My new eXile article, “Russian Academia Under Fire,” is now online. Here is an excerpt:
On any given day, the Russian media is filled with reports of restaurants, clubs, factories, hospitals, schools, and apartments succumbing to the searing flames of Vulcan. Casualties are common. Fire is often the result of teenage pyromaniacs, defective wiring, discarded lit cigarettes, industrial accidents, and just plain stupidity. Fire is a major killer in Russia. More than 17,000 Russians died in fires in 2006, about 13 for every 100,000 people. This is a staggering statistic. Not to mention one I take to heart. Several friends and I almost became part of those stats in the summer of 2005 when the kitchen in Moscow’s Kafe Bilingua went up in flames.
Russia’s fire epidemic is not just a threat to public safety, a taker of lives, or a destroyer of property. The threat of fire also gives the lowly Russian bureaucrat a measure of political and administrative power. There is no better example of how the chinovnik brandishes his fire code weapon than the recent closing of European University in St. Petersburg (EUSP). No one knows why agents from the Russian Ministry of Disaster Emergency (MChS) conducted a surprise fire inspection on 18 January which led to the University’s closure. Was it a Kremlin sponsored attack on the liberal, Western orientated university? Was it punishment for accepting a grant from the European Union to monitor elections? I happen to think that European University’s fate is not the result of some directive from above. Rather it is yet another example of the capricious nature of the Russian bureaucrat and the lengths he will go to prove his political loyalty to his bosses.
Historically, the Russian bureaucrat has always been in a perilous position. Sandwiched between leaders who demand obedience and a public eager to lynch him, the successful Russian chinovnik survives by manipulation, intrigue, guile, and corruption. He’s a contortionist of the law; a practitioner of sly servility. When he receives a signal from his masters of an imminent threat, the chinovnik unleashes the little power he has at his disposal. These powers include bureaucratic foot dragging, a sudden concern for administrative order, and a selective devotion to the letter of the law. These methods allow him to show that “his house is in order” and cleansed of “spies,” “liberals,” and other political troublemakers. At the same time, if his actions are deemed excessive, he can claim that he was simply following the rules. In this sense, the fire code is perfect political weapon shrouded in the cloth of legality. Selectively wielding the fire code has a perfect Orwellian ring to it. “Hard” forms of political repression are attenuated with the “soft” language of the “law” and “public safety.”
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Two of my favorite magazines, the London Review of Books and Vanity Fair, have two must read articles on Russia in their recent additions. Vanity Fair‘s annual “Green Issue” is full of amazing articles, particularly Phillippe Sands’ well researched article “The Green Light,” which exposes how White House lawyers “legalized” the use of torture.
In regard to Russia, Alex Shoumatoff’s “The Arctic Oil Rush” delves into the logic behind Russia’s scramble for the North Pole. This time, however, the rush back to the Pole isn’t solely driven by the exploratory urges of Frederick Cook or Robert Perry. The Cold Rush, as Shoumatoff calls the Arctic Great Game, is spurred by, you guested it, oil. Scientists estimate that 25 percent of the world’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves sit under the Arctic floor. Russia, the United States, Canada, and Denmark are now in a renewed effort to claim possession over the the globe’s ice cap.
But the main contribution of Shoumatoff’s article is not so much the Cold Rush, as it is how global warming is affecting the million residents of Yakutia. The capital, Yakurtsk, is a boom town, mostly because of diamond mining. In good Putinist fashion, Alrosa, the diamond company which dominates the region, is jointly state owned by the Russian and Yakutia governments. Vyacheslav Shtyrov, the president of the Republic of Sakha, is a former president of Alrosa.
Life for Yakutia’s native population is far removed from the the political and corporate machinations of Russia’s political elites. The three main ethnic groups, Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir, like many indigenous peoples around the world are more victims of the double pronged assault of modernity. The first is cultural. Much of their nomadic life, language and religion has been destroyed by a two century old effort of Russification and modernization. One of the oldest groups, the Yakaghir, only number 1,509 people, and only 23 of them still speak their language with fluency.
The second prong is of course global industrialization and its ecological consequences. Global warming, which most Russian scientists reject (they actually think the world is getting colder), is having detrimental effects on the two staples of the Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir people: reindeer herding and fur trapping. As Shoumatoff explains:
The Eveny and Evenki people (same way of life, different linguistic heritage) have been relying for centuries on reindeer (known in the Nearctic as caribou), which provide transport, food, shelter, and clothing. There are still a few thousand nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia, moving with their animals in the largest territory of any remaining traditional people. But the wild and domesticated reindeer have been experiencing massive die-offs in the spring and fall, I’m told by Eveny and Evenki activists. Reindeer eat mainly lichen, and now when the seasons change there is more rain that freezes at night, often with melted snow, into a sheet of ice that the reindeer can’t break through with their hooves, so entire herds are starving to death.
Vyacheslav Shadrin, the head of the council of Yukaghir elders, tells me that in the Upper Kolyma basin, 700 miles north of Yakutsk, where he is from, last November and December, when it is normally minus 40 degrees Celsius (also Fahrenheit—Celsius and Fahrenheit converge at 40 below), it rained. That means it was 72 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. The Yukaghir are one of the oldest aboriginal peoples of Siberia. There are only 1,509 of them left, as of the last census, and only 23 who still speak the language fluently. They are a culture on the way out, unless something is done fast to keep it going.
The Upper Kolyma Yukaghir are hunters and fishermen whose main source of income is trapping sable. “Usually in one season a hunter can get 20 to 25 pelts, half of them in the middle of October, when the sables all go to their winter hunting ground,” Shadrin says. “By then the snow comes thick and the lakes are frozen and the hunters can go out to the winter routes on snowmobiles. But now it’s no longer safe to go out until mid-November, because the snowmobiles can fall through the ice, so the hunters are losing the most important month and a half for their income.
“Every year the pasture for the wild reindeer, which the Yukaghir hunt, is getting less and less because the taiga is coming up from the south,” Shadrin goes on. “Grasses, birches, and some bushes like willow are covering the lichen. And the reindeer no longer come to their traditional river crossings, which is the best place to kill them. The hunters no longer know where they are going to be, so they lose time and are less successful.
“The quantity of wolves is growing,” he says. “Before, we used to have only tundra wolves. Now we’re getting taiga wolves, too, which run in bigger packs. The wolves kill many reindeer and give trouble to the herders. So for all these reasons, both wild and domestic reindeer are disappearing. Also, geese and sea ducks have changed their migratory routes and schedules. Hunters used to wait for them where they rested at night in the beginning of June; now they don’t know what time to go. Last few years the waterfowl have been appearing in very small quantity. They must have changed their route to another river basin. Trapping polar foxes was a big part of our traditional life, but in the last 10 or 15 years there have hardly been any. No one knows why.
I recommend reading the whole article, if not the whole issue.
The London Review of Books is unsurpassed in its book reviews. They’re in depth, engaging, and well written. I eagerly await its delivery in my mailbox every fortnight. For Russia watchers, I highly recommend Lewis Siegelbaum’s “Witness Protection,” which disassembles the analytical logic of Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. Unfortunately, the review is only available to subscribers. Here a lengthy but key passage:
Figes’s own narrative is constructed around the idea of the family as a site of ‘human feelings and emotions’, a ‘moral sphere’ that was opposed to the ‘moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime’. The antithesis is striking but unsustainable. First, it is based on an ahistorical notion of the family. Millions of abandoned and orphaned young people roamed the cities of Russia in the early 1920s not because of Bolshevik hostility to the family but because the combination of war, revolution, civil war, penury, epidemics and famine had carried off their parents. In these historical circumstances attempts by the state to take over responsibility for functions previously associated with the family both assumed urgency and attracted widespread interest abroad. Figes is silent about them.
Second, associating the family with morality and the ‘Stalinist regime’ with its absence may give us a comfortable feeling that we are on the right side of history, but historians have a responsibility to try to explain what those alien beings from the past thought they were doing. This is not a matter of ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,’ but of granting Stalinists – yes, even Stalinists – the capacity to believe they were acting morally. Claudia Koonz entitled her book The Nazi Conscience: why is the notion of a Communist morality impermissible? Figes puts the words in inverted commas and asserts the impossibility of being ‘a Stalinist in public life’ without letting ‘the morals of the system infect personal relationships’.
There is another reason why the dichotomy cannot be sustained. From the middle of the 1930s, as Figes says, ‘the Party adopted a more liberal approach towards the family and the private home.’ If not exactly a volte-face, the ideological promotion of the family – including images of Stalin as the ‘father’ of the Soviet people and a ban on abortion – made it possible for male members of the elite to tell their wives that their place was now ‘in the home’, even while most urban families continued to live in communal apartments. The family, it turned out, was very adaptable. So adaptable that Figes can claim it ‘emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution’, the only place where people ‘felt a sense of belonging’. I suppose many people did feel this way, but there is evidence of other customs and social institutions emerging from the years of terror, everything from the keeping of pets and the cultivation of friendship to the strengthening of ties among people from the same village or district (zemliachestvo) or the bonds forged in desperate circumstances between soldiers, workers and camp inmates. Many of Figes’s witnesses cite these new forms of association, which in some cases were a substitute for the family. Figes, though, reads into their testimony evidence of split identities. On the one hand, ‘millions’ of children bearing the ‘stigma of a tainted biography’ needed to ‘prove themselves as fully equal members of society’. On the other, they ‘could not help but feel alienated from the system that had brought such suffering on their families’. They were thus ‘constantly torn’. Figes presents this as a Manichean struggle, made all the more tragic by the capacity of the system to ‘infect’ personal relationships with its perverse morality. This evidently is what Mikhail Gefter, the Russian historian quoted here, meant by the ‘Stalinism that entered into all of us’. To adopt Stalinist ways was ‘a necessary way of silencing . . . doubts and fears’, a ‘way to make sense of . . . suffering’. The whispering of the parents thus resulted in a ‘silent and conformist population’, the ‘one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign’.
Leaving aside the question of how to explain the Stalinism of other people, what we have here is a modified picture of the individual in a totalitarian society: not the brainwashed automatons of Cold War nightmares, but surreptitiously resisting liberals assuaging their fearfulness and shame by becoming complicit in their own and others’ victimisation. ‘It was impossible to be oneself,’ one of the interviewees says, as if such an authentic self existed. This may have been the case in some instances, but applied universally it flattens out all complexity. People were fearful not only of persecution or arrest but of being excluded from the giant project of building socialism, of being out of step with history at a time when the capitalist world appeared hellbent on destroying itself. They lived ‘in the expectation of a happy future’; they believed that ‘Soviet history was correct’; they yearned to be ‘part of an enormous “We”’.
This flattening of all complexity of life under Stalin is rendered in part though the interviewer’s lack of interest. The interviews, though rich, have moments in which the interviewee is hectored into a giving an answer that fits into the desires of the interviewer. Here is one example Siegelbaum gives:
[Figes’] assertion that, because witnesses can be cross-examined, oral testimonies are more reliable than written memoirs remains an article of faith – unless one consults the transcripts provided in the original Russian on Figes’s website, orlandofiges.com. There one can find not only cross-examination but occasionally hectoring on the part of the interviewer; or incomprehension, as in these extracts from an interview with Leonid Saltykov, the son of a priest who was shot in 1938:
Q: What did you think of Stalin in the 1930s after the arrest of your father, and in the 1940s?
A: Well, first of all, we knew little of politics, very little; second, even if my father suffered and so many others did too, we related to Stalin better than to our leaders now. He was an honest man . . .
Figes renders the passage somewhat misleadingly: ‘Yes, my father suffered, and so did many others too, but Stalin was still better than any of the leaders that we have today. He was an honest man.’ The interviewer continues:
Q: So it didn’t occur to you that the country’s repressive policy was mainly at Stalin’s initiative? That your father suffered because of Stalin, such thoughts didn’t arise?
A: We weren’t given to such philosophising. First, throughout the country factories and roads were being built. Practically every year Stalin was lowering prices, bread arrived and there was no more hunger, we could buy things . . .
After Saltykov has explained that he didn’t learn of his father’s execution and posthumous rehabilitation until 1962, the interviewer asks at what point he changed his opinion of Stalin:
A: Well, we felt that under him there was more order, although granted, he was guilty of many things.
Q: But I’m asking when did you start to feel that he was guilty?
A: [Sighs deeply. Begins to speak very emotionally] I will tell you something else. A lot of people are saying on the contrary that if Stalin were around now there would be order, more order . . .
Saltykov then starts talking about the way Stalin related to his own children, is interrupted, and gets onto the subject of the army. Again he is interrupted and asked about his own family: ‘A: We did our work, we fulfilled our duty as people, we fulfilled . . .’ Although Saltykov had more to say, the transcript indicates that ‘no substantive information’ was forthcoming. The interviewer tries one last time:
Q: So, throughout your entire life, when you were working in the 1960s and 1970s, it never occurred to you to be sceptical about the Soviet system?
A: No. Now there are few hard workers like those with whom I worked, whom I directed, and who when we meet will always say: ‘Oh, Leonid Konstantinovich, how well we worked with you.’ They trusted me and I trusted them.
Again, ‘no substantive information followed.’ This is a good example of the trickiness of oral history: it all depends on what one is looking for. Figes speaks of ‘nostalgia’, noting (twice) that Saltykov kept a picture of Stalin on his desk right up until his retirement. What seems to be difficult for him and the interviewer to accept is that Saltykov’s identity as a hard and successful worker, an identity intimately and inextricably tied up with that of his country, may have nothing to do with the victimisation of his father and his own ‘spoilt biography’. Whether it should or should not is another matter.
And such is the analytical challenge for understanding Stalinism. To sidestep its horrors is an injustice not just to its victims, but to humanity. But to reduce all life under Stalin to terror fails to understand the often contradictory complexity the human condition. A balance must be struck if we are ever able to understand Stalinism as a period where happiness and horror often existed as concomitant experiences within the individual.Post Views: 542
This may not have much to do with Russia at present, but any discussion of Marx is never too far from thinking about Russia of the past. David Harvey, distinguished professor of anthropology at CUNY, has done an amazing service by making his course “Reading Marx’s Capital” available online. Harvey is one of the preeminent Marxist thinkers. His most well known books are The Condition of Postmodernity, The Limits to Capital, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, and The New Imperialism.
The class consists of 13 two hour videos. The first two are available. I present “Class 1, Introduction” below. I will post “Class 2, Chapters 1-2” tomorrow. Subsequent classes will appear as Harvey makes them available.Post Views: 458
The 3 March issue of the Nation has two reviews of four recent books on Soviet history. The first review, “The Ice Forge,” written by Jochen Hellbeck, examines Lynne Viola’s Unknown Gulag and Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers. Viola’s book chronicles the deportation of Soviet “kulaks” during collectivization. About it Hellbeck writes, “The Unknown Gulag, is an indictment of the utopian folly and criminal neglect of Soviet officials, and a moving account of human suffering.”
Similarly, Figes text is an exploration into private life under Stalin’s rule. “Reading The Whisperers,” Hellbeck states, “one comes away with a powerful sense that stigmatization and self-reinvention were central, indeed defining, attributes of the Soviet experience for many Russians of rural as well as urban backgrounds.” Figes has set up a website for the book which allows visitors to access the many interview he had conducted for his study. Despite a few translated interviews, unfortunately the bulk of them remain in Russian making audience access is limited. One can only hope that Figes will have the funds and desire to translate more of them.
I think this observation by Hellbeck is quite interesting:
As I read the interview transcripts on Figes’s website, I was struck by how, in at least a few cases, the subjects appear to have been treated to a rather aggressive form of questioning about their thoughts and feelings in Stalin’s time. Yet one interviewee, Dmitry Streletsky, would not yield to these pressures and insisted on his own, decidedly moral, reading of his life under Stalin. Streletsky could have leapt from the pages of Lynne Viola’s book. He was born into a family of peasants who were persecuted as kulaks and exiled to a special settlement in the Urals. The death rate in the settlement was staggering. Streletsky relates how his single most important desire, to prove he was a Soviet citizen like everyone else, was constantly impeded. The Memorial worker interviewing Streletsky understands this to mean that he was driven by a fear of punishment:
Q: Did you fear that they would punish you [for your kulak origins]?
A: There was shame, and there was my conscience, it wasn’t just about the punishment, but about these things.
Q: But you also feared that they might punish you?
A: Who knows? I had doubts, yes doubts. I didn’t feel fear,
Q: And that they would punish you, right?
A: That they would punish me and all the rest. Fire me from work….
A few sentences later Streletsky’s interview partner returns to the same subject: “Tell me, please, what or whom did you fear more, the NKVD or the commander [of the settlement]? Were you afraid?” Streletsky’s response: “Listen, I didn’t feel any fear.
Streletsky then talks about how he dreamed of joining the Communist Party throughout the years of his exile. When he describes his disappointment about being turned down for party membership in 1952, his voice shakes with emotion, the transcript notes. The exchange between Streletsky and his incredulous interrogator is revealing, for it discloses not only Streletsky’s moral reading of his Soviet experience but also the gap that lies between him and the interviewer, who adheres to a cynical view of Communism more characteristic of younger generations of Russians.
In the second review, “Revolutionary States,” veteran Soviet scholar Ronald Suny tackles Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks in Power is the third in trilogy of arguably the best scholarly study of the Russian Revolution. Among Rabinowitch’s many themes, Suny notes that the central issue in this volume is: “Why did a democratic revolution based on grassroots councils and committees turn into a dictatorship that employed state terror against its opponents, real and imagined, within months of its coming to power?” A haunting question indeed.
The second book subject to Suny’s examination is Shelia Fitzpatrick’s Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia. Tear Off the Masks!, the only of the four books featured which I’ve read, is a collection of articles that Fitzpatrick has published over the last fifteen years on the subject of imposture, denunciation, social identity, and coping in 1930s Soviet Russia. It is this thematic concentration that allows Suny to conclude from Fitzpatrick’s fifteen articles that her notion of the “quintessential Soviet” is “a shrewd manipulator able to adapt to shifting opportunities, maneuver through ever-present dangers and “con” the authorities when necessary.” It is this notion of Soviet citizens as ultimately conscious, rational individuals who always knew what they wanted and how to get it is where I part with her text. In parts, Fitzpatrick’s book reads like the liberal individual triumphant, a move that borders on placing her subjects above the conditioning power of History itself.
Much of Fitzpatrick’s reductionism is partially born in a historiographical attack on what she calls the “Soviet subjectivity school.” I could never understand the propensity to ascribe schools in Russian historical studies, especially to ones like the so-called “Soviet subjectivity school” which have no more than two or three scholars attached to them. Neverthless, such ascription serves many, especially as they try to carve out an island of difference within an mostly academic sea of similitude.
The contours in Soviet historiography aside, the real tragedy is that Fitzpatrick’s effort to undermine Hellbeck’s notion of a illiberal Soviet subject, (Hellbeck and Israeli historian Igal Halfin are recognized as the theoretical hydra of a Foucaultian notion of the Soviet self), leads her to posit an equally reductionist view of the self that the “Soviet subjectivity school” has similarly, and often unfairly, been criticized for. But such is the outcome when one rejects the notion of theory altogether. Such declarations mask the fact even the most empirically based analyses are steeped in some theoretical assumption about the lives subject to them.
A study that somehow captures the inner contradictions of life under Stalin that goes beyond Soviet citizens as either dupes or tricksters is still waiting to be written. My methodological position would be an exploration into the dialectical braiding of the two poles. But that is a whole other story that is still in the making.Post Views: 512