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‘Our dear Georgii Ivanovich’: an American journalist between Siberia and the Russian emigration

By Blog Admin, on 1 October 2014

Society of Friends of Russian Freedom flyer, from the LSE archives.

Society of Friends of Russian Freedom flyer.
LSE archives. Reproduced with permission

Archives in Moscow, London and Washington DC reveal the story of an American writer’s influence on the Russian revolutionary emigration, finds postgraduate Ben Phillips.

In a letter to the executive committee of the revolutionary populist group Narodnaia volia (People’s Will) in March 1882, the writer and sometime revolutionary terrorist Sergei Kravchinskii (better known by his nom de plume, Stepniak) insisted that the emigration to the West – then in its third and final stage before the events of 1917 – should conduct two distinct propagandas: one, characterised by revolutionary socialism, amongst the Russian youth, the other focused on stirring humanitarian outrage against the iniquities of Russian politics amongst the European bourgeoisie. ‘We can expect no sympathy in the name of our socialism’, he wrote. ‘We must acquaint Europe not with our political programme, but with the current state of the revolutionary struggle’ (Valk 1965, p. 345). For years, the emigration was Janus-faced. Looking west, Russia’s political outcasts at once presented themselves as moderate liberals and democratic socialists to the European bourgeoisie, whilst introspectively debating the merits of revolutionary terrorism and engaging with theoretical questions. In this context, the story of George Kennan, with his web of contacts and personal friendships extending between the emigration and Siberia’s community of political exiles, and his writings on the Siberian exile system that were translated into Russian and disseminated illegally across Russia almost before they had appeared in English, remains one of the underexplored curiosities of revolutionary history. How did an American journalist come to transcend the audiences to which the emigration had previously spoken in two different languages and two different registers?

A distant cousin of his Cold War namesake, Kennan’s interest in Russia dated back to the 1860s, when a two-year visit to the Kamchatka peninsula provided material for Tent Life in Siberia (1877). However, it was his second visit to Russia’s eastern domains in the mid-1880s that cemented Kennan’s legacy. From 1885 to 1886, Kennan’s research on the Siberian exile system exposed him to the worst iniquities of Tsarist autocracy and brought him into contact with many political prisoners with whom he remained friends. His damning findings were serialised by Century Magazine at the end of the 1880s and early 1890s, creating a sensation across the Anglophone world. During this time, he frequented the American lecture circuit, and was recognised as his country’s preeminent Russianist. His magnum opus, Siberia and the Exile System, appeared in two volumes in 1891 and remains his best known work as well as a significant source for those working on the history of Siberian exile.

Kennan reached different audiences in different ways. Thomas M. Barrett has argued that it was through his American lectures, ‘more than anywhere else, that Kennan reached his public and became a celebrity’ (Stolberg 2005, p. 139). His oratory drew heavily on American melodramatic traditions and sensationalist representations of Siberia as a Ruritanian wilderness populated by terrifying natives and the exiled nobility of Russia’s western borderlands. Kennan’s trick was to add politics to the melodrama, along with a heavy dose of self-regarding chauvinism. Night after night, Kennan turned out the lights for magic lantern displays of political prisoners’ photographs, sang prison songs, disappeared mid-lecture only to return dressed as a Siberian convict and, on at least one occasion, reduced an audience to tears with an (unverified) anecdote of prisoners in a Petersburg forwarding prison flying the American flag to celebrate July 4th. (See Travis 1990.)Thus it is clearly true that in one sense Kennan tells us far more about American liberalism at the end of the nineteenth century than he does about Russia. One can relate the figure of the political exile in Kennan’s writings and his lectures to the role of refugees from the 1848 revolutions in the mid-Victorian consciousness: both represented mirrors on the self.

In another sense, however, Kennan was a fully fledged member of the revolutionary movement. His writings appeared in Russian on nine different occasions between 1888 and 1891. Around this time, his name figures repeatedly in the memoirs and recollections of Siberian political exiles. Vladimir Burtsev, who escaped Siberia and fled to Europe in 1888, wrote subsequently that upon arriving in Switzerland his aim had been to ‘write a history of the revolutionary movement somewhat in the style of Kennan’s’ (Burtsev 2012, p. 53). The early Soviet journal Katorga i ssylka (Hard Labour and Exile) wrote in 1929 of one exile advising another, in the aftermath of a massacre of political prisoners in Iakutsk on 22 March 1889, to ‘write of this to all corners of our motherland, the borderlands and abroad, to every Kennan’ (Katorga i ssylka 52 (1929), p. 37).  Ivan Meisner, writing from the Sakhalin penal colony later that same year, suggested that his correspondent ‘could scarcely imagine the joyous surprise that possessed us upon learning of Kennan’s agitation, of that explosion of anger that shook all educated Europe and America after the executions in Iakutsk and the horrors of Kara’ (ibid., p. 38).

Advertisement for a lecture by Volkhovskii, from the LSE archives

Advertisement for a lecture by Volkhovskii.
LSE archives. Reproduced with permission

It is hard to say whether such responses to Kennan’s work merely reflected the dissemination of his writing within Russia or were also due, in part, to his connections within Siberia’s exile community (which, as detailed in Siberia and the Exile System, were numerous and included both the writer and revolutionary Feliks Volkhovskii and the socialist revolutionary Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaia). As Volkhovskii’s case demonstrates, such relationships served to bridge the gap between the revolution’s geographically remote exilic destinations in Europe and Siberia. Born in Poltava, Volkhovskii became involved in radical politics whilst a law student at Moscow State University and was arrested several times before being exiled to Tobolsk in 1878. He was soon resettled to Tomsk, where he spent the next decade and met Kennan. His 1889 escape took him, via Vladivostok, Japan and Canada, to the United States, where Kennan supported him for the best part of a year. Writing to Stepniak in 1891, Volkhovskii affectionately referred to Kennan as ‘our dear Georgii Ivanovich, for so he loves to be called’. Casting doubt on Kennan’s motivations, Volkhovskii nonetheless acknowledged that he was essential to the emigration’s work:

As you see, he works for money, and there is no doubt that half the money raised goes to Kennan himself. There is likewise no doubt that even his lectures are the strongest propaganda we have [...] As they say, my brother, to open the ‘civilised world’ to the Russian revolutionary movement we need a foreigner such as Kennan. (RGALI 1158.1.232, pp. 42-43)

That the emigration relied upon Kennan as an authority is quite clear. Stepniak wrote in August 1886 to the Fabian socialist Edward Pease that his findings, when published, would mean nothing less than ‘a new era in the conquest of European and American public opinion in support of our work’ (Zakharina 1968, p. 200). Likewise, a flyer advertising a series of lectures delivered by Volkhovskii after his arrival in Britain in June 1890 underscored that ‘when in Siberia, Mr. George Kennan met Mr. Volkhovsky and speaks of him in the highest terms’ (LSE archives COLL MISC 1028). Yet Kennan, in turn, depended heavily for his own authority upon his Russian contacts, both in Siberia and Europe. Thus his lectures regularly devoted time to recounting Volkhovskii’s life and sufferings, and reported news he obtained from the Russophone émigré press as opposed to material widely circulated in the mainstream European papers. Kennan narrowed the gap between the western emigration and Siberia. His position was, in a sense, analogous to that described by Burtsev after his escape:

As a new arrival, having only just fled Siberia, everyone asked me questions. I had a wealth of information about Siberia, from where, for the emigration, I was a rare guest. I had bought them a host of new and interesting impressions from my last illegal journey across Russia. (Burtsev 2012, pp. 41-42)

Herein lay Kennan’s significance for the revolution. For a movement that entered the fin de siècle shattered by the repressions that had followed Aleksandr II’s assassination in 1881, all but devoid of ideological coherence and plagued by factionalism and infighting, the experience of banishment – whether in the West or in Siberia – became the cornerstone of a common identity through necessity. ‘The heroes of the emigration were the revolutionaries fighting the government and working amongst the working class’, Burtsev wrote. ‘As our enemies expressed it, they were all katorzhniki [hard labour convicts], those who remained in prison and exile. To his own question – what was a Russian intellectual? – the centre-right journalist Meshcherskii replied that it was a man who had served a prison term’ (Burtsev 2012, p. 35). Yet for the western émigrés to plausibly appropriate the label for their own ends was difficult without genuine channels of communication to Siberia. Before Kennan and the arrival of such escapees as Volkhovskii, Burtsev and Leonid Shishko, these were few and far between. Most of the latter, with the notable exception of Volkhovskii, were almost entirely unwilling to write or speak of their experiences – a subject for another post –  whilst others, such as Stepniak and Petr Kropotkin, did not do so from personal observation. It was left for Kennan not only to propagandise the Siberian cause celèbré from a position of personal experience, but to make exile – whether self-imposed or judicial – synonymous with the radical cause, thereby drawing the revolution’s east and west closer together.

Ben Phillips is a PhD candidate at UCL SSEES. His research focuses on images of Siberian exile in pre-1917 émigré literature and the construction of affinities between Russians’ eastern and western experiences of banishment. He currently holds a visiting fellowship at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where he is working on George Kennan’s connections with the Russian emigration.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

How to Heal a Foreigner in Early Modern Russia

By Blog Admin, on 21 July 2014

A satirical recipe book offers unusual insights into seventeenth-century Russia, says Clare Griffin.

One of the big questions for me when reading recipes is, did anyone actually use these? This is always a tricky point, especially when we consider the range of ‘recipes’ and recipe collections out there. One group of texts which circulated in early modern Russia, usually referred to as the ‘Satirical Leechbooks’, gives an interesting perspective.

Moscow's Foreign Quarter

Moscow’s Foreign Quarter, by Adam Olearius.
Via Wikimedia Commons

The most well-known starts like this:

A leechbook for foreigners.

A leechbook by Russian people, how to heal foreigners and people of their land; [using] very appropriate medicines from various and expensive ingredients.

 

 

 

 

The ingredients mentioned in this leechbook are odd:

- Part of a white bridge

- Chopped women’s folk dancing

- Light-colored screeching of a cart

- A fat eagle’s flight

- The voice of a bass violin

Bridge theft aside, these ingredients seem difficult to source. Would the peddler of the famous Russian folk song Korobeiniki – better known to non-Slavicists as ‘the Tetris song’ – have had such wares in his tray? It seems unlikely.

Korobeiniki (Peddlers)

Korobeiniki (Peddlers). Via Wikimedia Commons

 

Some of the accompanying therapeutic activities also seem unrealistic:

– Sweat for three days naked in ice

– Rise early, just after vespers

 

Reading these recipes, it does seem that the author might not have been entirely serious about healing his foreign patient; indeed, ‘healing’ itself here seems to be a joke, although the foreigner might not have seen it like that. The text itself notes: ‘those it does not kill it will surely heal’ – not perhaps the most assuring of claims. The ‘very appropriate medicines’ mentioned in the introduction really seem to be ‘just desserts’ for the foreigners as prescribed by a less-than welcoming Russian.

The text also seems to be mocking medicine in general. In seventeenth-century Russia, official court medicine was practiced by Western European medical practitioners, often using Western European medical books available in Latin and other foreign languages. This use of foreigners and foreign medicine seems to be the focus of the ‘joke’ being made here.

So, these recipes are more for entertainment than therapy, a type of recipe found across Europe, but do they actually tell us anything about Russian medicine? Perhaps happily for any sickly foreigners in seventeenth-century Russia, the Leechbook for Foreigners was not the only medical-style text available in Russia; by the 1700s, there were several medical recipe books circulating in Russia, and in Russian, which a rather kinder healer of foreigners would have selected.

In fact, the unknown author of the Leechbook for Foreigners seems to have been rather familiar with such texts. Leaving aside his idiosyncratic collection of ingredients, his recipes do make sense in the context of a medical recipe: he uses the same kinds of measures, and recommends combining ingredients in the same way, as ‘serious’ medical books of the time. On one level, this seems to be a part of his mocking of healing: by aping a format, he derides it as ridiculous. But on another level, it reveals that he has in fact read such recipes, in order to be sufficiently familiar with them to parody them. Our anonymous author may not have approved of foreigners and their foreign healing, but he seemed well versed in what he criticised.

This post was first published on The Recipes Project, and is republished here with permission. The fourth in a series of posts on Russian recipes on The Recipes Project, previous posts have introduced early modern Russia, and given advice on how to feed our servants, and how to get over hangovers.

Clare Griffin studied Russian History at UCL-SSEES, and is now a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

The SSEES Research Blog will return in September.

Russia’s Invisible Youth

By Blog Admin, on 18 June 2014

Deti 404 is an online project for Russia's LGBT teenagers. Photo CC: Ivan Simochkin

Deti 404 is an online project for Russia’s LGBT
teenagers. Photo CC: Ivan Simochkin

Maxim Edwards and Imogen Wade introduce a new documentary from Russia that will have its UK premiere at the closing gala of Open City Docs in London (17-22 June 2014).

Footsteps echo through the hallways of an undisclosed school in Russia; a telephone camera rocks to and fro before the grainy, leering faces of classmates. ‘For me, every day at school starts with shouts of ‘Faggot!’, ‘Be careful, he could f*** your ass with that fork’, and other terms of abuse. I think of it as ‘Good Morning.’ So begins the day of one of 45 teenagers, interviewed for Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev’s 2014 documentary film Children 404.

The ‘404: page not found’ youth of Russia

The effects of Russia’s controversial 2013 law prohibiting ‘LGBT propaganda’ are well known, but as the creator of Deti 404 (Children 404), journalist Yelena Klimova knows, few people have bothered to ask the opinions of those the law supposedly protects – Russia’s children. Deti 404 is an online project for the children who many believe do not exist – Russia’s LGBT teenagers, the ‘404: page not found’ errors who live in daily fear of harassment and intimidation in the classroom and at home. These are the children who have found a voice in Klimova’s project, allowing them to share their stories with the world.

The authorities’ response was predictable. As a result of Deti 404, Klimova was charged with breaking the law, though her trial on 27 February 2014 found no evidence of ‘gay propaganda’ in her activities. With 22,000 people joining its group on Russian social network VKontakte in its first year and 1364 teenagers having shared their stories so far, the project has been described by journalist Valery Panyushkin as the ‘youth crisis centre the state ought to have created, instead of adopting its anti-gay law.’

The film shows a world of faces hidden behind hands and cameras, furtive glances over shoulders and echoing taunts in school corridors. This is nothing to do with cinematic style; the majority of these children were interviewed on condition of anonymity. Read the rest of this entry »

Imperial Russia Salutes its Navy

By Blog Admin, on 9 June 2014

Neva mosaic, Admiralteiskaia metro station, St Petersburg

Neva mosaic, Admiralteiskaia metro station, St Petersburg

As the annexation of Crimea brings renewed attention to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Julia Leikin reflects on the place of the navy in Russian culture and collective memory.

What do we really know about the Russian navy? Jacob Kipp, writing about the Russian navy in The Military History of Tsarist Russia, observed that the imperial Russian navy’s strategic value left much to be desired, describing the status of the Baltic Sea fleet in the early nineteenth century as “the autocrat’s naval parading force” (Kipp, 2002: 152). This opinion was even shared by some contemporaries. The historian Sergei Soloviev quoted Count Ivan Chernyshev, consul in London and later president of the Admiralty College, as having written, “Since 1700 the navy has cost Russia more than 100,000,000, and what do we have to show for it? Seemingly not nothing, but very little.”

But how can we reconcile its negligible strategic value with the high regard that the Russian navy seems to enjoy in Russian society? In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, one journalist proffered that rather than gaining Russia any geopolitical advantage, the annexation was brought on by a collective fascination with Crimea as a Russian naval base. Whatever its strategic value, the Russian navy seems to enjoy a legendary, near-sacred status in Russian society, which has been shaped in part by the political priority accorded to building the navy in the imperial period. The place of the Russian navy in Russian collective memory has remained unexamined, but the evidence suggests that there are many rich layers to this national myth.

Many imperial and Soviet-era books construct a narrative of a noble imperial Russian navy that emphasizes its triumphs over adversity. These books recount the military successes of Peter I and Catherine II (better known by their epithets “the Great”) that resulted in the conquest of their respective ports on the Baltic and Black Seas, where they established Russia’s two main fleets. The origins of the imperial Russian navy and the periods of its greatest activity in the eighteenth century coincided with two of the fiercest efforts of modernization and Europeanization in Russian history under Peter I and Catherine II.

In fact, establishing and expanding the navy was a part of those processes. As historians we may have stepped away from the modernization and Westernization narratives of Russian history, but these were some of the very concepts that motivated Peter and Catherine to pursue a maritime presence for the Russian empire. Part of the navy’s hold on the Russian imagination must stem from the fact that it is difficult to disentangle its story from the dominating personalities of Peter and Catherine.

The primacy of maritime politics in Russia and its reverence for European models also came together in the institution that oversaw Russia’s naval expeditions. The Admiralty College, the top-level body in the government bureaucracy that regulated Russian ships and sailors at sea, sat directly under the monarch’s purview along with the War and International Affairs Colleges. Perhaps more than any other Russian institution, it held a high concentration of Europeans among its ranks.

Moreover, in the eighteenth century Russians often received navigation and shipbuilding training abroad, even while travel opportunities for others were quite limited. As one historian noted, the naval experience propelled Russian officers into an “active dialogue with general European culture.” Of course, the presence of foreigners and Europeanization itself were controversial, but many among the elite – particularly the monarchs – saw these as the right course to advance the Russian empire onto the international stage. In any case, it is fair to say that the preponderance of European culture lent a certain cachet to the navy, even while the institution’s efforts were directed at bringing glory to the Russian empire. Read the rest of this entry »

Danube-on-Thames: The New East Enders

By Blog Admin, on 30 May 2014

This year, 2-13 June, SSEES is running the second UCL Global Citizenship ‘Danube’ Summer School on Intercultural Interaction. This is one of the four summer schools that make up the first year of UCL’s Global Citizenship Programme. The Danube Summer School brings together nearly one hundred students from across the University to learn about the Danube and the people that live along its banks. Coordinated by Tim Beasley-Murray and Eszter Tarsoly, the Summer School draws on the expertise of a wide range of SSEES academic staff, language teachers, and PhD students.

Below is a text from the Danube Summer School’s blog that explains the rationale for the Danube-on-Thames project, one of the Summer School’s outputs.

danube-on-thames1

Historically, the region through which the Danube flows has been a region of extraordinary cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity. The realm of Empires (the Ottoman and Habsburg) that were multi-, rather than mono- ethnic, this was a region that did not care much for neat borders that separated one group of people from another. Here, you used to be able to find Serbian villages dotted in what was otherwise Slovak countryside, German- and Yiddish-speaking towns wedged between Romanian and Hungarian villages, pockets of Turks and other Muslims, Christians of all denominations (Orthodox, Catholic and varieties of Protestants) living across the region, and everywhere settlements of Germans (the so-called Danube Swabians or Saxons) as well those Danubian cosmopolitans, Jews, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and different groups of Roma.

A good, even clichéd image, of this cultural and ethnic plurality, as drawn, for example, by the Austrian writer, Joseph Roth, could be found in the classic Danubian café with its hubbub and chatter in many languages, its newspapers on sticks in German, Hungarian and Romanian, its Romany band playing music that draww on a complex fusion of musical traditions, its Jewish doctor playing chess with a Christian lawyer.

Today, much of this diversity has gone. The collapse of the multi-ethnic empires and the endeavour to create single-nation states, particularly following the First World War, started to tidy up the region and sorted people into national boxes. This process was continued in a much more violent way with the murder of most of the Danube’s Jews and a significant part of its Romany communities in the horrors of the Second World War. After the Second World War, this violence continued with the expulsion of the bulk of Germans from ‘non-German’ national territory – and also, to an extent, the removal of Hungarians from the more-spread out territories that they had previously occupied.

The raising of the Iron Curtain along the banks of the Danube, between Communist (Czecho)Slovakia and Hungary and capitalist Austria and between Communist Romania and non-aligned Yugoslavia, dealt another serious blow to the Danube as a site of intercultural flow. Most recently, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that accompanied the Balkan Wars of the 1990s was a further step in the homogenization of the Danubian region.

The result is that the Danubian interculturality that this Summer School seeks to explore is not necessarily best explored on the banks of the Danube itself. Where then to look for it? Read the rest of this entry »

Match-making across enemy lines

By Blog Admin, on 20 May 2014

Serbian-Albania couple

Photo credit: Armanda Hysa

Armanda Hysa discusses her research on mixed marriages between Serbian husbands and Albanian wives in the rural Sandžak region of Southern Serbia with Tena Prelec, where she researched 13 of an estimated 350 such couples.

 In 2006, Vera was a key component in a wide smuggling network in the Southern Balkans. During the 1990s, they dealt with oil, iron and cigarette contraband across Northern Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. Occasionally, one of the members of the network complained to Vera that he couldn’t find a woman who would accept to marry him and go live with him in his remote village in Serbia. ‘Serbian women are disobedient, selfish, and only want to live in the city’ – was the usual grumble.

Vera was then reminded of her divorced niece living in Northern Albania, who was unable to find another husband in her home country. She put the two of them in touch, and the first of a string of match-made loves between a Serbian groom and an Albanian bride blossomed (this one, however, did not last very long: soon enough, Vera’s niece fled from southern Serbia to marry a Macedonian). It was immediately clear to Vera that this was a looming business opportunity, and she was determined not to leave it untapped. Read the rest of this entry »

What will the Euro elections tell us about Eastern Europe?

By Blog Admin, on 11 May 2014

Plakat do Parlamentu Europejskiego 2014 Platforma Obywatelska

Photo: Lukasz2 via Wikicommons

Seán Hanley looks ahead to the upcoming European elections and assesses what they may tell us about the enduring differences between voters and parties in Western and Eastern Europe.

The elections to the European Parliament which take place across the EU’s 28 member states between 22 and 25 May are widely seen a series of national contests, which voters use to vent their frustration and give incumbent and established parties a good kicking. Newspaper leader writers and think-tankers got this story and have been working overtime to tell us about a rising tide of populism driven by a range of non-standard protest parties.

The conventional wisdom is that the ‘populist threat’ is all eurosceptic (and usually of a right-wing persuasion) although in some cases the ‘eurosceptic surge’ is clearly a matter of whipping together  familiar narrative than careful analysis.

But, as a simultaneous EU-wide poll using similar (PR-based) electoral systems, the EP elections also provide a rough and ready yardstick of Europe-wide political trends, ably tracked by the LSE-based Pollwatch 2014 and others.

And, for those interested in comparison and convergence of the two halves of a once divided continent, they a window into the political differences and similarities between the ‘old’ pre-2004 of Western and Southern Europe and the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe (now including Croatia which joined in 2013). Read the rest of this entry »

South-Eastern Ukraine: Extremism and the Anti-Maidan

By Blog Admin, on 9 May 2014

2014-04-07._Протесты_в_Донецке_035

Photo: Andrew Butko СС-BY-SA 3.0

Extremists have hijacked the Anti-Maidan protests in South-Eastern Ukraine and their extremism and ultra-nationalism are fomenting violence and hatred writes Anton Shekhovtsov

 When masked men distributed anti-semitic flyers in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, some international media outlets rather too hastily assumed that they were a hoax. The incident is still being investigated, so a definite conclusion cannot yet be reached. But even if the flyers are deemed to be a fake, the problem of anti-semitism, racism and homophobia inherent in some elements of the social unrest in Eastern Ukraine remains very real.

Allies of the now ousted president Viktor Yanukovych launched Anti-Maidan in Eastern and Southern Ukraine in late November 2013 as a response to Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests. But Maidan was a grassroots movement, whereas Anti-Maidan was a top-down initiative with protesters sometimes receiving remuneration for their participation. This was especially true of the four large Anti-Maidan rallies held in Kyiv between November 2013 and January 2014. Anti-Maidan organised many fewer protests than Euromaidan and they had started to die out long before Yanukovych fled from Ukraine to Russia.

However, the victorious Maidan revolution re-energised Anti-Maidan, which split into three different, but sometimes overlapping, movements: (1) protest groups mobilised by social grievances; (2) supporters of Ukraine becoming a federal state; and (3) Russian ultra-nationalists pursuing separatist ideas. They overlap because some of the activists mobilised by social grievances may support the federalisation of Ukraine (by which some actually mean  joining Russia in the medium term), in contrast to pro-Russian separatists who insist on the immediate annexation of their region by Russia, as happened with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

The larger part of the post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan movement is rooted in almost the same attitudes that underpinned Maidan, especially after the original pro-EU protests, focusing on a limited number of social demands, evolved into the Ukrainian revolution. Despite the different triggers, Maidan and post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan were responses to socio-economic inequalities, unemployment, corruption, crime and a flawed justice system.

The major difference between these movements, however, is that they are dominated by two different narratives and offer two different solutions to their grievances. In inevitably idealised terms, Maidan’s narrative is democratic, while Anti-Maidan’s is authoritarian. Maidan suggests that social grievances can be addressed through closer cooperation with the democratic EU and the West in general, while Anti-Maidan believes that socio-economic problems can be tackled by closer cooperation with authoritarian Russia. Where relations with Russia are concerned, the more radical part of Maidan suggests enforcing a visa regime between the two countries, while radicals in Anti-Maidan insist that their region should become part of Russia. The more radical elements of Anti-Maidan are characterised by different linguistic preferences and choice of media as sources of information; their pro-Russian, anti-Western sentiments are rooted in the lower geographical mobility of Eastern Ukrainians.  According to an opinion poll conducted in 2013, only 13.2% of Eastern Ukrainians have ever been to the West (EU, USA or Canada), a lower figure than for Ukraine as a whole, where the average is 20.6%. Read the rest of this entry »

Book review: Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition

By Blog Admin, on 9 May 2014

GettyAndy Willimott is fascinated by a lively study of Russia’s patrimonial practices and personalization of power: J. Arch Getty’s Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Recent developments in Ukraine and Crimea have raised a number of questions about Russia and her political machinations. Some of the most perceptive reports have noted that Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, his decision-making core, appears to have shrunk or concentrated over recent months; now centring around a loyal contingent of hardliners, including friends and former classmates of Russia’s über male leader dating back to his years at the KGB Higher School in Leningrad. The implication being that where Putin once acted as a mediator between the different factions of his power network, those that owed their position and/or wealth to his patronage, he is currently aligning himself with the siloviki (‘strong ones’) – formed predominantly from his connections with former Soviet security personnel, many of whom tend to consider the fall of the USSR as a national disaster for Russia and continue to maintain genuine suspicion of the West.

These unspoken connections and informal networks of power are key to understanding the various twists and turns of Russian policy. Russia is a country where institutions often seem to matter less than clientism. The functioning and historic links of network-based governance forms the focus of J. Arch Getty’s latest book, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition.Here he argues that while we must acknowledge distinct periods and breaks in history, we should not ignore the persistence of certain political practices. It is striking, suggests Getty, that despite various efforts to introduce rule-bound bureaucracy and formal systems of authority, personalised structures remain integral to Russia’s political operations. ‘The clientism of rulers Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Putin’, notes Getty, recall ‘patterns not only under Stalin but from the nineteenth century and earlier’ (p. 4). Where the history of ‘Great Men’ once dominated, Getty seems to be saying, we now attribute too much to the power of ideas over habitus and practice. This book challenges reductive readings of Weber that emphasise the distinction between premodern and modern. ‘Modern ideology’, stresses Getty, ‘does not guarantee modernity’ (p. 21). Instead, the Russian example seems to support the notion that old and new – the residual and the emergent – will often intersect, together forming the world around us. Stalinism – no exception – is thus presented as a product of modern socialism and traditional patrimonial structures.

Getty’s opening two chapters provide a thematic overview of Russian political conventions. He uses the examples of petitioning, patron-anointed awards, kinship, and personality cults to highlight the ‘deep structures’ and ‘personalisation’ of Russian politics (p. 25). Not without provocative intent, some of these practices are traced back to 16th-century Muscovy. Be it a letter sent to a Grand Prince or the voice of a citizen partaking in one of Putin’s televised call-in sessions, Getty notes the same patrimonial language and understanding of power. Typical rhetorical features and the formula for redress include fulsome salutations, emphasis of the subject’s lowly position, the faceless nature of their injustice (the improper workings of noble or bureaucratic systems), and the notion that justice is ‘a gift based on mercy and power’ (p. 33). This speaks to the Russian tradition of viewing the tsar as Batiushka (‘little father’), an omnipotent yet just figure not associated with daily travails and the failings of government; a caring father that would solve all problems, if only he were made aware of them! Getty demonstrates that the form and content of Soviet-era letters, with their appeals to ‘Kindred Father Iosif Vissarionovich [Stalin]!’ (p. 28), often exhibited the same characteristics as their pre-revolutionary counterparts.

Likewise, we are shown that the Bolsheviks were not able to escape traditional Russian assumptions about governance. From their roots in the political underground of late imperial Russia, the Bolsheviks operated through loyal connections and local associations. Despite Lenin’s attempts to establish a new rational mechanism of government in 1917 (he even suggested the German Post Office as an example of a modern bureaucratic structure), the Old Bolsheviks, those with experience of clandestine politics and pre-revolutionary habits, continued to exercise power through established patronages. Again, Getty cites comparisons with Muscovy, suggesting that the Old Bolsheviks resembled early Russian boyars (barons or nobles), who, like little tsars, stood atop a patrician network of clients, relatives, and supporters. This was a system of who you know, which revolved around loyalty, protection, and the physical embodiment of power within individuals. To get things done in medieval Russia one had to mobilise these networks, invoking the implicit promise of reciprocal favour and greater proximity to power. The Bolsheviks were not unaware of these parallels. As Nadezhda Mandelshtam recalled, ‘the [Soviet] state encouraged people to behave like boyars in medieval Russia who fought each other over their place at the Tsar’s table’ (p. 53). Read the rest of this entry »

Tadeusz Różewicz: a tribute

By Blog Admin, on 25 April 2014

Tadeusz Różewicz in 2006 (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Tadeusz Różewicz in 2006
(CC BY-SA 2.5)

Urszula Chowaniec writes in memory of the Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz, who has passed away at the age of 92.

Tadeusz Różewicz (9 October 1921 – 24 April 2014) was one of the Poland’s greatest writers. Remarkable for his simultaneous mastery of poetry, prose and drama, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tadeusz Różewicz has been translated into over forty languages. The most recent English-language volumes, Recycling (2001), New Poems (2007) and Sobbing Superpower (2011), were finalists for the 2003 Popescu Prize (UK), the 2008 National Book Critics Award (USA) and the 2012 Griffin Prize (Canada) respectively. In 2007 he was awarded the European Prize for Literature. The latest English publication, his Mother Departs (Matka odchodzi, 1999 , translated by Barbara Bogoczek, Edited and introduced by Tony Howard, published by Stork Press 2013), exploring the life of his mother Stefania, is perhaps his most personal work. It won the Nike Prize in 2000, Poland’s most prestigious literary award. He lived in the city of Wrocław, Poland.

Tadeusz Różewicz’s translators write:

Early this morning Tadeusz Różewicz passed away, and with him the 20th Century has been laid to rest. No writer experienced the history of Poland so profoundly and fully, no writer transformed that century of oppression and hope into poetry, drama and prose with such humanity and truth.

It was in the 1960s that great young British and Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin found through Różewicz and his translator Adam Czerniawski a way to write poetry after Auschwitz. And while Samuel Beckett was the voice of the Theatre of the Absurd speaking in English and French, the plays of Tadeusz Różewicz proved you can look into the abyss and still laugh.

Barbara Bogoczek & Tony Howard, 24 April 2014, London

 Proofs

Death will not correct
a single line of verse
she is no proof-reader
she is no sympathetic
lady editor

a bad metaphor is immortal

a shoddy poet who has died
is a shoddy dead poet

a bore bores after death
a fool keeps up his foolish chatter
from beyond the grave

(translation: Adam Czerniawski)

 

Urszula Chowaniec is a Teaching Fellow in Polish language at UCL SSEES.