Friday, October 12, 2018

Alex Beam's The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship

After having read the correspondence of Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson (Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, 1940-1971:  The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971), one might hesitate to read Alex Beam's The Feud:  Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship.  Reading a second book on the same topic seemed unnecessary.  However, The Feud complements the correspondence, and provides the reader with valuable biographical information for both men. Of course, Nabokov's life is well-known, and many other works, including Andrea Pitzer's The Secret Life of Vladimir Nabokov, could provide readers with biographical information about his life during the period of the two men's friendship.  But the book reminds readers that Nabokov depended upon Wilson to get established in American letters, and probably became more fiercely contrarian after he published Lolita and became an international sensation.  More importantly perhaps, the book provides a valuable reminder of Wilson's dominance of American letters for several decades after the Second World War.  And demonstrates the complicated relationship of the American liberal intelligentsia with Russia, Russian exiles, and Russian Communism.  As is well-known, the two men, formerly so close, fell out over both arcane matters of literary translation, and fundamental perspectives on Lenin and the Russian Revolution.  Nabokov remained passionately opposed to every aspect of the Soviet regime throughout his life, and always opposed any collaboration with Soviet scholars.  By contrast, Wilson demonstrated great sympathy for Lenin, and, to a great extent, with the Russian revolutionary project in general.  In the end, the short book is worth reading. It  sheds light both on the lesser-known man, Wilson, and the New York City literary milieu of a bygone era, and on the better-known man, Nabokov, and his integration (only temporary, at least in some ways) into American literary society. 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Alexander Pushkin's Dubrovsky

Alexander Pushkin's novella, Dubrovsky, is a small masterpiece.  As translated by Robert Chandler, Dubrovsky is one more testament to Pushkin's literary versatility, tastefulness, prose artistry, and historical sensibility.  Dubrovsky is the story of the eponymous hero's attempt to rescue his father from losing his estate to the mechanization of a wealthier local landlord, Troekurov. Unsuccessful in saving either his father or his father's estate, Dubrovsky turns to a life of banditry, and eventually tries, and fails, to secretly marry Troekurov's daughter.  Like The Captain's Daughter--also translated by Robert Chandler--the novella is set against the backdrop of coercion and sustained violence.

In this case, the novella seems to draw upon both romantic conventions and folklore. It's originality and narrative power are rooted in the extent to which Pushkin seems willing to describe the dark underpinnings of Russian society.  For the Dubrovsky's family lose their estate almost casually.  The process begins with Troekurov calling in an assessor.  "I have a neighbor," said Troukurov, "a boor of a small landowner.  I want to take his estate from him.  What do you think?" It's clear that Pushkin's narrator believes that it's not unusual for wealthy landowners to manipulate courts to their advantage to their advantage.  According to the novella, Russian property disputes are almost inevitably decided without reference to legal precedence or any other form of justice.  The strong bully the weak. 

But more than this, Pushkin's novella reveals that Russian society is almost inherently violent.  Dubrovsky's peasants, having no stake in either the law or politics, are even worse off than Dubrovsky and his father. Disenfranchised, they turn to blind violence to express their desire to remain subject to their previous owners.  They set fire to their manor house, and one even throws a cat into the fire. 

And of course, when Dubrovsky turns toward banditry, both he and the armed forces ranged against him by his nemesis, Troekurov, resort to murder and mayhem to resolve their differences.  As in The Captain's Daughter, a tale of frontier warfare, gender is also a site of brutality. In Dubrovsky, Troekurov is able to keep his daughter confined, and to insist on a marriage partner for her.  In a sense, there is only one truly independent character in Dubrovsky, and that is the area's most despotic and wealthy resident, Troekurov. Troekurov has the authority to influence the court, enforce a marriage, select dogs who will live and die in any new estate brood, demean (or even kill) tutors, thrash cooks, tongue-lash guests, and disposes both small landowners and serfs of their homes.
In Dubrovsky, only Trokurov enjoyed true liberty of action.  Pushkin's introduces his local hegemon thus:  "Spoiled by everything around him, he was accustomed to giving free reign to every impulse of his hot-blooded nature and every whim of his somewhat limited mind.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Viktor Shklovsky's Life of a Bishop's Assistant

I have previously reviewed several of the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky's books, including his novels, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, The Third Factory, his works of literary criticism, including Knight's Move, Energy of Delusion, BowstringThe Hunt for Optimism, and The Hamburg Score, and a memoir, A Sentimental Journey.  In the context of so many brilliant books, the short historical work, Life of a Bishop's Assistant, falls a little flat. The publisher has noted that the book is a "re-written" biography of a little-known clerical figure from the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  The publisher also notes that it's an example of innovative narrative approach.  To my mind, the Shklovsky's approach to biography is certainly original, and his staccato style engaging and humorous.  Shklovsky can't help but be clever.  And certainly Shklovsky displays his erudition and knowledge of the era on every page. One of the best things about Life of a Bishop's Assistant is that it manages to objectively convey the values of the time even as these values are contrasted with the values of the modern era. The result of the contrast is often comedic. After all, privileged classes, monarchical prerogatives, and purchased benedictions can seem ridiculous to the modern ear.  However, aside from reveling in what E.P. Thompson would have called the "enormous condescension of posterity," Shklovsky has toned down his trademark humor, and provided the reader with very little historical context for his story line.  So that the book doesn't really succeed either as a work of fiction or as a work of history.  In any case, The Life of a Bishop's Assistant does provide readers with insights into clerical life in this period.  According to Shklovsky, the leadership at this time was cynical, venal, prone to the use of violence in pursuit of power, and far-removed from the everyday concerns of the Russian people.

Below are a few quotations from the book:

His instruction was brutal.  People said that the child needed angelic patience to learn how to spell the word "angel."

Your honor is aware that, in Russia, a man without a rank is almost like a man without a soul.

You must bow before anyone of higher rank and crawl before eminent landowners...

I wish to obtain a rank and position on the basis of mercy rather than merit.

Passek was only interested in horses, his lover, and his illegitimate son.

Potemkin and the Empress herself were both mortal. 

"Hence," Mr. Polyansky said, "you with your, without exaggeration, sensitive and boundless soul, cannot portray a heroine or a lover because you have those feelings in your soul.  A naturally occurring diamond cannot depict paste."

At that time, Mr. Polyasnky was thirty-eight.  He was of unconventional character.  And always fell in love with other people's wives.

Consequently, the lover and the husband were separated by a single sheet called Wayward Street.

Bychkov was slightly embarrassed and the police, given their rank's intrinsically coarse nature, were sniggering.

Then, the General took a short rifle off the wall and said:
"Messieurs, I will now butcher you with this rifle butt."
Seeing this, the doctor and police retreated. 
It was as if the proceeding came to an end.

"So you never did marry?"
"There are no brides here, the Polish ones don't have dowries."

Dobrynin needed a village for export.  He wished to expel the peasants to the Kherson Governorate.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Quotations from Victor Serge's Midnight in the Century

Below are some favorite quotations from Victor Serge's Midnight in the Century

"I don't completely understand your distinction between good and bad Thermidoreans."

"He liked her.  He didn't know if he loved her, exactly.  We live that way, without knowing."

Two days later they arrested him.  Just like that, in the street, near the trolley stop.

Two Trostkyists, one genuine, the other doubtful, were quietly discussing Radek's objections to the theory of permanent revolution.

"I'm charged with espionage.  And I'm only a poor slob, citizens and comrades, I swear to you, only a poor slob!"

"It's over.  What a bitch of a life.  When will it end?"
The elder replied sententiously:
"The Permanent Session of Chaos No. 16. continues.  Next point on the agenda."

Men existed here in sharp relief, the accumulated hours crushed them, but time per se did not exist."

"We have nothing, nothing in common with Menshevism."

"You're not a bad guy, but you're a born rat.  I'm not worried about the solidity of your skull-bone:  you're destined to have an honorable career in the concentration camps."

"Anyone want to write to the Proletarian authorities?"

"If our houses of detention are overcrowded, it's not the fault of the proletarian dictatorship but that of the counter-revolution which assails us on every side."

It all began with a dull pain in the area of the heart.  But was it in the area of the heart?  We don't know precisely where the heart is nor what it is.

Control yourself--it's just a heart attack--and if it were something worse?

He lost his calendar, the addition of weeks and months, and decided to live outside time.

"Do you know the difference between a great misfortune and a national disaster, Zina Valentinova?  Imagine a very great leader falling to the sidewalk from the eighth floor balcony of the Central Committee.  That would be a great misfortune.  Now imagine him surviving.  That would be a national disaster."

The glaciers are starts smashed across the earth.

The revolution will be stranded on the beach for the next twenty years.

"We're between two counter-revolutions.  How clear can anything be!"

His brains were spread over the dandelions, but his pince-nez glasses, their frame mended with black thread, were still perched on the bridge of his nose.

"Comrade Ryzhik's report on the joys of boreal springtime is adopted without debate, unanimously with one abstention:  mine.  I have ideological reservations."

",,,I request a three-second recess for Karl's latest revelation (may his revolutionary's soul rest in peace:  His body is rotting slowly in the toilet of the General Secretary's office).

"Listen, brother, I'm uneasy.  There are five of us--and not one informer!  Do you think that's possible?"

"And what does homo sovieticus need beyond a thousand roubles a month?"

Pessimism, in our age of disciplined energy, is perhaps in involuntary form of sabotage.

"We're right, comrades.  Right, like stones are right to be hard, like the grass i right to grow, for the Revolution doesn't want to die out."

"And for the moment the dialectic of history has placed us under its wheel."

Miorzly, every limb alert in that embrace, watched that hand reaching for murder with prodigious shrewdness, seized it on the wing as it clenched its face.

You don't hit a man when he's down, but you can hit a man when he's falling, before he hits the ground.

"Citizen Chief, I'm a Civil War Communist, wounded at the age of eighteen on the Orenburg front.  I hope that's enough for you."
"I very much regret that it isn't."

On the scale of history, of what importance are these little sufferings, this senseless resistance of micro-organisms in a drop of water?

She always had that absent air at work.  Is she married?  The Interim Director considers her for a short moment with the bizarre attention of a solitary man who suffers from liver-trouble, smokes too much, and whom a sad woman has walked out on...

"Subjectively, perhaps they are still revolutionaries.  Objectively, they are hardened counter-revolutionaries."

"How do you say son-of-a-bitch in Marxist terms?"

"Got shot, that brother, a little while back.  Was really too fat to hide himself nowadays now that everyone else got thin."

He demanded an extremely conspicuous zeal from his subordinates, in order that it should be noticed.  What, indeed, is the use of unnoticed zeal?

"Your establishment is hardly on par with socialism, citizen chief.  Beginning with the bedbugs."

Monday, October 1, 2018

Victor Serge's Midnight in the Century

Victor Serge produced many first class political books, historical works, and novels.  Thus far, I've been most impressed with Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which gave me a deep appreciation for the cosmopolitan Serge's political, aesthetic, literary, philosophical, and moral talents.  Although Serge's Midnight in the Century covers same themes as that non-fiction masterpiece, it isn't his best novel.  While too overtly polemical to be a great novel, Serge's novel is filled with witty dialogue, deep philosophical observations about the nature of human beings and nature, exquisite sentences, and insightful character descriptions. A work of striking moral and political sophistication, Serge's Midnight in the Century is nevertheless a relatively thinly disguised indictment of Stalinism.  His protagonists all share the author's political views, and therefore find themselves persecuted by the revolution they once served. Midnight in the Century does offer profoundly illuminating glimpses of the human cost of totalitarianism.

In a sense, the Midnight in the Century's take on Stalinism resembles Koestler's Darkness at Noon or even Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, which it precedes.  But Serge is an unwavering follower of Trotsky, and so his critique of Stalinism is directly concerned with the way in which Stalin and his cronies have betrayed socialism.  From Serge's point of view, Stalininism was the Russian Revolution's Thermidor, a form of counterrevolution. Serge's characters do debate the extent to which they owe some modicum of allegiance to the government they helped to bring about. They also debate the historical meaning of Stalinism. Yet ultimately they classify Stalinism as a form of State Capitalism, and avow that true revolutionaries need to "start again" to build a true proletarian government. 

In the end, the book tells readers a lot about Soviet terror.  We understand that people are put into cells for little reason, or no reason whatsoever.  We understand the Old Bolsheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and religious zealots suffer equally at the ends of a brutal state apparatus.  We understand that arrests are motivated by jealousy, by chaotic government processes, or crude economic mandates and absurd planning mechanisms which require culprits.  We know that Soviet justice is not justice at all, and that even innocent people can be shot with scarcely a pretense of a judicial process.  But reading the book now, one is most struck by the viewpoint of a Trotskyite.  While we know that Stalin was paranoid about Trotsky and his followers, this book makes one wonder if Stalin wasn't right to fear this form of sustained, informed, courageous, and socialist critique.  Communists were steeled in the art of anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist rhetoric.  But they were probably much less comfortable debating their erstwhile allies who were actually arguing that the Soviet government had betrayed the true principles of the revolution.  Serge's characters charge Stalin and his government with every sort of villainy, from famine, to Chinese massacres, to the rise of fascism, to economic ruin. But their worst charge is that Stalin has ended any pretense of worker democracy and socialist fraternity.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Viktor Shklovsky's Hamburg Score

Viktor Shklovsky is one the best literary critics I have ever encountered.  And even in translation, he's also one of the best of twentieth century stylists in Russia.   It's a gross understatement to say that Shklovsky was outrageously creative, uncannily observant, and spectacularly funny.  Indeed, Shklovsky doesn't seem to have written a boring book, or to have been capable of doing so.  Everything he wrote is riven with insights, anecdotes, and analogies. Shklovsky was a genius, pure and simple.  In his day, he was one of the most knowledgeable men of letters alive.  This knowledge extended to both Russian literature, but also to German, Spanish, French, Italian and English poetry and prose.  In fact, Shklovsky often drew parallels between contemporary Russian literature and Chinese, Arabian, Persian, and other non-Western literary traditions.  But Shklovsky's appeal is that he never let his erudition interfere with his desire to promote something new in literature:  poetry and prose better suited to the modern era.

Shklovsky is in fact rare in his ability to balance his respect for the past with his hope for the future.  Unlike many revolutionaries, he deeply respected the masters of nineteenth century Russian prose.  Unlike many counterrevolutionaries, he completely rejected the idea that nineteenth century prose was appropriate to an age of scientific discovery, mechanical innovation, and social upheaval.  Reading his book, The Hamburg Score, reminds of Shklovsky's virtuosity.  It's filled with trenchant insights into dozens of literary and social phenomena, including nineteenth century realism, Soviet literary experimentalism, film, and the Russian Revolution.

To read The Hamburg Score, is to get a glimpse of a profound intellect capable of overriding the artificial divide between creative prose and good literary criticism.  The Hamburg Score demonstrates the fact that literary criticism is itself a creative genre.  All of Shklovsky's books are illuminating.  This one helps readers to see the relationship between authors, genres, literary movements, and evolving media. Without addressing the tenants of Russian formalism, which are not in any event articulated in this book, Shklovsky's particular talent was to use literary history and genre analysis to illuminate the unique qualities of any particular text.  This book also seems to striving to help readers understand the past (i.e., social realism, etc.) in order to discern the outlines of the future (montage, etc.).  It's not necessarily that Shklovsky gets everything right, it's just he's bold, smart, and clairvoyant enough to make you feel that authors can't be understood if they are taken on their own terms, without reference to literary traditions and emerging genres.

Shklovsky is also interesting merely as a witness to his age.  As The Hamburg Score makes clear, Shklovsky knew almost everyone in Soviet literature.  Almost universally respected, Shklovsky was a participant or even combatant in the post-revolutionary Russian literary scene.  His barbs help us to understand the vitality of Soviet literary culture, even after so many Russian writers and thinkers had fled to Central and Western Europe.  The book also demonstrates the excitement of the general scene, and Soviet men and women debated the future with one another.  As Shklovsky says, the Russian Revolution put an end to fate. 

Viktor Shklovsky Quotations from The Hamburg Score

Below are some of my favorite quotations from the Hamburg Score.  

On Writing

In Hamburg, Bulgakov is down on the mat.
Babel is a lightweight.
Gorky is questionable (often out of form).
Khlebnikov was the champion.

It is not appropriate to start a critical article with:  "I opened the book," "I was interested in," "I leafed through," or "I glanced through." You can't start a review of a play by saying:  "I walked into the theater and sat down on an armchair."All of this is extremely weak, because you cannot start reading a book without opening it.

They are the writings of an administrator, and not a journalist.  And a writing administrator often resembles a theater fireman who sings.

One ought to get rid of the old general's habit of calling people "unknown."  If Rodchenko is unknown to Polonsky, that's not a fact of Rodchenko's life, but Polonsky's.

The censor told an acquaintance of mine:  "You have a style that's perfectly suitable for cutting."

The editor, having read the works of a poet, said to him:  "Your poems are splendid, but I won't publish them--I don't like them..."  Then added pensively:  "But you know, you somehow remind me of Bakunin."

It is very difficult for a writer to overcome his own manner of writing and to remember.

Here the genre dies from an enlarged heart.

Writers appear in literature variously:  With our without introduction.
Writers appearing in literature with introductions, as a general rule, do not have a long life.

On Authors

(I think) I saw a photography of Konstantin Fedin.  He was sitting at his desk between Tolstoy's and Gogol's busts.
He was sitting there--getting used to it.

Bunin's entire work is italicized.  The descriptions are derived not from objects but from other descriptions.

Being mentored by the Acmeists and Symbolists, Larisa Reisner knew how to see things.

[Babel] was the only one who preserved his stylistic composure during the revolution.

He was not alienated from life.  But it did seem to me that Babel, before going to bed, would sign each and every lived day--as if it was a story.  The instruments of the man's trade had left their trace on him.

Babel wrote little, but he wrote persistently.  It was always the same story--about two Chinese men in a brothel.

A foreigner from Paris, from Paris alone, sans London, Babel saw Russia the way that a French writer attached to Napoleon's army might have seen it.

The significance of Babel's device is in his manner of speaking about stars and gonorrhea in one voice.

Lev Lunts was like grass there had grown in a cleared forest.  Fate had freed him from compromises.

Kazin is writing about all of his relatives, one by one.

And even Mayakovsky is imprisoned by his theme: revolution and love that keeps apologizing for coming during revolution.

But I knew Yesenin from before.  He was young, handsome, with golden locks, blue eyes, spoke marvelously.  Yesenin's trouble was that he wore those felt boots in the city for too long.

People were chided in subordinate clauses, as if in passing.

[Vsevold Ivanov] wasn't afraid of making mistakes because he didn't know most of the rules.

Bon Mots

During their first crusades, they mistook each city for Jerusalem.  When, upon entering the city, they would find out that it was not Jerusalem, they would destroy it.

How obscenely long is Grevs's comment!
What a confusing sentence!
And it's ungrammatical.  This is how professors write.

 Vladimir Durov was telling:  "I ordered walruses from abroad to teach them how to cut through mined fences."
"And were you able to?"
"No.  I've only been able to teach them how to play on the guitar."

Occasionally they elect a fourteen-year-old male virgin as their priest.
But on the whole, virginity is not respected there.

They beat the writer Svetozarov in one village, as we was travelling on a boat alone from Moscow to Astrakhan , but the children in that same village knew the poems of Vasili Kazin by heart.

One shouldn't be so eloquent in a newspaper.

Chaliapin would say:  "Such and such actor keeps coming to my performances.  Do you think he's coming to learn something?  He's been waiting for a decade now for me to lose my voice."

The man had learned a lot.  I don't know if he had lost his former venomousness during that period.

A delegation came to meet Yesenin's father, a peasant.  He invited them into his hut.  "Tell us about your son!" The old man crossed the room in his felt boots, sat down and began:  "It was a dark night.  It was raining, pouring like from a bucket..."

There is nothing more deplorable than fate.
If you ask, especially women, in the village what the neighboring village is called, they often don't know.  Fate has bound them to the hut with the mooing of the cow.

She packed her life so eagerly, as if she was packing for good and going to another planet.

Mongolia is a wild and joyless beats, even the butterflies sting there.


Cinema with bourgeois themes int he East is a perlustration of the masters' mail.


The revolution is a difficult thing for an intellectual.  He is jealous of the revolution, as a husband would be jealous of his wife.  Doesn't recognize her.  Fear her.
It is easier to recognize a revolution aesthetically when she is weak.

Few of us can boast that we have seen the revolution not through a vent window.

"Can you tell me how much I can own and not be considered a kulak?" the short host asked me.

The years had produced cliched recollections.  The cliches melded with memory and became heroicized.

We loved before the revolution bound to fate as unhappy Greek sponges bound to the bottom of the sea.  You get born, gain strength.  Then you accidentally come across a profession and you live like that.  And there were many remarkable poets who lived alongside syndonic officials and insurance agents.

Such an interesting thing as human fate is arranged awfully in a capitalist society.  And so during the revolution there was no such thing as fate.

We owe our inventions to that time--there was enough wind for all the sails.

Dostoevsky, Jerome K. Jerome (who died recently), and the still restless Merezhkovsky all unanimously declared that socialism is boredom.
I refute that as a witness.
We ignored the bitterness of life and the necessity to fix it and it seems that we were happy.  We just didn't have enough carbohydrates and protestins to fortify this kingdom of intellectual freedom under the guns of the "Aurora."

We were moving into the world then as one might move into a new apartment.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Blaise Cendrars' Moravagine

It may be a stretch to include Blaise Cendrars in a Russian history and literature blog, but the French-language novelist and poet lived in Russia for quite some time, and used Moscow as one of several locations in his modernist novel, Moravagine.  The book is a shockingly dark novel about a murderously misogynous aristocratic who grows up in a Austrian castle, displays every symptom of madness, murders his beloved, gets confined in a small cell, escapes, and somehow finds himself in pre-World War I Russian revolutionary and anarchist activities, before moving on to other adventures.  Cendrars' picaresque book is a small masterpiece, sinister, inventively descriptive, and outrageously funny.  It's also extremely philosophical, and offers up numerous theories about the fragile essence of our humanity.  Cendrars' hero (or antihero) is a criminal, pure and simple, and also a psychopath.  However, in some ways this antihero (as well as the narrator, who is the villain's conspirator and enabler) is a quintessentially modernist hero, engaged in the business of exploring his subconscious urges. 

Had Moravagine not actually murdered so many of the people who surrounded him, he might merely be said to have been exploring the boundaries of his own identity.  Like a small child, Moravagine had to find out where his body or will ended and other people and the world began.   "I  felt myself strong, all-powerful.  I was jealous of all nature.  Everything should give in to my desires, obey my whims, bend before the wind of my breath.  I commanded trees to fly, flowers to rise in the air, I ordered the meadows and the house foundation to turn, to about-face."  Viewed in this light, Moravagine's violence, as crude and primitive as it is, appears to be a form of experimentalism, an attempt to determine where his own personhood ends and and the personhood of another entity begins.  In another passage, he imagines himself to be the very objects that surround a woman he admires.  "I was the comb that magnetized her long hair.  I was the bodice that moved over her legs.  I was the little stocking of silk.  The heel that bore her.  I was the exquisite ruffle at her neck, her ingenuous  puff of rice-powder...Then I became a hand to unbuckle her belt.  I was her chair, her mirror, her bath.  I possessed her wholly and from every side, like a wave.  I was her bed."

But how does Russia and the Russian revolution figure into the adventures of Moravagine and the narrator?  By page 59, they have arrived in Russia.  The year is 1904, September 4th, the eve of the failed Revolution of 1905, historically speaking.  For the pair, revolution seems to be the social equivalent of their personal journeys of violence, primordial energy and self-discovery.  The two are naturally, inevitably, drawn to the blood and chaos of social upheaval.  "Sitting in Phillipov's we saw, Moravagine and I, the first stains of blood pierce the snow.  They spread like clusters of dandelion leaves all about the Governor's Palace..."  The pair are filled ecstatic.  "We took an extremely active part it in."  Moravagine and the narrator immediately get involved with newspapers, pamphlets, tracts.  They live on assassination plots, expropriations, foreign contacts, terror, sabotage, pillage, "depots of armaments" and "frenzied propaganda." 

Cendrars notes that revolutionaries display an "overweening presumptiousness."  However, Cendrars' point isn't necessarily that only revolutionaries engage in such primitive savagery.  After all, his protagonists encounter governmental violence in the form of "machine gunnings, mass hangings, deportations, arrests, sequestrations."  Cendrars' points to be that the revolutions do in fact represent some very deep longing on the part of both revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries to use violence to explore their identifies or understand their deepest longings and aspirations.  The event created a "ponderous army of crime" and a "collective madness" but these traditionally negative phenomena have some religious overtones.  As the revolution spreads, it awakes a sense of sacred frenzy among the Russian people.  According to the narrator, during this time "On the Volga, Jews committed ritual crimes," "strange Asiatic superstitions spread," and "every couple practiced Platonic love."  The narrator also hints at Rasputin's power and the Empresses' interest in the Occult.   In a sense, Cendrars take on revolution is that it offers its participants a strangely satisfying but paradoxical mixture of religious and nihilistic activity.  

For Cendrars, revolution acknowledges the meaningless of life by permitting or even encouraging people kill for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  As the narrator remarks as he contemplates his revolutionary practices, "For a long time now we had believed in nothing, not even nothingness."  The movement was predicated on "death" and "universal destruction." They saw the world as a hateful place, in which "[a] mud-stained sunlight began to splatter the sodden fields, and the hateful, nasal world of birds began to come to life," and  "[i]t seemed to me that I was coming out of a suffocating nightmare and that the low clouds flying before the wind were the shreds of an evil dream." On the other hand, the permitted killing has a ritualistic quality.  In this Bacchanalian sense, revolution is a religious celebration of nothingness.  Thus Moravagine begins his journey by using violence to celebrate his own growing self-awareness (a self-awareness rooted in an understanding of being and non-being) and moves on to Russia to explore a collective version of this same basic process.  

Below are a few of my favorite quotes from the book

What convention calls health is, after all, no more than this or that passing aspect of a morbid conditio...

Diseases are. We do not make or unmake them at will.  We are not their masters.  They make us, they form us.  They may even have created us.  They belong to this state of activity which we call life.  They may be its main activity.

Diseases are a transitory, intermediary, future state of health.  It may be that they are health itself.

Epidemics, and even more diseases of the will or collective neuroses, mark off the different epochs of human evolution, just as tellurian cataclysms mark the history of our planet.

Strongly drawn to women, his unctuous manners concealed a brutal sexuality which was betrayed by his flat feet, his spatulate finger-nails, his fixed stare and his frozen smile.

Our origins being aqueous, our life is the perpetual rhythm of tepid waters.  

"Well, as I told you, I have no idea who cared for me in my earliest childhood.  Mercenaries.  I was always handed over to mercenaries."

That evening, when it was time for her to go, I kissed her on the mouth, lingeringly, in the general's presence.  Her lips had a taste of ferns.  It was the following day...that I took scissors and cut out the eyes of all my ancestors hanging in the portrait gallery.  

Now, if you wish, call me a murderer, a demiurge or a savage, whichever you please, I don't give a damn, for life is really an  idiotic business.

One day I could stand no more.  I called the hateful dog and put out his eyes, slowly deliberately and expertly.  Then, taken by a sudden madness, I grasped a chair and broke it over his back.  This was how I rid myself of my only friend.

She gave off a perfume--crushed walnuts and watercress--in which I luxuriated in silence.

I no longer washed.  I no longer undressed.  I even reveled in the doubtful odors of my own person.  I enjoyed urinating down my legs.

I feel in love with ugly objects almost without workmanship, and very often with raw matter, primarily matter itself.  I surrounded myself with the most heteroclite articles. A bisquit-tin, an ostrich-egg, a sewing machine, a piece of quartz, a lead ingot, a stovepipe... These objects taught me much.

The simplest figures, circles, squares, and their projections in space, the cube, the sphere, spoke to my senses like the scurrilous symbolds--red and blue lingams--of obscure, barbaric, and ritual orgies.

I was just beginning to grow impatient when I heard a lout scream and saw my animal come running, a bloody knife in his hand.  I pulled him hurriedly aboard and we were off.  He leant over to me:  "I got her!"

"In Pressburg my cell was very small.  It was six meters long and two wide.  That scarcely bothered me, accustomed as I was to lead an indoor, sedentary and almost motionless life.

"I began wanting to hear nothing at all.  But an act of will I made myself dead."

Science is history arranged according to the superstition and taste of the moment.

"Freedom is the only treasure of a Russian man."

Intelligence consists of eating stars and turning them into dung.  And the universe, at the most optimistic estimate, is nothing but God's digestive system.

They were sitting elbow to elbow about the tables, square and round, and speaking in whispers of thhe events, as everyone does in Russia when certain things are mentioned in public;  backbones give and bend, for one sense the menace of a nightmare hand, and terror hangs over all alike.

When you've behind the hell that is Russia, life seems a good and pleasant thing.  

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Vladimir Voinovich's Moscow 2042

It saddens me that just as the author Vladimir Voinovich came to my attention, he died.  But in his memory, I'm committed to reading most if not all of his translated work.  Previously, I posted on the first third his famous, three-part satire, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.  That work was at the onset of Russia's entry into World War II, certainly one of the most sensitive subjects imaginable for the millions of Russian and Soviet citizens who participated in the war, or lost loved ones in it. Voinovich's Moscow 2042, set during the Brezhnev era as well as the future, mercilessly mocks a more decadent version of Soviet soviet.  In Moscow 2042, Voinovich's alcoholic narrator, a writer in exile, satirizes both 1980s Soviet society, and the now almost universally discredited dreams of that society.  With his usual comedy, Voinovich points to a future that resembles the present.  In 2042, the Soviet Union is an intensified version of Brezhnev-era communism.  It's a land of propaganda, xenophobia, censorship, poverty, and authoritarianism.  In many ways, Russia in 2042 resembles modern North Korea.  In both instances, citizens have been trained, or disciplined, to avoid all forms of free expression, independence, or democratic activity.  Moscow 2042 isn't a thriller.  It's science fiction in the model of Yevgeny Zamyatin "We" or Orwell's 1984, if either book had a biting sense of humor.  In general, it condemns communism and seems, by implication, to celebrate the West.  By contrast with Moscow, Voinovich clearly believes Western Europe has experience real innovation, economic and technical expansion, and personal and artistic freedom.  Ironically, the only exception to the author's implicit celebration of the West, is his focused derision of the Solzhenitsyn character who seems to be the only Russian-born alternative to the dystopic future.  This character somehow seems to accurately represent the fact that decades of totalitarianism produce a peculiarly totalitarian form of resistance.  Thus, Voinovich's prophet lives a rigidly disciplined life, rejects all foreign words, surrounds himself with sycophants, manically produces quasi-religious literature, and prepares to return to Russian on a horse.  Voinovich seems to have accurately predicated that the collapse of communism would not produce an era of freedom, pluralism, diversity, and democratic discourse.

Quotations from Vladimir Voinovich's Moscow 2042

Below are some of my favorite quotations from Vladimir Voinovich's Moscow 2042

What I describe here is only what I saw with my own eyes.  Or hear with my own ears.  Or what was told to me by someone I trust greatly.  Or not that greatly.  In any case, what I write is always based on something.

"Science fiction," he said confidently, "is the literature of the future."

"Why didn't you tell me right away that drinks are free?  If drinks are free, there's nothing left to discuss."

Then she reminded me of the story of a neighbor of ours who had died recently.  He had come to Germany from Russia long ago with his family and had not wanted to unpack his bags.  "They'll drive the Bolsheviks out soon," he used to say, "and we'll all be going back.  Why do the double work, unpack and then pack all over again?"

...we Russians are always reflecting instead of relaxing, and that's bad for your health.  I sometimes put my feet up on the table, but it doesn't help me to relax.  We're just not used to it.

"'re well aware that prudence is imprudent.  Today you're afraid of catching cold, and tomorrow a brick falls on your head, and then what difference does a cold make?"

"But to be honest, I'd rather see you dead then prudent."

Their hope was that at some point in the future, the great Soviet Union, great friend of the Arab nations, would stop keeping certain secrets secret.  And they, my companions, would be grateful to me if I could manage to obtain and bring back a detailed plan for an ordinary nuclear bomb, which they wanted solely for peaceful purposes.

I had heard that Soviet-made chewing gum had already appeared in the Soviet Union. Of course, it had to take second place to Western chewing gum, but I didn't have the slightest doubt that in the span of sixty years, as a result of the technological revolution, historic party and government decrees, and the masses; enthusiasm for work, the production of chewing articles and their distribution to most segments of the populations would probably have undergone radical change for the better.
    As for jeans, I thought some progress was inevitable there, too, in sixty years;  in any event, at least Polish, say, or Hungarian jeans would be available in Moscow.

He became a political commentator on television, traveled abroad where carried out important assignments, and even, I heard, was in the circle that wrote Brezhnev's books for him.

They had a two-room apartment to themselves.  This luxury, unheard of at the time, was theirs because Leo's grandfather, Pavel Ilich Zilberovich (Party underground-name--Serebrov) was a hero of the Civil War.

...a soggy piece of soap of a sort, so black and foul-smelling that you'd have to look hard to find anything similar, even in a Soviet store.

Of course, power had sometimes been seized in one country or another, and territory has been subdued by people with just mustaches and sometimes even without.  But no beardless man has ever yet been known as a prophet.

It should also be pointed out that there are beards and there are beards.  To stand out from the general run, the wearer of a beard must avoid any hint of imitation.  He should never grow a beard that could be called Marx-like, Lenin-like, Ho-Chi-Minh-like or Tolstoy-like.  Otherwise, he would be numbered among the prophets but among the followers.

At first, he went too far and grew a bear of such length that he would step on himself, particularly when he was in a hurry.  This was both inconvenient and pointless, because the beard was too long to fit into any photograph.

I have done massive research on beards which anyone who so desires can do in practically any library in the world.  But, for those too lazy to go to the library, I will say briefly that I am deeply convinced that beards play a very important role in the dissemination of advanced ideas and doctrines, and in winning minds...A prophet's thoughts and ideas are secondary.  It is not our brains which a prophet primarily affects, but our hormones, and it is for this that a beard is needed, along with all the gestures, grimaces, and expressions that go with it.  Sexually aroused, the crowd mistakenly assumed that is has mastered ideas for whose sake it is worthwhile to destroy churches, build canals, and kill their fellow men.

"What, don't you cross yourself?" said Janet, looking askance at me.  "Are you a militant atheist?"
"Not at all," I said.  I'm not a militant atheist, just a frivolous one."

I remember when were at university together, I borrowed a copy of one of Lenin's pamphlets from her (I think it was The State and Revolution."  The word genius appeared in the margins like punctuation after every sentence.

Still, you shouldn't mix Gorbachev with Jack Daniels.

"You know he refused to use words with foreign origins..."
"And he reads newspapers again?"
"No, the looker."
"The what?"
"The looker."
"I understand," I said, you mean the television. He relaxes.

He wished us all a pleasant flight and expressed the hope that when we researched our destination this wonderful space plane and its passengers would not be devoured by dinosaurs or mutants spawned after a world nuclear disaster.

"Under communism," he said, "everyone will be young, handsome, healthy, and in love with one another.  People will stroll under the palm trees, carry on philosophical conversations, and listen to soft music."

...words in every language have both a dictionary and an ideological meaning (that I didn't know), and the interpreter was needed to translate our conversation from one ideological system into the other.

"Well, as everyone knows, among his other virtues, our leader is also distinguished by his exceptional modesty.

"Yes," said Propaganda Paramonovna with a smile, "your remark smacks of metaphysics, Hegelianism, and Kantianism."

I looked around dubiously and at once saw for myself that during my absence radical changes for the better had in fact taken place.  There was toilet paper!


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Lesley Blanch's Journey Into The Mind's Eye: Fragments of an Autiobiography

Lesley Blanch wrote the book I wanted to write:  Journey into the Mind's Eye:  Fragments of an Autobiography.  It's a description of her lifelong obsession with Russia and Russians.  It's an incredibly witty apologia for a lifetime spent in the pursuit of Russian language, culture, literature, religion, and history.  Blanch lived an extraordinarily adventurous life, and possessed a boundless talent for writing.  For this reason, the memoir is often insightful, and never dull.  On the other hand, Blanch's prose is a precarious balance between originality and cliche, creative insight and brash orientalism.  Blanch's book is definitely worth reading.  Its unapologetic  Romanticism is infectious, and any Russophile will be happy to see such detailed documentation this particular mania.  (Elif Batuman's more recent book, The Possessed:  Russian Books and the People Who Love Them, though excellent, doesn't offered the sustained intensity of Journey Into the Mind's Eye).  Indeed, this is a memoir with a thesis statement.  The author sees her life as something tethered to a single, overriding passion.  For Blanch, Russia can be found everywhere.  She reads Russian books, falls in love with a Russian man, practices Russian religious traditions, experiments with Russian cultural practices, fantasizes about Russian adventures, and so on.  In fact, when Branch visits Paris, she is primarily interested in the Russian refugees who live there, although she is willing to have her Russian lover show her places in Paris where Russian statesmen, czars, and writers once visited.

In Journey into the Mind's Eye, Blanch has produced a wonderful exploration of her own infatuation with the East, and with Russia in particular.  This exploration reveals the extent to which infatuation and passion and enthusiasm are co-mingled with exoticism, post-colonialism, and even racism.  After all, Branch's Russia is, inevitably, a place of soulfulness, mystery, cold, built-in nomadism, and "limitless horizons." Time and again, Blanch makes startling generalizations.  "Perhaps," she writes, " being Russians, or Asiatics, and sharing fundamental characteristics of nomadism, roots were of no account."  She goes on to say that this nomadic life also meant that Russians were insensitive to time itself.  In other place, she writes that "his voice had a curious, ardent note I had never heard before, as if he were in love with an abstraction--a Russian characteristic."

As we engage with new cultures, we inevitably encounter our own preconceptions as well as the mythologies that surround us.  If we're lucky, representatives of other cultures, great books, and our innate curiosity to learn more, help us to channel our infatuation into honest journeys of true discovery and self-discovery.  And somehow all honest journeys reveal that the "Other" is both profoundly different than we are, and strikingly familiar. In her defense, Branch is not unaware of her Russian mythologies, and becomes more aware of them as she grows up.  Early in her novel she writes, "At this time, my view of Russia was simple." It appeared to her as little more than snow, ice, and men wearing shubas.  Later, on her first visit to Russia,  she admits that she "moved in an imagined limbo-land, chasing souvenirs--memento-mori."  Over time, Branch uses many tropes about Russian to launch her into encounters with more complex facets of Russian history and culture.  She reads Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Leskov, Herzen.  She meets more Russians.  She travels more.   Branch's romanticism remains in tact, but is tempered by a sense of humor about her own preconceptions about Russia.  It's also tempered by her interest in many of the subject peoples of the Russian and later Soviet Empire. 

Some Favorite Quotes from the Book

I must have been about four years old when Russia took hold of me with giant hands.  That grip has never lessened.

Pursuing my passion, all things were better Russified.

The Houses of Plantagent and Stuart were meaningless to me beside those of Rurik and Romanov.

"I suppose you'd rather be in a Mongolian yurt?  Or on the Trans-Siberian?"
Much rather.

"I didn't know you could dance."  I was enthralled by these violent leapings.
"All Russians can dance," he said curtly, and stopped as abruptly as he had begun.   I never saw him dance again.  He was entirely unpredictable.

I asked her once, why she had not gone to Russia--long ago, when she first knew the Traveler, and was grown up and free to go anywhere she liked.
"One is never really free," was her enigmatic reply.

So, steeped in Russia's past, I ignored its stupendous present, concerning myself little with history then in the making, with Raspin, the Ipatiev house at Ekaterinburg, the Cruiser Aurora, Admiral Kolchak's betrayal by the Czech and French commanders, famine, Five-Year Plans, Lenin's rule, or any other landmark of Russia's fall and rise.

"In Holy Russia we took Easter seriously.  Why, no one even made love to their own wives, let alone anyone else's, in Holy Week."

"One thing is absolutely certain.  I absolutely refuse to ruin you on a workman's train."

To be married in a Russian church, with all the splendors of Byzantine symbolism, had long represented the sum total of my romantic aspirations.

"Perhaps you'd better go back to finishing school after all.  You're not ready for the world.  You ought to have been at Smolny."

"If they miss the train I will disinherit them, bastards though they are."

"But I remember, it was only after we passed our final exams that the Mathematics Professor took us to a brothel to celebrate.  Things were really very well arranged then."

"The sort of furs most western women wear would not be used as bath-mats by Asiatics."

"I remember he wrote that that Khan had seven hundred wives--not all of them with him, of course.  I don't know why, but it made an impression on me, at the time," she said.

"...I believe he went and joined a scientific expedition to the Gobi, and got himself involved with some Kirghiz tribe...Kamran's mother was one of them--or was she a Bashkir?  Something savage, I remember.

"Grandmama was right.  It was the beginning of the end when the serfs were emancipated," sighed the Traveller, and the Countess agreed.

"What a troublesome lot they were.  They simply refused to be subdued!"

But beneath the facade of conventional interests I was groping eastward, flinging myself towards all things Russian.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Favorite Quotes from Erofeev Venedikt's Walpurgis Night

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Venedikt Erofeev's Walpurgis Night, or the Steps of the Commander

Gurevich:  All territory is ours.  Or rather, it will be.  They just don't let us go there--something to do with peace-making, apparently.  So we've made do with one-sixth of the inhabitable dry land.

Gurevich:  Right now I've got a job at a hardware store.  I'm their Tatar.
Zinaida Nikolaevna:  How much to do they pee you?
Gurevich:  They pay me exactly what my Homeland thinks right and proper.

Gurevich:  The sharks won't back down, and eventually they lose their empty heads.  Well, they did lick my girlfriend's calves in parting, but being jealous would have been ridiculous in that situation.

Doctor:  What is today's date?  The year?  The month?
Gurevich:  What's the difference?  Days, millennia---that's all so trivial for Russia.

Doctor:  Drinking is bad for your health, Lev Isakovich.
Gurevich:  As if I didn't know.  Telling me that now is like telling the Moor of Venice, say, who has just been shaken by his deed--like telling that crushing a windpipe and trachea can lead to paralysis of the expiatory center as a result of asphyxiation.

Gurevich:  I'm opposed to all wars in general.  War decimates soldiers, destroys ranks, and stains uniforms.

Gurevich:  We are speaking about our Native Land and disaster.  And so, I love Russia.  It occupies one-sixth of my soul.  Probably a little more now.

Every ordinary citizen should be a brave warrior, just as all regular urine should be a bright amber color.

Gurevich:  Naturally, I'm ready to throw myself under any tank, with or without a strong of grenades.

Gurevich:  ...Such a strong being in your stepmother's womb.

Doctor:  Well, well, well.  That will do, patient.  A madhouse is no place to show off how smart you are.

Doctor:  Yes, yes, to be quite precise, that day an event occurred that etched itself in the  memory of millions for five whole years. The same empty wine bottle that had cost 12 or 17 kopecks, depending on volume, that day, well, they all cost 20.

Gurevich:  More than anything else, I felt the hostility of my bald uncle, an admirer of Lazar Kagonovich, bawdy jokes, and chicken soup.  My towhead friend Edik brought me the poison, and he said the poison was foolproof and fast-acting.  I poured it all into my uncle's chicken soup, and --wouldn't you know it?--exactly twenty-six years later he expired in terrible agony.

Gurevich:  Not only that, this bosum was going to bargain away to the CIA a map of the Soviet Union's points of beverage purchase.

Borya:  Prepare the sulfo for the patient.  I'll give him the shot myself.
Prokhorov:  What are you going to do.  Boris?  He's new here.  It's the delirium of justice seeking, the sense of falsely understood honor, and other atavisms.

Prohkorov:  Do you know that every Russian village has its idiot.  What kind of a Russian village has is it without its village idiot?   People would look at that village as they would at a Britain that still didn't have a single Constitution.

Prohkorov:  No, the Russian nation does not want for zealots, and it never will!

Gurevich:  Oh, my dear, why don't you understand?  My hand shakes--so be it.  How does vodka enter into it?  Hands shake when the soul is homeless.

Gurevich:  You've noticed how moral principles are deteriorating in the Russian nation.  Even in the Baltics.

Seryozha:  A pipeline to supply tear gas to Russia on mutually advantageous terms.

Kolya:  Who in fact is the author of the gastro-intestinal tract?

Gurevich:  It's all right.  No surprise.  We should put all our trust in fate and firmly believe that the worst is yet to come.

Gurevich:  ..they're isolated:  each has his own worry, his own rumbling in his belly.  Whereas we share our worry and our rumbling!

Gurevich:  Well, there's no point in pandering to Britain.  Even Herodotus didn't believe in its existence.  Why should we be any better or worse than Herodotus?

Prokhorov:  And I personally saw a fine painting of Kutuzov, and he was riding a horse, I don't remember where, but he had two eyes.

Gurevich:  That's the whole point.  A Russian shouldn't be one-eyed.  These here--they can allow themselves this luxury, all these Admiral Nelson-Rockefellers.  But not us;  we can't.  The Universe's alarming situation obliges us to keep both eyes open. Yes,

Monday, September 17, 2018

Venedikt Erofeev's Walpurgis Night

For the most part, I only collect Russian books, and English-language Russian books at that.  But sometimes I veer of my chosen path and begin minor collections.  For instance, I have a small Bertolt Brech collection and another of and about Hannah Arendt.  The brilliance of these two authors somehow demanded this small token of appreciation from me.  I also have a small classics collection, and have begun a shelf of what I like to think of as world classics, though I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a satisfactory description of what makes something a "world classic."  At the moment, this shelf consists of mainly religious texts--including the Bible, the Koran, the Ramayana, the Book of Mormon--and a few classical texts, like the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Metamorphoses.  For some reason, Montaigne also made this shelf, but he'll likely be displaced when I get a copy of Dante's Inferno.  The one largely non-Russian collection I have to date is my collection of plays.  Although rearranging shelves according to my current whims is one of my favorite pastimes, the play collection is broken down into Shakespeare, non-Shakespearean British, French, non-British and French European, African-American plays, American (i.e., non-African-American), and of course Russian plays.  The Russian shelf isn't very large, and is largely restricted to Nabokov, Chekhov, Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Gorky, and Ostrovsky, as well as some collections (Symbolist, etc.)

Yesterday I took out Venedikt Erofeev's Walpurgis Night, the thing by Erofeev I've read since Moscow to the End of the Line.  Picking it up, I was immediately struck by the author's erudition, sense of humor, and poetic sensibility.  My astonishment sent me immediately to the Web to see what else he has written that has been translated into English, but at first glance it appears that there's not a whole lot out there.  Of course, the excellence of the play also made me take a look at the famous translator, Marian Schwartz.  In the past, I've paid very little attention to translators.  It wasn't until I read a few different things by Robert Chandler that came to understand how important translators were to me.  In the first place, translators like Chandler and Schwartz obviously make it possible for non-Russian speakers like myself to remain enthralled with the genius of Russian literature.  In the second place, the brilliance of these translators allows me to get at least a glimpse of the magic that a country's greatest authors must necessarily perform.  In the third place, these Russian translators, by their very selections of texts, helps to guide me to new novels and plays.  Without Marian Schwartz, my Russian library would be significantly diminished.  When I looked at her website, I was utterly astonished at how many works of fiction in my library were the product of her labor and art.

At any rate, to jump out of the rabbit hole of translation and return to Walpurgis Night, it's a magnificent play. It's clearly a work of rebellion against authoritarianism, and Soviet rule in the 1980s.  But it's so much more than that.  It's a treatise on the Russian intellectual tradition, on the Cold War, and on anti-semitism in Russian culture.  It's a brilliant play, both profoundly funny and profoundly tragic, and I hope to have access to more of his works.  If that's not possible, I will certainly have to-read Moscow to the End of the Line.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Vladimir Voinovich's Private Ivan Chonkin

Vladimir Voinovich's The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin
resembles Ilya Ehrenburg's novel, The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz, and seems to draw inspiration from Gogol, whose novel Dead Souls and play, the Inspector General, satirized Russian more than a century earlier.  It's a work of high comedy that nevertheless gnaws at the very foundations of Soviet life.  The lead character, Ivan Chonkin, is a Soviet everyman who encounters every shade of absurdity in his ordinary life.

The book, the first part of a trilogy, seems to demonstrate that Stalinism should not only be approached by writers who have embraced the trope of tragedy.  Although the Soviet bureaucracy terrified and terrorized countless Soviet citizens, it was produced a bizarre and darkly comic set of circumstances ordinary men and women.  Chonkin's adventures force readers to understand that Soviet officials are expected to lie to one another about production norms and outputs.  Chonkin's adventures further reveal that Soviet ideology is often utterly at odds with the lived experience of Soviet citizens.

Chonkin's depiction of Stalin and the cult of personality around Stalin reveals that the rot of Soviet life starts at the head of top.  An accused Jewish citizen's encounter with the Soviet secret police stands as a perfect example of the ridiculous nature of Stalinism.  Voinovich fantasizes that an accused person fearlessly confronts his brutal interrogators by pointing out that insofar as he, too, possesses the name Stalin, he is immune from prosecution.  After all, the humble Jewish Stalin points out, if anyone happened to hear that a lowly official had put Stalin in jail, or hurt him in any way, heads would surely roll.  Promptly released, the anecdote about a Jewish Stalin undermines the myth of the Great Dictator and indicates that in Soviet society even the sadists fear for their own safety.

Overall, Chonkin's simple, uneducated approach to life is always overshadowed by the even more stupid men and women who represent Soviet society.  Chonkin's neighbor, for instance, relentlessly pursues the agenda laid down by Lysenko.  His home literally filled with shit (fertilizer), Chonkin's neighbor is convinced he can create a plant that is half tomato and half potato and thereby circumvent the laws of heredity.  The starkest contrast the petty ignorance of Chonkin is the titanic ignorance of the Soviet leaders who bragged about their friendship with the Germans right up until they were invaded and nearly defeated by them. 

Favorite quotes:

Some people thought he drank because he was a drunkard, while others found the cause in family problems.

All that wouldn't have been so terrible except that, as bad luck would have it, things at the kolkhoz were going poorly.  Not what you would call very poorly, you could even say things were going well, except that they were getting worse and worse every year.

Having heard and carefully considered all the hogwash which each of you, according to his ability, had proposed....

"And just why isn't it going to work? asked Opalikov impatiently.  He did not like any objections, ever.

"There won't be anybody to bring firewood to the kitchen."
"No one is indispensable," said the regimental commander.

His mother's health was frail, she neglected the house, yet somehow they kept going, living from hand to mouth until, one day, she drowned in the river.

Then, at a time known to all, a search for kulaks began in the village.  Although not a single one could be found it was mandatory to find some if only to set an example.

The Chonkins were exiled and Ivan ended up in a Children's Home where, for more than two years, they tormented him with arithmetic. In the beginning he endured it all obediently, but when it came to dividing whole numbers and fractions, he could stand it no longer and hightailed it out of his native village.

From his close observation of life and his fathoming of life's laws, Chonkin had understood that it is usually warm in the summer and cold in the winter.

"He's a decent guy at least?" asked Ninka, efficiently gathering her information.

"First you're a Communist, then you're a chairman.  And diagrams have great political significance.  It's strange to hear a Communist underestimate them.  And I still don't know whether what you're saying is just an error or a firm conviction.  But if you're going to stick to that position, we'll have to take a good hard look at you again, we'll look right into your very heart, goddammit."

Friday, August 24, 2018

Irene Nemirovsky's The Wine of Solitude

After reading The Mirador, a "fictional autobiography" of Irene Nemirovsky by her daughter, I felt compelled to tackle those Nemirovsky's novels that touch upon her early years in the Russian Empire. The Wine of Solitude is such a book, and clearly provided her daughter with much of the inspiration for the early chapters of The Mirador.  Like many of her books, it features a wicked, self-absorbed mother, and a wealthy father.  Like the author, the non-observant Jewish protagonist, Helene, grew up in the Ukraine.  She described her childhood hometown thus: "The silence of the sleepy provincial town, lost deep within Russia, was intense, heavy and overwhelmingly sad."  Later, Helene moved as  St. Petersburg, but it equally depressing, introducing the famous capital city accordingly: "How harshly it blew, that day, the biting north wind, and what a sickly odor of filthy water rose from the Neva." Soon, Helene was displaced again, and this time by the Revolution.  Moving briefly to Finland, she ultimately found her way to France, which she already knew from a series of earlier vacations.

The book's chief virtue is that it's told from the point of view of youth, but lacks any sense of condescension.  While young, Helene is perfectly capable of maintaining her own intellectual vitality, and equally capable of offering the reader an uncompromising critique of the adults in her life.  While the novel doesn't dwell on the Revolution, it does demonstrate the extent to which the Revolution could serve as a plot point in the psychological development of Russians.  The Revolution was both a social fact and an individual one.  The Revolution led Helene into exile but, unusually for the time, did not diminish the wealth for her family.  It did however appear as a sad or even tragic event, somehow mirroring Helene's own bitterness about her family situation.  Great events, like great cities, could be experienced as new forms of tragedy. Without sentimentalism, the author introduces the twentieth century's most influential political convulsion with deliberately minimal commentary.  "The February Revolution came and went, then the October Revolution.  The city was distraught, buried in snow."

The Wine of Solitude is a deeply personal novel, somehow describing the personal pain of the protagonist and the universal pain of entering the inhospitable world of adulthood.   However, the novel is also a commentary on Russia, which forced Helene into exile.  The Revolution did not bring joy to people like Helene. Instead, it brought a new level of chaos, decay, and disorder.  In fact, its chief visual legacy for Helene was garbage.  As the author remarks:  "In the darkness they could smell the rancid odor of the canals;  no one had bothered to clean them since the February Revolution;  no one bothered to repair their stones;  the city was crumbling beneath the weight of the water, slowly disintegrating, becoming a city of smoke, illusions and fog, retreating into a void."

The chaos of post-revolutionary Russia soon led to exile, which often entailed new forms of confusion and anxiety, if not also delusion.  Where should exiles go if they could no longer live in their homeland?  "They talked about Shanghai, Tehran, Constantinople.  They had to leave.  But where should they go?  Danger was everywhere, but since everyone was in the same boat it seemed less urgent;  it would pass."  Helene ultimately landed in France, physically safe and still relatively rich.  But of course even safety can be experienced as trauma if one's father remains psychologically distant, and one's mother is your rival rather than protector.

A few quotes from the book: 

...she was always sad, complaining, anxious: everything was an excuse for her to sigh, to lament. "Life is bad," she would say.  "God is terrible.  Men are harsh..."

Take my time, my care, my blood, my flesh...she seemed to be saying as she stared at them with her soft, dead eyes.

Her entire life was scarred by the marks of misfortune and unhappiness;  she had experienced poverty, illness, the death of people she loved;  her husband had cheated on her, betrayed her;  she felt that her daughter and her husband could barely stand her.  She had been born old, anxious, weary, while everyone around her was overflowing with vitality and passionate desires.  But her main affliction was a kind of prophetic sadness;  she seemed more included to fear the future than weep for the past.

A rush of anguish suddenly ran through the child, making her shudder;  she sat in a corner holding a book, quiet and alone;  she felt as if she could sense the solitude of the grave;  the room became hostile and frightening;  beyond the narrow circle of the light from the lamp, darkness reigned;  the shadows slithered toward Helene, rising to engulf her;  she strained to push them away, like a swimmer pushing back the water with his arms.

It was late autumn and the children were confined to the safety of their room, to protect them from the cold air that Russians feared as if it were a plague.

On one side of her was her husband, who wore glasses and had cold, pale hands;  on the other her long-standing lover, who was even older, fatter, and balder than her husband.

"Your hair's no naturally curly, is it?" Her lips were so pursed that they words came out in a kind of soft whistle, like the sound of a flute.
"Jealous bitch," thought Helene.

"Did you also know Safronov senior when he was at the height of his success?" asked Madame Manasse.  "When I came to live here he was already old."
"Yes, I did know him.  He squandered three fortunes:  his mother's, his wife's and his daughter's, who had some money left to her by his wife's father.  Three fortunes..."

Oh, how she hated Mademoiselle Rose.  It was a shy hatred, but a profound one.

"Live with the dogs, not like them," he sometimes told Karol, since Karol loved gambling, wine and women.

"What is in the interest of Russia," Chestov said harshly and looked around him, haughtily scrutinizing everyone as if to remind them all that he was the representative of the government and had the right to look deep into their hearts and souls in the name of the Emperor.

"What am I complaining about?" she thought. "I'm no different from anyone else.  Of course, everyone's house has an adulterous wife, unhappy children, and busy men who think only of money.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Elisabeth Gille's The Mirador

Elisabeth Gille's book, The Mirador, is a beautiful alloy:  it's both a creative work of fiction, and an imaginative biography of her mother, whom she lost when she was very young.  With insight from  extensive historical research, Gille wrote a fictional memoir of her mother.  The book is beautifully written, and tells the story of Nemirovsky's childhood in Kiev, coming of age in St. Petersburg, exile in Paris, and eventually doom in the Nazi-occupied French countryside. It's themes revolve around Nemirovsky's Jewish ethnicity, even though she had few if any religious beliefs.

Born into great and constantly increasing wealth, Nemirovsky was nevertheless constantly threatened by anti-semitism.  In the Ukraine, she was the witness to deadly programs.  In St. Petersburg, she remained acutely aware of the tsar's anti-Semitic legal regime.  Fleeing the Revolution, she easily reestablished herself in Paris, and eventually parleyed her perfect French into a highly successful literary career, before fleeing the Nazi invasion and falling victim to Vichy France's cruel anti-Jewish regulations.  

Gille's book operates on several levels.  It is one the one hand the story of a young woman's attempt to make her way in the world in the shadow of a powerful if malevolent mother, whose sexual and class vanity apparently new few bounds. On the other hand, it's the story of a woman who is constantly being defined by her Jewish background. In fact, by the story's conclusion, one starts to feel as if Gille was telling the whole story of the European Jews when she discussed her mother's fate. While Gille always admits that her mother was not prescient about French or European anti-semitism, she goes out of her way to demonstrate the extent to which her mother's life was circumscribed by bigotry.  From the Black Hundreds of Russia to Action Francaise, no European Jew living in the first part of the twentieth century could possibly escape some level of persecution.  Even before Hitler's rise to power, Jewishness--in all of its religious, cultural, and allegedly biological dimensions-- was deeply problematic for a great part of European Christians.

 The book, of course, ends with Nemirovsky standing at the brink of deportation to Auschwitz.  In some ways, the demise of the brilliant French writer, Nemirovsky, in the holocaust demonstrates one more dimension of the horror of Nazism.  As hard as Nemirovsky sometimes seemed to have tried to assimilate, and as privileged as she was at every state of her life, there was simply no escaping Europe's inability to come to terms with difference. Gille's book demonstrates the original appeal of Zionism.  Whether you were in Russia or France, whether you were rich or poor, and whether you embraced your religion or ignored its rituals, your continued existence was, in the end, an open question.

 The sadness of Gille's book reminds me of Gershom Scholem's biography, From Berlin to Jerusalem:  Memories of My Youth, where the great Jewish thinker reminded readers that Zionism would have meant something very different if such a large part of the Jewish people had not been destroyed. Whatever Israel is now, its cultural vitality and generosity of spirit would have been many times richer if European Jewish culture had remained on its nineteenth century trajectory.  Whether Jews like Nemirovsky fled to Israel, or stayed alive in Europe, they would certainly have made Israel a better place.

Some favorite quotes from the book:

In the spring of 1918, everyone had an opinion, a story to tell, a picture to paint, or a poem to declaim.

Because of the Bolsheviks, I never celebrated my fifteenth birthday.

The opening of the play may have marked the moment of my true rupture with my mother.  I had not yet forgiven her for her terrible reaction to my announcement that I was pregnant two years earlier, when she had begged me, on her knees, to have an abortion.

Have I changed so much, once deliciously and exotically Slavic, now an unrecognizable Yid?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Favorite Quotes from Amis' House of Meetings

Below are a few favorite quotes from Martin Amis' House of Meetings.

You are as well-prepared as any young Westerner could hope to be, equipped with good diet, lavish health insurance, two degrees, foreign travel and languages, orthodonture, psychotherapy, property, and capital;  and your skin is a beautiful color.  Look at you--look at the burnish of you.

..this is a love story.  All right, Russian love.  But still love.

Given Russian distances, and the general arduousness of Russian life, you'd expect a verst to be the equivalent of--I don't know--thirty-nine miles.  It's barely more than a kilometer.

Moscow is impressive--grimly fantastic in its pelf.

The Siberian expanse, the olive-green immensity--it would frighten you, I think;  but it makes Russians feel important.

All the money has been divided up between the felons and the state.

My story would be even worse in Russian.  For it is truly a tale of gutterals and nasals and whistling sibilants.

It's not the USSR I don't like.  What I don't like is the northern Eurasian plain.  I don't like the "directed democracy," and I don't like Soviet power, and I don't like tsars, and I don't like Mongol overlords, and I don't like the theocratic dynasts of old Moscow and Kiev.

There is in front of me on the screen of my computer, the graph with its two crinkly lines intersecting, one pink, one blue.  The birth rate, the death rate.  They call it the Russian cross.

By now the five-week Arctic summer was under way.  It was as if nature woke up in July and realized how badly she had neglected her guests;  and then of course she completely overdid it. There was something gushing and hysterical in the show she put on...

There were in fact enormous quantities of thwarted love, of trapped love, in the slave archipelago.

The Secret Speech caused a planetary sensation.  It was "the first time" a Russian leader had ever acknowledged the transgressions of the state.  It was the first time.  It was the last time too, more or less...

Joseph Vissarionovich:  I knew his face better than I knew my own mother's.

You must try to imagine it, the disgusting proximity of the state, its body odor, its breath on your neck, its stupidly expectant stare.

But at the time we had no idea what was going on.  We never had any idea what was going on.

You have consumed your share of Russian novels:  every time a new character appears, there is a chapter break and you are suddenly reading about his grandparents.  This too is a digression.  And its import is sexual.

That's how a "love triangle" could be wonderfully simplified.  An anonymous phone call, an unsigned letter, to the secret police.

...the shortage of housing was slightly eased by the shortage of people...

Universal dissatisfaction took the following form:  everyone everywhere complained about everything.

Come over here to participate in the Soviet experiment, he told the CP man who issued his passport that he was fully prepared to take the big cut in his standard of living.  That same day he got the quarter--twenty-five years. And were you praising America?

I remember the convocations of the Komsomol:  try to imagine something halfway between a temperance meetings and a Nurenberg Rally.

Something strange was happening in the Soviet Union, after the war against fascism:  fascism.

Over here, now, there's no angling around for your male midlife crisis.  It is brought to you and it is always the same.  It is death.

The train rocks and knocks across the simplified land forms of the tundra: Russia's great white page, awaiting the characters and sentences of history.

In the Gulag, it was not the case that people died like flies.  Rather, flies died like people.

At the moment of arrest you already feel halfway vanished.  In prison you're a former person and already dead.  In camp you're almost sure you've never been.

The sound seemed to trumpet the dawn of a new dominion (more savage, more stupid, more certain) and to repudiate the laxity and amateurism of the day before.

"...if God really cared about us, he would never have given us religion." But this loose syllogism is easily exploded, and all questions of theodicy simply dissappear--if God is a Russian.

I became convinced, around then, that boredom was the second pillar of the system--the first being terror.

Now [Stalin] was nowhere.  But he used to be everywhere. 

I knew then that massacres want to happen.  Massacres want there to be massacres. 

The center--I could feel it tugging at me, with its women and its money.  And in the late summer of 1958 I started orbiting Moscow. 

Between 1946 and 1957 I ate two apples, one in 1949 and one in 1955. 

He despised my appetite.  I had drive, and all Russians hate that. 

We were both subject to the centuries-old momentum of Russian drunkenness

Now, smoking (like drinking) allays anxiety.  So try not smoking in Russia and see how far you get.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Gulag in Fiction

Like many people, I have relied upon nonfiction books such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History to help me understand one of the twentieth century's greatest moral catastrophes.  This past month, I dipped into several works of modern fiction to see what novelists could do to further explain the historical and moral meaning of Stalin's grand experiment with systematic cruelty and economic exploitation.  The first book, Martin Amis' House of Meetings is a powerful work of fiction predicted to some extent on the Amis family's historical antagonism to Stalinism, previously discussed in his memorable nonfiction account of Stalin's legacy, Koba the Dread:  Laughter and the Twenty Million.  For me, the best part of House of Meetings is that Amis gives the denizens of the gulag a great deal of agency.  That is to say, Amis' narrator is not merely a victim, but also a multidimensional character capable of inflicting both good and evil on those around him.  Amis' novel provides readers with a detailed description of the violence, brutality, and hunger associated with life in the gulag, but it also manages to tell a story of love and hate that is not completely subsumed by the coercive exigencies of prison life in Russia's inhospitable northern climates.  The protagonist of the House of Meetings is not a martyr, but a typical Russian who has been at one time or the other both an exploited person and one who has exploited others.  In fact, Amis is careful to tell us that his protagonist had raped Russian women in the course of his participation in the conquest of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.  Thus, Amis' protagonist has already been victim and the victimiser prior to his experience in the camp.  And both in the camp, and after the camp, the narrator will possess his moral Janus-head:  on the one hand, the narrator nobly protects his defenseless brother from camp villains, but on the other hand,  employs extreme forms of violence to do so. 

Perhaps the moral ambiguity of the narrator is fitting for a story of the gulag, where innocence quickly disappeared in a savage fight for existence against guards, the so-called "bitches" and "brutes," and other camp actors.  Certainly gulag characters deserve to be depicted as something other than passive recipients of communist cruelty.  Another excellent approach to the gulag was written by novel prize-winner, Herta Muller, an ethnic German from Romania whose own mother once survived a deportation to the gulag.  Muller's treatment of camp life is meticulous.  It's creative power stems from the fact that Muller has analyzed so many components of gulag life in such exquisite detail.  In fact, each chapter of The Hunger Angel explores an extremely specific facet of camp life, such as bread-hoarding, in order to depict or even create a complete universe of suffering for readers.  Like Amis, Muller does acknowledge that her protagonists were not purely the subjects of history.  As ethnic Germans, they had listened to German propaganda and felt a great deal of sympathy for the German Chancellor.  Although they had not personally committed any crimes against humanity, they had been typical of men and women in the 1930s had done little to resist the advancing tide of totalitarianism. More than that, they had not even realized Hitlerism was an evil.  And then again in the camps, Muller's subjects were thrown into a moral morass almost incapable of supporting the existence of heroes. 

A third creative approach to the gulag appears in Anthony Marra's wonderfully witty and wise collection of linked short stories, entitled The Tsar of Love and Techno. Although Marra's book isn't centered in the gulag, it does demonstrate the centrality of the slave labor system to twentieth century Russian lives.  Marra's short stories span seven or so decades, but in each case the gulag plays an important direct or indirect role in character story-lines.  Characters are either worried about being sent to the gulag in the Great Terror, struggling to survive the gulag, or living in its shadow.   Marra's book has much to recommend it.  Its dialogue is clever, its stories linked together in original ways, and its depiction of both Soviet and post-Soviet life spot on.  But perhaps the book's best quality is the way in which Marra, like the other authors mentioned in this post, gives agency to his characters without ignoring the tragedy of gulag life.  For Marra, the gulag seems to be both a microcosm of totalitarianism and also an explanation of both the demographic and moral state of modern Russia.  Although Marra ends his story by dwelling on the moral morass of the Chechen conflict, he seems to be saying that it wouldn't have been possible without the lasting effects of the authoritarian legacy of the Great Terror and its associated prison system.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Curzio Malaparte's The Kremlin Ball

The prose of Curzio Malaparte's unfinished novel, The Kremlin Ball, is as stylistically inventive as its ideological perspective is historically destabilizing.  To read Malaparte, is to be bombarded by frenzied dialogue, absurdist plot lines, biting political satire, and madcap descriptions of Russia's Bolshevik elite in 1929. But to read Malaparte is also to be stunned by his depiction of the Soviet elite as just another decadent aristocracy.

Malaparte's vertiginous prose relies upon the stylistic conventions of journalism and creative fiction in equal measure.  The Italian diplomat, political actor, journalist, and cinematographer, frenetic plot has few analogues, but could perhaps be compared to the comic tone and modernist pyrotechnics in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.  The protagonist, an Italian diplomat with old-world charm, seems to regularly encounter Moscow's most inaccessible political actors, including Lunacharsky and Tolstoy's sister.  In terms of content, the protagonist seems intent on proving that Moscow's new revolutionary elite is every bit as pretentious and out of touch as Europe's most fragile ruling classes. 
Malaparte's novel seems as intimate as a roman a clef, only the circle of his protagonist's circle of acquaintances is large enough to include several dead people, including Lenin (slowly rotting despite the best efforts of embalmers) and Mayakovsky (whose suicide is interpreted as a revolutionary act of bourgeois romanticism). 

As one might expect, Malaparte's Stalin-directed Soviet Union of 1929 is militantly atheistic and awash in political orthodoxy.  However, it's also shockingly hypocritical.  Its leaders shop abroad, display their power to one another, and do their best to hang on to power for its own sake. Traditionally, the Soviet Union has been depicted as absurdly terrifying as it entered into the bloody 1930s.  But Mapaparte's genius is to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was terrifyingly absurd as well.  In some ways, this insight into the insanity of totalitarian Russia was recently replicated in the move, The Death of Stalin.  One customarily, and understandably, dwells upon the horror of Stalin and his bloody epoch.  The movie, The Dean of Stalin, seems to reverse the equation:  asking the audience to note how, given enough historical distance or philosophical perspective, even terror can prove to be ridiculous.  For only terror could have produced the circumstances in which Stalin's heirs prevented Stalin from getting immediate medical attention, or produced such intertwined sycophantic ravings and cynical power plays.

Some favorite Quotes from Malaparte's The Kremlin Ball

Curzio Malaparte's unfinished novel, The Kremlin Ball


One day while speaking with Lunacharsky, the author asked him if a Marcel Proust existed in Russia. 
"Yes," Luncharsky responded, "every Soviet writer is a proletarian Proust."

Since the Europe of tomorrow is to be found in the Russia of tomorrow, it is equally true that the Europe of today is to be found in the Russia of today.

The time for laughter is well-night over for the free men of our times.

Character Descriptions

Her black eyes were swollen with sensuality, malice, and lack of sleep. So unlike the glassy eyes of Russian working-class women, her eyes were eyes of the flesh in which images didn't reflect but appeared tattooed.

She had a large pulpy mouth with thick lips across which an ironic and sometimes spiteful smile strayed like a ray of light through the crack beneath a closed door.

Madame Yegorova was a petite brunette, very beautiful, clad in soft flab like a pearl in a velvet case, and, like a pearl, she had a damp, cold listlessness, a savage delicacy, a multi-shaded gray sheen of indifference, a distracted, distant callousness.

At the base of the Kremlin wall in Red Square, inside the great wooden mausoleum designed by Shchusev, Lenin's mummy, small and shrunken like the mummy of a child, was slowly rotting.  Periodically, German specialists showed up from Berlin to empty, scrape out, and disinfect the shell of that precious crustacean, that sacred mummy, the porcelain white face lit up by freckles veiled by a greenish mold-like sweat.

His small decrepit hand, dark and hairy, moved across his face like a large spider on its web.

Communist Elite

The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity, and power:  It is suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence.

From a social point of view, actually, snobbishness was the hidden source behind the many worldly activities of that very powerful, and already corrupt, society, which had lived, up until just a moment before, in misery, suspicion, and with the uncertainty of secrecy and emigration.

I felt it was all doomed--all that rot, that corrupt class, that great jumble of prostitutes, pederasts, actors, actresses, libertines, and profiteers, of Nepmen and kulaks, of black-market merchants, of Soviet functionaries who bought their clothes in London and Paris, and imitated the fashions in New York and Berlin...

Moscow's communist high nobility didn't  like to show off in public places.

"Only a blind man," he said, "could laugh at Lunacharsky.  Of all the communist high nobility in Moscow, he is the only one who has a presentiment of death."


"And to think," she said after a brief silence, " I am accused of having counterrevolutionary tendencies simply because I dress decently."

"Here in Moscow, one likes only what is liked by the workers."
Everyone contents himself with whatever Napoleon he happens to find.

Kamenev was a harmless man, but one doesn't have the right to be a harmless man when among the leaders of a revolution.

"Not everyone knows how to die in a gilded armchair..."

"William Blake saw angels perched on tree branches," Mayakovsky said.
"Hush, it's forbidden to speak of angels in Russia."

"Mayakovsky was nothing but a dirty bourgeois."

"Mayakovsky didn't have the right to kill himself."
"You're right, Marika," I said.  "In Russia, it is forbidden to kill oneself for nothing."
"The word nothing," Marika said, "doesn't exist in Lenin's Russia."

"Why do you want to see the room where Mayakovsky died?" Lunacharsky asked.  "Are you by chance a bourgeois romantic?"

"...occasionally there are deaths, but never corpses."

"Are you sure you believe in God?  All foreigners, as soon as they've set foot in Soviet Russia, suddenly realize they believe in God!"

To what, I asked myself, could an intelligent man ever be converted to in America?

"In Soviet Russia," I said, "suicide has the explosive power of a miracle."

In the USSR, miracles don't happen.  God doesn't count for anything here and has nothing to do with what happens in Soviet Russia.

What presumption, what insolence, what a lack of tact to be stationmaster during a revolution.  He deserved what he go.  It's a luxury to be innocent when the world is blowing up like an old locomotive boiler.

It was a bourgeois presumption to believe oneself innocent, always innocent.  Christ hadn't possessed that stupid bourgeois presumption.

Jesus Christ was a notorious instrument of global capitalism, a dangerous Trotskyite.

On Soviet Man

He was the first "lonely" man that I had seen in Soviet Russia, where loneliness was considered a luxury, a form of bourgeois degeneracy, an intellectual condition that was incompatible with Marxism.

"What is Christ called in Soviet Russia?  In the USSR where is Christ hiding?"

"Christ is by now a useless character in Russia.  It's useless to be Christian in Russia.  We don't need Christ anymore."

"Christ was not resurrected!  When Christ tried to go up to heaven he was shot down by the glorious Red Army Air Force."

"Why are you laughing?" he asked me.  "Perhaps you find me ridiculous?  Perhaps you think that an armchair in Soviet Russia is a useless and ridiculous object?  Lenin actually died in an armchair."

"What do poets sing about in Russia?" I asked in a raised voice.
"...We sing of the smell of iron filings," he said, "of the smell of human sweat in Soviet workshops full of men drunk on weariness, we sing of calloused hands, unkempt beards, of the flaming eyes of naked men before the mouths of the blast furnaces.  We sing of the Five-Year Plan, of tractors, of mechanical plots, anvils, hammers and trip hammers, of Stalin's genius and of the red flags fluttering on factory chimneys."

In the USSR, a waistcoat and a briefcase under your arm were signs of power.

Suicide in the USSR was a typical counterrevolutionary act...

He was a man without guilt, an innocent man, finding himself at a particular moment in the middle of the railway tracks, and the locomotive that was the Soviet Revolution had run him down.


One cannot pretend that in a revolution only the guilty die.  Imagine such a thing!  Someone has to die.  In fact, the death of someone innocent is always much more useful than the death of someone guilty.

On Russians

I asked myself if his personality hadn't been, in fact, determined by that typical Slavic narcissism that afflicts every character in Russian literature, especially in Dostoevsky, as well as every Russian hero, be he the most humble, the most deprived, the most ignoble, the most corrupt.

He appeared oppressed by a resentful modesty, by a sad jealousy, but at the same time intoxicated by the deep gratification of his own public humiliation, which is characteristic of Russians and left him naked and helpless.

...displaying that loving familiarity with the dead unique to Russian people.

"All of Russia is a tomb.  All of Russia is Stalin's tomb."


Sparrow Hills, St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin

Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Bulgakov, Yesenin, Mayakovsky, Isadora Duncan


Stalin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Luncharsky, Lenin, Patriarch Tikhon, Trotsky's sister (Madame Kamrneva), Prince Lvov, Chekhov, Solovyov, Krapotkin