A Russian Roundup

A collection of links to Russian literature, and one on art.

Owen Hatherly examines the discomfort of the Russians with the Italian founders of the Futurist movement.

The Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky was a sympathetic critic of Russian Futurism. He corresponded with Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist, about the political significance of this new artistic movement.

In a 1922 letter to Trotsky, Gramsci suggests that the Italian left had missed a trick by not making overtures to the Futurist movement.

Gramsci stressed that the Futurists had a large working class audience that was attracted by their iconoclasm, and had defended them in street fights against attempts to break up their exhibitions.

For Gramsci, ignoring the Futurists left them prone to being taken up by fascism, which then had “revolutionary” pretensions and could monopolise the new, anti-traditional cultural forms.

Many Russian writers were discovered by the Russians themselves only after 1991. One such rediscovery is that of the absurd poets- the Oberitus, whom Olga Martynova considers to be among the liveliest classic writers.

Who were the Oberiuts? Born in the early years of the 20th century, they were practically children at the time of the 1917 October Revolution. That they, the last representatives of Russian modernity, transformed and completed the entire spectrum of that modernity – from the mystically disposed Symbolism to the avant-garde leftist futurism – borders on the miraculous. As Daniil Kharms wrote: “Life has been victorious over death in a way unbeknownst to me.” The idea of the miracle was a leitmotiv for Kharms and his friends, and they came back to it again and again. A further miracle: the whole group very nearly vanished without a trace, which would have had enormous consequences for the development of Russian literature. We would have seen their names in just a few memoirs, such as by dramatist Yevgeny Shvarts. As it turns out, the only reason we have access to their texts is because one of them, the philosopher Yakov Druskin, went over to where Daniil Kharms had been living in beseiged Leningrad before he was arrested, and slid his entire archive back home on a children’s sled.

Paris based Russian writer Viktor Erofeev examines the Putin ‘bird’ in the light of Putin’s recent visit to Ms Merkel’s Germany. His analysis is reminiscent of the debate between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers in post- Napoleonic Russia, a debate that formed the dialectic of many a Russian classic in the 19th century.

Putin’s oscillations correspond closely to the oscillations in Russian thinking, with its deep archaic roots that to some extent have nothing in common with Europe. Alexander III was no intellectual. He allowed Tolstoy and Chekhov to print their books, tolerated a number of other-minded people but never forgot tighten the handcuffs or to exercise his preferences for Russian nationalism. And everybody knows what happened to the Romanovs.

Of course the West must feed Russia’s western head. Otherwise, it will run off to the East. It’s in my interests that the eagle has a well- developed western head. It acts as a certain guarantee for the freedoms a writer needs, such as the air to breathe. But I understand that if you forget about the eastern head of the Russian statehood, as our reformers did in the 1990s, then you lose the connection with an important part of the “archaic” population. The West will have to learn to accept that the flight of the two-headed eagle has nothing to do with the rules of international air travel.

And finally here is a report from The Moscow Times whose headline itself is a giveaway: Reading Is Going the Way of the Soviet Union.

The online writeup is available only for paid subscribers. The Literary Review, however, offers a few excerpts.

Fiction no longer prepares young people to live in the very pragmatic modern Russia, so there is no popular demand for it.

Perry Anderson on Russia Today

Perry Anderson has a long, illuminating take on Russia under Putin encompassing arts, culture, literature the state of the intelligentsia and political analysis.

Such tensions have certainly not silenced the arts. Fiction aiming at more than entertainment has never avoided the Soviet experience. Since the 1990s, however, representations of it have tended to become volatilised in the blender of de-realisations that typifies much current literature. Russian fiction has always had strong strains of the fantastic, the grotesque, the supernatural and the utopian, in a line that includes not only Gogol and Bulgakov – presently the two most fashionable masters – but such diverse figures as Chernyshevsky, Leskov, Bely, Zamiatin, Nabokov, Platonov and others. What is new in the current versions of this tradition is their cocktail of heterogeneous genres and tropes of an alternative reality, which seeks to maximise provocation and dépaysement. But such formal ingenuity, however startling, tends to leave its objects curiously untouched. The same techniques can dispose of Communist and post-Communist realities alike, as a single continuum. In Viktor Pelevin’s most lyrical work, The Clay Machine-Gun, the Cheka of the Civil War, the bombardment of the White House and the contemporary Russian mafia dance and merge in the same phantasmagoria. At its best, such literature is splendidly acrobatic. But, satirical and playful, most of it is too lightweight to impinge on deeper structures of feeling about the past. Scholarship is another story.

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Unfinished Piece for the Piano Player

Unfinished Piece for the Piano Player” is not so much based on a play by Anton Chekov as much a play based on Chekov’s short stories and hence a very Chekovian play.

A number of characters meet over a weekend at a country estate where Mikhail Platonov, a village school teacher, undergoes an emotional crisis that is summed up best in his own words:

Oh God !

Now I am know for sure, it’s enough to betray just once, just once to be unfaithful to what you believed in and what you loved and you would never get rid of the succession of betrayals and lines !

… Not that, not that, I am thirty five ! Everything’s ruined !

Lermontov had already been in his grave for eight years ! Napolean was a general !
And I have done nothing in this damned life of yours. Where is my true self ? I am a good for nothing cripple! Where is my strength, my mind, my talent? A wasted life!

Oh ! You are here too, the keeper of a fire that isn’t even smouldering…
but you have no choice, just like myself… a nobody ! And I am just like all of you here !

A fine masterpiece from the Soviet years, it brims with the intensity of character that only the Russians were (are?) capable of.

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Story of the Orange and the Cocaine

Tatiana Zhurzhenko examines the contrast between the colourful (orange, velvet, purple) revolutions of post- Soviet Eastern Europe and the coca revolution in Bolivia. The former, she says, are being sold as brands to introduce the former East Europe to the West- hence the colorful descriptions of democratic elections being termed as “revolutions”- when they are little more than an invitation to neo- liberal capitalism.Morales’ victory, however, is never termed as a revolution and certainly no colourful descriptions are evident either. Instead, the spectre of cocaine is what is projected in the dominant media.

An insightful essay contrasting the fruity and flowery revolutions in East Europe, specially the tingling Orange one in Ukraine, with the rise of Evo Morales, whose patron saints include, horror of horrors, Fidel Castro.

Maybe Bolivia really has staged the last revolution of the twentieth century, one that was possible only in a poor, marginalized, and underdeveloped country.

On the other hand, one might see in this revolution a ghost of the future. Bolivia, an absolute loser of globalization and a victim of neo-liberal politics, arrived in the twenty-first century a long time ago. Its political elite failed to represent the interests of the nation, and the income gap between rich and poor is one of the widest in the world. The country’s water supply was privatized by foreign companies, which raised prices for the local population and made water unaffordable for many, while Bolivia’s huge gas resources do not help Bolivians alleviate their misery. Does this mean that the socialist alternative remerges in the twenty-first century as an answer to global capitalism, as in the twentieth century it was the answer to national capitalism?

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The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov

The classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature, it was more often than not a means for communicating ideas and for philosophical discourse. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and taking them forward.

In that Andrey Platonov followed in the footsteps of the other great Russian novelists and used the medium of the novel to comment on the progress of the Russian Revolution. Once its enthusiast- he came from a working class background and immediately after the revolution graduated as an engineer and worked towards the electrification plans, he was sensitive to the brutality of its implementation.

His enthusiasm was soon to be curbed and his disenchantment was to be reflected in the novels that he subsequently wrote. His major works were to be published decades after his death in 1951. He was working as a window cleaner in the Soviet Writer’s building when he died.

The Foundation Pit
is the most well known of Platonov’s novels. It describes the impact of the forced collectivization that Stalin introduced in 1927. There are over a dozen major characters and is mainly a novel of action and development, there are few soliloquies or psychological portraits of the characters. That is for good reason and is indicated right in the beginning of the novel.

The pace is set by the first paragraph of the novel where Voshchev is discharged from his job in a machine factory “because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work”. Subsequently, no character in the novel makes that mistake again as the Party activist goes about forcing the poor and the small/ middle peasantry into the kholkoz, the collectivised farm.

He also gets them to dig the foundation pit for a massive building that would house the future socialist citizenry. The pit finally becomes the burial ground for the little girl Nastya, who is born of a “kulak” woman and therefore of “capitalist scum.” But her dying mother ingrains in her daughter the noble virtues of socialism and the little girl imbibes all the right words and ideas.

She describes her own capitalist tainted origin to the loyal Party excavator Chiklin thus: “I didn’t want to get born- I was afraid my mother would be bourgeois.” Later, as she is taken to school and where she “learned to love the Soviet government and began collecting trash for reuse”, she writes to Chiklin, the overseer of the foundation pit:

Liquidate the kulak as a class. Long live Lenin, Kozlov and Safranov.
Regards to the poor kolkhoz, but not to the kulaks.

At the end of the novel the Revolution finally devours its own child and she is buried in the pit by Chiklin.

Platonov’s style is very direct in this novel, it was to tone down dramatically in later works like The Soul and Happy Moscow that dealt with later Five Year Plan periods and where his style is more implicit (specially in the very effective use of the rhetoric in Happy Moscow.)

The Foundation Pit reflects the confusion of the 1920s that unleashed a great deal of creative energies among the intelligentsia specially of those coming from poorer and working class families. It also showed them the limits of that euphoria. By the 1930’s the State’s control was firmly established and by 1937 Stalin was to confidently go and finish of the bulk of the Party leadership, including “Lenin’s son” Nikolai Bukharin- something that led another disillusioned communist Arthur Koestler to chronicle in Darkness at Noon.

Platonov brings forth the Party slogans that were established and were executed with meticulous haste by the rank and file, only to be rescinded later with a different set, if not opposite ones. Former local leaders, once decorated for their result effectiveness, were now identified as having misinterpreted the Party Line and hence he is “liquidated.”

These are indeed themes that have occured in many works about Russia of the last century- what lends crecedence to Platonov his is physical presence during the times (unlike that of Western writes notably Koestler and Orwell) but also his ability to both write objectively on a progress of which he was a sympathiser of and maintain his belief that communism needs to proceed on a more humanistic basis than it did under Stalin. That rescues Platonov from succumbing to the disillusion of a Koestler and the propagandistic overtones in Orwell and enhances the authenticity of his work.

His own subsequent treatment and his elimination as a writer in the Soviet Union make him out as a martyr.

The Foundation Pit (as also his previous, longer novel Chevengur), follow up the themes that were previous treated by Dostoevesky in The Possessed and by Josef Conrad his near- prophetic Under Western Eyes. Post- revolution, the novel marks a continuity with Zamyatin’s We that was published in 1920.

The universality of this work lies in the fact that similar mechanisms continue to be employed in the contemporary world, whether it is in attempts at exporting democracy or exporting globalization and IMF diktats to the Third World in Capital’s thirst for markets. The vocabulary has changed, but the language remains the same- of violence against people en masse. The tragedy was more grotesque in the case of the Soviet Union of the 1920 and 1930s because socialism was supposed to have rescued the masses from the evils of exploitation.

Finally, a note on the length of the novel. Russian novels are generally long and run into hundreds of pages, with Tolstoy and Dostoevesky probably taking the cake. Only a Turgenev could write as concisely as Flaubert covering a whole gamut of human experiences in a novel of a hundred or so pages. In The Foundation Pit, Platonov follows Turgenev and achieves a veritable literary crescendo in a novel that is merely 140 pages long.

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November 7 in Putin’s Russia

Vladmir Putin has put an end to the November 7 day celebrations in Russia from this year. It was a quiet day in Moscow this time. GPD puts into historical perspective a day whose significance went far beyond Russia.

All the military might of the “first socialist state” was on display on this day. It was a military might which evoked a special sense of security and meaning.It was this might which challenged and kept under control the hegemonism of one power, i e, the US. Now that the American hegemonism has become the sole determinant or the defining characteristic of the international system it should be easy to see what a countervailing force the Soviet power was and has always been. The parade in the Red Square was in a sense a promise, a promise made to the struggling people around the globe. The number of liberation struggles that were aided and assisted by the then Soviet Union is legion.

He compares this with the way the Chinese look back at October 1, the day of the Chinese Revolution in 1949:

Contrast this with what the Chinese do. There is no let up in the centrality and significance of October 1. China is in festive mood throughout the first week of October. Beijing is all lit up. It is a carnival of a kind. It needs hardly to be stated that the distance separating today’s China and Stalinist or Maoist socialism is in no way smaller than Putin’s from Stalinism. But there is awareness that whatever else might have been wrong with Chinese socialism, it was the revolution put China on the map of the world. It was no longer “a heap of sand” as Sun Yat-sen had described it once. It had stood up literally to the world. This historical memory simply cannot and should not be wiped out. The celebrations of October 1 have historical and power significations which should not be lost sight of.

Russia- Light at the End of the Tunnel?

One of the greatest modern- day disasters has been that of the former Soviet Union. The former super power now has probably one of the poorest living standards and has seen perhaps for the first time in a century, a real decline in population- contrary to world wide trends.Now it seems that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel- if one were to go by yet another book on the misfortunes of Russia. You will need to have a login id for the NYT to read this review of “Kremlin Rising”.

Like many other observers, the writers seem to feel that Putin is the man who will deliver- he seems to be in the image of the patriarch, bringing about “managed democracy”. That he happens to be in the image of the former czar, in line with the personality cults of Lenin and Stalin is a point often made about him. A man of strong and decisive actions- like the one during the Chechnya hostage crisis, he surely seems to have reined in some of the mafia operatives, though not the overall system, which is weaning towards a controlled form of capitalism. Though at least this article argues that Russia today resembles Iran, a democratic election returning a conservative dark horse to power.

A significant change has also been the decline of the voice of the left and nationalist groups during the last few years and their reduced popularity.

What is obviously missing in the review and probably also the book is the role of the IMF and the “free world” in leading the transition to near disaster. A better account is provided by a lesser known book by the historian Roy Medvedev, “Post- Soviet Russia” published a few years back. Unfortunately I did not get down to review this very impressive and the only Marxist analysis of post- Soviet Russia that I have read.