Thursday, September 24, 2020

Timothy Synder's On Tyranny

Although I thought I'd dislike this little book, thinking Synder might have put together a short list of democratic clich├ęs, I came to realize that Americans need a practical book like this to teach us that freedom isn't a purely abstract concept. Rather, it depends on everyday decisions made by plebeians like me.  In a sense, Synder's book is the counterpoint of Fitzpatrick's book, Everyday Stalinism.  His book might have just as easily been called Everyday Democracy. 

In fact, in the age of Trump and Putin, Synder's little book is long overdue.  While Synder doesn't have the space to incorporate too many historical analogies into this small book, his call to resist creeping authoritarianism in clearly grounded in the Soviet and Nazi pasts he explored so brilliants in Bloodlands and other books.  What, specifically, does Synder call us to do to defend our fragile liberties?  First, he asks us to think carefully before we surrender any freedoms.  Indeed, he actually believes citizens tend to give up freedoms in anticipation of upcoming threats from would-be dictators.  Second, he asks us to defend institutions, whether they be national, state, or local ones.  An ordinary citizen may not be able to support all institutions simultaneously, but if each of us would invest in a newspaper, a union, or a legal entity, the system itself will remain more resilient.  Third, Synder reminds us to resist any one-party solutions be proposed by participating in local, regional, and national elections.  Fourth, he asserts that we can defend the public sphere best by supporting vulnerable minorities and social groups.  Fifth, Synder insists that professional groups, and the ethical rules these groups uphold, are a vital bulwark against state power.  Sixth, Synder leverages historical experience to point out the dangers of paramilitaries and other forms of lawlessness.  The list continues, but generally calls upon citizens to support factual and investigative journalism, verifiable reality, honest political language, social connectivity, the sanctity of private life, skepticism of overblown state claims about the dangers of terrorism, panic-based politics, patriotism (as opposed to blind, xenophobic nationalism), etc. Most importantly, Synder asks us to beware of the "politics of inevitability" or the "politics of eternity."  Freedom can be defended, but it takes ordinary citizens (and not just heroes) to do so.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Marina Tsvetaeva's Poem of the End, etc.

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 clang--blare--clap,

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.)

Gypsy brotherhood--

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,

Deathly pale.

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.

(Yesterday's left-overs, 
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?

Love is...

    --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."

    (Silently: Listen.

Wanting is what bodies do, 

Now we are only souls.)

    (Courteous liar,

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,

These coins.  

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!

Suburbs everywhere!

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! a dead seashell,

Lips upon lips.

Attempts at a Room

I remember three walls,

I can't vouch for the fourth.

    Urgent wires

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.

        The unsparkinling

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.

Irving Howe's Leon Trotsky

 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

My response to the current pandemic was to step back from Russian history and literature for a few months.  I've used the time to read a variety of things, including the entire oeuvre of George Elliot.  I've also ready biographies of Elliot, Dickens, Hardy, and other Victorians.  I even started watching BBC productions of Victorian classics, including wonderful productions of Vanity Fair, Tess, and Bleak House.  Since I majored in British history, I used the time to remember why British history and literature was once so interesting to me.  Elliot's sophistication as a thinker is probably the best advertisement the Victorian age ever had.  I've also started reading about the American prairie, polishing off three Little House books , one Willa Cather novel, 'O Pioneers, and the fascinating biography of Wilder and her daughter, Prairie Fires.  But never fear, once a Russophile, always a Russophile.  For instance, I've just completed Gary Shteyngart's memoir, Little Failure. While not a huge fan of his fiction, I did enjoy this witty and sardonic analysis of his experience as a Russian immigrant in New York City and Wooster College.  While the book would probably resonate with anyone who is interested in how immigrants experience the world, Little Failures specifically discusses the Jewish Russian in the context of the 1980s.  The period is fascinating, but especially so for someone venturing from an ailing superpower to a  dominant one near the end of the Cold War.   
    Shteyngart's memoir is a deeply personal one, filled with his own personal insecurities, but it takes place against the backdrop of Russian history.  We learn that Shteyngart's family was decimated by the German invasion, and his grandfather suffered a further calamity after being sent to Siberian hard labor for the crime of praising German technology.  We learn that his family only escaped the Soviet Union as a result of the deal his country struck with the USA, a deal to exchange exit visas for Jews in exchange for grant and limited technology transfers.  Like most emigrants, Shteyngart's family lived in fear of being prevented from leaving, and shed most of its possessions in the flight, via Vienna and Italy, to America.  More mundanely, we learn about Shteyngart's everyday life in late Soviet Russia, including his experience with bureaucracy, queues, airport searches, space shortages, anti-Semitism, poor medical assistance (e.g., he didn't receive albuterol for his asthma until arriving in America), communist propaganda, and limited material comforts.  
    In America, Schteygart's memoir helps us to see how the Cold War affected Russians. In addition to the traditional dilemmas of finding work, learning English (and a new alphabet), and navigating a brand new culture, Schteygart endured a great deal of psychic distress by learning that Americans were still afraid of the Soviet Union.  In the late 80s, the Soviet Union was an "Evil Empire" that would, according to Reagan at any rate, be bombed "in five minutes."  On the other hand, American Jews did help Schyngart's family, with used furniture, used clothing, job assistance, and cash.  As embarrassing as the assistance was to a nerdy child, it seems to have been a vital element in moving Schyngart's family from poverty to the coveted American "middle class."  

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Tolstoy's A Confession

As a free thinker, I've hesitated to delve too deeply into Tolstoy's religious writing for fear of undermining my love of his novels.  However, the excellent novel, Resurrection, helped me to understand that his secular and religious writings are not so far apart as they first appear.  Tolstoy's short tract, A Confession, seems much less "religious" than one might expect it to be.  Instead, the long essay has a philosophical tone, and is relatively free of mysticism or theology or even religious fervor.  It's a biographical exploration that is not unlike the kind of exploration Tolstoy makes when analyzing his characters' complex, mercurial, and layered decisions.  A Confession also bears similarities to Tolstoy's What is Art? in that it often seems more of an intellectual exercise in rational analysis that any kind of investigation of a supernatural force.  When reading Tolstoy biographies, the two periods of his life seem sharply divided.  In the first part of his life, Tolstoy sins and then writes a series of brilliant novels.  In the second part of his life, he repents and pens a series of didactic and/or religious tracts.  However, A Confession seems to suggest that Tolstoy's signature and quasi-religious self-doubt is the source of his genius as a novelist, and his intellectualism and rationalism the source of his creative power as a religious thinker.  Tolstoy's plays also seem to suggest an absence of a divide between the two halves of Tolstoy's life, since even deeply religious themes turn into abstractly philosophical moral dilemmas.  Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised: I've always speculated that the best religious thinkers have much more in common with the best atheist thinkers than they do with the majority of men and women who lead the Church, Mosque, and Synagogue. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Uptain Sinclair's Coop

 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

Ivan Turgenev's Smoke

 Although Smoke is a short and somewhat awkward blend of romanticism and cynicism, it's often very witty, and in places reminds me of Truman Capote's hilarious roman-a-clef, Answered Prayers, or even Ernest Hemingway's viciously entertaining A Movable Feast.  Set in the fashionable spa town of Baden-Baden, Smoke describes a twice-failed love affair, but sets that bitter romance against the backdrop of a debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles.  One of the best parts about the book is the specificity of its historical context.  Set in the 1860s, Turganev mentions every fashionable idea of the era, including Mesmerism,  spiritualism, liberalism, Polish nationalism, Italian nationalism, LaSalle's socialism, the American anti-slavery movement, serf emancipation, German unification, women's emancipation, worker protection laws, the Russian nationalities' quest for autonomy or independence. Whether or not one becomes invested in the protagonist's love affairs, one cannot help feel the excitement of the decade.  Having just emerged from the humiliation of the Crimean War, Russia was now experimenting with local government (Zemstvos), serf emancipation, land redemption plans, technological innovation, farming improvement schemes, and German philosophy.  And Russians were excited by foreign ideas and occurrences, as well as the British Crystal Palace, Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and news of submarine cables.  Of course, Russia was also entering into a bitter controversy over whether Russia would do better to adapt to European fashions, or double down on those things that made it unique.  Turgenev was clearly on the side of the Westernizers, but Smoke seems less concerned with the Westernizers' point of view than with the fact all Russians were caught up in a frenzy of clashing, and sometimes disorienting, ideas. But again, the book is somewhat awkward, because Turgenev's story of betrayed love doesn't really depend upon its setting.  In fact, the story would likely have worked in any era.

Favorite quotations

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."

Fyodor Sologub's Bad Dreams

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."

P.A. Markov's The Soviet Theater

Like Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko's My Life in Theater, P.A. Markov's book, The Soviet Theater, was published in the middle of the 1930s, long after Stalin had consolidated his control of the country.  Unlike My Life in Theater, Markov's book is an unapologetic advertisement for the salutary impact of the Revolution on the Russian theater.  According to Markov, the Russian Revolution overhauled a deeply flawed Russian aesthetic tradition and paved the way for a marvelously improved theatrical experience.  Following a fairly strict line of Marxist analysis, Markov argues that pre-revolutionary theater was inappropriately consumed with the narrow concerns of small and privileged economic classes, namely, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.  According to Markov, the old theater was obsessed with irrelevant, purely personal, or distracting topics.  The old theater favored light comedy and sentimental drama, and focused on petty, personal, light, and sentimental issues.  After the Revolution, the Soviet theater gained gravitas but grounding itself in the broader and deeper political and economic concerns of the Russian masses. The Revolution widened the Soviet audience, both theoretically and practically, since the Soviet Union's institutional leadership now regularly sent Soviet trade union or Party delegations to attend ideologically mature performances. 

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. 

Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko's My Life in the Theatre

Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko was a revolutionary force in the Russian theater for several decades.  Although he wrote excellent plays, his role as a co-founder of the famous Moscow Art Theater, and producer of some of the best Russian and European playwrights of the first part of the twentieth century, brought him enduring fame in the history of the modern theater.  His book, My Life in the Russian Theater, first published in 1936,  outlines his artistic creed, but, owing to its dignified prose and gentlemanly anecdotes, seems a bit dated now.  The fact that Nemirovitch-Dantchenko wrote the book on the eve of Stalin's Great Terror could not have encouraged free artistic expression or personal honesty.  At any rate, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko explains the mechanics of his partnership with Constantin Stanislavsky, and also describes the origins of the Moscow Art Theater in great detail.  On aesthetics, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko describes his dissatisfaction with the nineteenth century intelligentsia's narrow interest in liberalism and social problems. He also explains his resentment for playwrights who created characters for the sake of their favorite actors and subscribed to a whole set of unrealistic theatrical conventions. He insisted that great plays arose from "
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. 

Some quotes: 

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

Tolstoy Refresher

This past week I plunged into several Tolstoy books.  I re-read Tolstoy's infamous Kreutzer Sonata, and read his What is Art? and The Cossacks for the first time.  The Kreutzer Sonata starts slowly, with the characters making relatively lazy--and sometimes philosophical--observations about women, but Tolstoy's talent emerges as he describes his protagonist's murderous jealousy.  Reading the book, one almost wishes Tolstoy had written his own Crime and Punishment to set along side Dostoevsky's version. Tolstoy's What is Art? demonstrates Tolstoy's ability to produce great work in multiple genres.  For this nonfiction investigation into aesthetics is very well researched and reasoned, and demonstrates the author's versatility as a thinker. In the book, Tolstoy draws upon his knowledge of German and French, to produce a survey of the field of aesthetics.  He also proves that he has a firm grasp on the history of the Church and European history in general.  In The Cossacks, Tolstoy seems to foreshadow some of the magic of War and Peace, since his ostensible adventure tale is filled with powerful insights into every day life, and wonderful "small" and "slow" moments and conversations between ordinary people. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Loren Graham and Richard Stites' on Bogdanov Science Fiction

According to Loren Graham and Richard Stites, Alexander Bogdanov's science fiction wrote widely read science fiction novels at the beginning of the twentieth-century.  Red Star, in particular, had a wide readership.  While stylistically unimpressive, Bogdanov's Red Star provided rank and file socialists with a compelling vision of a socialist utopia in outer space.  Bogdanov's alternative to capitalist reality included a rotating leadership, collective child rearing, short work days, unisex clothing, unlimited consumption, 3D movies, planned settlements, and a single language.  In general, the Red Star was a model of modernity, technology, and efficiency.  Red Star society required no state, and somehow blended the best elements of rural and urban living.  It also reduced the differences between men and women, and offered people the opportunity to change jobs frequently to avoid tedium and unnecessary routine. Medically, Martians participated in mutual blood transfusions and had the option of opting out of life at any hospital, all of which houses medical "suicide rooms."  Foreshadowing later cybernetic theory, Bogdanov also outlined a society that made use of statistics and data retrieval systems to implement or organize progress in highly sophisticated ways. 

Kathleen E. Smith's Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring

Kathleen E. Smith has written a brilliant historical account of the fateful year of 1956.  Impeccably research and beautifully written, Smith's Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring analyzes the pivotal year of the post-Stalin era by breaking down the year into its component months. Smith begins her narrative by carefully exploring the origins, meaning, and impact of Khrushchev's Secret Speech. She demonstrates the complexity of Khrushchev's undertaking:  after all, elements of the Soviet leadership intended to overthrow Stalinism without damaging their own reputations or that of the country's revolutionary traditions.  Somehow, Khrushchev needed to overthrow a so-called "cult of personality" without undermining the country's self-confidence.  Outwardly, the Soviet Union remained in a relatively strong position vis-a-vis its capitalist competitors.  After all, Great Britain, France, and America were beset by colonial rebellions and post-colonial anger, while Russia now now embraced Eastern European allies as well as a newly communist China.  Inwardly, however, the Soviet Union was uncertain about how to curtail its experiment with mass incarceration and forced labor.  It was also uncertain about what to do with the legacy of the man who had apparently consolidated the gains of the Revolution and overseen the country's triumph against fascism.  Should the country release all political prisoners, or just some of them?  Should released prisoners be permitted to return to their old jobs, or should they be marginalized to prevent undue awkwardness?  What license should be given to authors to criticize Stalinism?   How far should foreign communist governments be permitted to go in their own criticism of Stalinist traditions?  Should the Party's official history be re-written?  Should the reputation of people like Trotsky or Bukarin be rehabilitated in any way?  (The answer was no, especially in the first case). 

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? 

Quotations from Eight Twentieth-Century Russian Plays

Quotations from Eight Twentieth-Century Russian Plays

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

Residents' Associations
Young Pioneers
Regional Committee
Central Committee
Council of People's Commissars
Party Member

Techniques of Government

Inspection Committees
Official orders
Savings bonds
Voluntary contributions
Propaganda campaigns


Communal housing


Hero of Labor
Order of the Red Banner
Class conscious


Petty Bourgeois
Bourgeois holdover

Eight Twentieth-Century Russian Plays

Northwestern University Press'  Eight Twentieth-Century Plays traces the evolution of Russian drama from 1901 to the end of the last century.  Timothy Langen and Justin Weir's introduction to the book provides readers with a framework for seeing connections between these widely divergent literary works.  Although the form and content of the plays diverge, Langen and Weir remind us that almost the whole of the twentieth century involved revolution.  Twentieth-Russians were, after all, almost always plotting revolution, actively overthrowing governments, consolidating revolutionary gains, or overturning revolutionary traditions.  The first play in the collection is Zinaida Gippius' 1901 Sacred Blood, an odd but strangely compelling piece of symbolist drama.  As might expected from the symbolist theater, Sacred Blood revolves around fantastical creatures--mermaids and witches--and a dark religious theme related to sacrifice and immortality.  The play doesn't seem particularly modern, but it's vague eschatology seems rooted in some profound if metaphorical truth about humankind and the universe in general.  Another symbolist play, Alexander Blok's The Unknown Woman, seems ever more remote from modern aesthetic concerns.  Almost intentionally unintelligible, Blok, one of the century's greatest poets, seems intent on wrapping his theme of beauty in a coat of poetic abstruseness.  Mayakovsky's short, 1913 play, Mayakovsky:  A Tragedy, is the first play in the collection with unmistakably modern overtones.  Like Blok's play, Mayakovsky lacks a clear plot, or even clear meaning.  However, the play's tone is clear enough:  alternately sardonic, playful, grandiloquent, and self-mocking, Mayakovsky doesn't seem all that far removed from Allen Ginsburg's Howl, or any number other works of late twentieth century poetry or prose. Victor Ardov's 1929 play, The Case of the Entry Room, isn't as stylistically innovative as any of the other previous plays.  However, the editors wisely included it to illustrate the extent to which the relatively new Russian revolutionary society still debated the meaning of 1917, or sometimes poked fun at its results.  In this short play, members of an overcrowded communal apartment fight for space, and in the process a judge realizes that almost every participant in the drama is guilt of some offense against order and decorum.  Some residents file fictitious divorces, some keep livestock in hallways--but all are willing to bend the rules of the new revolutionary society when it suits them.  In The Case of the Entry Room, the growing pains of revolutionary society cannot be hidden.   People are learning new words, participating in unfamiliar forms of social organization, and applying to new governmental institutions. The Collection also includes Valentine Kataev's vaudevillian comedy, Squaring the Circle.  This 1928 play is premised on the lightly satirical themes related to half-digested Soviet phraseology, NEP acquisitiveness, the conflation of Soviet political economy and personal ethics, and the general Soviet housing shortage that fully ended. However, the mechanics of Kataev's plot aren't strikingly new:  two men marry, trick their new wives into moving into the space cramped apartment, and soon swap partners to find real happiness.  The play collection is rounded out by Vladimir Kirshon's 1930 drama about Stalinist grain requisition, a theme too susceptible to historical analysis to be included in this post, and Leonid Zorin's The Guests, a piece of Thaw drama which also deserves extended commentary.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Sara Wheeler's Mud and Stars

Sara Wheeler has written a wonderful little book about her relationship with Russia.  The book focuses on author's visits to the homes of Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Leskov, Lermontov, and Dostoevsky.  But it also touches on her delightful attempt to master the Russian language as she approached the age of fifty.  The book isn't especially original, or tightly organized.  It's also a slightly awkward mixture of travel writing, literary criticism, and collective biography.  On the other hand, the author provides readers with a nice introduction to varied Russian literary giants, and provides readers with a number of amusing anecdotes about her travel and language adventures.  At any rate, Russophiles will definitely envy her trips to so many literary shrines in Russia.  I know that I treasure my own visits to apartments or homes once owned or occupied by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Block, Nabokov, Akhmatova, and Gogol, and regret not being able to find or enter apartments or homes once owned by Bulgakov, Mayakovsky, and Chekhov. When all is said and done, I guess we're all religious, one way or the other. 

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."

On Russia

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 Brief note on Laurence Kelly's Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus

Laurence Kelly's Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus provides an elegant but concise overview of one of Russia's most influential writers.  The book describes Lermontov's rapid ascent to literary stardom in the first part of the 19th century.  It covers his amorous and military adventures, and analyzes the growing power and originality of most of his prose and poetry. Kelly is especially interested in Lermontov's fascination with the peoples of the Caucasus. He believes that this interest reflects Russia's rising enthusiasm for empire, but notes that Lermontov was more sympathetic for local peoples than most other Russian conquerors.

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

Yevtushenko's Fatal Half Measures

Yevgeny Yevtushenko's book, Half Measures: The Culture of Democracy in the Soviet Union, provides a window into the ephemeral politics of late-Soviet politics.  A book of the poet's liberal speeches, essays, and other short-form prose, Half Measures advocates for a liberal, democratic, and decidedly Western form of politics long out of fashion in today's Russia.  It also calls for a clear and sustained attempt to come to terms with the Soviet crimes of the past, especially the Great Terror, forced collectivization, antisemitism, Chernobyl, and the anti-religious campaigns.  It also calls for the clear renunciation of a host of Soviet practices, including the hospitalization of political opponents.  The book gives readers a glimpse of the many different debates that consumed the late-Soviet public sphere.  Questions abounded, small and existential ones alike.  Some questions were important, but relatively symbolic. Did the Soviet Union need a new national anthem?  Can Lenin's legacy still be salvaged?  Should Bukharin be rehabilitated?  Should the Cathedral of Christ of the Savior be restored?  What type of guilt should contemporary Russians accept for the actions of their parents and grandparents? What role should the intelligentsia play in a new Russia?  Other questions were more existential.  Should the Party continue to exercise any special privileges in the Soviet Union?  What might democracy look like in the Soviet Union?  How could modern Soviet citizens overcome a legacy of bureaucracy?  How could free trade and capitalism be stimulated, and reconciled with socialist values?  What would a free Soviet Union's foreign policy look like?  Overall, Half Measures describes a moment of tremendous emotional and intellectual turbulence.  The author himself seems filled with hope and anxiety in equal measures.  Things could certainly get a lot better for ordinary Russians, but progress was not a sure bet.  Russia had a dark legacy to overcome, and many more trials to face before it could be fully free. 

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

Yuz Aleshkovsky's Nikolai Nikolaevich

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.

Favorite quotations: 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

Mark B. Smith's Russian Anxiety

I am greatly impressed with Mark B. Smith's recent book, The Russian Anxiety.  At first, the book seems like a relatively straightforward apologia for the Putin regime.  It argues that Americans and Europeans have no reason to be obsessed with the Putin regime, or Russia more broadly.  Russia has not behaved more aggressively than America and its allies. Right or wrong, Russia has not made any historically unprecedented moved by exerting influence in the Ukraine, Georgia, or the Crimea.  In a way, Smith seems to be applying the general Orientalist framework to Russia that Edward Said first applied to the Middle East and East.  According to Smith, Americans and West and Central Europeans maintain an illogical belief that Russia is an unchanging menace to civilization.  For whatever reason, Europeans believe that Russia is inherently undemocratic, autocratic, militaristic, and expansionist. 

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? 

Trotsky, the Russian Miniseries

I am surprised and pleased with the Russian miniseries, Trotsky, currently available on Netflix.  The relatively high-budget, eight-part series does an exceptionally good job of depicting one of the most important men or women of the twentieth century.  The film takes a few artistic liberties, casting his murderer, Jacson, as a serious interlocutor, and inflating the importance of Frida Khalo, his Mexican lover, to his overall life trajectory.  However, these narrative devices work extremely well, and help keep this very comprehensive biographical film from getting dull.  The film does cover many or most of the important elements of Trotsky's eventful life.  We see Trotsky in prison, Siberian exile, French exile, and Mexican exile.  We see him participating in the 1905 Revolution, the July Days, the 1917 October Revolution, the Civil War, and many other episodes of a rich and varied life.  We get to know his wife and children, as well as his complicated relationship with Stalin.  While Stalin emerges as an overtly villainous character too early in the film, the series' premature attention on Stalin is useful in explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each man.  The best thing about the series, Trotsky, is that is allows us to see the best and worst aspects of this historical genius.  We see that he is deeply committed to a revolutionary struggle to overthrow a monstrous regime.  We see that he possesses great reserves of courage, eloquence, and intelligence.  However, we also understand that Trotsky can be narcissistic, callous, and overly ambitious.  He neglects two wives, four children, a lover, and many political allies. He is every moral compromise in the service of revolutionary ends, including massacres and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the German Empire.

Reading up on Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev was a fascinating man.  He was a shrewd and intelligent man, but often came off as impulsive or even buffoonish. He outmaneuvered Beria and other revivals, but, according to his son, Sergei Khrushchev, apparently didn't take even the elementary precautions that might have warded off the threat of Brezhnev and other former friends.  Khrushchev was a dynamic man, founder of a 100 different projects.  But for all his dynamism, he seems to embody the Soviet system's moral ambivalence.  He shares clear culpability for many of Stalin's crimes, but his Secret Speech stands as clear attempt to move his country in a more humane direction.  He also ruled at a fascinating moment in time, probably the high water mark of the Communist project.  In Khrushchev's reign, Soviet citizens could still wonder whether or not they were about to overtake capitalism.  Khrushchev's agricultural initiatives had not yet collapsed. The age of Soviet stagnation had not yet set in.  The book, Red Moon Rising:  Sputnik and the Hidden Rivals That Ignited the Space Age, captures on aspect of the Soviet Union's optimism.  Although Soviet science had its weaknesses, Khrushchev's missile and space program won a gigantic propaganda victory by beating Americans into outer space.   Of course, all of my current readings are supplementing Taubman's excellent biography, the best starting place for anyone hoping to learn more about the man. 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sergei Eisenstein's Beyond the Stars

The first part of Sergei Eisenstein's memoir, Beyond the Stars:  The Boy from Riga, succeeds as both historical testimony and creative non-fiction.  It's stylistically rich, attacking biography thematically rather than chronologically, with a long series of short meditations on a number of different topics.  Some of Eisenstein's themes emerge from nostalgia, others from film history, and still others from encounters with figures of importance to modern Russian, European, or world history.  Eisenstein's memoirs read like a cross between Montaigne's Essays and Shklovsky's works of literary criticism.  In each chapter the cosmopolitan intellectual meditates on some peculiar problem or idea, and somehow the juxtaposition of random aspects of his life seem particularly enlightening. The reader can't help but notice how often theory and life intersect and reinforce or contradict one another.  What is more, the effect can't help remind one of Eistenstein's theories of film montage. 

Overall, the first part of Eisenstein's memoir reveals a man of piercing intellect, and abiding wanderlust.  Eisenstein knew Russian, German, French, and English, and must have also learned a great deal of Spanish while working in Mexico.  He was steeped in the literary heritage of Europe, but also seemed to be searching out cultural information about Latin America and various non-European civilizations.  If the memoirs are honest, he was dedicated to communism.  However, the memoirs show him to have been a man who supported communism like an ordinary American supports the New York Yankees.  Certainly, he never makes any arguments about communism, or devotes much energy to economic or political discussions in general.  Instead, he invests most of his energy to art, cinema, literature, etc.  He's also very interested in people, and revels in the most arresting stories about them. 

Just a couple of quotes from the book:

I passed through a staggering age.
But I do not want to write about this age at all.
What I want to set down is how an average person can pass through a momentous time as a completely unexpected counterpart.
How someone can "fail to notice" a historical date as he blithely passes it.

Someone shyly (but not unctuously) said:  "Don't talk about montage, or pictures, or directing.  Tell us how to become an Eisenstein.  

"Napoleon did everything that he did, not because he was talented or a genius;  he became talented so that he could do everything he did..."

Every normal child does three things:  he breaks things;  he gets inside dolls or watches to see what is there;  and he torments animals....That is what normal children do.  Good ones. 
I was a bad child.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Maurice Valency's The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov

Maurice Valency's book, The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, provides a brilliant analysis of Chekhov's overall place in Russian and European theater in general.  In early chapters, Valency outlines the entire history of Russian theater.  He notes that Russian drama is relatively new, and relatively indebted to French theater, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.  He notes that Russian theater took a backseat to Russian novels and short-stories until the end of the 19th century.  Further, he explains that a few major authors, including Pushkin, Lermontov, Griboyedov, Gogol, Ostrovsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, created plays of lasting value to European culture until the advent of Chekhov, and perhaps Gorky. 

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. 

Favorite quotes

Theater history

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. 

Chekhov quotes:

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

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Days of the Turbins

Although Mikhail Bulgakov's reputation in twentieth century Russian letters is almost unparalleled, I have yet to fully connect with any of his works.  His Days of the Turbins is no exception.  To be sure, it's fascinating to read the play (based on the novella) that moved so many Russian communists to tears.  Bulgakov depicts history's losers, a family of White officers, as a group of largely brave bourgeois men and women who are almost trapped in an apartment in the midst of literal and metaphorical storms.  While the play lacks an compelling plot and convincing character development, it probably resonated communist audiences who felt guilt on some level about the fact that their Revolution, as necessary as it may have been, quashed so many of the values their countrymen had once cherished.  For although at least one of Bulgakov's characters turns out to be coward, most are chivalrous, witty, stoical, educated people, who surely represent something worth preserving.  So the play leaves no room for doubt that its romantic heroes are doomed, it does show them in a very positive light.  It also makes clear that the communists, and everything associated with the revolutionary movement, had much to regret.  The protagonists point out that their enemies, "the people," were capable of almost atrocity. They had rewarded Alexander II, the Great Reformer, with assassination.  The symbol of the counter-revolution might be Lariosik, who traveled with only one shirt, which served to wrap the collected works of Chekhov, the biographer of a dying class.  Overall, the play may not be great theater.  However, it is the perfect testimony to the anxiety associated with the end of an era, anxiety that both victors and vanquished must have shared, at least on some level.  What had happened to Russia?   What would happen?  As Nikolka asked:  "I wonder what the Bolsheviks look like?"

A few of my favorite quotations from the play are below:  

Elena:  But why isn't he here yet?
Alexei:  Well, obviously, they have had to wait at every station stop.
Nikolka:  Revolutionary travelling, Lenoshka.   You go an hour, you stop for two.  

Alexei: I don't understand, why did they send you off to the Inn?
Myshlaevsky:  Why the peasants are there at the Inn.  Those same damned God-bearers out of the works of Mr. Dostoyevsky.

Lariosik:  But I think I have one shirt here. I wrapped the collected works of Chekhov in it.

Nikolka: The whole division will be bivouacking with the angels.

 Shervinsky: As  Karl Marx said, money exists to be spent.

Shervisnky:  I'm so happy to see you!  It's been so long since I've seen you!
Elena:  If my memory doe not deceive me, you were here yesterday.
Shervisnky:  Ah, Elena Vasilievna, what is "yesterday" in times like these!

Elena:  The only good thing about you is your voice, and your vocation to be an opera singer.

Myshlaevsky:  Your glass.
Lariosik:  I...basically, I don't drink vodka.
Myshlaevsky:  Well of course--I don't either.  But one glass.   How can you eat herring without vodka?  I simply can't understand it. 

Lariosik:  Gentlemen, the cream-colored curtains...behind them you can rest  your soul...You forget about all the horrors of the Civil War. 

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,

Alexei:  But now it's too late, now our officers have turned into cafe sitters.  A cafe army!

Shervinsky:  Gentlemen!  The news of His Imperial Majesty's death...
Myshlaevsky:  Is somewhat exaggerated.

Myshlaevsky:  Aloysha, can they be the people!  Why they're bandits.  A professional union of regicides. 

Shratt:  When there is a catastrophe, everyone becomes very nimble.

Myshlaevsky:  Enough!  I've been fighting since 1914. For what?  For the fatherland?  

Myshlaevsky:  I'm for the Bolsheviks, only against the Communists.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine

Frank Dikotter has provided the Chinese analog to Robert Conquest's classic treatment of the Soviet Famine of the 1930s, Harvest of Sorrow. Less sprawling than his equally insightful Cultural Revolution, Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958- 1962, provides readers with a well-researched analysis of one of the twentieth century's greatest disasters.  While Dikotter provides readers with a rich descriptions of the human costs of the famine, he also explains how the Chinese Communist Party, and Mao in particular, brought the tragedy about, or least severely deepened its impact on the Chinese peasantry. 

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.