Faithful Ruslan – a dog story?

June 17, 2011

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?

Advertisements

Stalin’s Girl

August 19, 2010

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.

No worries.  It’s just a Hollywood backlot.


Capitalist Roaders

May 27, 2010

From today’s New York Times:  Trampled in a Land Rush, Chinese Resist

I shudder to think of the kickbacks and payoffs being made to Party officials at all levels as the gold rush in land displaces ordinary Chinese farmers and city dwellers.  It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the Party or the Tycoons who are stealing from the people, as long as somebody is doing it!
We’ve been there before
 


Mao: Outsider Philosopher King

May 25, 2010

These pictures were published in Life Magazine when I was a boy, prompting me to wonder, “Why the heck are they making a big deal about this guy swimming?”  I recall there was speculation about the image on the left – whether or not it was doctored.

No, Mao was in the swim, and he was demonstrating his fitness to be supreme leader and godhead of all political correctness in the coming storm, the soon-to-be released cataclysm of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.  Such a strange event – an aging dictator making good on his earlier threats to go to war against his own revolutionary establishment!  Of course, these days, this is old hat, running for the Senate or President, and claiming status as an outsider, eager to clean house.  But Mao did it…in his own way.

He really was sui generis as a tyrant.  A romantic revolutionary, impatient and uninterested in the minutiae of running a huge state, but ever ready to stir up a hornet’s nest of chaos with some opaque power play or ideological broadside.  Some of his colleagues called him B-52, because he dropped huge bombs from way up high.

He took on the role of emperor, the emperor perpetually running against Peking!  The goal of the revolution was not to make China rich, but to maker her an independent power and to further the maelstrom process of class struggle worldwide.  The Russians and many of his party, to his disgust, were more interested in pedestrian challenges like making the economy grow.  Here we see the lingering influence of his youthful leanings toward anarchism, and perhaps the source of his appeal to young radicals around the globe.  What other septuagenerian supremo would call on the students to smash the party regulars, dismantle the bureaucracy, trash the establishment, and give them arms, or at least look the other way when they stole them, to do it?

The millions of deaths he caused were not personally ordered by him.  He did not pore over death warrants as did Stalin, personally making annotations and changes.  He just commenced a totally hare brained scheme to make China overtake Europe’s economy in a few short years – without understanding a thing about economics – and as a result, agriculture withered, and tens of millions starved.  He whipped up the Cultural Revolution and millions were beaten, tortured, killed, but excesses are inevitable in the yin-yang dialectical struggle of the classes.  Oh, and he did personally direct a few traditional purges resulting in many thousands of executions, but only in a managerial capacity.

Why did he do this?  He was entranced with the Idea of revolution, and he firmly believed in the supremacy of the will.  Good qualities for a military leader fighting from a weak position – he was brilliant.  Bad for the leader of a giant state.  Nor did he have any understanding or interest of science and industry – willpower was supreme there as well.  And since will, his will, was all important, he created a position for himself in which he could not be questioned or opposed.   His lack of understanding and total contempt for what we call democracy, what he called bourgeois democracy, joined to the absence of any democratic tradition in China, topped off by the rule of committed party men who shared the Leninist belief in the guiding mission of the party ensured disaster.   Any dissenters were targeted as the rightist bourgeois element within the communist party!

After he died, the Gang of Four, including his estranged wife of Peking Opera fame, tried to carry on his apocalyptic quest.  The capitalist roader, Deng Xiao Ping prevailed and did exactly what Mao had been afraid he would do – turned China’s economy into a  form of state-capitalism.

Mao unified China, drove out the foreign devils, made China a great power, and destroyed the feudal landlord class.  For this, he will be regarded as a giant of China’s history forever.  For now, the ruling dynasty of the Party lives on, but China  favors total blandness in its new leaders, and no wonder.


Mao & Political purges: theory and practice

May 19, 2010

The Long March is over, but I am only half through Phillip Short’s engrossing biography of Mao Zedong.  To escape encirclement by Chiang kai-shek’s GDP armies, vastly outnumbering the communists, Mao led the Red forces on a trek thousands of miles long to the northern desert wastes where they were able to establish a base and rebuild their strength.  The march was an incredible feat of stamina, daring, brilliant strategy, and a bit of luck.  It was in their secure retreat at the end of it that Edgar Snow interviewed Mao for his book, Red Star Over China.

As I try to fathom the last member of the the 20th century’s triple crown of evil, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, I am struck by Mao’s differences from Stalin as portrayed respectively by Short and Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin).  Mao was not a paranoid mental case as Stalin appears to have been.  Like Stalin, he had a classical education.  Unlike Stalin, he was not enthusiastic about violence right from the start.  Joe seems to have relished the chaotic and violent life of a revolutionary outlaw bandit ‘expropriating’ bank funds for the Bolsheviks and organizing terrorist attacks; Mao, at first, was drawn to anarchism and communitarianism, and was repelled by ‘needless’ violence.  Mao was incredibly self-confident about his abilities as a military commander and politician, apparently with good reason.  Stalin was a bumbler as generalissimo, and always felt insecure around intellectuals.

A major difference between Russia’s revolution and China’s was that the Soviet state was founded by a military coup that was followed by a brutal civil war lasting a few years.  China’s ‘revolution’ was, in fact, a twenty-year civil war that ranged across the nation, and was fought with terrifying brutality, including frequent use of scorched-earth tactics by Chiang.  Mao rose to prominence, with frequent setbacks and dismissals by the central administration, while Stalin quietly and steadily homed in on supreme power.  Mao was so outspoken about his views, often directly in conflict with the center and with the USSR, that he was often reprimanded, accused of various political heresies, e.g. ‘right opportunism,’ ‘flightism,’ and ‘high flown-ism.’  He was adept at retiring from the fray at the right moment and waiting, sometimes in desparation, until the Party begged him to return and save their butts from disaster.

Eventually, his military strategy, and his insistence that the Chinese peasants must be at the heart of the revolution, despite the orthodox communist view that industrial workers and tradesmen must lead it, was accepted.    There’s no question:  his astute views, rooted in his deep knowledge of China – he produced several landmark studies of the peasantry, remarkable for their detail and understanding – were behind his role as the unifier and liberator of China.

One could take him for an Abe Lincoln or George Washington figure, which is the criticism made of Snow’s book.  Before the Long March, the dark side of Mao’s future was also apparent.  In Futian, during one of the GDP’s encirclement campaigns, the first big purges broke out among the communists.  They were massive, bloody, and indescriminate.  Short attributes them to the insanity-producing conditions of living in fear of the GDP, soldiers fearing destruction of their families by the GDP, the meddling Stalinist influence of the Soviet advisors, and the fact that most of the men were uneducated and illiterate.  Not to mention that Chinese history is filled with bloody and manic purges, so there was a tradition to uphold.

Just as in Russia, the purges were self-destructive, carrying off many needed, capable, and loyal party members, but these purges were before those of Stalin!  They seem to have risen from the grass roots upwards, rather than being concocted completely at the top and forced downward on everybody.  According to Short, Mao at first believed them to be justified, and then felt they had gone too far.  After that, he took a pragmatic and self-serving view.  Such ‘excesses’ were inevitable in brutal class war.  They helped enforce party discipline.  The cost of opposing them might be too high.  The man who had urged Red Army recruits to pay peasants for their food, always be polite, never strike a civilian, and who had urged good treatment of prisoners, including freeing them with the offer to join up with the cause, became comfortable with mass murder as a political tool.  The origin of the purges in the mind-numbing horror of the flight from the GDP foretells the insanity of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, barely remaining human under the onslaught of bombing by American B-52s at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

This raised a question in my mind about that other dictator/mass murder, Hitler.  Holocaust scholars debate the nature and ‘function’ of his campaign against the Jews, but did he have purges?  Other than the famous Night of the Long Knives, admired by Stalin, which was a calculated move to consolidate power over the Nazi party, I haven’t heard of any.  Perhaps the attempt to exterminate the Jews, despite the diversion of resources and the other practical problems it raised, was simply one long and very successful purge.  And it performed the same salutory function for the state:  maintenance of a state of terror and abject discipline.  Without the Jews, the Nazis might have turned on themselves repeatedly.  If the Jews hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them…


Chairman

May 14, 2010

Despite the fact that a sizable proportion of the world’s inhabitants are Chinese, and that China is a powerful force in contemporary world affairs, and that I work with lots of Chinese immigrants, I know little about the place.   Lately, I’ve been talking with some colleagues about the experiences of their families in China.  I know about Hitler, a lot about Stalin, but nothing much about Mao.  I decided to address that gap with some reading.

I first attacked Mao: The Unknown Story by Chang and Halliday.  I got through about 100 pages before I had to drop it.  As one reviewer said, it reads more like catharsis than history.  The authors clearly hate Mao, probably for good reasons, but the writing is so crude, so powerfully biased that it lacks credibility.  As several critics noted, the authors undermine their own case, despite some excellent material.  History as demonization doesn’t add much to our understanding of events, or of people, and I just couldn’t buy their portrait of Mao as a singleminded, sadistic, intellectual mediocrity who schemed his way to power with lies and trickery only.  No doubt, many of their horrible annecdotes and critical observations are true, but history, and people, are not that simple, I think.

So, I decided to try Mao: A Life by Phillip Short.  This one is a hundred pages or so shorter than the other, and much better as a history and biography.  Short builds his life of Mao slowly, while Change and Halliday are intent from page 1 at demonstrating what a demon Mao was.  This book is very good for a reader like me who knows little of the tangled nature of Chinese politics and geo-political affairs in the early twentieth century.  A few things strike me after getting past about a quarter of the pages:

Mao didn’t have an easy path to power.  He seems to be continually marginalized and dismissed by the leadership, all under the sway of the Russian Comintern.  He was certainly astute in many ways, and he seems to have been the first to thoroughly grasp how different Chinese conditions were from those in pre-Soviet Russia.  His insistence on the peasants as a force for revolution was constantly at odds with Russian directives and internal sentiments.  The peasants, even to most left-wing intellectuals, were just an invisible mass.

Mao was certainly not the one-sided devil that Chang and Halliday create.  He was schooled in the Chinese classics, and wrote romantic poems – his pithy aphorisms were based on his deep absorption of Chinese culture.  One reviewer noted that The Unknown Story quotes poems in a Nietzschean vein that the authors exhort us to accept as the true revelation of Mao’s elitist, inhuman nature.  Why, the reviewer asks, should we not also accept his cultured and restrained writings in the same way?  He was a complex and beastial person.

China was incredibly chaotic at this time!  It is amazing also to contemplate the differences between the state of China and that Russia or Germany in that period.  While the Comintern focused on organizing a worker’s party to smash the bourgeois state, China had hardly any workers!  The intellectual ferment among the progressives was all over the map as they struggled to find a way forward for their society.  Mao was no different, favoring at first a Kropotkin oriented peaceful anarchism!

How did he make it from the sidelines to the undisputed leadership of the united nation?  I have to keep reading…


Before the Revolution…there was the word.

March 6, 2010

It’s good to keep in mind that Bertolucci was in his early twenties when he made Before the Revolution, and that the protagonist, Fabrizio, is only twenty himself.  The film is bursting with ideas and cinematic effects like somebody besotted with the art, and his talent – it even satirizes the archetypal super serious cineaste in one scene!  There are times when it might even seem to some like a parody of the serious European avante-garde film – Woody Allen’s spoof was mentioned by my wife – but it is, in the end, a fabulous movie!

A movie, but the texts have it!  A film about people obsessed with words and texts.  Who can take them seriously, especially if you’re an American, raised in a culture where politics is a corrupt circus for grasping old farts that means nothing to anyone?  Especially a generation (or two) after the revolution, or at least after the revolution that never was, the 1960s?  Who watching this film now can relate to Fabrizio’s intellectual predicament, his desire to be more radical than thou, while also being one with the people and hating his family background, while loving his aunt, Gina…?  What a mess!

Fabrizio is the son of a Parma family of bourgeoisie – the kind that lives in a creaky old palace filled with 19th century furniture and chandeliers.  It’s stuffy as hell, so he is taking lessons from a serious fellow with glasses, the local school teacher who also tutors young men in the ways of communism.  He’s smart, but tough – he tells Fabrizio that he “talks like a book,” but the student is only trying to be good, spouting the words of his tutor’s masters.  When Fabrizio brings Gina, his aunt and lover to meet the teacher, they all duel in quotations read from books on the shelves.  Who does Gina quote?  Oscar Wilde.  My favorite socialist.  ( How Oscar would have laughed at the pretentious statements by Fabrizio’s friend about the relative morality of this over that shot in cinema!)

Marxist texts, Proust, Wilde, and finally, Moby Dick, of all things.  Fabrizio buckles under to history and family, and decides to get with the bourgeois program:  He marries his very pretty, but supposedly dull, childhood sweetheart.  A perfect match.  As Fabrizio gets a wedding send off – he’s only seen from the back – and moves off into middleclass embalment, Gina furiously kisses his younger brother’s face and hair in an agony of displaced and frustrated love.  The teacher recites to his young students the speech of Captain Ahab in which he makes clear to his crew the nature of the absurd and furious quest to which they have signed on…  Is it Life?

Some scenes:

During an outing, Fabrizio and Gina visit an old friend of hers, Puck.  He is a dead-end aristocrat.  In an operatic speech, he bewails the destruction of the old order natural and social, as the camera soars over the landscape, soon to be bulldozed by progress

Fabrizio and his tutor check on the the People at the annual Festival of Unity.  They seem to be out of step with the masses.

The wedding seals Fabrizio’s fate, and Gina’s.

No revolution.  Not for Fabrizio.  Not for the schoolkids

Certainly not for Gina.