Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Lev Navrozov's The Education of Lev Navrozov

Russia has suffered experience despotic government for many generations. The upshot of this has been the effect despotism has had on moral thinking.  Just as many American slave owners used their intimacy with tyranny to formulate powerful theories of freedom, so too have many Russians used their familiarity with oppression to articulate clear definitions of moral liberty.  Custine, Herzen, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Nadezhda Mandelstam, are just a few of the Russia thinkers who helped Europe and the world at large to think more deeply about what a society should do to afford its members enjoy personal liberty of conscience.

Another often overlooked Russian moral thinker was Lev Navrozov, whose brilliant social critique of Soviet Russia is entitled The Education of Lev Navrozov.  In this book, Navrozov, the translator, intellectual, and Russian exile, systematically attacks almost every aspect of the Soviet system, including its history, leadership, culture, and guiding political and economic theory.  The book is a skillfully (even beautifully) written polemic masquerading as a memoir.  Its satire is both biting and darkly comic.  Often, his extended rants about particular aspects of Soviet society seem like William Burroughs' famously outrageous "routines" about American society, such as "Thankgiving" prose poem about the place genocide occupies in our country's founding myths.

Navrozov analysis of Russia is a pleasure to read.  With his unmitigated confidence, and deep familiarity with elite Russian political and cultural society, he is perfectly positioned to wound or kill every single sacred cow of communist life.  He asks us to believe, for instance, that the Soviet Union was least friendly to the very people it was allegedly created to help:  the workers.  Navrozov takes Soviet Russia to task on every level.  Starting with Lenin, Navrozov has absolutely no sympathy for any aspect of Soviet society, which he perceives as uniformly hypocritical, inefficient, unequal, and oppressive.  He attacks Soviet policies toward national minorities, antisemitism, food requisitions, policies that induced famine, inequality, attacks on Czechoslovakia and Poland, the gulag system, the absence of democratic processes, the use of torture and capital punishment in the criminal justice system, show trials, propaganda, the absence of a free press, housing shortages, the extraordinary powers of the secret police, the banning of allegedly subversive books, regulations that made employment tardiness a crime, the diminished aesthetics of Socialist Realism, and much, much more.

It is, of course, possible to argue that Navrozov overstates his case by asking us to believe that Lenin was only concerned with his own personal power.  However, he backs up even his least provable claims with logical assertions and a mountain of evidence.  Navrozov is perhaps the Soviet Union's most effective critic insofar as he avoids limiting his criticism to Stalin's purges, and other well-documented episodes of murder and mayhem.  For Navrozov attacks the problem at his roots, arguing against even Marx's suppositions, and insisting that Stalin was chosen over Trotsky and Bukharin precisely because his colleagues perceived him to be the least likely to kill them.  In other words, Navrozov not only denies that the Soviet Union suffered because it failed to honor Lenin's legacy.  He argues that the Soviet Union might have been even worse if Lenin had lived.  The theory cannot, of course, be proven.  However, by the time one finishes The Education of Lev Navrozov this unusual counterfactual history seems as plausible as any other one is likely to encounter.  Even more importantly, by the time one finished this book one has a new vocabulary for explaining Soviet oppression, and terms like "possession-power," "superparanoia," "superlandlords," "caste serfdom," "pseudo-tsar-god," "torture-death station" "mega-scale agent provocateurs," and "nascent global gangsters" makes sense.

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