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.