Thursday, September 24, 2020
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
As translated by Nina Kossman, Marina Tsvetaeva poems hold up relatively well in English. Below are a few favorite lines from them.
From on a Red Steed
No Muse, no Muse
Sang over my shabby
Cradle, or took me by the hand.
I snarl, I shoot sparks.
An alliance of winds
Sweeps the big roads.
Poem of the End
In the sky, rustier than tin,
Is a lamppost like a finger.
In every eyelash, a challenge.
Sky of bad omens.
Rust and tin.
This soundless kiss:
The stupor of the lips.
Thus--empresses' hands are kissed,
Thus--dead men's hands...
(The exaggeration of life,
In the final hour.)
What yesterday was waist-high,
Suddenly reaches the stars.
(Exaggerated, that is:
To its full height.)
This is where it led!
Like thunder on the head,
Or a naked blade,
My brother in sin,
My fever and fervor.
They dream of running away
The way you dream of home.
The water--a steely strip of it,
I stay with it like a singer
Sticks to the score; like a blend-man
Sticks to the edge of a wall.
The dead are faithful.
Yes, but not all in the same basket...
On my left side, death; on my right--
You. My right side seems dead.
Too much breaking, too much smoking,
But mainly too much conversation!
What's that smell? The smell of haste,
Of connivance and petty sins,
Of business secrets
And ballroom powder.
Too much laughing,
But mainly--too much calculation!
..The smell of business deals
And ballroom powder.
Too much stroking, too much groping
But mainly--too much squeezing.
But who minds the smell?)
The chain's too short?
At least it's platinum, not steel!
Their triple chins shaking,
Like calves they eat their
Love is flesh and blood, a flower
Steeped in its own blood.
Or did you think love was
A chat across the cafe table?
A quick hour, and then away?
Like all these gentlemen and ladies?
--Is it a temple?
Hardly, child; it's a scar upon
A scar. In full view of servants
And drunks. (Soundlessly, I say,
"Love is a stretched
Bowstring: a partying shot.")
"And love is, above all, a shared
"Or did you want to say:
Death--and no conditions!
--Life!--Like a Roman commander,
Surveying what's left of his
"Let's call it quit."
Wanting is what bodies do,
Now we are only souls.)
You hand your love
The bloodstained honor of parting
Like a bouquet.) Say it clearly: Syllable
By syllable. "Let's call it quits,"
You said? (Like a handkerchief
Dropped in a moment of sweet
Mischief...) In this battle you are
Caesar. (What an insolent thrust:
To hand back to the opponent
The sword he surrendered
As a trophy).
The shadow of money
In a shadow land. Soundless,
It burns... As if my soul were torn
Away with the skin. Like steam through a hole,
It vanished, that notorious silly heresy
Called the soul.
That Christian anemia!
Separation--it's not Russian talk.
Not women's, nor men's.
Nor God's. What are we, sheep,
Gaping at our dinner?
Separation--in what language?
There's no sense in it,
Not a sound.
Losing everything at once--
There's nothing neater.
Love is a seam.
A seam, not a sling; a stitch, not a shield.
Oh, don't ask to be shielded!
The stitch by which the dead are sewn to the earth,
By which I'm switched to you.
Better to rip than unravel.
It's there, but not for us!
A stepmother, not a mother!
Ahhh, the game's lost,
Ladies and gentlemen!
Where are the real cities?
Life is a place where no one can live:
The Jewish quarter...
Wouldn't it be a hundred times better
To become the Wandering Jew?
For anyone not scum
Life is a pogrom.
Expect no mercy
In this most Christian of worlds
All poets are yids.
Weep! With others you'll recover
The dignity you lost with me.
We are fish of one
Sea. An upward sweep!
..like a dead seashell,
Lips upon lips.
Attempts at a Room
I remember three walls,
I can't vouch for the fourth.
From everywhere and every when.
A portable chair of emptiness.)
The door--the threshold is sensitive to shoe soles!
The sheer wall of the Cheka,
A wall of dawns, of sunlit firing.
Squads of gestures more clear-cut than
In the shade--shot from behind, in the back.
What I can't understand: executions.
But leaving aide the torture-chamber theme,
The ceiling was definitely
All of us, in that other world,
Will learn to walk upon
A floor is for feet...
How embedded man is, how rooted!
So it won't leak: a ceiling.
Remember the ancient torture, one drop
Per hour? A floor: so that grass won't
Grow into the house, so earth won't enter---
Not a plasterer, nor a roofer
But a dream, a guard on wireless
Pathways: A He meeting a She
In chasms underneath eyelids.
Flood. A room? Mere surfaces.
After all, the desk is fed by
An elbow. Elbow out along its inclines--
That will be your desk's deskless.
Don't fret beforehand.
The chair will arise with the guest.
Gestures serve me
In psyche's hall.
In a child's stringed, inmost memory
Distance is hand luggage and a governance.
(Distance is stylish).
He who built (dug) the corridors
Knew where to curve them--
To give the blood time
To turn the corner
To give the brain time
To assign seats,
For a rendezvous is--a location,
A signature--a calculation--a draft--
Into time's farthest point:
Maybe the walls were go ne,
The ceiling definitely gave
a lurch. In our moths only the vocative
Blossomed. The floor was definitely a gap.
And seen through that gap--green as the Nile..
The ceiling was definitely adrift.
By a single dash is the poet held
New Year's Greetings
We have blood ties
With the beyond. Whoever had been to Russia
Has beheld that world in this.
Doubtless, I see poorly from my pit.
Doubtless, you see better from up there.
I have a shelf of Leon Trotsky biographies so I was not in a hurry to read Irving Howe's small, yellowing, and seemingly dated biography. However, Howe's book is a brilliant overview of Trotsky's life and theoretical contributions to Bolshevism and Marxist theory and practice. In fact, this short book goes a long way toward explaining many of the fundamental mistakes of the Soviet experiment. Perhaps Howe's greatest strength as an historian of the Soviet Union is his balanced approach to his subject matter. He is deeply sympathetic to socialist project, and yet willing to critique almost every mistake Trotsky and other Bolshevik (and Menshevik) leader made.
According to Howe, Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution was a genuinely important contribution to socialist thinking. It essentially predicated the course of events in post-revolutionary Russia by pointing out that a fragile working class would necessarily depend on ongoing, global revolution to avoid counterrevolution or degeneration. On the other hand, Trotsky flipped sides on this question after the February Revolution, arguing that the Bolsheviks had every reason to overthrow the Provisional Government and even socialist democracy in the service of the working class. Thus, Trotsky (who was of course not alone in this) ironically came to be responsible for working against the very theory he had once proposed, and would propose again once he had left power.
Howe's Trotsky was a deeply ambivalent figure. He was in a sense a deeply divided thinker. On the one hand, he produced relatively sensitive works that advocated for some level of social and intellectual plurality. Literature and Revolution is a case in point. Trotsky admitted here that Proletarian culture was not yet rich enough to afford Russia or the world with a rich literary culture. In fact, Trotsky believed that the Russian Revolution would eventually mean that the Proletariat, qua class, should wither away. When workers created enough wealth, they would have ample opportunity to stop behaving as workers. They would have enough leisure time to produce worthy literary and artistic creations. Until then, Russian workers should appreciate the great bourgeois works of the previous century. On the other hand, Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism celebrates authoritarianism, and defends the Bolshevik's rather outrageous claim that the Party could fully represent Russia's workers.
In the end, Howe agrees with the Menshevik position that Russia was not yet ready for a socialist revolution. Like the Mensheviks who seemingly abandoned the field of combat, Howe thinks Stalinism was the almost inevitable result of the Bolsheviks' decision to prematurely eliminate both the bourgeois parties and competing socialist parties from political life. Indeed, Howe believes that once Lenin and Trotsky convinced their reluctant comrades to take power, the Party was doomed to rely on ever increasing levels of compulsion and terror to maintain their fragile grip on power.
Thursday, September 17, 2020
Thursday, September 3, 2020
Friday, August 28, 2020
It's difficult to discover or "contract trace" the origins of an obsession. So it's hard to really know how or why I became interested in Russian history or the history of the Russian Revolution. But I sometimes suspect that my interest in revolutionary Russia can be traced back to my interest in my grandfather's politics. Although I never knew my grandfather, I grew up hearing about grandfather's single minded pursuit of Leftist economic and social upheaval. Be this as it may, my grandfather wasn't a communist, and he never preached overt revolution. Rather, he was a collectivist or devotee of cooperatism. He might also fit under the broad category of Christian Socialist. In any event, I believe my grandfather learned about collectivism in the shadow of the First World War at Harvard University around 1915. In any event, he never let go of the idea after leaving Harvard. Although experiencing several farming failures, my grandfather served as a postmaster general and small town newspaper editor for about 40 years. He also helped to found a couple of small cooperative ventures.
Knowing that my grandfather talked about nothing else, I have often wanted to know more about collectivism, and especially how it relates, if it did relate at all, to communism. For this reason, I was especially happy to find a novel by Upton Sinclair entitled, Co-op: A Novel of Living Together. Of course, the idea of turning a dry economic or political idea into a novel seemed odd, but as it turns out, the novel reads relatively well, and gives one a wonderful picture of the "romance" of cooperatism, such as it was.
In general, the novel suggests that cooperatism was a response to the economic dislocation that followed World War I and eventually reasserted itself in the Great Depression. According to Sinclair, cooperatism was an extremely rational response to poverty, unemployment, overabundance, and currency scarcity. In his novel, the unemployed gather together to barter outside of the cash economy. The coop was a nexus or alternative market for workers who lacked both cash and commercial employment. Its internal politics were fundamentally democratic, and many of its adherents professed to believe in some form of Socialism or communism. However, the coop movement sidestepped traditional politics in order to avoid being quashed by the U.S. government and Big Business.
Sinclair's novel is a paen to the virtues of cooperative living, which he suggests are a perfect mixture of realism and idealism. To the modern eye, the economic system seems inherently unproductive, with coops avoiding monetary incentives and sharing bartered tools and goods whenever possible. However, one can readily imagine how many Americans were ready to try something midway between Capitalism and Bolshevism in the 1930s.
And what was the relationship between the American cooperative movement and the Russian Revolution? According to Sinclair, the American bourgeoisie was always terrified by the prospect of Bolshevik Revolution, Civil War, expropriations, and economic chaos. One of his wealthy characters does business with the coop precisely because he wants to make friends with Leftists in the event that there is a Russian-style revolution. Better to do business with the coop than to be "shot in the cellar" later on.
Upton Sinclair claims in his novel that California had over 200 coops in the 1930s, and that thousands of people worked for one of these coops in one way or the other. Politically, coops were propped up by former Wobblies, radicals, liberals, syndicalists, reform-minded Christians, socialists, and communists. Economically, they were fueled by people who found themselves excluded from the cash economy.
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Everlastingly short of cash, and everlastingly in raptures over something, Rostislav Bambaev wandered, aimless but exclamatory, over the face of our long-suffering mother-earth.
"What is his work about?" inquired Litvinov.
"About everything, my dear boy, after the style of Buckle, you know...but more profound..more profound...Everything will be made clear."
"I never read novels now," was Madame Suhantchikov's dry and sharp reply.
"Because I have not the time now; I have no thoughts now but for one thing, sewing-machines."
I did not finish Fyodor Sologub's Bad Dreams so I won't write very much about the book. I only write to try to record a few fleeting impressions of his tone or style. The tone or style are particularly important insofar as the book contains descriptions and dialogue but little action, and few plot points. Sologub was a turn-of-the-century writer, a product (or producer) of the Silver Age, and a Symbolist par excellence. Today, at least in the English language, he seems primarily remembered as the author of The Petty Demon. At any rate, the tone of Bad Dreams might be described as gloomy, melancholy, or depressive, if not also alienated and estranged. The characters speak to one another, but don't seem overly hopeful that they will be understood by one another. Individuals are isolated. Login, the protagonist, "was enveloped in longstanding melancholy, the coldness of a life that was self-centered and dominated by chance.." The author's style is mysterious, or elliptical. Indeed, Solugub reminds me of Platonov, although Platonov was not a part of the same literary school. Solugub seems peculiarly modern insofar as he makes little effort to explain his meaning, or the meaning of his characters' conversations. If the prose can be described as symbolist, it is because the author probably believes a conversation has a symbolic rather than purely logical or rational meaning. The entire atmosphere might be characterized as dreamlike, or magical, and filled with "prophetic dreams, bells, candles, house-sprites, the evil eye..." The goal of life, if there is any goal, is to appreciate this magic. In Login's dream a woman tell him this: "Dear one," answered another voice," from the horrors of life there is one salvation--our love. Do you hear? The stars are laughing. Do you see? The blue waves are breaking on the silver starts. The waves are my heart, the stars are your eyes." The mystical nature of wisdom in Bad Dreams is beautiful, but also morbid. As one character says: "It would be sweet to die. I have no no need of happiness. Love, death--it's all one and the same. To melt away quietly blissfully, to forget the phantoms of life--that is the heartfelt rapture of dying!"
Quotations From Fydor Sologub's Bad Dreams
Life seemed menacing; premonitions oppressed him; misfortunes lay in wait for him.
The housekeeper's sullen face, cratered with pock-marks, increased his melancholy.
"Tell me," Login spoke up again after a brief silence, "what color does life seem to you, and how does it taste?"
"But why is life frightening?"
"It's too dead! We don't live as much as we play at living."
The ancient elms bent down their branches as though they wanted to eavesdrop on this strange conversation. But they were not listening and did not hear. They had their own affairs.
"People, as they always were, are ready to gobble up each other. But all of them are personally as flexible as willow switches. Their man at least dares to be openly cruel."
"I looked intently into myself, and within I found the same ardent but impotent audacity of all human beings, and that same dreary question about the fate of our country..."
"Speaking frankly, old friend, our society still, thank God, is not ready for such things. We have no use for communism and anarchy."
Andozersky waxed candid: "You know, old friend, I'm getting married soon."
Login felt curious: "To whom?"
"Right now, you see, it's still hard to say to whom exactly."
"In this nervous age no one has the strength to accomplish anything. With the temperament of a disillusioned frog, how can we go in for adventures?"
"After all, I don't live between the covers of a book: I've got a real flesh-and-blood body; I'm young, high-spirited, nimble."
"..disipline is the first thing in life. Our people couldn't get along without it."
Although the Markov asserts that the new theater could assimilate the best of nineteenth century traditions, he believed that the new theater was endowed more serious, even didactic, purposes. The day of the private entrepreneur was over. The Revolution was creating new plays, with new and better heroes (i.e., shocker workers, Young Communists, scientists, collective farmers), and a more active audience. Now, Revolutionary playwrights wrote about the following: "The life of the Soviet intelligentsia, the revolutionized village, scientific institutions and factories, collective farms and administrative offices," etc. Indeed, the Revolution even interpreted class plays in new ways, highlighting economic or political "contradictions" whenever necessary. In fact, the new theater was organically linked to the proletariat and peasantry, since factory workers and collective farmers now regularly attended the theater, and actors now regularly toured factories and collective farms in the remotest corners of the Soviet Union. The close connection between theatrical workers and the proletariat and collective farmer economy meant that the playwrights adopted better theatrical forms too, including vaudeville, propaganda poster plays, and musical comedies.
The Revolution ensured that theater now had a higher calling than it ever had before. It was, Markov maintained, a link a "chain of production" that was creating a stronger, more modern country. Echoing Stalin, the new playwrights were engineers of the soul, and were no longer permitted to serve the whims of rich individuals or indeed wealthy classes. Of course, Markov also approved of state censorship or aesthetic direction. As he explained, the Commissariat of Enlightenment "does not permit the performance of plays, which are socially insignificant or harmful, and it insists the theaters in the correct interpretation of a play."
To conclude, Markov's book defends a highly politicized theatrical movement in the Soviet Union. On the other hand, even Markov's commitment to the Revolution, and to Stalinism, doesn't prevent him from attempting to argue that the new theater could still accommodate diversity, including Meyerhold, the Moscow Art Theater, and Tolstoy.
familiar life" rather than the "familiar stage." Nemirovich-Dantechenko also supported literary genius and the dignity of the stage. He and Stanislavsky also opposed the idea that the audience rather than the producer were the proper masters of the aesthetic experience. For instance, the director and producer no longer permitted theatergoers to enter the play after it had begun. He also describes his enthusiasm for Chekhov, who recognized the importance of the quotidian context of his characters, avoided the deus ex machina and external effects in general, and created truthful depictions of human struggles with mortality and meaning.
Grigorovitch: "He is not worthy of kissing the trail of the flea which has bitten Chekhov!"
Another Coryphaeaus of Russian literature, Boborikin, said that he gave himself the pleasure of reading every day, without fail, a tale of Chekhov's.
A certain writer said: "Talent is necessary for the writing of a play, but genius for its production."
Friday, March 13, 2020
Wednesday, March 4, 2020
Moscow 1956 begins with a comprehensive overview of these unfolding questions. The richness of her sources, and the strength of her critical analysis of those sources, demonstrates the extent to which the Soviet Union struggled to create a clear path forward, somewhere between totalitarian extremism and moderate reform. Of course, Khrushchev himself provides the best example of a country in flux. Where once Khrushchev had participated in Stalinist terror, now Khrushchev avoided using murder to silence political opponents. And where once Khrushchev avoided almost all contact with the non-Communist world, now Khrushchev advocated peaceful competition with capitalist countries and struck out on numerous visits to Western, socialist, and non-aligned countries. But Smith isn't content with examining the Soviet leadership. She also examines Soviet travel and tourism trends among ordinary people. She looks at the way Soviet historians began to re-write textbooks. She looks at the aesthetic and political decisions of novelists, poets, and filmmakers. She looks at the way scientists began to reexamine Stalin's anti-genetics positions.
The overall theme of the book seems to echo Fitzpatrick's theoretical construct and book title, Everyday Stalinism. Smith suggests that 1956 was much more than a series of political decisions by top Party bosses. Rather, it was a whirlwind of political, creative, and personal confusion. And while the Party maintained its political authority, even the official Party line could be met by confusion by ordinary Party members and non Party members. For instance, when a top historian met with ordinary teachers to explain the Party's new approach to Stalinism, many of them asked damaging or embarrassing questions. Complicating things further, ordinary Russians were split about what made them most uncomfortable about the new Party line. Should Stalinism be completely overthrown now that the man's crimes had been uncovered, or should the Party acknowledge how much he had done for the country?
Victor Ardov's The Case of the Entry Room
A dog--is a person too, citizen Judge, heaven knows it has feelings too.
Of course, in the lean years I got it in exchange for flour--the billiard table. And I traded only for the sake of the cloth, so that the whole family would have green clothes.
He's her husband, but last month they made as if they had divorced, so that each would get a room, and not have their space reduced. But he's a husband to her. He was her husband, and is still her husband.
Well, you see, maybe Pushkin spent a night in the room I occupy. Her is the documentation.
Squaring the Circle: A Vaudeville in Three Acts
Abraham: As if we couldn't get along with without registering our marriage. Who would we be hurting?
Tonya: A concession to the petty bourgeoisie.
Abram: What do you need for a stable marriage? Compatible personalities, mutual understanding, class consciousness, a shared political orientation, and proletarian solidarity.
Abram: I give you my Komsomol word that I'll try not to crowd you.
Tonya: I don't understand these feudal sensitivities.
Abram: Kuznetsova, cut the petty bourgeois nonsense.
Abram: I always said that our work among nonmembers wasn't worth a damn.
Abram: Aha! Kuznetsova, you here that? There's a resolution on the table to have some tea and rolls.
Tonya: Proletarians in solidarity don't act like that.
Tonya: Don't forget I'm not your servant, but an autonomous companion in life and comrade in work.
Tonya: You have a feudal conception of marriage.
Abram: No getting around it, this is a one hundred percent, honest-to-goodness feudal family squabble.
Abram: I'm looking for a book on ethics. Just wait, there's been a disaster. Someone swiped it.
Abram: There's something horribly feudal about a woman crying.
Vasya: Do you love him or don't you? Just tell the truth.
Tonya: I don't understand--what an ideological way of putting it...
Tonya: If I may express myself in obsolete ideological terminology, comrade Abram is madly in love with me.
Tonya: We'll have to forgo our individual interests in favor of the common interest.
Tasya: What a drag...
Flavii: Well, well, guys, show me your territory, demonstrate your technical accomplishments. Just where do you live, exactly.
Flavii: Who would have thought that such a serious young woman, with such a sound sociopolitical record, would be capable of such foolishness?
Abram: A letter for me? That's a rare historical event. I haven't received a letter since 1917.
Quotations from Vladimir Kirshon's Grain
Olga: I'm sick of this little town, with its age-old gloomy ignorance and only three hundred and eleven streetlamps to light it.
Mikhailov: Well, what do you say--is there any chance of a revolution in the West?
Rayevsky: It's impossible for the proletariat not to be victorious. Victory is inevitable, like death.
Kvasov: Pashka, take the masters to the room.
Kayevsky: What masters? I used to dunk masters in the Black Sea.
Kvasov: I've watered our earth with my own sweat and tears. And so have you. See, our earth is salty. But in Moscow the cabdrivers feeds their horses baked bread.
Forms of Government or Organization
Council of People's Commissars
Techniques of Government
Hero of Labor
Order of the Red Banner
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
Some favorite quotes from the book are below
He pawned his watch so many times that his saintly second wife said she never knew what time it was.
From Brothers Karamazov. "For real Russians, the question of the existence of God and immortality are of course first and foremost."
A Dostoevsky biography reads like a Greek tragedy.
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a lubricious, bawdy, imperious, whoring gambler who seldom missed an opportunity to pick a fight.
From Queen of Spades. Would she like a Russian [novel]? "Are there any Russian novels? the countess queries.
Pushkin produced the first major Russian work in almost every literary genre.
Pushkin was a heroic shagger who had time to write only when he had a sexually transmitted disease.
Two years later, he married her, writing to a friend to say that she was his 113th love.
Turgenev's father: My son, fear the love of woman; fear that bliss, that poison.
I have a congenital desire to contradict; my whole life is merely a chain of sad and unsuccessful contradictions to heart and mind.
Gogol's mother was proud of her son and in old age told neighbors that Nikloai Vasilyevich had invented the railway engine.
According to one academic there are eighty-six kinds of food in Dead Souls.
His stories and plays deal with the essential problem of being: How to find meaning before the return to dust.
Chekhov felt that he had "wasted his life on fornication"--who hasn't--and wished to write a report on the condition of the prisons and prisoners, hoping that it might do some good.
"It seems to me," he said, "that Pushkin and Gogol are not understood here."
Their lives were and are consumed with the generally dreadful business of being Russia.
Russia emerged as an increasingly shocking country.
Catherine the Great said [Russia] was too big to govern, or so they say she said.
Russians claim the banya as their first doctor, vodka being the second and raw garlic the third.
Russia has two eternal problems, roads and idiots.
Quoting Alexandra Kropotkin: "Russians are nice people, though in certain parts of Russia the admixture of Oriental blood may lend a definite touch of deviousness to their thought and behavior."
Quoting Alexandra Kropotkin: "The whole of Russia is a prison camp."
Dostoevsky: "The most basic spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, incessant and unslakeable suffering, everywhere and in everything."
I remember my friend Colin Thubron, an accomplished Russia watcher and fluent speaker, saying that in decades of visiting, he had never met a smiling Russia.
The author's prose [Grossman's] reinforced my opinion, forged both through direct experience and through reading, that for most people, being Russian has always been miserable--before, during, and after communism.
...the Soviets like shifting graves around, controlling death as they did life.
One of my Russian grammar books says that da and nyet "loosely correspond to yes and no."
We covered kto, "who," and chto, "what," or "that." Cats and dogs, it turns out, had to be referred to as "who." I asked Irina why.
"Well," she said, "they are not insects."
Words I had to look up
Raisa Gorbacheva, we heard, was the first Russian First Lady who weighed less than her husband.
Friday, February 21, 2020
A few favorite quotations
...she had undoubted charm for those she loved. Unfortunately, her husband was not one of them.
His widow's only recorded comment was terse: "a dog's death for a dog."
"Who will believe me," he wrote, "when I saw that I knew what love was, at ten years of age?"
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Some favorite quotations
Perestroika is not only our spiritual revolution, it is our second Great Patriotic War.
Children on the banks of the Kolyma River to this day will bring you blueberries in human skulls they find and smile in innocent absence of memory.
The branch ministries are like fattened repair offices, and Gosplan looks like a huge atelier for minor repairs for the clothes of the naked king.
The Russian printed word has almost never known similar censor-free times, neither before nor after the Revolution.
The era of executions had passed--this was the period of quiet choking in back alleys.
I would not like to believe Chaadayev's sad prophesy that our nation exists solely to teach humanity a terrible lesson.
But our life with its deficits and daily shopping suffering has turned into a kind of daily life-style Chernobyl.
"Does this mean that if we have three parties, then there will be three regional committees, and we have to feed all of them?"
Every Russian is a collection of all of Dostoevsky's heroes in one.
Poetry is feeling the earth with a bare foot.
"In order to understand itself, a nation creates its poets."
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Filled with sexually explicit language, Aleshkovsky's Nikolai Nikolaevich is a Soviet Portney's Complaint, if Portney had been a a pickpocket who spent prodigious amounts of time in the Gulag. The novella's plot revolves around an ex-convict who, upon release from prison, gets a job as a janitor of a biological research facility. The author speaks in prison jargon, but, somewhat paradoxically, also makes countless allusions to the classics of Russian literature, including Dead Souls. Soon, Nikolai Nikoleavich is recruited to provide the biologists with sperm for bizarre but promising experiments. These leading Soviet scientists hope to use his sperm to spread human life to another galaxy. However, the fictional Soviet government bans the science, as the real Soviet government once banned genetic science. The book is of course a blend of science fiction and satire. For the author depicts Soviet science and society as caught in a vortex of Soviet absurdities, including consumer shortages, Party purges, judicial arbitrariness, ideological imperatives, antisemitic campaigns, and planning fetishes.
...here in the USSR, it doesn't matter how much you swipe, the important thing is: don't steal.
Remember it's tough to get groceries these days. The whole country is starving, except for our leaders and heads of supermarkets.
In American I'd already have a summer house at a health resort, and I'd own a Lincoln Continental and other property. I want you to know I'm no Chichikov, these aren't dead souls I'm selling to the government. These are my own fresh, native sperm.
But then, since I am a true Soviet citizen, I've introduced economizing measures.
I've never squealed in my life, but if you snakes put the squeeze on my spirits, I'll squeal to the Party Committee, the Local Committee, and the Trade Union.
We geneticists are five minutes short of being enemies of the people.
Remember when you couldn't get razor blades anywhere? That was because the Chinese were hurling pubic crabs at us across the Amur River.
"You must think of masturbation as work--you must utterly exclude the sexual element as such. Would old man Vasya be able to do his work in the morgue if he sobbed at the sight of every corpse?"
I wanted to learn a trade, but I didn't like working.
I just can't work. That's all there is to it! In the camps, they'd taught us how NOT to work.
The workday is not fixed norm. After orgasm, you can go to the movies.
Friday, February 14, 2020
Whatever one thinks about Smith's analysis of the way America and its allies should engage with Putin, it is impossible to dismiss the importance of Smith's overall approach to Russian history, which is nuanced, comparative, and richly informed by historical and historiographical research. For Smith demonstrates that Russian history is filled with contingency, complexity, and change. There has never been a timeless Russia. There has never been a Russia outside of European historical trends. There has seldom been a Russia that is clearly more barbaric or violent than its neighbors.
Smith's well-written moves easily from early Russian history, to medieval Russian history, to early modern and modern Russian history. It also demonstrates familiarity with the diversity of Russian peoples and Russian neighbors. For instance, Smith doesn't neglect Muslims, Georgians, Finns, Poles, Baltic peoples, or Chechnyans. The historical coverage is impressive. It allows us to see Russian history in perspective. We can compare one Russian historical epoch against the other, and, surprisingly often, each Russian epoch against Polish, French, Italian, or English epochs.
The results are surprising. Overall, Smith forces us to admit that, aside from the Great Terror, Russia was not usually killing or torturing its people more frequently than other European counterparts. And even there, didn't another European power, Germany, engage in analogous terror? The case is of course clearer in earlier ages. For example, by percentage, didn't more people die in the religious wars of France and Germany than did Russians at the hands of even the cruelest tsars of the age?
Smith's book is a remarkable read. It's possible that his thesis about a Russian anxiety is overstated. However, it's clear that the books overall call to contextualize Russian history is long overdue. His comparisons of Russia's empire with the empires of Britain and Spain are especially revealing. Which, after all, was worse, the Russian drive Eastward, or the British conquest of India? And which ended more savagely? And was the Russian expansion in the Caucasus really any worse than the Spanish destruction of the native civilizations of Latin America? And should we compare Russia's experience with serfdom, which reminds us sometimes allowed many degree of autonomy, with America's experience with slavery, which rarely did?
Thursday, January 30, 2020
Friday, January 24, 2020
Valency's main argument about Chekhov is that he slowly developed a theater that was, paradoxically, anti-theatrical. As Valancy asserts, "In life we see people; we do not see stories, and we do not hear thoughts. In the world, what is ordinarily played before our eyes is not a story, but a scene." According to Valency, Chekhov took up where Ibsen and Strindberg left off by downplaying the importance of speeches, plot devices, entrances and exits, scenes of "high high climax," and other tools of traditional theater. Not all at once, but over time, Chekhov moved from the relatively traditional theater of Ivanov and Platonov to the strikingly modern aesthetic of the Seagull, the Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and the Cherry Orchard.
The strengths of Valency's treatment of Chekhov are many. First, he acknowledges the long and complicated creative trajectory of Chekhov's aesthetic evolution in order to emphasize the radical nature of his creative breakthroughs. Second, he uses letters and short-stories, as well as the plays themselves, to diagnose Chekhov's changing art. Third, he contextualizes Chekhov's new theater by comparing it to French, German, English, and Swedish theater, in addition to earlier Russian models.
How does Valency characterize the mature Chekhov? He argues that Chekhov was ruthlessly objective, allowing us to sympathize with all of his characters, rather than just some of them. He believes Chekhov created characters who had no dominate trait, but were, like all humans, complex tapestries of differing moods, ideas, strengths, and weaknesses. He maintains that Chekhov maintained a delicate but realistic balance between pessimism and optimism, tragedy and comedy. He declares that Chekhov was elliptical and ever assigned a single meaning to any literary symbol. Indeed, he preferred to allow his audiences to assign their own meanings to these symbols. He writes that Chekhov wrote about the exterior life of people, asking audiences to judge his characters by their often contradictory, and always shifting, actions, words, and exterior properties.
The Russian stage of the 1860s was not yet ready for subtlety.
Nobody illustrates better than he the disintegration of the system which Ibsen inherited from Scribe, and Scribe from Corneille, and Corneille from Aristotle.
In fact, he did not know, and never learned, how to write a long narrative.
His plays, beginning with The Sea Gull, consist also of a sequence of scenes, arranged in a meaningful way, but conspicuously lacking in the formal development which was in that day considered essential to drama.
Speculation bored him.
For Chekhov whatever was clear, decided, and certain was not in the province of art.
The squalor of life in Russia filled both of them with disgust, and Chekhov was more squeamish than Gorky.
The Wood Demon is a play about waste. In Russia, it is said, everything is wasted, forests, people, lives, intellect.
It was obviously Chekhov's intention to suggest that it is in the nature of man--at least in Russia--to destroy whatever is beautiful, so that the presence of anything lovely and feminine would affect the Russian character as a red rag, a bull.
Only fools and charlatans know everything and understanding everything.
There is not or, at least, there is scarcely a single landed Russian gentleman or university man who at one time or another had not boasted of his past. Why? Because Russian enthusiasm possesses one specific quality--it is quickly followed by fatigue.
We all have just enough brains and just enough feeling to ruin our own lives and the lives of others...
Friday, January 17, 2020
Alexei: Well, obviously, they have had to wait at every station stop.
Alexei: We lost the war. Now we have something more terrifying than the war, than the Germans, than generally anything on earth--we have the Bolsheviks,
Tuesday, January 7, 2020
For students of Russian history, Dikotter begins his book with a careful political history of Mao's rupture with Soviet leaders, and Khrushchev in particular. In fact, Dikotter argues that Mao's refusal to play second fiddle to Khrushchev on the international stage contributed to China's ever worsening food crisis. By insisting that his country could export grain to fellow socialist countries, and eventually forgo aid from Russia, Mao doomed China's peasants to unendurable levels of food scarcity. The fact that Mao required starving peasants to help industrialize their country in the midst of agricultural chaos made matters worse. Of course, Dikotter's explanation of the causes of the famine is complex. He argues that Mao made a series of tragic leadership mistakes, but also explains that collectivization was inherently flawed and deprived peasants of any incentive to produce food. Overall, Dikotter's thesis seems to be twofold: first, that Mao's philosophy of government was deeply immortal, and placed absolutely no value on even the minimum health requirements of the vast majority of China's citizens; and second, that Communism in general produced an absurdly undemocratic and centralized system of government that provided ordinary men and women no opportunity to help themselves.
To conclude, Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine can also be usefully compared with a new book on Communism's first famine, Douglas Smith's The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin. Although Smith documents Lenin's repeated cynicism about the food security of his political opponents, one is struck by the fact that Russian Communists had not gone out of their way to starve large segments of their citizenry. In fact, this early famine was at least partly the result of a Civil War rather than misguided or criminal agricultural policies alone. For Lenin did ultimately make a series of compromises that allowed Hoover and the American Relief Administration to feed millions of Russians. By contrast, Stalin and Mao never considered even acknowledging the dimensions of the tragedy they had done so much to create.