Bryon MacWilliams is a journalist, essayist, poet and translator. His writings have appeared in publications big and small, including: The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature, The Literary Review, and B O D Y. His book, The Girl in a Haystack, a true-life Holocaust story from Ukraine, is forthcoming in the fall of 2018 from Serving House Books. He is seeking a publisher for his translation of the memoirs of Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. His memoir With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths was published by Northern Illinois University Press.
The Jesus and Mary Chain, “Fall,” Darklands, 1987.
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By Sean — 5 months ago
Guest: Susan Smith-Peter on Imagining Russian Regions: Civil Society and Subnational Identity in Nineteenth-Century Russia published by Brill.
By Sean — 10 years ago
I’ve been reading Slavoj Zizek‘s In Defense of Lost Causes and he has some interesting thoughts on revolutionary terror (Ch. 4, “Revolutionary Terror from Robespierre to Mao”) and Stalinism (ch. 5 ‘Stalinism Revisited, or, How Stalin Saved the Humanity of Man”). I thought I’d share this one passage I found interesting,
The public prosecutor in the show trial against the “United Trotskyite-Zinovievite Center” published a list of those that this “Center” was planning to assassinate (Stalin, Kriov, Zhdanov . . .); this list became “a bizarre honor since inclusion signified proximity to Stalin.” Although Molotov was on good personal terms with Stalin, he was shocked to discover that he was not on the list: what could this sign mean? Just a warning from Stalin, or an indication that soon it would be his turn to be arrested? Here indeed, the secrets of the Egyptians were secrets also for the Egyptians themselves. It was the Stalinist Soviet Union which was the true “empire of signs.”
A story told by Soviet linguist Eric Han-Pira provides a perfect example of the total semantic saturation of this “empire of signs,” the semantic saturation which, precisely, relies on the emptying of direct denotative meaning. For many years, when the Soviet media announced the funeral ceremonies of a member of high Nomenklatura, used a cliché formulation: “buried on Red Square by the Kremlin wall.” In the 1960s, however, because of the lack of space, most of the newly deceased dignitaries were cremated and urns with their ashes were placed in niches inside the wall itself – yet the same old cliché was used in press statements. This incongruity compelled fifteen members of the Russian Language Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences to write a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, suggesting that the phrase be modified to fit the current reality: “The urn with ashes was placed in the Kremlin wall.” Several weeks later, a representative of the Central Committee phoned the Institute, informing them that the Central Committee had discussed their suggestion and decided to keep the old formulation; he gave no reasons for this decision. According to the rules that regulate the Soviet “empire of signs,” the CC was right: the change would not be perceived as simply registering the fact that dignitaries are now cremated and their ashes placed in the wall itself; any deviation from the standard formula would be interpreted as a sign, triggering a frenzied interpretive activity. So, since there was no message to be delivered, why change things? One may oppose to this conclusion the possibility of a simple “rational” solution: why not change the formulation and add an explanation that it means nothing, that it just registers a new reality? Such a “rational” approach totally misses the logic of the Soviet “empire of signs”: since, in it, everything has some meaning, even and especially a denial of meaning, such a denial would trigger an even more frantic interpretive activity – it would be read not only as a meaningful sign within a given, well established, semiotic space, but as a much stronger meta-semantic indication that the very basic rules of this semiotic space are changing, thus causing total perplexity, panic even!Post Views: 584
By Sean — 10 years ago
Putin’s statement to Nicholas Sarkozy, “I’m going to hang Saakashvilli by the balls” is making the rounds in the news. Putin’s crude words, which he is known for, has prompted questions over how much he really detests Saak, and whether this hatred figured in how Russia dealt with the Georgian leader. Whatever Putin said or not, and if he did what it means for Kremlin policy is besides the point. The image of Saakashvilli hanging from his balls wasn’t the only image of humor in Putin and Sarkozy’s exchange.
“I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared.
Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” — he asked. “Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.”
Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah — you have scored a point there.”
Even Saak found the incident funny. “I knew about this scene, but not all the details. It’s funny, all the same,” he said on French radio.
Putin’s “hang’em by the balls” quip reminded me of similar statement made by none other than Stalin. In a note attached to V. I. Mezhlauk’s 1930 sketch N. P. Briukhanov (above), Stalin wrote:
To the members of the PB:
For all the sins, past and present, hang Briukhanov by the balls. if the balls hold out, consider him acquitted by trial. If they do not hold, drown him in the river. I. S.
Briukhanov’s balls must have held. In April 1931, he was rehabilitated and appointed Deputy of the People’s Commissariat of Supplies. Unfortunately for him, his oppositionist past caught up with him and he was arrested in 1938. His balls, now eight years older, must not have been able to stand the tension. They snapped. Briukhanov was shot.
Both pictures come from Piggy Foxy and the Sword of the Revolution: Bolshevik Self-Portraits.Post Views: 2,256