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.