Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 8, 2016

Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Film,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 10:54 pm

Thirteen years ago I had the good fortune to review a documentary titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” by Klezmer musician Yale Strom that served as an introduction to the Jewish Autonomous Region of the USSR that Stalin declared in 1934. My review began:

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 F. 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.

Clearly, Birobidzhan continues to grip the imagination of filmmakers, artists and scholars based on recent works I have had a chance to examine.

A few days after I reviewed “Finding Babel”, the film distribution company Seventh Art Releasing got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in watching “Birobidzhan”, a film made by Belgian director Guy-Marc Hinant in 2015. Hinant is also a poet and music producer specializing in the avant-garde. As such, it is clear that he approaches the material from a different angle than Yale Strom whose film was much more conventional despite sharing the same passionate engagement with the subject. Much of “Birobidzhan” consists of evocative images of the region that are not directly related to the history such as the blurred images of a speeding freight train or an ominous and unexplained burning field. As is the case with most art films, and this certainly qualifies as one, such devices are evaluated on the basis of whether they help to lend emotional weight to the film and Hinant succeeds on this basis.

Like Strom’s film, we see the efforts of the dwindling number of Jews still living in Birobidzhan today trying to reconstruct a Jewish identity both culturally and religiously. Unlike the Hebrew-speaking Zionist entity, the Jews of Birobidzhan are devoted to Yiddish, the language that was blessed by Stalin with official status. Watching young kids in a classroom learning to read and write Yiddish is a moving experience as is seeing a somewhat older group rehearsing a musical play in the local theater that looks like a production from Second Avenue in the 1920s, and finally a chorus of septuagenarian women singing “Hava Negila”, a song that we sang in Hebrew school in the late 1950s. It is worth noting that the song has an iconic status in Israel as it is the first modern folk song to use Hebrew lyrics and is as almost as well-known as the Israeli national anthem. Somehow it seems less threatening in this context.

In some ways, it would have been better for the Jews to have made Birobidzhan their homeland rather thn Israel since it truly was a land without people that could accommodate a people without land. The film notes that long before 1934, Jews were settling in the remote and desolate territory in Siberia simply to escape the anti-Semitism that persisted in the USSR after the October revolution. Unlike Israel, where Yiddish was practically banned as a language linked to the ghetto and victimhood, Birobidzhan was devoted to Yiddish culture and even created the Sholem Aleichem library that contained more than 35,000 Yiddish titles. During his campaign against “bourgeois nationalism”, Stalin had all but 4,000 of them burned.

When Stalin launched the great repression of the 1930s, Birobidzhan was swept into the bloody whirlpool. Like Isaac Babel, some of the leading intellectuals and journalists who had migrated to Birobidzhan were charged with supporting Leon Trotsky and executed, including Joseph Liberberg—the first chair of the Jewish Region’s Council of People’s Deputies. An article on Liberberg shows the promise of the early USSR:

The mid-1920s were an exciting time to be involved in Jewish culture in the fledgling Soviet Union, where—for the first time in history—Yiddish culture and scholarship received state support. Liberberg left his university to post to head a new Jewish culture department at the All-Ukrainian Ukrainian Academy of Science.

Liberberg along with Nokhem Shtif organized the Jewish division, a scholarly institution specializing in Jewish studies. The initiative for its creation came from high party circles who supported the work of scholarly institutions in minority cultures throughout the Soviet Union.

The department evolved into the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in 1929. This became the leading Jewish cultural institution in Ukraine and attracted scholars and cultural activists from around the Soviet Union and throughout the world. A charismatic and ambitious director, Liberberg was not afraid to employ people who had previously held non-communist political positions.

As director of Ukraine’s most elite Jewish cultural institution — the republic with more than 60% of the Soviet Union’s Jews — Liberberg found little time for his academic work. He did get around to publish An Economic and Social History of England in 1927, co-edit October Days: Materials on the History of the October Revolution, also in 1927, A Dictionary of Political Terminology and Foreign Words, in 1929, The Bibliological Miscellany, in 1930, and a later addendum to that volume.

When I think about the murder of people like Liberberg and Babel, I never regret my decision to have become a Trotskyist in 1967 no matter the sectarian baggage this entailed. “Birobidzhan” is a glimpse into a what truly might have been described as “A different world is possible”. With all of the terrible things that took place in the USSR, we should never forget that in its youth it was a symbol of freedom, social justice and the possibility of a life lived outside of capitalist exploitation.

Seventh Art has told me that the film should be available on home video in January 2017. My advice is to check http://www.7thart.com/films/Birobidzhan in a couple of months to see if it has become available.

The one thing that always struck me about those Whitney Biennial Exhibitions is that the conceptual art that dominated the show was missing a key ingredient: a concept. That has never been the case with my friend Yevgeniy Fiks who I regard as America’s most accomplished conceptual artist. As someone who tackles the big topics of our day–the persecution of gay people, Jewish identity, the legacy of the Soviet Union and the power of big corporations among them—Fiks has the eye and the hand that can render the concepts into memorable art.

Last Saturday I attended the opening for his show Pleshka-Birobidzhan, 2016 that imagines Stalin having created a Homosexual Autonomous Region after the fashion of Birobidzhan. (Pleshka is the word for an area where gays “cruised” in Russia. The Bolshoi pleshka was the most renowned.)

Fiks explains his goals on his website:

The exhibition Pleshka-Birobidzhan engages the relationship between identity, fiction, and history by recreating an oral story about a group of Soviet gay men who travelled from Moscow to Birobidzhan in 1934 into an art installation. The oral story is set in 1934 soon after homosexuality was recriminalized in the Soviet Union and after the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region, of which Birobidzhan became the capital, was established.

The exhibition reenacts this Soviet gay oral story in a series of artworks that comprises the exhibition. This includes a series of 17 collages titled Pleshka-Birobidzhan which starts the narration. The collages depict gay men at several gay cruising sites a.k.a. pleshkas in 1934 discussing the recriminalization of homosexuality under Stalin as a failure of the October Revolution, the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East, and a dream of a gay Soviet utopia. The collages also depict the journey of a group of disillusioned gay men in fear of persecution to Birobidzhan, where upon their arrival found themselves in the middle of the Gay and Lesbian Autonomous Region — which appeared to exist alongside and at times overlapped with of the Soviet Jewish Utopia there.

This is a brilliant concept that 30 seconds after entering the Station Independent Projects gallery at 138 Eldridge Street, Suite 2F had my head spinning over the connections between being gay and being Jewish. As the ultimate outsiders in Soviet society in its Stalinist phase, all the two groups sought was to live in peace and freedom in urban settings where tolerance was the norm. Even if the Jews made the best they could out of life in Birobidzhan, most certainly would have preferred to enjoy the life of “rootless cosmopolitans” as Stalin referred to them in the post-WWII purges.

Like Hitler, Stalin had an atavistic hatred of Jews and homosexuals that was part of the Great Russian backwardness that swept across the USSR in the late 1920s as the dictator was pushing for social norms having more to do with Czarism than the socialist dreams of the earlier period.

If you are based in NYC, I strongly urge you to visit the gallery since there is no substitute for seeing the works rather than images on the Internet. If you can’t do so, check out http://yevgeniyfiks.com/section/441807-Pleshka-Birobidzhan-2016.html for a sample of the work including this stunning collage that mixes what I assume to be idealized portraits of Jewish workers or farmers in Birobidzhan with a dancer I surmise to be Vaslav Nijinsky.

birobidzhan

This is not Fiks’s first engagement with Birobidzhan. Two years ago he had an exhibition titled “A Gift to Birobidzhan” that I wrote about here. An excerpt from the press release explains the concept:

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.

You can take a virtual tour of “A Gift to Birobidzhan” here.

Finally, I should refer you to Masha Gessen’s newly published “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region”. Gessen, a lesbian, is the sister of Keith Gessen, an n+1 editor who along with Fiks was introduced to me by Thomas Campbell, an activist based in Russia close to the radical art movement.

Gessen, like Fiks and her brother, is an astute analyst of Russian society and politics as well as an emigre. This is an excerpt from the book that will once again remind you of why Stalin was one of the 20th century’s greatest criminals. Although Hitler killed far more people,  the overthrow of Soviet democracy made it all the more difficult for those of us trying to make a better world and consequently led to the deaths of millions in the Third World who could not count on true solidarity from a Kremlin far more interested in short-term deals with imperialism. If Russia has continued to live up to the ideals that Birobidzhan writer David Bergelson held dear, the world would look a lot more different today and a lot better.

The man who made Birobidzhan famous had the gift of knowing when to run. That he lived into his late sixties is testament to his outstanding survival instincts. On his sixty-eighth birthday, he was shot to death, a final victim of the century’s most productive executioner. He had been a writer who preferred to leave his stories ragged and open-ended, but his own life, which ended on what became known as the Night of the Murdered Poets, had a sinister rhyme and roundness to it.

David Bergelson was born on August 12, 1884, in the village of Okhrimovo, a Ukrainian shtetl so small there might be no record of it now if it were not for Bergelson’s association with it. Three and a half years before his birth, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of young revolutionaries that counted one Jew, a woman, among them. Five persons were hanged for the crime, but it was the Jews of Russia who bore the brunt of the national rage. After some years of acquiring greater rights and freedoms, as well as hope, the Jews found the law closing in on them, herding them back into the shtetlach. Pogroms swept through the Pale, brutalizing the enlightened modern Russian-speaking Jews along with their traditional parents. Into this bleak, dangerous world came the surprise ninth child of an older couple.

The parents were rich and pious. Bergelson’s father, a grain and timber merchant, spoke no Russian; he belonged to the last generation of Jews who could achieve wealth, success, and prominence entirely within the confines of the Yiddish-speaking world. His wife was younger and of a different sphere: a cultured woman, a reader. David Bergelson’s education was an unsuccessful attempt to merge his parents’ worlds. He was tutored by a maskil—a product of the Jewish enlightenment movement—who taught him to speak and write in Russian and Hebrew, in addition to his native Yiddish, but not, as the young Bergelson found out later, well enough to enable him to be admitted to an institution of higher learning. His father died when David was a little boy, his mother when he was fourteen, and David’s wanderings commenced. Losing one’s anchors—and any sense of home—is essential for developing an instinct for knowing when it’s time to run.

The teenager left the shtetl and stayed, by turns, with older siblings in the big cities of Kyiv, Warsaw, and Odessa, subsidizing their hospitality out of his share of the family inheritance. He had a home, and a family, only so long as he could pay for them. This is another good lesson. One always has to pay to belong, and to have a roof over one’s head.

One thing Bergelson seems to have always known about himself was that he was a writer. Any young writer must find his language, but rarely is the choice as literal—and as difficult—as it was for Jews writing in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the cities between which Bergelson was moving, he was surrounded by Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian speech. His command of these languages ranged from poor to limited. Then there was Hebrew, the language of his father’s prayers and a new movement’s dreams; as a teenager, Bergelson went through a period of fascination with the work of Nachman Syrkin, the founder of Labor Zionism. (Syrkin himself wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, and English.) Bergelson tried writing in Hebrew and failed—it may be that his command of it was insufficient for writing, or it could be that the language, in his hands, did not lend itself to the modernism he was attempting. He switched to Russian, but this expansive language failed him, too, perhaps because he wanted to write stark, sparse prose and Russian demanded flowery vagueness. He finally found his voice in his long-dead father’s living language, Yiddish.

Full: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/59374/where-the-jews-arent-by-masha-gessen/9780805242461/

October 26, 2016

Millennials and “unnatural” deaths under Stalin

Filed under: Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

I received this communication yesterday:

This almost comically red-baiting story seems to be making the rounds on the Internet:

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Without in any way wishing to absolve Stalin of anything, it seems to me the framing here needs rebutting — viz., the article’s implicit assumption that the deaths for which Stalin was directly and indirectly responsible are more attributable to “the idea of communism” as such, than they are to “a disastrous and abortive attempt at realizing the idea of communism, by a monstrous lunatic, in a world dominated by other monstrous lunatics who will do absolutely everything in their power to fucking take you down if you even *think* about realizing the idea of communism in their fucking playground, you motherfucking pinko commie bastard.” Or words to that effect.

So, do either of you know of good pieces contextualizing deaths under Stalin with respect to “exogenous / non-voluntary factors” (my phrase; trying to figure this out as I go)? In other words, anything that makes a good-faith attempt at understanding and accounting for the various contextual factors (e.g., foreign subversion; natural calamity; etc.) that contributed to the dreadful actual legacy of the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin — without whitewashing?

Again, just to be clear, I have no interest in absolving Stalin of anything whatsoever. Only in a sober rebuttal to those who would scapegoat “socialism as such” on the basis of Stalin’s crimes (or Mao’s for that matter), while feigning to pretend that “capitalism as such” remains untainted by those of the Rockefellers, Kroks, Bushes and Ramaphosas. Not to mention Hitler. (Oops.)


My reply:

The article appears in PJ Media, a website that I haven’t looked at in over a decade. It used to be called Pajamas Media and was a primary outlet for neoconservative ideology and support for the Bush administration, especially his invasion of Iraq.

The purpose of the article is to paint millennials as a bunch of idiots because they believe that George W. Bush was responsible for more deaths than Stalin:

Under Stalin, the Soviet Union suffered an estimated 56 to 62 million “unnatural deaths,” with 34 to 49 million directly linked to the dictator. Under Bush, 6,648 U.S. service members died, and the number of Iraqis who died has been variously estimated at 112,114, 122,644, 151,000, and even 655,000. Even the highest number for Bush is roughly 700,000, while the lowest for Stalin would be 34 million.

Obviously to answer the PJ article properly would require a book but let me take a shot at brief reply, including some resources that might help.

To start with, while Stalin was a mass murderer, the numbers PJ cites are problematic. While there are no citations in the article, it is likely that the reference for 56 to 62 million “unnatural deaths” comes from a book titled “Unnatural Deaths in the U.S.S.R.: 1928-1954” written in 1983 by a Soviet geophysicist named Iosif G. Dyadkin who had no training as a demographer. To start with, he counts 30 million deaths during WWII at Nazi hands as “unnatural” as they surely were. Just ask any survivor of the siege of Leningrad who can tell you that it was Hitler rather than Stalin who bombed Leningrad and other Russian cities.

It is very difficult to come to an accurate count of those “unnatural” deaths that can be clearly attributed to Stalin. Most of the people working in this field are diehard anti-Communists who wouldn’t think twice about exaggerating the numbers just as neo-Nazi ideologues like David Irving had a vested interest in minimizing Hitler’s concentration camp deaths.

In 1996 Chris Harman of the British SWP wrote an article titled “Thinking it Through” that dealt with mass killings by dictatorships. Since this group emerged out of the Trotskyist movement, you can be sure that Harman would be the last person to minimize the number of people killed by Stalin. He writes:

Some right wing historians have carried the argument a stage further. Robert Conquest, for instance, has claimed that Stalin actually killed more people than Hitler (a figure mistakenly accepted by Roy Medvedev). It is only a short step from this to some German nationalist historians who argue that Nazism was a lesser evil than Stalinism. The century’s horrors originate then, not in capitalism, but in misguided attempts to overthrow it. It is an argument many socialists find hard to answer, as they recoil from the way much of the left used to apologise for Stalinism. Yet the argument is fundamentally wrong. The collapse of the USSR has opened up secret police files in Moscow for the first time. This has enabled historians like R.W. Davies (who co-authored some of the later volumes in E.H. Carr’s magnificent A History of Soviet Russia) and the late Alec Nove to initiate the first factually based discussion on exactly what was the death toll in Stalin’s Russia. Their conclusions point to Stalin’s regime being bloody in the extreme. There were 353,000 executions in 1937 and 239,000 in 1938. Over 140,000 people died during the deportation of minority nationalities between 1944 and 1948.

On top of this, the numbers of people in the ‘gulag’ of prisons and labour camps rose from 2.5 million in 1933 to 5.5 million in 1953, with a death rate in the camps of five to nine times that among the free population – implying perhaps two million deaths caused by ill-treatment and neglect over a 25 year period. Finally, the famine that was a result of collectivisation in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan led to up to 5 million further deaths. But the discussion also leads to two other conclusions.

Such numbers strike me as much more plausible but that hardly lets Stalin off the hook. I am reminded of how horrific his Great Terror was from a documentary film I saw yesterday about Isaac Babel, arguably the finest novelist to have emerged out of the Russian Revolution. He wrote “Red Cavalry” that was based on his attachment to a Cossacks brigade fighting against the counter-revolution in the early 20s as well as “Odessa Tales” about Jewish life in the Ukraine. In 1939 he was charged with treason and executed, just one of millions in the 1930s.

For an unstinting analysis of the criminality of Stalin’s dictatorship, I strongly recommend Tony McKenna’s “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that will be available in a month or so. It is very useful in analyzing the underlying forces that led to millions being killed. I found the comparison with the Aztecs revealing:

One can discern, I think, a certain parity with the Stalinist phenomenon and the manner in which its bureaucracy was compelled to enact its own blood sacrifices. The difference lies only in this. If the Aztecs had failed to observe the ritualistic blood- letting, we are safe in assuming that the processes of nuclear fission which take place at the core of the sun would have remained indifferent to their lapse in religious piety, while the planets too would have been untroubled in their interminable, rolling motions. Not so with Stalinism however. If Stalinism had not launched an intermittent, cyclical series of purges, each one deeper and more far reaching than the last, then the Stalinist universe itself would have ground to a halt, col- lapsed under the weight of its own accumulated contradictions. The purges were as necessary to the internal dynamic of the political bureaucracy, as much as the mass repressions and the creation of the gu- lags were necessary to redefine the economic pattern of the country in and through a vast network of forced and slave labour. The two processes were in fact organically interlinked. Individual bureaucrats were able to fortify their positions by acquiring an increasing control over the means of repression which the Stalinist system used against the population in order to drive through its economic reforms and se- cure and bolster its own power. And yet, this very process generated a fundamental friction and destabilization of the bureaucracy itself – as its different elements were thrown into collision with one another in and through the marshalling of their own discrete powers and privileges. What we have here is what the greatest of all the classical German philosophers Hegel referred to as a “bad” or “spurious” infinite – that is, a contradiction whose solution simultaneously produces it anew at another level.

Finally, I believe that the real cause of such “unnatural” deaths under Stalin was the invasion of the USSR in 1918. To start with, there are estimates of between 7 to 12 million casualties, most of them civilian. And among these casualties were the most committed revolutionaries of the working class who saw the preservation of the socialist government as in their class interests. When they died on the battlefield, the heart of the revolution was effectively removed, thus leaving a vacuum that former bureaucrats of the Czarist regime could fill because they had experience as functionaries. These people provided the social base of the Stalinist machine.

Wikipedia provides details on the economic costs of the civil war:

The Russian economy was devastated by the war, with factories and bridges destroyed, cattle and raw materials pillaged, mines flooded and machines damaged. The industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third. According to Pravda, “The workers of the towns and some of the villages choke in the throes of hunger. The railways barely crawl. The houses are crumbling. The towns are full of refuse. Epidemics spread and death strikes—industry is ruined.” It is estimated that the total output of mines and factories in 1921 had fallen to 20% of the pre-World War level, and many crucial items experienced an even more drastic decline. For example, cotton production fell to 5%, and iron to 2%, of pre-war levels.

With such a devastating economic collapse, the Soviets were forced to make concessions to the peasantry that was growing frustrated with a lack of manufactured goods. With 20 percent of the factories destroyed, there was an urgent need to get production going again even on a market basis incorporated in the NEP. The NEP provided a temporary amelioration but at some costs.

From the very beginning, the so-called “scissors” phenomenon characterized the NEP. Trotsky first drew attention to this phenomenon of rising industrial prices and declining agricultural prices, which appeared graphically as an opened scissor, in the first few years of the NEP. It was attributable to the discrepancy between a shattered state-owned industrial infrastructure and a relatively thriving capitalist agricultural economy. The effect of the “scissors” was to cause the kulak to hoard farm products in an attempt to blackmail the state into cutting the prices of consumer goods. When the kulak hoarded crops, the workers went hungry and misery increased in the towns. This, in brief, was the pattern that would repeat itself until Stalin declared war on the kulaks.

The peasants had discovered that holding grain was more prudent than holding money. The state authorities could not make the peasants budge. At Rostov in the Ukraine the authorities issued an order to have the peasants deliver 25% of all flour delivered to state mills at a fixed price in 1924. The state was able to collect only 1/3 of the grain. The peasants withheld the rest.

In addition to the growing tensions between private growers and public authorities, tensions also arose in the countryside between the wealthy peasant and the overwhelming majority of poor peasants. The 1917 revolution distributed millions of small lots to the tiller, but their prospects were uncertain. In these mini-farms, horses were often nonexistent let alone tractors. Peasants used their own muscles to plow the land. Many of these mini-farms failed and the peasants became wage laborers on the kulak’s farms.

Were there any easy solutions to these contradictions? It is impossible to say since by the time they had mounted to the boiling point, the Marxists in the USSR had been silence or forced into exile. People like those at PJ Media believe that Russia would have been better off with capitalism. It was a lot easier to make such an argument in the 1950s and early 60s when the post-WWII recovery was still going strong.

That is not the case today when young people (the millennials) can’t find a job and are confronted by capitalist failure rather than what took place in the USSR in the 1930s. The rightwing is worried about the growing popularity of socialism, even if that only means the words used by Bernie Sanders that has little to do with what the Bolsheviks were trying to do in 1917. There will come a point when a new paradigmatic revolution takes place not in the periphery but in the heart of the advanced capitalist countries. As difficult the road we must travel to help such a revolution take place, we can at least be reassured that the task of overthrowing it will not be an easy task especially if the USA is where it takes place.

October 13, 2016

Is anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

Filed under: Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

The other day I got a FB message from a comrade in Pakistan:

which reminds me, comrade, i wanted to ask you about Timothy Snyder’s work and some related issues

i read your critique very carefully (or at least i hope i did), and i do have his book – i haven’t read it in its entirety, but im familiar with his main framework

my question mainly is along these lines:

if we are to come to grips with the legacy of Stalinism, how do we do it?

where should we look for a damning indictment of stalinism that does not devolve into Nazi apologia?

and can we sustain such a damning indictment, as communists, while still salvaging ANY progressive/radical/revolutionary/virtuous/politically-worthwhile elements from the Bolshevik experience and the soviet union’s history?

or is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

i remember a discussion with xxx at one point, where he was basically saying (unless i got him wrong) that he agrees with Snyder’s framework broadly and that we cannot underestimate the brutality of soviet domination of the ‘eastern bloc’

can you point the way to some sort of way to approach all this?

To start off, I should mention that I launched a Yahoo listserv called The Soviet Legacy that was devoted to discussing exactly such questions. The list withered on the vine mostly for the right reason–namely that people got tired of trying to figure out when and why things went sour in the USSR. In fact I created the mailing list to shunt such conversations off of the Marxism list where I try to emphasize current events. It is not that I am averse to discussing Soviet history, only averse to hearing the usual litany from sect members bent on foisting their analysis on the rest of us.

For a different approach, I’d recommend Tony McKenna’s new book on Stalin titled “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that I reviewed on August 21, 2016 and that will be available later this year.

It benefits from a wide range of sources both left, center and right. For me, it was a real eye-opener since my understanding of Stalinism emerged out of a fairly narrow part of the political spectrum, namely Leon Trotsky and his biographer Isaac Deutscher who the American Trotskyist leader regarded as a kind of crypto-Stalinist despite his obvious Trotskyist sympathies.

In terms of Snyder, I have to confess that I have never read any of his books. Some people who I have a lot of respect for speak highly of “Bloodlands” but I doubt that I will ever find the time or motivation to read it even though it obviously has a lot of scholarly material on the Ukraine, a subject that like Syria is of interest to me. I make a point of reading everything that Snyder writes about Ukraine for the New York Review of Books, where he is a regular contributor, but tend to rely more on my own interpretation of the Euromaidan drawn from reporting in the bourgeois press and Marxists both inside and outside of Ukraine such as Chris Ford.

But let me hone in on your key question: “is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?”

This is probably the most complex question of the 20th century and one that piles contradiction upon contradiction as you begin to study the effect that the USSR had on world politics. For example, in the late 80s I was involved with a project called Tecnica that sent programmers and other skilled professionals and tradespeople to Nicaragua and then expanded into a program for Africa focused on the ANC, which was then in exile.

In the 1980s the USSR was supplying Nicaragua with most of the military aid it needed to fend off the contras who relied in turn on Reagan’s “legal” and illegal support network. Without such aid it is likely that the Sandinistas would have been ousted from power a lot sooner than 1991. That military aid helped the government defend clinics and schools that were designed to eliminate poverty in the countryside.

When the USSR began implementing “perestroika”, the first thing to go was solidarity with Nicaragua as I pointed out in an article I wrote about 20 years ago:

Sandinista embrace of the marketplace does not take place in a political vacuum. It takes place within the context of Perestroika. In October 1988 Andrei Kozyrev, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official, wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared. Roger Chamorro of Barricada undoubtedly was privy to these discussions..

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua. (This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s recently published “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become known as the “Reagan Doctrine”.)

Analogously, when I traveled to Zambia in 1991 to consult with the ANC over the feasibility of Tecnica expanding into Africa, I was struck by the evidence of Soviet assistance to the liberation struggle that was mostly manifested by young members relating to our team about the education that they had received in Soviet colleges.

But in addition to the engineering and medical training they got there, it was obvious that they also got an education in class collaboration that facilitated the neoliberal turn of the ANC. So you get a bundle of contradictions. Soviet aid made it possible for apartheid to be abolished and for Jonah Savimbi’s contras to be defeated in Angola while at the same time it helped to consolidate a state power in South Africa that dispatches mostly Black cops to kill unarmed workers.

In the early 90s, the wing of the left that was most committed to “socialism from below” formulae saw the end of Communism (or Stalinism, if you prefer) to be an unqualified good. Susan Weissman wrote an article for Against the Current titled “The Russian Revolution Revisited” that epitomized this outlook:

The working class has been locked between the experience of Stalinism and Social Democracy, believing both were reformable. Today the working class needs a new liberatory mechanism that is consonant with the ends it promotes. On the other side, the demise of Stalinism leaves the capitalist class without a mediating force. With the end of Stalinism, its capitalist counterpart, social democracy, is also on the wane.

Statist containment, whether Stalinist, social democratic or fascist is over, yet much of the left pines for its return. Have they forgotten that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist? Do they really miss the Ceaucescus and Pol Pots?

That the zombies can’t be revived should give heart to those on the left who are filled with historical pessimism. It is impossible to resurrect Djugashvili’s monster, so why join the Volkogonovs, Pipes, Figes and their chorus in trying to keep it alive?

It is in the interests of world capital to encourage the idea that the debacle of Stalinism represents the inherent character of Marxism, or of working class revolution. It’s discouraging to see much of the left agree, especially given that conditions today put the question of socialism on the agenda.

I do not agree first of all that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist and find such comparisons invidious whether they come from a Marxist like Weismann or a liberal like Timothy Snyder. The key criterion is mode of production. Nazi Germany operated on the basis of a capitalism that required forced labor and totalitarian rule. In the 1930s the USSR had some of the same features but once WWII came to an end, many of the worst features of Stalinism began to decline and deepen further after Stalin’s death. For example, Khrushchev was committed to eradicating the worst features of the system while maintaining its underlying distortions that were necessary to ensure bureaucratic privileges. Could anybody imagine a softer and kinder Nazism? I can’t.

Gorbachev hoped to go even further. He conceived of a Soviet state that would resemble the Scandinavian system even though he never really came to terms with how it was based on its integration into the world imperialist system as I tried to point out in a series of articles on Sweden.

Even though Perestroika was responsible for the sell-out of the Nicaraguan revolution, I can easily imagine Gorbachev being far more responsive to the just demands of the nationalities Snyder writes about in “Bloodlands”. It was American imperialism that helped to create the economic disaster under Yeltsin that sapped Russia’s morale and led to the rise of Putin. This is not to speak of the encroachments of NATO that despite my identification with the Ukrainian struggle were provocations that enabled Putin to portray himself as a defender of Russian sovereignty.

The problem with the Assadist/Putinite left, of course, is that it can’t see the conflict between the USA and Russia dialectically. Because Ukraine now seeks closer ties to NATO (in the years before Euromaidan all Ukrainian politicians opposed joining NATO), the “anti-imperialist” left justifies Russian troops operating in Luhansk and Donetsk. A more nuanced analysis is required.

Let me conclude with a passage from the conclusion to Tony McKenna’s book that I urge everybody to read:

The single, underlying motivation of this book has been the attempt to show that Stalinism was the product of the clash between the forms of an old world and the possibilities of a new one. The workers’ democracy carried the form of a new society latent within the womb of the old order, and for this reason, those classes whose social power was predicated on the exploitation of labour by capital, both nation- ally and internationally, recognized in it the germ of their own dissolution. Thus they hastened to perform the most bloody, back alley abortion; they sought to mutilate the developing democracy in utero so to speak, and like the titan Cronus hungrily devouring his son, they hoped to put off in perpetuity the historical moment of their own usurpation. It was a critical juncture indeed; the old world was, in a fundamental sense, dying – but the new one was not yet developed enough to fully force its way into the light. The “white” counterrevolution, aided and abetted by the powers of the capitalist West, was sufficiently strong such that it could drag the Soviet democracy into the mire, that it could drown it in blood – by decimating the proletarian masses who had provided its backbone in the fury and frenzy of civil war; but at the same time the revolutionary movement, the child of the new epoch, still had enough vim and vigour in its organism to kick out and push back its antagonists. Reaction was unable to restore the old regime, but revolution was unable to secure the new one. The Bolshevik Party had remained in power, had survived the civil war, but was now bereft of the living proletarian democracy which had breathed life into it; hence the party structures, bled dry of the social substance which once infused them, immediately began to ossify. A bureaucratic caste began to develop which was in some way able to raise itself up above the competing class interests of the revolutionary proletariat and bourgeois and feudal reaction – interests which had fought each other to a standstill.

This then, was the historical genesis of Stalinism; it was the effects of the counterrevolution channelled through what was left of the beleaguered structures and remnants of proletarian power which then, in a truly necrotic fashion, began to revive and assume new form; the sclerotic, remorseless, murderous aspect of a zombified bureaucracy. I have also hoped to demonstrate, in the course of this book, that Stalin’s political persona cannot be apprehended outside this context.

 

February 12, 2016

What is to be done

Filed under: ussr — louisproyect @ 1:18 pm

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 8.15.10 AM

Dr. Michael Welton,

In your long diatribe against Lenin on CounterPunch today, you turn “What is to be Done” into some kind of original sin:

In his educational treatise What is to be Done? (1903), Lenin formulates the pedagogical relationship between educator (socialist intellectual) and those to be educated (peasants and proletariat) in bluntly instrumental and directive terms.

This famous (or infamous) text can be situated in the years between 1872 and 1905 that were marked by the absence of revolution. The existing revolutionary parties held gradualist and economistic beliefs, and Lenin could not see any way forward without “vanguard” subordination of the working class to the Leninist educator.

You don’t seem to understand that Lenin’s ideas on the revolutionary party were a direct application of the model of the German Social Democracy. Lenin wrote:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

Lenin’s main point is that the Social Democrat should not aspire to be a trade union secretary, but instead the “tribune of the people.” This tribune will “react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum of people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

Lenin’s example of one such tribune is the German Social Democratic leader Wilhelm Liebnecht. The German Social Democracy was Lenin’s model for what was needed in Russia. This type of party did not exist in Russia and it was his goal to build one.

You cite a number of enemies of Lenin in your diatribe including Maurice Brinton whose citation of Lenin’s 1918 article “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” supposedly indicated that the fate of the Russian Revolution was sealed therein–thus making an amalgam of Lenin and Stalin: “Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process.”

I am not sure what it is that you teach but history does not seem to be your forte. Lenin’s article was written during the civil war when the USSR was invaded by 8 imperialist armies, including the USA. This resulted in the death of 7 to 12 million people, mostly civilians, according to the Wikipedia article on the Russian civil war.

Once the civil war was over, the Soviets dropped war communism like a hot potato and moved toward the NEP which hardly maps to Maurice Brinton’s nightmare. Of course the NEP led to a series of other problems that arguably strengthened Stalin’s hand. In any case, the best way to understand what happened in the USSR is not by quoting libertarian communists like Maurice Brinton that sound great on paper. Rather it requires an engagement with the social and economic forces that acted mercilessly on Lenin and all attempts in the 20th and 21st century to build an alternative to capitalism. The lesson that can be drawn is that socialism requires a global framework if it is to succeed. Lenin’s writings and even the fitful attempts of the Comintern to provide such a framework are still useful for those of us who remain inspired by the 1917 revolution.

Although I am happy to see CounterPunch–a website that unfortunately gives far too much space for people who obviously admire Stalin and Stalin Jr. (Vladimir Putin)–publish your article, it is a disservice to socialism. My recommendation to you is to read Neil Harding’s “Lenin’s Political Thought” to get a handle on what Lenin believed as opposed to the funhouse mirror image of Lenin and the USSR by Maurice Brinton et al.

Have a nice day.

December 17, 2014

The Lenin Museum

Filed under: art,Gay,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.46.23 PM

 Representing a men’s room stall at the Lenin Museum, where gay men cruised

It would be hard to imagine any art show more topical than “The Lenin Museum” that opened at the James Gallery in the CUNY Graduate Center on 365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street) in New York on November 14th and runs through January 17th. As a statement on the troubled relationship between gay people and the state in Russia, it is not to be missed. The show is the latest in a series by conceptual artist extraordinaire Yevgeniy Fiks, a Russian émigré whose work I have been following with keen interest for the past two years.

In conceptual art, the ideas take precedence over traditional aesthetic and commercial considerations. Since much of it is one-time installation, it is hardly the sort of thing that you can take home and mount over a mantelpiece. While many of its adherents have taken it up as a challenge to the tyranny of the gallery, someone like Damien Hirst creates conceptual art that caters to the decadent-minded hedge fund speculator with a taste for the transgressive.

Fiks has created his own niche, one that is dedicated to the examination of the Soviet legacy. As someone left-of-center, he is intrigued by the experience of official Communism, both in the USSR and in the USA, the home of this 42-year old artist for the past twenty years.

Fiks is a mischievous sort who in some ways hearkens back to the glory days of Dadaism, when every work of art conveyed a bit of the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. that depicted the Mona Lisa with a mustache. Nothing expresses that more than his “Lenin for your Library?”, a project that involved sending copies of Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism“ to 100 major transnational corporations including the Gap, Inc., Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM as donations to their corporate library. He received 35 response letters with 14 companies accepting the donation.

Fiks’s latest show is more somber. It deals with one of the most troubled legacies of the former Soviet Union that persists until this day, namely homophobia. In 1917 the young Soviet state decriminalized homosexuality. At the time the socialist movement was finally tackling this medieval prejudice, especially in the Weimar Republic where Magnus Hirschfield organized the First Congress for Sexual Reform in 1921. In a key article on socialism and homosexuality, Thomas Harrison wrote about the possibilities that were opening up at the time:

In 1923, the Commissar of Health, N.A. Semashko, on a visit to Hirschfeld’s Institute, assured the Germans that Soviet legalization was “a deliberately emancipatory measure, part of the sexual revolution.” Two years later, the Director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene Grigorii Batkis, in a pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia, described Soviet policy as “the absolute non-interference of the state and society in sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon. Concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against morality — Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

In 1934, Stalin recriminalized homosexuality, a measure that was consistent with the Bonpartist retreat from the early 20s when the heavens were being stormed. Even under the threat of repression, gay men and women were determined to hold on to the gains of 1917. In May 1934, Harry Whyte, the editor of Moscow’s English newspaper, The Moscow News, sent an open letter to Stalin titled “Can a Homosexual be a Member of the Communist Party?” that is part of the installation. Whyte stated:

Since I have a personal stake in this question insofar as I am a homosexual myself, I addressed this question to a number of comrades from the OGPU and the People’s Commissariat for Justice, to psychiatrists, and to Comrade Borodin, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where I work.

All that I managed to extract from them was a number of contradictory opinions which show that amongst these comrades there is no clear theoretical understanding of what might have served as the basis for passage of the given law. The first psychiatrist from whom I sought help with this question twice assured me (after verifying this with the People’s Commissariat for Justice) that if they are honest citizens or good communists, his patients may order their personal lives as they see fit. Comrade Borodin, who said that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked.

The title of the show “The Lenin Museum” is a reference to a favorite cruising spot, the men’s room of an institution that housed Lenin memorabilia of the sort that Fiks keeps returning to in his remarkable career. An article on “Sex in the Soviet closet: a history of gay cruising in Moscow” in the Moscow News (the only reliable newspaper in Putin’s Russia) will give you a sense of what will await you at this stunning show:

One day in 1955, a railway stoker named Klimov entered the GUM department store, looking for a bite to eat. While inside, Klimov, 27, stopped by the bathroom.

“In the toilet a young lad came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Let’s get acquainted,'” Klimov later recalled. The man’s name was Volodya. He invited Klimov to the Lenin Museum.

“He bought the tickets with his money, and we went straight to the men’s toilet.”

An intimate encounter began, but they were interrupted by a pair of strangers.

Several weeks later, the men happened to meet in the GUM toilet again. This time, they opted for the secluded woods of Sokolniki Park.

From 1933 to 1993, homosexuality was officially outlawed in Russia under Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code. But all the while, the Communist capital’s most famous landmarks served as pick-up spots for gay men.

In a new photo book, titled “Moscow” and published by Ugly Duckling Presse, Russian-American photographer Yevgeniy Fiks captures the city’s Soviet cruising grounds as they look today. They are familiar to any resident of the city: the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexandrovsky Sad, Okhotny Ryad metro station.

Most of the spots are usually crowded. But in Fiks’ photos, they stand empty.

“This book is a type of kaddish [mourning prayer] for the lost and repressed generations of Soviet-era gays,” Fiks said.

October 5, 2014

Monument to Cold War Victory

Filed under: art,ussr — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Cold War Exhibit Release-1

Cold War Exhibit Release-2

September 19, 2014

A Gift to Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

fiks receptionOpening night reception for A Gift to Birobidzhan

fiks photoYevgeniy Fiks

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 lnp3@panix.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

The Wayland Rudd Collection: the Red and the Black

Filed under: african-american,art,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Wayland Rudd

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

A conversation with Yevgeniy Fiks, a Post-Soviet Conceptual Artist

Filed under: art,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

July 13, 2012

Family Portrait in Black and White

Filed under: Film,racism,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

“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.

 

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