You Might also like
By Sean — 11 years ago
“Only by uniting our efforts can we achieve results in developing our country and ensure that it take an appropriate place in the world,” Putin said in reference to National Unity Day. “That is why, the idea that inspired this holiday seems to be very important to me and deserves support.”
By all accounts, on this National Unity Day is an empty holiday created by the Kremlin to replace Revolution Day on November 7. Even more a sign of desperation, is the fact that the historical event chosen to mark said unity is Russia “liberation” from the Poles in 1612. If you have to look back four centuries to find national unity, then you know you are in trouble.
But everyone knows that the historical reasons for National Unity Day are a sham, and to emphasize that again really isn’t the point. The point is that the celebration of especially this year’s holiday is a reminder of how Russia’s past and present is marked with disunity. And while Putin is for the most part something for the Russia people to unite around, his words can’t help contain a tinge of desperation.
This year’s unity day is like none since its invention in 2005 by the simple fact that November 7 marks the 90th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. No there won’t be any grand celebrations. Nor will there be much recognition of the anniversary on global scale. It’s a bit sad really especially since it’s not a stretch to say that the Bolshevik Revolution was the most important event of the 20th century. Some honest reevaluation of it seems necessary to me, but maybe that is just the historian in me talking.
Celebrations marking the Revolution’s 90th Anniversary will surely be small. Only the most staunchest of communists will probably commemorate it. Still, most Russians, according to a poll conducted by the Levada Center, continue to view it as positive. 31% of respondents felt that the Revolution spearheaded “Russia’s economic and social progress.” 26% said that it “helped Russia turn over a new leaf.” Only 16% said it was an impediment to Russia’s development, and 15% saw it as a national disaster. Given how tendentious the Revolution continues to be, there is no doubt that many will argue about what these percentages actually mean.
No matter how one views the Revolution, whether it was a “coup,” a “social revolution,” or simply some kind of back room hatched conspiracy, one can’t deny that it symbolized and continues to symbolize more disunity rather than unity. Such was the case in November 1917. Speaking to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, Lenin crafted the Bolshevik’s victory in terms of unity. “We have now learned to make a concerted effort,” he said. “The revolution that has just been accomplished is evidence of this. We possess the strength of mass organization, which will overcome everything and lead the proletariat to the world revolution.” Lenin knew that taking power was a gamble and that his party’s strength was concentrated in Russia’s urban centers and among the soldiers. So Lenin, as he would do until his death, preached unity at the moment when disunity was at its most virulent.
But whatever unity among the toiling classes Lenin hoped to retain, they were dashed by the realities of rule. By January 1918, Lenin’s government was getting flooded with letters of protest against disbanding the Constituent Assembly, failing to fulfill its promises, and incapable of dealing with the burden of rule. One unsigned letter “from the front” dated 15 January 1918 to Lenin is especially telling. It reads:
Comrade Lenin: It’s been been four whole days since we’ve had a glimpse of bread, we are walking around naked and barefoot. Yet still there’s no peace and none is expected. Comrade Lenin, did you really seize power so that you could drag the war out three more years? Comrade Lenin, where is your conscience, where are the words you promised: peace bread land and liberty in three days’ time? Did you promise all that just so you could seize power? And then what? But no, you don’t want to fulfill your obligation. Now, this is all lies. If you don’t keep your promises by 1 February, then you’re going to get what Dukhonin got: you’ll drop like a fly. If you’ve picked up the reins then go ahead and drive, and if you can’t then, honey, you can take a flying fuck to hell, or as we say in Siberia, you’re a goddamned motherfucker, son of an Irkutsk cunt (если взяли вожжи то правте а если неможите то летика ты свет нахуй посибирски сказать к ебёной матери ты ёб тваю мать иркутская блядь), who’d like to sell us out to the Germans. No you won’t be selling us out: don’t forget that we Siberians are all convicts.
It’s unknown whether Putin has received any letters from “Siberian convicts” calling him a “motherfucker” or a “son of an Irkutsk cunt,” though if he did, it wouldn’t be all that surprising. Because like with Lenin 90 years ago, Putin’s increasing calls for unity against outsiders, between peoples, and even between security organs speaks more to the reality of its opposite. True, Russia is hardly in the condition it was in 90 years ago, but one should not take Putin’s stability as a sign for greater social harmony.
Perhaps this is why it was a mistake to call the holiday National Unity Day in the first place. Many disgruntled Russian youth have appropriated it as a symbol of their own perceived disenfranchisement. For them, “national unity” means Russkii unity rather than Rossiiskii unity. In weeks leading up to National Unity Day, the few racial attacks were interpreted as examples of this. It’s unlikely that they had any connection to the holiday. If anything they speak to what many fear is a “mushrooming” of Russian ultranationalist groups. And it is clear that authorities are taking more and more notice. The far right presents even more a threat to Russia’s political stability than the liberal or even radical left. 5000 police were mobilized around Moscow and non-Russians were advised to stay off the streets.
The rally for a “Russia for Russians” missed its goal of 7,000, but only by a few grand. 5,000 nationalists turned up including an American named Preston Wiginton. Wiginton, a white supremacist from Texas, addressed the crowd with black cowboy hat and all. “I’m taking my hat off as a sign of respect for your strong identity in ethnicity, nation and race,” he told onlookers weathering the light Moscow drizzle. “Glory to Russia!” he said in broken Russian. “White power!” he shouted in his native English. It just goes to show that despite tensions between Russia and the US, Russian and American racists can find common ground. Moreover, for all the talk about racism and xenophobia in Russia, one should recognize that spitting on immigrants has become a favorite pastime of the US Congress and the EU.
Nashi activists countered the Russian March with its own calls for unity. Taking a page out to the Soviet notion of the “friendship of peoples,” 30,000 Nashi, United Russia’s Young Guard, and Mestnye activists marched through central Moscow carrying a “blanket of peace” which they sewed together to symbolize Russia’s multiethnicity. “Young Guard and other guys will come together to show the will of the people unified against those who want to divide the country,” State Duma and United Russia rep Valerii Riazanskii told Kommersant on Friday. “Nashi will present 4 November as a new tradition of celebration, and to Russian (россиян) confidence in multinational friendship and unity of peoples,” said representatives of Nashi. As a group that employs xenophobia as a campaign tactic, I don’t think Nashi is really a good symbol of tolerance.
Of all the marches and rallies around National Unity Day/Revolution Day, I think Saturday’s “March of the Empty Saucepans” in St. Petersburg is my favorite. Comprised of 1,500 protesters, half of which were pensioners, the rag tag crowd shouted slogans like “Putin’s plan is trouble for Russia” and “We’re awaiting a bread uprising” to express their anger at rising food prices and inflation. As NPB organizer Andrei Dmitriev told Reuters, “In Russia, 90 years ago, everything also began as a result of rising bread prices. People took to the streets and the tsar was overthrown.” Well, yes bread riots do have a exceptional place in revolutionary lore but I would advise Dmitriev to not get his hopes up.
By Sean — 9 years ago
Vedomosti has a great article on the history of Russia’s housing crisis. Housing, as Maksim Trudoliubov notes, is a chronic historical problem in Russia, one which the Soviets tried to attenuate, but made little headway until the 1960s. “The comfort of our home life is still not good for many of us,” Trudoliubov begins. “As in the early Soviet and even in the “mature Soviet” period housing was the main problem for the majority of citizens. Life was collective not because the state managed to inculcate citizens with a fancy for the romanticism of “communal life,” and because of this all of Stalin’s construction projects must be seen in this light. There’s just not enough housing (as is the case up to the present). But even more important, housing–from the bunks in dormitories to elite apartments in nomenclature buildings–was an instrument of manipulating people.”
Indeed, as Truboliubov continues, solutions to the housing problem took on a variety of realist and ideological forms to manipulate people. Lenin, for one, saw the housing problem a matter of distribution and allocation. According to the Soviet founding father, the Tsarist elite held a monopoly over living space. The solution was a simple but cold revolutionary formula of “K = N – 1,” where K equaled the number of rooms, and N the number of residents. Meaning that “the number of people in an apartment must be one more than rooms.” Well, as the those intimately familiar with Russian housing know well, the proportion of people to rooms was often many times more lopsided than Lenin’s prescription.
Things only worsened after the Civil War when structural dilapidation, poverty, disease, and general governmental decay exacerbated the existing housing problem. As Truboliubov writes, “In 1921 37% of buildings in Moscow were unsuitable for habitation.” As one resident of what is now Building 9 on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, the street that runs parallel to Tverskaya, central Moscow’s main drag, commented in 1922, “The pluming system, drainage and heating are destroyed. Apartments lack facets, radiators for central heating, and are stripped of stoves. In the majority of apartments the floors are taken apart, and dirt and garbage are everywhere.”
Apartment life in the 1920s was abysmal to say the least. As any reader of Bulgakov’s Dog’s Heart will know, apartments were allocated and reallocated in a sporadic, albeit proletarian, manner. Residents of various classes were cramped together. Revolutionary justice in housing required the bourgeoisie to give up their rooms to the new proletarian ruling class. And “when there weren’t any rooms to rent, then people rented corners, that is parts of rooms, corridors and kitchens.” And if those weren’t available, then sleeping in bathtubs served as a desperate alternative. The average living space in the 1920s was an average of 5.2 to 5.8 square meters per person.
Stalin’s industrial campaign of the 1930s only made matters worse as millions of peasant migrants flooded into Russia’s cities. As David Hoffman notes in his Peasant Metropolis, migration was so great that there was no conceivable way for the authorities to provide adequate housing. The solution was often the rapid and shoddy construction of worker’s barracks. The crunch was so great that the average number of persons per room in the Soviet Union rose from 2.71 in 1926 to 3.91 in 1940. One can only guess that the increase would be even more if the statistics only accounted for the country’s industrial urban centers.
More people meant less comfort. One American cited by Hoffman described his friend Kuznetsov’s living conditions in the barracks of the Kuibyshev electronic factory in the 1930s,
“Kuznetsov lived with about 550 others, men and women, in a wooden structure about 800 feet long and fifteen feet wide. The room contained approximately 500 narrow beds, covered with mattresses filled with straw and dried leaves. There were no pillows or blankets. Coats and other garments were being utilized for covering. Some of the residents had no beds and slept on the floor or in wooden boxes. In some cases beds were used by one shift during the day and by others at night. There were no screens or wall to give any privacy to the occupants of the barracks . . . I could not stay in the barracks very long. I could not stand the stench of kerosene and unwashed bodies. The only washing facility was a pump outside. The toilet was rickety, unheated shanty, without seats.”
Rapid urbanization also gave rise to the Stalinist internal passport system in 1934. The passport system was an attempt to slow migration, especially that induced by the famine in Ukraine. The logic was to prevent an already desperate situation was getting worse. With housing and food supply already short (urban residents were on rations), a tidal wave of starving peasants would have brought the situation to the brink Soviet officials reasoned. The policy was certainly cruel. But Stalinist policies were never known for their niceties.
The passport system also became a permanent biopolitical measure of population control. Urbanites got them. Kholkhozniki didn’t. And though getting off the collective farm was easily done, the system put in place institutionalized discrimination until the mid-1970s when Russia’s rural inhabitants began getting passports. This is not to say that urban residents were allowed to move freely. City to city migration required registration. True, people still moved throughout the postwar period, but the passport and registration system was yet another bureaucratic control for the authorities to wield when necessary.
Substantial housing relief didn’t come until the 1960s when Nikita Khrushchev attempted to tackle the housing problem with the mass production of five story, box like apartment buildings. The “khrushchevki” provided relief, gave many their own apartments, but were hardly aesthetic or structural masterpieces. But a shoddy apartment was better than no apartment, especially for those war refugees who were living in dugouts until the late 1950s. And the continued housing projects of the Brezhnev period provided additional living space. So much so that by the end of the Soviet period, the square meter per person had grown to 15.3 square meters.
Present day housing, though still a problem, appears to be improving. As Truboliubov notes, according to Rosstat, the average living space has increased to 20.9 square meters per person. This is still low by Western European and American standards (Germany, 36 sq. m.; Sweden, about 40; and the US, 60), yet by Russian standards, which has a totally different historical relationship to living, privacy, and relationships, this is a great improvement.
Finally, Truboliubov ends his narrative with a reminder that registration, though deemed illegal by the Russian Constitution, remains in force. The authorities repeadtly balk at abolishing it. They only seem to always promise to “modernize” its application. Why? As Truboliubov notes, one of the features of a capitalist system is to increase the mobility of not just capital, but labor. But Russian capitalism works on an additional profit motive. The registration system has an additional function as an “instrument of extracting the profit of corruption.” “The Stalinist institution of registration now properly serves the bureaucrats as a source of income.”
Photo: English Russia.
By Sean — 11 years ago
Is there a link between dictators’ brutality and facial hair? This is the question Rich Cohen explores in his article “Becoming Adolf” in this month’s Vanity Fair. And come to find out, the “Hitler mustache” as we now know and love it was not always the property of the world’s most renowned murderer. Nor was it some strange style Hitler dreamed up in a Bavarian beer hall. The toothbrush mustache as it was called at the end of the 19th century was a fad that swept Germany via the United States. And people wonder why anti-Americanism is so widespread.
There has been much specutlation as to why a young Hitler decided to don the toothbrush one day in 1919. Some speculate it was Charlie Chaplain’s fault, who, Cohen tells us, began wearing it in 1915 when he did his Mack Sennett comedies. Maybe the real imputeous was to emulate Hans Koeppen, a Prussian lieutenant who was a sort of a pop star on the European continent. Or it could be argued that Hitler could have thought that growing the hairy blot on his upper lit paid good nationalist homage to William Hohenzollern Jr, the son of the last Kasier who is shown with a Toothbrush in photos taken in 1918. Or Hitler’s labium might have had more instrumental purposes. As Cohen writes:
According to a recently re-discovered essay by Alexander Moritz Frey, who served with Hitler in the First World War, Hitler wore the mustache in the trenches. Because he had been ordered to. The old bushy mustache did not fit under his equipment. In other words, the mustache that defines Hitler was cut in a shape to fit a gas mask. Which is perfect. Because Hitler was the bastard son of the Great War, conceived in the trenches, born in defeat. He inhaled mustard gas and exhaled Zyklon B.
As we all know, the Toothbrush didn’t survive Hitler in name or as fashion accessory. The earliest reference Cohen could find of the Toothbrush becoming the Hitler mustache was from 1942. It was then that Norwegian premier and Nazi sympathizer, Vidkun Quisling, issued a decree forbidding stage actors from donning Hitler’s ‘stasche as a way to parody the dictator. “The purpose of this singular ordinance is,” as the NY Times reported at the time, “to halt ‘actor-pranks’ that have been ‘stopping the show’ by affecting a Hitler mustache.” It sounds like the NY Times quip caught on because after that the “Toothbrush” was lost to the historical ether.
Facial hair, as Cohen argues, is not without its political costs. Hitler’s big problem when his little mustache was concerned was not so much that it was a fashion don’t, it was because of Charlie Chaplin. Sharing the ‘stashe with the Little Tramp, Cohen says, had ramifications in the political realm. Ramifications which in hindsight might have bolstered the Allies appeasement of Hitler.
Ron Rosenbaum argues that the presence of Chaplin’s ‘stache on Hitler’s face encouraged Western leaders to underestimate the Führer. “Chaplin’s mustache became a lens through which to look at Hitler,” he writes. “A glass in which Hitler became merely Chaplinesque: a figure to be mocked more than feared, a comic villain whose pretensions would collapse of his own disproportionate weight like the Little Tramp collapsing on his cane. Someone to be ridiculed rather than resisted.”
That is not all in terms of the Toothbrush now Hitler mustache’s political impact. Since WWII facial hair has all but become verboten among America’s political elite. No American president has worn not so much as a five o’clock shadow since then. The last President to sport a hairy lip was Teddy Roosevelt. Looking at Teddy’s flush upper lip now in comparison to the baby faced Executives since, you come to realize that ol’Theordore was perhaps the last real man to live in the White House. Somehow more recent attempts to pump political machismo fall flat, no matter how many times Reagan wore that cowboy hat or cameras show Bush the Younger workin’ down on the ranch.
But it is no wonder that after WWII facial hair fell from grace among American leaders. Because if Hitler’s Hitler didn’t signify pure evil in every bristle, then Stalin, the other great mustachioed dictator of the 20th century, picked up the slack. In fact, it now appears that facial hair on leaders is only relegated to the “rouge” or “failing” states of the Third World. Think about it. There was Saddam and his thick caterpillar; Osama Bin Laden’s, not to mention every Muslim badguy, old growth beard; and though he’s an American ally, I’m sure some in the State Department wonder if Pervez Musharraf pencilstache might hold a hint of evil just waiting to jump out. No, in American political culture the ‘stache stinks and rightly so. In fact the only place facial hair can be found in America is among the bohemian bourgeois, the Hollywood soul patch cool, cops, pimps, Ranchero club goers, country music stars, and leisure suit wearing slime balls. If anything, this list is a reminder that the Hitler mustache is not alone in the pantheon where bad people come with bad facial hair.