Posts Tagged ‘Russian history’

Orlando Figes: Natasha’s Dance

February 2, 2022

Anyone who has read any Russian literature or history must be aware of how different a nation Russia feels compared with ourselves or other European nations; sadly this awareness never seems to percolate down to politicians… Agains the current backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, I was constantly struck by the lack of ability or willingness of Western leaders and politicians to see the world from the perspective of Russia and its people, which might actually inform a more helpful and sensible response to them. But we are incapable of going beyond the triumphalism of “we won the Cold War”. It was in the hope of digging deeper and understanding more, that I finally opened this tome which I’d bought nearly 20 years ago.

Figes offers an excellent, clear and detailed contextual background at the start, and this is possibly the best part of the book, as he takes us far back into the country’s history. Russia had no experience of the Renaissance, and no religious Reformation: here are two major differences which set it apart from the rest of Europe. Then there is the power of Orthodox Church rule, which I’d never really grasped, and it gradually became clear how the church developed into an arm of the state and its power as time passes, far more a part of the establishment than the Church of England is here, for example, with there being only the one faith in Russia. Then there were the long years of Tatar rule. And serfdom, an idea we have no conception of here in the West, and it struck me quite forcefully how Stalin’s labour camps were in many ways a return to that idea, an almost endless supply of slave labour at the service of the rulers.

The idea that you could send troublemakers to Siberia – thousands of miles away – reminded me that we transported criminals to the American colonies and later to Australia, but Russia sent away clever people, intellectuals, dangerous thinkers, and then eventually allowed a lot of them to return home.

Figes documents the relationship between Russia and Europe, or rather the relationship between the Russian intellectuals, aristocracy and bourgeoisie and Europe, for the peasantry and serfs were a class completely apart. Does Russia belong in Europe or not? This is a question which still poses itself today, even though in different terms. From an incredibly wide knowledge of Russian history, art, literature and culture generally, Figes shows us the love/hate relationship which has endured for centuries: Russian feelings of inferiority when they compared themselves with what Europe had attained culturally and economically, and equally the Russian sense of purity and superiority when faced with what they perceived as our decadence…

Russians sought to imitate us, and then to derive and develop something better and more specifically Russian from their encounters with the West, but the pull (and the repulsion) has always been there. This ambivalence has been long-lasting as over centuries the country sought to define and understand itself in relation to the west. Is the famed Russian soul, the Russian psyche, really different from ours?

We eventually move on to the idea that Russians are somehow prone to collective emotion and political excess, which Figes illustrates by reference to the Populists of the 19th century and the Bolsheviks of the 20th. He sees a quasi-religious angle to the Russian revolution, anchored in the nation’s past. Soviets wrestled with how to transform the backwardness of Russian society, and their attempts were too radical and wide-ranging to have succeeded anywhere, perhaps least of all in such a backward nation. Excesses developed easily and were widespread.

Where the book falls down, in my estimation, is in the burden of too much detail, too much reference to the minutiae of various paintings, operas, ballets etc. In places it’s repetitive, in others it doesn’t make for clarity when you can’t see the paintings, for example; there are some illustrations included, but too few for the general reader to follow Figes’ analysis.

The section on Soviet art and culture feels very much tacked on to the rest of the book and not linked with Figes general thesis; clearly late capitalism and its effects were much more extreme in that country than in the rest of Europe, which links in with the idea that Russia did not go through the bourgeois phase, in the Marxist interpretation of history and economic development. I got the impression that Figes regards the art and culture of the Soviet era as an aberration; he is almost dismissive of it. He spends as much time on emigres as the homeland. However, he is interesting on artists’ experiences of exile, and how its effects were far broader than we can imagine.

Russia is obviously a country of extremes, and this must be connected with the sheer physical vastness of the country; even the USA, another vast and extreme nation in some ways, is only half the size. The church is very much a tool of the state; it reinforced Tsarist power, and was even invoked by Stalin in the darkest days of the Great Patriotic War. It is very different from Western Christianity, anchored in ritual, rather than based on theology.

It’s a useful book and I learned quite a lot from it; my sense of the background to Russian history is rather clearer, and yet the overall effect was not as coherent as I had hoped.

Yuri Slezkine: The House of Government

May 30, 2020

    A1agjFDAp9L._AC_UY218_Russians often go in for doorstops, in terms of book length, and this is no exception: almost a thousand pages, and not easy going, but very thought-provoking. The House of Government was the name of a specially-constructed block of apartments for the Bolshevik elite after the October Revolution, and Slezkine uses the building, its construction and its inhabitants for an unusual and sometimes enlightening take on the Communist era. He begins well before the Revolution and takes us almost up to the present day.

There are real insights into pre-Revolutionary consciousness and how this developed, explored through extracts from the memoirs of many key persons, and we see genuine fervour, commitment and idealism in those men and women; we probably think now, with benefit of hindsight that they were young and naive, but the atmosphere of the end days of Tsarism shines through in an extraordinary way, and our very hindsight at the same time possibly prevents us fully comprehending those times… There was very real belief in the possibility of constructing a better society.

Where Slezkine is original – at least to this reader – is in the way he explores Marxism and Bolshevism as religious faiths: his third chapter at great length, and in a most enlightening manner, firstly analyses the origins and development of various religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, and then considers the revolutionaries’ beliefs and behaviours in the light of this template, finding many similarities. It’s a convincing parallel, and one that for me cast a different light on subsequent Russian (and world) history.

The enthusiasm, and the Revolution itself, were in many ways the easy part; the difficulty came, as always, with what to construct to replace the old, and how to do it well. From the outset the peasantry was the problem, and the Bolsheviks were happy to apply violence and repression from the start in pursuit of their goals… so in many ways it was downhill from there on. Anarchy and civil war did not help anyone; this is not an excuse for, but perhaps an explanation of the Red Terror which was institutionalised so quickly.

Slezkine also makes clear just how quickly there were made available serious privileges for an elite, the rulers and managers of the new world, justified by the immensity of the tasks they had committed themselves to undertaking. In a supposed world of equality, a large group emerged with a sense of their own specialness, importance and entitlements. I am reminded here of how a Polish friend clarified things for me once; he is a historian and grew up under the old, socialist regime. His point was that a different group of people (the Bolsheviks) worked out how to seize the power, control and privileges that the previous group (capitalists, landowners, aristocrats) had enjoyed, and arrogated all of those to themselves. And the revolutionary talk of a new society had been the method by with they had done this… an understandable if cynical view, maybe, but one that I found enlightening at the time and since. Was that avoidable?

There was much experimentation in the early years, trying out new ways of being, doing things, including relationships, marriage and child-rearing, but against the background of privileges for the elite.

One of the things I also found myself re-evaluating as I read was the comparisons and parallels that are often proposed, between Stalinism and Nazism, often as gross and deliberate oversimplifications of an issue that nevertheless merits serious consideration. To me, the Nazi approach has always seemed to be a more trenchant and clearcut one: certain clearly identifiable races, nationalities or groups were subhuman and to be discounted and eventually eliminated. Bolsheviks (or Stalinists, or whatever you choose to call the rulers of the Soviet Union) seem to have stumbled into similar behaviour in a rather more careless and disorganised way. Nevertheless, although this is impression I was forming, I admit that I am not enough of a historian to weigh evidence and make judgements.

Internal party squabbles, especially after the death of Lenin, and then the consolidation of Stalin’s power, were the next major developments; evolving and consolidating the ‘party line’ seems to have dissipated much otherwise useful energy; again, I felt that the Nazis, as totalitarians also, were much more united and single-minded in their approach. In the Soviet Union, those who ‘lost’ the arguments were then forced into increasingly impossible intellectual gymnastics that gradually came to imply the necessity of their physical elimination…

The purges and the show trials of the 1930s were the height of the collective insanity, leading to the executions of hundreds of thousands on utterly spurious grounds, which was to leave the country seriously underprepared to face the eventual confrontation with Germany, in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5. The trials were pointless attempts at pseudo-legality, implying that there was a ‘rule of law’; again, the Nazis were more brazen and merely eliminated anyone who got in the way, without any fuss. Reading accounts of the trials, and the chilling coldness of the mass executions reminded me of accounts of similar atrocities in Nazi concentration camps, as well as of how all this was brought to life so effectively in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, which dealt especially with the show trial and execution of Bukharin.

If you are interested in the parallels between what the Russians and Germans did, and indeed how they collaborated in evil at various points, then I recommend to you the writings of American historian Timothy Snyder.

It’s a long book, and there’s more. You get a clear picture of the original dreams, as well as how things went wrong. Here was an entire social class that had never held power, suddenly seizing it and having the chance to carry out all sorts of experiments, with all kinds of lofty and often laudable aims, but because they had no experience, how were they suddenly to manage and to perfect their newly-acquired world? Again, the Nazis used those who had been running things before and who were mostly willing to collaborate with their plans; the Soviets eliminated or would not trust such people.

After the purges, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the next generation remained loyal to the regime and idealistic, making enormous sacrifices in their drive to defeat Nazism; the state apparatus switched from inward-looking paranoia and purges to defence of the revolution and the Soviet state…

It’s a very powerful and difficult book, and you need a good deal of background knowledge in order to make sense of it. The perspective is interesting, the broad sweep of Soviet history invaluable, and the questions it raises are worthy of serious reflection by any who would seek in some way to build a better world: how to learn from others’ past mistakes. I’m glad I read it, but it was too long and perhaps ought to have been edited; I can’t see ever having the time to come back to it. Reading the history through the memoirs of the history-makers was fascinating, though…

Sophy Roberts: The Lost Pianos of Siberia

February 29, 2020

81onguNJfRL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I don’t often get to the end of a book and find myself thinking, “What a lovely book!” But with this one, I did. And I’m quite particular in my choice of travel-writing nowadays, and tend to avoid ‘easy’ travel; you can’t call Siberia ‘easy’.

Sophy Roberts’ tale is a bizarre one, of tracking musical history, and more specifically pianos, in Siberia. So weird that the Russian authorities at times think she’s either a little cracked, or else using her quest as cover for something else – she could be a spy. I found the very idea that a piano could survive a nineteenth century journey to Siberia astonishing in itself (Roberts travels to places where there are still no roads today), before even coming to consider how it would fare long-term in the climate, with its extremes of temperature and humidity. And there was clearly a great demand for culture and music among the thousands of people exiled there, for various crimes under the Tsars.

What comes across most powerfully in the book is her developing love for the place and its people: she travels widely, meets a great variety of Siberians, not all of them musical, and is drawn in by the size and the diversity of the region, its vastness and its bleakness. I imagine – never having been there myself – that this must happen to most Westerners who travel there. Her fascination matches mine, and her atmospheric language creates vivid pictures; she describes very sensitively the sadnesses of so many of the people she met there, and who shared their stories with her.

In the end, what unifies the book is her rambling quest for a suitable piano for a gifted Mongolian pianist: it’s a cross between a detective story and a history of Russia and Siberia with a focus on the musical and cultural side of things, a bizarre but quite gripping idea, which eventually reaches a successful outcome.

Given my fussiness, I must mention that the book is very well-produced and illustrated, and supplied with helpful maps, a rarity nowadays, but which allowed me to dig out my well-worn Road Atlas of the USSR, and my large atlas of the Soviet Union in order to track her travels more closely. The bibliography is also extremely helpful. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked for this book as a birthday present, but I’m really glad I did.

Svetlana Alexievich: Second-hand Time

January 1, 2017

31-sknsa7il-_ac_us200_I really don’t know where to start with this book: it’s probably the most harrowing thing I’ve ever read, and will go around in my head for ages. I’m not really sure it’s anything a Westerner can fully comprehend…

Some context first: Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She’s written about Soviet veterans from Afghanistan, the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, and, in this, her latest book, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She’s not a novelist or a poet: she gets ordinary people to speak, and presents the reader with their words. Hardly the stuff a Nobel laureate is made of, I found myself thinking, but then, she actually does the same as any other writer: she selects, orders and presents; only most of the words aren’t hers. Only twenty-five years have passed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and already a serious amount of annotation is needed for the reader to begin to understand much of what is said.

In one way, the book stands as a tribute to those who really believed in their ideals and strove against the odds to bring them to fruition; their memory deserves to survive. Not everyone who lived in Soviet times repudiates those times, though we are often led to believe they do. We hear from real Russians: they are given voices and allowed to speak; they deserve a hearing and respect. They speak of comradeship, of common efforts, of how they defeated fascism, of how they built a great and powerful nation in far less time than any western land.

Some recount the almost unbelievably bloody past of Stalin’s era; some are proud of their part in it (!): I reminded myself of every nation’s bloody past – the British Empire, the United States’ treatment of the original inhabitants of that land, their treatment of non-whites… fill in the blanks for yourselves. Some recount the horrors of ethnic conflict once the Soviet umbrella disappeared, and it’s incredibly scary how quickly and easily everything erupted and how savage it became. Many are appalled at the savagery of the dog-eat-dog capitalism that was released with the advent of the market, how they were deceived, deluded and robbed. And, as well as the voices of the losers, we hear from some of those who came out on top.

It’s when I try to make sense of the book at a deeper level that I’m utterly thrown: was it Lenin, Stalin, communism that allowed such misery and such horrors to be perpetrated? Were all those people who thought they were slowly and painfully building a better future utterly deluded fools? In the end, is all human existence a bitter struggle for who gets to the top of the pile and sh*ts on everyone else? If so, we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive.

I can’t accept such a simplistic analysis, in the end. Mistaken struggles for a better world are still attempts to make something better, and the genuineness of the wishes and beliefs of many ordinary Russians shines through. And Russia has not been blessed with an easy history, has not followed the same tracks as the ‘democratic’ West. Capitalism was determined to bury the Soviet experiment, and did so through the arms race; it cost the West a fortune but it cost the Soviets everything. And when the Union collapsed, the West supported the sharks in the sidelines. Most importantly, the example, the alternative, though dreadfully flawed other way of looking at things was abolished, no longer an danger, no longer able to support other experiments around the world: ‘There is no alternative’.

I have to emphasise, this is my current take on a monumental book. I think anyone who wishes to express an opinion on those times should read it.

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