Sunday, October 22, 2017

One Woman’s Liberation, Set Against the Russian Revolution (book review)

SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE OCT. 20, 2017, New York Times

image from article

By Janet Fitch
816 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $30.

“I was in love with the Future, in love with the idea of Fate. There’s nothing
more romantic to the young — until its dogs sink their teeth into your calf and pull
you to the ground”: So says the young Marina Makarova early on in Janet Fitch’s
third novel, “The Revolution of Marina M.,” a vast, ambitious historical tale in which
the coming-of-age of a quintessential revolutionary heroine dovetails with the events
of October 1917.

Marina ticks all the boxes for the prototypical heroine of novels set in this
period: Her parents are liberal aristocrats, while she is a radical poetess — gorgeous,
red-haired and curvaceous. Her friends, who include a dashing counterrevolutionary
officer lover, a lesbian Bolshevik girlfriend and a bank-robbing baron with a taste for
S-and-M, straddle all sides of the struggle.

Over the course of more than 800 pages, Fitch conveys the importance of sex for
a young woman’s development with Rabelaisian earthiness, and Marina’s liberation
(at least until the novel plunges into the aforementioned S-and-M) reflects ideas and
experiences that were quite common for her generation. Like Marina, the real
women who became revolutionaries often hailed from noble families, perhaps the
most famous of them being the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, the Communist
daughter of a czarist general. Women in this milieu endured prison sentences and
Siberian exile but also enjoyed love affairs with male revolutionaries (some of whom
they married).

Kollontai especially was a trailblazer who, in tracts such as her 1921 essay
“Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations,” advocated free
love in powerful, forward-thinking axioms: “Sexuality is a human instinct as natural
as hunger or thirst.” She believed that marriage was an oppressive bourgeois concept
based on the presumption of female dependence on men, a notion that would be
rendered obsolete under socialism, when both sexes would depend only on society.

After the revolution, female Bolsheviks like Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of a
Soviet foreign minister, and Dora Khazan, the wife of a Politburo member, became
People’s Commissars (or their deputies), or ministers in the Soviet government.
Even so, Russian male chauvinism was deep, and Stalin distrusted these female
activists both for their Jewishness and for their gender, ultimately firing and
arresting several of them, including Zhemchuzhina.

In Fitch’s fictional version of this historical moment, following a confusing
prologue set in Carmel, Calif., we begin in World War I Petrograd where Marina
escapes her father’s salon to be kissed in the cloakroom by an attractive officer and
childhood acquaintance named Kolya Shurov. Afterward he goes back off to war, but
in feverish Petrograd, revolution seethes. Their romance does not end there: When
Kolya returns once again, he picks Marina up outside her school and takes her on a
sleigh ride that leads to her first sexual experience. The passage inaugurates
Marina’s awakening; from here on out, she says, “I could not stop thinking about

As hunger, war and government incompetence herald the February Revolution,
the teenage Marina joins the crowds in the streets, feeling the thunder of history in
the making. “What is history?” she asks. “Is it the trace of a footstep in wet cement?”
She goes on to answer her own question: “History is the sound of a floor underneath
a rotten regime, termite-ridden and ready to fall.” She witnesses everything from
women’s protests for food to the toppling of Czar Nicholas II. But never has the pace
of the Russian Revolution progressed more sluggishly than it does in Fitch’s hands.
“Gunfire sounded throughout the following day,” and we learn all the quotidian ways
Marina finds to pass the time: “I played poker with the girls” and “rounds of chess
with Mina”; “taught Dunya to waltz”; “won a bet with young Shusha by walking on
my hands”; and “stood in the small kitchen, chopping cabbage.” The metaphors
come like Cossack charges, and one is never enough: “The crown of Russia had gone
from most precious object to poisoned apple, a rotten, stinking potato nobody

Since Marina plays no part in high politics, we learn of major events indirectly.
The leader of the new provisional government, Premier Prince Lvov, proposes a
document that “granted freedom of speech and assembly, the right to strike, a
constituent assembly elected by universal and secret ballot, men and women alike,”
and much more. The author kindly lists all the measures outlined by this “daring
piece of work,” which nevertheless touches our protagonist’s life only obliquely.

But Marina does stand in the audience at the Cirque Moderne to hear Leon
Trotsky herald Russia’s “new epoch,” describing him as “a caldron melting the crowd
into a single substance, and we threw ourselves in.” In the chaos of mid-1917, as the
provisional government minister Alexander Kerensky becomes the dominant figure,
Marina falls in love with a radical (but, for the reader, uninspired) poet named
Genya, although Kolya remains the object of her true passion. Her best friend, the
frizzy-haired aristocrat Varvara, becomes a Bolshevik activist whose speeches the
book relates in full: “Far from improving the situation of the common people, the
revolution in February has only increased your suffering,” Varvara pontificates
before a line of women on the street. “We, the Bolshevik Party, say down with the
imperialists!” Varvara persuades Marina to inform the Bolsheviks of her father’s
political secrets. When he finds out she is sleeping with a poet and is a Communist
spy, he disowns her. As Kerensky loses his prestige because of a series of military
defeats and an attempted coup, Marina realizes the imminence of a Bolshevik
takeover in a succession of familiar metaphors: “The world was cracking — I could
hear it — like ice that had grown too thin to hold us.” On the night of the October
Revolution, she and Genya burst into the Winter Palace to find a “Blakean hell” of
Red Guards’ debauchery after they’ve just wrested power from the ministers of the
provisional government.

In the months after October 1917, Petrograd under the new Soviet Republic is
increasingly threatened by not just famine, chaos and disease but also
counterrevolution, factional betrayal and foreign intervention. Lenin (who will soon
move the Russian capital to Moscow) deploys murder and terror to keep power.
Amid all this public turmoil, Marina’s personal life spins even more wildly out of
control. She is kidnapped by the ruthless rapist and aristogangster Baron Arkady von
Princip, who smells like “decaying pines.” He lures her to an apartment for an
excruciating 10-page sadomasochistic marathon, during which Marina experiences a
disturbing amalgam of pleasure, shame and fear. When Arkady subsequently tries to
use her as a hostage in his criminal dealings, Marina’s horrid father outs her as a
Bolshevik spy. For all her progressive defiance, Marina is still treated by the more
politically empowered men in her life as merely an object for degradation — the
details of which are perhaps a little crass even for the most jaded reader.

Marina, the reader concludes, is not a true revolutionary; she is tossed like
flotsam by great events, and the novel would benefit were she more of a participant.
Although Alexandra Kollontai’s own free, dramatic love life shocked not just the
bourgeoisie but also other revolutionaries, she still disapproved of precisely the kind
of casual promiscuity in which Marina engages.

In publicity materials, Fitch reveals her own lofty aspirations in her declared
worship of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”: “I opened it, and there was my
world.” Yet somewhere in the middle of its 800 pages, this novel loses any
semblance of her 19th-century forebear’s sense of narrative control. That said, the
feral descriptions of sex provide some of the novel’s most amusing, if decidedly
un-Dostoyevskian, moments.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s most recent history book is “The Romanovs: 1613-1918.” His
latest novel, “Red Sky at Noon,” will be published in January

Recent Books on the Russian Revolution

Pamela Paul, New York Times - via email

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, which fundamentally shaped  and continues to wield influence over Russia and the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, publishers have put forth a number of related books, with major biographies of Lenin and Stalin, and many new works of Soviet history, including a new book by Anne Applebaum, “Red Famine.”
Other books examine the present-day ripple effects of those tumultuous events. Masha Gessen’s “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” looks at the nation under Putin, and Maria Alyokhina’s “Riot Days” recounts the Pussy Riot musician’s time in prison, where she fought for prisoners’ rights.
But many readers turn to older books for insight into the Russia of 1917 and the following decades. That's why we asked three writers and thinkers – the novelist Martin Amis, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott to write essays on the books that to their mind best illuminate the events of October 1917.

See also, "Martin Amis on Lenin's Revolution," New York
Times, which makes what some would consider a rather
controversial statement: 
For decades Trotsky’s jealous dismissal — “the gray blur,” the faceless bureaucrat —
was the utterly misleading orthodoxy. Stalin was never a gray blur. Let us for a
moment consider the Stalin versus Hitler question simply as a contest between two
human beings. Until 1917 Stalin was a czarist dissident, a brawler, a boozer, a
singer, a charmer, a womanizer and a brilliant mimic; he was not only a published
but an anthologized poet; and he was wholly dedicated to the fight for universal
equality and justice. Compare him with Hitler, the dank, sexless, humorless,
milk-drinking vegetarian invert, nursing dreams, in his Viennese flophouse, of
Judaeocide and world domination. Once established as the autocrat, Hitler went
back to reading nothing but trash ethnology and the westerns of Karl May, whereas
Stalin went back to reading Dickens, Chekhov, Gogol, Hemingway, Zola, Balzac,
Maupassant and Oscar Wilde. Stalin was an Earthling; Hitler climbed up from the
infernal regions.
My inclination, rather, would be to ask in which circle of hell these two tyrants belonged. It would not be surprising if some of their victims would reply "in the same one." [see]

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Condoleezza Rice on the 10 Days Still Shaking the World

C. Rice, New York Times

image from

By CONDOLEEZZA RICE OCT. 17, 2017, New York Times

“This is where it happened,” my Russian guide declared. It was 1979 and I was a
graduate student in Moscow for the summer. A side trip to Leningrad was a must for
me, a first time traveler to the country. “Czar Alexander II was riding down this road
when the assassins struck,” she said. Almost under her breath, she added, “He was a
reformer.” Any hope for the liberalization of Russia seemed to die with the czar who
had freed the serfs and attempted to modernize the country. Alexander II’s death
brought to power his hard-line successor Alexander III, who initiated a harsh
crackdown (among those soon executed was the older brother of Vladimir Ilyich
Lenin). This would only sharpen the conflict in the country. Peasants had no bread.
Workers’ lives were miserable and often endangered. And soldiers were forced into
battle in the Great War, a fight they could not win. Alexander III’s son and successor,
the hapless Nicholas II, would abdicate in 1917. The parliamentary government of
Alexander Kerensky would survive less than a year.

From the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood it was just a short walk across
the square to the Winter Palace, where workers’ militias seized power and laid the
foundation for the Bolshevik Revolution and more than seven decades of Communist
rule. “Peace, Land and Bread,” they promised.

“Ten Days That Shook the World” captures the excitement of that moment. The
author, John Reed, was an American who made no secret of his Bolshevik
sympathies. He nevertheless provided a riveting and vivid — if not impartial —
account of the most pivotal phase of the revolution, as viewed from the ground.
From his vantage point, Reed could only tell a part of the story, however. To
fully understand the Bolshevik Revolution, one must also appreciate the long
trajectory of Russian history. Two other seminal works, James Billington’s “The Icon
and the Axe” and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “The Russian Revolution,” stand alongside
“Ten Days” as indispensable guides to these events.

“The Icon and the Axe” is a sweeping, intricate description of Russian cultural
history, spanning the pre-Romanov era through six centuries to the reign of Joseph
Stalin. Flowing with ease through time and topic — from art to music, literature,
philosophy, mythology and more — the book provides readers with an alluring
portrayal of Russia’s proud heritage. Its impressive scope and lasting insights have
made it a foundational text in Russian studies. In fact, it was this book, more than
any other, that captured my imagination and propelled me toward the study of
Russia and the Soviet Union.

Billington’s book, named for two items typically displayed in a place of honor in the
peasant home, reminds us that Russia’s vast geography helped shape its identity.
“The virgin forest was the nursery of Great Russian culture,” he writes. That made
the ax, which enabled the people of the forest to reshape their environment,
something of a revolutionary symbol.

In tracing the final years of the Romanov dynasty, Billington sets the stage for
1917 and puts Lenin’s revolutionary ideology into historical context. Even before the
popular revolt that led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, there was a growing
sense that the days of old were drawing to an end. Electricity had recently arrived in
Russia, replacing primordial fire. When Lenin returned from exile to capitalize on
the chaos of the czar’s abdication, he played to this sense of new beginnings and
urged a complete and total rupture with the past. He was a firebrand to his core,
spewing inflammatory rhetoric, eschewing compromise and pushing political
discourse to the extremes.

For Lenin, “morality was not to be based on ‘idealistic’ standards of inner
feelings, but on the ever-changing dictates of revolutionary expediency,” Billington
writes. Beyond that, the primary characteristic that set him apart from his socialist
rivals was his single-mindedness: “In the midst of soaring visionaries, Lenin focused
his attention on one all-consuming objective that had not traditionally been
uppermost in the thinking of the intelligentsia: the attainment of power.”

What Lenin’s victory brought, of course, was not worker control or “all power to
the Soviets,” as he promised, but civil war and dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party.
Sheila Fitzpatrick recounts this transformation in her easily digestible “The
Russian Revolution,” first published in the early 1980s and widely recognized as one
of the best books on the topic. “The Russian Revolution” is a short book but it is
serious history, based on extensive archival research. Fitzpatrick has made a number
of updates over the years to incorporate newly available materials, but she has not
had to make any changes to her argument.

What makes Fitzpatrick’s account particularly compelling is the link that she
draws to subsequent developments, arguing, in the style of Crane Brinton’s “The
Anatomy of Revolution,” that the tumult of the Bolshevik uprising did not end until
after Stalin’s 1930s Reign of Terror. “The October seizure of power was not the end
of the Bolshevik Revolution but the beginning,” she writes.

The Soviet Union would last a little over 70 years. One might say that its end
was also a beginning. But it has not been the new beginning that many had hoped —
one of democracy and integration into the West. Rather, Russia’s rough history — so
evident one century ago — continues to haunt and shape its future. That is good
reason to remember the 10 days in 1917 that really did shake the world.

Correction: October 17, 2017

A previous version of this article misstated the name of the author of “The Anatomy of
Revolution.” He was Crane Brinton, not Brinton Crane.

[JB comment: If you have the patience/inclination in our busy times, 
please take a look at "more" of Dr. Rice's "thinking" regarding Russia; 
this article possibly (and if so, mea culpa) contains an error by stating--
 "Yet, as a student of Russia, she never seized the considerable opportunities
offered by exchange programs to learn its language in the country itself" -- 
a mistake in the article that can be concluded from the above Rice statement 
about her summer visit to Russia: "It was 1979 and I was graduate student 
in Moscow for the summer. ..."

My question: Was Dr. Rice in Russia as an academic exchange student, or 
essentially as an academic "tourist" who took some Russian lessons? One 
sourcdoes state that "Rice studied Russian at Moscow State University in 
the summer of 1979." ]

Strictly for History Ph.Ds ... (including in the Russian History field)

From EZ on Facebook

Friday, October 20, 2017

I Miss the Old Megyn Kelly - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

By BATYA UNGAR-SARGON OCT. 9, 2017, New York Times; see also.

Image from article, with caption The former Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly on the first day of her new show, on NBC

We didn’t know it then, but August 2015 was a more innocent time. Donald Trump
was still a punch line, Hillary Clinton was poised to become the first female
president, and Megyn Kelly was still an uncompromising, unapologetic, take-noprisoners
Fox News rebel. As of last week, Donald Trump is president, Hillary
Clinton is an also-ran, and you can catch Megyn Kelly on her new NBC program,
“Megyn Kelly Today,” where she performs each morning as some horrific bizarro
version of her former self.

Her appearance during her debut last Monday said it all: Wearing a pink pussybow
blouse, her hair no longer slicked back in the trademark power bob of her later
Fox News days, Ms. Kelly declared that she was “kind of done with politics for now.”
Rather than politics, she explained, her new show would focus on, well, emotions.
“Have a laugh with us, a smile, sometimes a tear, and maybe a little hope to start
your day,” she said. “Some fun! That’s what we want to be doing. Some fun.” ...

Instead of unleashing her, NBC has attempted to transform Megyn Kelly into
one of the nice girls of mainstream media, another Kelly Ripa, Savannah Guthrie or
Katie Couric. The results have been predictably awkward. The glee at her stumble
has been swift and vicious.

Why was Megyn Kelly’s transition into the mainstream accompanied by this
kind of neutering? Why did Fox News have more room for this charismatic, difficult
woman than NBC? It’s hard to say. Mainstream talk shows — morning shows in
particular — have never had much of an appetite for difficult. And at a time when our
country is so divided, [JB emphasis] it was always likely that a network like NBC would try to cast as broad a net as possible, meaning that politics would be off the table for someone like Ms. Kelly. ... 

Trump’s Road to 2024 - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

Roger Cohen OCT. 20, 2017, New York Times

image from
PHOENIX — There are now two definitions of truth in the United States. The first is
that a truthful statement is one that conforms to facts or reality. By this standard,
President Trump is a serial liar.

The second is that truth is defined by “telling it like it is,” or speaking in a direct,
unvarnished way without regard to political correctness or the offense it may give. By
this measure, for millions of supporters, Trump is the most honest president ever.
The United States has already become a post-truth society. Telling it like it isn’t
has become a form of truth. That’s a nation in which chaos is more plausible because
the ability to make rational decisions is diminished. Signal and noise can no longer
be distinguished.

The center, where it was long held that elections are won, evaporates. Violence
becomes more likely because incomprehension grows across hardening lines of
fracture. It may well be that elections, as with Trump, are now won at the extremes.

In Arizona, where Trump’s presidential campaign went from joke to winning
proposition in July 2015 with a speech in which he said Mexicans were “taking our
money” and “killing us,” the honest-man Trump view resonates. Trump was always
about language. It didn’t matter that he was a loose cannon. He connected with
widespread disgust at the political class and the media. This was his winning
intuition: that he could triumph as the subversive plain-speaking outsider.
Trump had that “kind of bluntness and occasionally even crass language which, if
nothing else, at least meant authenticity,” said Jay Heiler, a lawyer considering a run
against Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a rare Republican critic of Trump. “The
president just hit a lot of nerves that a lot of conventional politicians didn’t even
know were there.”

Those nerves still tingle. Nine months into the presidency, the support of
Trump’s base remains fervid. I am often asked whether I believe Trump will be
impeached. I’ve taken to responding that it’s more likely he’ll be a two-term
president. I’d put the chances of impeachment at under 10 percent and of his reelection
at about 25 percent.

That’s partly because the Democratic Party has not yet begun a serious
reckoning with its defeat last year. It hasn’t grasped the degree to which it lives, still,
in a coastal echo chamber of identity politics and Trump-bashing. Being anti-Trump
won’t cut it. As Chuck Coughlin, a Republican political consultant who once worked
for Senator John McCain, put it to me: “Somebody who speaks to common-sense
American values — that is what the Democrats need.” I’m not sure who that person
is but am pretty sure she or he does not reside in New York, Massachusetts or

Coughlin went on: “A Democratic party that can’t tell me how many genders
there are, that ain’t flying in this country.”

American fracture is the nation’s overriding condition. It keeps widening. Jeff
DeWit, the Republican state treasurer of Arizona, picked up Trump at the airport for
that 2015 Phoenix rally; he remains an ardent fan of Trump’s “movement of people
dying for something different.” ...

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Bush II on American identity

Bush II-and-dogs painting image from
Our identity as a nation – unlike many other nations – is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility. We become the heirs of Thomas Jefferson by accepting the ideal of human dignity found in the Declaration of Independence. We become the heirs of James Madison by understanding the genius and values of the U.S. Constitution. We become the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr., by recognizing one another [JB - sic] not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.
And it means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation. ... 
Meanwhile, The exact words from Martin Luther King, if one can trust the Internet: 

 "I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."