Posts Tagged ‘Khrushchev’

Andrei Amalrik: Involuntary Journey to Siberia

February 21, 2017

51wdlkz8lil-_ac_us218_I’m revisiting this book which I last read nearly 25 years ago: it’s astonishing what a curiosity it now seems. I’m still interested in books about life in the Soviet Union, and still can’t make up my mind about the whole experiment, which so many younger people now know almost nothing about; increasingly history is written by ‘the victors’ and a balanced approach to more than seventy years of Russian history eludes us. I’m no apologist for Stalin and his crimes, the gulag or anything else; I am conscious that in the beginning it was an experiment in different ways of organising society politically and economically, and that there may be things we should learn from it…

Amalrik was a minor thorn in the side of the authorities in the sixties and seventies and was eventually driven into exile. His book recounts his prosecution as a ‘parasite’ and year of exile to the Tomsk region of Siberia as punishment for this offence.

The investigation, prosecution, trial, sentence and appeal are very interesting. In the West we are used to living in a rechtstaat, that is a country governed by the rule of law, with clear procedures, and accountability; certainly in Stalin’s time no such governance obtained, but in the era of Khrushchev and Brezhnev there seems to have been some attempt, however imperfect, to do things by the book. By our standards everything seems rigged, with decisions being taken behind the scenes, and until we look at some of the corruptions and miscarriages of justice in various Western nations, no doubt we feel self-righteously superior to the Soviets.

What is particularly interesting is the calm and dispassionate way Amalrik writes, observing closely and recording in depth his experiences and those of others involved in his case, the decency of some and the vindictiveness of others. He avoids the polemics and the rantings of Solzhenitsyn, and we learn something of how ‘justice’ worked in those days and times. When he reaches his place of exile and must work on a collective farm, his account of conditions and inefficiency leave us in no doubt that the country was in a pretty grim state. Again he is clear, calm and balanced; alcohol abuse is a major issue wherever he goes, and the system does not give the people a real stake in their work, so everything is badly done, botched because there is no incentive to do anything differently.

Broader political analysis offered by other writers – Noam Chomsky in particular – makes it clear that the US did everything it could to cripple the Soviets’ economic prospects through the arms race, and ultimately succeeded. Monitoring of the news from the US and the UK and other countries shows us a system just as flawed, just as cruel to some, and just as inefficient in different ways, except that it’s now the only system, and we have ‘freedom’, so that’s OK…

Accounts like Amalrik’s, and those of others from those places and times, as well as fiction from that era, are important as records and reminders of how things went so awfully wrong, but also of the idealism that was originally behind the experiment. Our own experience must be evidence that we haven’t got everything right, either.


Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita

December 26, 2013

311e7ey5wJL._AA160_I’ve now finished re-reading this amazing Russian novel – completed at the end of the 1930s but completely impossible for any of it to have been published at the time, and it only saw the light of day after the author’s death and after the Khrushchev thaw. It was better than I’d remembered it, although it’s twenty years since I last read it, so it may well be my memory that’s at fault… there’s plenty to think about and try and make sense of.

Three plots are interwoven: the devil and his entourage arrive in contemporary Moscow and cause various kinds of mayhem, exposing various sorts of people in different ways; a rewriting of the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate at his pre-crucifixion trial in Jerusalem, which is part of a novel written by the ‘master’ of the title (you can imagine how that might have gone down with Stalin’s censor), and what must be called a love story between the master and Margarita which is eventually brought to a supernatural, happy conclusion. Interspersed are scenes in an asylum which recall the ending of the film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

I found myself attentive to the political implications of the novel, thinking about what Bulgakov might be saying about the Soviet Union of his own time: there is no getting the better of the devil (who he?) who betrays everyone and ruins any and everyone at the slightest whim; the tangled web which can and does enmesh everyone; people disappearing suddenly never to be seen again; human folly and greed trying to take advantage of chaotic situations…and how stories (and/or the truth) can be twisted and distorted in so many ways.

It’s not a heavy read; on the contrary, it’s lively and quite fast-paced, with magical plot and events whirling you along rapidly as the author skilfully manipulates your response: you like the devil and his associates, especially Behemoth the cat, you sympathise with Pontius Pilate, you see a different Jesus, one who also makes you reflect on his message.

A powerful and very enjoyable read, it moves up quite a few places on my list of all-time favourites.

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