Monday, June 12, 2017

The Revolutionary Specters of Russian Letters

Photo
Leo Tolstoy taking a winter walk. CreditFine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
How much time does it take to change a thing — a government, a society, a person?
The great Russian writers differed on this question. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s most spiritually robust heroes insist that it takes no time at all. In “The Brothers Karamazov,” Zosima’s elder brother, Markel, on his deathbed, proclaims: “We are all in paradise, but we do not want to know it, and if we did want to know it, tomorrow there would be paradise the world over.”
By contrast, Leo Tolstoy, who saw the human spirit rooted more in the habits of the physical body, begged his readers to cultivate minute-by-minute virtues, to live — like Natasha Rostova in “War and Peace” — intuitively in the present, because no other time exists: A person changes only through many tediously slow, prosaic choices. The magisterial Tolstoy declined to take seriously any changes originating at the level of government or society.
The poets of the Russian Revolution favored the less patient, more ecstatic Dostoyevskian option.
These poets thrillingly combined images of class warfare with millenarianism and Christian eschatology. In Alexander Blok’s 1918 poem “The Twelve,” Red Guards shoot blindly into a blizzard at a figure who appears to be leading them: Jesus Christ. Or is it the Antichrist? Either way, a Second Coming means a way out and a new beginning. In the same year, Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Futurist poet who, at 15, had joined the forerunner of the Bolshevik party, declared war on the past. He wrote, “it’s time for bullets to pepper museums,” earning a reprimand from the Commissar for Education and Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, for his “adolescent” attitude toward cultural masterpieces.
But the past was not only to be trashed. It could also be recruited for the future. The key was to avoid focusing on events in the morally confused and compromised present. Especially adept at escaping the incomprehensible present was the footlightless avant-garde theater, which collapsed actor and audience, fictive and real, then and now.
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The Symbolist poet and classicist Vyacheslav Ivanov worked briefly for Lunacharsky in the theater division of the commissariat. In 1924, the poet emigrated to Italy and later converted to Catholicism, but his early ideas on drama were protean and could serve many masters. In 1906, inspired by Nietzsche, Ivanov had called for a new style that would revive the Dionysian mystery of the ancient Greek chorus to express Russia’s communal will. The inspiration for this so-called synthetic drama was initially religious. Working for the commissariat in 1918 and 1919, however, Ivanov managed to promote his pagan theatrical utopia under an atheistic Bolshevik banner, too.
The fusing of past and future served overt political goals in Nikolai Evreinov’s re-enactment of the “Storming of the Winter Palace,” staged in Petrograd in 1920, during the civil war. This mass spectacle featured 25 Kerenskys, 30 Lenins, a chorus of 40,000 singing “The Internationale,” and a set coextensive with the city’s central square (the soundtrack made use of real artillery). Among the audience of hundreds of thousands were many who had witnessed the original event in 1917.
In a scripted performance, those tumultuous events could be re-remembered as intentional and progressive: What had been chaos and contingency became ineluctable historical necessity. From there, the “leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom,” in Friedrich Engels’s memorable phrase, would achieve Dostoyevsky’s “paradise the world over,” tomorrow.
This squeezing-out of everyday time and experience in favor of a maximalist leap into the future was later enshrined as a national trait by the émigré philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev in his 1946 book, “The Russian Idea.” At its center lay an impatience with the ordering of the earthly city, always mired in pragmatic compromise and thus partial failure.
Less well known is an article Berdyaev composed in Petrograd in that dark revolutionary year, 1918, titled “Specters of the Russian Revolution” (sometimes also translated as “Spirits of the Russian Revolution”). The specters here were not poverty, famine, collapse of civil society, total war, but the ghosts of classical Russian writers: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol. Look around, said Berdyaev: catastrophe everywhere, no connection between present and past, no trace of a great and unified Russia. But look deeper, he urged, and you will see the unity, the demons by which Russia has been possessed, all created by literary genius.
As Russia descended into an inferno, infernal energies were released, shaped by the great writers. Gogol possessed a preternatural gift for imagining evil, which drove him to see dismembered bodies and distorted faces. Dostoyevsky wrote novels of ideas in which the “cursed questions” of life and death were debated by hysterics, epileptics and criminals thoroughly incompetent to live wholesome lives themselves. This sentimental fascination with suffering opened the door to the Antichrist.
Berdyaev did not touch the art of Tolstoy’s great novels, which were set in a “crystallized past.” But he passionately condemned the moral judgments of Tolstoy after his conversion, and considered them exemplary of the Russian revolutionary temperament. Tolstoyan ethics, which fused Christian anarchism with a refusal to partake in violence or evil, represented an individualism so tyrannical that it could not empathize with the erring human face as it learned to act over time.
Tolstoy came to hate all things historical, diverse, relative, mysterious or unfinished. He was hostile to culture and disdainful of individual creativity, insisting on an immediate realization of the absolute. Whether they would have been formally for or against the revolution, Berdyaev believed, the specters of these three great writers fed its savage energy.
“Every nation,” Berdyaev wrote, “has its own revolutionary style.” During his discussion of Dostoyevsky, he developed this startling generalization. “A Frenchman is either a dogmatist or a skeptic, a dogmatist at the positive pole of his thought and a skeptic at the negative pole.” He went on: “A German is either a mystic or a critic. But a Russian is either an apocalypticist or a nihilist: an apocalypticist at the positive pole and a nihilist at the negative pole.” It followed, he argued, that the French and the Germans, whichever type they were, could create culture accordingly. “But it is difficult, very difficult,” he concluded, “to create culture apocalyptically and nihilistically.”
Berdyaev, for his part, was a mystical pluralist. “There is no people in which so many different ages are united, which so combined the 20th century with the 14th, as the Russian people,” he wrote in the catastrophic year of 1918. He intended this as a reproach, because he saw Russia’s historical multivalence, while organic to her growth as a nation, as a “hindrance to the integrity of her national life.”
Almost a century later, those words provide an alternate perspective on the marked reluctance of Russia’s current leader, President Vladimir Putin, to commemorate the 1917 centenary in any official manner. “Decide for yourself” what it should mean, he has enigmatically remarked. Study the revolution “professionally, objectively”; don’t demonstrate one way or the other.
Such calls from the Kremlin for independent political thinking are unusual enough to suggest genuine embarrassment at the anniversary, disavowal even. Presiding over a cult of stability that values precisely the integrity of Russia’s national life, Mr. Putin prefers to celebrate, as a Soviet starting point, not 1917 but 1945, Russia’s victory in World War II — the “great patriotic war.”
Since that war made Russia bigger, it made her greater. The argument is familiar: Russia might lose in time (seen from our Western perspective as “backward,” racing to catch up), but she wins in space. For Mr. Putin, the real trauma of 1989-1991 was not the collapse of dysfunctional communism but the loss of the respect and dignity of a secure, feared empire: national humiliation, geographical shrinkage, post-imperial decline.
However scrambled and hallucinatory Russia’s sense of time was — the 14th century mixed with the 20th — the country’s sheer unmanageable hugeness was a steady source of pride to its classical writers. History might be hell, but the land endured. Tolstoy became a Christian anarchist, but at the time of writing “War and Peace,” he grasped entirely how vital the conquest of territory was for the Russian psyche. In his fantastical way, so, too, did Gogol. And Dostoyevsky, a former political convict exiled to the imperial periphery, was an enthusiastic propagandist for the expansion of Holy Russia.
Berdyaev’s discussion of these writers, who were linked through their impatience with time and their patient reverence for space, was printed in a 1918 collection of essays, “Out of the Depths.” The book’s publication coincided with the embittered revolutionary Fanny Kaplan’s assassination attempt against Lenin and the first Red Terror. For two years, all copies lay in storage at the printer. In 1921, the typesetters tried to put the book on sale, but after the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion in March that year, the Bolsheviks confiscated the rest of the print run. Only two copies reached the West. In 1922, on Lenin’s order, the leading contributors to the collection, including Berdyaev himself, were expelled from Russia.
In 2017, in Mr. Putin’s Russia, it is not so easy to bury books or exile writers so peremptorily. But apocalypse and nihilism, those specialties of Russian literary genius that Berdyaev unhappily considered so receptive to revolution and so hostile to culture, will continue to haunt Mr. Putin’s quest to restore Russian greatness.

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