Tag Archives: Russia

Reading Vasili Grossman in the time of Mo Yan

I have just begun reading Part III of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are wearing me out”  (a little over one third of the book) and have mixed feelings about it. What works for me is the narrative of post- revolutionary China, particularly about the Cultural Revolution. What also works are the different points of view, a robust sense of humour amidst a tumultus period of China’s post- Revolution history and a literary flourish that make the book a page turner.

What doesn’t seem to be working is the quirkiness of the narrative, tangential diversions and exaggeration- much in the style of Garcia Marquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I liked the first time I read “One Hundred…” but found it irritating while reading the second time.

Mo Yan’s style also contrasts with another book that I happened to be reading alongside- “Everything Flows” by Vasili Grossman.

The collectivization of the peasantry, among other changes in the post Revolutionary Soviet Union up to Stalin’s death are very similar to those in China in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, the contrast between the two writers could not be more striking- Mo Yan is verbose and humourous while Grossman has used tight prose and is uniformly serious, digressing into long soliloquies on Lenin, Stalin and a grand sweep on Russia’s thousand years of history. It was refreshing to read a simply written, straightforward novella that is no less – if not more, engaging than “Life and Death…”. I finished the 200 page “Everything Flows” in a couple of weeks, much moved by its sparse but surgically precise prose.

I continue to plough through “Life and Death are wearing me out”, and if I am not worn out by the time it is finished, will post a longer review.

End of the road for Orlando Figes

It’s a pretty tragic end for Orlando Figes. I was quite impressed with his first major work on the Russian Revolution- A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, even though I later felt that his work was little more than a well narrated compendium of many extant works on the Russian Revolution. I do not agree  with his blanket statement that the Russian Revolution was a “people’s tragedy”. At that time, however,  in my own little, dilettantish manner I had ended the review of his book with these words:

… The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus.

By owning up to writing negative reviews of the books of his rivals, of all places at the Amazon.com book reviews, I am afraid the brashness of his no-longer-youth (the review was written over a decade back), has brought his brilliant career to a grinding halt.

Chingiz Aitmatov- RIP

Sometimes death serves as the reminder of a book unread. Chingez Aitmatov’s death yesterday in Germany just reminded me of a book that has been on my reading list for longer than any other one that I can remember- Jamila.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus. She is accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield.

Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband. Meanwhile, undeterred by Jamilia’s teasing, Daniyar sings as they return each evening from the fields. Soon Jamilia is in love, and she and Daniyar elope just as her husband returns.

A love story that ranks alongside Turgenev’s First Love.

A news report about his death at IHT:Kyrgyz author and statesman Chingiz Aitmatov dies at 79

Aitmatov first found fame with his 1958 novel “Jamilya.” Set during World War II, it tells the story of a young Kyrgyz woman who leaves her husband and runs away with a crippled war veteran. The novel sparked heated discussions in the majority Muslim and male-dominated society about whether a woman could leave her husband for another man.

French poet Louis Aragon praised “Jamilya” as “the best novel about love.”

More on Aitmatov’s works.

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Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

Moscow does not believe in tears (1980) provides a rich view into the Soviet Union circa 1980 even as it is clearly inspired by French cinema of the time. It tells the very earthly story about three girls who have just come to Moscow in 1958 and then fast forwards twenty years later. What emerges is the portrait of a people with their own problems. There are no signs of a society crashing into an abyss that it was to a mere ten years after the movie was made. At the same time,there are no pretensions of a worker’s paradise either- decrepit roads, dilapidated cars, apartments in disrepair- all attest to a not so glorious condition.

There are barely crouched references to Breznevian rule. Gosha, who comes into Katya’s life towards the end of the movie comments says that everyone need not aspire to be a manager, or a leader and recalls the Roman emperor Diocletian who first established an autocratic rule in Rome and then gave up his empire to live in the countryside and grow cabbages, though interestingly in the movie he mentions him as a good ruler.

A good emperor by the way. At the height of his empire, he gave away the crown and settled down in the country. And when he was asked to take over again, he replied- “if you looked at the cabbages in my garden, you’d stop asking me.”

There is an underlying Soviet belief in the reduction of class antagonism, of a possibility of a woman rising to be the director of a big industrial plant- and a single mother at that. At the same time, there is an acceptance of patriarchal values, the authority that a man wields and that Gosha demands. Drunkenness among men, much prevalent during the Soviet years- as it is later, is very visible- with repeated declarations to drinking being a holy act.

It may be unfair to read too much into the movie with the wisdom of hindsight after the disintegration of the former USSR. But even without that, the movie comes out as an essentially humane one, and touches one. It’s music alone is worth listening to again and again, as I did long after I had watched the movie twice. But one cannot stop being where one is situated in time, and a final point on its relevance to Soviet society and its disintegration.

Soviet Union was not a paradise. Neither was it hell- it was a society that set too high a demand for itself and placed too many demands on its people to lead mankind into the future- there are repeated references to the future. “Chemistry is the future of the world”, says Katya, while Rudolph, the father of her daughter, claims that “TV is the future, when there will be no more theater, or books or movies.”

“The future? You should be thinking about the present”, says one of Katya’s friends.

The postponement of the self- whether of the individual, or a city- Moscow in this case, or a nation, is not always a fine thing.

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90th Anniversary of the Revolution against Das Capital

The Bolshevik Revolution … is the revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital….events have overcome ideologies. Events have exploded the critical schema determining how the history of Russia would unfold according to the canons of historical materialism. The Bolsheviks reject Karl Marx, and their explicit actions and conquests bear witness that the canons of historical materialism are not so rigid as might have been and has been thought.

(Live Marxist) thought sees as the dominant factor in history, not raw economic facts, but man, men in societies, men in relation to one another, reaching agreements with one another, developing through these contacts (civilization) a collective, social will; men coming to understand economic facts, judging them and adapting them to their will until this becomes the driving force of the economy and moulds objective reality, which lives and moves and comes to resemble a current of volcanic lava that can be channelled wherever and in whatever way men’s will determines.

On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Great October Revolution, 17 leading academicians from Russia, among them Roy Medvedev and Mikhail Shatrov have issued an appeal reiterating the achievements of the Revolution and criticizing post- USSR attempts to whitewash that period of history.

In sum, the popular power of the initial years of the revolution degenerated into rule by the bureaucracy and its leader Stalin.  We consider the massive Stalinist repressions, along with the violation of the rights of the individual and of whole nationalities in the USSR, to have been a crime.  All this discredited the ideals of the revolution and of socialism.

While acknowledging these facts, we do not accept scholarly-sounding lies and stupefyingly one-sided propaganda with regard to the whole of Soviet history. This history was diverse; within it, democratic and bureaucratic tendencies engaged in conflict with and replaced one another.  Hence, the freedoms of the NEP years were replaced by Stalinist totalitarianism, which in turn gave way to the Khrushchev “thaw”.  Later, the Brezhnev authoritarianism was replaced by perestroika, which proclaimed as its goal the creation of a humane, democratic socialism.

Image Source: Marxists.org

A Russian Roundup

A collection of links to Russian literature, and one on art.

Owen Hatherly examines the discomfort of the Russians with the Italian founders of the Futurist movement.

The Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky was a sympathetic critic of Russian Futurism. He corresponded with Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist, about the political significance of this new artistic movement.

In a 1922 letter to Trotsky, Gramsci suggests that the Italian left had missed a trick by not making overtures to the Futurist movement.

Gramsci stressed that the Futurists had a large working class audience that was attracted by their iconoclasm, and had defended them in street fights against attempts to break up their exhibitions.

For Gramsci, ignoring the Futurists left them prone to being taken up by fascism, which then had “revolutionary” pretensions and could monopolise the new, anti-traditional cultural forms.

Many Russian writers were discovered by the Russians themselves only after 1991. One such rediscovery is that of the absurd poets- the Oberitus, whom Olga Martynova considers to be among the liveliest classic writers.

Who were the Oberiuts? Born in the early years of the 20th century, they were practically children at the time of the 1917 October Revolution. That they, the last representatives of Russian modernity, transformed and completed the entire spectrum of that modernity – from the mystically disposed Symbolism to the avant-garde leftist futurism – borders on the miraculous. As Daniil Kharms wrote: “Life has been victorious over death in a way unbeknownst to me.” The idea of the miracle was a leitmotiv for Kharms and his friends, and they came back to it again and again. A further miracle: the whole group very nearly vanished without a trace, which would have had enormous consequences for the development of Russian literature. We would have seen their names in just a few memoirs, such as by dramatist Yevgeny Shvarts. As it turns out, the only reason we have access to their texts is because one of them, the philosopher Yakov Druskin, went over to where Daniil Kharms had been living in beseiged Leningrad before he was arrested, and slid his entire archive back home on a children’s sled.

Paris based Russian writer Viktor Erofeev examines the Putin ‘bird’ in the light of Putin’s recent visit to Ms Merkel’s Germany. His analysis is reminiscent of the debate between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers in post- Napoleonic Russia, a debate that formed the dialectic of many a Russian classic in the 19th century.

Putin’s oscillations correspond closely to the oscillations in Russian thinking, with its deep archaic roots that to some extent have nothing in common with Europe. Alexander III was no intellectual. He allowed Tolstoy and Chekhov to print their books, tolerated a number of other-minded people but never forgot tighten the handcuffs or to exercise his preferences for Russian nationalism. And everybody knows what happened to the Romanovs.

Of course the West must feed Russia’s western head. Otherwise, it will run off to the East. It’s in my interests that the eagle has a well- developed western head. It acts as a certain guarantee for the freedoms a writer needs, such as the air to breathe. But I understand that if you forget about the eastern head of the Russian statehood, as our reformers did in the 1990s, then you lose the connection with an important part of the “archaic” population. The West will have to learn to accept that the flight of the two-headed eagle has nothing to do with the rules of international air travel.

And finally here is a report from The Moscow Times whose headline itself is a giveaway: Reading Is Going the Way of the Soviet Union.

The online writeup is available only for paid subscribers. The Literary Review, however, offers a few excerpts.

Fiction no longer prepares young people to live in the very pragmatic modern Russia, so there is no popular demand for it.

Perry Anderson on Russia Today

Perry Anderson has a long, illuminating take on Russia under Putin encompassing arts, culture, literature the state of the intelligentsia and political analysis.
Such tensions have certainly not silenced the arts. Fiction aiming at more than entertainment has never avoided the Soviet experience. Since the 1990s, however, representations of it have tended to become volatilised in the blender of de-realisations that typifies much current literature. Russian fiction has always had strong strains of the fantastic, the grotesque, the supernatural and the utopian, in a line that includes not only Gogol and Bulgakov – presently the two most fashionable masters – but such diverse figures as Chernyshevsky, Leskov, Bely, Zamiatin, Nabokov, Platonov and others. What is new in the current versions of this tradition is their cocktail of heterogeneous genres and tropes of an alternative reality, which seeks to maximise provocation and dépaysement. But such formal ingenuity, however startling, tends to leave its objects curiously untouched. The same techniques can dispose of Communist and post-Communist realities alike, as a single continuum. In Viktor Pelevin’s most lyrical work, The Clay Machine-Gun, the Cheka of the Civil War, the bombardment of the White House and the contemporary Russian mafia dance and merge in the same phantasmagoria. At its best, such literature is splendidly acrobatic. But, satirical and playful, most of it is too lightweight to impinge on deeper structures of feeling about the past. Scholarship is another story.

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Unfinished Piece for the Piano Player


Unfinished Piece for the Piano Player” is not so much based on a play by Anton Chekov as much a play based on Chekov’s short stories and hence a very Chekovian play.

A number of characters meet over a weekend at a country estate where Mikhail Platonov, a village school teacher, undergoes an emotional crisis that is summed up best in his own words:

Oh God !

Now I am know for sure, it’s enough to betray just once, just once to be unfaithful to what you believed in and what you loved and you would never get rid of the succession of betrayals and lines !

… Not that, not that, I am thirty five ! Everything’s ruined !

Lermontov had already been in his grave for eight years ! Napolean was a general !
And I have done nothing in this damned life of yours. Where is my true self ? I am a good for nothing cripple! Where is my strength, my mind, my talent? A wasted life!

Oh ! You are here too, the keeper of a fire that isn’t even smouldering…
but you have no choice, just like myself… a nobody ! And I am just like all of you here !

A fine masterpiece from the Soviet years, it brims with the intensity of character that only the Russians were (are?) capable of.

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Story of the Orange and the Cocaine

Tatiana Zhurzhenko examines the contrast between the colourful (orange, velvet, purple) revolutions of post- Soviet Eastern Europe and the coca revolution in Bolivia. The former, she says, are being sold as brands to introduce the former East Europe to the West- hence the colorful descriptions of democratic elections being termed as “revolutions”- when they are little more than an invitation to neo- liberal capitalism.Morales’ victory, however, is never termed as a revolution and certainly no colourful descriptions are evident either. Instead, the spectre of cocaine is what is projected in the dominant media.

An insightful essay contrasting the fruity and flowery revolutions in East Europe, specially the tingling Orange one in Ukraine, with the rise of Evo Morales, whose patron saints include, horror of horrors, Fidel Castro.

Maybe Bolivia really has staged the last revolution of the twentieth century, one that was possible only in a poor, marginalized, and underdeveloped country.

On the other hand, one might see in this revolution a ghost of the future. Bolivia, an absolute loser of globalization and a victim of neo-liberal politics, arrived in the twenty-first century a long time ago. Its political elite failed to represent the interests of the nation, and the income gap between rich and poor is one of the widest in the world. The country’s water supply was privatized by foreign companies, which raised prices for the local population and made water unaffordable for many, while Bolivia’s huge gas resources do not help Bolivians alleviate their misery. Does this mean that the socialist alternative remerges in the twenty-first century as an answer to global capitalism, as in the twentieth century it was the answer to national capitalism?

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The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov

The classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature, it was more often than not a means for communicating ideas and for philosophical discourse. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and taking them forward.

In that Andrey Platonov followed in the footsteps of the other great Russian novelists and used the medium of the novel to comment on the progress of the Russian Revolution. Once its enthusiast- he came from a working class background and immediately after the revolution graduated as an engineer and worked towards the electrification plans, he was sensitive to the brutality of its implementation.

His enthusiasm was soon to be curbed and his disenchantment was to be reflected in the novels that he subsequently wrote. His major works were to be published decades after his death in 1951. He was working as a window cleaner in the Soviet Writer’s building when he died.

The Foundation Pit
is the most well known of Platonov’s novels. It describes the impact of the forced collectivization that Stalin introduced in 1927. There are over a dozen major characters and is mainly a novel of action and development, there are few soliloquies or psychological portraits of the characters. That is for good reason and is indicated right in the beginning of the novel.

The pace is set by the first paragraph of the novel where Voshchev is discharged from his job in a machine factory “because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work”. Subsequently, no character in the novel makes that mistake again as the Party activist goes about forcing the poor and the small/ middle peasantry into the kholkoz, the collectivised farm.

He also gets them to dig the foundation pit for a massive building that would house the future socialist citizenry. The pit finally becomes the burial ground for the little girl Nastya, who is born of a “kulak” woman and therefore of “capitalist scum.” But her dying mother ingrains in her daughter the noble virtues of socialism and the little girl imbibes all the right words and ideas.

She describes her own capitalist tainted origin to the loyal Party excavator Chiklin thus: “I didn’t want to get born- I was afraid my mother would be bourgeois.” Later, as she is taken to school and where she “learned to love the Soviet government and began collecting trash for reuse”, she writes to Chiklin, the overseer of the foundation pit:

Liquidate the kulak as a class. Long live Lenin, Kozlov and Safranov.
Regards to the poor kolkhoz, but not to the kulaks.

At the end of the novel the Revolution finally devours its own child and she is buried in the pit by Chiklin.

Platonov’s style is very direct in this novel, it was to tone down dramatically in later works like The Soul and Happy Moscow that dealt with later Five Year Plan periods and where his style is more implicit (specially in the very effective use of the rhetoric in Happy Moscow.)

The Foundation Pit reflects the confusion of the 1920s that unleashed a great deal of creative energies among the intelligentsia specially of those coming from poorer and working class families. It also showed them the limits of that euphoria. By the 1930’s the State’s control was firmly established and by 1937 Stalin was to confidently go and finish of the bulk of the Party leadership, including “Lenin’s son” Nikolai Bukharin- something that led another disillusioned communist Arthur Koestler to chronicle in Darkness at Noon.

Platonov brings forth the Party slogans that were established and were executed with meticulous haste by the rank and file, only to be rescinded later with a different set, if not opposite ones. Former local leaders, once decorated for their result effectiveness, were now identified as having misinterpreted the Party Line and hence he is “liquidated.”

These are indeed themes that have occured in many works about Russia of the last century- what lends crecedence to Platonov his is physical presence during the times (unlike that of Western writes notably Koestler and Orwell) but also his ability to both write objectively on a progress of which he was a sympathiser of and maintain his belief that communism needs to proceed on a more humanistic basis than it did under Stalin. That rescues Platonov from succumbing to the disillusion of a Koestler and the propagandistic overtones in Orwell and enhances the authenticity of his work.

His own subsequent treatment and his elimination as a writer in the Soviet Union make him out as a martyr.

The Foundation Pit (as also his previous, longer novel Chevengur), follow up the themes that were previous treated by Dostoevesky in The Possessed and by Josef Conrad his near- prophetic Under Western Eyes. Post- revolution, the novel marks a continuity with Zamyatin’s We that was published in 1920.

The universality of this work lies in the fact that similar mechanisms continue to be employed in the contemporary world, whether it is in attempts at exporting democracy or exporting globalization and IMF diktats to the Third World in Capital’s thirst for markets. The vocabulary has changed, but the language remains the same- of violence against people en masse. The tragedy was more grotesque in the case of the Soviet Union of the 1920 and 1930s because socialism was supposed to have rescued the masses from the evils of exploitation.

Finally, a note on the length of the novel. Russian novels are generally long and run into hundreds of pages, with Tolstoy and Dostoevesky probably taking the cake. Only a Turgenev could write as concisely as Flaubert covering a whole gamut of human experiences in a novel of a hundred or so pages. In The Foundation Pit, Platonov follows Turgenev and achieves a veritable literary crescendo in a novel that is merely 140 pages long.

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November 7 in Putin’s Russia

Vladmir Putin has put an end to the November 7 day celebrations in Russia from this year. It was a quiet day in Moscow this time. GPD puts into historical perspective a day whose significance went far beyond Russia.

All the military might of the “first socialist state” was on display on this day. It was a military might which evoked a special sense of security and meaning.It was this might which challenged and kept under control the hegemonism of one power, i e, the US. Now that the American hegemonism has become the sole determinant or the defining characteristic of the international system it should be easy to see what a countervailing force the Soviet power was and has always been. The parade in the Red Square was in a sense a promise, a promise made to the struggling people around the globe. The number of liberation struggles that were aided and assisted by the then Soviet Union is legion.

He compares this with the way the Chinese look back at October 1, the day of the Chinese Revolution in 1949:

Contrast this with what the Chinese do. There is no let up in the centrality and significance of October 1. China is in festive mood throughout the first week of October. Beijing is all lit up. It is a carnival of a kind. It needs hardly to be stated that the distance separating today’s China and Stalinist or Maoist socialism is in no way smaller than Putin’s from Stalinism. But there is awareness that whatever else might have been wrong with Chinese socialism, it was the revolution put China on the map of the world. It was no longer “a heap of sand” as Sun Yat-sen had described it once. It had stood up literally to the world. This historical memory simply cannot and should not be wiped out. The celebrations of October 1 have historical and power significations which should not be lost sight of.

Russia- Light at the End of the Tunnel?

One of the greatest modern- day disasters has been that of the former Soviet Union. The former super power now has probably one of the poorest living standards and has seen perhaps for the first time in a century, a real decline in population- contrary to world wide trends.Now it seems that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel- if one were to go by yet another book on the misfortunes of Russia. You will need to have a login id for the NYT to read this review of “Kremlin Rising”.

Like many other observers, the writers seem to feel that Putin is the man who will deliver- he seems to be in the image of the patriarch, bringing about “managed democracy”. That he happens to be in the image of the former czar, in line with the personality cults of Lenin and Stalin is a point often made about him. A man of strong and decisive actions- like the one during the Chechnya hostage crisis, he surely seems to have reined in some of the mafia operatives, though not the overall system, which is weaning towards a controlled form of capitalism. Though at least this article argues that Russia today resembles Iran, a democratic election returning a conservative dark horse to power.

A significant change has also been the decline of the voice of the left and nationalist groups during the last few years and their reduced popularity.

What is obviously missing in the review and probably also the book is the role of the IMF and the “free world” in leading the transition to near disaster. A better account is provided by a lesser known book by the historian Roy Medvedev, “Post- Soviet Russia” published a few years back. Unfortunately I did not get down to review this very impressive and the only Marxist analysis of post- Soviet Russia that I have read.

Review of Lenin: A Biography by Robert Service

Lenin: A Biography
By Robert Service
Papermac (Macmillan), London £12 (Special Indian Price £7.20), Pages 494

One of the first actions that symbolically marked the demise of socialism in the former USSR was the bringing down of the statues and pictures of Lenin.

The irony, in the first place, was that the state that he more than anyone else was responsible for bringing into existence had iconized one of the most iconoclastic figures in the pantheon of human history. Lenin himself would have approved the demolition of his statues, though not of much else that accompanied it in 1991.

Robert Service, author of the book under review, is no Leninist, indeed, he has little sympathy for the kind of politics that Lenin espoused. Yet he has written a fairly readable biography though he does not entirely succeed in convincing the reader about why Lenin’s “extraordinary life and career prove the need for everyone to be vigilant”. Much of what is contained in the book indicates otherwise.

It must be said to the biographer’s credit that he places his subject to the scrutiny of facts and therefore avoids the extreme conclusions of other authors who have written about the Russian Revolution in general and Lenin in particular. In the last one-decade these include Dmitri Volkogonov, Edvard Radzinsky, Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes.That Service manages to do a doublethink (to borrow a phrase from Orwell’s otherwise flawed “1984”), is another matter.

To this reviewer whose early introduction was to the hagiographies on Lenin churned out by Soviet publishers, the recent researches have tended to be more in the nature of additions of some facts or in the de-mythologization of others.

The qualitatively new dimensions have been few: the impact of Russian agrarian extremists in addition to Marx on Lenin’s thought and his many edicts and decisions during and after the Civil War that can be considered to be the genesis of the later totalitarian state. In the book under review there is new light on Lenin’s exchange of letters with those close to him, particularly Nadya Krupuskaya and Inessa Armand.

Beyond these points, even Service has little to add and there is a reason that despite his attempts to highlight the negative aspects of Lenin, he inaugurates the book with the sentence: “Lenin was an extraordinary man”.

With the proverbial wisdom of hindsight, the first point need not really have surprised us. After all, there was substantial material to indicate the violent program of the agrarian socialists and their impact on Russian revolutionaries. Dostovesky’s “The Demons” and particularly Joseph Conrad’s near- prophetic “Under Western Eyes” had underlined these streams of Russian revolutionary thought much earlier.

Regarding Lenin’s role in setting up the later Stalinist State, it needs to be read cautiously. While it is hard to imagine that the Soviet State would have been fundamentally different if Lenin had lived longer or if the leadership had passed on to someone else other than Stalin, it is also incorrect to see Stalinism as being a direct and legitimate continuation of Leninism.

Lenin was, as Service rightly points out, capable of reversing his decisions in the light of new developments- he often took an isolationist position but then used all his force to carry the rest of the Bolsheviks along with him. This was not the case with Stalin, who preferred the somewhat more “convenient” option of physically eliminating his rivals.

If Lenin resorted to polemical pamphleteer- ism for the dissemination of his ideas, Stalin paved the way for simplistic sloganeer-ism masquerading as profound truths. This was carried to its logical culmination in the Red books in Maoist China that pioneered the “communism for dummies” trend, if you will.

Besides, by reversing the early 1920s economic policies, Stalin deviated grievously. Though it may be conjectural to state this, it is possible that the ex- USSR might have developed those policies at an earlier stage that China adopted in the 1970s. As Roy Medvedev has forcefully argued in his recent book “Post- Soviet Russia: A Journey through the Yeltsin years”, a pragmatic symbiosis of market features would have been a historically judicious choice compared to the barrack socialism that finally evolved.

The author recounts information about Lenin’s pedigree, including Mongol and Jewish ancestry. The family background of Lenin was generally ignored in the official biographies about Lenin and therefore the chapters on Lenin’s childhood and early upbringing make for interesting reading, if only for their novelty. Even Louis Fischer’s “Lenin: A Life” focused more on his later years.

The author also touches some of the important works like the “April Thesis” and “The State and Revolution”- attributing these generally to Lenin’s whims or wily scheming. Though one expects that he would have discussed these more seriously in his previously published 3-volume work on Lenin’s political thought, it is necessary not to underestimate his theoretical writings and to throw out the baby with the bath water.

A number of principles still carry a lot of weight, one of them being Lenin’s critique of Narodism. In India, for example Narodism in the form of Gandhism and neo- Narodism in the writings of third- world theorists like Ashish Nandy and Vandana Shiva has been a much stronger current than in the Russia. In this regard, one still needs to “go back to Lenin” to use a cliché popularized by Soviet writers. As the early 21st century comes to resemble more and more the early 20th century, this need may become all the more relevant as does a much more critical attitude.

Then there are certain aspects that Service either does not expend himself fully on, or does not touch at all.

For example, he points out that despite all his faults, Lenin was the acknowledged leader among both the Bolsheviks as well as his closest adversaries, the Mensheviks. If Plekanov was respected, Martov loved but still it was Lenin that the people followed, there must have been some reasons. Many of the other leading revolutionaries were extremely educated and forceful personalities in themselves. Despite that, why was there such universal agreement regarding Lenin? Service answers this with a thundering silence.

An aspect of Lenin’s personality that has recently been highlighted by Volkogonov and Radzinsky as well as Service needs attention. This is the supreme importance that Lenin attached to his personal security. While Volkogonov terms this “cowardice”, Service does not go so far, but even he does not attempt to provide an explanation.

The reason may be partly psychological and partly borne out of conviction on Lenin’s part. In his seminal work “What is to be Done?” Lenin had indicated that the working class cannot accomplish revolution by itself and there is need for an intelligentsia that grows outside the working class that develops theory and injects class- consciousness into the working class.

Tsarist Russia on the other hand was powerful enough to silence the rebellious intelligentsia. It must be remembered that Nikolai Chernesvesky’s literary and philosophical works were written only in his early years. Once he returned from his incarceration, he became completely silent. His mental faculties had been ruined. Lenin must have been fearful of a similar fate befalling him- his brother Alexander’s execution would have been a gory reminder too.

An aspect that needs attention from Lenin’s biographers and scholars of the Russian Revolution is a more judicious treatment of the personalities that he was associated with. In Service’s account, these personages appear and disappear like passing silhouettes except for Krupuskaya, Inessa Armand and Stalin. This leaves one not only with numerous loose ends but also does not help to adequately compare Lenin with some of the other leading figures in the Russian Social Democratic movement.

This is specially true of the important Menshevik theoreticians Yuli Martov, Pavel Axelrod and Alexander Bogdanov (whom Service considers to be Lenin’s intellectual superior and with whom Lenin engaged in polemics in “Empirio- Criticism and Materialism”), not to mention Trotsky , Stalin and Bukharin.

The last three at least have had their share of biographers (Isaac Deutscher for Trotsky and Stalin, Stephen Cohen for Bukharin). It is the leading Mensheviks who have been ignored by historians.

As for Lenin, the current biographer does not achieve what Deutscher accomplished for Trotsky. The need and the long wait for a definitive biography of Vladmir Illyich Lenin are not yet over.

19 December, 2001
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 13 Jan 2002

Review of Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky

Stalin
By Edvard Radzinsky
Anchor/ Doubleday, New York
Pages 607, $15.95 1996

“All our principles were right, but our results were wrong. This is a diseased century. We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but whenever we applied the healing knife a new sore appeared…We brought you the truth, and in our mouth it sounded like a lie. We brought you freedom and it looks in our hands like a whip…we brought you the future, but our tongue stammered and barked”, thus mused Rubashov, the Bukharin like central character awaiting a certain death in a GPU prison in Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon. Rubashov’s prosecutor Gletkin says as he pronounces the sentence on him, “You were wrong, and you will pay, Comrade Rubashov. The Party promises only one thing: after the victory, one day when it can do no more harm, the material of the secret archives will be published.”

The archives today have been opened, though not after the promised victory of the Party. In the book under review, rather pompously subtitled as the “first in- depth biography based on explosive new documents from Russia’s secret archives”, Stalin, the dead dictator comes back to life.

Radzinsky is the most popular playwright in Russia after Anton Chekov. He trained as a historian and this is his second book on history, the first one having been published in 1991 as The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicolas II. The present one makes for a gripping reading, the author’s penchant for dramatization rising over and above the life of its protagonist, often, however to fall down as if with a damp squib.

Questions are posed with a theatrical flourish, like, “The official date of his birth is indeed fictitious. But when was it invented? And why?” Others: Did Stalin murder his wife Nadzezhda Alliluyeva? Did Stalin poison Lenin? Was Stalin himself a victim of his proteges when he died in 1953?

These are questions that have lingered on more in gossip rather than as questions of serious historical inquiry. To each of these questions, the author falls back on routine answers, more often than not basing himself on conversations and hearsays rather than on any “explosive” archives. One is often left wondering why he raised the question in the first place and then devoted tens of pages to finally greet the reader with the fallacy of the question itself.

In terms of tone and intent, the present work follows the pattern set earlier by Dmitri Volkogonov’s Stalin (1988). Its purpose seems to be to wreck vengeance on his subject rather than seeking to understand him in a wider historical context. The study is at either a descriptive level or at a psychological level, often creating the impression that the author is keen to read Stalin’s life selectively. For a much more serious study, one would without any hesitation still turn to Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin published in the 70th year of Stalin’s birth anniversary- 1948 (a newer edition was published after his death with an additional chapter).

And yet the book makes for a compulsive reading. For one, it brings out some very interesting archive material on people like Trotsky and notably on Bukharin. For another, it forces one to grapple and look again into the life of Stalin- and how a revolution can be taken over by a sheer mediocrity and how history gives a rich space to political shrewdness and chicanery at the expense of brilliance and eloquence.

Radzinsky points to the early influence of the anarchist Nechaev on both Lenin and Stalin as well as that of N. Chenesvesky, who urged: “Summon Russia to the Axe”. Nechaev had also said “poison, the knife and the noose are sanctified by the revolution”.

Early on in the Party, Stalin realized that being close to the God Lenin, a la Sancho Panza (though Lenin was no Don Quizote) was essential for a successful career. Radzinsky points to a number of incidents when Stalin hid or protected Lenin from arrest or physical danger. That was the reason Lenin preferred to keep the pock marked Georgian around him. In the dazzling company of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin, Stalin was the undoubtedly an anachronistic dwarf. This must have given him a bruised ego, as the author rightly suggests.

The author also conjectures rather provocatively that Stalin could have been a double agent for the Tsarist police. One of Lenin’s proteges Malinovsky had indeed turned out to be a double agent and despite Lenin’s soft corner for him, he was executed after the Revolution when his treacherous role had been clearly proved by the police records seized by the Bolsheviks. After Stalin’s death, when it was suggested that Stalin too might have been a double agent, N. Khrushchev is said to have thrown up his hands and declared: “Its impossible. It would mean that our country was ruled for 30 years by an agent of the Tsarist police”. Indeed, in the face of any incriminating evidence, it seems to be yet another speculation, a rather amusing one.

As one reads the gory account of the terror that Stalin launched after his trusted lieutenant and heir- apparent Kirov’s murder under suspicious circumstances in 1934, one gets transported to the most tragic period of the revolution. It was Stalin the paranoid in action as he systematically went about physically eliminating the Bolshevik old guard. Among them was Lenin’s “son”, the “darling of the Party”, as Lenin had once termed the young Nikolai Bukharin.

As this century draws to a close the Russian Revolution for all practical purposes has passed into history as yet another “could have been” the long prophesied socialist revolution. One may finally conclude and recognize for what it truly was. A product of the late 19th century secret revolutionary groups that happened to be intellectually well prepared and organizationally well oiled to fill the power vacuum that marked the collapse of the absolutist Tsarist ancien regime, the Bolsheviks just happened to be in the right place. Trotsky was to correctly remark later: “Revolution was lying in the streets of St. Petersburg for us to pick it up”.

The Bolsheviks did just that and under Lenin and Stalin went about turning Dostoyevsky’s grim prophecies in the novel The Possessed into reality.

November 25, 1998
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 20 Dec 1998

Review of Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders who Built the Soviet Empire by Dmitri Volkagonov

Autopsy for an Empire
The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Empire
Dmitri Volkogonov
The Free Press, New York 1998 Pages 556. Price $32.95

Before his death in 1995, Dmitri Volkogonov published three biographies in quick succession, those of Stalin (1988), Trotsky (1991) and Lenin (1994). The present book is the last one to be written by him, and gives an account of all the seven general secretaries of the Soviet regime.

A former Colonel- General in the Soviet Army, during the last years of his life, Volkogonov had unequalled access to all the archives of the Soviet state in his capacity as the director of the Institute for Military Studies and then as Defence Advisor to President Yeltsin. His works represented an iconoclastic break of the writer’s own previously held positions, indeed each of his books are a break, if not a contradiction of the previous one. While this reflects a growing realization about the true nature of the Soviet regime as more and more archives were opened, critics have attributed this meandering in no less measure to Volkogonov’s changing loyalties, from Marxism- Leninism to Gorbachev’s liberal socialism (Stalin, 1998), to Yeltsin’s populist democracy (Trotsky, 1991) to Christian Russian nationalism (Lenin, 1994). The present work falls in the last phase of the writer’s changing convictions.

Right- wing historians have acclaimed Volkogonov’s works since his numerous references to Soviet archives support what these historians have been proclaiming all the while. Others, especially on the Left, have pointed not only to the contradictions referred above, but have also accused him of mutilating facts. Trotskyite writers have termed him a court- historian and of representing the post- Stalinist school of falsification. Within Russia, however, Volkogonov has emerged as the first historian to write on Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky, barring the eulogistic panegyrics of the Soviet school, or vilification in the case of Trotsky.

Most of the criticism of Volkogonov’s works seems to be justified as one reads the book under review. The flow is disjointed and facts seem to have been collected with the sole purpose of driving home the writer’s “convictions” at the time of writing. This is not surprising since Volkogonov held an exalted position in the Soviet hierarchy, which rewarded those who toed the current Party line, appreciated mediocrity and encouraged servility. Volkogonov was the product of such a bureaucratic system.

Yet, just as for all its lies, Soviet propaganda did carry a few grains of truth, the present book too brings out some revealing facts. It is a collage of the leaders’ misdeeds. Only for Khrushchev writer has genuine praise and for Gorbachev, who too earns a few hesitant good words.

Lenin emerges as an unscrupulous power hungry politician, Stalin as the devil incarnate, Khrushchev as the who tried to undo the wrongs of the Leninist- Stalinist system, Breznev as a lazy, slothful mediocrity who was happy to let events take their own course, Andropov as the most intelligent of all the seven leaders but unable to break out of the system’s mould, Chernenko as the least worthy of all- “a head clerk promoted to the topmost post” and Gorbachev as the last communist who brought about the fall of communism.

About Lenin, he says, “he did not appeal to the higher instincts, to patriotism and civic mindedness, but rather to hatred, fatigue and unfulfilled expectations….thanks to Lenin, mankind has learnt that Communism is a road to nowhere”. He quotes Lenin justifying the terror: “The dictatorship- and take this into account once and for all, means unrestricted power based on force, not on law”.

Volkogonov’s account of Stalin does not add anything new on Stalin, except the quotations from numerous archival material. One new fact that he does reveal, though, is the paranoia Stalin had of flying. In his entire life, he made just one air trip!

In 1939, the seventh biography of Stalin was printed in an edition of 18 million copies. Stalin himself edited this edition, shamelessly adding words like “Lenin’s outstanding pupil” in his own hand. At the end of the book, he added: “Stalin is the worthy continuer of Lenin’s cause, or as we say in the Party, Stalin is the Lenin of today”.

There is one reference, a rather unflattering one, to the Indian communists.

He writes: “A conversation between Comrade Stalin and comrades Rao, Dange, Ghosh and Punnaya, in fact it was a long monologue by Stalin. Sitting at the long table and turning their heads in unison as Stalin padded around the huge room, pipe in hand, the Indians absorbed his words of wisdom: Individual terror achieves nothing,….Partisan warfare can be started wherever the people want it. Don’t try to be too clever, just take the land from the landlords and if you take away too much, you can always sort out things later….you can make a fine regime in your country. The important thing is to renounce your personal interests”.

There are numerous accounts of large amounts of money being sent to the other communist parties, notably those of Italy and Spain. As more studies on the archives come out, it may not be too long before the Indian communists too are in the dock. They may have much to answer for.

Khrushchev was a typical leader to emerge from the Stalinist system, uneducated (“two winters of schooling”), energetic, expeditious, never doubting the correctness of Party instruction. He was quick to understand that to survive, he had first to distance himself, and finally discredit his predecessor. The problems accumulated during Stalin’s years could not be reined without drastically reforming the structures of Soviet power. This, however, was not carried to its logical end- indeed it would have been precarious for him to do so- the opposition even to his rather mild reforms within the Central Committee remained strong.

On his part, Khrushchev was not exactly above board for his role in the Stalinist terror. He, too, had played his part in whipping up hysteria, suggesting in 1936 that: “We have to shoot not only this scum (the son of a purged party leader), but Trotsky should also be shot!”. He was voluble and a rather unpredictable character, famous for his quotes as: “My job is chairman of the council of ministers, so I can manage without any brains”. His anti- American rhetoric came to be parodied as: “The USA is standing on the edge of an abyss. We are going to overtake the USA”.

He was not only unceremoniously dismissed by his own prodigy, the rather unassuming Brezenev, making him the sole general secretary not to die in the saddle, his too death was dismissed in a brief and inconspicuous report in Pravada.

Brezenev was the perfect appartchik, his personality the least complex of all. He was a man of one dimension, with the psychology of a middle level part functionary, vain, wary and conventional. He was afraid of sharp turns in policies, and convinced that Communism was on its way at its own leisurely pace like the numerous files that came in and went out from his office. The chapter on Brezenev is exceeded in its dreariness only by the one on Chernenko, the supreme personification of the Party clerk.

Meanwhile, as the Party organization continued to sink in bureaucratic marshlands, the power of the KGB to guide events inside as well as outside the USSR continued to grow. Andropov, then the head of the KGB, prepared the following document: The KGB residency in India has the opportunity (after the explosion in a Jerusalem mosque in 1969), to organize a protest demonstration of upto 20,000 Muslims in front of the US embassy in India. The cost of the demonstration will be 5,000 rupees and would be covered in the 1969- 71 budget allocated by the Central Committee for special tasks in India”. Brezenev wrote on the document: Agreed.

The chapter on Gorbachev is a little out of the place in a book on the “leaders who built the Soviet regime”, for Gorbachev was the man who brought an end this dinosaur like monolith.

18 June 1998
Published: The Tribune 1998

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Review of A People’s Tragedy : A History of the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes

A People’s Tragedy : A History of the Russian Revolution
by Orlando Figes
Hardcover, 912 pages $39.95, Paperback $19.95
Published by Viking Pr
Publication date: March 1997
ISBN: 0670859168

Since the archives of the Soviet Union were opened in 1990 and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist in 1991, there has been a plethora of literature on the October Revolution and the role of Lenin himself. Whether it was a revolution at all, and whether Lenin was really so humane as he has been made out to be later, these are the questions that are being raised. The October Revolution is being termed as no more than a coup and Lenin as a precursor of Stalin- the roots of Stalinism are increasingly been seen to be inherent in Leninism.

None of the above views are in themselves very new. Right wing historians have indeed, maintained these for a long time. The newly opened archives- at least the studies based on them- have tended to be more strident in reiterating these opinions, but more than that it is the collapse of the Soviet Union itself that has made these historians sound more credible. Many of them have felt vindicated- Adam Ulam and Richard Pipes, for example. The book under review, however, is by a historian who is still in his thirties and therefore cannot be said to belong to the tribe of old Soviet bashers. That the thrust of his arguments tends to be more critical of the Russian Revolution needs to be taken seriously, though cautiously.

Orlando Figes is a Cambridge lecturer and brings his acumen forcefully to the front in this monumental work. His style is narrative and reminds one more of Tolstoys’s War and Peace rather than a historical treatise. It is definitely a work of social history, but it also allows a peek into the life of about half a dozen individuals whose fate was intertwined with the Russian Revolution. They are Prince Lvov, Kerensky, a peasant Semyenov, Gorky and Oskin- a peasant soldier turned Socialist Revolutionary- turned Bolshevik. Gorky as we all know, was the great Russian writer, but he was also a severe critic of the Bolsheviks both before and after the Revolution. Prince Lvov, an aristocrat and a patriot, was the Prime Minister in the first Provisional government. Figes’ traces their lives along with his basic theme, some times with insightful observations, for example, about Prince Lvov he observes: His (Prince Lvov’s) hair turned white in the four months that he was the Prime Minister. That one statement says a lot about the tension that engulfed the times. Similarly Kerensky emerges as a hesitant, self styled Napolean of the Revolution, increasingly isolated from the course of events underway.

Figes contends that the revolution by the Bolsheviks was theirs for the asking- the old monarchist order had completely collapsed- Tsar Nicolas fiddled while the Russian army was slaughtered in the World War, a war in which the ordinary Russian had no stake. The soldiers- recruited from the large mass of peasants, fled from the army in millions. They were fighting, unlike their German enemies, not for the Russian nation, but for ‘God’ and his representative on earth- the Tsar. The concept of Russian nationhood was alien to them. That is the reason, Figes avers, that as the revolution progressed the peasant- soldiers were drawn to the Bolsheviks call for hands off the war and their “internationalism”, though their understanding was far different from the Bolsheviks concept of proletarian internationalism, rather than towards the Mensheviks or the monarchists, both of whom stood for the continuation of the war. The Russsian villages were Asiatic- almost self- contained units and the peasant outlook quite narrow. As one peasant- soldier asked: “Why are we fighting the Germans ? My village has no quarrel with them.”

This, combined with their call for all power to the Soviets- analogous to the traditional village committees, made the Bolsheviks the sole contenders for power. The Mensheviks did not realize that Russia was not in the situation where it could follow the gradual evolution from feudalism to capitalism and then to socialism. Their incapacity to make a decisive shift in their politics after the fall of the Tsar and go all out and seize the initiative proved to be their Waterloo. The Socialist Revolutionaries, on the other hand, placed too much faith in the abstract “power of the masses” and failed to take on the mantle of leadership. It was only the Bolsheviks, rather Lenin alone, who was capable of realizing that Russia was the center of all major contradictions at that time- between imperialism and people, between autocracy and liberty and simultaneously between capitalism and the working class. Armed not only with this theoretical understanding, ‘the man who lived politics all 24 hours of the day’, proved to be the rallying point for the Bolsheviks to seize power, despite the reluctance of the rest of the leadership. Trotsky was later to remark, famously, that without Lenin, there would have been no Russian Revolution.

The otherwise unattractive Lenin was a dominating figure among the Russian intellectuals as well as the politicians- both of these groups tended to overlap in the late 19th and early 20th century Russia. In his own personal relations with comrades, he was even affectionate and lovable. Yet, one émigré writer called him an “evil genius”. Plekhanov was respected, and Martov was loved, but it was only Lenin that the people followed. On his part, within the Boshevik party, Lenin cajoled, got angry, screamed and threatened his colleagues specially when he stood in minority with the other leading Bolsheviks opposing him. He, like Gandhi, generally had his way.

Orlando Figes uses a great deal of choice phrases to describe Lenin. For example, he writes, “When it came to putting himself at physical risk, Lenin had always been something of a coward.” He promptly forgets to follow this up with any convincing proof. There is definite evidence, though, that Lenin did have a streak of violence in him, and not only ordered executions but personally vilified and chased away his opponents from Russia after he came to power.

Figes has not cited many such incidents, but one “oversight” which he narrates is particularly frightening. He writes:

“In 1919, during a session of the Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky: ‘How many counter- revolutionaries do we have in prison?’ Dzerzhinsky scribbled: ‘about 1500’, and returned the note. Lenin looked at it, placed a cross by the figure and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That night 1500 Moscow prisoners were shot dead by Dzerzhinsky’s orders. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake, Lenin had not ordered the executions at all: he always placed a cross by anything that had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account. As a result of Dzerzhinsky’s simple error, 1500 people lost their lives.”

There is increasing evidence, however, and which the author presents, indicating that Lenin was instrumental in creating the Cheka, the precursor of the NKVD and the KGB, as ‘a state within a state’. It is still debatable whether what might have been a temporary tool in the hands of a genius would have brought about the devastation that it later did in the hands of a sheer mediocrity like Stalin.

Figes devotes considerable space to the terror, killings and murders that took place during the and specially after the Bolshevik “seizure” of power. The accounts are gory enough to make future revolutionaries shudder from the thoughts of attempting a revolution at all. Figes is brutal, and one might say at the expense of being a termed a sadist, that he is at his very best in describing the mass violence- medieval in form and content, thinly veiled then as the offensive against the counter- revolutionaries. The author’s thrust on the violence justifies the title of the book.

He recounts a number of incidents which were quite bizarre when they happened. For example, there were widespread anti- Semitic feelings and violence among the people and inevitably a number of anti- Jew pogroms took place during and after 1917. Some Bolshevik supporters wrote on the walls: “Down with Kerensky, the Jew, Long Live Trotsky.” In reality, Trotsky was a Jew, and Kerensky was not. One can only wonder what Trotsky must have felt.

In another case, one enthusiastic Uzbek paper translated the Bolshevik slogan of “Workers of the World, Unite!” to “Tramps of the world, Unite !”. The slogan appeared on top of the daily’s title head.

The book is too vast in scope as well as detail that a review like the present one cannot even claim to touch the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of difficulties too in a text like this where the extremely well read author has quoted profusely from hundreds of sources. The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus. If 1991 marked the fall and defeat of the socialist experiment, it also marked the start of a new debate on its genesis and the viability of socialism. For all those who still dare to dream of a better future for humanity, this book is a call to critically examine their beliefs. For those whom events and age have made turn cynically to their socialist and communist youth, it is a call to come to terms with their past.

26 May 1998
The Tribune 7 June 1998