Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Vsevolod Ivanov's Fertility and Other Stories


Lately, I've been struck by a style of Russian (or perhaps Soviet) writing I had never encountered before.  The style is haunting, lonely, and depressing;  it's intimately familiar with devastated landscapes and forlorn animals.  It seems at home in extremes of climate, whether desert, mountains, or Siberian tundra, and draws inspiration from human tragedies related to war, pestilence, and famine.  It's usually, though not always, associated with the Eastern outposts of Russian influence, including the Central Asian Republics and Mongolia.  The style is elliptical, rarely explaining any of its characters' motivations in full.  It breaks down the boundaries between the natural world and the world of culture.  In this writing, animals have human qualities, and humans have animal qualities.  The clouds and other natural objects have the ability to suggest human sadness. 

Plotonov's Soul is no doubt the genre's masterpiece.  Here, the novelist suggests a level of human grief and tragic destiny that borders on the transcendent.  Plotonov's sad characters seem almost to be experiencing sadness or loneliness as a form of spiritual practice, as if their grief might somehow become pure enough to lift them on to some higher plane of existence.  David Bergelson's book, Judgement, seems to be another example of this style of writing.  Although the book takes place in the West, it also describes a bleak landscape of human and animal suffering, with  nature (and even the houses set against that nature) seem to be exhibiting malevolent intentions toward men and women.

In some cases, the scale of suffering seems linked to the legacy of World War I or the Russian Civil War.  Certainly Vsevelod's Fertility and Other Stories inspired by the violence, disorder, and hunger associated with these chaotic years.  Here, it seems that the author could only have used a new style to suggest that no traditional sense of realism (and no 19th century vocabulary) could explain what had happened to Russia.  This level of tragedy was simply inexpressible, at least directly.  Humans couldn't possibly bear the weight of abandonment, terror, and grief by themselves.  The landscape had to should its share of the trauma as well.

But of course the Soviet Union didn't stop suffering in the 1920s.  Things grew worse in the late 1930s, and then World War II set a new standard in human misery.  And that misery reverberated for decades afterward.  For this reason, this new style of fiction made sense to writers even as late as the 1990s, when Hamid Ismailov wrote his Central Asian masterpiece, The Railway, in which decaying communism and Islam collide. 


Below are a few of my favorite quotations from some of the stories in Vsevelod Ivanov's Fertility and Other Stories. 

Empty Arapia

The trees grew out of rats.  The sun began out of rats, and the win blowing above the rats was a thin-ribbed hungry dog.
Then birds with hungry scarlet beaks flew out from behind the sky.

The sun, fat from overeating, settled on the trees.  The clouds stuck out their fat, protruding stomachs.

Nadka;s speech was somewhat hoarse, with gasps for air from hunger. She didn't have enough saliva for words.

Whole earth is sand.  Blue sands.  And the sky is blue sand.

Rabbits have run off to the lands of Arapia, leaving the bark for people to gnaw on.  It's a sly animal.


The Child

Mongolia is a wild and joyless beast!  The rock is a beast, the water is a beast;  even a butterfly, even it schemes to sting.

And the Kirghiz women, sighting the Russians, would like down submissively on their backs.

Their narrow eyes shone crimson, like a wound from a fishhook. 

Afanasy Spat.
"You're a monster and a bourgeois... You have no feelings, you bastard."

Selivanov called a meeting and declared, "A Christian lad shouldn't die like an animal.  Let's say the father's a bourgeois, but what about the child?  It's innocent."

And beyond the canvas tent, no one knew where, ran the gullies, the cliffs, the steppe, alien Mongolia.
No one knew where Mongolia ran--the wild and joyless beast.

The Return of the Buddha

"...interest in history always intensifies in revolutionary times."

"During a revolution the goal of self-preservation makes it essential to stay home."

"Citizen professor...when there's a revolution going on, it's not an opportune time to drag your feet."

"As a result of the Revolution foreigners are going to despise Russia just as much as they were afraid of it before."

Only he doesn't understand where they get the tea; there's no tea at all in Russia right now.

The station bells jingle frostily.  The station bells are are ringing the funeral bells for Russia.

In times past, if he had wanted to eat...he would have bought some food.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Selected Quotations from Grossman's A Writer at War

Below are a Few Selected Quotations from Grossman's A Writer at War



We leafed through a series of the Front newspaper.  I came across the following phrase in a leading article:  "The much-battered enemy continued his cowardly advance."

A photographer remarks:  "I saw some very good refugees yesterday."

"I've got a simple soul, as simple as a balalaika.  It isn't afraid of death.  It's those with precious souls who fear death."

Green and white rockets.  Their light is mean, dishonest, not like daylight.  A ripple of shots.  People are neither seen nor heard.  It is like a riot of machines.

The shifting sense of danger.  A place seems frightening at first, but afterwards you will remember it being as safe as your Moscow apartment.

Wounded men kept arriving, they were all wet with blood and rain.

Green tomatoes are ripening on the roof, flowers amuse themselves in the garden.

An old woman says:  "Who knows whether God exists or not.  I pray to Him.  It's not a difficult job. You give Him two or three nods, and who knows, perhaps He'll accept you."

In empty izbas. Everything has been taken away, except for icons. It's so unlike Nekrasov's peasants, who would first of all save icons when there is a fire, leaving other pieces of property to burn.

He responds to the request of a divisional commander to postpone the attack because of the loss of men:  "Tell him I'll postpone it when he's the only one left."

The sky has become German.  We've seen none of our aircraft for weeks.

The landlady, a real mastodon with a husky voice, rattles, swears, hisses at children and objects...At night, in the darkness I hear someone sobbing.  "Who's that?"  The landlady replies in a husky replies in a husky whisper:  "It's me.  I've got seven children, I'm lamenting them."

Tolstoy's grave.  Roar of fighters over it, humming of explosions and the majestic calm autumn.

"Why didn't you write anything about the heroic defense of the Orel?"
"Because there was no defense."

Boginava told her that she should marry him, and threatened to shoot her.

"Ramming--that's Russian character.  It's the Soviet upbringing."

At war, a Russian man puts on a white shirt.  He may live in sin, but he dies like a saint.

One does not say now of somebody that they have been "killed," but "he has covered himself." "My friend has covered himself, he was such a great chap."

Pilots say:  "Our life is like a child's shirt--it's short and covered with shit all over."

Purely by chance, Khasin saw photographs of the dead people in a ditch and recognized his wife and children.


Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War

Lately, I've been overwhelmed by the Russian literary tradition of finding literary beauty in everyday speech.  More than anyone, Svetlana Alexievich embodies this tradition.  And her introduction to Secondhand Time is perhaps the best explanation of this art form.  According to Alexievich, her goal is to find literary power within everyday jargon.  And certainly Alexievich does just this, although the everyday speech she analyzes usually contains literary gems from one only one of two literary genres:  tragedy and horror.  Linor Goralick's Found Life is less profound, but demonstrates that one doesn't need to conduct formal history interviews to find all kinds of beautiful expressions in common speech.  Without any pretensions to anthropology, one can hear the most wonderful creativity on the Moscow subway, or at a private party.

Of course, I may not have uncovered a particularly Russian form of expression.  Perhaps every literary tradition makes use of everyday speech.  But it seems that Russians must have a better ear than most other Europeans.  Or perhaps it's the tragedy of twentieth century Russian life that transcends quotidian dialogues and makes sense on the printer page.  This at any rate seems to be what makes Vasily Grossman's writings from the front line of World War II so quotable and so memorable.  Grossman was a brilliant journalist, and the conflict he witnessed was so incredibly tragic (even measured by the horrific standards of other modern wars), that perhaps anything he wrote down would demand our attention.  But somehow Grossman seems to have an uncanny sense of how to capture the full horror of the Soviet experience in war in the seemingly ephemeral observations, quips, jokes, and comments he overhears when mingling with ordinary Soviet soldiers.

Grossman's articles and journal notes deserve attention on their own merit.  The wonderful contextual commentary of Anthony Beevor help readers to put these causal writings into historical context. But one also suspects that these musings were the building blocks of Grossman's more traditional literary masterpiece,  Life and Fate.  

Monday, December 10, 2018

Quotations from Lev Ozerov

Below are a few favorite lines from Lev Ozerov's Portraits without Frames


Khrushchev's sevenfold retinue
were falling over themelves,

No.  Like a forest or a garden
before a storm,
he was prepared to take the hit,

He felt the breath of the eleventh century

I wasn't walking behind him--
I was being drawn inexorably in his wake.

People like him are loved, but not
by envious courtiers,
slanderers, executioners,
smooth-tongued informers,
and members of the nomenclature.


but their ways are artful,
their craft invisible

He melted like a candle,
more swiftly than a candle. The era
of suspicion had set in..

He was in Komsomolsk,
on the river Amur.
Even in this hell
he knew moments of triumph.

Like it or not, he mastered
a few different crafts.
All came in handy: 
patience, silence, competence,
competence, deftness, silence.

If you want to speak,
keep silent.
There are ears everywhere,
ears and more ears.

Terribly cold--
and nothing to eat.
Only black,
soot-covered icicles--
prisoners' popsicle,
cattle-track toffee.

The dacha smells
of pine shavings and sun.

His politeness rings
and tinkles
like a teaspoon in a glass.

You cannot stay angry with Korney Ivanovich.
He has rewarded you with a smile,
a flick of the wrist, the  manners of Oxford,

A Tacitus of prosody,
knocked off course by his enemies!

the rainstorm is having a ball--
it slams raindrops into the pavement
and hammers them flat as they fall.

with the bows of suffering
on violins of time

The tips of his forehead and chin
reach for each other;
between them nests the clever smile

On legs of jelly
I went off to the Lybyanka

as he searched for the right,
astonishing word,
what you saw was a centaur,
a battle-bowed, armor-clad
warrior of the word--

At a time like this
honest people are not asleep.

The Tretykaov Gallery is turning
quietly crimson, as it often does
at dawn, enjoying a rest from visitors
and their all-knowing guides.

The doctor gently touched his back
and said, "I understand.
I'm not asking whether
or not you drink. I don't
need to.  I'm asking if
you have a bite to eat
when you drink."

His doctor's coat is laundered blue-white
and is so starched that it rustles.
A kingpin medic,
with a pack of assistants

Angina, high blood pressure,
a heart corroded by tyranny,

Verdure and stone,
cheek by jowl--
so begins
the story of our lives.

Looking after his friends was his vocation,
his "small area of expertise,"
as he sometimes put it.

There are a lot of cars.
Which are Black Marias,
we don't know.

a truly Soviet
caricature of a capitalist,
a man, I could see,
with an unerring
eye for commercial opportunity.




Chekhov Revised

The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov, edited by Vera Gottlieb and Paul Allain, is a treasure drove of information about one of Russia's most important writers. It's got wonderful essays on each of Chekhov's major plays, as well as an essay that discusses his lesser known, but still well-made, short plays.  It's also got informative essays on Chekhov's influence on acting, stagecraft, and film, and other essays on his short stories.   Below are some short descriptions of just a few of the essays that I found particularly intriguing.  Overall, one gets a sense of Chekhov's aesthetic genius, but also a sense that this genius may be a little less historically transcendent than we might have once believed.  In other words, the essays convince us that Chekhov had something extremely important to say about the human condition in the early part of the twentieth century, but that his insight may have been particularly shocking at a particular moment in European literary history.  Perhaps this is as it should be.  Plays, in particular, often seem to be rooted in a particular aesthetic moment, although Greek Plays, Shakespeare, and maybe Oscar Wilde, seem to weather the passing of time rather well.

Alexander Chudakov

Chudakov's biographical essay on Chekhov emphasizes the fact that the author was always grounded in the specific, material problems of existence.  This approach may have originated from the author's experience with medicine and science.  At any rate, Chekhov's aesthetics always involve everyday difficulties and detailed landscapes, and the absence of authorial comment.  Chedukov's approach to storytelling reminds me that I once read a critical analysis of Woody Allen's movie, Annie Hall, in which the critic pointed out that Allen had introduced the love affair in media res, with the couple spilling onto the screen in the midst of a relatively banal fight about the movie they are about to see. By the time the audience meets the two lovers, they sense the two protagonists are already deeply familiar with one another, almost to the point of boredom or annoyance. The realism of Annie Hall stems from the fact that the romanticism of their origins has been eliminated from the script.  Chudakov says Chekhov always placed his characters into precise settings, and drew inspiration from the men and women he had observed in such settings.

Emma Polotskaya

Polotskaya thinks the secret of Chekhov is the metaphors he uses to describe Russia.   He thinks of Russia as a desert, a plain, an abyss, or even a prison. These metaphors all seem to describe some measure of isolation as well as suffering or even oppression. Chekhov wasn't of course only inspired by his art or personal philosophy of existence to think of Russia as a place of suffering.  He had worked among impoverished Russians and encountered misery in his travels to Sakhalin Island. Chekhov's attitude toward Russian misery, or human misery in general,  suggests that he was a pessimist.  However, Chekhov's power as an artist is related to the fact that he was ambivalent about the future.  Clearly, many of his short stories and plays include characters who maintain some level of faith in the ability of individuals to work for the social improvement of Russia.

Anatoly Smeliansky

This author focuses on Chekhov's influence on theater via the Moscow Art Theater.  According to Smeliansky, Chekhov wanted a drama of life rather than a drama in life.  Avoiding any authorial voice, Chekhov obscured his plots and provided audiences with little consolation and no explanation for the tragic dimensions of his plays. His plays were always ensemble productions. He also placed emphasis on the psychological aspects of existence.  As Chekhov once stated, his characters now shot themselves due to ennui rather than due embezzlement, as they had before.

Vera Gottlieb

Gottlieb discovers Chekhov's contributions to a modernist theater in a letter to his brother in 1886.  According to the letter, a playwright should avoid political or social commentary, work toward "total objectivity," truthfully describe persons and objects, avoid prolixity and stereotypes, and cultivate compassion.  Gottlieb also depicts the change in Chekhov's approach to modern tragedy thus:  In conventional theater, characters aren't able to affect change in their environment for one reason or another, but in Chekhov's plays, the characters could take control of their situation, but for "complex reasons" do not elect to do so.

Patrice Pavis

For Pavis, Ivanov bears witness to the invention of a new dramaturgy.  In older plays, audiences encounter well-defined conflicts, well-made plots, clearly externalized actions, dramatic structures that overshadow characters' dramatic words, and characters who acts as the author's mouthpieces.  In Ivanov, we now see ambiguity, ellipsis, unspoken or implicit character motivations, and indeterminacy.  The flow of plot is logical, dramatic, planned, and expected.  The new dramaturgy leaves audiences unguided. New new plot, such as it is, is decentralized.  With Ivanov, Chekhov is in the process of creating a theater of silences, suspension, and subtexts.

Thomas Kilroy

In the Seagull, Chekhov demonstrated a kind of Olympian detachment from his characters' lives. This detachment allowed him to be generous in his views of their everyday tragedies. From this perspective, Chekhov notes that his characters are suffering from the passage of time. And with time flowing irreversibly, no true heroism is really possible.  If anything, a Chekhovian character can only hope to be persistent, to move "through and beyond" failure.  In the Seagull, every character is caught up in the awkward, untidy, confusing present.  While trying to see the future more clearly, Chekhov's characters often appear to be absurd.  However, their absurdity is inevitable--part of the human condition.

Leonid Heifetz

Chekhov's Uncle Vanya portrays a typical Russian intellectual, incapable of achieving greatness through action.  Indeed, Heifetz declares that every character in the play is a born loser.  Heifetz thinks that Chekhov has somehow captured the essence of the twentieth century by depicting a man who isn't even capable of killing himself.




Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Romanoffs--Episode Three (Spoiler Alert)

The first and second episodes of The Romanoffs address the place of the Romanovs within Russian history somewhat obliquely.  The third episode take us to the heart of the Romanov story.  In this episode, an American actress arrives in Vienna to participate in a six-part miniseries about the Romanovs.  As in the first episode, this plot line is utterly cosmopolitan.  The actress playing Empress Alexandra is American, the series is shot in Austria, and the director (a former actress) is French.

Unlike the previous episodes, the mood of the episode is dark, mysterious, and often surreal.  As in a typical horror movie, the American actress is driven to the set by a creepy chauffeur, occupies a room in an old hotel that seems to possess its own secrets, gets startled by people coming to her door (with script notes, it turn out) late at night, and finds hotel staff behaving strangely.  Apparently, the nightmarish quality of the episode is meant to set the stage for the nightmarish conclusion of the Romanov miniseries.

The episode portrays several different scenes of Romanov history.  In one scene in the miniseries, Tsar Nicholas is braiding his wife for her conduct with Rasputin.  In another, Rasputin throws himself at Alexandra.  But there's no doubt that the central point of this miniseries is horror.  A wounded Rasputin is thrown into a river while still alive.  The Czar, his wife, and his children, are all massacred in a basement, their bodies set on fire.

The emotional core of this episode is the American actress' personal response to tragedy.  Having lost her mother, she's vulnerable further emotional distress.  Although a self-confident actress, she's increasingly unsettled by an eccentric director, an on-set love affair with the actor who plays Rasputin, and by the character she is portraying. She begins to imagine things, including a young child, dressed in Romanov clothes, who runs through her room at night.  Was this girl real or imagined? She no longer knows.

The episode concludes with the American actress being forcibly abducted in the middle of the night and tossed into the basement where she and her family will be murdered.  As it turns out, the murder is a farce.  Horrible as the scene is, the dead are all actors.  However, when everyone else gets off the ground, the American actress remains where she is.  While she had earlier expressed skepticism that anyone could ever die of fright, she has, apparently, done just that.

The episode requires viewers to ponder the nature of art.  What would it take for this mediocre American actress to become a great one?  According to her director, she would need to really occupy the position of the Empress.  She would need to be simultaneously powerful and weak;  powerful insofar as she rules a husband, who in turn rules an Empire, and weak insofar as she fears for the health and safety of her hemophiliac son.

But the episode also invites viewers to think of about the meaning of the Romanov murders.  Why are we still creating miniseries about the Romanovs/Romanoffs?  The episode suggests that the enduring legacy of this crime is related to the fact that the Romanovs were utterly unprepared for their fate.  Led into the basement, the czar, expecting to be photographed, but probably fearing the worst, only had time to make a feeble protest before the slaughter began.  

The episode also suggests that the murders possess lasting symbolic, aesthetic, and mythological significance.  After all, by the time of the massacre, Nicholas has been on the thrown for a very long long time. But neither the Austrian miniseries, nor the Romanoff episode that tells the story of this miniseries, spend much time on political narrative, or narrative of any sort.  Rather, the miniseries and Romanoff episode dwell upon one relatively brief, if spectacularly gruesome, moment in time.

Why privilege a moment in time over a long storyline?  The French director provides some clues.
At one point, the director claims to be a Romanov;  later, she admits she is not.  In a sense, she seems to be saying that insofar as the Romanovs have become a part of world mythology, we can all claim to be Romanovs.  That is to say, the Romanoffs aren't really a particular clan who made important choices 100 years ago.  Rather, they are archetypical victims, or perhaps archetypical victimizers/victims if one has participated in the myth more deeply.

At another point in the episode, the director tells her assistant that she can change the specific facts of the Bolshevik coverup for cinematic purposes.  Who, after all, is around to point out her errors?  Here, she seems to be saying that the Romanov murders must now be treated as aesthetic, rather than historical, events. They are horrible, but not for any particular political or moral reason.  Instead, they are horrible because the villainy is so unmitigated, and the victimhood so self-evident.  Like the Clutters in In Cold Blood, Nicholas and his family died for no reason at all, and a basement was involved.  The murders of Nicholas and his family remain horrible, after all, even as they migrated from Siberia to Vienna to Hollywood.




Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Arthur Randsome's The Truth About Russia (1918), and Six Weeks in Russia (1919)

Arthur Ransome's short pamphlet, The Truth About Russia, is an extremely sympathetic firsthand account of the author's short sojourn in Russia in the wake of revolutionary upheaval.  In the immediate aftermath of the revolutionary moment, Ransome, a journalist (and later fantastically successful children's author) who was fluent in the Russian language, analyzes events, interviews revolutionary protagonists, and observes heroic (if sometimes antidemocratic or even authoritarian) attempts to stabilize the new revolutionary government in Russia.  At first glance, the book strikes one as one of the more biased descriptions of the fledgling government. For Ransome seems to be willing to forgive Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik leaders, for everything.  The Bolshevik's willingness to employ terror to pursue political goals is almost entirely ignored, or even defended.  The ruthlessness of revolutionary leaders is downplayed.  The socialist experiment is applauded.  However, the overt bias only temporarily deflects the readers' attention from the author's ability to depict the contingent, vertiginous, and makeshift aspects of the post-revolutionary moment.  Thus, although readers know that government by Soviet turned out to be profoundly authoritarian, Ransome allows us to see that nobody at that time could have been certain that the new government (i.e., Stalinism, which eventually succeeded Lenininsm) would have been so much worse than the old one.  So while Ransome unfairly downplays the importance of the Constituent Assembly, his belief that the Russian Revolution was making things up as it went along is substantively correct.  In 1919, the future still seemed open-ended.  What should each basic government function look like in a revolutionary era?  No one knew for certain.  Marx and Engels' written guidance only took one so far.  Indeed, Ransome's journal reminds us that the revolutionary readers were still waiting for the rest of Europe to follow their example.  To quote Ransome:  "The first aim of the Bolsheviks was, as it always will be, a universal revolution."

Arthur Ransome's more extended essay on revolutionary events, Six Weeks in Russia, follows the Russian Revolution into Civil War.  At this point, Ransome seems more willing to admit that the Revolution has its downside.  From the start, he tells readers that he will defend neither the White Terror nor the Red Terror.  Of course, Ransome remains firmly on the side of the revolutionary project as a whole.  That is to say, he prefers the "dictatorship of the proletariat" to the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie."  But he's now more interested in examining how the Bolsheviks are implementing communism than in why they implemented it.  He follows the government's approach to housing and food distribution (e.g., public feeding houses).  He tracks the government's approach to futurist art (i.e., large paintings depicting the Revolution and sculptures celebrating its anniversary).  He notices the government's attempts to come to terms with transport shortages and industrial disorder. As he notes, "The political excitement of the revolution has passed and today there were no more spectators than are usually to be found in the gallery of the House of Commons."

In general, Six Weeks in Russia demonstrates that the Bolsheviks were actually debating many policies at this early stage of consolidation.  What is more, they were starting to think about concrete problems of food distribution in addition to finding new ways to underwrite global revolution.  Some former enthusiasts were noticing cracks in the facade of communism, and Ransome doesn't ignore this disillusionment altogether. Nevertheless, Ransom retained his sense of enthusiasm about the early stages of a grand experiment.  Indeed, Ransome was almost starstruck by Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Chicherin, Kollontai, and other socialist luminaries. Generally, Ransome was optimistic about the future of Russian communism.  However, his short memoir does betray a continual anxiety among Soviet leaders about conspiracies, social enemies, and external foes.  While it's difficult to see how early Soviet government converted to full-scale Terror, the signs of paranoia are not altogether absent from Ransome's portrayal of early Soviet thinking.  The peasants, for instance, are not yet tamed.  As Bukarin admits,



Quotations from The Truth About Russia

Those whom the gods love take the youth of their hearts and throw themselves gladly on that side, even if, clear-sighted, they perceive that the fires of revolution will burn up perhaps the very things that, for themselves they hold most dear.

I think it possible that the revolution will fail.  If so, then its failure will not mean that it loses its importance.

Revolutions are not definite political acts carried out by the majority in a nation who are unanimous in desiring a single definite object.

...revolution is a kind of speeding up of the political flux...

...revolution is not an act of political life but a state of political life.

...there was not a single class in the nation that was not dissatisfied with the Tsar.  The tsar, accordingly, left the stage as politely as he could, as painlessly as a person in a play.

....they having forgotten that they were fighting for a democracy, and that the enfranchisment of 180 million souls was in itself a greater victory than they had set out to gain...

The point that I wish to make is this that from the first moment of the revolution to the present day, the real authority of the Soviets has been unshaken.

Every workman, every peasant in Russia has the right to vote in the election of deputies to his local Soviet...

No one contends that the Bolsheviks are angels.

Quotations from Six Weeks in Russia

"the greatest convulsion in the history of our civilization"

"appeal of the revolution"

"the creative effort of the revolution"

I asked her how she liked the revolution.  She said there was not a lot to eat, but she felt freer.


Monday, October 29, 2018

Gaito Gazdanov's The Specter of Alexander Wolf

Gaito Gazdanov's novella, The Specter of Alexander Wolf, is an unusual mixture of novel, mystery, and metaphysical treatise on the nature of love, fate, memory, and death.  The plot revolves around the protagonist's memory of a brief but violent encounter in the Russian Civil War.  Now working as a journalist in Paris, the site of Russia's greatest community of exiles, the narrator, a White, is obsessed with the memory of combat with a Red soldier many years before.  Believing he killed his opponent, the narrator seems to have been utterly transformed by guilt.  Appropriately, the book begins with his confession.  "Of all my memories," he writes, "of all my life's innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of a single murder I had committed."

While killing an opponent in the midst of war is not ordinarily considered murder, the author has no doubts about the immorality of his action.  Indeed, the author repeatedly returns to this single moment of violence.  His obsession with the event manifests in two ways.  First, the protagonist appears to have become somewhat detached from his own life.  That is to say, he lives a cool, detached existence, and seeks thrills by interacting with damaged women, criminals, and Paris' underworld.  His job as a journalist perfectly represents this life of  detachment.  After all, every journalist is obligated to cover an endless strings of events with absolute objectivity. Second, the protagonist imagines that an English author might be the man he thought he had killed.  In the end, the protagonist meets his victim, and the memory of trauma is manifested in the flesh.

The Specter of Alexander Wolf is an elliptical work.  The author has intentionally avoided any clear explication of his plot and its significance.  We do not always know why the author chooses to dwell on certain subplots and themes.  What is the significance of the protagonist's love interest?  Why is his visit to a boxing match important?  Why does the author spend time discussing the protagonist's encounter with criminals? The book is awash in similar ellipses. We do know even know why author's shadow is writing in English rather than French or even Russian.  In any event, the book is clear about one thing:  fate does have a hold on the protagonist and his shadow.  It's clear that neither the protagonist nor Alexander Wolf can ever forgot the violence of the Russian Civil War.  Like most Russians, the disaster of modern Russian history will follow them forever.

If the book has an unusual (and someone haphazard) plot, its meandering style seems to provide readers with an interesting commentary about fate.  For although the book's protagonist sees the hand of fate in his early encounter with death, his life actually seems somewhat chaotic and un-mapped.  The paradox may explain the author's apparent sloppiness.  The random events of the protagonist's  life seem to suggest that the more we understand the trajectories of our life, and the inescapable nature of fate, the more we are forced to let go of our attempt to maintain an orderly, intelligent, and intelligible, daily existence.


Some favorite quotes from the book: 


"He was one of those archetypal adventurers, renowned in the annals of every revolution and every civil war."

"I was a hardened man," he said;  "I'd seen my comrades killed before my very eyes, I myself had often risked my life, and everything had washed over me like water off a duck's back.  But that day I went home, lay down on my bed and cried like a little boy."

"His entire life had been remarkable for a striking consistency:  a succession of shady dealings, spurious bank transactions and party betrayals..."

"Or look at it this way:  take a beautiful woman, like Marina, for who dozens of people are even prepared to die--a few years and there'll be nothing left of her other than a rotting corpse.  Now is that really fare?"

"The first city she ever saw was Murmansk."

"Your gift for thinking interferes with you:  Without it, of course, you'd be happy."

"Sometimes there's nothing duller than being right."

"Every life becomes clear--that is to say, it's path, its twists and turns--only in its final moments."

"Every love affair is an attempt to thwart fate; it's a naive illusion of brief immortality..."

"Sometime later she came to understand how this man was able to exist and what had supported him on his long journey toward death:  he was a morphine addict."

Had he ever loved her?  No, it had been a lengthy misunderstanding.

Fate was especially derisive in its dealings with me.  I could never forget one woman I was seeing, remarkable in many respects, but outstanding for her unspeakably hellish nature.

I spent years feeling sorry for her;  feeling truly sorry for her, I did everything so that she might be less unfortunate, since she herself was the primary victim of her own flaws.




Quotations from Marina Tsvetaeva's Earthly Signs

Quotations from Marina Tsvetaeva's Earthly Signs

(And so it has remained with me, my first vision of the bourgeoisie in the Revolution:  ears hiding in fur hats, souls hiding in fur coats, heads hiding in necks, eyes hiding in glass.)

Like a kind of magician revealing secrets to his children, [Max V] relates the course of the entire Russian Revolution five years in advance:  the terror, the Civil War, the executions, the military outposts, the Vendee, the atrocities, the loss of godliness, the  unloosed spirits of the elements, blood, blood, blood...

Bolshevik appeals on the walls. Long-bearded Tatars at the tables.  How slowly they drink, how sparingly they speak, how imposingly they move.

"God, comrades, was the first revolutionary!"

"Our revolution's young, but in France theirs is old, stale."

"What--you have your own dacha in the Crimea?"
I, calmly:  "Yes, and a house in  Moscow."  (I made up the dacha).
--Silence--
"My defender:  "You sure our grave, little Mussis.  Come, you don't really want to admit to such things now do you?  These days a body's so afraid, he's happy to bury his house, his money, even himself in the ground with his own two hands!"

"And you Ma'am...you wouldn't be a Bolshevik?
Someone else:  "What kind of Bolshevik when they have their own house?"

They promise all kinds of good fortune (up to and including pork lard).  They threaten all kinds of misfortune (up to and including murder.)

"They're infected with this new life, they've caught this mange."

"You, Miss, you're a young person, you're likely to see things different, but to my way of thinking--all these red rabbles, these obscene freedoms--it's nothing, but a temptation of the Antichrist."

There are almost no men: In the Revolution, as always, the weight of everyday life falls on women:  Previously--in sheaves, now in sacks. (Everyday life is a sack:  with holes.  And you carry it anyway.)

"Why do I keep saying "Miss"--you're in worse shape than a widow!"

"How can you  leave gold behind and just take off?"
I, distinctly:  "I not only left behind my gold, but...my children!"

Love--and God.  How do they manage to combine them?

The sled is my comrade-in-woe, and the potatoes are the woe.  We carry our own woe!

Alys, before going to sleep: 
"Marina! I wish you the best of everything on earth.  Maybe:  Of everything left on earth..."

The first sight of love is that very shortest distance between two points, that divine straight line, of which there's no second.

Sensual love and motherhood almost exclude each other.  Genuine motherhood is manly. 

How many motherly kisses fall on unchildlike heads--and how many unmotherly ones--on children's heads!

Remarriage is posthumous adultery.

There are lots of wives, few mistresses. A true wife results from a shortage (of love), a true mistress from an excess.

I should be drinking you from a mug, but I'm drinking you in drops, which make me cough.

Betrayal already points to love.  You can't betray an quittance.

"A living person" will never allow oneself to be loved as the "dead" will. 






Friday, October 26, 2018

The Romanoffs--Episode Two (Spoiler Alert)

The second episode of the Romanoffs is set in America.  Its treatment of the legacy of the Romanov/Romanoff name centers around violence.  In the first episode, the theme of violence was muted, but still somewhat present.  For the Romanoff widow tells her servant that her magnificent French apartment was once occupied by Nazis, and that one of these Nazi leaders raped her young sister there. The description of this violence is disturbing on its face, but the story actually implies several levels of brutality that serve as a backdrop to the rape.  First, we know that the Romanov royal family was executed, and that other branches of the Romanov/Romanoff family were displaced by violence or the threat of violence.  Were it not for this violence, the widow and her sister would probably have not been in Paris at the time of its occupation.  Second, the widow tells her servant that the Nazis chose her family's apartment as a headquarters precisely because they knew the Romanoffs would be sympathetic to them.  Historically speaking, the Romanoffs were the inveterate enemies of revolution, and inveterate allies of counter-revolution.  That is to say, Nicholas II used violence to put down revolutionary protests, then died at the hands of revolutionaries.  And after his death, his relatives continued to lead the charge against Communist Russia, even if that meant hosting Nazis in their apartments.  There are repeating cycles of violence here.  The Romanovs killed rebels, and were killed by rebels.  The Romonoffs embraced fascism, or at least Right Wing political parties, and suffered a rape by way of compensation. 

The second episode deals with violence more directly.  Its protagonist has almost no direct knowledge of Romanov traditions. He knows that a branch of his family was murdered by Bolsheviks, and we eventually discover that he and his wife made the decision to book a cruise on a Romanov family cruise.  The theme of violence first manifests itself in a murder trial.  In order to romantically pursue a fellow juror, this Romanoff elects to join the jury himself.  Thus, a courtship takes place in the context of a brutal murder trial.  When this Romanoff first talks to the female juror, he causally mentions that his own family was murdered.  Later, in attempting to escape his marriage, he attempts to push his wife off a cliff.

Thus, this episode's Romanoff is a psychopath:  he's fully immersed in violence, and immune to any negative connotations associated with it.  He knows a part of his family was murdered in 1918, but seems not to care very much about this fact.  He knows that a woman has been brutally murdered, but he elects to continuously stare at a lovely woman rather that at the crime scene photos being presented to the jury.  And finally, he's willing to kill his wife in order to give him a better chance of staying in a relationship with a married woman who does not love him. 

The theme of violence is complemented by the theme, carried over from episode one, of invented history.  Ironically, the protagonist's wife, rather than the "real" Romanoff, goes on the Romanov/Romanoff-themed cruise.  On the cruise, people dress up as aristocrats, drink vodka, watch wild Cossack dances, observe a giant Faberge egg, and enjoy the kind of entertainment once reserved for the tsars, i.e., dwarf comedy a la Peter the Great.

Historically speaking, the episode seems to suggest that traditions can be both fake and real at the same time.  On the one hand, it's clear that most of the Romanoffs on the cruise have very little authentic connection to Russia, or Russian history.  Their vision of the Romanov family legacy, and Russian culture more broadly, is a tourist's:  superficial, symbolic, and often grotesque.  When the Romanoff's wife is asked about her heritage, she professes not to care.  She's a mix of European ethnicities, and believes the whole subject is ridiculously unimportant.  On the other hand, in therapy she reveals the fact that she had learned that the Romanovs were, in general, deeply damaged people.  For this reason, the trip has helped her to sympathize with her husband.  She's listened to a lecture on the Romanov family tragedy, and now understand her husband's ambivalence about life itself.  Her epiphany represents a paradox:  going on the cruise, she cannot help but see that the Romanoffs are trying to recapture a past that has utterly escaped them, but somehow their very desperation for an imaginary past demonstrates its continuing vitality.  Romanoffs like her husband aren't Russian or aristocratic, but they're Russian and aristocratic past continues to haunt them.

The Romanoffs--Episode One (Spoiler Alert)

The new Amazon Prime series, The Romanoffs, doesn't have a whole lot to do with Russian history, but its episodes all theoretically revolve around the shared family legacy of its characters.  Having only seen the first two episodes, it's perhaps too early to see how much influence Russian history will really have on any of its discrete plots.  However, the first episode--and here I insert a spoiler alert--does at least demonstrate the fact that the memory of the martyred royal family continues to reverberate on some level through the generations. 

In episode one, an aging Franco-German Romanoff maintains a level of aristocratic pretension seldom seen in the modern world.  She's rude, overly racist, wealthy, multilingual, devoutly Christian, and utterly isolated from ordinary life.  Additionally, it seems that she has never worked, and always maintained at least one personal servant.  Indeed, her arrogance is so refined, that she seems able to both dish out haughty insults, and ignore any efforts by others to parry them, or respond with counterattacks. 

The old Romanoff also maintains the royal family's general contempt for non-Christian civilization. To her, European Civilization is Christian Civilization, and both are superior to, and at war with, Muslim Civilization.  To an extent, her survival, and the survival of a grand French apartment that once belonged to the Russian Romanovs, represents a remarkable triumph of the Romanov dynastic principle.  After all, Paris was also an imperial outpost of the Russian autocracy and aristocracy.

While there's something sad about the woman's isolation, the episode makes the point that the assassination of Nicholas II's immediate family did not end the family or its remarkable traditions.  The matriarch of this branch of the Romanov/Romanoff family, however isolated, is still rich, pretentious, and surrounded by luxury.  Moreover, she's still independent enough to make decisions about the family's possessions, or that which can still be passed down between generations. 

Notwithstanding the fact that matriarch seems impervious to change, the fact that she decides at one point to give her apartment to a Muslim Parisian indicates that even the Romanovs/Romanoffs are not immune to modernity.  Indeed, the episode closes with the woman's nephew, an American-raised Romanoff, declaring his love for this Muslim servant. 

The new alliance between an American of Russian decent and a Parisian of Tunisian decent means that on some level Romanoff continuity is a myth or a facade.  The Romanoff matriarch's Faberge egg is the physical expression of this abstract point.  As the episode begins, the finely crafted, bejeweled egg seems to represent the fact this family has somehow managed to preserve unbroken links to the past. But later, the Romanoff matriarch admits that the original was stolen, and that the one on display is a fake. 

The point, both from the standpoint of Russian history, and the standpoint of general human history, is that we "invent" traditions, as Benedict Anderson would have said in his book, Imagined Communities.  However, whether these traditions are imagined  or not, the privileged matriarch remains deeply bound to her past.  The most poignant moment of the episode occurs when this immensely privileged woman expresses her deep and abiding longing for Russia.  When asked by her Muslim helper when she had last visited Russia, she replies, "never," without any hint of irony, and the viewer knows that she had not contradicted herself.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Sana Krasikov's The Patriots

I probably lack the kind of formal literary education to properly define the genre of historical fiction. However, my untutored opinion is that historical fiction different from the ordinary variety of fiction only in its overweening obsession with historical verisimilitude.  However we define historical fiction, in recent months I've been making an effort to delve into non-Russian novels that dwell upon Russian historical themes.  To be sure, the term "non-Russian" can be almost as problematic as the term historical fiction. After all, many American, Western European, and Eastern European authors, emigrated from Russia or its border states, or have relatives who have done so.  And these authors have written some of the best historical fiction around.  Witness Sana Krasikov's wonderful novel, The Patriots, a well-told, emotionally gut-retching tale which helps readers to understand important aspects of the twentieth century of both Russia and America. 

In her wonderfully suspenseful book, Krasikov (a Jewish New Yorker with roots in both the Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia) manages to tell the story of three generations of American interaction with Russia.  As the author acknowledges in her end-notes, the book draws upon the experience of American emigres documented by the author of The Foresaken:  An American Tragedy in Stalinist Russia (See my earlier post on the excellent book).  For Florence Fein, a left-leaning socialist Jew, is lured to the Soviet Union by love, a sense of adventure, and the promise of a bright socialist future.  However, over time her dream of a life on the vanguard of history sours.  The Soviet Union is, after all, was experiencing a painful transformation to modernity, even without the added stresses of totalitarianism government. Eventually, and almost inevitably, Florence's American ties prove to be a vulnerability, and she ends up stripped of her passport and without any means of escaping the world's first socialist state.  Not long afterward, she is arbitrarily convicted of subversion and thrown into the Gulag, like so many other denizens of Stalin's Soviet Union. 

Many other books have been written about the Soviet experience under Stalin.  Some have been covered in this blog.  What makes The Patriots unique is that it continuously ties the Russian experience to the American.  For Florence's American experience in the Depression makes her eager to go to Russia, and her grandson's search for adventure makes him willing to try to cash in on his Russian heritage by moving to Russia during the post-communist era of Russian corruption, cronyism, mobster rule, and capitalist exuberance.  The overall lessons of this book are simple enough.  First, Russian and American histories are inextricably linked to one another (and both involve the Jewish experience).  Second, citizens of the twentieth century have highly fluid identities.  Mother, child, and grandchild, at times feel both comfortable and alienated by both Russia and America.  Third, Russia continues to be a land of tragedy.  Under Stalin, people lived in fear of expressing any open opinion.  They dreaded their neighbors, and expected to be removed from their homes at any hour of the night.  But under Putin, life remained chaotic, with criminals continuing to exercise arbitrary authority over individuals who got in their way.  The Patriots is a sophisticated book. If a comparison must be made, it is to Anthony Marra's novel, The Tsar of Love and Techno, since that emotionally searing books also tracks twentieth century history across several generations, and anchors its plot-line in Russian tragedy, i.e., Stalinist repression and the conflict in Chechnya.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Marina Tsvetaeva

Someone in the movie, The Big Short, says that "[t]he truth is like poetry--and most people fucking hate poetry."  Like many others, I concur.  In theory, I like poetry a lot.  It seems important, and most literary people I respect say that are devoted to the stuff.  But upon reflection, I'm forced to admit that poetry isn't something I actually understand all that well.  When I teach literature To steal a phrase from the popular website, stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, I like "the idea" of poetry more than I like the poetry itself.  Marina Tsvetaeva's book of prose, Earthly Signs, 1917-1922, may have finally changed all that.  The book gives readers a rare, and infinitely intimate look, at the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution.  But it's glimpse into the mind of one of Russia's greatest twentieth century poets is perhaps even more valuable.  Perhaps no two poets are alike, but Marina Tsvetaeva's diaries entries and essays suggest some qualities that are no doubt commonplace among poetic geniuses.  Finishing the book, I thought that I was probably feeling something akin to what an inspired reader of Tsvetaeva's poetry must feel.  In awe, I just wrote down a long list of words that came to mind when I tried to clarify to myself why her way of thinking seemed so different from that of most novelists I encounter.  This list included the following words or phrases:  intelligence, creativity, honesty, objectivity, erudition, ambition, awareness, playfulness, openness, ruthlessness, arrogance, wisdom, other-worldliness, joyfulness, cleverness, relentlessness.  

For me, Tsvetaeva was relentlessly experimental, and couldn't help but play with words, sounds, juxtapositions, metaphors, similes, alliteration, assonance, and allegories.  Tsvetaeva had an ear for words, sentences, grammar, and sound.  But she also had a kind of mathematical intelligence.  She analyzed concepts and people playfully, but she also needed her ideas to make sense according to the rigid rules of formal logic.  This poet's equations and equivalencies were always very precisely balanced.  Tsvetaeva was also incredibly well-educated and seemed to have read everything there was to read in three different languages: Russian, French, and German. Thus, her prose (like her poetry?) is both strikingly original and the product of a long dialogue with all prior writers (and poets?).  

Tsvetaeva's biographies sometimes portray her as a fragile woman, incapable of managing daily life.  Her suicide somehow seems like the inevitable result of this weakness.  But Moscow Diaries depicts a woman who was brave enough to resist Bolshevism, at least on an intellectual or private level.  Again and again, she speaks her mind about the tragedy of the October Revolution and communism in general.  To be sure, it would be difficult to verify if her diary entries are entirely accurate in terms of her dangerous anti-revolutionary comments to others.  But even if she was only honest in her own journal, her freedom of thought would be worth celebrating.  in any case, apart from their critical tone, Tsvetaeva's diary entries shed light on the difficult life everyone faced in these years.  Like others, Tsvetaeva (and her children) suffered endlessly uncertainty, the threat of violence, worry about distant loved ones (her husband, mainly), bureaucracy, and, above all, unremitting hunger.  

The book ends with an essay by Tsvetaeva about a fellow poet she reviled, Briusov.  The polemic is pure genius, and somehow does honor to its victim by its very virtuosity and sustained intensity.  In terms of Briusov's reputation, one can't help but think it has ultimately benefited from Tsvetaeva's attention.  After all, why would a woman like Tsvetaeva waste her time pillorying a man who lacked all virtues save diligence?  But anyhow, the essay isn't really about Briusov at all.  It's about Tsvetaeva, and her understanding of poetry.  Tsvetaeva knew that Briusov worked hard at his craft but thought Briusov lacked the true poet's sense of fun.  Without wordplay, joy, and fun, effort wouldn't (and couldn't) ever move us a little closer to the divine. 

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.



Film

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


Revolution

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.