Friday, December 13, 2019

Margarita Khemlin's Klotsvog

Margarita Khemlin's novel, Klotsvog, is a subtle portrayal of a complex heroine, Maya, who displays both positive traits, such as perseverance and self-confidence, and negative ones, such as selfishness and unfaithfulness.  Over the course of a long and difficult life, Maya's perseveres.  Like other Jewish Ukrainians, Maya grows up against the general background of devastation related to World War II. Her extended Jewish family has experienced both the war itself, and the holocaust, and now repeatedly encounters antisemitism in the post-War Soviet Union.  In fact, Soviet antisemitism is so pronounced that Maya's daughter somehow manages to develop a grammar school antisemitism that puts her at odds with her mother.

Maya's personality avoids easy categorization.  She is shrewd, but only modestly educated. In fact, her inordinate pride in her limited teacher training usually comes across insecurity.  Sometimes she accept the limits of her consciousness. For example, early in thee novel she writes hese days there are a lot of Brazilian and other television series, and everybody's knowledgeable about how things happen in life.  At that time, though, I had only  myself and my son Mishenka.

  She is often strong-willed, but doesn't always work outside the home, and often depends on men to move forward in life.  She is beautiful, but her beauty never quite translates into an easy life.  She has no doubt that she is Jewish, but often tries to overcome that fact.

Overall, Klotsvog's novelty is related to the fact that it tells a deeply personal story about a woman's life as daughter, mother, lover, wife, and worker, while simultaneously describing the historically conditioned life of a Jewish women living in the shadow of a specific historical catastrophe. Stylistically, Khemlin is at her best when she demonstrates the limits to her heroine's ability to understand her own life.  The awkwardness of her first-person prose illustrates her struggle to make sense of her place in the world.  For instance, she both acknowledges her attractiveness but wonders why she can't use that attractiveness to better advantage by stating:  "I was extraordinarily indignant that my situation didn't allow me to completely reveal my feminine essence." Elsewhere, she recognizes her Jewishness even as she tries to distance herself from the penalties of that birthright. "The problem of the future fate of the Jewish people--of which I was constituent part due to my birth--rattled me."  In this sentence and elsewhere, Maya accepts the awful idea that her particular people may have a dark "fate," but also tries to emphasize the fact that she only shares that fate by virtue of the accident of birth. 

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Margarita Khemlin's Klotsvog


I won't say my relations with Kutsenko were despicable from the beginning.


Love or no love, a woman should be with a man.

People lack the persistence to live.

It's extremely complex to get through to a consciousness fogged by alcoholism.

Why stir up what's unfixable?

Nothing in nature changes.  Unlike in a human.

Former husbands are capable of a lot.

He lost his mind.  And searching for an insane person is a nasty business.

There's not much space inside a person's psyche, though.

That's a law.  Coercion never leads to anything positive.

Yes, you never know what kind of cruelty to expect from children.

As an elderly person, I'm calm knowing that life is the exception and death is the rule.

The dead are living, too, in the great beyond.  And sometime it's unclear who has things better.


"The house is burning but but the clock still keeps


"I'm not inclined to baby talk here.  My family, they perished.  I'm alone, without kith or kin.  I save myself--though very badly--with jokes and banter.  I think it would've been easier if I'd perished with them."

"You know what, lass?  You could marry me.  I'm a person who's been through things and seen things.  And I'm not old yet, either.  You can't scare me with death and Siberia."


He repeated reliable sources from the highest circles, that the Soviet authorities weren't fascists after all and would only send certain people away.

..she read the Bible and knew a lot about Jews, but wasn't at all against her son living with me.

We used to play Beilis in the caves.  For old times' sake, you might say.

And don't pretend you don't understand.  Jewish words cost you nothing.  But oh, they could cost him so much.  But oh, they could cost him so much.  They could bring him death.

"You go first, they won't touch you, you don't look like a Jewess."

"And furthermore.  If you're going to pay attention to bad words directed at Jews, you'll have a hard time living."

He was taken.  They decided he'd been talking about some kind of Jewish clocks he was allegedly dreaming of inventing so they'd so they'd show the time properly to Jews.  But not to other Soviet people.

Ella show a glance at Mrik and ran off to her room.  Probably to write down new information about Jews.


He a good person and honest, it's just a bitchy woman landed in his life and completely broke him.

Blyuma burst out sobbing.  Very unattractively too.

Of course there could be no talk about love here.  This was the usual male impermanence.

As a mother and a wife, I constantly thought about the hard times that slyly lay in wait.


I talked with the kindergarten teacher, with prophylactic goals.

As for his antics, that's not important. We'll let that stay with me.  You're not a doctor to discuss it, but after all, I'm a pedagogue.


I was forced to leave my job, again so as not to cultivate nepotism.


Figures with zeroes spun in my head.  It seemed like the zeroes were always throwing themselves at my neck and suffocating me.

Of course you can't keep secrets in a communal apartment.

And he started laughing.  He started laughing in a bad way, without the right zeal, as if he had to.

And everything would have been good other than, naturally, Fima's behavior.  He systematically pestered me with conversations about his family that perished.

Fima opened the bottle like he wasn't hurrying, but his eyes were in a big rush.

I gave Ella a box on the ears with my forced ambivalence.  It's unclear how much that cost me.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Quotes from Vladislav Khodasevich's Necropolis

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Vladislav Khodasevich's Necropolis, as translated by Sarah Vitali


Her gift for literature wasn't great.  Her gift for living was immeasurably greater. 


Later, looking back on the young Bryusov, I realized that the actuity of his poetry from this period lay precisely in that combination of decadent exoticism with the most artless of Muscovite petty bourgeois attitudes.

The concept of quality was entirely foreign to Bryusov.

He had a remarkable way of offering his hand.  It was a strange operation. 

In general, he somehow managed to combine an elegant (albeit formal) politeness with a love for dressing-down, discipline, and intimidation.

His appearance were always arranged in theatrical style.  He wouldn't respond yet or no to any invitation, but would leave the inviter to wait and hope.

Perhaps he really did respect love.  But he did not notice his lovers.

He loved literature, only literature.  He loved himself, too, only for literature's sake. 

He had a passionate, unnatural love for serving on committees--and he loved being a chairman even more.

He was an anti-Semite. 

Bryusov despised democracy.

This is why he was a monarchist in the time of Nicholas II.

It was only in the summer of 1918, after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the beginning of the Terror, that he perked up a bit and declared himself a Communist.

He "served" and "oversaw" with all his might. 

He distanced himself from the literary scene even more sharply than the literary scene distanced itself from him. 


He imaged supernatural provocateurs lurking behind every member of the police force, from the department head to the custodian. 

He lived through War Communism the way all of us did, in sickness and in want.

As it turned out, neither Dr. Steiner nor his entourage had any intention whatsoever of getting involved with anything as transient and trivial as Russia.

He moved to the city that autumn--and all of Russian Berlin bore cruel and curious witness to his hysteria. 

There had been no disparate scenes.  Instead, what happened was the bitterest thing imaginable:  they had simply been bored in each other's company.


"Russia won't be saved by verse
and might not manage the reverse."

In addition to its obvious, primary meaning, each event took on a secondary meaning that had to be deciphered.

Another time,, we were walking along Tveskaya Street.  Muni was saying that there were moments in which he was able to predict the future with complete accuracy.  But this talent only applied to trivial events.

We were with V.F. Akhrmovich, who went on to become a zealous Communist.  At the time, he was a zealous Catholic. 

He donned his blue glasses "so as not to see more than was necessary"..

Muni wasn't lazy.  But he didn't know how to work.

And then he would start in on his analysis, which would be detailed, extensive, and decimating. 


Blok was always a poet, every moment of his life.  Gumilyov was only a poet while he was writing verses. 

His entire appearance says, "Nothing has happened.  Revolution?  Never heard of it."

First and foremost, he noted that, up until that point, stupidity had been given a bad reputation;  poets had unfairly shunned it.  The time had come for stupidity to have its own voice in literature. Stupidity is a natural quality, just like intelligence is.  It can be developed, cultivated. 

Finally, he welcomed the introduction of blatant stupidity into the Poets' Guild in the person of Neldikhen. 

He expresses his stupidity with a talent that lies beyond the reach of many intelligent people. 

But what did he actually die of?  No one knows.  He somehow died "in general":  because he was sick all over, because he could no longer go on living.  He died of death.


Thus began Gershenzon's scholarly career and his poverty.


...there is a crease above the bridge of his nose and his eyes are half-closed.  When he opens them, their expression can best be conveyed by the question:  "Oh, do you still exist?"


For Esenin, the borderlands were not, of course, Russia.  Russia was Rus', and Rus' was the village.

Were up to our necks in capitalists because the kikes (pardon me, you aren't a Jew  yourself, are you?" want to topple the tsar and then take control of all of Christian Rus.

Russia is a muzhik country.  Anything in her that is not by and for the muzhik is scum and must be scraped away. 

In his autobiography, he writes:  "I have never belonged to the CPSU because I consider myself to be far more left-wing."

They went through periods of fervent belief and periods of fervent blasphemy.  They visited prostitutes to preach the Revolution--and beat them after they were done.

He decided to make a spectacle of himself--and artlessly made the poetess the following offer:  "Would you like to see how people are executed?  I can arrange the whole thing for you with Blyumkin in a matter of minutes."

Esenin was dragged into imaginism just as he might have been dragged to the tavern. 

It is as if there is some enormous, precious truth that binds together all these errors. 


The year seventeen knocked us senseless.  It is as if we had forgotten that revolution does not always come from below, but that it can come from the very top as well.


As we parted ways, Valery Yakovlevich said, "In time, someone will make a thorough examination of these spiritual forces and, perhaps, will even find a technological application for them, as they did with steam and electricity.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Khodasevich's Necropolis

Columbia University's Russian Library continues to deliver first-rate translations of important but neglected Russian classics.  In this case, Sarah Vitali has translated Vladislav Khodasevich's collection of biographical sketches of Silver Age giants.  Khodasevich's insightful essays remind me of the equally insightful essays that make up Marina Tsvtaeva's Earthly Signs.  In both cases, the poet seems to produce something better than ordinary prose.  In both cases, the poet seems to be able to analyze both people from multiple perspectives.  While not a student of poetry, my experience with Tsvataeva and Khodasevich's prose suggests that great poetry must usually involve both prodigious amount of logic and the ability to view a single person or phenomenon from a multiplicity of perspectives.  In any case, Necropolis and Earthly Signs go well together.  Necropolis focuses on the  life of writers and poets before World War I, it necessarily describes their experiences in World War I and their deaths between the wars.  By contrast, Earthly Signs focuses on the the experience of writers and poets in War, Revolution, Civil War, and War Communism.  Khodasevich's menagerie of writers includes Bryusov, Bely, Muni, Gumilyov, Blok, Gershenzon, Sologub, Esenin, and Gorky.  Each essay is better than the next.  Khodasevich is usually sympathetic, but sometimes caustic, and often satirical.  And the best part of Necropolis is that the whole is better than the sum of its parts.  That is to say, we conclude the book with a much deeper appreciation for the Silver Age, with all its triumphs and absurdities.  We come to understand that these poets, writers, and aesthetes were extremely talented, but that their approach to art had some serious limitations.  Indeed, Khodasevich argues that in the absence of a moral or intellectual sensibility, the search for experience wasn't quite enough to drive art far enough in any particular direction to make a lasting impact on the future of Russian or European art. 

Dostoyevski's Poor People

I'm rereading one my gateway novels into Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.  The novel is more feverish and introspective than I recalled it.  It also seems to portray a protagonist who is not at all certain whether or not he hopes to avoid detection.  Perhaps the issue is that I'm reading Oliver Ready's relatively new translation of the book, and the new translation reveals Raskolnikov's ambivalence than previous translations. Or perhaps the issue is that I haven't read Crime and Punishment for over twenty-five years.  In truth, prior to picking up this translation, the only thing I remembered about the book was that it was suspenseful, had terrific denouement (but not-so-terrific epilogue) and made you feel as if you had personally committed the crime and were in danger of being discovered.  At any rate, the new translation comes with excellent end notes.

One Dostoevsky book I hadn't read up until this year was his early epistolary novel, Poor People. This book doesn't quite reveal Dostoevsky's mature genius, but neither does it fail to reveal Dostoevsky's trademark masochism.  For while the book can read like a work of social realism, it also pushes past social realism into grotesque absurdity.  At first, the male protagonist, Makar Devushkin, seems to be in an ordinary predicament: like many of St. Petersburg's underclass, he can't really afford his modest St. lifestyle.  He lives in a crowded tenement, and works unusually long hours just to make ends meet.  Over time, the protagonist's life falls apart.  He's too poor to keep his clothes from disintegrating, too poor to maintain even a reasonably presentable wardrobe.  A porter puts it this way:  the protagonist shouldn't brush his coat for the filthy garment would only spoil the brush.  In the end, the hero's life can hardly be seen as anything other than comic.  He throws away his small salary on presents for his much younger friend, distant cousin, neighbor, and probable love interest.  He worships his wealthy employer.  He works ever-longer hours.   Meanwhile, his friend. Varvara Dobroselova, also falls into catastrophe and is forced to marry a not-so-good older man in an arrangement that looks remarkable similar to prostitution.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War

Catherine Merridale's book, Ivan's War:  Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, represents a very important contribution to the historiography of the Soviet Union's participation in World War II.  Unlike most other books on the subject, the book depicts perhaps the most destructive military event of modern history from the bottom up.  Rather than spend time analyzing the decisions of Stalin and other politburo members, or the actions of Soviet generals and diplomats, Merridale helps her readers to understand how ordinary Soviet soldiers lived through the war and experienced its trials and triumphs.  Merridale deserves a great deal of credit of moving our understanding of the war away from jingoistic accounts of Soviet military heroism and toward a more nuanced understanding of the horrors of war.  In particular, Merridale does not shy away from discussing the fact that so many Soviet soldiers helped to terrorize the women of Germany and other conquered countries in Eastern and Central Europe.  If Merridale deserves any criticism, it is only that her subject is too vast for a single book.  After all, it's difficult to maintain a general narrative of the war's many phases while also striving to cover so many different aspects of the soldiers' everyday lives.  And one also can't help but think that Svetlana Alexievich's two oral histories of World War get more directly at the lived experience of Russians in the war.  Without the overarching narrative, Alexievich gets even closer to the psychological realities of life at the front. But of course, Merridale is dealing with the whole of the Soviet soldiery, and Alexievich tries to find out something unique about Russian women and Russian children experienced the trauma of war.  Another of Merridale's books, Night of Stone:  Death and Memory in the Twentieth-Century Russia, would seem to be the natural bookend to Merridale's overall "argument" about the war's impact on Russians, both at the time, and over time.

Three Recent Television Portrayals of Catherine the Great

The new, four-part Catherine the Great series on HBO is magnificent. Of course, Helen Mirren deserves most of the credit for the series' dramatic power.  She brilliantly combines Catherine's political savvy with her desire to love and be loved.  The plot of the miniseries focuses on Catherine's relationship with Potemkin, although Orlov and several other lovers are roles to play.  The show is also notable for its beautiful architectural settings and historical customs.  Overall, the point it makes is that Catherine was a sophisticated despot who sought love but never let her personal feelings interfere with her decision to rule Russia alone.  The series gives us glimpses of the Russian state's victory over Pugachev as well as Potemkin's victory in the Crimea.  But the dramatic focus remains on Catherine's relationship with the men around her, including the heir.  Here we see that Catherine, like Elizabeth before her, usually put her political relationship with her son above her maternal one.  

The most recent Russian version of Catherine the Great, entitled Ekaterina:  the Rise of Catherine the Great, is also worth watching.  Now in it's third season, Ekaterina spends a great deal of time on Catherine's young adulthood.  The leading actress, Marina Alexandrova, probably is extraordinarily charismatic, and redolent of the leading actress who played Anne Boleyn so convincingly in the Tutors.  Although this series often veers toward melodrama, it gets Catherine's complicated relationship with both her naive mother and her cynical mother-in-law right.  For years, Catherine worked hard to stay in Elizabeth's good graces. Simultaneously, she seems to have been studying for the position of Russian autocrat.  Most interestingly, this Catherine the Great series allows us to see Catherine's often pathetic husband, Peter III, in a sympathetic light.  Although Peter was immature, Russo-phobic, absurdly militaristic, and politically inept, he was a sensitive musician caught in an almost impossible dilemma.  Despised by his mother, Peter III grew up tense and nervous.  In any case, the film shows all three characters--Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter III--as complex figures caught up in complex political machinations.  

A third version of Catherine the Great was filmed in 2015.  Although this series is clumsier than the other two, it also seems to offer insight into some of personal dynamics that defined Catherine's rise to power.  Elizabeth is particularly well portrayed in this film.  For this view of the dominant force in Catherine's early life in Russia, this series is also well worth watching.  

Monday, October 7, 2019

Quotes from Maxim Osipov's Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories

Quotes from Maxim Osipov's Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories

Life in the Country

He's falling all over me:  vodka, sweat, tobacco--there, enjoy, breath it in!  People ought to maintain a certain distance from one another.  Like in America.

Here nobody has any secrets.  Just like in heaven.

Where did all the bright people go?  When we were young there were enough of them around.  What, did they all emigrate?


The world doesn't break, no matter what you throw at it.  That's just how it's built.

To deliver man from his neighbors--isn't that the point of progress?

"Don't think about them," he says. "Killers--they're just your average people."

Yes, she taught Russian literature at a university in Khujand, but only for a while.
"But who needs Russian literature there?"  the officer ask, puzzled. "They're all..." He had wanted to say Asiatics.
No one needs it--Ruhshona couldn't agree more. Totally useless.

Polite, smartly dressed, with friendly gray eyes, he asks me to tell him about myself.
What's to tell?  I don't drink, don't smoke.  I have a driver's license.

"Our office," says Victor, "is one big family.  Anyhow fails to understand that will be fired."


"What's happening here is a particular kind of negative selection.  You won't find a humane copy within the existing system."

"The competition was settling scores," the young man agrees.  "It was a contract job."
"But why try so hard if it's only a contract?"
"For the soul's delight.  I'm telling you, cops aren't human."


The place could be anywhere with its own kind of appeal--particularly Central Russia.  You can fall for this place just as easily as a woman can fall for a loser.

There's no easier pastime than bad-mouthing the church.  Much like bad-mouthing Dostoevsky:  it's true, of course, all true, but it also missed the point.  The church is a thing of wonder, Dostoevsky is a thing of wonder, and the fact that we Russians are still here--that, too, is a thing of wonder.

But where Moscow doesn't believe in tears, as they say, around here tears are the only things we do believe in.  When the need is great, we make an exception.  It's ugly--we shouldn't allow ourselves to be touched by it--but this happy-go-lucky collective deceit unites the nation just as well as any good law.

..the water for tea is only lukewarm, and possibly not boiled at all.
"Just like the goddamned Soviet Union," mutters Tolya.

They're beating him with their black truncheons and they're beating him with their fists.  This is how we in Russia treat delirium tremens--not, we have to admit, the most uncommon ailments.

"It's horrible!  I do not--I absolutely do not--want to go on living in this country!"

"Why not leave," the girl puts in, "before you get beaten up?  A normal person shouldn't have to live here."

It's beautiful here; a joyless, Central Russian sort of beauty.  If you ignore everything man-made, it's very beautiful indeed.

"You a real Russian?"
"Yes," I replied, "I'm Russian."
"So what do you need all these things, all this order for?"

Once there has been Socialism, and Ksenia had done her duty, believing and not believing, like everyone else.

The rich, as they say, have their quirks:  the boss, for instance, plays the piano.  Nothing wrong with that.  In America, people take lessons at seventy, but here--well, we're not used to it.

"And the Soviet Union, for those who lived in it then, represented just that--the whole world. So.."
"That's a stretch, Yevgeny Lvovich.  Many people still remembered Europe."

He runs through the countries he's visited and tanks them according to quality of life: Protestant, Catholic, and, in last place, here.

To be frank, it's a country of fools.  Yevgeny Lvovich would add:  "And saints."

"He's been to the Italian countryside, to the Netherlands...Is there any comparison?  Hard to be a patriot.  Yevgeny Lvovich, almost impossible.


The boss likes to survey his surroundings through a pair of binoculars.  In his free time, when he's not occupied through a pair of binoculars.

Women appeared in his life like targets on a shooting range, immediately taking up all his attention--for a short while, but all of it.  After hitting the target, so to speak, he would keep up the relationship very briefly, then break it off.  So it went, as it should go.

There's a crow near the conservatory that smokes.  It grabs lit cigarettes out of people's mouths and smokes.  This is no urban legend--he has seen it with his own eyes, on the day he first met Lora.  In fact, the crow brought them together.

"Sofushka, dear mother, help me find a cheap apartment, already renovated,.  With all the proper paperwork."

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Svetlana Alexievich's Last Witness

Svetlana Alexievich's latest book to be translated into English, Last Witness:  An Oral History of the Children of World War II, is perhaps her most powerful one.  The subject of the book, memories of the Great Patriotic War, is perfectly suited to oral history.  By asking aging adults what they remember of the war, we get at the very heart of this immense twentieth century tragedy.  We are introduced to countless children who were robbed of their innocence. We note how these children's bitter memories of starvation, bombings, hangings, deportations, and other atrocities, remained with them for their entire lives.  As in her other books, Alexievich seems to find ways to get her subjects to describe horrors poetically.  As she says in the introduction to Secondhand Time, she is knows that there is something literary even in the midst of everyday speech. 

What do we learn about Russia's experience in the Second World War?  We learn that many Russians were completely unprepared for the invasion despite the fact that they had been repeatedly exposed to militarism in their youth culture.  So although almost all young Soviets had sang war songs, celebrated the lives of pilots, and participated in formal or informal war games, none had any idea how horrible true war was going to be.  We learn also that World War II was a war of civilians.  Indeed, children were exposed to both the relatively impersonal terror of  nightly aircraft bombings and to the incredibly personal violence of German allegedly anti-partisan reprisals against civilian centers.

Of course, many or even most of Alexievich's "last witnesses" don't claim to remember events objectively, or in detail.  Even so, their testimony often seems more valid than that of any soldiers or other adults.  For children seem to remember only the essence of war:  its brutality, abruptness, and cruelty.  Most children grew up to remember the war in the context of an abrupt change in their relationship to their parents.  Often, the war robbed a child of one or more of their parents, if not their whole family, or the whole village.  At the very least, most children lost a father for the length of time that father served at the front.  More often, their fathers (and sometimes mothers) died at the front or in partisan warfare, disappearing altogether from their lives. 

Alexievich's book is a good attempt to tell the story of World War II from a new perspective.  And why shouldn't we ask whether children didn't see something the rest of the adults missed at the time? The book reminds us of many child-specific acts of violence.  For instance, the book tells countless stories of Germans literally taking children's blood for their own purposes even as their victims starved to death. The book is also a story about memory:  World War II was a series of events, but it was also a lasting memory.  History and memory are certainly related, but they are not identical.  Alexievich's book is also a work of poetry.  More often than not, almost all of her subjects have managed to say something highly creative about one of the worst experiences of their lives.  And strangely, even the most gruesome of these childhood memories includes some element of beautiful about humankind.  Sometimes the child merely remembers an act of sacrifice he or she witnessed. Sometimes a child remembers his or her love for a parent.  But almost always, the child's oral testimony says something about the ability of humans to find something meaningful even in the worst event of their lives. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Leonid Dobychin's Encounters with Lise and Other Stories

Leonid Dobychin's brilliant short stories offer richly illustrative descriptions of life in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.  They point out that Soviet citizens suffered from food shortages, food rationing, and food queues, as well as a lack of electricity and other basic services. They point to a culture of violence, social tensions, and disorder.  They show a society plagued by prostitutes, internal refugees, and disgruntled former soldiers`.  Indeed, Dobychin's prose exposes so many social ills it's a minor miracle that Soviet authorities allowed any of them to be published.

As in his other works, Dobychin style is elliptical. As Richard Bordan's introduction makes clear, Dobychin provides readers with cinematographic treatment of his characters and settings rather than sustained reflection or analysis.  Nevertheless, the characters' actions and dialogue provide strong evidence that post-revolutionary Russian society was deeply unstable, insecure, and vertiginous. Although the stories demonstrate the extent to which the Soviet regime had already overturned traditional Russian mores, they also show that Russians--and especially Russian peasants--remembered the Old Regime and even missed aspects of that regime.  In other words, while the Soviet government had won the Civil War, Soviet citizens missed concrete reminders of the Old Regime, including Tsarist buildings, as well as Old World values, including Christian ones.  Revolution therefore complicates the way many people view the relationship of the past to the present. So although Dobychin documents varied ways in which Soviet authorities tried to articulate the value of revolutionary reforms, the ostentatious of this propaganda testifies to the new bureaucracy's deep insecurity about the permanence of revolution. In other words, why was the government constantly spreading propaganda, renaming pre-revolutionary places, espousing rigid slogans, and inventing new Soviet words, if it wasn't so worried about the possibility of a successful counterrevolution? 

Dobychin also hints at the superficiality of revolutionary change by his mode of describing revolutionary change externally rather than internally.  By avoiding any discussion of complex internal changes among his characters, readers are left to believe that revolutionary change may really only be a matter of renamed things and places (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Garden, Victims Square, the October Club), new fashions (red neckties), new political terms (purges, collective farms, unions, district congresses, delegates), neologisms (Phys-Culture), etc.

Some quotations are below


"Haven't heard of any impending change of regime, have you?" asked Zolotukhina languidly, holding out her hand.


"Ah," he sighed, "the old days won't be back again."


"Under the guidance of the Communist Party, we'll aid the workers of Red Leningrad!"

"life without labor," had been written over the stage in the filling works' theater, "is theft, and without art is barbarism." 

"Damnation to you," he was painting a sign, "Mister Trotsky." 

"Away with Pessimism and Unbelief," said a little placard she was carrying;  'Poincare, take that in the kisser,' a flag flutter over her.


"Not a miracle, but science," he elucidated.  "There are no miracles."


"There's an article by Fishkina:  'Don't abuse portraits of the leaders.'"

They removed from offices the banners and garlands of colored paper:  "Imperialist predators tormenting China!  Get your filthy-bloody hands off a great oppressed nation!"

Favorite quotations

"After all, I'm not against the lowest classes.  I'm prepared to sympathize."

The court sentences the conspirators to capital punishment and petitions for its commutations to strict isolation:  Soviet power does not take vengeance. 

"Comrade Gusev brought to a near-resolution the tasks confronting the Party." 

They turned this way and that.  Behind was a cemetery, to the right--reformatory, in front--barracks.

"I made her an insulting proposition," heard Petrov, "she didn't consent." 

He was undergoing treatment for love, and a doctor examined him.

"You're an alien element," Prokhorova said, "but I like you." 

In the theater, as always, there was shooting. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Robert Alexander and Richard Lourie

Fictional treatments of historical actors and events can supplement our overall understanding of the past. Robert Alexander's book, Rasputin's Daughter, and Richard Lourie's book, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin, are two cases in point.  If Douglas Smith's new biography of Rasputin leaves little to be desired, Alexander's short work of historical fiction concisely describes the way in which someone could view the "mad monk" both sympathetically and unsympathetically for some of the same personality traits.  For Alexander's daughter admires her father's charisma, generosity, and devoutness, but also detests his hypocrisy, sensuality, and crassness.  The fictional approach to the man allows us to see how the man could become invaluable to the empress even as he was despised by so many ordinary (and aristocratic) Russians.  

An even better work of fiction, Lourie's The Autobiography of Stalin helps readers to cut through the mountains of research on the man to understand the man's defining character traits.  Of course, on some level everyone familiar with twentieth century Russian history must know that Stalin was cynical, cold-hearted, and malicious.  But a book like this helps one to imagine how this villain might have (even must have) understood his world. A book like this helps us to resolve some paradoxes about this man who seems to have combined real elements of insanity with an uncanny ability to view the world realistically, even dispassionately.  One of Lourie's most interesting insights into Stalin is that he probably took Trotsky extremely seriously. While it's easy to believe Stalin used the myth of Trotsky as a tool to destroy his enemies, if we actually believe that Stalin was worried about Trotsky we might better understand the bizarre way in which he attacked his enemies.  Why did he blame so much on one man, namely Trotsky?  The novel suggests that Stalin's psychopathic side could work in tandem with his realistic side.  He could enjoy hounding a hated man and his followers to their deaths even as he used this sadistic enterprise to reinforce his position.  Lourie's Stalin is fascinating most of all for his ability to blend realism with monomaniacal adventurism.   


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Sergei Dovlatov's Novel, Ours

I'm a bit schizophrenic about Sergei Dovlatov.  I was thrilled with his memoir about his time as a prison guard, The Zone, which I found to be both insightful and painfully observant, but disliked his short novel, Pushkin Hills, which I seemed somewhat affected to me.  To resolve my uncertainty about the Dovlatov's literary quality, I'm resolved to work my way through his other works.  Today, I'll discuss his short book of biographical sketches about the members of his family.  Like The Zone, the memoir of family remembrances, Ours, seems to be both trenchant and acutely attentive to the traits and characteristics that make each of his family members unique.  It also gives the reader an overall portrait of the experience of a twentieth-century Russian family.  Dovlatov's family is not perhaps an ordinary one.  The family are firmly entrenched in the Russian intelligentsia and much generally very literary and/or artistic. Some were editors, others were actors or directors.  Most interestingly, Dovlatov shows us that members of the same Soviet family were capable of both embracing and rejecting Stalinism (and Soviet norms in general) at various times.  Indeed, often the same family member wavered in his support of the regime.  Witness the story of Dovlatov's uncle, who worshiped a long series of Soviet leaders, only to privately admit to his nephew (but only when he thought he was on his deathbed) that Soviet communism was a scam. Overall, Ours reinforces my impression that Dovlatov had a particular talent for non-fiction writing.  The individual tales are short, but profound, and often hilarious. And the form of his memoir is incredibly inventive. Somehow, reading a series of character sketches about the author's family members simultaneously gives one a sense of each individual family member, the collective family, the author's unique psyche, and, in some ways, the U.S.S.R. as a whole.

Favorite quotations from Ours 

Grandpa did not like disorder.  For that reason, he held a negative view of the Revolution.

"Begler Formich is a good man.  It's just a pity he waters his wine."

Perhaps the universe, such as it was, did not suit him.  I wonder, did it not suit him in its entirety, or just in certain details?

Tall and straight, he headed toward the market.  If anyone greeted him, he did not respond.

I was insulted very rarely, by the way, maybe three times in my entire life.  All three times were by my  uncle. 

"They say that marriages on the brink of divorce are the ones that last the longest."

"What an awful country!  I've been to America, to Israel.  I've been everywhere in Europe, but I would never got to Russia.  It's good for chess and ballet, but that's it. That and police action."

"Show me one good idea that exists outside of communism!"

A small portrait of Solzhenitsyn hung near the head of his bed.  He took it down whenever guests came. 

"I'm sick of living.  I don't believe communism can  be built in one country.  I've slid into the swamp of Trotskyism."

My father, on the one hand, felt great esteem for the Leader, though he was the one who had good reason to hate Stalin, especially since his father had been shot.

My mother and I lived in a revolting communal apartment.  The long, gloomy corridor led, metaphysically, to the toilet.  The wallpaper by the telephone was covered with doodles, leaving a depressing chronicle of the communal unconscious. 

As everyone knows, the only truth in our newspapers is in the misprints. 

He was an alcoholic journalist and, like many lushes, a man of blinding nobility of character.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal's The Tragic Menagerie

Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal's had an enormous impact on the pre-war Russian cultural elite.  However, it's relatively difficult to find anything she wrote in the English language.  We have her diary, but not all that much more.  Fortunately, her novel, The Tragic Menagerie, translated by Jane Costlow, is enough to demonstrate her genius. Published in 1907, the exquisite novel describes the coming of age of a young girl who, like most young people perhaps, is both saint and sinner.  Zinovieva-Annibal's book deserves acclaim for many different reasons.  First, the novel is broken down into chapters that independently read like perfectly conceived and executed short stories.  That is to say, although all the chapters are logically related to one another, and the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts, each individual chapter can be appreciated on their own merits as a perfectly executed explanation of some particular aspect of the protagonist's moral or aesthetic development.  Second, the novel makes use of the girl's brilliantly empathetic encounters with animals to illuminate her evaluation of consciousness.  While sometimes cruel, the girl is always deeply engaged with the animal world, and this engagement helps readers to enumerate the milestones on her journey toward adolescence.  Third, the author allows her protagonist all of the complexity of an adult, or more.  The book's protagonist is as complicated and conflicted as any Hamlet or King Lear;  indeed, she's wrestling with God and the Devil, good and evil, sexuality, nature, beauty, and mortality.  And somehow, the author presents us with a protagonist who both confronts these issues as a young, privileged girl, and as a more general manifestation of human consciousness, in a way that prefigures Beckett, Faulkner, Gardner, and so many other modernists.

I. Grekova's The Ship of Widows

"I'd have gone far if only I'd had known arithmetic."

"Eh, you women are a watery lot, however heroic you are."

I. Grekova's The Ship of Widows is a tale of a group of Russian widows living in a communal apartment with a share kitchen.  In some ways it reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri's book, The Namesake, since both books beautifully express the speed with which lives are lived.  We are born, we live, we suffer, we die.  The book is unusual in that its subjects are almost all relatively ordinary women who have suffered the vicissitudes of twentieth century Russia.  One of the widows is a religious woman who supports the Soviet government but wonders why its leaders suppressed religion and converted so many churches into warehouses.  Another of the widows is a former opera singer, forever having affairs, trading gossip, and searching for romantic love.  Another widow thinks in nothing other than cliches.  The book's chief protagonist is a music teacher.  Her particular story captures much of the tragedy of her times.  Her mother and child were killed by German bombs in World War II.  She was wounded, and remained disabled throughout her life.  The final heroine of the story is a hard-working champion of an unappreciative son she bore out of wedlock.  None of the widows are classical heroines.  They are too flawed to be considered traditional heroes.  They fight, gossip, sin, commit acts of petty selfishness, judge others, and complain.  They have few talents.  Most are self-effacing, demure.  Even the pianist says that she lacks inspiration. Even so, they are survivors, and, by and large, they look out for one another.  And perhaps the point:  individually, the women aren't heroes, but representatives of a gender and generation, and members of a collective, their ability to survive deserves commendation. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Sergei Dovlatov's Pushkin Hills

Having just read and loved Sergei Dovlatov's prison guard memoir, The Zone, I thought I would certainly also love his famous first-person novel, Pushkin Hills.  Alas, I found Pushkin Hills to be somewhat underwhelming--a pale, late-Soviet version of richer, more insightful American novels about alienation by Kerouac, Salinger, or Bukowski.  While Pushkin Hill's narrator is clever, he's not unusually clever.  (However, the narrator is certainly a member of the intelligentsia, and consistently invokes Russia's literary tradition in order to make sense of his life).  Nor does the narrator have a particularly strong ethical or aesthetic point of view.  It's clear that he loves Pushkin, and despises socialist realist classics, but readers don't read much more about the protagonist's artistic sensibilities than that.

In fact, if the Pushkin Hills narrator has anything to recommend him, it's his modesty.  He makes almost no claim to having a unique point of view, or unique insights into the characters who surround him.  The book as a whole is an interesting artifact of its time.  The protagonist is, after all, generally at odds with the political and cultural establishment.  However, the tension between the protagonist and society doesn't seem particularly sharp.  American Beats would seem more alienated by the government than  Dovlatov is by his government.  Perhaps that's the lesson to be learned by the novel.  Intellectuals and artists could be alienated enough by the Communist regime to think about emigrating, but they didn't necessarily find themselves in open revolt against the system.  Indeed, most people just kept living, and of course drinking.

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from the book

Mitrofanov grew into a fantastic sloth, if one can call lazy a man who had read ten thousand books.

Friends tried to get him a job at the Lenfilm Studios.  What's more, a special position was created just for him:  Consultant on All Matters.

He was diagnosed with a rare clinical condition--aboulia, or total atrophy of will. 

He decided to become a writer of best-sellers.

His tours were twice longer than the average.  At times, tourists fainted from the strain. 

A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.

"Potosky, your appearance disturbs the harmony of these parts."

His speech was not unlike classical music, abstract art or the song of a goldfinch.  Emotions clearly prevailed over meaning. 

"I'll say it one more time, colour is ideological in aspect!"

She scoffed at me.  "Your mug alone demands punitive action..."

There are dozens of books written about the harmful effects of alcohol.  And not even a single brochure on the benefits.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Isaac Babel's Odessa Stories

I enjoyed reading Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, although it was somewhat difficult to reconcile this relatively modest collection of war stories with his enormously positive reputation as one of the Russia's greatest stylists of the twentieth century.  I suppose his closest American analogue might be Truman Capote, who had a reputation for literary brilliance despite his relatively modest output.  Or perhaps Lorraine Hansberry would offer a better comparison.  She's made her way into the American literary canon largely on the strength of a single play, although she wrote other important works before her untimely death at the age of 34.  In any case, the Red Cavalry stories about Russia's war against Poland demonstrate the author's searing honesty, careful attention to detail, sense of irony, excellent selection of fragments of dialogue to illustrate important human truths, and straightforward, unadorned prose. Isaac Babel's Diary of 1920 also made me appreciate the author's intelligence and sensitivity.  However, Boris Dralyuk's translation of Odessa Stories finally brought the author to life for me.

In Dralyuk's translation, the stories about the multicultural, international city of Odessa read like a fusion of David Sedaris' gentle, self-effacing comedy and Ernest Hemingway's staccato encounters with twentieth century brutality.  The author is especially fond of inventive similes, understatement, comic or ironic dialogue, deliberate repetition, and ellipses.  His stories are enriched by the narrator's willingness to insert philosophical truths into the descriptions of everyday life. They are also enriched by what can only be described as a Jewish or Yiddish sensibility, as evinced by the narrator's paradoxical ability to somehow use protest as the means by which he is able to resign himself to the cruel vagaries of Odessan life.  They are clever, and their cleverness is enriched by the author's ability to make the reader aware of the magic of the storytelling process.  Most of his characters come alive on the page not only because they do and say interesting things, but also because they reflect on the nature of language, the narrative arts, heroism, and other elements of a good story.  If the characters are interested in telling good stories (and indeed they all seem to believe that the best part of life is that we get to explain it to others in the way we would like to explain it), the narrator is also interesting in helping readers see that he or she is a talented storyteller.  Thus the narrator colorfully asserts his or her interpretation of an event or action, or ostentatiously assigns human motives to elements of the natural world.

The Odessa Stories are often comedic, but they almost reference the tragic dimensions of the era.  The city itself emerges as a leading character in almost all of the Odessa Stories.   Babel's Odessa is both largely Jewish and anti-Semitic and subject to pogroms.  It was also on the make, doing business with almost every port in the world and filled with people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.  Twentieth Century Odessa was necessarily a vertiginous place, since it was assailed by the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, a strong criminal underworld, the Russian Civil War, foreign interventions, and the political whims of the Communists. Babel captures this sense of perpetual uncertainty with preserving a sense of ambiguity in most of his stories.  Although they are almost always poignant, the author tells his stories sparingly, allowing the reader to wonder about true important of each vignette.  Read together, one also wonders how each story helps to make up a compensate picture of a complex time and place. 

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Odessa Stories


Three shadows block the path of my imagination.


What would you do in Benya Krik's shoes?  Ah, you wouldn't do a thing.  But he did.  And that's why he's the King, and you--you just thumb your nose behind people's backs.

"Now, tell me, a young gentleman like yourself, who clips the coupons off other people's bonds, what would you have done in Benya Krik's shoes?  Ah, you don't know.  But he know.  And that's why he's the King, while you and me, we just sit here on the wall of the Second Jewish Cementary and shield our eyes from the sun."

"My respects, Madame Schneyveys, and a good afternoon.  I see you decided to go off on business for three years and dump a hungry child in my lap..."

And the fifth day passed.  And the sixth day passed.  Saturday strolled the streets of Modavanka.

Now try and wrap your minds around the inveterate barbarism of Madame Gorobchik.


"Ladies and gentlemen," said Benya Krik,  "and the sun rose over his head like a sentry with a rifle.

"You want to snap everything up, greedy Lyubka;  you drag the whole world towards you, like children drag a tablecloth to get a breadcrumbs..."

His tender yellow eyes hung over the table like paper lanterns over a street in China...

The moon went leaping through black clouds, like a stray calf.

"I don't want you, Rook, like no one wants to die;  I don't want you like a bride doesn't want pimples on her head."

He straddles the city, this Utochkin, like a bronze monument, with his red hair and grey eyes.  And all of us have to scurry between his legs.

The King's words fell like a mound of boulders onto the path where nine-headed hunger roved.

Madame Gorobchik sat next to her husband, glancing over her shoulder like a murderer.

He shuffled his father's face like a new deck of cards.

...Madame Gorobchik perched at her husband's bedside like a slop-soaked crow on an autumn branch.


Benya finally ruined my health to the degree that he felt like it should be ruined.


Images of The Sun 

An orange star had rolled down to the very edge of the horizon and stared at them, wide-eyed.

Kaplun's paunch sprawled on the table beneath the sun, and the sun could do nothing about it.

The purple eye of sunset swept the ground in the evening...

By the time dawn began blinking its bleary eyes...

A sunset boiled in the sky, a sunset as viscous as jam, bells moaned at the Church of St. Alexius, the sun descended behind Near Mills, and Lyovka, the master's son, trotted after the dray like a dog trotting after its master.

At that hour the sund hadn't yet reached New Mills.  It poured down into the clouds like the blood of a stuck hog....


"Now, what can you say?  There was a man, and the man is no more.  An innocent bachelor, he lived like a bird on a branch--and a fool thing like that robs him of his life."

"Where do the police start," he howled, "and where does Benya stop?"

Lyova the Russkie smashed a bottle of vodka over his beloved's head.

"And remember, Eichbaum, you weren't no rabbi in your youth either.  Just between us, that will didn't forge itself, did it?"

The Pin went back into the shopw with his crew.  They lined up against the wall and pulled out their revolvers.  Ten eyes and five revolvers were fixed on the door, to say nothing of the sawn-off telegraph pole.

Philosophical truths

And Benya Krik, he got his way, because he had passion, and passion rules the world.

A man eager for answers must arm himself with patience.

"There are people in this world who know how to drink vodka, and there are people who don't know how to drink vodka but still drink it."

There's no one else in the world like Benya the King.  He cuts through lies and looks for  justice, be it in justice in quotes or without them.  While everyone else, they're as calm as clams.  They can't be bothered with justice, won't go looking for it--and that's worse.

And she threw ten roubles in his face.  At no point in history have two five-rouble bills ever added up to more than ten.  

"Don't go around saying 'no,' Russian man, when life's clamoring 'yes.'"


"I've got no help from anyone.  Here I am, all alone, like God up in heaven."

"No, I didn't blow my nose on justice.  Justice blew its nose on me."


"But wasn't it a mistake on God's part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they're in hell?  I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as they eye can see?  Everyone makes mistakes, even God."

Monday, May 13, 2019

Quotes from Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone

Below are some of my favorite quotations from Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone

...any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious.  And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.

"I was a slender string in the thunderous concert of the war," Lieutenant Colonel Mar began.

By then I was a fully formed person, endowed with all sorts of oppressive complexes.

Having a living father might have given the impression of bourgeois excess.

My father was a sort of hidden treasure.  He paid alimony, but not very regularly.  This is natural.

All signs pointed to a typical Soviet biography. 

Love stories often end in prison.

In that world, I saw men with a gruesome past, a repulsive present and a tragic future.

I was friends with a man who had once upon a time pickled his wife and children in a barrel.

What had once seemed important receded into the background.  Trivialities blocked the horizon.

The heels of bread were comparable to diamond desposits.

"I got married," Marconi said in a tragic tone, and hung his head.
"Do I know her?"
"No.  I hardly know her myself.  You're not missing much."

In order to land in the penal isolator of a maximum-security camp, you had to commit some incredibly evil deed.  Strange as it may seem, many managed to do so.

A smile both absent-minded and anxious played constantly over his face.  An intellectual can always be recognized by that smile, even in the taiga.

Your thesis should be:  drink, but within limits.  Not drinking at all--that would be overkill.  That would be an anti-Marxist utopia, as they say. 

"Dzavashvili has a condom," Matstysn said.  "I saw."
"One?" Fidel asked.
"Oh look, a scholar!"  Volikov said, getting angry.  "This one needs his own private condom!  You'll wait your turn."

My only diversion is cigarettes.  I've learnt how to smoke in the shower.'s very important not to confuse harmony with indifference.

I begin with the cemetery because I am telling a love story. 

We were very similar to each other, and even interchangeable.  Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard.  Almost any guard deserved a prison term.

These were people whose feuds and friendships didn't look much different.

"And I come from a long line of Russian thieves.  I have stolen and will again."

Gulag Literature

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the most comprehensive description of the Soviet Union's horrific system of incarceration during the Stalin era.  Entitled The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's moral masterpiece systematically investigated (and condemned) almost every aspect of the Great Power's inhuman slave labor system.  The book was so very thorough in its ruthless depiction of Soviet Communism's greatest villainy, that it may sometimes seem unnecessary to read anything else on the subject.  However, Solzhenitsyn's massive tomes should be supplemented by a close reading of Varlam Shalamov's Kolmya Tales. For Shalamov's artistry is greater than Solzhenitsyn's artistry, and that artistry exposes the variety of human tragedy of camp life more fully than the more prolific writer ever did. In fact, each of Shalamov's many vignettes delivers its own special snapshot of the sadness and bitterness that festered at the brutal epicenter of Soviet oppression.  It's art rather than journalism that can really help readers to get some sense of the many different ways in which the Soviet Union could destroy its citizens in the course of their lengthy prison sentences in the distant north.  It's irony rather than satire that can help readers to see that true dimensions of the anguish that befell the Soviet Union's citizens after they received arbitrary sentences of ten, fifteen, or twenty years of hard labor in a frozen, isolated, and hungry land.  While not, strictly speaking, a work about Stalin's Gulag Archipelago at all, Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone also has much to tell us about the Soviet Union's experience with utterly inhuman prison systems.  For, as Solzhenitsyn pointed out, the Gulag did not died with Stalin; it continued in some for decades, perhaps even until the end of the Soviet Union itself.  Of course, as Dovlatov confesses, he was a guard rather than a prisoner.  Still, Dovlatov knows that at least in some ways this is a distinction without a difference:  guards, almost as much as prisoners in some cases, were degraded by their participation in this system of freedom. In The Zone, Dovlatov seems to maintain that the Soviet Union's terrible political flaws were manifested or incarnated in the prison system.  However, one can't help but think that America's massive incarceration system must bear many similarities with that of the Soviet Union in its later decades.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Masha Gessen's The Future is History

Masha Gessen's books occupy a half a shelf at my house. She's a personal hero of mine.  She's an intellectual, historian, activist, and journalist who routinely helps to translate Russia to an American audience.  The subject of her books is wide-ranging, and includes monographs on Russia's experiment with a Jewish homeland in the Far East, a feminist punk rock (and protest) group, the fate of the Soviet intelligentsia, Putin, her grandparents' experience in the Soviet Union, and the Boston Marathon bombers' process of radicalization (in both America and various sites of the former Soviet Union).  Her latest book, The Future is History, is one of her most ambitious projects to date.  Like all of her other books, it is well-researched, well-written, and full of fascinating details about modern Russian history.  It also makes an attempt to define totalitarianism and explain its endurance in Russian history. 

At times, The Future is History seems overly ambitious.  It's difficult to define totalitarianism, explain a long series of political and economic events, and also describe the lived experience of Russians who lived at various stages of the Soviet and post-Soviet experiment.  Still, Gessen's ambition is laudable: don't we need to somehow combine a theory of totalitarianism with both an exploration of causality and everyday life?  We need to know how the term differs from other anti-democratic political models.  We also need to know why people often actively participate in this process.  Gessen explores a variety of theories of totalitarianism, including those of Arendt and Fromm, although never firmly settles on one and perhaps can do little more than rehearse previous theories.  Indeed, reading Gessen, we are reminded of the genius of Arendt's formulation of problem.  In any event, Gessen's exploration of political events and lived experience benefits from the attempt to wrestle with definitions.  For her, Putin's state is totalitarianisn not only because it centralizes power, suppresses protests, exploits propaganda, and cheats in elections.  Rather, it's totalitarian because it is apolitical and occupies every point on the political spectrum. 

Perhaps Gessen's original contribution to theorizing totalitarianism is her examination of sexuality.  She believes that the totalitarian state seeks a scapegoat in order to compensate people for their loss of individual rights.  This concept recalls anthropologist Girard's theory of sacrifice.  He argued that societies use a randomly chosen, blameless victim to sacrifice. The goal is to turn a society in which everyone is fighting everyone into a society where everyone fights only one defenseless victim (or group of victims).  But what do people get when they "trade" their rights into the state?  Gessen argues that people are seeking greater security and a sense of collective purpose. Although it can feel like you are living "without air," living in totalitarianism can offer a sense of security to people.  Perhaps Gessen's last original contribution to the discussion of totalitarianism is her emphasis on the social sciences.  She says that the Soviet Union intentionally destroyed almost every method by which Soviet residents could understand themselves.  Throughout the Soviet years, men and women were almost incapable of studying modern sociology, history, psychology or other disciplines. Without the resources to truly situate oneself, residents of a totalitarian state are unlikely to be motivated to resist their present conditions. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's The Girl From the Metropol Hotel

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is famous for her unique brand of dark comedy.  It's dry and understated, but bitingly sarcastic. Her short stories provide readers with a macabre but outrageously humorous depiction of everyday Russian life.  This being so, it's not surprising that her short memoir of her early years is both devastatingly sad and funny.  Born into a formerly family of communists, Petrushevskya quickly found herself on the wrong side of Stalin's campaign to terrorize Old Bolsheviks and most other segments of Soviet society.  This mean Petrushevskaya grew up in hunger, social ostracism, and general deprivation.  Like her short fiction, Petrushevskya's memoir reads like a dark fairy tale.  It's heroine is simple, the conflict between good and evil exaggerated, and the story-line seemingly disconnected from any specific time and place.  The heroine lacks shoes for much of the year, gets constantly teased by hostile children, picks food out of the garbage in order to survive, watches her family battle for survival (sometimes physically) with communal neighbors, and meets any number of intimidating characters (mostly teachers) at school. 

The Girl From the Metropol Hotel is a fairy-tale, but there's no real prince.  Born to the manor (or in this case, one of Russia's most famous hotels), Petrushevskaya falls from grace but never really finds redemption in the opposite sex.  In fact, misogyny and the threat of rape or forced prostitution hangs over the protagonist's head throughout her adventures.

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from the memoir:

My great-grandmother Asya died from sepsis at thirty-seven, leaving six children.  Her husband, Ilya, walked down to the river to drown himself--he was a doctor and held himself responsible.  The five children ran after him, carrying the baby;  they stopped him on the riverbank.

I was born on May 26, 1938, nine months after my mother's twenty-first birthday.  I was lucky.  I wasn't left behind in a sealed apartment, as often happened to the infants of the arrested.

I remember living inside Dedya's coyote coat, watching the fire in the furnace through the crack. Dedya spent the journey like a kangaroo, letting me out only occasionally.

At that time it was common--people disappeared without a trace, like the character in Daniil Kharm's famous poem about a man who walked out of his house and was never seen again.  Later, the poet himself vanished.

I waited for my mother day and night. She returned four years later.

She used to tell me again and again that it was for me, for my sake, that she left, that she couldn't have supported us without a college degree.  For the rest of her life my poor mother justified herself.

Playground rules are worse than sharia. 

Next to the wood stood an ax.  We weren't allowed to use the bathroom, so we bathed with cold water in our room.  One night we heard screams in the hallway.  My poor old grandmother lay in a pool of blood outside the bathroom door.  Fury's husband, on finding my grandmother in the bathroom, struck her on the head with the ax to teach her a lesson.

I had a doll, but it was small, made of celluloid, and missing a leg.

I tolerated hunger reasonably well;  we'd been starving for a long time.

At a certain age every girl had to take her place in the courtyard's hierarchy.   This usually involved being passed around behind the sheds. 

A mother brought her girl to a board school for sickly children and then left.  That girl was me. 

In a commune no one is entitled to private meals;  it's considered hoarding. 

It wasn't real poetry, of course, the kind that spills out of a dying person like blood and becomes the stuff of ruthless jokes. 

In my new co-ed class, fifty percent of the students brayed, spat at a distance, looked insolently with unfocused eyes, wore army crew cuts, chewed their nails, and had great difficulty speaking without swearing.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Shostakovitch's Memoirs

Dimitri Shostakovich's memoirs, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, are one of the most intimate and insightful depictions of Stalinism ever recorded.  In the interviews Shostakovitch apparently conducted with Solomon Volkov, the brilliant musicologist and cultural historian, the great composer reveals himself to be one of the most caustic satirists the Soviet Union ever produced.  With dark humor, and tremendous antipathy for every aspect of authoritarian rule, Shostakovitch carefully explains how a dictator in a totalitarian setting can degrade himself, his immediate circle, and almost everyone else in his realm.

The composer's verbal style, as Volkov points out in his introduction, owes a lot to that genius of everyday Soviet reality, Mikhail Zoshchenko (and, in my opinion, to the indirect influence of longstanding Jewish comedic traditions).  The composer's subject matter, of course, is primarily music, and Russian music in particular.  To be sure, Shostakovitch spends a great deal of time on his mentors and musical influences.  However, the subtext in almost any of these discussion is the corrupting influence of despotic power.  The state determined which composers were funded, and which were not.  More significantly, Stalin saw himself as the arbiter of good taste in music, just as he saw himself as the ultimate arbiter of theater, literature, military strategy, and every other field of human endeavor.

The politicization of music affected every stage of Shostakovitch's Soviet career in music.  His music became the symbol of Russian resistance to Nazi aggression in World War II.  He was both lauded by the Soviets as a symbol of Soviet artistic excellence, and pilloried for his so-called "formalism" and allegiance to "bourgeois" forms of creativity.

To be sure, there is no historical record of Shostakovitch "speaking truth to power" against Stalin.  Shostakovitch sometimes asserts that he often did more than his contemporaries to avoid the kind of flattery than many of his colleagues embraced.  However. Shostakovitch's critique of dictatorial power is predicated on the fact that heroes did not, and could not, have existed in Stalin's reign.  His belief is that any public display of integrity would have been  met by unshakable and bloody force.

In many ways, Shostakovitch's Testimony can be profitably paired with Brian Boeck's new biography of Mikhail Sholokhov, entitled Stalin's Scribe:  Literature, Ambition, and Survival:  The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov.  For both the famous composer and the Nobel Prize winner seemed to have existed at the intersection between loyalty and disloyalty. And both men criticized aspects of Soviet power even as they became its very incarnation to internal and external audiences.  Sholokhov often spoke out much more vigorously on behalf of Soviet leaders thank Shostakovitch.  On the other hand, he also took greater risks, pointing out collectivization problems or advocating for political allies (who he genuinely believed were helping people).  Combined, the memoirs and the literary biography point out just how important culture was to Stalin and his successors. They also remind that of the moral complexity of continuing to make art in the midst of terror.

One should also note that there is some controversy about the accuracy of these memoirs.  A quick look on the Internet reveals that some have accused the editor, Volkov, of making up material that suited him.  Even if this is so, which is perhaps unlikely, the "Memoirs" would remain a valuable artifact on Stalinism.  For someone--whether Shostakovitch or Volkov hardly matters--produced a beautifully expressed exposition of the relationship between high culture and Soviet power.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Aleksandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future

I've decided to delve into Russian art history to learn a little bit more aesthetic modernism.  Aleksandr Rodchenko's experimental career is probably the best to start.  Alexander Lavrentiev's compilation of Rodchenko's writings illustrates both the originality of Rodchenko and the richness of the art scene that predated the Revolution but came into its own after the triumph of the Bolsheviks. Rodchenko reminds me of Miro, Picasso, or Warhol in the stylistic or conceptual creativity.  Leafing through this richly illustrated book demonstrates the extent to which Rodchenko (and his contemporaries) continued to innovate through his career.  Fortunately, Rodchenko was a gifted writer as well as artist, so he did a reasonably good job of explaining his work, or at least the general direction of his work. 

Without a detailed understanding of the various competing movements at work in the early Soviet era, I can only say that Rodchenko's writings reveal several basic concerns.  First, he wanted to be a relentless innovators and was prepared to overthrow most artistic conventions in search of a forward-facing aesthetic.  He was, in other words, un-apologetically modern. He was also willing to jettison anything that wasn't immediately useful. Second, he wanted to create help the proletarian class to participate in an aesthetic revolution. "The proletariat sat in cellars," he said, "took shelter like animals in ditches," and "had no time for beauty, for elegance."  Realizing that the proletariat had not previously had all that much time for art, he now urged artists to help the proletariat forge its own definition of beauty.  Third, Rodchenko wanted Russia to be a leader in world art.  As he stated:  "We, the Russian Columbuses of painting, are discoverers of new roads in art."  Here, one senses a slight paradox.  On the one hand, he was an enthusiast for a politics of international revolution, and asserted that "We glorify the revolution aloud as the only engine of life." On the other hand, he was proud of Russia's decorative arts tradition and sensed that its local art scene could do more than any other nation's art scene to create definitions of art that were relevant to the future. He put the relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe this way:  "The West, a market of art, was amazed by the decorative arts of Russia, and we of course forget about this and are still admiring Napoleon's hairdo and the house of Wilhelm." Fourth, Rodchenko wanted art to be an essential ingredient to almost every human endeavor.  He wanted art to be transform buildings, city plans, clothes, and every other aspect of human experience.  Every object deserved to be beautiful.  Every object deserved his artistic attention.  As he stated:  "I prefer to paint ordinary things in an extraordinary way rather than paint extraordinary things in an ordinary way."

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Aleksandr Rodchenko's Experiments for the Future:  Diaries, Essays, Letters and Other Writings.

Down with art as a bright patch on the mediocre life of a propertied man... Down with art as a means to escape a life that isn't worth living.

...Our Russian nature is so boring, monotonous and gray...It's so sad and silent...What does Nature long for?
What is she forever thinking of?...

Nature has her own thoughts, her own sorrow...

A real Russian is also sad, he longs for something, and you'll never figure him out....

I will force people to die for objects, and objects to live.  I'll put people's souls into things, and objects will become souls....

Mama is seriously ill...I'm afraid for her.  She gives me money, after all. If she collapses, what will I do...

Russian critics, always snorting at Russian art, accusing it of imitating the West!
Look, Russia has given  birth to its own art, and its name--is non-objectivity!

The collapse of all "isms" in painting was the beginning of my ascent.

Objects died yesterday.  We live in an abstract spiritual creativity.

Work--is a pleasure.  Life--is torment.

It is usually said that my works in painting are not really works but experiments for some sort of future works or for future artists..

At the INKUK meeting, Professor Shmit said that in Russia there is not and never has been any visual art, only decoration.

He also said that the inventor is never a great scientist nor the great scientist an inventor, that to be an inventor you have to imagine images, i.e., you have to be a bit of an artist, but not a dreamer whose images are blurry and indistinct.

In the West everything is stuck as it was before the war, the same old Picasso and Matisse.  They all say they're looking to Russia with enormous hope, they'd trade places with us without a second thought...

In life, as well, we, humanity, are experiments for the future...

There is nothing eternal, everything is temporary.

The concepts of inviolable DOGMAS and classical CANONS are exploded by this issue, and the existence of ETERNAL BEAUTY in art is killed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Quotations from Andrei Navrozov's The Gingerbread Race

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Andrei Navrozov's The Gingerbreak Race: A Life in the Closing World Once Called Free

If Moscow is the Hollywood of power, Vnukovo was Beverly Hills.

...there you could crawl through to his thicket of raspberry bushes, peacefully going wild in the totalitarian gloom.

Further down at No. 7, on the assumption of relative equality among the muses, lived the founder of the puppet theater, a Diaghilev of the inanimate. 

She was a distant relation of the original owner, a scientist who discovered the secret of immortality.  This secret was of great interest to the ruler of a vast and powerful country like ours, and he showered her with honors until his death from cerebral hemorrhage.

For the animals she cooked a kind of nightmare stew, although at times it resembled plain gruel, perhaps simply oatmeal porridge with lots of innocent water, which was sticky and therefore frightening to a child who had never been exposed to life in the raw. 

To compensate, he had a reproduction of the Picasso etching of Don Quixote tacked, upside down, to the wall above the television set, presumably in order order to say "Is this art?", or even "Is this Don Quixote?"....

He was, of course, a mass murderer...

Father would often stop to chat with him in Mayakovsky Street.  "I told Iosif Vissarionovich to grab hold of Yugoslavia," I remember once overhearing.

Father though photography vulgar and discouraged the practice...

I was struggling with Xenophon's Anabasis.  "Can the child read Greek?" asked the inspector.  "Only with a dictionary," the child interjected with crushing modesty....

...and other tribal rites that punctuate the sanctimonious ordeal of human existence.

In the land where their parents might have disappeared without a trace and their own children might still be forced to swallow shards of glass in a cellar, they feared thieves.

The principle of the family as a voluntary assembly of peers was upheld.

But on closer inspection, these freedoms were little more than latitudes...

The infinitely wise Zamyatin--who said that Russian literature had only one future--its past--returned and mocked England in The Islanders.

In the Russian idea of nobility, disdain and sadness are fused so that it is impossible to tell where one ends and other begins.

I do not mean that the Vnukovo ravine was my Galilee.  I merely note the essential clumsiness of all that is genuine, and what an evanescent thing is truth.

My nanny, who had firm instructions not to interfere with my personal life, did not object when I went on to tell the girls that performances began promptly at eight.

It was the only time in my life when I felt like a child.

It is equally obvious that if Flaubert had known all along what would become of Emma Bovary, she would not have outlived him.

In somewhat more modest terms, film is to the theater arts what sport is to the arts of war.

A writer explained why books were dear:  "Because books ought to be dear.  A book is not vodka, not a woman walking the street."

A poet, after all, cannot be expected to be understood by more than a few hundred contemporaries.

To occupy ourselves with the future of our earthly possessions would have been as incongruous as loading a funeral barge with an alarm clock and spare she horns.

Here in Vnukovo, apparently, bourgeois relaity was only a generation away from totalitarian artifice.

In the West, Prokofiev and Shostakovich would have let go, lost their moorings, put on the faceless modernism which is one of the masks of timeless banality.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Andrei Makine's The Life of an Unknown Man

Like Irene Nemirovsky before him, Andrei Makine is a talented, prolific, and Russian-raised French author.  Unlike Nemirovsky, Makine's novels almost always deal very directly with Russia or Russian nostalgia. Makine's The Life of an Unknown Soldier tells the story of a a minor expat Russian writer who gets dumped by a younger lover and makes the desperate decision to journey back to St. Petersburg in search of an old love.  The protagonist returns to St. Petersburg in the middle of its 300th anniversary. The writer is of course immediately confronted by the fact that the city has changed just as irrevocably as his former lover, who welcomes him, but seems little-inclined to think about the past.  This first part of the novel feels someone less interesting than Makine's other novels, including his prize-winning My Russian Summers.  While well-written, it lacks both the beauty and subtlety of Makine's best work.  It also feels somewhat cliche to see a returning exile to feel estranged in his home town.  Certainly George Orwell's Coming Up for Air does this brand of nostalgia much better. 

However, Makine being Makine, the novel becomes much more powerful after the protagonist begins to listen to the life story of an old man who is about to be evicted from his real estate agent and host's rapidly expanding millionaire's pad.  For the old man's biography includes much of Russia's twentieth century history. As it turns out, the old man survived the siege of Leningrad, the battles of Stalingrad and Kurst, the Gulag, Purges, and everyday communism. After completing the second half of The Life of an Unknown Soldier, one is tempted to credit Makine for making the first half of the novel banal on purpose.  Perhaps the contrast is meant to demonstrate the extent to which the power of nostalgia and the excitement of history overwhelm the reality of our present lives. In any event, Makine is a writer's writer, and exhibits an ability to describe hunger, war, and fear with incredible precision.  And so the book, as a whole, represents another of Makine's sophisticated tours of the space between Russia's past and present.

Below are a few quotes from the book:

"An exile's only country is his country's literature."  Who said that?

He would also quote Chekhov:  "In a short story cut the beginning and the end.  That's where most of the lies are told."

"Playboys take women out for drives in convertibles," Shutov thought with a smile.  "Destitute writers treat them to the Russian classics." 

On a boat just about to leave a Crimea put to the torch by the Revolution, the young Nabokov was playing chess. 

The aesthete, Nabokov, care more about an elegant metaphor than the land of his fathers.

"I'm not Russian, Lea. I'm Soviet. So you see I'm filthy, stupid, and vicious. Very different from all those Michel Strogoffs and Prince Myshkins the French are crazy about."

 "Listen, Shutov, I know she went back to Leningrad, well, Saint Petersburg.  She'd married a fellow who was in oil.  Yes, you get the picture.  And it didn't work out...No, not the oil.  The marriage."

"We've reached the stage of irony."  At first Russia copied these Western fashions, now they delight in pastiching them."

Michael Idov's Dressed Up for a Riot

Michael Idov's frenzied memoir of his life in Russia offers a suitably chaotic depiction of Putin era Russia.  As editor-in-chief of GQ Russia, and sometime novelist and film entrepreneur, Idov, who grew up in Russia but emigrated to America prior to college, is well-placed to tell us about Russia's vertiginous contemporary life. According to Idov, Russia has descended into full-fledged dictatorship.  The evidence Idov cites is not original.  It is common knowledge that Russia has taken over the Crimea, supported separatist forced in the Ukraine, passed homophobic legislation, granted the president control over leadership positions in the provinces, jailed political opponents, harassed protesters, centralized media coverage and put that media under government control, committed election fraud, encouraged the assassinations of political and journalistic opponents, sponsored systematic public misinformation campaigns, and so on.  But it's interesting to follow Idov's narrative to see how democratic practices can be eroded over time, one police or legal action at a time.  It's also interesting to read Idov's argument that Russia's problems are an increasingly global phenomenon.  For although Idov seems to think Russia's problems are not inherently Russian.  In other words, he seems to imply that almost any society could become a victim of insecurity, self-loathing, and superficiality. And indeed, America in the age of Trump does seem to mirror the worst aspects of Russia's elite political and popular culture in the Putin era.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Ekaterina Television Series

This first season of the Russian television, Ekaterina, tells the story of Catherine the Great's arrival in Russia, trials and tribulations under the rule of the aging Elizabeth, and seizure of power.  As a television show, the series is similar to The Tutors in its excitement, passionate love affairs, and political intrigues.  Its leading ladies (especially the actress playing Elizabeth) are excellent actors.  The theme sound is appropriately redolent of the Game of Thrones' soundtrack. As history, the series reminds us of that the awesome autocratic power of the post-Peter the Great Romanovs was somewhat tempered by Church authority and alternative claimants to the crown whose very existence could potentially inspire revolts.  The series also reminds us on the complex diplomatic affairs of eighteenth century Russia.  While capable of sending almost anyone to her dungeons, Elizabeth employed royal advisers, an expensive army, and a complex counter-espionage services to keep her royal prerogatives and her country's borders safe.  As importantly, Elizabeth understandably worried about her heir.  In fact, the dynastic succession was an almost overriding obsession for the empress. Who would follow her policies, continue the Romanov dynasty, or at least rule Russia competency after she died?  The film depicts Catherine as intelligent and, increasingly, politically savvy.  She learned Russian quickly and avoided political intrigue enough to stay alive.  On the other hand, the film also suggests that Catherine craved love, and really did love both Saltykov and Orlov.  In terms of its narrative power, the film does a wonderful job of depicting Peter III as a tragic hero.  Flawed in terms of intellect, judgement, and (after a bout of smallpox) appearance, and capable of great personal cruelty toward Catherine, the film's Peter III nevertheless emerges as a complex and often sympathetic person. Suffering mightily throughout Elizabeth's reign, the often childish Peter III somehow mustered enough courage to periodically defy his aunt.  He also demonstrated great musical talent, a capacity for love a woman of his own choosing, and some measure of courage when faced with a coup.  He also tried to assert bold new policies for Russia, although these policies (especially those related to Lutheranism and the war against Prussia) were admittedly naive insofar as they flew in the face of popular Russian opinion.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Andrei Makine's Brief Loves that Live Forever

Andrei Makine is a masterful prose stylist.  His Dreams of my Russian Summers was notable for lovely nostalgia and its beautiful if sometimes elliptical prose.  Brief Loves That Live Forever is also both concerned with nostalgia and exquisitely written.  Born in Siberia, but living in France and writing in French, Makine's greatest talent seems to be his ability to write very precisely about fairly vague (if nevertheless powerful) sensations, including love, longing, loss, bi-cultural understanding, and nostalgia. But Makine is also extremely adept at combining the personal with the political. In other words, he is able to describe how our personal lives are affected by the grand architecture of world-shattering events and global processes.  But he does so in a way that never crowds out the essential elements of bildungsromans.  In some ways, Makine could set his stories anywhere, but the Soviet leaders' megalomania sharpens the contrast between Big History and small (or personal) history, between revolution and everyday life, between Marxist philosophy and love, between politics and psychology, between great events and epiphanies. 

Makine 's Brief Loves That Live Forever is a biographical story set in the late-Soviet era of Brezhnev.  Sharply divided into various vignettes, the protagonist was raised as an orphan and ended up a dissident.  Orphan-hood seems to be the appropriate symbol for both late Soviet citizens, who often suffered the loss of family members to the Gulag or other totalitarian horrors, as well as post-Soviet citizens, who suffered the lost of their country, the Soviet Union, as well as an economic system, political creed, and way of life.  In the protagonist's memory, the October and May Day celebrations loom large.  So too do propaganda, parades, Soviet heroes, leaders' portraits, edifying stories about Lenin and Stalin, and Soviet symbols.  Makine mentions concrete facets of the Soviet experience, but dwells upon a generation's general feelings of disenchantment as young people in particular begin to realize that the Soviet dream of equality and cooperation is unrealistic if not outright ridiculous. It's an award place to be in.  The failed dream remains an important part of one's past.  The effect must be akin to finding out that Bill Cosby is a convicted mass rapist.  We are obliged to hold two different versions of the world in our hearts at the same time, both the Cosby Show's depiction of a world of racial equality, and the accusers' reality of malevolence and rape.  But of course post-Soviet citizens must deal with the two all-encompassing versions of the past. 

Some favorite quotes from the book:

The Party had just proclaimed that communism would arrive within the marvelously brief span of twenty years.

Official propaganda congealed these dream visions together into tangible, simplified language, common to the country's whole population.

...this dress rehearsal for the messianic society.

"Well, what can you say?..He was a submariner, her man.  And if they're lost at sea they don't get a grave, or a cross..."
The other one stopped scraping, leaned on the handle of her shovel, and sighed as well:  "Well, as for a cross, you know...Maybe it's better there's no grave. She'll get over it quicker..."

Everything was provided for in the ideal society:  enthusiastic work by the masses, incredible advances in science and technology, the conquest of space, taking man into unknown galaxies, material abundance and rational consumption, linked to radical changes of attitude.  Everything, absolutely everything!  Except...

Anyway he said she wasn't patriotic, you know.  He divorced her. 

The fatal mistake we make is looking for a paradise that endures.

This obsession with what lasts causes us to overlook many a fleeting paradise. 

We would laugh when a book on our study program struck as too stupid (one somewhat visionary author declared that the completion of a five-year plan within four years would speed up time throughout the universe.)

And while I so longed to believe in this fraternal world, I knew that when you passed through our city's suburbs at night it was better to have a switchblade in your pocket.

Totalitarianism, even in the mild form our generation knew, dreaded the spectacle of two beings embracing and escaping its control.