October 5, 2014
September 19, 2014
For people who have been following the Unrepentant Marxist for the past few years, you are probably aware that I am a big fan of Yevgeniy Fiks, a post-Soviet Conceptual Artist I interviewed in 2012 and whose last show on the USSR’s mixed encounter on Black people I wrote about earlier this year.
Although Fiks is decidedly left-of-center, his art is not in the socialist realist tradition to say the least. His strategy is much more subversive. By “flanking” his subject, he defies pat interpretations of sexuality, race, imperialism, the former Soviet Union, and other topics that could inspire boring and didactic treatments.
Although I love everything that he does, my favorite “work” by Fiks was his “Lenin for your library”, a sly assault on corporate stupidity and humorlessness that was described on the Winkelman Gallery, where he has exhibited in the past, as follows:
100 copies of “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” by V.I. Lenin were sent out to the addresses of World’s major corporations, including Gap, Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM among many others. In an enclosed letter, it was stated that the book was a donation to the corporate library. Out of 100 copies, 14 were accepted and “thank you” letters were received. 20 copies were returned together with letters stating various reasons for rejection, including a particular focus of the library or their policy not to accept any gifts or donations from private individuals. The fate of the remaining 66 copies remains unknown.
It was the same spirit of playfulness, which might be described as a David Letterman gag geared to those who have read Tristan Tzara, Fiks conceived of A Gift to Birobidzhan, described in the initial publicity as follows:
In 2009, artist Yevgeniy Fiks originated a project called A Gift to Birobidzhan. Established in the Soviet Union in 1934 as the Autonomous Jewish Region of the USSR, Birobidzhan was for a time considered a rival to Israel. Although located in a remote area near China, Birobidzhan caught the world’s imagination. In 1936, two hundred works of art was collected in the United States by activists as the foundation for the Birobidzhan Art Museum. The collection included works by Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb, and William Gropper among others. The collection was first exhibited in New York and Boston, and in late 1936, it was shipped to the Soviet Union. The collection never reached its final destination in Birobidzhan. By late 1937, Stalin had purged the leadership from Birobidzhan at which time the collection vanished into government or private hands.
Taking this microhistorical narrative as his starting point, Fiks invited 25 contemporary international artists to donate works of their choosing to the existing museum of Birobidzhan. After initially agreeing to exhibit and accept the works into its collection, the museum in Birobidzhan conditionally retracted the offer, in part to avoid confrontation with a conflicted past and the fact that Birobidzhan now consist of a small Jewish population. Granting Fiks the role of steward, the artists agreed to let Fiks store the collection until it could reach its intended destination.
A Gift to Birobidzhan of 2009 was an attempt to repeat and complete — seventy years later — the gesture of “a gift to Birobidzhan” in 1936. As of 2014, it remains still a rejected gift and a “state-less collection,” packed in boxes in Fiks’ apartment in the Lower East Side. A Gift to Birobidzhan evokes the utopian promise of Birobidzhan — a Socialist alternative to a Jewish state — as a point of departure for discussions on broad 20th century’s impossible territorial politics, identity, national self-determination, and a common “seeking of happiness.” At present, we find that many of the same questions from the early 20th century have resurfaced again.
For those outside of New York City, you will be able to take a “virtual tour” of the exhibit here. Here’s a work that I kept coming back to:
VyDaVy, “JEWISH LUCK” (еврейское счастье), two 25”x32” laminated prints. Ink on paper, gold leaf, 2009
Jewish luck is Jewish luck. It is black or white. It comes and goes. But there is always something inside that stays forever
(If you would like to take a “real tour” of the exhibit, contact me at email@example.com and I will put you in touch with Yevgeniy.)
Finally, I should state that the show had a particular resonance for me as a Jew and as someone who has become particularly inflamed over ancillary questions. As a firm believer that Ukraine was to Russia as Ireland was to England—as Lenin once put it—I found the Kremlin demagogy about the existential threat to Jews posed by EuroMaidan obscene. Almost as obscene as the increasingly rabid defense of Israel’s war on Gaza and the McCarthyite attacks on pro-Palestinian professors, all in the name of defending “the Jewish homeland”. As I told Yevgeniy at the show, the Jews would have been much better off in the sparsely populated Birobidzhan than in Palestine, where carried out a wholesale expulsion of the indigenous population.
Eleven years ago I reviewed a documentary titled “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin”, long before blogs had been invented. I reproduce my article below along with a trailer for the film that can unfortunately not be seen online in all the usual places like Netflix. My advice is to track down a DVD from a research library. They don’t even have one in the Columbia University library. Good luck!
L’Chayim Comrade Stalin
posted to http://www.marxmail.org on February 3, 2003
When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two “sidukah” (charity) boxes in his father’s shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store. The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish homeland became the seed for his documentary “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin,” now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.
Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of reactions to the “Jewish Question.” (Strom utilizes a graphic of these two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of leitmotif.)
Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this as a kind of internal exile. Stephen Cohen points out eloquently in his biography of Bukharin that Stalin’s despotic “revolution from above” did not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface. Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.
It was not only Russian Jews who came to this remote, mosquito-infested region that was closer to Korea than to Moscow. IKOR, an international organization of Jewish Communists, actively recruited people in more or less the same manner as people were recruited to construction brigades in Nicaragua in the 1980s. A widow of an US electrician recounts the arduous journey that brought them to the desolate outpost with nothing but their clothes and a generator that her husband intended to bring on-line for the settlement. Like a 1930s version of martyred engineer Ben Linder who died from contra bullets, he understood that in the cold, rainy Siberian wilderness, electricity could dramatically improve the quality of life.
At its peak, Birobidzhan only included about 45,000 Jewish settlers. Most were poorer Jews from rural Byelorussia or the Ukraine, who were trained to cobble shoes (like my mother’s father) or make hats. The Soviet film shows a bearded Jew struggling and finally succeeding to yoke two oxen to a plow. This image evokes a long standing theme that falls under the general rubric of the “Jewish Question”. There is a tendency among early Zionist theorists and Marxists alike to explain Jewish weakness and isolation as a failure to develop the full range of skills and occupations found in society as a whole.
The absence of Jewish farming in particular spurred not only the agrarian colonizing efforts in Birobidzhan, it also led to similar efforts in my own Sullivan County in the 1800s. Farming experiments were an expression of the “Enlightenment” tendency in Judaism that also produced colonies in Argentina, New Jersey and Palestine. The very earliest farmers who settled in Palestine were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists.
After the USSR allowed Jews to emigrate, most of Birobidzhan’s citizens flooded into Israel. Now there are only 17,000 left. Strom’s interviews with those who stayed behind are among the film’s most poignant moments. One elderly woman named Rivkele explains that she only speaks Russian nowadays and has almost forgotten her Yiddish, the official language of the Jewish Autonomous Region. She is also married to a Russian, as are her children. One gets the impression that such Jews are rapidly become assimilated in the same fashion as Jews elsewhere in the world, including the USA. Rather than having to worry about the secret police arresting a man for toasting a baby at a circumcision ritual for coming into the world as a Jew (an event that the documentary details), they have to worry more about the inexorable process of unfavorable demographics and the natural tendency of a secular society to erode particularistic customs and religious beliefs.
Although the economic changes in the post-Communist USSR have been largely negative (one interviewee spits out that “you can’t eat freedom”), they do include a cultural latitude that allows the remaining Jews in Birobidzhan to study their customs, re-familiarize themselves with Judaism and–most intriguingly–to learn Yiddish. Just as I studied Hebrew at the age of 11 and 12, these young Jews now study Yiddish, a dying language. During a Q&A session after the film, Strom hinted at the class/cultural divide between Hebrew and Yiddish. His own father had become an activist of the Hashomer Hatzoir, a left-leaning Zionist group that favored Hebrew, a language that presumably would sever all ties to the ghetto where Yiddish first arose. Meanwhile the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization that disavowed Zionism and linked Jewish emancipation with the emancipation of the working class in general, adopted Yiddish as its official language. They saw this language, with all its underdog associations, as the appropriate medium for a people seeking to abolish the underdog status once and for all.
I would only add that I regret not having learned Yiddish instead of Hebrew growing up. Not only is that language infinitely more expressive, it is rooted in the lived experience of the Jewish people rather than an artificial construct to recreate a Biblical state that some scholars, including many in Israel, believe never existed.
Yiddish, a mongrel language, perhaps expresses best the true cultural legacy of the Jewish people. As a people without their own distinct territory, they mix with and absorb local influences as well as influencing the gentile population that surrounds them. This has always seemed much more attractive to me than the idea of separating oneself from the unbeliever and erecting fences to maintain that purity.
Russian Jews have always embodied this kind of rich dialectical interpenetration. Recently I discovered that despite many flaws in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe,” there is still ongoing research that partially confirms his original thesis, namely that the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia descended from the ancient Khazar kingdom in Turkey. Today, the evidence seems to point in the direction of a link not between all Jews in this area but a subgroup called the “Mountain Jews”, about whom I had knew nothing beforehand.
From www.khazaria.com, we learn about the cultural aspects of the Mountain Jews:
Occupations. According to historian Ken Blady, the Mountain Jews used to be agriculturalists and grew such crops as grapes, rice, tobacco, grains, and marena (madder). In later years most of the Mountain Jews were forced to get involved in business, so they became traders, tanners, jewelers, rug-weavers, leather-workers, and weapon-makers. A small number of Mountain Jews remained farmers as late as the 20th century.
Cuisine. The foods of the Mountain Jews are outstanding. I have personally eaten the Mountain Jewish versions of chicken shashlik (shish-kebab) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and I liked the way the food was prepared and the vegetables and sauces that were used with the meats. There are many very good Mountain Jewish and Persian restaurants in New York City and one of the Persian restaurants is called “Khazar” after the Persian name of the Caspian Sea.
Hospitality. The Mountain Jews were generous to guests, just like their Caucasian neighbors. Ken Blady says that this hospitality probably originated with the Jews themselves: “As one of the oldest inhabitants in the region and the people who brought monotheism to Caucasian soil, it may well have been the Jews who wove the biblical patriarch Abraham’s practice of hachnosat orchim (welcoming guests) into the fabric of Daghestani culture. Every guest was treated as if he were personally sent by God. In every Jewish home a special room or hut covered with the finest carpets was set aside for guests. Every host would… lavish on them the finest foods and spirits….” (p. 165-166)
Music and dance. Instruments used by Mountain Jews included the tar (plucked string instrument) and saz (long-necked fretted flute) (Blady, p. 166). Saz is a Turkic word. Blady also says that there were “many talented musicians and wonderful storytellers among the Mountain Jews” (p. 167). Furthermore: “The Mountain Jews were graceful in their movements, and were excellent dancers…” (p. 168).
Courage and independence. Like the Khazars, the Mountain Jews were “skilled horsemen and expert marksmen” (Blady, p. 166). They loved horses and nature. Mountain Jews knew the value of self-defense and carried and owned many weapons (especially daggers).
Dress. Mountain Jews wore clothing like that of their neighbors in the Caucasus.
Charity. Blady explains that all Mountain Jewish towns had a “house of kindness and charity” which helped poor and sick people.
This kind of cross-culturalism is truly inspiring. It is tragic that the holocaust not only destroyed the lives of millions of Jews, who lived in a similar kind of cultural gumbo, it also unleashed an experiment in ethnic purity that has brought nothing but misery to the people it displaced and an embrace of militarism and chauvinism that were alien to traditional Jewish society, either secular or fundamentalist.
These, at least, are my reactions to Yale Strom’s first-rate documentary. What others are stirred to think will largely be a function of the beliefs that they bring with them when they see the film. At the very least, his film will act as a catalyst on the mind and on the heart. Highly recommended.
Swarthmore website on the Jewish Autonomous Region: http://birobidzhan.swarthmore.edu/
January 20, 2014
For a number of years now, Russian émigré artist Yevgeniy Fiks has been examining the cultural legacy of the USSR, both within its borders and in the U.S. Although politically to the left, Fiks is no simple dispenser of Soviet nostalgia as is prominently on display in the Back to USSR restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. (But if you ever find yourself there, don’t miss the Red Snapper. It is to die for.)
No, Fiks’s interest is in revealing the contradictions of being a Communist, if I might be indulged in using a bit of Marxist/Hegelian jargon. In his last show at the Winkleman Gallery on far West 27th Street, an area that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, he focused in on the Red/Gay hysteria of the 1950s when being a Commie and a “fag” was deemed inimical to American values. As anybody familiar with the Soviet Union can attest, gays had it just as bad. Despite the early Soviet Union’s openness to different forms of sexual identity, Stalin’s counter-revolution included a law enacted in 1933 that made homosexuality punishable by a 5-year prison term.
In November 2012, I conducted an interview with Fiks that my readers would find most interesting, I’m sure. He covers his various projects, including portraits of CP’ers in the USA as well as his rather witty experiment in donating copies of Lenin’s essay on imperialism to major American corporation’s libraries.
I also invite you to check out Fiks’s website where he describes his esthetic in these terms:
My work is inspired by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which led me to the realization of the necessity to reexamine the Soviet experience in the context of the history of the Left, including that of the international Communist movement. My work is a reaction to the collective amnesia within the post-Soviet space over the last decade, on the one hand, and the repression of the histories of the American Left in the US, on the other.
I’ve been interested in discovering and reflecting on repressed micro-historical narratives that highlight the complex relationships between social histories of the West and Russia in the 20th century. Having grown up and having been educated in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, my work is about coming to terms with the Soviet experience by carving out a space for critique both without and within the Soviet experience. Having lived in New York since 1994, I’m particularly interested in the history of the American Communist movement and the way it manifests itself in the present-day United States.
My work has been influenced by the writings of Susan Buck-Morss about discovering sites of the “post-Soviet condition” in today’s US and the effects of the Cold War on present-day American society and culture, and I am interested in the activist use of that legacy.
His latest installment in this ongoing project that I had the good fortune to attend on Friday evening–once again at the Winkleman Gallery–is devoted to the experience of African-Americans in the former Soviet Union. The key figure that unites the visual art on display is émigré Black actor Wayland Rudd, who moved to Russia in 1932 to escape American racism. He became an icon in the USSR, with a fame that rivaled Paul Robeson’s. On display in the gallery are a number of works that might not have an obvious relationship to Rudd but that invite meditation on the underlying tensions between Black identity and official Communism.
The exhibition is crowned by Fiks’s 200 plus collection of Soviet posters, etc. that deal in one way or another with the image of Black people. They range from the heroic to at least one piece of advertising that evokes the Aunt Jemima picture of old.
To be sure, whatever racial stereotyping existed during the worst days of Stalinism, there was nothing to match the naked bigotry on display in a post-Soviet world:
Financial Times (London,England)
June 14, 2003 Saturday
Black in the USSR Xenophobia is on the increase in Russia, propelled by groups of violent extremists. Their victims, says Hugh Barnes, range from embassy elite to a few hundred black students, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support
Vladimir Putin raises a glass to a packed hall of distinguished guests and foreign academics, mostly from developing countries, nearly all black. They are graduates of Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, now renamed Friendship University. Founded in 1970 at the height of the cold war to educate students from Africa and Asia, the university was named in honour of the Congolese leader assassinated by the CIA, and it was designed to inculcate its graduates with the values of Soviet socialism. The Russian President makes a toast to higher education – “a great tradition always open to talented young people, independent of class, wealth, religion or ethnic origin”. There is applause. “I want to repeat: in Russia, dear friends, you are always the most welcome guests.” More, rapturous, applause.
Outside the hall, in the main plaza of the university, a gang of 20 skinheads attempts to mount the latest in a series of racist attacks. Similar attacks have, in the past, resulted in murders. On this occasion, only the presence of a reinforced security cordon to protect the visiting dignitaries (rather than the university’s remaining black students) foils the attempt to wreak havoc. Inside the Friendship University all is official friendship. The incidents outside are not commented on, now or afterwards.
Yet Russia is suffering from a rise in xenophobia. The Russian leader has warned of “inflammatory slogans and fascist and nationalist symbols, which threaten human rights and lead to pogroms and people being beaten up and killed”. Most of those who are being beaten up and killed are the students at Friendship University and elsewhere, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support. But others are the kind of people who applauded the president in the hall: visiting dignitaries and diplomats.
By targeting the embassy elite, the swastika-emblazoned thugs have spread concern through the ranks of foreign envoys living in Moscow. A Madagascan, a Kenyan and a Malian diplomat were set upon by racists last year, and skinheads attacked the wife of South Africa’s ambassador as she was shopping in an upscale neighbourhood, burning her with cigarettes.
Wayland Rudd’s decision to move to the USSR was completely understandable given the terrible oppression Black people faced in Jim Crow days. You can read Black autoworker Robert Robinson’s “Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union” to get another glimpse into the émigré experience. The Wikipedia article on Robinson refers to others who made the journey:
He described acquaintances in the Soviet Union: Henry Smith, a journalist; Wayland Rudd, an actor; Robert Ross, a Soviet propagandist from Montana; Henry Scott, a dancer from New York City; Coretta Arle-Titz, actress and music professor; John Sutton, an agronomist; George Tynes, also an agronomist; and Lovett Whiteman, an English teacher. He noted meeting in the 1930s the American writers Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, who had traveled to the Soviet Union.
One of the works on display in the gallery was a book by artist Suzanne Broughel that collected the statements of participating artists in the show, including Yevgeniy Fiks who commented on his own experience as an émigré. In Russia, he was a Jew but in the U.S. he was a Russian.
In a brief chat with Yevgeniy at the show, I mentioned to him that I saw all sorts of contradictions involving Jews, Communists and Blacks growing up in Woodridge, New York—a village that the leftist newspaper PM described as a working-class Utopia in 1947. In the late 1950s there was a thriving group of leftists that included both Communists and American Labor Party activists that was spearheading an organizing drive of mostly Black workers in Woodridge’s plantation-like commercial steam laundry that served local hotels. So popular was the left in my village that even my father held a brief membership in the American Labor Party. But whatever messages the party was propagating on Black-white equality were lost on my father who was always sure to unload spotted fruit to the “schvartzes”, as he put it.
I am not sure of the status of this documentary-in-progress but it will surely add to the body of knowledge about the Red-Black connection once it is completed:
November 26, 2012
July 13, 2012
“Family Portrait in Black and White” opens today at the AMC 25 Theater on West 42nd St., a typical Cineplex featuring “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection” and other such junk. My recommendation to New Yorkers is to not hold its venue against it since this oddly compelling film has many interesting things to say about racism in a dysfunctional Ukraine and the efforts of a foster mother of 23 children, all but 7 of whom are biracial and tend to have male African exchange students and Ukrainian women as birth parents.
They are being raised by Olga Nenya in Sumy, a farming town. She is loved by all of her foster children even if she runs the ramshackle house without steam heat and indoor toilets as a tyrant. Kiril, a sixteen year old studying music and wise beyond his years, likens Olga to the old Soviet Union and the children—he especially—as repressed but cared for citizens.
The film eschews facile political commentary but one thing it is very clear about. Ukraine is infested by neo-Nazi skinheads who are interviewed throughout the film. They brag about beating up or killing their victims, who tend to be immigrants. Nenya’s children were all born and raised in Ukraine but that does not prevent them from being bullied in school as “niggers” or “black asses”.
One of the benefits of living with Olga Nenya, despite her heavy-handedness, is that having 16 brothers and sisters with a similar background creates a bond of solidarity that makes the racial animosity of Sumy easier to put up with. Oddly enough, there are signs that the children have absorbed some of the same prejudices shared by backward Ukrainians. When we see two of the brood walking down the main street of Sumy, they begin railing against Arabs who have no business living among “us Ukrainians” and trying to take “our women”. A mischievous grin on one of the boy’s faces suggests, however, that he is trying more to be outrageous for the benefit of the film-makers than anything else.
The main tension in the film, and what gives its dramatic drive, is between Olga Nenya’s determination to rule the roost and the children’s struggle to define themselves as independent human beings, reflected most of all by their efforts to be adopted by the wealthier Western European families that take them in over Christmas and the summer vacation. In many respects, the struggle is not that much different than what other “more normal” families experience.
Oddly enough, the film makes no effort to find out what makes Olga Nenya tick. The interviews are mostly with the children who are very comfortable speaking on camera and to maximum effect. Perhaps this was a bid to keep her as something of a mystery. Is she sympathetic to the former Soviet Union in ostalgie fashion? What made her decide to take in so many foster children to begin with?
Perhaps the fact that these questions linger in my mind three days after watching this poignant drama is what the film-makers intended.
April 22, 2012
The NY Times was not content to give Francis Spufford’s mixture of fact and fiction about the USSR (faction—really) “Red Plenty” one rave review. At least two were necessary. On February 14th this year, Dwight Garner wrote this valentine:
Any reader with a pencil has a dozen ways to express negative sentiment in the margins of a book — I am partial to ick, ack, awk, ugh and the occasional wha? — but a writer’s great sentences, in their bid for posterity, mostly just get underlined. At the end of the first chapter of Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty,” however, I printed a nerdy but heartfelt word: “Bravo.” I felt like giving the author a little bow, or maybe a one-man standing O.
For what it is worth, Garner also went head over heels for Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “When Skateboards Will Be Free”, a callow memoir about growing up an SWP red diaper baby. I guess that even if there was no longer a single Marxist alive anywhere in the world, reviewers will still be singing the praises of such books. That is to be expected when the contradictions of capitalism create the objective conditions for a renewed interest in Marxism, as is the case today.
On March 2nd, Andrew Meier was just as effusive, concluding his review thusly:
Yes, “Red Plenty” is a literary/historical seesaw, a work sure to have even the most bilious Kindle-haters tapping for hyperlinks. But it is a work, by turns learned and lyrical, that grows by degree, accreting into something lasting: a replica in miniature of a world of ideas never visible to most, and now gone.
Neither Garner nor Meier are typical hardened anti-Communists. In fact, their political outlook is not that much different from that of Spufford, a liberal I have described as preferring the “devil you know” to the socialism some unrepentant types still uphold.
One thing is made abundantly clear from the introduction to Part Five of “Red Plenty”, the USSR was rotten from the beginning:
But the Soviet experiment had run into exactly the difficulty that Plato’s admirers encountered, back in the fifth century BC, when they attempted to mould philosophical monarchies for Syracuse and Macedonia. The recipe called for rule by heavily-armed virtue—or in the Leninist case, not exactly virtue, but a sort of intentionally post-ethical counterpart to it, self-righteously brutal. Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless. Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than wisdom. Lenin’s core of Bolsheviks, and the socialists like Trotsky who joined them, were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorized. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters.
In other words, Lenin led to Stalin. This is the same formula that is at the heart of all Sovietology, whether of the liberal variety like Robert Tucker or the reactionary Robert Service. Spufford grudgingly admits that the USSR was proceeding along a viable path in the 1920s under the NEP, but concludes that Stalin’s war on the peasantry was practically necessary: “the farmers’ incomes made them dangerously independent, and food prices bounced disconcertingly up and down. Collectivisation saw to all these problems at once.”
One suspects that Spufford views the NEP as an outlier. For him, the main course of Soviet history is a blend of top-down economic planning and the police state. Even more disconcertingly, this historical narrative would appear to be in consonance with Marx’s writings rather than an assault on them.
The dead giveaway is the reference to Plato in the citation above. When Heinrich Blucher (Mr. Hannah Arendt) was indoctrinating me as an undergraduate at Bard College in the early 60s, he insisted that totalitarianism was the logical outcome of a German philosophical idealism rooted in Plato’s philosophy. The Soviet dictatorship was nothing else but the embodiment of the philosopher king. This obsession with ideology ran very deep in the 50s and early 60s. To some extent, it was a reflection of the existentialism of the day (Blucher and Arendt were part of Heidegger’s circle in the 1920s) but also Anglo-American sociology typified by Daniel Bell’s “End of Ideology”. Now that I am older and wiser (go ahead and laugh), I understand that American pragmatism–the official ideology of the ruling class–never received the same kind of critical scrutiny. After all, as Marx pointed out, the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas. Why should America be any different?
Although book reviewers are beside themselves with Spufford’s literary skills, I find them just as dubious as his political analysis. The brunt of this review will be about the latter, but a few words about style are necessary.
I counted 56 characters in “Red Plenty”—some fictional like Khrushchev and others made up like Galina, a college student who is a kind of hard-core Communist. Unlike a novel, there is little attempt to connect them. They pop up in one part and only reappear a decade or so later. It is almost as if Spufford had written a thousand page novel and about half of it got lost on the way to the printer. Not just the first half or the second half, but random pages perhaps strewn by the wind. In many ways, they remind me of the “interludes” in John Dos Passos’s “USA”, his brief profiles of people like Henry Ford, etc. But “Red Plenty” is all interludes with no connective plot tissue. This is certainly “novel” in the sense of being new, but no competition to the traditional novel of ideas that such a subject (the crisis of Soviet planning) deserves.
The other major problem is the rather clumsy attempt by Spufford to achieve verisimilitude by throwing in all sorts of reminders that this is happening in a very backward Russia and nowhere else. You can turn to practically any page and read something like this:
But the smell of vodka merged with the sweaty sourness of the workers a little further forward, whose factory had plainly lodged them in a barracks without a bathroom, and the fierce rosewater scent the short woman had on, into one, hot, composite human smell, just as all the corners and pieces of sleeve and collar he could see fused into one tight kaleidoscope of darned hand-me-downs, and worn leather, and too-big khaki.
Aaah! I can hear the Song of the Volga Boatmen in the background now.
From the very top of the hierarchy to the very bottom, Spufford’s characters are marked by a Quixotic belief that their system works, even if they disagree on how to make it work better. Unlike some of the classic anti-totalitarian literature of the 20th century, there is no Winston Smith to put forward a contrary analysis even though there is an implication throughout that a Grand Illusion is at work.
At its core, “Red Plenty” is a rehashing of issues that I first ran into nearly 20 years ago when “market socialism” was all the rage among certain elements of the left. On PEN-L, the Progressive Economists Network listserv, you had both Marxists and liberals similar to Spufford arguing that planning was futile. Some were even ready to agree with the Austrian school that markets were necessary for the proper allocation of resources.
There was always an assumption that planning existed in the USSR. Even with computers, planning was doomed to fail—a central thesis of “Red Plenty”. But how warranted was that assumption? While I admit to having only a skimpy knowledge of planning in the USSR in the 50s and 60s, I have to wonder how much it differed from what went on when its rulers were up-and-coming bureaucrats.
The Soviet government announced the first five-year plan in 1928. Stalin loyalists, like Krzhizanovksy and Strumlin, who headed Gosplan, the minister of planning, worried about the excess rigidity of this plan. They noted that the success of the plan was based on 4 factors: 1) five good consecutive crops, 2) more external trade and help than in 1928, 3) a “sharp improvement” in overall economic indicators, and 4) a smaller ration than before of military expenditures in the state’s total expenditures.
How could anybody predict five consecutive good crops in the USSR? The plan assumed the most optimistic conditions and nobody had a contingency plan to allow for failure of any of the necessary conditions.
Bazarov, another Stalin loyalist in Gosplan, pointed to another area of risk: the lack of political cadres. He warned the Gosplan presidium in 1929, “If you plan simultaneously a series of undertakings on such a gigantic scale without knowing in advance the organizational forms, without having cadres and without knowing what they should be taught, then you get a chaos guaranteed in advance; difficulties will arise which will not only slow down the execution of the five-year plan, which will take seven if not ten years to achieve, but results even worse may occur; here such a blatantly squandering of means could happen which would discredit the whole idea of industrialization.”
Strumlin admitted that the planners preferred to “stand for higher tempos rather than sit in prison for lower ones.” Strumlin and Krzhizanovksy had been expressing doubts about the plan for some time and Stalin removed these acolytes from Gosplan in 1930.
In order for the planners, who were operating under terrible political pressure, to make sense of the plan, they had to play all kinds of games. They had to falsify productivity and yield goals in order to allow the input and output portions of the plan to balance. V.V. Kuibyshev, another high-level planner and one of Stalin’s protégés, confessed in a letter to his wife how he had finessed the industrial plan he had developing. “Here is what worried me yesterday and today; I am unable to tie up the balance, and as I cannot go for contracting the capital outlays–contracting the tempo–there will be no other way but to take upon myself an almost unmanageable task in the realm of lowering costs.”
Eventually Kuibyshev swallowed any doubts he may have had and began cooking the books in such a way as to make the five-year plan, risky as it was, totally unrealizable.
Real life proved how senseless the plan was. Kuibyshev had recklessly predicted that costs would go down, meanwhile they went up: although the plan allocated 22 billion rubles for industry, transportation and building, the Soviets spent 41.6 billion. The money in circulation, which planners limited to a growth of only 1.25 billion rubles, consequently grew to 5.7 billion in 1933.
As madcap and as utopian as the original plan was, Stalin tossed it into the garbage can immediately after the planners submitted it to him. He commanded new goals in 1929-30 that disregarded any economic criteria. For example, instead of a goal of producing 10 million tons of pig iron in 1933, the Soviets now targeted 17 million. All this scientific “planning” was taking place when a bloody war against the Kulaks was turning the Russian countryside into chaos. Molotov declared that to talk about a 5-year plan during this period was “nonsense.”
Stalin told Gosplan to forget about coming up with a new plan that made sense. The main driving force now was speed. The slogan “tempos decide everything” became policy. The overwhelming majority of Gosplan, hand-picked by Stalin, viewed the new policy with shock. Molotov said this was too bad, and cleaned house in the old Gosplan with “all of its old-fashioned planners” as he delicately put it.
Now the USSR was clearly a different place in 1960 than it was in 1930. But it was subject to the same distortions as it was earlier. Politics trumped science. No matter how cogent the strategies put forward by software engineers, they were likely to be superseded by the feudal-like social relations that existed under Stalinism, with a King at the top—the General Secretary of the CP—and all the fiefdoms underneath him run by factory managers. Socialism is not just about planning. It is about workers control. Without thoroughgoing democracy that is fed by initiatives by those who produce the wealth of society, it is very difficult to use scientific methods to create “plenty”. The implied message of “Red Plenty” is that since democratic socialism is impossible, you might as well live with market relations and all the shit that goes along with it, well on display in his own country and the rest of Europe today.
In the 1980s I was president of the board of Tecnica, a kind of radical Peace Corps that sent programmers and engineers to Nicaragua to volunteer their skills. While Nicaragua was not socialist, it was committed to planning on a large scale. Our organization reported to Carl Oquist who was Daniel Ortega’s chief economics adviser. But no matter how many volunteers we sent, including some very capable people from Bell Labs and other blue-chip American firms, and no matter how many Nicaraguans we trained in the use of spreadsheets and database management systems, it could never compensate for a contra war that was draining the country economically.
Missing from “Red Plenty” is any engagement with the costs of war on economic development in the USSR. Spufford has no use for Stalin but does not explain how the Soviet people ended up with him. A contra war that ensued after the Bolsheviks took power resulted in the deaths of many of the most democratically minded and politically educated worker cadres who made the revolution. A political vacuum and the country’s inherited backwardness made it all the more easy for a despot like Stalin to take power and build a “socialism” that had much more in common with the primitive accumulation stage of capitalism than the Marxist beliefs of those who were shot down by American and British rifles in 1919.
In an interview with the Browser, Spufford is asked whether he agrees with the thesis of Yuri Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century”, namely that “in the 1920s and 30s the Soviet Union was a brilliantly successful state for Jews.”
While admitting that some aspects of the book are “undeniable”, he repeats the catechism of the professional anti-Communist:
But communism is a bit embarrassing now. It is getting hard to get people to own up to the fact that once upon a time they thought it was sensible. It was part of the centre of gravity of the 20th century. What I agree with about it is that it brings an aspect of the 20th century into view. One of the hardest things for us to remember about Stalinism is that as well as being a system of horrors it also represented modernity and social mobility and opportunity for lots of people. In a horribly straightforward way the great purges opened up an incredible number of jobs, as we saw with Khrushchev, who is a fine example of Russia being a land of opportunity built on numerous graves.
In generational terms, I belong to the 60s—a time when many young people still believed that the Soviet Union was “progressive” but only in the most dialectical sense. Born in 1964 and nearly 20 years my junior, Spufford comes of age at a time when Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Austrian economics were becoming hegemonic.
Those born 20 years after Spufford are now in their late twenties and unlikely to be convinced that history is at an end or that markets and “plenty” go together. These are the young people with crappy jobs if they are lucky and/or with huge college debts. They are also the kinds of people in the vanguard of the Occupy movement and the democratic revolutions sweeping the Middle East.
No matter how many books get written about the evils of 20th century communism, I doubt that this will matter to them. They want a society that is based on economic justice and peace. Whatever name you call it, this is what they seek no matter how many glowing reviews that “Red Plenty” garners in the New York Times. As has been the case since Marx and Engels were the same age, capitalism creates socialism through its own contradictions. As long as there is capitalism, there will be a movement for socialism. It is our job in the 21st century to rebuild a movement that is the only hope for the future, starting now.
April 9, 2012
For someone deemed so obsolete and irrelevant, Karl Marx has a way of getting under the skin of liberal intellectuals 193 years after his birth. For example, John Lanchester—a British novelist and nonfiction writer born in 1962—spends 6016 words (!) trying to drive a stake through the heart of Marx’s ideas in an essay titled Marx at 193 that appears in the left-leaning London Review of Books:
The most obvious mistake in his version of the world is to do with class. There is something like a classic Marxian proletariat dispersed through the world. But Marx foresaw that this proletariat would be an increasingly centralised and organised force: indeed, this was one of the reasons it would prove so dangerous to capitalism. By creating the conditions in which labour would be sure to organise and assemble collectively capitalism was arranging its own downfall. But there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat.
About a month before this article appeared, Crooked Timber—a group blog hosted by liberal academics also obsessed with burying Karl Marx—advised its readers that Francis Spufford’s new mixture of fact and fiction (faction in more senses than one) titled “Red Plenty” is “a mosaic novel that simultaneously speaks intelligently to the Soviet calculation debate, and has engaging characters.” Like Lanchester, two years his senior, Spufford writes both novels and nonfiction and is British. Since both Lanchester and Spufford were too young to be part of the sixties radicalization when socialist revolution had more of a palpable reality than it does today, one suspects that there might be a generational thing going on. Or Oedipal, if you are into Freud.
Oddly enough, the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the general decline of a revolutionary movement are not enough to assuage them. Could it be possible that if there was only a single human being committed to socialism living on the planet Earth at some point in the distant future, outlets like the London Review of Books and Crooked Timber would still be writing broadsides against this “irrelevant” movement? What the liberal intelligentsia fails to understand is that Marxism will exist as long as there is capitalism. Capitalism generates its negative critique—Marxism—through the creation of class antagonisms born out of the brutal reality this unnatural social system generates. If Karl Marx had never been born, someone else would have come along to develop an analysis of the capitalist system and a program to eliminate it. That’s the dialectic the liberals cannot understand.
I am currently about 40 percent through with “Red Plenty” and will be posting a critique but in the meantime I want to direct you to the introduction of Part Three where Francis Spufford dispenses with his fictional examination of Soviet characters involved with attempts to modernize the economy through automation and lays out “what went wrong” with the USSR. I have scanned the introduction, which can be read here: http://www.marxmail.org/Red_Plenty_Intro.htm. I want to single out a couple of sections to give you a feel for his approach:
Spufford’s take on Lenin comes out of the Cold War Sovietology playbook:
With almost no industrial workers to represent, the Bolshevik (‘majority) faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party was a tiny, freakish cult, under the thumb of a charismatic minor aristocrat, V.I. Lenin, who had developed a doctrine of the party’s, and by extension his own, infallibility. The Bolsheviks had no chance of influencing events, and certainly no chance at getting anywhere near political power, until the First World War turned Russian society upside down. In the chaos and economic collapse following the overthrow of the Tsar by disorganised liberals, they were able to use the discipline of the cult’s membership to mount a coup d’etat — and then to finesse themselves into the leadership of all those in Russia who were resisting the armed return of the old regime. Suddenly, a small collection of fanatics and opportunists found themselves [sic, should be itself, since "a small collection" is singular, not plural] running the country that least resembled Marx’s description of a place ready for socialist revolution.
Robert Service could not have put it better.
After several decades of Stalin’s forced march, the USSR began to catch up to the industrialized West, so much so that it became possible to consider a stepped-up investment in consumer goods. The term ‘Red Plenty’ alludes to the hopes of its various Soviet characters that they would have just as much as the Americans et al. Spufford writes:
Yet somehow this economy had to grow, and go on growing, without a pause. It wasn’t just a question of overtaking the Americans. There were still people in the Soviet Union, at the beginning of the 1960s, who believed in Marx’s original idyll: and one of them was the First Secretary of the Party, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Somehow, the economy had to carry the citizens of the Bolshevik corporation all the way up the steepening slope of growth to the point where the growing blended into indistinguishable plenty, where the work of capitalism and its surrogate were done at last, where history resumed its rightful course; where the hunting started, and the fishing, and the criticising after dinner, and the technology of abundance would purr in the background like a contented cat.
For Spufford, the USSR of the 1950s and 60s is kind of a funhouse mirror of the United States of the same period—in other words a country aspiring to look like the hit television show “Mad Men”. Socialism becomes more or less equated with a hankering for more, rather than for freedom. Since Spufford is a man of the left, it is not surprising that he is appalled by consumerism, whichever ideology fosters it. He told the Guardian in August 2010:
Our version isn’t costless either. The steel and concrete required to sustain it are created for us elsewhere, out of sight, leaving us free to stroll around our pastel pavilion, on the side of which glimmers the word “Tesco”. Inside are piled, just as Khrushchev hoped, riches to humble the kings of antiquity. But terms and conditions apply.
While I will be on the lookout for any clues that Spufford has entertained the possibility that 21st century socialism will proceed on utterly different foundations than what Henry Miller once called the Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the prognosis seems guarded. The general impression I get from what I have read so far, both in “Red Plenty” and his musings elsewhere, is that of a jaded intellectual who believes that it is better to deal with the devil you know—an understandable stance if you are a college professor in London instead of a Greek pensioner.
Turning now to John Lanchester’s essay, you can at least be grateful to him for providing so many examples of how not to read Marx. It is a kind of clinical study in liberal confusion, mixed with deliberate misrepresentation, starting with the nonsense about the disappearance of the working class as a “centralized” and “organized” force. Perhaps the only thing worth stating at this point is if nobody ever wrote a single word from a Marxist standpoint after Marx’s death, Lanchester’s comments would be valid. However, Marxism continued after Marx’s death—surprise, surprise. While Lanchester refers to David Harvey in his essay (see below), he does not seem to have grasped his key theoretical contribution, namely the ability of capital to decentralize the working class through geographical displacement of its internal contradictions. With respect to it being “organized”, we can only say that this is not Marx’s responsibility—it is ours.
His essay tries for the umpteenth time to refute some of the basic precepts of Capital, especially Marx’s concept of value:
There are obvious difficulties with Marx’s arguments. One of them is that so many of the contemporary world’s goods and commodities are now virtual (in the digital-oriented sense) that it’s not easy to see where the accumulated labour in them is. David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, for instance, the best beginning for anyone studying Marx’s most important book, are of immense value but they’re also available for free on the internet, so if you buy them as a book – you can take in information much more quickly by reading than by listening – the surplus value you’re adding to is mainly your own.
There is so much confusion packed into this brief paragraph that it would take a week to draw out and dissect it. To put it briefly (and this is all it deserves), the books, music and videos available for free on the Internet were either created originally through the process of surplus value creation (just ask the NY Times reporter if his work was originally “for free”) or by schnooks like me who want to win friends and influence people on a pro bono basis. If the writers, artists, and film-makers whose stuff gets circulated on Huffington Post never got paid, there never would have been anything to look at (except of course for the bloggers who got conned into writing for free.) How this invalidates Marx’s theory of value is anybody’s guess.
Lanchester also believes that when you carry your own bags at the airport for free, you are proving Marx wrong:
Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there’s no time-saving at all for the customer. When you look, you see that because airlines have to employ more people to supervise the non-online-checked-in customers – otherwise the planes wouldn’t leave on time – the non-checked-in queues move far more quickly.
The same thing is true for the CVS pharmacy across the street from me that replaced most of its sales clerks with scanning machines. I ring up my scanned goods and pack them myself. But this is not what CVS is about. Mostly it is about commodities stocked on the shelves that are the products of alienated labor. For example, the paper products Vanity Fair, Angel Soft, and Northern Quilted are all made by Georgia-Pacific, part of Koch Industries. In December 2010, the workers at Georgia-Pacific in Portland, Oregon rallied against their bosses’ greed:
On the cold afternoon of December 4th, fourth generation Georgia- Pacific (G-P) employee Travis McKinney raised his voice above the frigid wind as he stood with close to one hundred of his co-workers, union allies and community supporters in front of the office at the company’s largest distribution center for paper products in Portland, Oregon.
He described to an outraged crowd, management’s cold-blooded refusal to allow him to tend to his daughter’s health: “When I had to take my daughter to the hospital to be diagnosed, the company told me I had to stay and work overtime instead.” Travis was eventually able to get medical help for his daughter – despite G-P’s lack of support – and found that she was autistic.
Doug Stilwell, another G-P employee, spoke at the rally about management’s constant pressure to speed up forklift operations. “There is no safety… ever since they put this computer system in here [to automatically direct workers when to move loads], we’re all taking shortcuts trying to get this stuff down, pushing their paper out. It’s wrong,” said Stilwell.
This is the underlying reality of CVS or American Airlines, another labor-bashing outfit, not me scanning my toilet paper or doing online check-in’s of my suitcases.
Lanchester’s trump card is just as what one might have expected: the welfare state. The fact that we are no longer working 12 hours a day and one step away from the poorhouse makes Marx obsolete:
The contemporary welfare state – housing and educating and feeding and providing healthcare for its citizens, from birth to death – is a development which challenges the basis of Marx’s analysis of what capitalism is: I think he would have looked hard at the welfare state and wondered whether it fundamentally undermined his analysis, just because it is so different from the capitalism Marx saw operating in his day, and from which he extrapolated. Perhaps he would argue that what has happened is that British society in its entirety has become part of a global bourgeoisie, and the proletariat is now in other countries; that’s a possible argument, but not one that’s easy to sustain in the face of the inequalities which exist and are growing in our society. But Scandinavian welfare capitalism is very different from the state-controlled capitalism of China, which is in turn almost wholly different from the free-market, sauve-qui-peut capitalism of the United States, which is again different from the nationalistic and heavily socialised capitalism of France, which again is not at all like the curious hybrid we have in the UK, in which our governments are wholly devoted to the free market and yet we have areas of welfare and provision they haven’t dared address.
How odd to see someone pointing to the welfare states of Europe nowadays when all of them are on a forced march to resemble the United States, with Greece a prime example of the fate that befalls them all—Germany and the Scandinavian countries to follow suit. All of them are under pressure to compete in a global market that is putting immense pressure on the more prosperous countries to drive down the wages of their workers so as to compete with the less prosperous.
It should be understood, however, that the existence of these welfare states is predicated not on the tendency of the bourgeoisie to operate against its own class interests. Historically, they came into being only because they were seen as a way to preempt proletarian revolution. In some ways, German’s Bismarck paved the way for FDR, the Scandinavian and British welfare states and all the rest.
Under Bismarck, the following pieces of legislation were enacted:
- Health Insurance Bill of 1883
- Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
- Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889
He sponsored such legislation only because the German socialists were building a counter-force to German capitalism that had the potential to eliminate it. Even when he was pushing through welfare-state legislation well ahead of his time, Bismarck made sure to enact anti-socialist laws that resulted in the closing of 45 newspapers.
FDR was not that different. Widely recognized for fighting against the capitalists in order to preserve their own system, he made sure that the only threat to the status quo—the Trotskyists—ended up in prison at the beginning of WWII.
Whatever nostalgia you confront in “Red Plenty” for a fat and happy consumerist America of the 1950s or in Lanchester’s welfare state disappearing before your eyes like a Cheshire cat, the reality we confront is much more like Marx’s 1860s than either liberal is willing to accept. That is their problem, not ours.
October 29, 2011
Something tells me that Russian film is going through some kind of renaissance. My first inkling was “Silent Souls”, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s meditation on love and loss among the Merjan people that I reviewed last month. Like “Silent Souls”, two recent films are set in Russia’s hinterlands and to be sure, there is nothing more hinter than Siberia. Last night I saw “Siberia, Monamour” that kicked off the Eleventh Annual Russian Film Week in New York at the Village East theater. If this film is any indication of the quality of the films being shown at this festival through November 5th, and I suspect it is, New Yorkers are strongly urged to check out the schedule and make time for something special. Also set in Siberia is “The Edge”, a striking mixture of life in the gulag and steam locomotives! It opens at the Laemmle Theater in Los Angeles on November 23rd. Both of these films capture the visual beauty of the Siberian taiga (mountainous forests resembling the Canadian Rockies) as well as its physical and psychological isolation. Superior story telling and performances mark both as well. While neither one is explicitly political, it is obvious that both represent attempts to come to grips with the Soviet experience.
Monamour, obviously a play on “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”, is the name of a tiny Siberian village in post-Soviet Russia that is suffering the effects of economic rather than nuclear fall-out. This is not the Russia of oligarchs in Gucci shoes driving Mercedes-Benz’s. The main mode of transportation is a horse-drawn hay cart that Yura (Sergey Novikov) uses to visit his young nephew Leshia (Mikhail Protsko) and Ivan (Pyotr Zaychenko), his father and the boy’s grandfather, in Monamour. When Yura’s wife discovers some canned goods buried in the hay that will help the old man and the boy make it through hard times, she withdraws them angrily. There is barely enough food for his own family, how can he give anything to others? It is obvious that in a devastated Siberia, individual need trumps solidarity.
Also buried in the hay is a hunting rifle that Yuri needs as protection from feral dogs that live in the woods. We first see these dogs in the opening scenes as they devour a deer that they have hunted down. As terrifying as they appear, one of the dogs is a frequent and friendly visitor to the primitive farmhouse inhabited by Leshia and his grandfather. Leshia calls the dog Fang in homage to White Fang, the wolf-dog in Jack London’s children’s adventure story. His grandfather hates the feral dogs since they have killed most of the game in the surrounding forests. In this Hobbesian universe, it is dog versus man—literally so, as we will eventually discover. In a world with little in the way of creature comforts or hope for the future, the grandfather relies totally on a religious icon that he prays to like clockwork, begging Jesus and God for relief that will certainly not come in this world. Looking at the miserable conditions such people live in, one wonders whether Communism managed to change daily life in Siberia in any sort of material way.
The only signs of modernization would seem to be the army patrols that are looking for the criminals who prey on rural folk and who are the human equivalents of the feral dogs. On his way to Leshia and Ivan, Yuri runs into a couple of soldiers who have lost their way in the forest. After giving them directions, he prevails on them to share some home-brewed alcohol and food that he has brought along. The older soldier, a Captain (Nikolai Kozak), is only too happy to drink with Yuri and they finish off the bottle, much to the chagrin of the younger soldier who takes his job seriously. As Yuri continues on his way—drunkenly—to his father and nephew, the two soldiers head to a local whorehouse where the Captain’s degradation only deepens.
The paths of the soldiers, a prostitute the Captain dragoons for his commanding officer—a degenerate who even the Captain will not forbear, Yuri’s family, the feral dogs, and two criminals searching for religious icons to sell as antiques become intertwined in a complex but deftly handled plot that combines sardonic humor and wrenching pain and suffering. Furthermore, the characters—both human and canine—are not drawn together through the by-now hackneyed coincidence device found in another dog meets human film “Amores Perros”, but through the iron necessity of social relations in contemporary Russia.
This is only the second film ever made by Slava Ross, who was born in Siberia in 1966. It is both a loving tribute to a land that he obviously finds beautiful despite its harsh conditions as well as a cry against the suffering of its people today. If it ever makes it to American movie houses, as it surely should, don’t miss this memorable work of art.
In the opening scene of “The Edge” (Krai), we see Ignat (Vladimir Mashkov), a veteran of the recently concluded war against the Nazis, on board a steam locomotive that is heading to a Siberian work camp. Trains are the only way in and out of the camp, where Ignat has been assigned to work as a mechanic and engineer on the colossal machines. In this film, the machines are as important dramatically as the feral dogs are in “Siberia, Monamour”. Director Alexey Uchitel told the Voice of Russia:
The film is consistent with many Western stereotypes of Russia – the taiga, bears, moonshine, naked women in the Russian banya (sauna) a KGB agent with a gun. But the racing around on old locomotives, built in the early 20th century, is quite an unusual thing. In the film, trains made in the early 20th century build up astonishing speeds.
Our locomotives are great actors. They are like living creatures. They hiss, they blow off steam, they can be gentle and they get so angry that they derail. When we were shooting the last episode a huge train derailed knocking off all our projector lamps. I think he was really tired.
The camp is made up entirely of people who have had some contact with Nazi Germany, either as friend (Wehrmacht prisoners of war) or as foe—Russians who were used as slave labor. As was so often the case with Stalin, such distinctions hardly mattered.
There is no barbed wire or walls to keep the camp’s inhabitants from escaping. As the commandant, a man who lost his right arm in combat, tells Ignat, there is no exit from the camp except for the trains that he has been brought to maintain.
Ignat is a man of few words. Striding into the camp like Clint Eastwood into a lawless Southwest town, Ignat speaks through his actions. He has a master’s touch with the locomotives, and is unbeatable with his fists and irresistible to women, including the beautiful but coarse Sofia who dumps her current lover—an engineer like Ignat. She is a Russian who was dragged off to Germany just like the young prostitute is dragged off to satisfy Russian soldiers’ lust in “Siberia, Monamour”. When she is sent to the work camp after the war, she brings back an orphaned German baby boy who is still treated as an enemy by a Stalinist functionary who keeps the inmates in line.
Ignat soon learns that there is some kind of ghost living on a nearby island. After standing up to the German military, this amounted to small potatoes. The ghost turns out to be Elsa, a German woman in her early 20s who has been hiding out from the Russians since the war began. She came there originally with her father, who was hired to develop the railway system during the short-lived German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. When Hitler invaded Russia, Elsa and her father instantly become enemies and flee for their lives. Bullets strike her father down, but she narrowly escapes with her life. Like the last Japanese soldier on a desert island in the Pacific, she is not even aware that WWII has ended–or begun for that matter. All she knows is that the Russians want to kill her, for what reason she does not know.
Also on the island is a locomotive engine in utter disrepair that Ignat is determined to salvage and make his own. After an initial altercation with Ignat, Elsa becomes his assistant and then his lover.
Like “Siberia, Monamour”, this is a raw and elemental work that only deals with the Soviet experience in an indirect manner. But there is little doubt that the director’s sympathies are with those who became its victims. While director Alexey Uchitel’s main intentions are to tell a good story with believable and sympathetic characters, his film is a necessary commentary on a system that became undone through its own irrationalities. The idea that Russians who were dragged off as chattel slaves to Germany should be suspected of treason and kept isolated in Siberia is pure insanity.
Russia has selected “The Edge” for its Best Picture Academy Award this year. While I have no doubt concurring with this decision, I would raise the ante and bet that it will surpass anything made in Hollywood this year. It is reassuring that despite the continuing decline of Russia in the post-Soviet era into a typical, class-divided petro-dictatorship, the film industry shows signs of great health.
July 24, 2011
On Friday the NY Times had a glowing article on the “Ostalgia” show that just opened at the New Museum. “When Repression Was a Muse” is the title of Holland Cotter’s piece and gives you a good idea of his angle:
For some artists repression had a psychological upside. It gave their work a clear-cut sense of importance. It established art’s primary value as moral, not monetary; instrumental, not formal. If what you were doing was censorable, you could trust you were doing something right; heroic, even. And this attitude fostered solidarity and the growth of a counterculture in which experimentation, individuality and iconoclasm were protected and nurtured.
All this is well and good, but you really have to wonder what this has to do with Ostalgia, the neologism that combines the word East (Ost) with nostalgia and that means a longing for the socialist past, no matter how bureaucratic. Perhaps no other work of art expresses this better than the film “Goodbye, Lenin” that I reviewed in 2004. Given the preponderance of bitter rejections of the socialist system on display at the New Museum, one wonders why they didn’t call it “Anti-Ostalgia” instead.
Just by coincidence, I planned to go to the show on Friday. Although it was well worth my while and that of my readers, my praise is somewhat qualified. Here’s my impression of the work that I was mainly interested in seeing:
Perhaps a true artistic representation of “Ostalgia” would have consisted of works from the Stalin era, the typical socialist realism schlock with tractors and corn-fed smiling peasants. The only engagement in the show with that period consisted of art that borrowed from that genre only to subvert it through transformations of one sort or another. Sergey Zarva’s series of paintings based on old Soviet magazines is typical:
Standing apart from the largely inward-gazing and apolitical Conceptualist works that dominate the show is the time-line on “The Rise and Fall of Socialism 1945-1991” on the fifth floor assembled by Chto Delat, a Russian collective that is not afraid give itself the same name as Lenin’s famed “What is to be Done” (Chto Delat). However, its members are not the sort of people who celebrate Stalin’s birthday, nor would be caught dead painting pictures of grinning peasants celebrating a record-breaking harvest. Despite the tendency to think of the Russian left in terms of the bedraggled and discredited Communist Party, there are small numbers of artists and intellectuals whose inspiration is the Marxism that arose alongside Stalinism and that served as an alternative. If you look through a copy of the English-language edition of a Chto Delat newspaper, you will find references to Gramsci, Jameson, Lukacs just as you would in an issue of New Left Review, a journal whose politics they have an affinity for.
Chto delat describes itself as follows on its website:
Chto delat works through collective initiatives organized by “art soviets,” inspired by the councils formed in revolutionary Russia during the early 20th century. These “art soviets” want to trigger a prototypical social model of participatory democracy, translating an open system for the generation of new forms of solidarity into the realm of contemporary cultural work. The “art soviet” takes on the function of a counter-power that plans, localizes and executes projects collectively.
Usually, this process results in artistic interventions, exhibitions, or artworks (video films, radio plays, performances), which, in turn, trigger new issues of the newspaper. Most of these projects have a two-fold intent: on the one hand, we are interested in the translatability and actualization of left theory (classical Marxism, post-structuralism, post-operaism, critical theory) and artistic practice (situationism, documentalism, urbanism, realism) under post-Soviet conditions and how this relates to parallel efforts elsewhere. On the other hand, we have also often focused on actualizations of the potential of the Soviet past repressed in the course of Soviet history, floating signifiers that need to be captured and used before they are subsumed totally by the present mode of production.
To give a few examples: in 2004-2005, Chto delat carried out an artistic examination of a working class neighborhood in Petersburg, attempting to actualize the communitarian utopias of its constructivist urbanity through the community, adrift with an enactment of Debord’s derive. This research into the Fordist utopia of the late 1920s and its incomplete, uneven transition to late capitalism was presented in two exhibitions and a newspaper. Another actualization of the Soviet legacy can be found in the project “Builders” (2005), in which the group restaged a classical socialist realist masterpiece from the late 1950s, which then falls apart and comes back together. In September 2006, Chto delat collaborated on a project called “Self-Educations”, an international exhibition and seminars-program at the NCCA in Moscow, dedicated to alternative, community-based forms of self-learning as emancipatory practices.
One of the members of Chto Delat is Thomas Campbell, a Yale graduate and a subscriber to the Marxism mailing list who has been my liaison with the group for some time. Thomas invited me to check out the exhibit and a talk by two members of the collective given last week while they were in town. I am glad he did since it reinforced my conviction that Marxmail and the Unrepentant Marxist blog must have at least one purpose in a period when the left seems so isolated, and that is to strengthen our ties and increase our solidarity. If the only Marxists in Russia were those in Chto Delat, they would be the people I would want to join hands with. For those on the left who are pursuing “counter-hegemonic” alternatives to Western imperialism like the BRIC, I will have to part ways, especially since the gang running Russia today would have no compunction about jailing or killing serious opponents on the left.
In addition to the time-line, there was a video on display at the New Museum from the Chto Delat collective. It is an unabashedly pro-working class work, but hardly in the “socialist realism” tradition even though it is a take on the Soviet past. Like just about everything they produce, you can see it on the Internet:
Last Saturday night I went all the way downtown to attend a meeting hosted by the 16 Beaver Group, named after their street address just a stone’s throw from where I used to work at Goldman-Sachs in the 80s. I guess the stock market crash has made a loft affordable among the ruins.
There was going to be a film showing of Chto Delat’s “Perestroika Songspiel” as well as a discussion of the Ostalgia show led by Dmitry Vilesnky and Nikolay Oleynikov. The 16 Beaver Group organizers described the event this way on their website:
But should we feel any nostalgic feelings in regards to the collapse of socialist bloc which happened 20 years ago? How do we feel today in regards to the past living through the period of globalization and neo-liberal governance?
How could we find political models and displays which help us not to betray an emancipatory potential hidden and betrayed, in its own way, by the real politics of socialist states? What lessons can we gain from all socialist developments in economy, culture, everyday which we’re not subjugated to the logic of capital and ‘free market’?
Since I am so used to thinking of Marxists in terms of social and political isolation, the meeting was a major boost to my morale. There were probably more than 50 people in attendance and the discussion was on an incredibly high level. My first reaction was to wonder where all these people were coming from. I should have realized that the ongoing capitalist crisis has a lot to do with turning people around. Sooner or later we will figure out a way to unite all of us in the spirit of Chto Delat—what is to be done.
I will conclude with my video of the highlights of the event, followed by “Perestroika Singspiel”.
July 12, 2011
Yes, I know, the title of this post sounds like it’s a review of one of those spy novels you see in airport newsstands that have something on the back cover like “Soon to be a major motion picture starring Matt Damon…” But this not what it is about. Instead it is about a formulaic way of thinking about Belarus and a whole host of other countries run by dictators that the American ruling class demonizes. In my view a whole section of the left that seems more interested in “anti-imperialism” than socialism tends to give the rulers of such countries more credit than they deserve. If you can’t tell the difference between an Ahmadinejad and a Fidel Castro, then what is the point in calling yourself a socialist?
I was prompted to write this after someone brought an article to my attention from Counterpunch (no surprise there) that elevates Belarus’s President Lukashenko to a status that he does not deserve. The article follows certain guidelines that are essential when you are trying to make the case for someone like him (or Qaddafi, et al).
Titled “Belarus Under Siege“, author Michèle Brand makes some excellent points about U.S. attempts to subvert the government:
In February of this year, citing the recent elections, the US State Department announced an increase of its “democracy assistance” to Belarusian civil society by 30% to $15 million for the year. In 2009, the National Endowment for Democracy gave $2.7 million to finance Belarusian “independent” media, civil society (promoting “democratic ideas and values… and a market economy”), NGOs and political groups. A Wikileaks cable (VILNIUS 000732, dated June 12, 2005) confirmed money smuggling into Belarus on the part of USAID contractors, though such proof is hardly necessary. Also in February, the EU, individual European countries, Canada and the US put together a “war chest” of 87 million euros aiming toward regime change in Belarus.
We need to oppose this kind of meddling in the affairs of a sovereign country. But in the sentences that complete this paragraph, Brand sets herself up as an apologist for authoritarian rule.
With so much money being offered to anyone who wants a job as an activist, it’s not hard to find takers. Youth who run into trouble are offered free education in the West. There is evidence that many of those who partook in the violent acts of the night of December 19th were paid for their participation, by either Western or Russian elements.
What evidence is she talking about? If a government is going to appear credible in such matters, there has to be proof that money exchanged hands. For example, when Cuba arrested a group of people for taking money and marching orders from an American diplomat stationed there, the court heard and saw incontrovertible evidence.
Furthermore, Cuba has laws against receiving funding from the USA or any other foreign country. Does Belarus have the same kind of laws? One wonders if this matters since the Belarus cops are free to arrest people on the flimsiest of grounds as Brand shamelessly admits:
According to Western media, the protests are being violently repressed and protesters arbitrarily arrested. According to Belarusian authorities, participants have been arrested because they were shouting profanities at police and pushing them.
It amazes me that radicals who write for Counterpunch can give any kind of credence to “Belarusian authorities” who grant themselves the right to throw people in jail because they are “shouting profanities” at police or pushing them. Apparently there are two standards, one for use in the U.S. or Britain where such police behavior would be considered a naked assault on free speech but permissible for Belarus or Syria or fill in the blanks.
This is the first element of the Belarus formula: give permission to a country that the imperialists hate or fear to jail dissidents even if they have not committed any crime.
The next important element of the Belarus formula is to draw class distinctions between the protesters and the “silent majority” that supports President Lukashenko. Brand’s presentation of these differences is drawn from the same palette of those who defended the crushing of the “Green Movement” in Iran:
What is clear in the videos is that the crowd [of demonstrators] is well-off… Clearly, the Belarusian working class has reasons not to support the current movements: they are generally satisfied with the policies of President Lukashenko. If the movements are limited to the Western-oriented elite, Western or Russian financed operatives, and youth wanting to have a street party, then they have no future, no matter how many millions the US and others throw at them.
Haven’t we heard all this before? The Chablis-drinking, cellphone-using yuppies from the north of Tehran on one hand and the modest, religiously observant, tea-drinking workers from the southern neighborhoods? In fact, the more I read this kind of “analysis”, the more I am reminded of Richard Nixon or Chicago’s Mayor Daley. This willingness to give a green light to cops to beat the crap out of demonstrators for cursing and the demagogy directed at “effete” middle class liberals who don’t go to church on Sunday (or a mosque on Friday) shows an amazing affinity between those who defend law and order in bourgeois society and those who rally around authoritarian states that happen to find themselves in Washington’s crosshairs. Now, everybody must oppose sanctions, NED subversion, military intervention and all the rest but socialists must understand that workers have different class interests from the Obamas and the Lukashenkos of the world. Socialism is all about working class power, not “condescending saviors” as The Internationale puts it.
For Brand, the hostility of the West has everything to do with the social gains made under a benignly paternalistic ruler. This is the third and final element of the formula. It boils down to a defense of dictatorship if and when its UN human development indicators pass muster. Of course, by this criterion, the Soviet bureaucracy deserved the undying support of leftists everywhere, even when it was throwing dissidents in prison for long stretches when not torturing or killing them .
The United States and other Western countries have been attacking the government of President Alexander Lukashenko ever since it refused to follow the path of the other ex-Soviet countries in the 1990s, which famously sold off the state-owned industries to oligarchs, destroyed the social protection system and allowed kleptocratic mafia capitalism to take over. Under Lukashenko, Belarus has developped [sic] gradually into a strong socially-oriented market economy with the highest growth rate in the CIS even during its current financial troubles (according to the CIS Interstate Statistical Committee, between January and April 2011 Belarusian industry grew 12.9% year-on-year), while still maintaining its free health care, job protection, social services, retirement programs, low unemployment, state-subsidized housing and utilities, and high level of education. This is one reason why the country is naturally in the line of fire of the West, whose bankrupt governments are now obsessively telling their citizens that “there is no alternative”: we must drastically decrease or kill pensions and other social programs, fire government employees, flexibilize the work force, privatize education, health care, infrastructure and everything possible, etc. etc. Located just next door to crisis-stricken Europe, Belarus is more than a thorn in its side; it is living proof that European and American neoliberal propaganda is only lies.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to track the ups and downs of the Belarus economy, the current economic crisis appears to be the result of Russian corporate malfeasance, as Brand readily admits:
For the West is not the only source of financing, nor of interventionist pressure. One of the most important ex-candidates was financed by the Russians. While Western pressure is a known quantity in Belarus, Russian attempts at destabilization are relatively new. Russian oligarchs have been ogling the profitable Belarusian state enterprises, and since the government has historically refused to sell them, the Russian kleptocracy has begun to try to topple Lukashenko. The Russian media have begun a concerted campaign against the Belarusian government, airing pro-opposition documentaries and indulging in smearing and misinformation. Russian operatives are now making inroads; on the Minsk-Moscow highway, my Belarusian friend pointed out the expensive Russian cars with tinted black windows heading into Minsk. Russian oil prices have risen sharply — 30% in January — and the price of natural gas imported from Russia has quadrupled in four years. Although the economy has diversified since independence, it is still reliant on importing energy and raw materials for its production. The hike in energy and commodity prices has had a harsh impact in Belarus, where the cost of energy now makes up 78 cents of every dollar of goods produced. High commodity prices explain the trade deficit despite strong industrial and export growth.
Stabbed in the back by the Russians, the Belarus government has turned to the West for assistance and all the negative consequences that go along with it. The IMF is demanding privatization and cutbacks in social services, as one might expect.
The hardships have led to mass protests that the government has repressed with little regard to the niceties of civil rights or due process. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the same pattern taking place in Belarus has taken place already in Libya where IMF-type austerity has led to mass discontent and then a revolutionary movement.
Even under the best of circumstances, a small and economically vulnerable country like Belarus is at the mercy of economic forces it cannot control. When Russia was more favorably disposed to subsidizing the Belarus economy through a crude oil export tariff far below market value, Lukashenko could afford the generous welfare spending that Brand alluded to.
In order to withstand this kind of economic dislocation, governments must have the support of the people. Belarus is not the first country that has suffered from a Russian betrayal. Cuba went through a “special period” in the early 90s after a post-Communist regime decided to throw the socialist country to the mercy of world markets. Whatever future Belarus has as a sovereign nation that can withstand the hammer blows of the market system, the best way to navigate through treacherous waters is by giving the working class the democratic control over the social product. This means transforming the country along socialist lines and looking for allies internationally moving in the same direction. As quixotic as that might seem right now, there are no alternatives.