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:

...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

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.