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.