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).
"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' 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, 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,, 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.