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  Written in the late 1990s, the book may well have been superseded by newer historical analyses of World War II's Eastern Front.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..."