Revolutions, Large and Small

April 30, 2015

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The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento:  two different revolutions.  One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant.  Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation.  I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel by Lampedusa on which it is based.

Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film.  The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films!  He was the Kremlin projectionist for years:  Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.

The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents.  Seems a bit hokey at times.  The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film.  Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.

There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these  things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break.  Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty.  This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night.  It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi.  If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.

Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard.  Panned at first, it is now highly rated:  Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films.  Why no surprise?  Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.

Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti.  The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento.  You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film?  He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class.  He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan.  And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.

The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that is an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.

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Dream Sequence: Ivan meets Joe

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Dream Couple: Delon and Cardinale

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Soul

September 27, 2012

Soul is a novella by Andrey Platonov, who also wrote the fascinating, disturbing, and enigmatic Foundation Pit.  Thanks again to the NYR Books imprint for publishing these new translations.  The story tells of a young engineer who returns to his homeland to ‘save’ the Nation that gave him birth.  It’s a very mystical and dreamlike take on Stalin and the ‘nationalities problem.’  It reads like a metaphysical poem crossed with a J.G. Ballard story, and the language is less difficult than that of The Foundation Pit, but no less precisely styled, at least as far as translations allow us to glimpse it.

The ethnic group from which the hero springs inhabits the area shown in the yellow circle of the map above, one of my collection.  I like maps of that region:  they are so incomplete, so lacking in clear national boundaries, standing in the cross-roads of colliding and migrating cultures.  Also, the Aral Sea is there, a great monument to modern hydrological radicalism.  The NYRB edition includes a map of the region:  the different shape of the Aral is not due only to changes in mapping science in the intervening 300 years; it’s disappearing rapidly.

I have not read all of the stories in this collection, but The Return, the wrenching tale of a WWII veteran coming home after the war, and The Third Son, the very short story of the return home for the funeral of their mother of an old man’s six sons, are remarkable.  Both stories leave us with a sense of the transcendent humanity inherent in universal domestic events.

Platonov was a remarkable genius.


Victor Serge

April 28, 2012

I put Victor Serge alongside of Vasily Grossman as an awe-inspiring Russian writer of whom I knew next to nothing, brought to my attention by the wonderful New York Review of Books Press (and also by my friend who recommended Kolyma Tales.)  Serge’s novels are not, in fact, well known at all; certainly not here in America.  He wrote in French, was published in French, and was saved from death in the Gulag because of the outcry of French literary intellectuals who were acquainted with his work.  Good thing he knew French!  His novels were only first published in English in the early 1970s.

Serge was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, in 1890, the son of anti-Tsarist agitators living in exile in Belgium.  He grew up in the militant atmosphere of exiled socialist-communist revolutionaries, and only set foot in Russia in 1919, after years of agitation, prison, writing, various exiles, and a life of poverty.  He landed in Petrograd/Saint Petersburg/Petersburg/Leningrad in the midst of the terrifying five-year Russian Civil War, and threw himself into The Revolution.  He remained a committed revolutionary, but retained his fierce independent (was it anarchist?) bent, and was quick to recognize the ‘betrayal of The Revolution’ that Stalin represented.  From there, it was all downhill.

His writings are unique in their blend of intense sympathy for the revolutionary cause, their unflinching recognition of the crimes committed in its name, their profound disgust with the course of the Soviet revolution, their poetic style, and the modernistic techniques he absorbed from European literary developments.  No plain social realism, no bitter denunciations of the cause betrayed, no simple answers.  Most interesting to me:  he focuses like a laser on the questions of just how people can believe they are struggling for the better  future of humanity while committing acts they know to be outrageous crimes; and why did so many people simply carry on with their work, fatalistically expecting to be unjustly arrested, tried, and perhaps executed?

The shortest of these three novels here, Conquered City, was the first written, and takes place in Petrograd during the siege he witnessed beginning in 1919.  The physical privation of citizens is horrifying.  The novel is actually a series of vignettes, some of which take place out of the city on the various fronts of the civil war, and which introduce characters from all realms of the Russian Empire:  bandits, intellectuals, proletarian communists, proletarian White sympathizers, counter-revolutionaries, Party leaders, and on. Serge depicts them all with sympathy, yes, even the counter-revolutionaries!  Throughout, all are subject to terror:  the Red Terror, or the White Terror.

One episode involves a dedicated young woman communist, hell-bent on “getting a case [investigation of a counter-revolutionary cell] moving.”  She is enthusiastic, relentless, and totally committed to the cause, with little thought for…well, anything. She cracks the case.  It turns out that a well planted worker is actually an enemy agent, and the lover of a formerly middle-class young woman.  Turns out that this woman was friendly with a well-respected, energetic, young communist agent, Arkady.  The woman’s brother was ‘suspected’ of something – wasn’t everyone? – and was hauled in for questioning.  Arkady knew immediately it was all garbage, and got the fellow released.  Now the man’s sister is known to be the lover of a man who is known to be an enemy of the people, and Arkady released his brother!  He’s done for, and he knows it.  Osipov, his friend, arrests him.  “What have you done, my poor old friend, what have you done!”  They shake hands.

Later, another mutual friend visits Osipov and challenges him on the arrest of Arkady:  “You know brother, we’re committing a crime.

“A crime?”  Osipov tossed back at him.  “Because one of us got hit this time around?  Don’t you understand that one must pay with one’s blood for the right to be pitiless?  Do you by any chance imagine that we won’t all end up like that?”

Class war is a dirty business, but “it must be done.”  These views recur again and again through the books.  With views like that, people will do anything.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev may be Serge’s best known novel, and I found it to be the most extraordinary of the three.  It takes place at the height of the Great Purge of the late 1930s triggered by the assassination of Kirov.  A young man gets hold of a revolver, determined to kill Stalin.  On his nightly walks, he actually sees him occasionally, stepping into a limousine at a Kremlin gate.  With the revolver in hand, he approaches the gate again, and Stalin is there!  But he totally looses his nerve, and walks on.  A little later, he sees another Party boss – it’s Tulayev, yes, certainly it’s that murderous scum!  He’s being dropped at the door of his mistress’ apartment.  He walks up to him, shoots him, and runs.  The ripples of terror immediately spread far and wide.

The chapters of the novel tell the story of Party members caught in the net of the pseudo-investigation into the murder.  There must be a conspiracy of course:  how could it be otherwise?  Most of them end up dead, shot for their invented complicity in the international plot against the Socialist state.  Among the victims: a long-exiled party member brought in from his Siberian house-arrest for interrogation; a young woman studying textile production in Paris on a plush-assignment (her father is a bigwig in the police organs – he is arrested too) who reads of the arrest of a former teacher and makes the fatal mistake of sending a telegram to papa demanding that he help the man; a commissar working in Spain – just what was Stalin’s aim in the Spanish Civil War? – who intercedes to help a young American communist arrested as a Trotskyite [He actually confronts Stalin in the Kremlin, and is let off with a posting to Siberia to work in forestry.]

One victim, in prison, is visited by another old Bolshevik who has been broken.  He urges the resister to give in, confess to whatever is asked:

Better men than you and I have done it before us.  Others will do it after us.  No one can resist the machine.  No one has the right, no one can resist the Party without going over to the enemy.  Neither you nor I will ever go over to the enemy…And if you consider yourself innocent, you are absolutely wrong?  We innocent?  Who do you think you’re fooling?  Have you forgotten about our trade?  Can Comrade High Commissar for Security be innocent?  Can the Grand Inquisitor be as pure as a lamb?  Can he be the only person in the world who doesn’t deserve the bullet in the neck which he distributed like a rubber-stamp signature at the rate of seven hundred per month on the average?  Official figures – way off, of course.  None will ever know the real figures…”

As someone wrote of Kruschev, commenting on his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes, he too was up to his elbows in blood.  They all knew the score.  They had quotas for arrests, imprisonment, execution…  Amazing that through all this, Serge still manages to convey why these people got into this in the first place:  their intense thirst for justice, fairness, an end to the crushing tyrannical poverty of the old regime, and a deeply felt desire for a society in which human equality is prized.  To note this as an irony is so obvious as to be ridiculous.

Unforgiving Years is the last of the three that I read, and the strangest in many ways.  In this book, Serge adopts a style that is at times elliptical, modernistic, and sometimes seems hallucinatory.  It is the tale of a communist agent who has had enough – he can’t go on, and he decides to escape to Mexico.  He knows the machinations of the security apparatus and how hard they are to evade, and he knows that his knowledge only gives him a little head start over his inevitable pursuers.  There’s also the business of his lover:  he wants to take her too, and that makes it harder.

The novel seems like a screenplay for a political film noir, but the level of tension, paranoia, and sheer horror exceeds anything from that genre.  At times, I felt that Thomas Pynchon had cribbed the entirety of Gravity’s Rainbow, from Serge:

In every war there is a rear that holds better than the front, a rear fat with noble sentiments, creature comforts, and lucrative deals:  this rear, which balances the front, makes the insanity total…The beaches of California still exhibit, in season, a full complement of pretty women with smiling thighs:  such is the natural order of things.  After all, there’s philosophical solace to be found in the fact that some still live while others die, an obvious improvement on everyone dying…But it  is no longer possible to embark upon a  coherent line of reasoning without falling into absurdity.

This novel was published in English in 1970, about the time Gravity’s Rainbow came out, but who knows?  Maybe Pynchon read it in French?

The ending of the story takes place in a paradisaical Mexican mountain setting but has all the weirdness and menace of the finale of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway.  Knowing as we do the end which Trotsky met in hiding, it is no surprise what happens, but just how the long arm of the Party reaches out to crush those who stray is terrifying nevertheless.

Not exactly happy reading these three books, but Victor Serge is a novelist for the ages – brilliant!


Kolyma Tales

March 21, 2012

Kolyma Tales is a book of short stories, some very short, about life and death in the area of the Soviet Gulag considered by aficionados of its horror to be the deepest pit of its hell.  Kolyma (Koh-lee-mah) is a region in the far east and north of Siberia where prisoners were sent to die while scratching some gold from the frozen earth.  Temperatures would drop to sixty below zero, Centigrade, I assume.  Victor Shalamov somehow survived there for seventeen years and wrote what are considered some of Russian literature’s greatest short stories.

Most of the stories focus on a single situation involving a few characters, rather than narrating a dramatic series of events.  Often there is darkly ironic, or deadpan twist to the end.  The style is spare, precise, and descriptive, without sentiment.  They are brutally powerful, without overwhelming you with depression.

A well fed leader of the camp prospecting squad approaches a convict to participate in his escape plan.  The convict suspects a trap, but goes along, after saying he needs to gather strength:  can he have a can of Lend Lease condensed milk?  The squad leader gives it to him; the other convicts watch him eat it, like dogs that can’t turn their fascinated heads away.  The convict says he’s changed his mind.  The leader finds other dupes:  all end up dying in the attempt.

After WWII, hordes of Russian POWs, released into the custody of Stalin’s government, were sent to the Gulag.  They didn’t die fighting:  they must be traitors.  Unlike the usual run of the convicts, sentenced under Article 58, i.e. ‘political prisoners’ rounded up by quota from among the intellectual and middle classes, these men knew strategy, were used to risk, and understood how to use force.  Some stage a breakout under a major.  A good try, but…

One ‘funny’ tale is simply the indictment of an ‘injector’, a mechanical part of a pump that failed, leading to a failure of the crew to meet the work quota.  The part is denounced and indicted for its crime.  Is it a joke, or is it the work of a prison guard mechanically filling out forms, perhaps not knowing he’s describing a part and not a human convict?  Still a joke…

Endless descriptions of the struggle to stay warm, to scrounge food, to come to terms with the swarms of lice that make their home on your body, to avoid work intended to kill you, to somehow ‘cheat’ a few days rest by faking illness, inducing infection in sores, anything.  One man pretends his back is broken, and will not straighten up no matter what…for weeks.  He succumbs to a diabolical doctor who injects him with a stimulant just for the joy of proving the superiority of his medical knowledge.

Several stories cover the ‘criminal element.’  These are the thieves, rapists, and murderers who were sentenced to the Gulag, but who are not considered “enemies of the people” because they were not sentenced under No. 58.  They pose no danger to the building of socialism in one country.  They form terrifying gangs and live by fleecing the other convicts and any camp administrators they can.  The guards fear them and leave them alone – they murder with impunity.  They make the system work pretty well for themselves, avoiding assignments to the death-details, but sometimes they need the convicts for whom they have utter contempt.  They select an educated man as a “novelist,” one who will entertain them by reciting good stories from literary classics.  This man is protected and given respect.  Culture has its value, after all.

At one point, Shalamov refers to the guard tower as the architectural emblem of all that is Kolyma:  a surviving tower is shown below in an old photograph.  The Mask of Sorrow is a monument constructed to memorialize the victims of the Kolyma Gulag, and was constructed in 1996 with contributions from six cities in the region.

Shalamov’s stories were finally published in the USSR during Gorbachev’s presidency.


Almost Parallel Lives

November 29, 2011

The dates of their lives were very close, but those lives-not by a long shot!  Both had obituaries in the NYTimes today:

Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter, Dies at 85

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.

Ken Russell, Director Fond of Provocation, Dies at 84

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 Is to Be Done?

November 28, 2011

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, Demons and 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 Cabin at 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-Montefiore and Nadezhda MandelshtamThe 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.

And I am with you, Fyodor!


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?