Posts Tagged ‘Russian revolution’

Some thoughts on the Ukrainian tragedy

April 14, 2022

Warning: politics ahead

The tragedy of the Ukrainian people is evident, without my needing to say more. Even if the war ended now, several million people have gone into exile, thousands are dead, large parts of the country have been comprehensively trashed, and the economy is in ruins.

Putin has accused Ukrainians of being Nazis. This accusation has been ignored, or simplistically dismissed in the West. And yet, for Putin, there is a kind of truth behind it, for during the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War, as he would call it) some Ukrainians did collaborate with the Nazis, fight in their armies. Why? Because they naively saw them as liberators from what Stalin had inflicted on them in the previous decade, when millions of them were deliberately starved to death… Ukraine suffered grievously at the hands of both sides, just like another country not so far away.

And yet, there is also a tragedy for the Russians, whose economy is also being gradually wrecked, and whose international reputation cannot go any lower, we think. Their tragedy is having no tradition or experience of anything remotely resembling our flawed Western democracy: they have always – apart from a brief anarchic shakeout after the fall of the Soviet Union – been ruled by “strong” (read brutal) leaders, who have spouted words about the greatness of the nation, a delusion largely propagated by its enormous physical extent. This was true in Tsarist as well as Soviet days. Russian leaders have always done brutal very well, brutal to others, and total lack of care towards their own: what caused the Russian Revolution, after all? And, although again we in the West are inclined to overlook the Soviet effort in defeating Nazism, that effort was at the cost of regarding troops as cannon-fodder and the commanders being prepared to sacrifice however many were necessary to achieve their goal…

So the Russian approach is to wreck anywhere that opposes them: we have been reminded of Chechnya by our own commentators, and the same tactics seem to be being used in Ukraine at the moment. However, our generally ignorant, ill-informed and mouthy commentators manage to overlook the similar achievements of the West, which we are cleverer in allowing to be done by our proxies: look at the brutality being used in the Yemen, or in occupied Palestine, for example. Except it’s not the US or UK that’s doing it…allegedly.

I have been astonished by the drivel, the war-mongering nonsense written by journalists and spouted by Western politicians. If Putin does suffer from some kind of mental disorder, then it’s probably not very sensible to shout about it publicly: who knows what, in extremis, he might feel driven to try? Shut up Joe Biden (and others). And the amateur histrionics of our own government are laughable, dressing themselves up in sub-Churchill cloaks and pontificating from the sidelines as if what we thought or did made any difference. At least Macron has been trying. And then there’s all the financial aid and succour given to Putin and his kleptocrats in the past, which we are trying to sweep under the carpet.

OK so there are my opinions. And what should be done, you may well ask? I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. I do know that war is not good for ordinary people under any circumstances. And I do know that war is very profitable business for some. I do know that the West handled Russia very badly in the years after the collapse of communism, making lots of money but hardly fostering the kind of ‘democracy’ we’re usually so fond of talking about when we start our own wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq… I could go on but you get the idea). We have no real understanding of what Russia means by security: their definition may be over the top but we ought to have listened.

Apparently there were moves years ago to rule out Ukrainian membership of NATO, to enshrine some kind of neutrality for that new nation. What happened? We are very good at hindsight over here. And what would we do if that weren’t enough for Putin? The sanctions we have imposed seem to me to be the bare minimum that we can do; if we didn’t let big business get in the way, we might have been far less dependent on Russian energy than we are currently.

To finish, I’ll repeat: war isn’t the answer, and nobody will get what they want; that’s evident already. More mature and longer-term thinking and reflection is needed; our businesses and our leaders are not up to the mark here. We blunder on from crisis to crisis while the planet burns: future generations will not thank us. Meanwhile the innocent suffer.

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.

On subjection

March 13, 2021

Warning: politics ahead

Currently enjoying the fun as media and royalty fight it out, but I do often mentally have to pinch myself and remember this is the twenty-first century we are living in. As I’m half-Polish, I’ve never felt any real sense of loyalty to the monarchy or the institution: there used to be a monarchy in Poland, and as someone with a name that used to be in the index of the nobility, I’d probably have been entitled to take part in the election of the king (yes, you read that correctly!)… but the country disappeared from the map for over a century and when it came back, it didn’t bring back the monarchy that had been part of the problem in the first place, and it abolished the nobility. No bloodshed involved.

The French disposed of their monarchy a couple of centuries ago; true, there were some attempts to reinstate it, but in the end the people derived a sense of their own rights and confidence in their nation without royalty. The Russians murdered the lot, and while there are some in that country who would like to have a tsar, when you’ve always had a strong and powerful autocrat at the helm, what does it matter whether he’s tsar, first secretary or president? A number of European nations have smaller, slimmed-down monarchies that are tolerated by their people. But the English… or is it the British?

Somehow we are permanently cowed by the monarchy, the aristocracy and such people’s self-proclaimed entitlement to power and worship. True, we beheaded a king in 1649 and had a republic for eleven whole years, but quickly welcomed the monarchy back. Similarly, we had a General Strike (just the one) in 1926, and backed off from that before anything was achieved; general strikes sometimes seem to be one of the French national pastimes…is there just something inherently conservative in us island folk? Is the island the problem?

If you ask the average Brit what advantage the monarchy has, chances are they will talk about tradition, pageantry, bringing in tourists: all pretty pathetic justifications for the current state of affairs. I will acknowledge the current monarch’s strong sense of service to the nation and people, before I note that she has been incredibly well rewarded for it all.

What has been brought home to me by the current media circus is just how damaged in various ways the different members of that family are and have been. Rub it with a fifty-pound note is my immediate response; what do you expect is another? It’s clear that privilege has its price: much unhappiness, and a dysfunctional family, many of whom haven’t a clue about their purpose or what to do with themselves and their lives, and certainly know nothing about the lives of most of their ‘subjects’.

But there is a wider price for the country, in its forelock-tugging subservience as subjects, not citizens, of ‘her Britannic majesty’ as our new bluish passports say. In so many ways we are living in the past, trying to live off what we imagine are our past glories (pretty dubious and dodgy when looked at closely), constitutionally – I use that word deliberately – incapable of looking forward and addressing the problems and issues of the century we are actually living in. I’d like to live in a republic, with an elected head of state, two elected chambers of Parliament, a written constitution, and a sensible electoral system. Too much to ask, in the twenty-first century. Funny how the Brits and the US managed to set this up in post-war West Germany…

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…

On the Russian Revolution…

November 20, 2017

51Miyo3yZPL._AC_US218_51FPyNJH1-L._AC_US218_I’ve been aware that the centenary of the Great October Revolution was last week, in spite of the Putin regime’s efforts to ignore it, and I have been looking through some of my books of photographs and propaganda posters from that era as I have reflected on one of the key moments of the twentieth century, as well as one of its failed experiments. David King‘s Red Star Over Russia is astonishing, and if I don’t succeed in getting to the current exhibition at Tate Britain, this book will serve as a substitute. And Soviet Posters – the Sergio Grigorian Collection is also pretty good.

I have no flag to fly for Stalinism and its excesses, which included invading Poland and imprisoning my father along with tens of thousands of his comrades and, I suppose, indirectly led to myself… The Soviet economic experiment ended in failure, though how much of that was due to inherent weaknesses and how much to the determination of the rest of the (capitalist) world that it must fail at all costs, is very hard to say. And the Soviet Union and its horrendous sacrifices defeated the might of Nazi Germany; compared with the Soviet losses the West gave relatively little, and again, the leaders of the West were quite happy for the Soviets to bear the brunt of the losses and consequently weaken itself.

The Soviets also, in a sense, won the space race, in that their efforts and research led to many of the real and enduring successes, including the space stations, and international co-operation in space; compared with this, out of a sense of panic the US committed itself to winning the race to the moon, threw money at it and did win it, and promptly lost steam; NASA has never really been terribly clear since what its purpose is…

If everything about the Soviet system had been so grim and awful as Western propaganda liked (and still likes) to paint it, there would surely not be all the nostalgia for it that does exist in many of the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia itself, although again, the current hegemony does its best to bury it. So what do people miss? According to articles and interviews I’ve read, a sense of joint, collective endeavour, striving for a shared goal. Jobs for everyone. At least you had a job, however pointless it might have been, and you might have been sent to the back of beyond to do it; with it came a wage or salary, enough to provide the basics of existence. People did often say, ‘we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us’, but the grimness of unemployment was unknown.

There was basic housing, fuel, power and lighting at nominal cost, for all, too. The scandal of homelessness did not exist. Housing might have been cramped and basic, but it was there, and affordable, as was public transport at very low cost. Books, magazines, newspapers, cinema, theatre, all were subsidised.

What was wrong with the system? Everything was grim and grey; I went and saw it. Consumer durables were very thin on the ground, luxuries unavailable. You couldn’t say what you liked, criticise the government, have a meaningful vote, travel abroad… Religious practice was strictly curtailed or even forbidden.

What we have here is a classic case of the opposition of the two kinds of freedom, freedom from and freedom to: under the Soviet system, while you were free from a lot of things, you weren’t free to do a lot of things. And your response to these two freedoms or the lack of them, very much depends on where you are starting from. Many people on the planet – in the Third World, in less developed countries perhaps – might settle for freedom from; here in the West, having been tempted by the successes of capitalism for so long, it’s the freedom to that we want, and are horrified by the thought of not having. It’s all about perspective…

So between the efforts of the West and the failings of the system itself, the experiments failed. And we are taught that the experiment failed for ever, that there’s no point in trying again. But is that really the case?O

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