Monday, December 4, 2017

Mikhail Zygar's The Empire Must Die

Mikhail Zygar's The Empire Must Die:  Russia's Revolutionary Collapse, 1900- 1917 is an astounding book.  Zygar's prose is extraordinarily dynamic, and his use of the present tense to describe the run up to revolution helps to create a climate of drama, uncertainty, and suspense. We experience The Empire Must Die as contemporaries must have experienced the turn of the century, a period of time filled with possibility but fraught with danger.  In some ways, Zygar's time frame help to explain the book's narrative force.  If we don't read history backward, and don't expect revolutionary fervor to degenerate into Stalinist totalitarianism, we are left free to experience all of the vertiginous chaos of Nicholas II's tumultuous reign.  Zygar's plethora of presentist footnotes also lend urgency to the tale of Russia's authoritarian plunge into modernity.  Drawing frequent analogies between Nicholas II's reign and Putin's era might sometimes seem misplaced or even misleading.  Clearly, neither Witte nor Stolypin operated in the same context as Putin. However, the anti-Putin footnotes help readers to understand the contemporary relevance of this particularly important period in Russia's modern history. 

To read The Empire Must Die, is to be persistently surprised.  Page by page, one discovers or rediscovers the sturm und drang of the period and revisits some of the most important events in the shaping of the modern world.  This was an era of dynastic intrigue, political innovation, colonial conflict, diplomatic realignment, war, violent anti-semitism, revolution, terrorism, unrivaled aesthetic creativity, and labor unrest.  It was an era of class conflict, ideological warfare, resurgent nationalism, and religious uncertainty.  It was a time of emperors, empresses, and grand-dukes, as well as by strikers, playwrights, and rabble-rousers.  It was a time of political and aesthetic experimentation. 

The personalities of pre-revolutionary Russia (and Zygar includes the diaspora in his definition of Russia) are as dynamic as revolutionary Russia, and included Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Witte, Stolypin, Lenin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Lvov, Benois, Chernov, Azef, Gotz, Gapon, Struve, Martov, Yusopev, Tsereteli, Stravinsky, Gippius, Kerensky, Milyukov, and Rasputin.

Overall, The Empire Must Die argues that Russia on the eve of the First World War was even more fragile than one might imagine based on the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.  While perhaps nothing is ever foreordained, Russia's politics were perhaps as unstable as they could have been. They were a strange and deadly mix of dilettante authoritarianism and democratic aspiration.  As Zygar portrays matters, Nicholas II, the royal family, and the secret policy, were all dangerously disconnected from Russian civil society.  Hunted by terrorists, the royal family made some overtures to ultra-orthodox, anti-Semitic nationalist sentiment, but never really forged robust relationships with any particular class in society.  Indeed, Nicholas II's own relatives were not always entirely reliable, and certainly he was never able to demonstrate political loyalty to any particular proactive minster or group of engaged politicians.  The moral and political confusion of the time are perhaps best illustrated by the complicated relations between the tsar's secret police and their alleged enemies, the Social Revolutionaries and other terrorist groups.  According to Zygar, it was often difficult to tell the two groups apart.  In  part, the confusion stemmed from the regime's interest in sponsoring double agents or creating loyalist labor unions.  Thus, Gapon was simultaneously both ally and enemies of Nicholas II's government. In part, the confusion stemmed from the moral equivalency of the two groups, each committed to using violence to promote its own fundamentally antidemocratic aims. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Helen Rappaport's The Romanov Sisters

Like her other excellent books on modern Russian history, Helen Rappaport's book, The Romanov Sisters:  The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, is extremely well-written and well-researched.  In fact, Rapport is clearly right at home in the pre-revolutionary Russia, and has no trouble tracking the lives of the five young women whose died so tragically at the hands of their Bolshevik executioners. If there can be any criticism of this book, it is only that the semi-private lives of these innocent young ladies does not reveal all that much about either Russian society or the revolutionary trends that were soon to engulf the ancien regime. 

To be sure, Rappaport's book covers the entire reign of Nicholas and Alexandra, and gives readers a reasonable treatment of the autocracy's slide toward disaster.  It also discusses dynastic relationships, World War I, Rasputin, and the tsarevich's physical vulnerability.  But the young ladies don't really play all that significant a part in the political life of Russia.  They were symbols of the autocracy, and their beauty was sometimes exploited to shore up the image of their often unpopular father and mother.  However, they rarely made decisions of note, so their story is largely a story of symbolism or mythology.  Certainly, readers will always be curious about how such a wealthy and powerful family could wind up dead in a cellar.  But the ordinary lives of these young ladies isn't really the story we must follow. 

Douglass Smith's biography of Rasputin actually offers a better way to write biographies like these.  According to Smith, the story of Rasputin is as much about the lies or gossip people told about the man as it is about his actual story-line.   What did Rasputin represent to different classes in Russia, either before or during the First World War?  And why was a man like Rasputin allowed into the inner chambers of power?  These questions are worth investigating, even if Rasputin's personal antics weren't so enthralling.  The same may be true of the Romanov sisters.  They may deserve this well-written biography, but history also deserves an extended treatment on what the women represented to others, however poorly this representation reflected their real lives.  Mikhail Zygar's book, The Empire Must Die, offers one a sense of how absolutely dreadful Nicholas II and Alexandra were, both in terms of their decision-making, and in terms of what they represented to the Russian intelligentsia, as well as the Russian peasants and Russian ethnic minorities.  Nicholas and Alexandra were living symbols of oppression, anti-antisemitism, bureaucracy, stultified thinking, violence, incompetence, inequality, etc.  Thus, if one really wants to know more about Russia's imperial family, one might start with a book like The Empire Must Die.  While Rappaport is right to assert that Nicholas II was a great family man, it's probably more important to note that he was a criminally naive, criminally incompetent, and criminally indecisive.  After all, it was Nicholas and Alexandra's folly, and the folly the autocracy represented, that at least partly led to the Revolution that Rapport's documented so well in her next book, Caught in the Whirlwind, reviewed recently by Soviet Roulette.

Tolstoy's Resurrection

When preparing to read the book, Resurrection, I read some of the reader comments on Amazon. 
I think one reader said that the book helped him to understand the Russian Revolution. I think what he meant was that Tolstoy's depiction of a woman caught up in the courts (and later the prison system), helped him to understand just how bloated, corrupt, and alienating the Russian bureaucracy could be in the late 19th or early 20th century.   At any rate, Tolstoy's Resurrection is also a nice synthesis between the first and second phases of Tolstoy's writing career.  Although the book is overtly Christian, and has a clear didactic purpose, its treatment of the protagonist is nuanced, humane, empathetic, and complex.  Like all of the characters in Tolstoy's best novels, Resurrection's protagonist is filled with complicated, many-layered emotional and intellectual responses to every major decision he confronts.  Didactic or not, Resurrection allows us to understand how even the simplest moral choices turn out to be Matryoshka dolls, filled with other, increasingly intricate moral dilemmas.  More than anything, Tolstoy's Resurrection reminds that his turn toward Christian writing should not be regarded as a descent from the stylistic heights of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  Like any of his other earlier books, Resurrection is powerfully written, the product of sustained and serious thinking. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Orwell's Homage to Catalonia

This blog would be remiss if it did not at least touch upon George Orwell's view of communism in the Twentieth Century. I have been a fan of George Orwell for many, many years.  I remember writing a freshman year paper on Orwell, comparing the protagonist of 1984, Winston Smith, with "every-man" protagonists in Burmese Days and Coming Up For Air.   Like many Americans, some of my earliest opinions of communism were shaped by Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm.  Although I hope to revisit both books, I am sure that the overall effect of the two polemical works was to reinforce my faith in liberal democracy. 

Recently, I decided to give Orwell's famous treatment of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, a chance.  The book was slightly underwhelming to me.  Perhaps this is merely because I prefer Orwell's fiction to his nonfiction.  I admit that Homage to Catalonia seems slightly ahead of its time, a sort of precursor to Mailer's Armies of the Night, or Capote's In Cold Blood. It's a piece of gonzo journalism avante la lettre. It also fills the reader with personal admiration for Orwell, who, like the characters in Hemingway's novel, demonstrates personal bravery in the Spanish Civil War, and teaches us how to combine intellectual activity with physical heroism.

More impressive than Orwell's willingness to expose himself to fascist bullets, is his willingness to write honestly about his own personal foibles, the foibles of his comrades, and the foibles of the leaders of Spanish and international communism.  Orwell's book is more critical of Stalinist forces than of Franco and his army.  For Orwell, representatives of Stalin and Moscow ruthlessly betrayed their allies, covered up their crimes, and aided and abetted the enemies of working men and women.  Of course, the deadly, duplicitous turn against erstwhile allies fighting a fascist or fascist-friendly regime is inherently appalling. Moreover, knowing what we know know about Soviet totalitarianism makes this betrayal particularly poignant.  However, within the text, one can catch a glimpse of the logic of the Third Internationale. After all, even logically minded communists could be led to assume that the movement required unanimity to survive in the face of sustained conservative and fascist attacks.  Who in Spain was actually an ally?  Who was working clandestinely for the bourgeoisie or their fascist friends?   With the Soviet Union acting as one of the only clear cut national champions of Spanish Republicans, it would have taken a lot to see through Stalinist paranoia.  Fortunately, Orwell was both courageous and clear-sighted. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Revolutsiia Demonstratsiia: Soviet Art Put to the Test

After visiting the small but excellent Soviet art display at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum, I was overwhelmed with the size and variety of the Art Institute of Chicago's exhibit on Soviet art, entitled Revolutsiia Demonstratsiia:  Soviet Art Put to the Test.  Like the Smart Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago has done an excellent job of displaying Soviet artistic trends in all their originality and variety.  After visiting the display, it's difficult not to get a sense of the extent to which artistic innovation was intertwined with political innovation.

The Art Institute has, understandably, created a much more impactful display than its University of Chicago counterpart, if only because its exhibit enormous. The Art Institute's exhibit displays Soviet architectural drawings, magazine covers, avant-garde pieces, theater sets, propaganda posters, furniture, and porcelain figures.  The overall effect is to demonstrate that early Soviet artists were able to experiment with both form and content in the service of the revolutionary impulse.  The exhibit also demonstrates that even totalitarian regimes can continue to generate well-designed art.  Even if Soviet art was often dedicated to the glorifications of party leaders, it remained vital and dynamic.  After its initial burst of creativity, the exhibit suggests that Soviet art seems to have settled down to some relative stable tropes.  These included the importance of ordinary workers to Soviet production, the extent to which women contribute to the efficiency of the economy, the achievement of the Soviet Union in creating a truly multinational or multiethnic political entity, and the omnipresence of technology in the Soviet present.

More than anything, I came away from the Soviet exhibit thinking about the universal nature of creativity.  From an anthropological point of view, all societies seem to generate high quality art. The exhibit's catalog is almost as good as the exhibit itself, and is well-worth the purchase price.  My favorite piece in the exhibit was a chess set that posed villainous bourgeois pieces against heroic, hardworking proletarians.

Alexander Ostrovsky's A Profitable Position

I've recently been caught up trying to catch up with theater.  To this end, I've been building my collection of plays, both Russian and non-Russian.  I've read or reread much of Shakespeare, especially the tragedies, and spent some time on August Wilson and other modern playwrights.  With respect to this blog, I've posted recently on Chekhov and Platonov and stumbled on a few other Russian playwrights.  One glaring omission in my reading has been Alexander Ostrovsky.  I know little about either the man or his works, but finally decided to do something about this omission by reading Ostrovsky's A Profitable Position.

At first, I found the language of this mid-19th century play to be a little too formal, stiff, and dated.  It's themes seemed modern, but the language and structure seemed trapped between modern and pre-modern sensibilities.  However, by the time I had finished the play I was completely enthralled with the importance of the play's themes, the modernity of its conflicts, and the incredible tension that had developed between its characters.  A modern reader can't help but be struck by the fact that Ostrovsky's play prefigures Turganev's novel, Father's and Sons.  The conflict between a corrupt but successful uncle and a noble but impoverished nephew is a powerful dramatic engine.  The nephew strives to leverage youth, education, and idealism, against his uncle's experience, cynical wisdom, and venality.

The almost mythological power of the father-son conflict is supplemented by the author's critique of traditional roles.  Here, the author makes a sophisticated attempt to link societal corruption in the public sphere with societal corruption in the private sphere.  If men are tempted to steal in the public sphere, it is largely because they are expected to use stolen funds to provide consumer goods to females in the private sphere.  The critique is redolent of Engels' critique of bourgeois marriage.  Like Engels, Ostrovsky suggests that the ethics of marriage often resemble the ethics of prostitution.  The most impressive component of Ostrovsky's critique--which never completely releases women from a dependent gender role--is that he demonstrates the extent to which both men and women replicate the ideology of prostitution.  Young girls ask their husbands to buy them things to adore themselves in polite society, but their mothers teach them to do so.  And men seem only too happy to purchase the love and respect of their brides, as for example when the old male lead of the play, Vyshnevsky, showers gifts on his young bride in order to convince her to marry him, and remain intimate with him, despite her understandable disinterest in him.

The play's ending is optimistic.  Vshnevsky is publicly shamed, prosecuted for his venality, and ultimately suffers a stroke.  His foil, the youthful Zhadov, stumbles, but recovers his dignity, and decides that all of his philosophical training should be put into practice at any cost.   The optimism seems a little sappy to the modern ear.  However, its dramatic effect is heightened by the author's sympathy for the old Russia.  While the author knows corruption is wrong, he understands why even good characters, like the protagonist Zhadov, are drawn to it.  Modern readers may also see a hint of revolutionary tragedy in the whole affair.  While Russia's youth would continue to oppose ideological purity to Ancien Regime corruption, the cure would turn out to be worth than the disease.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Revolution Every Day

Today, while watching my children play basketball in Hyde Park, I realized that the Smart Museum, only two blocks away from the baseball courts, was hosting an exhibition on Soviet art.  That said, I had no other choice than to quickly duck into the exhibit.  The exhibit was well worth my trip of two blocks, but is also probably worth a visit from any quarter of the city of Chicago or its environs.  Taking its queue from Sheila Fitzpatrick's phrase, "everyday Stalinism," the exhibit focuses on how the Soviet revolutionary project, especially as that project related to femininity.  Focusing almost exclusively on state-sponsored poster art, the exhibit demonstrates that the state was acutely concerned with the role of women in the society it hoped to build.  Perhaps it would even be fair to say that the state was anxious about that role. If the artists' work was any guide, the Soviet Union was deeply interested in ensuring that Soviet women were fully incorporated into its economy.  Soviet propaganda sought to demonstrate to women that they could fulfill almost any technical role available to Soviet citizens, including welding, tractor driving, and pilots.  Soviet women also needed to parents, and happy ones at that.  Thus, women in Soviet posters are sometimes depicted as mechanics, but also sometimes portrayed as idealized mothers. The overall effect of the exhibition is to demonstrated the extent to which Soviet art mobilized avant-garde aesthetics to introduce or reinforce a specific ideology of gender.

ASEES Conference

Although this blog is the product of amateurism, I have often wondered what the Association of Eastern European and Eurasian Studies annual conference looks like.  This year, with the conference only twenty minutes from my campus in downtown Chicago, I felt obligated to finally attend.  The experience of sitting in professional panels and roundtables was both exhilarating and intimating.  I realized how of course how far my blog is from anything even approaching original research.  In fact, I was once again reminded of the character in Don DeLillo's short novel, White Noise, who founds the interdisciplinary field of Hitler Studies but can't read a word of German.

In any event, it was good to see how scholars of Russia and the Soviet Union talk to one another.  Intimidated by the erudition and professional expertise of both the presenters and the attendees, I scarcely asked a question of anyone.  In fact, with some discomfiture I realized how community college students must feel when they enter my office, the office of a dean, with little prior postsecondary experience.

On the bright side, it was wonderful to be at this conference in the centenary year of the Revolution, and to hear Laura Engelstein and other major scholars discuss the historiography of 1917 at this particularly significant moment in time.  I was particularly impressed by panels on nationalism in Eastern Europe in 1918,  masculinity in the Soviet Union of the postwar era, and biographies that cross the revolutionary divide.

When I told my wife, a well-published professor of electrical engineering, of my experience at the conference, she asked me why I had attended at all.  Her point was that professional conferences are usually geared toward specialists rather than community college administrators who spoke not a lick of Russian and hadn't taught a class in several years, and had in fact never taught a specialized class in Russian history.  She of course had a point, and certainly I immediately wondered whether it would make sense to attend again, insofar as I didn't even know enough attendees to network properly.  On the other hand, coming home from the conference, I reflected on that fact that writing this blog has at least positioned me as the kind of generalist who could comfortably attend sessions in a variety of areas on all manner of subjects.  Being a generalist doesn't lead to publications, but it can perhaps make for an enjoyable conference experience.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Abraham Ascher's Russia: A Short History

This blog focuses on the twentieth century, but makes frequent forays into the nineteenth century for context.  From time to time, it's also necessary to delve into Russia's earlier history, if only to scan the centuries for themes and patterns.  To this end, I recently read Abraham Ascher's survey of Russian history, Russia:  A Short History.  The book reads like a textbook but certainly gives its readers a nice overview of the entire sweep of Russian history.   It covers the origins of the Russian state, the Mongol invasion and occupation, Ivan the Terrible's chaotic reign, the Time of Troubles, Peter the Great's violence and westernizing policies, peasant rebellion under Catherine the Great, the Crimean War, Nicholas II's folly, the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalinism, the Cold War, Glasnost and Perestroika, and even the Putin era return to autocratic traditions.  The book is centered squarely on political history, and spends its time on the Russia's tsars and their post revolutionary analogues.  Russia: A Short History is not a book about social or cultural history.  It offers no hint of "history from the ground up."  Morever, Ascher's take on Russian history offers very few original insights into Russian history.  It is rather a synthesis of scholarship about Russia.  And this synthesis suggests that many scholars still see Russian history as a tragedy, shaped by autocratic violence, inequality, peasant and worker misery, invasion, and war.  To be sure, this interpretation still makes sense.  Russia suffered from war and state violence.  As Ascher reminds his readers, even in the reign of the revered Peter the Great, the country's most impactful Westernizers, the country was almost continuously at war.  But if Russia has suffered from a history of violence, historians do need to spend more time thinking about other, more positive, narratives that make up the Russian historical tradition.  If Russian history is violent, it is is also by turns optimistic, peaceful, soulful, creative, and humane. Susan Sontag once wrote that we all indebted to Russia's rich literary tradition for a share of our collective humanity.  If this is so, historians will need to discover what elements of Russia's historical trajectory have accounted for this invaluable component of Europe's intellectual and artistic heritage.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Masha Gessen on Empire and Terrorism

Massa Gessen has become something of a personal hero for me.  She’s a prolific Russian-American (or perhaps American-Russian) who demonstrates indefatigable personal courage with every new literary, historical or journalistic project she takes on.  She’s a champion of civil rights and a worthy inheritor of the rich moral heritage of the Russian intelligentsia.  Her choice of investigative projects reveals her insatiable curiosity, broad knowledge of Russian culture, and firm commitment to democratic politics.  This blog has reviewed a variety of her books, including ones that analyze Putin, the political protest band, Pussy Riot, and the fate of the Russian intelligentsia.   Gessen has a new book out that seems to provide readers with an overview of Russia’s current anti-democratic moment, but before I tackle that book I’ll just mention her small gem, The Brothers:  The Road to an American Tragedy.  In this short book, Gessen writes a sort of textbook on 21st century terrorism.  

As a student of true crime fiction, I admire Gessen’s contribution to this sometimes-underrated literary genre.  In the tradition of those who, like Capote or Mailer, have move beyond the inhuman elements of vicious crime in order to uncover something wonderfully precious about human nature, Gessen explores the complex, unstable, intercontinental lives of the Boston Marathon bombers.  As an immigrant to America with persistent connections to her native land, and a civil rights activist who has done some work analyzing multiple Chechnya catastrophes, Messen is well placed to tell these stories.  Gessen’s theme is that the genesis of terrorism cannot be located in a strange and unfamiliar location overseas.  In fact, the bombers’ commitment to violence didn’t simple arise as a result of their contact with violent jihadists in Chechnya.   The Boston Bombers were not merely passive recipients of a violent overseas radical ideology. Indeed, Gessen asserts that the elder brother, a man in contact with several strains of American liberalism, can be said to have attempted to radicalize his overseas friends and family.  

To be sure, Gessen does not offer any easy explanations for the violent ideology of her subjects.  Instead, she shows how truly global terrorist ideologies can be.  When Stalin first displaced the residents of Chechnya to Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan, he set in motion a truly international phenomenon.  Indeed, even before Stalin, Russian imperialism meant that local patterns of violence at the periphery of the Russian empire would eventually be replicated at the centers of imperial power, including Moscow.  Of course, Russia’s recent wars in Chechnya are even more directly related to the birth of a global jihadist creed.  With Grozny transformed into one of the most war-torn cities on the planet, its residents would naturally flee to every corner of the earth, including many Russian and American cities. 

The temptation is to see this Chechnya diaspora as bearing responsibility for the violence that was inflicted on Chechnya, but Gessen is at pains to demonstrate that the global ideology of imperialism undergirds the global ideology of Muslim extremism.  In fact, Gessen also dissects America’s strains of imperialism, manifested in anti-Muslim 911 sentiment and governmental overreach.  Her point is to demonstrate that any international ideology of violence emanating from the metropolis, whether it originates in Moscow or Washington, D.C., is likely to breed its inverse creed on the peripheries of empire.  Gessen’s book suggests something powerful about the impact of war and dislocation and imperial power on vulnerable men and women.  But the book also suggests how vulnerable all immigrants are as they struggle to remake their worlds in the midst of a foreign and disorienting culture.  

As an immigrant herself, Gessen seems to instinctively understand that although the overwhelming number of immigrants successfully overcomes every barrier to assimilation, they often do so only after great psychological effort.  In any case, it’s interesting to see that the Boston bombers were somehow both extremely isolated by their attachment to a peripheral culture (e.g., Gessen points out that a girl could be subject to an honor killing for holding hands with a boy from a different ethnic group), and thoroughly immersed in global culture (e.g., they routinely discussed politics with their Cambridge-liberal landlady, spoke multiple languages, and sometimes travelled to visit far-flung relatives).  

Messen’s book reminds me of another book that examines the Janus-head of immigration, the French Intifada.  In this book, the author notes that somehow Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian familiarity with French culture easily coexists with its opposite: Antipathy for French racism and colonial attitudes. Like the Boston Bombers, French residents and citizens of North African decent are products of a long history of colonial violence and imperial power in their homelands.  Whether in France, America, or Russia, terrorism is in a sense the almost inevitable reflection of the truly global scale of empire.  This isn’t to lay blame for terrorism on its victims, but only to do as historian of empire Antoinette Burton suggests and analyz   

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The 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.  In fact, it did remind me another book of modernist fiction I liked much better:  Ralph Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man, which contains similar absurdist conceits but somehow seems to hang together as a unified tale of one man's intellectual and political journey through an absurdly racist America.  Perhaps the reason I prefer Invisible Man to Master and Margarita is because Ellison was able to tackle racism much more directly than Bulgakov was able to tack Stalinism.  In both cases, the author was courageously responding to a culture of systematic violence.  However, in the American case, Ellison could at least count on a black and liberal white audience to celebrate his rather overt depiction of American racist tropes.  In the Russian case, Bulgakov might have felt that even if he were "writing for the desk" he could not risk any direct reference to the terror that was overwhelming his countrymen.  Better perhaps to see Stalinism in the biblical allegory.

The Master and Margarita was clearly ahead of its time, and influential after it was finally published.  Yet when laid side by side with a Russian 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.  I will fully confess that my audio "reading" of this book distracted me from the plot.  I only post this incomplete analysis here to remind myself to return to book in the future with an open mind and enough time to read the book in print.

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.