Ivan Chonkin is the hero of a trilogy of satirical novels by Vladimir Voinovich, of which I’ve read the first two, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, and The Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.
The image above shows a still from a film version of the the first novel in which Ivan, an archetypal everyman who is not too sharp, is sent by his army superiors to guard a Soviet plane that has crash landed in a rural boondocks. He is forgotten in the disaster of the opening weeks of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, but dutifully performs his mission, while taking up romantically with a single woman near whose cottage the plane is kept. Through bureaucratic confusion and a lot of Soviet-style self-serving malice, he gets classified as a deserter, and a squad is sent to fetch him for trial. He refuses to relinquish his post, fights off the troops for some time, but is eventually arrested and taken away by The Right People (the NKVD, or secret police) to the Right Place (the local prison where enemies of the state are interrogated.)
In the second book, during the “investigation” into his crimes, he is somehow connected with an aristocratic emigre family and an array of totally fictitious German spies. The NKVD puts him on trial for conspiring with the Germans in a plot to collaborate with the invasion in return for his restoration to the Tsar’s throne! During part of his interrogation, after being beaten and tortured for a while, we have this bit of wonderful dialog that is Voinovich at his best:
Chonkin’s torments ended when Major Figurin took charge of the case again. Having examined the situation, Figurin had Chonkin fed and brought tea, treated him to long cigarettes, which made Chonkin sweetly dizzy, and spoke to him nicely, man to man: “Unfortunately, Vanya, not all our workers are saints. It’s the work they do. Sometimes it makes you cruel without your knowing it. And besides, the people who end up here do not always evaluate things soberly, they don’t always have a correct sense of what is demanded of them. Let’s say we bring in a man and we say to him, ‘You are our enemy.’ He doesn’t agree, he objects, ‘No, I’m not.’ But how could that be? If we arrest a man, naturally he hates us. And if, on top of that, he considers himself innocent, then he hates us twice as much, three times as much. And if he hates us, that means he’s our enemy and that means he’s guilty. And so, Vanya, that’s why I personally consider innocent people our worst enemies.”
Vladimir Voinovich wrote these novels in the late 60s and the 70s, and he was forced into exile from the USSR in 1980. He eventually returned to Russia when Gorbachev restored his citizenship in 1990. He continued to act as a dissident under Putin until his death this year.
An exemplary character, Lee Lorch, died this week:
In the spring of 1946, Mr. Lorch, a graduate of Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, Cornell University and the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a doctorate in mathematics, returned from wartime service in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps to teach math at City College. Like millions of veterans, he could not find a place to live. After a two-year search, having lived much of the time in a Quonset hut overlooking Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, he, along with his wife, Grace, and young daughter, moved into Stuyvesant Town. So did 25,000 other people.
As he later put it, he had all the credentials: “A steady job, college teacher and all that. And, not black.”
In 1943, Frederick H. Ecker, the president of Metropolitan Life at the time, told The New York Post: “Negroes and whites don’t mix.” If black residents were allowed in the development, he added, “it would be to the detriment of the city, too, because it would depress all surrounding property.”
A lawsuit against Metropolitan brought in 1947 by three black veterans, and co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had failed in the state courts, and no local laws prohibited such discrimination; the city had not only supplied the land, and tax breaks, to the insurance company, but had let it select tenants as it saw fit.
With 100,000 people vying for the 8,759 apartments on the 72-acre tract, no boycott could possibly work. Any successful protest had to come from inside: Polls showed that two-thirds of those admitted favored integration. Mr. Lorch’s wartime experiences, like seeing black soldiers forced to do the dirty work on his troop transport overseas, had intensified his resolve.
Mr. Lorch became vice chairman of a group of 12 tenants calling themselves the Town and Village Tenants Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town.
“When you got into Stuyvesant Town, there was a serious moral dilemma,” he recalled in a 2010 interview with William Kelly of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Video Project. “In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, people had seen the end results of racism.”
Some 1,800 tenants eventually joined the group. “Stuyvesant Town is a grand old town; but you can’t get in if your skin is brown,” went one of its chants, wrote Charles V. Bagli of The New York Times in a book about Stuyvesant Town’s history. A group of 3,500 residents petitioned Mayor William O’Dwyer to help eliminate the “no Negroes allowed” policy, and supported anti-discrimination legislation before the City Council.
But Metropolitan Life held firm. And in early 1949, Mr. Lorch paid the price. Despite the backing of a majority of colleagues in his department, the appointments committee at City College blocked his promotion, effectively forcing him to leave.
Mr. Lorch was “unquestionably a fine scholar and a promising teacher,” an alumni committee later concluded, but some colleagues “regarded him, rightly or wrongly, as an irritant and a potential troublemaker.” Mr. Lorch himself charged that the college “protects bigots and fires those who fight bigotry.”
The New York branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and other groups protested the decision to the Board of Higher Education, to no avail. In September 1949, Mr. Lorch found a teaching job at Pennsylvania State University, but his reputation preceded him; upon arriving at the campus, he was taken directly to the university’s acting president.
“He wanted me to explain this stuff about Stuyvesant Town — that they’d been getting phone calls from wealthy alumni essentially wanting to know why I had been hired and how quickly I could be fired,” he recalled in the 2010 interview.
Mr. Lorch’s wife and daughter had remained in the Stuyvesant Town apartment, at 651 East 14th St., and he and his wife soon invited a black family, Hardine and Raphael Hendrix and their young son, to live there for the entire academic year.
Metropolitan Life refused to accept the Lorches’ $76 rent check, and began devising ways to get them out. At Penn State, Mr. Lorch was denied reappointment. Accommodating the Hendrixes, a college official told him, was “extreme, illegal and immoral, and damaging to the public relations of the college.”
The decision brought protests from Penn State students, Albert Einstein, the American Association of University Professors and the American Mathematical Society, as well as from The New York Times and The Daily Worker, the paper of the Communist Party U.S.A.
The Worker argued that Mr. Lorch, who was often linked to the Communist Party, was “an all-too-rare sort of bird among academic circles these days. He actually believes in the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the Negro people equality! And he not only believes in it, but stands up and fights for what he believes. Amazing!”
In June 1950, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the insurance company’s exclusionary policy. Succumbing to political and economic pressure, Metropolitan Life admitted three black families that year.
But it also moved to evict Mr. Lorch and 34 other protesting tenants. They dug in.
“We had decided — and this was the general feeling on the committee — we weren’t going to go quietly, that we would resist, they’d have to throw us out by force,” Mr. Lorch recalled.
In the meantime, in September 1950, he accepted a new academic post, becoming one of two white professors at Fisk University, the historically black institution in Nashville, Tenn. His wife, a longtime activist herself — she had led the Boston School Committee in its effort to stop women from being fired as teachers the moment they married, as she had been — returned to Stuyvesant Town, where the Teamsters union supplied protection for protesting tenants.
In January 1952, as tenants barricaded themselves in their apartments and picketed outside City Hall and Metropolitan Life’s headquarters, the company compromised: Mr. Lorch and two other organizers would move out, but the Hendrixes got to stay.
Seven years later, only 47 blacks lived in Stuyvesant Town. But the frustration the campaign helped unleash culminated in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing.
At Fisk, Mr. Lorch taught three of the first blacks ever to receive doctorates in mathematics. But there, too, his activism, like his attempt to enroll his daughter in an all-black school and refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his Communist ties, got him in trouble. In 1955, he was again let go. Only tiny Philander Smith College, an all-black institution in Little Rock, Ark., would hire him, and then only when it could find no one else.
“Because he believed in the principles of decency and justice, and the equality of men under God, Lee Lorch and his family have been hounded through four states from the North to the South like refugees in displaced camps,” one of the nation’s most important black journalists, Ethel Payne of The Chicago Defender, wrote in May 1956. “And in the process of punishing Lee Lorch for his views, three proud institutions of learning have been made to grovel in the dust and bow the knee to bigotry.”
It was Grace Lorch who made the headlines the next year, for comforting Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine after Ms. Eckford’s walk through a group of angry hecklers outside Little Rock Central High School, a moment which was captured in a famous photograph. Mr. Lorch, who had become an official with the Arkansas chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., was working behind the scenes, accompanying the black students to school, then tutoring them as they awaited admission to the high school.
Once more, whites abused the Lorches for their activities, evicting them from their apartment, harassing their young daughter, burning a cross on their lawn and placing dynamite in their garage. And black leaders, mindful of Mr. Lorch’s Communist associations, kept their distance.
“Thurgood Marshall has been busy poisoning as many people as he can against us,” Mr. Lorch complained in October 1957, referring to the lawyer who was leading the N.A.A.C.P.’s desegregation campaign in the courts, and who would later become a justice of the United States Supreme Court. The group’s field secretary, Clarence Laws, wrote to Mr. Lorch: “The best contribution you could make to the cause of full citizenship for Negroes in Arkansas at this time would be to terminate, in writing, your affiliation with the Little Rock Branch, N.A.A.C.P.”
When, at the end of the school year, Philander Smith declined to renew Mr. Lorch’s appointment, it was official: No American college would have him. So in 1959, he moved his family to Canada — first to the University of Alberta and then, in 1968, to York University, until he retired in 1985.
Lee Lorch was born on Sept. 20, 1915, at a home on West 149th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, to Adolph Lorch and Florence Mayer Lorch. His wife, the former Grace Lonergan, died in 1974. Mr. Lorch is survived by his daughter, Ms. Bartels; two granddaughters; and a sister, Judith Brooks.
Mr. Lorch was often honored by his fellow mathematicians. In 1990, he received an honorary degree from the City University of New York.
In his 2010 interview with Mr. Kelly, Mr. Lorch insisted that it was his wife and daughter, not he, who had paid the greatest price for his principles. Asked if he would do anything differently, he paused. “More and better of the same,” he replied.
While in Iceland, I read Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. I doubt he could have imagined what could come of that phrase.
I waited a long time to see Enemies of the People, and it just became available on Netflix. One man sets out to document the mass-killing that took place during his childhood. He is very patient, meeting with people whom he knows were killers for days, weeks, months, even years, before asking them to tell the truth. In the case of Brother No. 2, shown above (Pol Pot was Brother No. 1), it did take years until he would admit anything, but the reason for the mass-murder remains elusive. Was it all the fruit of a deluded paranoia about Vietnamese spies? In Sideshow, William Shawcross takes the view that the Khmer Rouge, fanatics to begin with, were practically insane after years of enduring B-52 bombings in the jungle, so when they took over, all hell broke loose.
The image below is from a particularly shocking part in which a man demonstrates how he killed hundreds of peasants. (He was one himself.) Their hands were tied behind their backs, and he put his foot on their back as they lay on the ground, pulling back their heads in a way that made if difficult for them to scream.
Before the reenactment, the ‘victim’ checks the knife and says, “Ah, good! It’s plastic.”
From film noir to la politique noir, and I don’t mean ‘black politics’, as in Black Power. My reading and viewing have converged at what Philip Pomper, in his biography of Sergei Nechaev, calls, “[the] striking lesson in the disastrous possibilities of revolutionary politics.” Extreme disturbed personalities, fantastic rhetoric, and violence. Patty Hearst, Dostoyevsky’s Demons, Ed Begley as a lunatic Texan Cold Warrior, and Nechaev, fact and fiction. Let’s start with Ms. Hearst.
Patty Hearst, a film from 1988, directed by Paul Schrader, with Natasha Richardson in the lead, is hard to find, but you can get it on DVD. It doesn’t seem to be an official release, whatever that means, but it is a very fine dramatization of this crazy episode in revolutionary fringe politics. Schrader is sympathetic to, but not sentimental about Hearst: a young, sheltered girl who thought she knew a thing or two about the world is kidnapped and kept in a closet for weeks, blindfolded and gagged, treated like a dog, and raped (made a sperm receptacle) by her captors, male, and it seems female as well. We would all like to think that we would come through this okay, and escape at the first opportunity, rather than imploding and joining the gang, so, as she tells us at the end, her survival, ‘rescue’, and trial were mightily inconvenient for the mass audience following every sordid minute of the tale.
I’ve written about the Symbionese Liberation Front and their rhetoric before, and the film does a great job of dramatizing it. Ving Rhames (Marsellus in Pulp Fiction) uses that deep voice of his to convey the incantatory and delusional charisma of Field Marshal Cinque. The thing is, that as I’m watching it, I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky’s novel, Demons. After Patty has joined The Cause, and is helping plan a bank job, she asks, “Will the rest of The Army help us with it?” Everyone chuckles, and Cinque replies, “It’s just us, there is no army.” Did Pyotr Verkhovensky really have a network of cells communicating with him? Some characters wondered. The similarities multiply.
The members of Hearst’s cell are all white, except for their leader, Cinque, and they all have a major case of white radical guilt. When Hearst complains that she is hungry, they tell her “This is how black people in our country live every day!You don’t know!” Every word Cinque utters is considered brilliant. At one point, a cell member responds to a rather inept and non-sequitur comment with, “Brilliant, that’s brilliant! Goddamn it , goddamn I wish I was black!” Later, he is shown in blackface makeup, the usual disguise they use, attempting to strike a streetwise pose. This corrosive guilt and lack of self-esteem it brings to political thinking was not new in the 60’s: Nechaev was very successful in exploiting it in his recruitment of middle-class and upper-class Russians of his own time.
It is well-known the Demons draws heavily on the trial record of Sergei Nechaev, who had a brief period of power within the chaotic Russian revolutionary movement. He was a manipulator, a liar, a thief, and totally – that’s actually an understatement – unprincipled. When he started his own journal, it was called The People’s Revenge. He bilked Herzen and his daughter out of thousands, tried to seduce her after the old socialist’s death, played Bakunin like a fiddle, and committed so many frauds – he was always claiming to have legions of followers at his beck and call – that Bakunin’s association with him gave Marx the leverage to get Bakunin kicked out of the International, that pesky, infantile, anarchist! (In fact, I have discovered, there is a scholarly literature on the Russophobia of Karl Marx. He thought they, the Russian revolutionaries, were a bit nuts – how’s that for communist irony!)
What I found surprising regarding Demons, is how closely some parts of the novel are modeled on Nechaev’s life. The central murder of the book, in fact, conforms almost exactly to the facts of the case – the botched disposal of the corpse in a pond; luring the victim with a story of a buried press; and the almost comic disorganization of the killers. We must recall, after all, that Dostoyevsky originally was planning a comic burlesque of nihilist politics when he began his story. The Wise Serpent of Demons, combines many of Nechaev’s personality traits with a cunning and slyness that the real-life figure lacked. Nechaev moved with clumsy and ill-concealed cynicism towards his goals, eventually disgusting most of those he worked with in the revolutionary underground. Still, he was committed to the cause, fanatically, so they cut him a lot of slack.
Pomper dissects his life with a lens tinted with psychoanalytic hues, but not intrusively so: the Oedipal, infantile anti-authoritarian, and perverse sexual mental contortions of his thinking are quite plain in his writings. One of his favorite propaganda tropes was to depict the orgiastic and revolting sexual activities of the Tsar, the nobles, or of whomever he was attacking. Obviously, this sort of rhetoric has a long history – often turned against Jews – and it had a grand future, being part of the revolutionary stock in trade right up to 1917. His language makes use of religious themes as well, particularly martyrdom, for which he planned, and is in this way curiously linked to the imagery of What Is to Be Done?
I originally bought Pomper’s biography hoping to find more writings of Nechaev’s, but apart from some letters, and excerpts from articles he wrote, and, of course, the full text of his Catechism, there was not much. I was particularly disappointed by the absence of a translation of his Foundations for a Future Social Order, the document in which he lays out his plans for society after the revolutionary transformation. From the bits I have read of and about it, it is a grim vision of a militantly regimented society that seems drawn from the history of ancient Sparta and Fourier’s utopian plans. What particularly upset some (according to Nechaev) were his notions of communal dining. This led to Marx’s famous contemptuous dismissal of his ideas as “barracks communism.” In his world, Pechorin would be less than superfluous: he would be a pest to be exterminated.
Was Nechaev on his mind when Italo Calvino wrote Beheading the Heads? In this short story, a tourist happens upon a land where the leaders are ritually executed periodically (as were some kings in ancient times, if The Golden Bough is to be believed). The action then jumps back in time to show us the nihilist cells planning for The Revolution, after which there will be no leaders other than those who agree to die, and so prevent tyranny. One man questions whether they should not ritually execute the leaders of their cells since that is what they plan for society. Are they not hypocrites if they do not? Naturally, there is some hesitation on this point amongst the revolutionary heads. They hit upon a compromise: they will ritually mutilate the leaders at suitable intervals, leaving the post-revolutionary society to fully implement their plan. It concludes with descriptions of revolutionary activity led by men with no fingers, missing ears, sometimes a wooden leg, each vanished appendage a testament to their zeal for the New World Order.
Finally, we have Ken Russell’s film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), with the always enjoyable Michael Caine. It’s basically, a mediocre spy film that followed Caine’s work as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File. The film is enlivened by Karl Malden playing an utter sleaze of an ex-agent gone ‘entrepreneur’ working for ‘General’ Midwinter (Ed Begley), a fanatical anti-communist zillionaire from Texas. Midwinter is angry at the world, at the government (the password between his men is always, “now is the Winter of our discontent“) and most of all at the commies. He has a secret plan to use germ warfare against the Russians while his private army of rebels in Latvia begin the dissolution of the Evil Empire. He mixes Christian fundamentalism with anti-Russian hellfire to work up enthusiasm among his ’employees’, while his plans are being completely undermined by Malden’s diversion of the mercenaries payroll into his own pocket. The Russians are onto him too, and they efficiently dispose of his army in an air attack on the frozen Baltic that brings to mind Alexander Nevksy’s victory at Novogorod. Perhaps it takes a Brit to penetrate to the center of the American Texas phenomenon. In this case, Russell’s exaggeration was no exaggeration.
Shown below in a cuddly pose with the great Russian bear, the Red Tsar, and sitting on the lap of Uncle Laventry (Beria), chief of the secret police, later one of its victims, with papa working for the masses in the background.
He could be flat-out ridiculous, as in his biopic of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, or brilliantly over-the-top in The Devils. He was not deterred by being a “punching bag” for some critics: “I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business,” … “I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”
What are we to think of What Is to Be Done? I posted about it earlier, when I was partway through, commenting on its stilted dialog, its place in Russian history, and its lack of literary worth. Having finished it, I can say that it is a weird book, a fascinating book, and yes, a novel without literary merit. None at all – zilch. But since it is such an incredibly important book in the history of Russian literature, ideas, and revolutionary politics, it is nevertheless a fascinating read! If its only claims on our attention were that it stimulated Dostoyevsky to respond with his great anti-nihilist novel, Demonsand his short novel, Notes from Underground, wouldn’t that be enough to make it worth our time? And add to that the inspiration it gave to generations of radical revolutionaries, who finally overthrew the Russian old order, and you have a book that is hard to resist. Why did I wait until now to read it!
Nikolai Chernyshevsky published the novel in 1863, and wrote it while in the Peter-Paul fortress, where he had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The rest of his life, nearly twenty years, were spent in unproductive exile in Siberia. He was a revolutionary, although not one who actively involved himself in plots. His appeal to the radical intellectuals of his day and afterwards was in his thorough rejection of the existing social order, his advocacy of complete and radical revolution, his scorn for reformist politics, and the mixture of traditional Russian cultural and religious themes with utopian socialist ideas from the West which form the material of What Is to Be Done?
Why did he ask that question? Why were all the intelligentsy asking it? Because they were a vanishingly small class of educated and modern people living in a society that was more or less a holdover from the feudal age. A society dominated by church, the Tsar, and landowners with serfs, who were more or less slaves. The situation must have driven a thinking, secular, progressive person around the bend! Not for nothing does Chernyshevsky reference Uncle Tom’s Cabinat several points in the narrative: That book, a far superior literary work, also grew out of a maddeningly unjust social order against which it argued.
What Chernyshevsky’s novel offered to the radicals of his day, if not a literary model, was an inspiring character model: the ‘New Ones,’ who would lead Russia into a revolutionary new social order. The men and women, free, independent, liberated from oppressive social mores, feminists and atheistic materialists all, who, with a noble dedication to bringing about the greatest good for all, would steadfastedly direct their efforts, guided by Reason, to The Revolution. They would educate and lead the masses to take what is theirs by right.
If it sounds a tad too good to be true, we need only look at the history of the USSR to see what came of it, and say, “Yes, too good to be true.” The New Ones can easily become a vanguard of the masses that oppresses the masses. And these characters, who all speak like disciples of Ayn Rand (I would love to know what she thought of it!) even when they are discussing love and marriage, seem a wee bit on the nutty side. They are guided by a philosophy of Rational Egoism (not all that different from Rand’s ideas), but are convinced that pursuing their own interests will invariably benefit all the most. Ah, but the rub is defining one’s interests properly, and that’s not as simply logical as they would have it.
Reading this book, and keeping in mind the insanity that passes for Reason in revolutionary politics at its worst, makes some things very clear. The weird, incestuous and fanatical nature of the Bolsheviks, so well described by Sebag-MontefioreandNadezhda Mandelshtam. The incredible and ruthless violence against civilians, political opponents, and their own cadres of which they were capable…once the arguments had conclusively demonstrated the necessity of liquidating them. The style of argument, again Ayn Rand comes to mind, that uses Reason and Logic as a brick with which to hit you in the face. The characters in this book all speak with gentle affection, or controlled disdain, but…this is a novel. People inspired by it are apt to take with it the parts that appeal to their own personalities, and then…who knows?
There really isn’t too much discussion of politics in this book: the Tsar’s censors would not permit it. There is a lengthy discussion of a sewing cooperative that goes swimmingly, of course, and is presented as a model of socialistic, un-alienated work, but much is presented only allegorically, or hinted at very obliquely. There are several long dream narratives presented as set pieces, introduced by the author-narrator, that comment on the plot or present utopian futures. In one of them, The Crystal Palace appears as the symbol of the utopian order to come.
I must now go and read again Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, a book that many see as a parodistic response to Chernyshevsky’s story. We have the Crystal Palace to throw stones at, and passages like this one exhorting us to follow in the footsteps of the Noble Ones:
Superior natures, which you, my pitiful friends, and I cannot keep up with, aren’t like this at all. I showed you a faint outline of the profile of one of them: there you see very different features. But you can become an equal to the people described here in full, if only you wish to work a bit on your own development. Anyone who is beneath them is very low indeed. Come up out of your godforsaken underworld, my friends, come up. It’s not so difficult. Come out into the light of day…
To which Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man answers:
I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.
When Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, the Regan era and the full-bore ravages of AIDS in America were not far behind us. The play, at least as it is (faithfully, I’ve read) adapted in the 2003 HBO mini-series, deals with several emotionally churning themes – love, death, disease, the end of the Cold War, American assimilationism…well, those last two are emotional hot-button issues for some people. The HBO series was highly praised, and when I watched the first part on a DVD, I was taken with it. There was drama, there was suspense, there were spectacular sights and portents of great meaning.
There were also fine actors: Al Pacino was great playing the “pole star of evil,” Roy Cohn, the right-wing hatchet man and all around corrupt operator, who hid is homosexual nature, or as he said, the fact that he “likes to fuck around with guys,” and that he was dying of AIDS. Meryl Streep does her chameleon thing, playing several roles, but even though I am thoroughly used to that, her portrayal of a ratty orthodox rabbi in the opening knocked me out. Jeffrey Wright was great as Cohn’s nurse and the friend to all.
But that was not enough. Part II barely kept my attention, it petered out in a fit of sentimentality; the boy gets boy, boy loses boy plot lines were tedious, and one of the main characters, the guilt-ridden politico-Jew who abandons his AIDS stricken lover, was boring, trite, and basically repellent. In the end, I felt I’d been had: What was that mess about anyway? We should all be nicer to one another? Without Pacino, I don’t think I could have made it through the show. Thank you Roy Cohn for a wonderful experience.
Despite my immersion in the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, the novels of Vassily Grossman, and other Stalin-era material, I had never heard of Faithful Ruslan, by Georgi Vladmiov. Many thanks to the author of the anonymous comment at this dog-oriented post who pointed me to it! Vadlimov is not well-known here, but he should be.
The plot takes place over a year or two at the time of the great political thaw in the USSR, when Khrushchev made his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s great crimes (he did not refer to his own deep complicity in those crimes, of course) and many prisoners of the slave labor system, The Gulag Archipelago, were released. Ruslan is a guard dog, born and bred to the role, who is let go after his master cannot bear to shoot him down. He struggles to find a role in the world after his entire universe is upturned, except that he doesn’t really understand how completely it has been ended. The camp is gone, the prisoners have not escaped: they were released, and they are not returning.
The story is told from a ominiscient (human) point of view, but the portrayal of dog-consciousness is absolutely wonderful. Inherent in the structure of the tale are many levels of dramatic irony: we, the human readers know things that the hero, a dog, could never know in his time, or ever; we know things simply by virtue of being readers, many years after the events related; the human characters know things the dogs do not know; and the dogs know, or seem to know, some things the humans do not and could not know. The fractured points of view which comment on one another give the tale tremendous power.
On another level, the story is an allegory of Stalin’s USSR, and of human subservience to authority in general. The allegory is not subtle – is subtlety called for in a discussion of Stalin’s rule? Ruslan regards his hard master as a godlike being, and he lives simply to serve him and love him. At one point, he dreams of a world in which everyplace is within the barbed wire of a great prison camp – wouldn’t that be wonderful! – but of course, there must be an inside and an outside, or where would you place the malefactors who would not follow the rules?
Through Ruslan’s memories and the conversations of the humans around him, we get vignettes of camp life that are harrowing in their brutality. This relatively simple tale is very deep, sad, and upsetting. My copy of this book is an old library edition – I’m not sure if it has been republished lately. I was aware reading the blurbs and introduction that the great troika of 20th century horrors – Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s mass-murder by purge and policy – are fading away into history. Do young people today feel them with the immediacy that I did as a student, though even then it was old news?
Ninotchka (1939) is a fairy tale about the transformation of a political animal into a full-bodied woman. As a slave to the Garbo gaze, I can’t help but like this film. I saw it as a boy after hearing my mother talk about the tag line used by the studio, “Garbo laughs!” Laugh she does, and the film is witty and entertaining, with some very strange dark notes for us post-WWII viewers.
The story begins with some hapless Russians, bumbling diplomats charged by the Soviet government with the task of selling off some jewels confiscated during the Revolution. The USSR needs hard currency badly because its harvests are so bad. The three bumblers are seduced by the pleasures of Paris and fail miserably in their job. Garbo’s no-nonsense, hard as nails character is sent to remedy the situation.
Waiting to meet their superior, whom they do not know, at the train station, and expecting a man, the diplomats at first follow a likely fellow who looks the part. Nope, he’s a Nazi. Finally, they realize the dour Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, aka Ninotchka, waiting on the platform, is the one. How are things in Moscow, comarade? Very good! The latest mass trial was a great success. There will be fewer but better Russians now! Black humor indeed!
Ninotchka asks for some cigarettes while meeting with her team, and they ring up the maids. The lovely staff, thinking they are in for a repeat of the previous night’s orgy rushes up to oblige. Ninotchka is no fool, and she quickly sizes up the situation. Comrades, you must have been smoking a lot!
Melvyn Douglas plays a smooth character, Count Leon d’Algout,who meets Nitnotchka by chance outside her hotel. He also happens to be the lover of the émigré noblewoman whose confiscated jewels are the subject of the bumblers’ mission, but that comes out later. Leon attempts to charm Ms. Soviet but can’t penetrate her caricatured facade of rationality, logic, statistics, and 30’s stlye political correctness. Viewing the city from the Eiffel Tower she remarks that it’s beautiful, but a waste of electricity. Nevertheless, no slave to convention, and ever eager to study the natives of the decadent west, she goes to his apartment. She is honest and self-aware enough to admit that they have a great chemical attraction to one another.
He asks her just what kind of girl is she? Just what you see. A tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution. He avers that she is the most beautiful tiny cog he has ever seen.
In the hotel lobby, she is surprised and disgusted by a hat for sale. So impractical and frivolous, not to mention expensive. She could probably by a few cows for what that hat costs! It’s an odd style, but I guess on fashion’s leading edge at the time.
After their mutual interest in the jewels is revealed, Ninotchka puts off Leon, but he persists and follows her into a working class bistro for lunch. He makes a funny show of trying to convince her that he always eats here, and loves the company of workers. Vowing to drag a laugh out of her, he starts on a series of jokes, all of which meet with utter failure.
The explosion comes by accident. He is exasperated, moves away, and falls off his chair. She laughs.
They laugh together. It’s wonderful.
Transformed by her love for Leon, she notices that the weather is fine, there are birds outside while snow is still on the ground in Moscow. We have the high ideals, but they have the climate, comrades. Stuck in Paris for two weeks until the dispute over the jewels can be settled, what shall they do? One fellow suggests a visit to the sewers, most instructive.
She goes and buys that hat and puts it on after ridding herself of her underlings. Woman confronts fashion…and herself. In Wilde’s story, The Birthday of the Infante, a dwarf jester dies of a broken heart after being scorned by the spoiled princess and then seeing himself in a mirror for the first time in his life. He realizes he is truly ugly, and the princess is so beautiful. Here, Ninotchka sees herself in the mirror, and seems to see herself for the first time, and she is beautiful. No longer a cog in the inevitable triumph of Marxist-Leninism, she sees herself as a woman. Of course, a woman in love with a man.
She’s really quite forward – she knocks on Leon’s door. Those Bolsheviks have a point about doing away with the old traditions.
After a late night and far too much champagne, Ninotchka pours out her heart to Leon. She’s so happy, surely she will be punished for it. Nobody can be so happy and not suffer for it. It’s her Russian soul speaking, and perhaps a intuition of what awaits her back in the USSR.
She tells Leon she knows what her punishment should be. She should be stood up against a wall… Leon obliges. Blindfolds her, raises it for a kiss, and then goes to get his weapon of execution. Quite a titillating scene if you choose to read it that way. With the sound of the cork popping off, she starts as if shot and sinks to the floor. Now I’ve had my punishment. Let’s go on with the party she declares!
This is Hollywood romatic comedy, and Leon is a gentleman, so after she collapses into a heap, he carries her to her bedroom and gives her a kiss while Lenin looks on. Will they make a loving couple, or must they be a bourgeois-Marxist ménage à trois ?
Ninotchka is forced to return to Russia without Leon. He tries to write to her and to get her out. Life is pretty grim in the Socialist Paradise.