Monday, September 25, 2017

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  It's also filled with historical references to Russia's turbulent literary and political past.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.

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