Wednesday, May 30, 2018

David Bergelson's Judgement

David Bergelson's Yiddish novel, Judgment, reminds me of Platonov's beautiful but profoundly sad book, Soul.  Bergelson resembles Plotonov in his capacity for deploying metaphors and similes to make everyday life feel exceedingly unfamiliar and strange.  Like Platonov, Bergelson's prose is powerfully original, and derives much of its poignancy from its systematic conflation of the animate and inanimate worlds.  In Soul, Platonov describes the emotional condition of his protagonist by projecting that protagonist's desperate loneliness and existential isolation onto the animals he encounters in his travels.  For Platonov, every camel, vulture, or dog, is actively reflecting the ongoing tragedy of earthly existence. Here, for example, is a description of homes in a local Jewish village:  "The houses were buried deep in the snow.  Like wrestlers in the ring too exhausted to throw their opponents, they remained hunched over in their corners."  For Bergelson, every cloud, gust of wind, forest, or home is alive with a kind of ominous and willful intensity. Thus, abandoned buildings "peer" out of dark corners, storms are "measured and coldblooded," and the moon has the "face of a cadaver." Bergelson's depicts the physical world as dark, threatening, and unsafe, but also curiously magical and furiously alive.  Probably the greatest similarity between Bergelson and Platonov is that they each somehow manage to demonstrate that the world can be both sad beyond recoking and simultaneously beautiful.  Take, for example, Bergelson's bleak depiction of characters who are both tragic and magnificently unique.  One character was "gypsy dark with gold hoops in her ears, with a pair of eyes that always looked exhausted, worn out from her own beauty."  Another character was a "deaf-mute" but still had enough vitality to "flood the whole world with pancakes" if he wasn't told to stop cooking. 

If Bergelson's novel resembles the mood and style of Platonov's Judgment, its plot or subject matter more closely resembles Babel's Red Cavalry short stories. For both books deal with the chaotic period immediately following the Revolution.  While Babel's Red Cavalry follows the Bolsheviks' ultimately unsuccessful campaign against non-communist Poland, Bergelson's novel depicts a border region in which the communists are still working to more fully exert their influence. In Bergelson's world, revolutionaries are still rounding up enemies, patrolling the border areas, and suppressing Social Revolutionary plots. A doctor waits to see if the revolution will be overturned.  As Bergelson writes, "Every time he put a piece of gauze in a patient's mouth, he would run to the window to check whether the current regime had been abolished."

 Bergelson's view of the Revolution is complex and multifaceted. To be sure, the revolution is violent.  In the new revolutionary climate, you could grab and whip you "just the same as if you'd done nothing."  It was best "not to get in the revolution's way."  And many were "given the authority from the revolution to reduce everyone standing here to ashes..."  The revolution is also a monumental force of change, capable of rupturing both time and space.  In terms of time, the revolution has created a clear divide between past and present.  New types of people had emerged in its wake.  "In the past men like Filopov didn't exist," writes Bergelson. The world had been overturned by revolution.  As the narrator laments, "People just didn't know how to live in times like these." Bergelson's characters agree with the narrator.  One says that "if you knew somebody yesterday, that doesn't mean you know who he is today," and another exclaims that "life got rerouted onto a strange and crooked path."   In terms of space, the revolution was someone akin to Tarkovsky's alien zones in the film Roadside Picnic.  Where the revolution existed, life operated according to one set of almost physical laws;  where the revolution did not exist, life operated in entirely different ways.  As one characters declares, a "journey of a mere four or five hours gets you to a place where the revolution is over" and this meant that one could encounter a "different kind of snow, whiter and freer..."  Just across Russia's border there was a "city at the seashore" where "music will be playing--just music, without speeches."  The revolution's defenders agreed with this sentiment and saw the revolution as a sack.  "We keep on patching it up, but you here at the border are like mice, nibling away."  The fear was that the revolutionary zone would spill into the non-revolutionary zone, or vice versa.  "You are eating out a hole at the edge of the sack and everything's going to spill out," declared the local communist boss. 



Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Favorite Quotations from David Bergelson's Judgment

Here are few favorite passages from David Bergelson's beautifully written novel, Judgment.


"Large, invisible hands merrily picked up whole heaps of snow and just as merrily released them."

"Above them was the broken, jagged sky, as if made from silent mountains;  from the smoky clouds a young, limping moon hurried the riders along."

"The full, brass moon with the face of a cadaver was swimming and floating above them.  It had no eyes but wanted to see."

"In the deep darkness naked branches clattered.  A hoarse cry of pain broke from the disheveled trees.  The events hidden in the nooks and crannies of the countryside seemed to be riffling through their leaves. It sounded as if the rustling was causing someone pain."

"To the right of Golikhovke, a young forest noisily awoke from the wind that swept through it over the fields."

"The cloudy sky cut a deep, rusty gash into the corner of the horizon."


"He acquired this habit after the revolution took the wrong turn when he decided:  What is this revolution? In a word, it's Kamino-Balke."

"...he slept through the revolution's evil waking hours, as if to spite it;  he snored as a sign that between him and the revolution all bridges had been burned."

""Rrrrree....vv....vv....o....o....lluu....shshsh...un!' This was the word the doctor had taught the deaf-mute just three years earlier, in the first, festive weeks of the revolution.  By this time the doctor had long since been dissatisfied with it;  the word 'revolution' grated in his ears, it was claptrap and dangerous besides.  The doctor scowled when he heard it and winked to the deaf-mute that he ought not to say it.  But taking away from the deaf-mute was a lot harder than giving it for good."

" But I am certain:  death is death.  My life right now is all I get.  I will never have anything else.  And the revolution is my death.  That's why I'm running away from it."

"'The times we love in," he said, 'if you knew someone yesterday, that doesn't mean you know who he is today.'"

"People just didn't know how to live in times like these."

"'In the past men like Filopov didn't exist, which means he's playing a role, that's it...A comedian, that's what he is."

"Every time he put a piece of gauze in a patent's mouth, he would run to the window to check whether the current regime had been abolished."

" 'got rerouted onto a strange crooked path."

"'The times we live in!' he'd say to her with a chuckle.  "Even knowing something they grab you and whip you just the same as if you'd done nothing.'"

"Because a journey of a mere four or five hours gets you to a place where the revolution is over, do you understand, doctor? There, on the other side, it snows every morning, just like here.  Only it's a different kind of snow, whiter and freer, a snow from the other side, spring will be in full bloom there. Somewhere in the a city at the seashore music will be playing--just music, without speeches."

"'The revolution,' he said, 'is a sack.  We keep on patching it up, but you here at the border are like mice, nibbling away.  You are eating out a hole at the edge of the sack and everything's going to spill out...What do you think--that we're joking with you?"

"'From the revolution...he says he has the authority from the revolution to reduce everyone standing here to ashes, and all of Golikhovke, too."

"He's saying not to get in the revolution's way."

"When he ordered some one's death, when he gave the command, 'Shoot!'--there was no wisdom that could dissuade him, because it wasn't Filipov who was giving the orders. It was History."

"All was lost, everything had turned out badly:  he was riding in some strange wagon--he was the unwilling passenger of a conveyance that belonged to the revolution."

"...the entire revolution that was simmering and boiling in all of the big cities."

"But he had no choice, because he was obliged to do the revolution's bidding, without having agreed to it.  Whether he wanted to or not, he had to follow the revolution..."

"'It's high time, my darling, that you got married,' he told her.  'Then you could have some children to take care of.  We have a revolution here--this is no place to play with dolls.'"

"There, the revolution was no longer in charge--its last strength had flickered and was going out."

Descriptions of Characters

"If the doctor didn't get up and tell him--'Enough!'--the deaf-mute would flood the whole world with pancakes."

"...--she was gypsy dark with big gold hoops in her ears, with a pair of eyes that always looked exhausted, worn out from her own beauty."

"Her eyes were innocent, as kosher as two crucifixes."

"Her powdered nose began to flirt with the doctor."

"Her eyelids smiled."

"The smugglers--looking very proper yet very suspicious--seethed with the resentment befitting highly respectable people."

"Frizzy beards, crooked faced, bent shoulders, and backs twisted from shrewdness--these were the homeowners."

"His arms were hairy and thin;  his fingers, long and shiny, as if he had just been digging through the innards of a roast chicken.."

"Bluish red veins covered his face, like the hind parts of a cow that had just been slaughtered.  The eyes on the face were diseased;  the eyelids were two red, oozing pieces of rotting flesh."

Breakdown of Animate/Inanimate Dichotomy

"A wagon rolled into the courtyard.  The clanking of its wheels on the uneven, frozen road gave the impression that the wagon had something to fear, even though it didn't want to be afraid.  The doctor, too, felt that he had something to fear, even though he didn't want to be afraid."

"The houses were buried deep in the snow.  Like wrestlers in the ring too exhausted to throw their opponents, they remained hunched over in their corners."

"..everything he did was measured and coldblooded, like the storm."

"He was standing next to the door, freezing, as if he were a dirty piece of the cold, gloomy street..."

"Abandoned buildings peered out from all the dark corners."

"Dirty hours stretched slowly before someone's sentencing--just like the dirty snow trampled in the courtyards."


"Everything that had taken place in his life now seemed to him foul, cold, and frozen, like the world around him.  His life was like the dirty snow that lay on the fields, dotted here and there with heaps of trash, like the crows, which flew over them, and the entire cavernous emptiness near the border."

"Going round in circles in the dusty cracks and ruts of his life made the doctor deeply uneasy, as if he had accompanied his own funeral procession and was considering the impression it made."

"..coming to terms with his own insignificance released him from the burden of helping anyone else."

"It seemed that the clock was counting out his last minutes..."

"'Myself, I haven't seen my mother in eighteen years, and I haven't died from it yet."

"Now, when the deep night infused him with its strong potion of slumber, it would have been easy to follow those steps and not notice you were following them, to be killed and not realize that you were being killed."

"something awakened them from their sleep, something nameless that ripped pieces of flesh from their bodies and brains."

"'Let me spit in your face exactly the same number of times that he kissed you.'"

Self-contained Stories

"Since the age of sixteen, he had been ready to sacrifice his life to the workers' movement.  And now the movement was going to shoot him."

"The blonde was fasting.  Since the early morning she had been kneeling and bowing her forehead to the ground in a stubborn resolve not to move from her place until she prayed her way into a miracle."

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Timothy Synder's Quotations

Below are a few quotations from Timothy Synder's book, The Road to Unfreedom:  Russia, Europe, America.

"The adviser of the first pro-Russian American presidential candidate had been the advisor of the last Russian Ukrainian president."

"The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas."

"Life becomes a sleepwalk to a premarked grave in a prepurchased plot.

"Russia would be a centralized state as the fascist regimes of the 1930s had been.  There was one party too many.  Russia should be a zero-party state, redeemed only by a man.  Parties should exist, according to Ilyin, only to ritualize elections."

"Allowing Russians to vote in free elections, thought Ilyin, was like allowing embryos to choose their species."

"Rather than governing, the leader produces crisis and spectacle."

"Totalitarianism is its own true enemy, and that is the secret it keeps from itself by attacking others."

"Putin and his friends and allies accumulated vast wealth beyond the law, and then remade the state to preserve their own gains.  Having achieved this, Russian leaders had to define politics as being rather than doing."

"Hegel's was an appealing way of seeing our fractious world, since it suggested that catastrophe was an indication of progress."

"Nikolai Berdyaev found in Ilyin's work 'the nightmare of evil good.'"

"In the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet leaders agreed not to kill one another, which removed dynamism from politics."

"The Soviet Union that expelled Ilyin and educated Putin had a troubled relationship with time.  It lacked a succession principle and lasted only sixty-nine years."

"Workers were represented by the party, the party by the central committee, the central committee by its politburo, and the politburo usually by a single leading man."

"It was Brezhnev who proved to be Stalin's most important successor, because he redefined the Soviet attitude to time:  he buried Marxist politics of inevitability, and replaced it with a Soviet politics of eternity."

"The Bolshevik Revolution had been about youth, about a new start to be made after capitalism.  This image depended, at home and especially abroad, on the blood purges that allowed new men and women to rise through the party ranks."

"Once Soviet citizens expected no improvements from the future, nostalgia had to fill the vacuum left by utopia."

"The myth of the October Revolution promised everything; the myth of the Great Fatherland War promised nothing."

"What was, was normal.  To say otherwise in Brezhnev's Soviet Union was to be condemned to an insane asylum."

"Wild privatization was not at all the same things as a market economy, at least as conventionally understood.  Markets require the rule of law..."

"'Operation Successor,' as the challenge was known in the Kremlin, had two stages:  finding a new man who was not a known associate of Yeltsin, and then inventing a fake problem that he could then appear to solve."

"The ink of political fiction is blood."

"Democracy is a procedure to change rulers.  To qualify democracy with an adjective--'people's democracy' during communism, 'sovereign democracy' thereafter--means eliminating that procedure."

"The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional."

"Human sexuality is an inexhaustible raw material for the manufacture of anxiety."

"That year it became a criminal offense to portray Putin as a gay clown."

"Russia's real geopolitical problem was China.  But precisely because Chinese power was real and proximate, consider Russia's actual geopolitics might lead to depressing conclusions."

"The West was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia.  Unlike China, the EU had no army and no longer border with Russia."

"Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo."

"In 2012, Putin made it clear that he understood democracy as ritualized support for his person."

"Russia's own past became a foreign threat."

"In 2013, the Russian Federation proposed an alternative to integration under the name 'Eurasia:' empire for Russia, nation-states for everyone else."

"Rather than monopolizing law, the Russian state under Putin monopolized corruption."

"Because failure had to be presented as success, Russia had to present itself as a model for Europe, rather than the other way around."

"What the EU might describe as failures of governance were to be experienced as the flowering of Russian innocence."

"Using the odd word 'passionarity,' Putin evoked a special Russian ability to thrive amidst global chaos."

"Gumilev was born to an extraordinary family, and lived one of the most tragically and garishly Soviet lives imaginable."

"Joseph Stalin understood the Soviet project as self-colonization.  Since the Soviet Union had no overseas possessions, it had to exploit its hinterlands."

"One can record that these people [Ukrainian protesters] were fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences."

"Must any attempt at novelty be met with the cliche of force and the force of cliche?"

"Putin's direct assault on factuality might be called implausible deniability."

"In the Russian invasion, the strong used the weapons of the weak--partisan and terrorists tactics--in order to pretend to be the weak."

Timothy Synder's The Road to Unfreedom

Timothy Synder's The Road to Unfreedom offers a powerful critique of Russia's authoritarian regime.  Set against the backdrop of many of the events depicted in his earlier book, The Bloodlands:  Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Synder's current book suggests that Putin's regime is the heir to at least some of the insidious political traditions established by its predecessor states, the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire.  Synder's critique of Putin's Russia is unremitting.  In many ways, the book resembles Hannah Arendt's classic, Origins of Totalitarianism, only Synder is content to direct his fire at antidemocratic--as opposed to fully totalitarian--tendencies in the modern world.

According to Synder, Russia isn't merely a Great Power seeking to exert its geopolitical influence over its neighbors.  Rather, Synder's Russia is actively seeking to destroy democratic politics both at home and abroad.  Synder's analysis of Russia and its allegedly nefarious influence over international relations stems in part from his belief that Russian politics are a cover for oligarchy and cronyism.  However, Synder doesn't merely argue that Russia is a corrupt, unequal, and belligerent society.  For Synder actually argues that modern Russian leaders are increasingly attracted to many of the fascist ideals outlined by Arendt and other political theorists.

Thus, Synder spends considerable amounts of time exploring the thinkers who have inspired at least some of the principle figures in Putin's government.  The common denominator among such thinkers is a belief in Russia's essential innocence and victimization at the hands of the United States, Europe, and so-called "international Jewry." The result of Russia's belief in its own innocence has been the military invasions of Georgia and the Ukraine, and the social media attacks against America and varied European countries.

While Cohen and others have argued that Russia has merely been reacting to the expansion of NATO and the European Union, Synder vigorously disputes this claim, arguing that Russia only recently turned against the West, and did so in response to no obvious new or rising geopolitical or military threat.  Synder believes that Russia turned against Europe only when it became clear that it was clearly losing the race to make its population safe, well, free, or prosperous.  With high mortality rates, and even higher rates of corruption and inequality, Russian oligarchs needed to discredit successful Western political and economic forms by mounting vigorously propaganda campaigns.

I myself remember being shocked by Russian Times' television coverage only a few years ago.  Although I expected a country to promote a positive image of itself, I couldn't imagine why Russia was investing so much time and energy to attack American and European policies and practises.
I was also shocked by the extent the Russian media service had begun to actively gloat about any and all problems European or American governments faced. Further, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union often tried to divide Europeans from their American allies.  However, the Russian Times editorial bias seemed to be geared toward treated America and its European allies as if they were all part of the same colonial conspiracy to undermine the peace and prosperity of Russia and the rest of the world.  My Tunisian-born wife reminded me that it was very normal for non-Western countries to resent America and all of the former colonial powers.  I understood this, but still wondered why Russia thought it a good idea to brazenly attack such a powerful group of countries.  It was one thing to deprecate American and Europe to its a domestic audience, but quite another to export negative propaganda to American and European audiences.  Fora time, I watched Russian Times, and subscribed to its Facebook page, in order to gain a critical perspective on American foreign policy.  Over time, however, I learned that Russian Times had no particular editorial viewpoint.  Rather, its reporters and writers tended to celebrate any American or European setback, whether that setback was experienced by governments or whole peoples. 

To be sure, Cohen has his own biases.  He certainly does believe in European-style democratic politics and social welfare policies.  But his biases seem to be based on objective economic and political facts. After all, European peoples are, relatively speaking, extremely wealthy, and, in contrast to the modern Russian experience, European governments succeed one another from time to time.  As an historian of middle Europe in the first part of the twentieth century, Synder is also somewhat biased in favor of the long-suffering Ukrainian people.  But again, his bias is rooted in the historical experience of Ukraine, which was brutalized by Nazi invasion, and Stalinist terror, and has now experienced Russian political interference, the Russian seizure of the Crimea, and the surreptitious but very real Russian invasion of Russian-speaking portions of Ukraine. 

The boldest aspect of Synder's new book its ability to set contemporary politics into a global framework.  According to Synder, Russia is actively working to support the domestic enemies of American and European democracy.  Synder repeatedly highlights the tangible connections between the Russian government and oligarchy on the one hand, and European separatists and European far-right parties--to say nothing of the Trump Administration--on the other.  It is possible that Synder overstates this case, since Russia qua Great Power may be motivated by traditional geopolitical instincts as much as it is motivated by ideological conspiracy.  Even so, Synder makes a good case that Russia's sense of victimization is overblown, and Russia is actively attempting to undermine democratic institutions in neighboring countries as well as the West.