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.