, expressing some form of agency by doing so.  In fact, their pursuit of the relatively passive playboy almost exactly reverse the traditional gender tropes of European literature culture.  While misogyny is often expressed by the plays' male protagonists, Chekhov's female characters are intelligent, active agents seeking to fulfill their own sexual and social needs, whatever the cost to traditional mores about domesticity.

The distinctively Russian elements of Platonov are revealed by the characters' obsessive guilt about their wealth, apparently stemming from some conscious or subconscious understanding that this wealth is either directly or indirectly founded on the poor.  Platonov attempt to deny this guilt only emphasizes its undeniable urgency :  "My life, like yours, depends on the labor of others.  Yet I look working men and women in the eye and feel no shame."

Throughout the play, Chekhov's characters' guilt about wealth is transformed into anger at moneylenders, ambivalence about money, and a constant preoccupation with debt. The concern about wealth (or its absence) is both personal and national.  In one scene, Anna's lender, Bugrov, tells her he "could paper the walls with her IOUs" and in another, Nikolai, asks "How many people did he swindle to mass that much?"  While Nikloi loathes money-lending, his own son confesses to crass materialism.  "I've lived only for possessions.  I've put money before everything else."  Nikloi also sees the problem of debt transcends his personal circumstances and laments "they say Russia's bankrupt."  The characters also invest some of their anxiety about money into antisemitism.  Abraham notes the paradox of the situation.  "Jews are condemned all the time.  Why?  Because they are willing to lend money.  Meanwhile, Russians refuse and they escape censure.  Explain this to me."

One of Chekhov's characters reminds the others, "All happiness is built on the unhappiness of others." Platonov's view of Russian society is filled with references to thievery and brigandage.  On one occasion Platonov asserts that the governing principle in Russian life is that "crooks dies in the forest but they prosper in the drawing room."  On another occasion Platonov causally asks a guest:  "By the way, just asking, but why aren't you in prison at the moment?" On a third occasion, Platonov describes the Russian archetypal man as a sort of conquistador.  "Osip, the true Russian hero: The headless peasant, the fabulous warlord, up to his elbows in crime, blood, bone, gut."

Of course, Platonov's characters have many reasons to be anxious about money.  Guilt is one source of anxiety, but so is economic and technological change.  In turn of the century Russian, all sorts of changes are undermining the future of superfluous men and women. Porfori sees indecisive, Hamlet-like Platonov as an endangered literary type.  "I see him as the hero of a Russian novel," argues Porfori. And as you know, Russian novels are the worst in the world...He's a brilliant man.  But he exemplifies the modern vagueness, the modern malaise. No point, no purpose."  This type of indecisiveness may not survive into the twentieth century.

Here are just a few favorite quotes from the play:

Anna:  "Good for her.  That pointy little nose:  She'll make an excellent scientist."

Anna:  "It's the local epidemic.  indecisiveness. My advice would be marry her or leave her--one thing or the other--but nothing in between."

Ann:  "Don't rely on your own intelligence.  In your case, it's the worst mistake you could make."

Nikolai:  "A man who sees it as his mission in life to tell women they're stupid."

Nikolai:  "God deliver us from the curse of nostalgia!"

Platonov:  " All I hope is you haven't married a stupid woman.  That's the worst kind of hell."

"Platonov:  "This is a man who died at peace with his own stupidity."

Sasha:  "He sends his regards."
Ivan:  "Really?"
Sergei:  "I think she means it metaphorically."

Ivan:  "May the Lord forgive me for what I say now, but emancipated women are the best.  Guns in their hands, and the whiff of cordite on their flesh!"

Platonov: "Have you been drinking already, Colonel?"
Ivan:  "Drinking?  What else should I do?"

Nikolai:  "What does the heat mean?  What does it portend?"

Porfiri:  "You think this garden is ravishing.  Sofia, I assure you, my garden is infinitely superior.  My river is deeper, and I also have exceptional horses."

Anna:  "Typical Platonov.  He goes nowhere, yet he known everyone."

Platonov:  "Russia, you see?  Everyone their own theory.  Even the thieves have theories."

Platonov:  "Nobody looks.  Nobody thinks.  Nobody sees.  We go through life and we don't see."

Platonov:  "Think about it:  She's stupid and I'm worthless. In other words, we're perfectly matched."

Anna:  "Come and eat your lunch, you lazy parasites."

Nikolai:  "Did you get all that?"
Platonov: "The drift.  I got the drift."

Nikolai:  "And what's more--let me remind you--in theory I'm in love with her."

Platonov:  "And also, let's face it, we can't altogether ignore it:  I am slightly married."

Anna:  "He sounds like a male novelist making love to a female novelist."

Porfiri:  "I was born to admire great deeds, and yet to squander myself on a mas of trivial ones."

Porfiri:  "Why does Platonov do it?  And all without purpose.  One day he insults them.  Next day he apologizes."
Anna:  "He's from the ruling class.  That's what the ruling class does."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time

Svetlana Alexievich writes in Secondhand Time that she looks for those moments in everyday life that are in the process of becoming literature.  In truth, I didn't need the nobel prize winner's description of her craft to explain that her carefully selected interviews frequently demonstrate that ordinary people are capable of expressing themselves in beautiful, poetic, and timeless ways.  Again and again, Second Time reveals that average men and women can tell a stories that can compete with the great works of Russian literature in terms of their impact on the human heart.  In fact, some of the testimonies or oral histories that Alexievich records might seem almost too perfectly expressed to work in a modern drama.  Critics would no doubt applaud the poetic or prophetic power of the characters' monologues, but then go on to critique the playwrights' overly stylized or mannered lines.  Critics would accept the lines from Sophocles, Shakespeare, or perhaps even Racine, but never from Williams, O'Neil, or Mamet.  Alexievich gives us the tragedy of the banal and shows that even quotidian life--at least in Russia--is worthy of every once of eloquence contained within human speech.

Alexievich's book of seemingly random snippets of memory is truly literary, but it does also serve as the unofficial or secret history of the Soviet Union.  Free from official history, Secondhand Time allows readers to come to see the Soviet Union in all of its complexity.  For ordinary Soviet cities, the Soviet Union was both a murderous empire and a land of optimism, transnational solidarity, intellectualism, and stability.  

Secondhand Time reveals a Janus-faced Soviet experience in which men and women were both stifled by authoritarianism and comforted by communist ideals.  Secondhand Time isn't really about causality, but it does help to explain the deep disenchantment felt by so many Soviet citizens who were introduced to capitalism, and the West, in such a brutal way.  As bad as the Soviet Union may have been, even many enthusiastic supporters of reform would come to miss the stability it at least sometimes provided its citizens.  

Secondhand Time offers us a nuanced explanation of Soviet nostalgia by approaching the Soviet experience from an almost dialectical perspective in which ordinary people's positive and negative memories collide with one another to create a sort of new and transcendent historical synthesis of contradictory concepts.  The Soviet state oppressed people, but it also gave them ideals and an almost religious sense of meaning.  In its absence, formally Soviet citizens came to realize that they had lost a great deal, including superpower status, interethnic peace, relative equality, full employment, and shared rites related to World War II and communist education.  

The specific stories that make up this wonderfully moving book are largely centered on tragedy.   Taken from almost every phase of the Soviet experiment, these tragedies include gulag experiences, Civil War atrocities, World War II battles, Stalin's Great Terror, ethnic wars, military hazing, Afghanistan, and--above all--post-communist economic chaos.  But each tale of tragedy reveals some element of happiness.  After all, tragedy perhaps only really makes sense in the context of displaced happiness.  In a sense, happiness a kind of natural frame for the artwork of despair and disaster.  In fact, tragedy even helps you to finally realize what happiness (or the absence of tragedy) really looks like.

Secondhand Time shows us that Soviet citizens may have often been critical of their former government, but they also came to depend on it.  The Soviet government was never perfect, but it did give its citizens rituals, rites of passage, collective experiences, a sacred calendar of communist and national holidays, and a philosophy to oppose to some of the more exploitative aspects of capitalism and materialism.   The Soviet Union made some people feel safe, powerful, dignified, connected, and important.  But even those who hated communism, and eventually protested against it, often gained something even in the act of opposing its ideology.  Soviet citizens who opposed the government, however discretely, participated in a meaningful counter culture of books, jokes, ideas, poems, and songs.  Once the empire collapsed, the intelligentsia was surprised to discover that their world too quickly dissolved.  Into the vacuum stepped Russian mobsters, political strongman, thieves, conmen, speculators, businesspeople, etc.  One telling story describes how people with doctorates were forced to sell jars of cigarette butts to survive. As it turned out, in the post-Soviet world, dissidents were given even less political or creative space than they had previously occupied.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Platonov's Soul

In the translator's introduction to Andrei Platonov's novella, Soul, Robert Chandler makes the bold claim that Platonov will one day become known as Russia's greatest prose stylist, the analog to Pushkin's role in the world of Russian poetry.  The claim is bold but I read Chandler's introduction only after I had completed the work itself and come to the same conclusion.  In the past couple of years, I have encountered several of Platonov's works almost haphazardly, but each time my appreciation for the Soviet author has deepened immeasurably.  Only several weeks ago I read several of Platonov's plays.  This time I was left wondering why Platonov hadn't received more credit as a forerunner to many of the twentieth century's many other brilliant European modernists.  The plays were funny, sardonic, and strangely futuristic.  They also seemed to capture the essential absurdity of Soviet ideology and language while somehow indicting the whole of modern European civilization.

Even so, I left the plays thinking that perhaps Platonov was a wonderfully talented niche writer who, sadly, hadn't been productive enough, or free enough, to really make his mark in modern letters.  I had read the Foundation Pit and been deeply impressed by the author's intentionally elliptical style, which somehow reminded me of Joseph Conrad, who always wanted to tell you something about the limits of language.  But again, I thought the work was perhaps too short to justify any grandiloquent claims on the author's behalf.  Platonov could have been a major writer, I thought, if only he had lived in a society that recognized and encouraged his talent, or if only he had a more human subject matter than Soviet bureaucratic violence.  I suppose deep down I thought that socialist realism had killed genius in Soviet Russia, or that the scale of violence in Russia permitted no truly humane literary treatments of Soviet life.

At any rate, with all this in mind, Platonov's Soul came as a shock to me.  The short novel is a depiction of a lonely Soviet hero in search of his mother, his wandering Central Asian nation, and meaning itself.  The work is overwhelming tragic.  In fact, I think I have never read a sadder book.  Soul does have something to say about Soviet life.  It mentions Stalin from time to time, and always juxtaposes Moscow's modernity with the almost neolithic life of his wandering kind fold in Central Asia.  In a sense, the book could perhaps be seen as replicating a kind of postcolonial logic, with Communist Russians representing progress, and his protagonist's "nation" of misfit individuals from desperate ethnicities representing a primitive past.  However, Platonov's empathy for his protagonist and all of his characters is almost supernatural.  Someone once said that Tolstoy was such a brilliant novelist because he had so much empathy he could basically cry for the fate of a horse he encountered.

The quote applies to Tolstoy but also points to why Platonov was also a truly brilliant novelist.  Platonov not only affords us the opportunity of understanding his desperately poor and downtrodden characters, he does this by forcing us over and over again to get to know and feel the sad plight of all living things, including many dozens of animals.  I thought of the Tolstoy quote many times as Platonov forced me to think deeply, and feel deeply, about a long series of animals in the desolate landscape, including birds of prey, dogs, and sheep.  In fact, it's almost impossible not to cry when Platonov describes the inner life of a camel his protagonist encounters.  The author's extended interest in animals is no accidental literary device.  The point of the repeated exercise in uncanny empathy must be that he intends all of his readers to understand life at his deepest, most primordial, almost animalistic level:  we live, we suffer, and we die.  Soul is a deep meditation on the nature of suffering, but somehow it isn't really merely tragic.  In fact, I would say that Platonov wants us to suffer so much with his characters that we somehow come through with him to the other side, and see that joy is somehow the other side of tragedy, that life itself is too profound to be treated in any simple or one-dimensional way.

The translator tells us that Platonov was full of ironies or dichotomies, and that his secularism was strangely religious.  This seems to be an apt description of his project in Soul, to make us look at ordinary life through the eye of a Jesus, Muhammad, or Buddha.  There is no sharp distinction between life and death Platonov seems to say, or even between different people, or perhaps between people and animals.  We exist.  We are connected.  Platonov's says the same thing in almost a hundred different but equally profoundly novel ways, but his description of people who are essentially dead already ultimately makes the point that there really isn't all that much difference between being dead and being alive:  even in a Soviet Russia--or perhaps especially in a Soviet Russia--everything is, and remains, Soul.

The Revolution in the Netherlands

I have just spent two weeks in the Netherlands.  I went there as part of an international exchange program.  The trip had very little to do with revolutionary history, but I can of course never stop thinking about the Russian Revolution or Russian history in general.  This being so, I read Platonov's excellent novella, Soul, while there, thought about Peter the Great's sojourns in the lowlands, and attended an exhibit on the Russian Revolution at Amsterdam's Hermitage Museum.

The exhibit was excellent, although it emphasized the fate of the royal family and slightly deemphasized social forces.  The exhibit included photographs, artwork, sculptures, propaganda pieces, and royal household artifacts.  Overall, the exhibit made the story of the Russian Revolution into a morality tale about the czar's stupidity, and perhaps martyrdom.  The gift shop reemphasized the theme of victimhood, since the museum goer could purchase mugs and magnets that depicted royal family members but no revolutionaries were on display.  This is probably appropriate.  The exhibit told the story of a family who were ultimately murdered.  However, the story of the Revolution should probably transcend the story of the last monarch, as compelling as that story may be.  At any rate, the exhibit showed the tsar's movement from international playboy, to groom, to father, to reluctant ruler, to oppressive despot, to bungling war leader, to private citizen, to victim.  The exhibit also made the interesting point that the tsar had used his lovely children as fashion icons in order to reinforce the glamour and prestige of his autocratic power.  The massacre at Khodynyka Fields in 1896 is represented. Rasputin makes his appearance.  The czar's confinement homes are there.

This exhibit was a reasonably emotional experience for me, as its promoters no doubt intended it to me.  The previous day I had also thought about revolution though.  I arrived in Amsterdam in the midst of soccer mania, with me walking the streets just as Amsterdam's soccer club went to war with Manchester United in Stockholm for the European championship.  As game time arrived, the city began to fill up.  I started to think that this city frenzy resembled the revolutionary impulse on some level.  Helen Rapport's recent book on Revolution describes revolutionary excitement in this way:  as a swirling chaos of excitement.  As the game began, people were everywhere, and policy were present in large numbers.  Although the crowds ultimately remained friendly, and turned morose rather than violent as Manchester emerged victorious, one knew that revolutions often begin in similar ways.  The crowds grow, and although the city has a center, nobody can be certain where, exactly, the center of the crowd will be at any moment.  That night in Amsterdam fireworks went off from time to time, scaring people momentarily, but turning easily to merriment when the sound was identified.  This recurring sound again made me think of revolution, with moving crowd members never quite certain whether a noise might be violence or merriment.  In a revolutionary crowd, each stare between crowd members is both social compact and masculine challenge.  In fact, part of the reason revolutions may sometimes break out is that swirling crowds are, perhaps, sometimes both too masculine and too young.  Although the Russian Revolution was set off by female marchers, the Amsterdam crowd youth and masculinity seemed to make it especially threatening.  Young men marched in large groups, angrily singing their soccer war anthems, expecting others to join in (defying others to avoid joining in?).  At one point I was in the Rijksmuseum quietly observing the masterpieces, when the raucous crowds outside began shouting soccer chants.  I couldn't help but think this was the bourgeois notables must have experienced in St. Petersburg, as they attended the theatre or ate dinner at a cafe, even as the mobs began to ebb and flow around town.

Tarqi Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin

For more than a decade I’ve been reading about the Russian Revolution, but, with some element of irony, I have to confess that I have seldom read many modern Marxist accounts of the event.  This deficiency was somewhat remedied by my recent encounter with Tariq Ali’s new book, The Dilemmas of Lenin, which approaches the Revolution and Lenin’s biography from an unapologetically Marxist point of view.  Ali’s book provided me with an excellent framework for judging the Russian revolutionary tradition on its own terms.  Ali’s Lenin almost always makes the right decisions about politics.  According to Ali, Lenin was rightly appalled both by colonial rapaciousness and the First World War and therefore made a series of decisions to make no compromises in the struggle to take power from both autocratic and liberal Russia.  On a human level, Ali’s Lenin is extremely sympathetic.  While he may well have been polemical, his style of politics was born of personal pain (i.e., the execution of his older brother) and rendered necessary the brutality of the system he opposed. 
            The downside of Ali’s description of Lenin is that it never completely leaves behind the hagiographic Soviet tradition he pretends to reject.  For Ali thinks Lenin was right on almost every theoretical and tactical decision he ever made.  To be sure, Lenin was a strategist of undeniable genius.  Lenin created the conditions for the victory of the Bolsheviks in fratricidal socialist conflict.   He helped to turn Russian radicals away from individual acts of terror and toward organized resistance to autocracy.  He pushed the Bolsheviks to successfully seize power in October.  He correctly realized that the Brest-Litovsk Treaty would guarantee the survival of the Revolution. He worked with Trotsky and others to organize the Bolsheviks for civil war.  He used the NEP interlude to give the Soviet economy some breathing space.  And he even seems to have made some relatively prescient predictions about Stalin and Soviet bureaucracy at the end of his life.  In terms of theory, Ali thinks Lenin also deserves praise. Ali thinks Lenin made valuable contributions to Marxist Theory, especially in terms of strengthening Hobson’s argument about the links between colonialism and capitalism.  
            Ali’s take on Lenin is extremely persuasive.  His well-informed, readable book will help overturn many stereotypes about the man that are driven more by the results of Stalinism than by Lenin’s real personal characteristics.  While Lenin’s political decisions may have had disastrous consequences for Russia, this does not necessarily mean that Lenin wasn’t a richly human figure.  Contrary to many historical accounts, Lenin loved at least one woman deeply (i.e., his mistress), listened to music, read poetry (he preferred Pushkin to Mayakovski), empathized with the suffering of others, maintained lasting friendships, and sometimes admitted wrongdoing.  Ali’s book also helps non-Marxists acknowledge that Lenin’s October Revolution wasn’t a coup d’etat as it is frequently portrayed.  Although the Bolshevik takeover wasn’t democratic, Bolsheviks had a great deal of concentrated support in Russia’s largest two cities, and their party appealed to Russian workers for a variety of very good reasons, including their support for immediate peace with the Central Powers.
            To sum up, Ali’s book helped me to see Lenin as so many of his supporters must have seen him, not as a brutal sectarian but as a practical man who wanted to be sure a revolution finally actually succeeded in both taking and maintaining power.  Indeed, even some of Lenin's most controversial decisions may make more sense when the socialist alternatives are examined in more detail.  Most importantly, if most European socialists were actively supporting nationalist governments at war, what obligation did a convinced Marxist have to include them in their counsels? Could any reasonable socialist have expected a communist government to be worse for people than the previous regimes had been?  Lenin was also naturally concerned that the Russian Revolution would succumb to counterrevolution just as the Paris Commune had done.  For this reason, a socialist might be forgiven for going to extraordinary measures to defend whatever revolutionary advances had been made.  In any event, Ali's book places Lenin firmly within a long radical tradition, and places his decisions within a global context.  For better or worse, the third Russian Revolution of the twentieth century was the first successful socialist revolution in the world.
             Ali doesn’t deal directly with Stalinism at all, and implies that only the Civil War led the Bolshevik Party to jettison civil rights and healthy intra-party debates.  Unconvincingly, Ali seems to think that if only Trotsky had bested Stalin after Lenin’s death, all might have been well in Soviet politics.  (What is more, he make the unconvincing traditional Marxist argument that fascism is merely liberal capitalism seeking to defend itself from communism).  Although Lenin the man may be partly forgiven for not anticipating that Soviet terror could or would actually exceed liberal European bellicosity, his milieu’s disastrous disregard for democratic and liberal civil rights traditions deserves extended comment.