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.