A BAD REVIEW.

I’ve been slowly reading the January 14, 2010 issue of NYRB (very slowly—I keep it in my shoulder bag for emergency reading), and I’ve just gotten to a review that angered me enough to vent publicly. At the end of last year I posted about Vladislav Zubok’s Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia; toward the end of the NYRB issue I found a review of Zubok’s book by Michael Scammell, and it’s a kind of review I particularly dislike, the kind that attacks a book for not being the kind of book the reviewer wishes had been written.
Now, Scammell is no dummy; he translated The Defense and most of The Gift by Nabokov, and has written well-received biographies of Solzhenitsyn and Koestler. But he apparently loves the cliché narrative of late Soviet times (in which brave dissidents Fight the Power) so much that he can hardly bear to read anything different, even when he recognizes how groundbreaking and well researched and written it is. He eventually gets around to admitting that “Zubok is a reliable and prodigiously well-informed guide to the opinions, attitudes, and changing fortunes of loyal Soviet intellectuals… Zubok tells his story with a density of detail and complexity of analysis that is truly remarkable… His book is scholarly but also highly readable and accessible, and is rich in anecdotal material that enlivens the sociological analysis.” But first he bats Zubok around for his alleged omissions, and afterwards he bats him around for his ideologically incorrect orientation, and in general he clearly regrets that Zubok chose to write about the people he did; apparently Scammell is so wedded to the familiar stories of Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel that he would rather have seen yet another retelling (and he takes up much of his review with yet another retelling). It is as if he were reviewing W. Bruce Lincoln’s In the Vanguard of Reform: Russia’s Enlightened Bureaucrats, 1825-1861, a magisterial work on the bureaucrats who beavered away in government offices in St. Petersburg and elsewhere, laying the groundwork for the Great Reforms of the 1860s while the infinitely more famous dissidents like Herzen were thundering anathemas at tsarism from abroad, and complained that Lincoln was writing about such people instead of penning yet another paean to Herzen & Co. As I wrote in this thread, foreigners love to focus “on writers who got actively suppressed and weren’t able to publish their great work (Bulgakov, Platonov) rather than on those who managed to publish fine work under existing conditions,” and this is another example of the same prejudice.


Scammell annoys me in other ways as well. In his first paragraph he writes “If the classic nineteenth-century authors of Russia marked the golden age of Russian literature, and the modernists of the early twentieth, its silver age, the writers of the latter half of the twentieth century constitute a kind of bronze age,” perpetuating the mindless “Silver Age” terminology I complained about here and topping it with an absurd extension to a “bronze age,” as if the tale of Russian literature were one of foreordained degeneration (I guess twenty-first-century Russia is doomed to experience an iron age of literature). On page 54 he takes a gratuitous swipe at ’60s poets by calling their readings at the statue of Mayakovsky in downtown Moscow “a pale imitation of Mayakovsky’s own public readings,” just as though he’d been there a century ago and could compare for himself. (But hey, it’s bronze versus silver, right? Bronze has to lose.) And on the last page he counters Zubok’s “one may suspect that Russia needed its critical intelligentsia and its high culture only as long as it suffered from tyranny, misery, and backwardness” by citing “the brilliance of the modernist movement in Russia, starting with Alexander Blok and Andrei Bely, and continuing with the generation of Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Akhmatova”—as though the tsarist Russia those writers lived in were not a place of “tyranny, misery, and backwardness”!
No, it won’t do. If you disagree with Zubok, by all means say so, but don’t blame him for not writing a different book (especially since that book would have been a rehashing of familiar material), and spare me your false teleologies.

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    I don’t understand, comrade. Didn’t Scammel clearly show that Zubok had taken an incorrect line? Perhaps you should clarify your statement.

  2. John Emerson says:

    I think of ours as the Pinchbeck Age.

  3. *practices vigorous self-criticism*

  4. “as though the tsarist Russia those writers lived in were not a place of “tyranny, misery, and backwardness”!”
    Well, it wasn’t really – at least not as far as the daily lives of those writers were concerned. But of course the “Silver Age” writers were often taken to task, at the time, for being too apolitical, too concerned with aesthetics and for their unwillingness to act as a “critical intelligentsia” , which would seem to invalidate Scammell’s point. Cultural figures of the late Tsarist era like Blok, Chekhov, Bunin, Stravinsky, etc. were hardly dissidents.

  5. I’m more with Scammell on the last one: before 1917, most Silver Age poets were free to publish what they wished, suffered no political prosecution, and did pretty much what they wanted with their lives — with some exceptions. Not so after 1917, not at all.
    Compared with the Soviet Russia of 1917-1953, the Russia of 1861-1917 was a free country. Nor was it a tyranny by the European standards of that time. It was economically backward, although developing at breakneck speed during brief intervals interspersed with recessions. And while the peasantry of central Russia lived in what can be called misery today, it little affected the lives of Silver Age poets. Those of Jewish descent did suffer from government-imposed limitations, but these were gradualy done away with after 1905.

  6. Compared with the Soviet Russia of 1917-1953, the Russia of 1861-1917 was a free country.
    But that’s a ridiculous standard; compared with the Soviet Russia of 1917-1953, almost anyplace is free. It’s like dismissing any complaint by saying “That’s not as bad as HITLER!” You are surely aware that those who lived in the Russia of 1861-1917 considered their country both unfree and wretched. Were they wrong because they were not aware that things were going to get even worse?

  7. Compared with the Soviet Russia of 1917-1953, the Russia of 1861-1917 was a free country.
    Yes that is a facile comparison. But in context the Russian Empire of 1905 to 1917 wasn’t much worse than the German, Ottoman, Austrian, British or French Empires of the same period. It was arguably better to be a Finn or even a Kazakh under the Tsars than a Boer under the Union Jack or an Algerian under French rule. Better to be Jewish in Russia than Armenian in Turkey if it came to that. Certainly people like Gorky were actively trying to expose the nastiness of the Tsarist regime, but writers like Bunin, Sologub, and Gumilyov were hardly spending their time writing pamphlets or exposing social injustice. In retrospect Russia has never been more “normal” or integrated into Europe as it was in that short period.

  8. Bunin published his first full-length work, The Village, when he was 40. It was a bleak portrayal of village life, with its stupidity, brutality, and violence.”
    “Realistic elements of [Sologub's] The Petty Demon include a vivid description of 19th-century rural everyday life… the book was received as an indictment of Russian society…”
    It’s true Gumilyov doesn’t seem to have objected to tsarism (he famously went around proclaiming himself a monarchist before the Bolsheviks shot him), so that’s one out of three.
    I’m pretty sure most Russian intellectuals and artists of the time, apart from Gumilyov, would be aghast at the idea that Russia wasn’t so bad, and I myself find it quite odd. Is it really so hard to see past the horrors of Stalinism to the less vicious horrors of tsarism?

  9. John Emerson says:

    Off-topic:
    “If Lucy was the kind of person portrayed in the poem; if Wordsworth murdered her, either by cutting her throat, or smothering her, in concert with his friends Southey and Coleridge; and if he had thus found himself released from an engagement which had become irksome to him, or possibly from the threat of an action for breach of promise, there is not a syllable in the poem with which he crowns his crime which is not alive with meaning. On any other supposition, to the general reader it is unintelligible.” (Samuel Butler, Selected Essays, 1927.)
    I can’t remember if I’ve recommended Butler before, but if there are any grumpy old men here they might enjoy this book.

  10. And in earlier essay collections in Project Gutenberg or Google Books.

  11. You can’t seriously be claiming “dissident” status for Sologub and Bunin because they were sometimes critical of the idiocies of provincial life, LH.
    By that standard Sam Clemens was an American dissident. Try again.
    I’m pretty sure most Russian intellectuals and artists of the time, apart from Gumilyov, would be aghast at the idea that Russia wasn’t so bad
    Again, so what? You could say the same about Italian intellectuals and artist of the same period, or Austro-Hungarian. I’m not saying the Russian Empire was a good place, it wasn’t – but the nastiness was not even comparable to the horror show that came later. Too much of pre-Revolutionary Russia to this day is still understood through a filter of Bolshevik propaganda and the (understandable) hatred of Tsarism that early 20th century Jewish, Polish and Baltic emigres to America brought with them.

  12. “…the horrors of Stalinism to the less vicious horrors of tsarism” — LH.
    I’m afraid you’re ignoring a major distinction here. The horrors of Stalinism were directly inflicted by the regime. Not so for most “tsarist horrors.” Rather, most were horrors of Russian rural and small-town life per se. Sologub’s and Bunin’s criticisms were not much of the government, but mostly of society, customs and mores.
    Comparing capitalism with communism is likewise fallacious: capitalism is more or less natural and decentralized, while 20th century communism was artificial and centrally imposed.

  13. You can’t seriously be claiming “dissident” status for Sologub and Bunin because they were sometimes critical of the idiocies of provincial life, LH.
    We seem to be talking past each other. Of course I’m not calling Sologub and Bunin dissidents, I’m saying that tsarist Russia “suffered from tyranny, misery, and backwardness,” which is the point at issue.
    Not so for most “tsarist horrors.” Rather, most were horrors of Russian rural and small-town life per se.
    We’ll have to agree to disagree, but I have the vast majority of the Russian intelligentsia of the period on my side.

  14. Too much of pre-Revolutionary Russia to this day is still understood through a filter of Bolshevik propaganda and the (understandable) hatred of Tsarism that early 20th century Jewish, Polish and Baltic emigres to America brought with them.
    While that’s doubtless true, it’s irrelevant here unless you’re accusing me of understanding pre-Revolutionary Russia through a filter of Bolshevik propaganda and bitter exile memoirs. I have read widely in the literature and history of the time itself, unfiltered by anything, and I am quite certain the government was rotten through and through and created conditions that were far worse than those of Italy or Austria-Hungary. I’m truly surprised that anyone could disagree, unless they’re afraid that admitting the horrors of tsarism would somehow diminish those of communism, which is a silly attitude.

  15. JE: Samuel Butler … grumpy old men
    Well-noticed, John. Been there, done some of that, and do it again whenever possible. Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh are books I reread every decade or so. Thanks for the tip about Selected Essays.
    In my initial enthusiasm about The Way of All Flesh (must have been in the ’70s), I enquired about his collected works. Twenty volumes ! Either the Johnathan Cape or Fifield edition is available through Amazon from one of those on-demand reprint services BiblioLife. I find this is a branch of BiblioBazaar, the publishers of the edition of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation that I just got from my bookseller. It’s a facsimile of an 1887 edition of the original from 1844. I had heard about such reprint services, and thought I would have to locate one when the time came. No, they have snuck in right next to conventional publishers – and more power to them.
    Alexei K: Comparing capitalism with communism is likewise fallacious: capitalism is more or less natural and decentralized, while 20th century communism was artificial and centrally imposed.
    Your point being ? I understand Hat to be comparing the degrees and quality of freedom that were available under such systems. He was not comparing the etiologies of those systems. Similarly, one can reasonably compare the degrees of freedom historically experienced by lepers with that experienced by gout sufferers. It would be absurd to claim that this amounts to comparing the etiologies of leprosy and gout.

  16. Stu — the point was to respond to LH’s “less vicious horrors of tsarism”, which were the regular horrors of life in a poor rural country and would have been the same, or even worse, with any other form of government.
    Getting back to the original argument, I think it would be fair to say that Russia’s Silver Age began at a time of unprecedented freedom and prosperity in Russia (backward and miserable as it still remained), and ended during a time of unprecedented tyranny and hardship.

  17. I’m truly surprised that anyone could disagree, unless they’re afraid that admitting the horrors of tsarism would somehow diminish those of communism, which is a silly attitude.
    There is a similar attitude about the Holocaust, held by some Jewish intellectuals, that I find to be not just silly, but pernicious. These people claim that there is something uniquely horrible about the Holocaust. They say it cannot, and should not, be compared with any other murderous events experienced by any other groups of people people for whatever reasons.
    I myself think that such an attitude encourages a subjugation of the political to the neurotic – even though it is easy to imagine that palpable political interests are here lying side by side with the self-victimization.
    Unavoidable disclaimer: no, I don’t believe that there is a world conspiracy of Jews. A world conspiracy of whoever would in principle be A Good Thing, though. Consider how instructive and useful it would be to observe how they handled things ! No such luck.

  18. I think it would be fair to say that Russia’s Silver Age began at a time of unprecedented freedom and prosperity in Russia
    Again, that’s a meaningless statement, since “freedom and prosperity” is being measured against one of the most unfree and unprosperous states in modern history. It’s like telling someone who’s been lying limbless in a box for forty years “Stop whining, you’ve got one crutch now”—or, more to the point, telling Iraqis they should be grateful for the chaos they’re living in because Saddam Hussein is gone.
    I repeat that you are going against the views of virtually the entire intelligentsia of the time, and I submit that they knew their conditions better than you do.

  19. I am quite certain the government was rotten through and through and created conditions that were far worse than those of Italy or Austria-Hungary
    Yes, I think we are talking past each other. Sue, the Russian
    government was ridiculously corrupt and inefficient, and therefore viewed with contempt by all right thinking people at the time. But that doesn’t mean life in the Russian Empire was uniquely horrible. The incompetence of the government was a blessing in many ways and allowed all sorts of creative philosophical, religious and social movements to arise. That’s what made the Russian Empire so fascinating. I’m surprised, to be honest, that someone like yourself who has read so widely in literature of the period would think that life in St Petersburg or Odessa or Warsaw or Helsingfors was in any way especially miserable. What strikes me when reading Sologub or Bunin, or even Gorky, is how much better life was for ordinary people in Tsarist Russia compared to life afterwards. Italian rural poverty in the 1890s was certainly just as bad if not worse – at least if you just listen to the intellegentsia.
    I repeat that you are going against the views of virtually the entire intelligentsia of the time I submit you’re cherry picking. “Tyranny, misery, and backwardness” is exagerrated by any standard. What tyranny? There was an elected duma and the Tsar was an incompetent fool who couldn’t even have his enemies prosecuted properly. What “backwardness”? Russian scientists and engineers were among the world leaders at the time. A country that was a leader in aeronautic technology in 1914 with people like Sikorsky was hardly “backward.”

  20. life in St Petersburg or Odessa or Warsaw or Helsingfors
    You do realize, right, that the vast majority of the inhabitants of the empire had never seen those cities and were living in wretched poverty in villages that had essentially no government aside from their elders (who practiced charming customs like having sex with their sons’ wives and beating anyone they felt annoyed at)?
    There was an elected duma
    After 1905; it had no power at all, and its members did nothing but bicker and make fiery speeches.
    What “backwardness”? Russian scientists and engineers were among the world leaders at the time. A country that was a leader in aeronautic technology in 1914 with people like Sikorsky was hardly “backward.”
    You’re the one who’s cherry-picking. I don’t think countries are normally judged by their prowess in aeronautic technology. By any of the usual economic and social measures, Russia was the most backward country in Europe at the time. This is not even a controversial statement.

  21. their elders (who practiced charming customs like having sex with their sons’ wives
    How widespread was this that it has to be mentioned as one of the terrors of village life?

  22. Very widespread indeed; there’s a Russian word for it, снохачество (a снохач [snokhách] being a man who has sex with his сноха [snokhá], his son’s wife).

  23. In English we have a special word “mofo”.

  24. And how is that relevant?

  25. Not knowing Russian, I can’t say, but the English epithet has nothing to do with the person’s actual family and personal habits, it’s just the worst possible thing anyone can think of to call someone. (In Arabic, it’s the sister.)

  26. But I don’t for a minute doubt your characterizations of the country–it certainly corresponds to what reading I have done on the subject, which I’m sure is a mere fraction of the Hattic Knowledge Base. On several occasions Russian leaders have sent emissaries abroad on fact-finding expeditions in an attempt to modernize the country, so the Russians themselves must have considered their country to be a backwater. I seem to vaguely recall one such foray that resulted in Russian males being expected to shave their beards.

  27. The Russian word is not an insult and is not in general use (for all I know, it’s long obsolete); it’s simply a descriptive term for a once common phenomenon.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    their elders (who practiced charming customs like having sex with their sons’ wives
    I remember reading an article in a linguistics journal some years ago about Russian kinship vocabulary, with comments on the social structure. Many rural people lived in extended families through the custom of wives moving in with their husbands’ families (the good old patriarchal system). With the advent of industrialization, many young men (married or not) would go to the cities during the winter, or sometimes for years at a time, to find work, while their wives stayed in the family compound, where the only adult male around was their father-in-law. In that situation there was a lot of “cohabitation” (not all forced, I would think) between the father-in-law and the daughters-in-law. Not only was there a specific word for this occurrence, but also for the inevitable offspring resulting from such cohabitation.

  29. Grumbly: I hold that what makes the Holocaust unique is that it is jointly two different things: it is at once a genocide, the attempted destruction of a people by killing the individuals who compose it, and an administrative massacre, the deliberate killing of a group of individuals merely because they are inconvenient to some purpose. The genocide of the Armenians was the former but not the latter; the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 was the latter but not the former.
    This is not, of course, a uniqueness in principle: what has once been done, can be done again.

  30. John Emerson says:

    It’s not an insult to suggest that someone has sex with his daughters-in-law?

  31. Heh. It can, of course, be used as an insult, like any word for a disfavored phenomenon, but it is not essentially an insult, like motherfucker, which is used only in that capacity.

  32. And by “can” I mean “could presumably, back when it was a living word for a living phenomenon.”

  33. JE’s question sounds ironic; surely a word for such a relationship must have some value judgment attached to it, as English words for taboo relationships and the offspring of such relationships do. Assuming they thought the relationships were taboo (and the son at least would probably think so) and not just a byproduct of human nature.

  34. John Emerson says:

    Is it a compliment, perhaps?

  35. Inquiring minds want to know.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Surely in 19th century Russian literature dealing with peasant life, this de facto polygamous situation must be mentioned, in a way that shows local attitudes. The fact that there are specific words for this relationship and the offspring resulting from it (not just generic words like “adultery” or “bastard”) shows that it was an acknowledged part of extended family life. Unlike in some other parts of Europe, neither the mothers nor the children were rejected by the extended family: after all, the paternal “blood” was still being transmitted within the family.

  37. the only adult male around was their father-in-law. In that situation there was a lot of “cohabitation” (not all forced, I would think) between the father-in-law and the daughters-in-law.
    Why does m-l’s matter-of-fact description sound so salacious :)

  38. John Emerson says:

    I actually know of an American family where the absent husband’s brother fathered a child by his wife. Not in Appalachia, either, but a very poor family.

  39. By any of the usual economic and social measures, Russia was the most backward country in Europe at the time. This is not even a controversial statement.
    It’s actually very controversial. I gather you’re not a fan of Richard Pipes or Norman Stone.

  40. I’m more interested to know why you’re still reading the January 14th NYRB. There can’t be many occasions when you require emergency reading.

  41. I gather you’re not a fan of Richard Pipes or Norman Stone.
    I’ve read Pipes but not Stone. I admire Pipes’s research but am always alert for his biases. At any rate, whether or not it was by some measure not literally the most backward nation is irrelevant; the point is that it was unquestionably a land suffering from tyranny, misery, and backwardness, as everyone at the time (outside the tsar’s personal circle, and even including some of them) agreed. The fact that it acquires a falsely rosy glow in retrospect thanks to the incredible brutality of Soviet rule is neither here nor there. (Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer, anyone? There’s one result of that rosy glow.)

  42. In the Wipe article on Nicholas II just linked by Hat, I find an early glimpse of the idea that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. The occasion is the shooting of Nick and his family:

    Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Maria survived the first hail of bullets; the sisters were wearing over 1.3 kilograms of diamonds and precious gems sewn into their clothing, which provided some initial protection from the bullets and bayonets.

    I think we may conclude from this either that Marilyn was not well-read in history, or thought that “bullet-proof vests are a girl’s best friend” was too hard to sing.

  43. If they’d had a goat as their head of state, the 1917 revolution would never have happened.

  44. Those t’s are a bit of a t’s. Any relation to the Rottweilers of Baden-Württemberg ?

  45. Nick? I think he was more closely related to the Oldenburgs of Schleswig-Holstein.

  46. the point is that it was unquestionably a land suffering from tyranny, misery, and backwardness, as everyone at the time (outside the tsar’s personal circle, and even including some of them) agreed
    I don’t think that is the point. Just to belabor this. The point is that Mandelshtam, Pasternak and Akhmatova never suffered directly from tyranny, misery or backwardness before 1917. Nor did Bunin, Blok, Belyi, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, or any of the other faces of Russian high culture in the last 2 decaces of Tsarism. In fact they almost universally led lives that would have been the envy of most European middle class people of the time, and were generally free to travel, pursue their intellectual interests and create whatever they felt like. That is not true of Russian intellectuals before Alexander II and it is not true of Russian intellectuals after 1917. The contemporary Russian elites didn’t feel that special need for prophets and voices of conscience in the pre-Revolutionary years which is why you see in that period the rise of apolitical movements like Acmeism rather than new Dostoevskiis and Solzhenitsyns. I don’t think you need rose colored glasses to see the late Russian Empire as a deeply corrupt, exploitative, bigoted and often vicious society with vast pockets of rural poverty, full of nasty ethnic and social tensions, but also a very dynamic society with rapid economic growth, a world leader in industrialization and scientific progress, and a place in which the elites, including the upper middle classes, lived pretty damn well, all things considered.
    When you write things like You do realize, right, that the vast majority of the inhabitants of the empire had never seen those cities and were living in wretched poverty in villages that had essentially no government aside from their elders you might want to recognize that this was also true of the millions of Asian and African subjects of the British Empire and the French Empire. The only difference is that the Russian elites were mostly subjugating white people who spoke the same language. For the most part Russian creative types between 1890-1917 led lives very similar materially and intellectually to the lives of their peers in Berlin, Paris and London.

  47. Heh. We’re not actually arguing at all, since we agree on all the essential facts. You are right, of course, that Bunin, Blok, & Co. did not suffer from the backwardness of the empire, being part of the privileged intelligentsia. But the reason the whole subject arose is Zubok’s statement that “one may suspect that Russia needed its critical intelligentsia and its high culture only as long as it suffered from tyranny, misery, and backwardness,” and all I have been doing is pointing out that Russia fulfilled those conditions (and thus, according to the hypothesis, needed its critical intelligentsia and its high culture) even in tsarist times.

  48. снохачи – snokhachi
    I suspect the practice was wide-spread indeed and that would partly explain the incredibly high fertility rates in the Russian empire. I think it arose from the practicalities of rural life where all work was highly labour intensive, both for men and for women. Marrying one’s 9 year old son to a 17 year old girl would have been a kind of business deal. The young woman would take on jobs that her new family needed filling and sex with father-in-law or brothers-in-law would be a by-product. And think of the traditional rural set-up: a two-room log cabin with 20-30 square metres floor space where upwards of 10 people of both sexes would sleep, no electricity and long winter nights.
    Snokhachestvo is mentioned, for example, in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (Bazarov and Pavel Petrovich argue about family values, and Bazarov says: ‘What are you talking about? Have you never heard of snokhachi?’) In folklore there are many sayings that may imply the practice. One that I remember is ‘лучше деверя четыре, чем золовушка одна’ (‘better to have four brothers-in-law, than one sister-in-law’), a woman would say to describe the intricacies of family relations.

  49. review
    on the original subject of this post, I agree with Hat – it’s a classic example of agitprop. As an old TASS hand I can vouch for that. That’s exactly how we used to write reports in the bad old days – and laugh at them, too. The US president does the state of the union, and you report: ‘he completely ignored the new far-reaching peace-loving initiatives of the Soviet leadership’.

  50. apolitical literary movements
    I am not sure about this point. Acmeists, symbolists and the World of Art (Мир искусства) could only be described as apolitical by politically motivated critics.
    Blok, the quintessential aesthete, wrote many politically charged poems, and later the famous article ‘Intelligentsia and the revolution’.
    Mayakovsky with his futurists were anything but apolitical, neither before, nor after 1917.
    This is also the time (1890-1910) when Gorky’s fame became established in Russia and internationally. And he was not simply political, but an active supporter of the bolshevik party from its beginnings when it was a small fringe group in the vast sea of Russia’s left.
    And of course Tolstoy turned to thundering political preaching at the time, was widely listened to and inspired many to join in political processes, in Russia and internationally, think Gandhi. When he visited Moscow not long before his death (its centenary is widely marked this year), nearly a hundred thousand people flooded the square in front of the train station. They were hailing him as the voice of Russia’s conscience, mainly because of his article ‘Не могу молчать’ (I Can’t Stay Silent), against the mass summary executions in the wake of the 1905 revolution, a kind of ‘J’accuse’. And Tolstoy’s influence scared both the authorities and the radical left. The church excommunicated him. Lenin wrote two articles criticising Tolstoy’s thinking (Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of Russian Revolution and L.N.Tolstoy).
    And we are not even including journalism, with strong political writers of all shades (e.g. Skabichevsky of the mainstream left).
    You are right, Vanya, that the period from 1861 to 1917 was the time of unprecedented reforms, growing freedoms and economic progress in Russia, but honestly, saying that contemporary Russian elites didn’t need prophets or voices of conscience is a flawed view of the literary and social landscape of the time.

  51. tyranny and misery in Russia
    Vanya makes a very strong point here, Russia between 1890 and 1917 was referred to as the European steamroller. If I remember correctly it was the 6th largest world economy, the bread basket of Europe, ruble was one of the strongest currencies thanks to Vitte and reforms after 1861 indeed created a dynamic society. I think the missing element in the picture you painted is the self-perception of Russians as living in an un-free and tyrannical country. Self-perception can become a powerful force in itself, as I myself have seen in the last years of the Soviet Union.
    And of course the brutalising effect of the war. In the run-up to 1917, it was the Russo-Japanese war and then the first world war. In the run-up to 1991, it was the Afghan war.
    Vitte strongly attributes Russia’s prosperity in the reign of Alexander III (1881-92)to her ability to refrain from getting involved in a major war and is critical of Nicolas II for giving in to chauvinistic war-mongers.

  52. I somehow missed while traveling. I, too, don’t like “tyranny, misery and backwardness” as a description of pre-1917 Russia. To me those three words describe a country that is very different than Russia at the turn of the century. I also have to say that I found your comment about Nicholas the Passion-bearer, well, snotty. The Church discussed and argued about that for years, and if you read their final document, you won’t find much rose-colored in their assessment of him or his reign. But he and the family knew they were going to be killed and prayed for the souls of their murderers. That’s why they are called “passion-bearers.” Besides, in the Orthodox Church (and probably the Catholic), “saint” doesn’t mean “saintly in all ways.” Now maybe you find all this religious stuff ridiculous, but still. You seem to be off on your facts, Hat.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    Some of the greatest saints had been notorious sinners. (Sorry, I can’t remember any examples).

  54. I thought sanctifying was for actually doing something for the cause of the church, not just suffering, and it wasn’t for the church he suffered. Discussion or not, I still think it was a politically motivated decision.

  55. No, Sashura. I know this probably sounds like counting the number of angels on a pin, but there are various kinds of canonization for various deeds. From the report:
    In the many sufferings borne by the Royal Family during their last days we see the light of Christ’s truth ever-conquering evil, the light which was manifest in their tragic death, just as it shone in the lives and deaths of millions of Orthodox Christians who suffered persecutions, tortures and a martyr’s end in the period of Russia’s new time of troubles.
    “The Sovereigns believed that they will die as martyrs for their motherland, – writes one of the witnesses of their life in confinement, the Heir’s tutor P. Gilliard, – they died as martyrs for mankind. Their true magnitude did not come from their royal status but from that a remarkable moral magnitude, which they gradually attained. They themselves became a forth of an idea. And in their humiliation they were a striking manifestation of that remarkable clarity of the soul, against which all violence and all fury were powerless, and which triumphs in death itself.”
    It is precisely in the interpretation of this feat of the Royal Family, that the Commission unanimously finds it possible to present the question of adding the names of Emperor Nicholas Alexandrovich, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the Czarevich Alexei, the Grand Duchesses Anastasia, Maria, Olga and Tatiana, to the ranks of Holy Passionbearers.
    There were, undoubtedly, political/social considerations, and the bishops themselves were — to put it mildly — not of the same opinion on everything.

  56. Some of the greatest saints had been notorious sinners.
    Augustine.

  57. Augustine had been a sinner in his youth; that is an entirely different matter. Nicholas II was a a pathetic man and a horrible ruler, and to me the idea of his being canonized under any definition of the word is ludicrous. I’m afraid you’ll just have to accept my snottiness on the subject as the inevitable result of my ni dieu ni maître orientation.

  58. I’d take it more seriously if they canonized every single one of those who died “in the period of Russia’s new time of troubles.” Why pick the ones who caused it?

  59. Hmm. Nicholas caused the Bolsheviks to kill Christians?

  60. No, he caused the time of troubles in general. Not exclusively, obviously, but if he had been a better tsar there would not have been a Bolshevik coup.

  61. If Nicolas II had been a better Tsar, or just stronger man, there would not have even been a World War I. Not solely his fault of course, but I think his father would have seen the trap Kaiser Willy was setting for him.
    That’s a pretty awful mistake to have to carry through history, and may qualify him as one of the most incompetent people ever born. Still I see Mab’s point. Personal merits aside, Nicky was a martyr by any normal definition – he was the “supreme protector and defender of the dogmas of the Greco Russian faith, etc. etc.”, and that was arguably one of the reasons he and his family were killed – because of his religious beliefs and the religious symbolism of his office. As far as we know he went to his grave refusing to renounce those beliefs. I would guess most Catholics and Orthodox Christians instinctively understand why he’s a martyr – canonization seems to me personally to be going a little far, but not ludicrous in the context of Orthodox belief.

  62. Actually, vanya, the Church decided that he wasn’t a martyr, that is, he wasn’t asked to renounce his faith in order to save his life, and in fact, he wasn’t killed because he was Christian, but because he had been the tsar. The commission was quite critical of his rule (and some members were extremely critical in contradictory ways).
    Hat, it’s always so tempting to play “what if.” I agree that if he had been a better tsar, and accepted/instituted power-sharing earlier, and done more to alleviate poverty and injustice, Russia’s path would have probably been different. But you seem to think the Bolshevik coup was inevitable. I don’t. I think that if Lenin and his gang hadn’t grabbed power, there was a chance that the Provisional Gov’t might have — with probably dozens of zigzags and changes and difficulties — led the country in a different direction. I don’t think the Bolsheviks can be entirely blamed on Nicholas. Partially, yes, but not entirely.
    In any case, that was not very relevant to the Church’s deliberations. They asked if the tsar and his family had “died for their faith.” The answer was no, but they gave an extraordinary example of Christian acceptance of death, forgiving their executors and accepting their fate. I guess you think this is all hogwash, but it isn’t to Orthodox Christians.

  63. oh, mab, it’s not ‘what if’ – it’s ‘because of’. Because of him so many things went wrong. Bolshevik takeover wasn’t predetermined, but the tide of social and political change was – and he resisted it all through his rule.
    Nicolas’ rein was a chain of disasters and a story of futile resistance to his own brilliant reformers (Witte, Rosen, Nabokov, Stolypin). It’s not the bolsheviks who branded him ‘krovavy’ – Nicolas the Bloodletter after the Khodynka stampede at his coronation. Then came the defeat in Russo-Japanese war followed by the 1905 revolution and then of course the ultimate disaster of the first world war and the collapse of the empire. Witte simply says Nicolas wasn’t ready to take the throne after the premature death of Alexander III.
    But even that is not the main point re his canonisation. Nicolas encouraged a particularly nasty strand of Russian chauvinism that lead to wars externally and religious and national intolerance and pogroms internally – and mass emigration to which Vanya refers here.
    And, in Church, his was the time when maverick – and corrupt – preachers-agents (Gapon, Rasputin) rose and free religious thought ostracised (Tolstoy). Priest Gapon lead the workers of St-Petersburg to be shot in front of the tsar’s Winter Palace in 1905 in the Bloody Sunday, the incident that sparked the 1905 revolution (Boris Akunin, the popular modern crime-fiction writer, in The Diamond Chariot, builds a version that the revolution was financed and supplied by the Japanese secret services). Rasputin is better known (remember Boney M?), he completely discredited the monarchy during the first world war.
    The canonisation of Nicolas as ‘passion-bearer’, i.e. someone who died as a good, non-resisting and forgiving christian, and not as a martyr, i.e. someone who died because of taking a stand for the faith, only underlies his ineptness. The distinction is hardly relevant to most believers or non-believers, I think. What is relevant is the Church is seen to be saying: here is our hero, here is a model to look up to. After all we know about him?

  64. by the way, has anyone seen Scammel’s review in an open domain? I read the part of it available on NYRB site, but hit the paywall just as he seems to be saying that Pasternak was a dissident.

  65. Sashura, we may be talking across each other. I don’t deny that Nicholas was an terrible leader. But I don’t agree that the Bolshevik crimes came be laid on anyone’s door by their own.
    The canonisation of Nicolas as ‘passion-bearer’, i.e. someone who died as a good, non-resisting and forgiving christian, and not as a martyr, i.e. someone who died because of taking a stand for the faith, only underlies his ineptness.
    This doesn’t make any sense. He was inept because the Bolsheviks didn’t offer him his life if he renounced his faith?
    The distinction is hardly relevant to most believers or non-believers, I think.
    You think wrong.
    What is relevant is the Church is seen to be saying: here is our hero, here is a model to look up to.
    No, or only in the sense that his acceptance of his death is a model. Not otherwise.

  66. oops, “door but their own.”

  67. doesn’t make any sense
    no, not in that sense. A passion-bearer to me sounds like a lower class of a saint than a martyr, like someone with a bronze medal to someone with a silver, or gold?

  68. Ack! I assume you are joking. But just in case… you definitely don’t get points for what kind of canonization you have. Martyrdom is a bit tricky. You can’t seek it or provoke it. And although you don’t have to have been sinless, you can’t have been involved in the persecution or death of others. (That eliminated many of the proposed “new martyrs” who were killed in the 1920s and 30s.)

  69. what is ‘talking across each other’? It’s not in my vocabulary. No listening to each other?
    I don’t agree that the Bolshevik crimes came to be laid on anyone’s door but their own.
    I didn’t say that, no one above says that. And I am listening to your point of view, but am I allowed to disagree? To disagree that the Church’s decision may have concerned the type of canonisation, but canonisation it was and as such should be and is judged in a broader social and political context. I’ve just read several articles by religious writers in Russia. They say that all images of the tsar should now be considered icons.

  70. I don’t want to offend you, mab, but I’m afraid I agree with Sashura, both “The distinction is hardly relevant to most believers or non-believers” and “What is relevant is the Church is seen to be saying: here is our hero, here is a model to look up to.” You are clearly very involved with these details of official Orthodoxy, but I’m quite sure most Russian Orthodox are far less knowledgeable about such things, just as most Jews can’t parse Talmudic exegesis and most Christians can’t tell you the difference between homoousios and homoiousios (that jot, or iota, over which so many were killed). All most people, believers or not, know and care about is that the church gave its holy imprimatur to the feckless Nicholas and his family; how they feel about that depends on their political orientation, but it’s hard to see it as a wise thing for the church to have done unless they wanted to align themselves with some of the most retrograde forces in Russian society.

  71. what is ‘talking across each other’? It’s not in my vocabulary. Not listening to each other?
    Sort of, but more like “listening, but only hearing what fits into one’s own preconceptions and responding accordingly.” So if two people are talking about the same event, one from a primarily religious perspective and one from a political one, they might be listening to each other but only hearing what is relevant to them, not seeing what is important to the other. I don’t know if that’s clear, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.

  72. ‘talking across each other’
    I’ve never encountered that. I can’t tell from your description whether you would agree it means the same as ‘talking at cross purposes’. This I would explain as ‘talking about different things (or different aspects of the same thing) without noticing it’.

  73. I’m quite sure most Russian Orthodox are far less knowledgeable about such things
    Um, how many Orthodox Christians do you know? Sorry if I’m wrong, but judging from what you write, you don’t know a lot of them, nor do you have any real idea of what they believe about Nicholas or his canonization. Everything you wrote is what you think they think. I find it quite close to offensive, and surprising from someone who is going to such pains to avoid offending people with his language. Don’t Orthodox believers get the same curtesy?
    As far as talking across each other goes, I guess I screwed up my English. What I mean is that we probably don’t disagree as much as it seems.

  74. I guess I screwed up my English
    mab, I myself got screwed up when you wrote “curtesy”. I thought: “poor ol’ mab, she’s forgotten how to spell ‘courtesy’”. But the more I looked at the word, the more uncertain I became as to whether I might have forgotten how to spell it. So I looked up “curtesy” in my notebook MW, and found an entry ! But I didn’t read the definition. I was still thinking “surely it comes from ‘courtoisie’, so what happened to the ‘o’” ? I looked up “courtesy” and found it with the familiar definition “polished manners”, “consideration” and so on. So I had to check back on “curtesy”, and discovered this:

    curtesy: a husband’s interest upon the death of his wife in the real property of an estate that she either solely owned or inherited provided they bore a child capable of inheriting the estate
    compare DOWER

  75. Isn’t the related term seise also oddly spelled?

  76. Oh jeez. That’s what happens when you spend the day doing subtitles for a Russian film script of Nosferatu (a rock cartoon). (It’s actually quite cool.) Courtesy. Courtesy. Courtesy.

  77. how they feel about that depends on their political orientation, but it’s hard to see it as a wise thing for the church to have done unless they wanted to align themselves with some of the most retrograde forces in Russian society.
    But only a non-believer can take that point of view, right? If you believe in Christian teachings then political orientation is irrelevant. You can despise all of Nikolai’s political decisions and still accept that the man was a devout, sincere and faithful Christian – even if he was an awful political leader. Indeed, you could make the case, and some do, that it’s not a coincidence a devout Christian was such an awful leader – he always cared more about his family and faith then his job.
    Now, putting on my non-believer hat – why would you be surprised the Church would want to ally with the most retrograde forces in society? Hasn’t the Orthodox Church always done that?

  78. why would you be surprised the Church would want to ally with the most retrograde forces in society?
    I didn’t say I was surprised.

  79. mab, I must say how grateful I am to you for taking this so close to your heart, it’s really stimulating to hear from someone knowledgeable and involved.
    I am Russian and was raised in the Russian Orthodox cultural tradition, though not, strictly speaking religious. I do know Orthodox believers and priests. A good friend, the Welshman who runs a successful Orthodox parish in North Wales, gave blessings at my wedding. And I am not at all offended by what Hat says.
    The church has made a remarkable comeback since the Gorbachev restoration in 1989, another wall he pulled down. What Hat says is simply a part of reasonable discourse: people not intensely involved with the workings of the Church take in the message, but not the fine print.
    The passionate – and often confused – arguments in Russia about the tsar and the bolshevik revolution remind me of American right-wing talks shows. Not that I often listen, but Noah Chomsky was on the radio (R4 BBC) the other day talking about just that and warning that the rise of the tea party movement, the chayniki, turns America into a place frighteningly reminiscent of the Weimar republic, with confusion and divisions which allow the most determined radicals to take the lead, like the nazis in Germany and the bolsheviks in Russia.
    Of course, the Orthodox Church is trying to fill the spiritual and intellectual void left after the demise of communism. It’s relevant not just to Russia, but everywhere. I would attribute the rise of fundamentalist religiousness all over the world directly to this absence of strong unifying secular ideas. The left has been in complete disarray since the early nineties, or even before, since the Thatcher-Reagan revolution, and now, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ liberal capitalism is in tatters. Fukuyama himself has renounced his original thinking.

  80. the tea party movement, the chayniki, turns America into a place frighteningly reminiscent of the Weimar republic
    Can I look forward to anything like the Bauhaus or George Grosz or some Fritz Lang-type films coming out of the USA? It seems a bit unfair and Margaret Atwoody to be stuck with the nazis and Walmart.

  81. The makers of South Park could be considered modern equivalents to Grosz. They do the same kind of biting satire, with the addition of animation.

  82. It’s visually much blander, though — as is the Simpsons — I think animation can’t carry that sort of detail successfully.
    Sorry. I’ll be quiet now.

  83. I think animation can’t carry that sort of detail successfully.
    Can I take you to be implying that Grosz’s drawings would not work as well if they were animated ? I would agree that it’s not “detail” as such that is the problem. There is skinny-stationary detail in Grosz, and luscious-flowing detail in Miyazaki’s animated films, such as Spirited Away. But there are also skinny-flowing and luscious-stationary drawing techniques.
    Maybe these notions are too debonair for you, Crown. I admit that I rarely think about visual effects, or even pay attention to them.

  84. I haven’t seen Springtime For Hitler for years. It holds up really well and I guess if it was made in 1968 it predates Monty Python. Quite an achievement.
    No, you couldn’t animate Grosz successfully, the Addams Family is the closest I can think of. You seem to be paying more attention to the visuals than you realise, Stu.

  85. Look, I don’t want to be the great defender of the faith here. The ROC is going through a bad time after 75 years of a really bad time and a couple centuries of an extremely bad time. The Church hierarchy is largely statist, and there are plenty of nut-case priests and bishops, not to mention a flock of converts who seem to think that the faith is a slot machine: put in prayer, get A on exam.
    But I am offended by assumptions about people’s beliefs and motivations. You think the canonization of Nicholas and his family will lead to monarchism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, whatever – fine. But don’t tell me you know what motivated that very diverse group of bishops to vote for canonization, or what believers are thinking when they venerate an icon of Nicholas.

  86. Augustine had been a sinner in his youth; that is an entirely different matter.
    From what I remember, Augustine’s sin was to have a long term relationship and I think a child with a woman who was not his social equal instead of using sexuality for what God intended which IIRC in the 4th century meant choosing partners for their utility in consolidating the real estate of the propertied classes. At any rate he didn’t stop sinning until he got some unnamed affliction and was no longer able to do so.
    Saint Olaf is said to evoke mixed feelings, on the one hand Rome needed to inspire loyalty in order to pull its far flung believers further into the fold, and Norwegians were enthusiastic about a Norwegian saint; on the other hand, Olaf’s rule was pretty bloody (in the American sense) and Norwegians can’t really think of many unevil things he did.
    My own religious tradition doe not have a central authority to determine the qualifications for sainthood; as a consequence we tend to name our own saints, based on qualities like compassion,etc.–our own grandmothers often qualify better than the saints in other religions.

  87. marie-lucie says:

    the biggest sinners
    Is Augustine really considered to have been among the biggest sinners? Some of those sinners turned into saints also include authors of criminal (though legal) acts, such as those who persecuted the early Christians (like Saint Paul). Did Saint Olaf belatedly repent of his evil deeds, endowing abbeys or such?

  88. Is Augustine really considered to have been among the biggest sinners?
    When it comes to sinning, everyone always seems to think of him first, but perhaps his prurient reputation just makes him easier to remember.
    I suspect though that this is where the Roman Catholic association of sex with sin came from, but if you read Hermes Trismegistus (Augustine was originally Manichaean before converting to Christianity) it’s clear that in the neoplatonic scheme of things, sexuality is not evil, just that everything born of sexual union is mortal and will die eventually, unlike anything born of the Word, and therefore lust is not of interest to those seeking the nature of immortality.
    Emerson may have more to add about Augustine.
    Did Saint Olaf belatedly repent of his evil deeds, endowing abbeys or such?
    Not that I remember. His chief claim to fame was feeding his army well, in fact, as one of his soldiers received a mortal wound and plucked the fatal arrow from his heart, he remarked with his dying breath how there was so much fat clinging to the arrow because Olaf’s retainers were well fed. Olaf’s sainthood seems to rest mainly on miracles–first, the fact that his body did not decompose normally–he died in battle and his followers buried it hastily in a sand bank where there were springs to hide it from his enemies. Then when his followers dug the body up and were moving it, someone touched the body and was miraculously healed.
    Contrast this with one of my reputed ancestors, Rollo/Hrolf the Walker, who sacked Paris and laid waste to the French countryside but later converted to Christianity, made a pilgrimage to Rome, and rebuilt everything he had destroyed. If Hrolf had stayed in Norway, who knows, but he was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time and was never declared a saint.

  89. David Marjanović says:

    chayniki

    LOL! But I still prefer “teabaggers”. :-)

    the rise of fundamentalist religiousness all over the world

    All over where? It’s just the USA and those Islamic countries with the worst education systems and/or the worst dictatures. Over here, people deconvert in droves, and millions leave the churches every year without joining others. The top levels of the Catholic hierarchy are panicking.

    The left has been in complete disarray since the early nineties, or even before

    In the First World, that’s because it has succeeded. It has made itself superfluous.
    (…Of course, the ensuing conservative governments have started undoing this fact, but…)
    In the USA, on the other hand – what left? Dennis Kucinich?

  90. The left has been in complete disarray since the early nineties, or even before
    David: In the First World, that’s because it has succeeded. It has made itself superfluous.
    Like hell it is. Right-wing extremists are being elected all over Europe, mostly on an anti-immigration ticket:
    –Austria’s very own Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the late Jörg Haider’s FPÖ, who’s running for mayor of Vienna next month, looks likely to take more than 20% of the vote (not enough to win, yet). Another FPÖer, Barbara Rosenkranz, who says anti-Nazi laws should be abolished, came second in Austria’s presidential race this year with over 15 percent of the vote.
    –Sweden’s neo-Nazi Sverigedemokraterna got 5.7% of the vote last week and unseated the government.
    –In Denmark, the extremist, anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti got 13.8 per cent in 2007 national elections, 15.3 percent in the European elections last year and is Denmark’s third-largest party.
    –In Hungary the radical right-wing Jobbik party is in parliament and is asking for permanent, guarded internment camps for Gypsies.
    –In Italy the anti-immigrant Northern League of Umberto Bossi is in government and is the country’s fastest-growing party.
    –In the Netherlands Geert Wilders, leader of Freedom Party, is negotiating to form a coalition government.
    –In France Sarkozy kicked all the Gypsies out just to get votes from National Front supporters.
    They’re all bonkers, David. Do you really, really think the left is superfluous?

  91. Like hell
    hear, hear,
    Rott (red) weller (wave) – AJP Redwave?
    Why RedGRAVEs are considered left?

  92. This is a good example of what happens when they chop off your serifs: it’s -WEILER, the dog, not WELLER or WELLE, the wave, but (unless you’re a housefly) in sans-serif the difference is minuscule.
    I think the only titled Redgrave was Sir Michael, father of the quite leftish Vanessa & Corin. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a title; I often take one myself. I don’t think any of the other Redgraves are or were very political.

  93. Joely Richardson is reported to be girlfriends with the Evening Standard shining knight Evgeny Lebedev. Not exactly politics, but, like, Sleeping With the Enemy.

  94. Maybe they’re Independent thinkers.

  95. or lamenting the Soir of France

  96. That’s at least the second time you’ve brought up Herbert Read this year, M. You’re the Guardian of his memory. But “knight, poet and anarchist”, surely that’s in a peculiar order? That must be an Eric Gill typeface.

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