Posts Tagged ‘David Remnick’

Happy 100th Birthday to the Soviet Homer! “Chilling out is not exactly his thing.”

Thursday, December 13th, 2018
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Here he is, not chilling at the Hoover Library & Archives.

This week’s quietest centennial belongs to Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the writer who destroyed an empire. That’s from the New York Times, commemorating the 100th birthday of the writer who wrote The Gulag Archipelago, and died in 2008. The article is by the Russian’s biographer, Michael Scammell (we worked together briefly at Index on Censorship, which he founded, in London):

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, pundits offered a variety of reasons for its failure: economic, political, military. Few thought to add a fourth, more elusive cause: the regime’s total loss of credibility.

This hard-to-measure process had started in 1956, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his so-called secret speech to party leaders, in which he denounced Josef Stalin’s purges and officially revealed the existence of the gulag prison system. Not long afterward, Boris Pasternak allowed his suppressed novel “Doctor Zhivago” to be published in the West, tearing another hole in the Iron Curtain. Then, in 1962, the literary magazine Novy Mir caused a sensation with a novella set in the gulag by an unknown author named Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.

That novella, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” took the country, and then the world, by storm. In crisp, clear prose, it told the story of a simple man’s day in a labor camp, where he stoically endured endless injustices. It was so incendiary that, when it appeared, many Soviet readers thought that government censorship had been abolished.

I looked for Anna Akhmatova‘s comment on Solzhenitsyn, but instead found Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s remarks in the Iowa Review in 1978 (from my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations):

Q: What’s your opinion of Solzhenitsyn and the legend which has been built around him?

A: (Long pause) Well, let’s put it this way. I’m awfully proud that I’m writing in the same language that he does. I think he’s one of the greatest men ever … one of the greatest and most courageous men who has ever lived in this century. I think he is an absolutely remarkable writer. As for legend … you shouldn’t worry or care about legend, you should read the work. And what kind of legend? He has his biography … and he has his words. …

Brodsky: not chilling, either.

Q: Please go on.

A: He has been reproached quite a bit by various critics, by various men of letters, for being a second-rate writer, or a bad writer. I don’t think it’s just … because the people who are judging the work of literature are sort of building their judgment on the basis of systems of aesthetics which we inherited from the nineteenth century. What Solzhenitsyn is doing in literature cannot be judged by this aesthetic standard just as his subject matter cannot be judged by our ethical standards. Because when the man is talking about the annihilation or liquidation of sixty million men, there is no room, in my opinion, left to talk about literature and whether it’s a good type of literature or not. In his case, literature is absorbed in the story.

What I’m trying to say is this. Curiously enough, he is the writer, but he uses literature, and not in order to create a new aesthetics but for its ancient, original purpose: to tell the story. And in doing that, he’s unwittingly, in my opinion, expanding the framework of literature. From the beginning of his career, as far as we can trace it on the basis of his successive publications, you see quite an obvious erosion of the genres.

What we start with, historically, is a normal novella, One Day, yes? Then he goes to something bigger, Cancer Ward, yes? And then he went to something which is really neither a novel nor a chronicle but somewhere in between, The First Circle. And then we’ve got this Gulag which is, I think, a new kind of epic. It’s a very dark epic, if you wish, but it’s an epic.

I think that the Soviet rule has its Homer in the case of Solzhenitsyn. I don’t know what else to say. And forget about legends, that is real crap … about every writer.

But something I always wondered was: what was it like to actually live with a man like Solzhenitsyn. For that you have to go to David Remnick’s 1994 New Yorker profile, “The Exile Returns”:

There is something at once frenetic and peaceful about the Solzhenitsyn household. Everyone has a job to do, and everyone does it with efficiency and evident pleasure. Upstairs, Natalia has her own office, where she runs what is, in essence, a literary factory. For Solzhenitsyn’s latest works, she sets the type on an I.B.M. composing machine, and then she sends the typeset pages to Paris, where their friend Nikita Struve runs the Russian-language YMCA-Press. Struve has only to photograph the set pages, print them, and bind them. Natalia has set all twenty volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s sobranie sochineny—his collected works. Only now that Solzhenitsyn has completed his series of immense historical novels, “The Red Wheel,” is either author or amanuensis able to concentrate on the move back to Moscow.

David Remnick (Photo: Martin Schneider/Creative Commons)

The children—Yermolai, Ignat, and Stephan, and their older half brother, Dmitri Turin—have also been very much a part of the Solzhenitsyn enterprise. During the family’s first years in Cavendish, they began the day with a prayer for Russia to be saved from its oppressors. They went to local schools, and when they came home in the afternoon their father gave them further lessons in mathematics and the sciences (Solzhenitsyn had been a schoolteacher in Russia) and their mother tutored them in Russian language and literature. Until the boys began leaving home for boarding schools and college, they, too, helped with literary chores, setting type, compiling volumes of Russian memoirs, translating speeches. Now they are spread across the world. Dmitri lives in New York, where he restores and sells vintage motorcycles. Yermolai, after two years at Eton, went to Harvard, and while he was there he studied Chinese and had a part-time job as a bouncer at the Bow &Arrow, a Cambridge bar; he is now living in Taiwan and wants to begin working soon in China. Ignat is studying piano and conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, and has performed around the world, to spectacular reviews, including a series of triumphant concerts with his father’s old friend Mstislav Rostropovich last September in Russia and the Baltic states. Stephan is a junior at Harvard and is majoring in urban planning.

Ignat and Stephan were home for winter vacation, and I asked them if their father ever stopped working.

Ignat smiled slyly and replied, “No, he’s never said, ‘Today I’m just gonna chill out, take a jog, and blow off this “Red Wheel” thing.’ Not one day.”

“Chilling out is not exactly his thing,” Stephan added.

“So, fine. Why can’t the West get over this?” Ignat said, growing more serious. “Why is his working all the time such an annoyance? Why is it so bad that he lives in Vermont and not the middle of Manhattan?”

“They assume he must be weird,” Stephan said.  

Biographer Scammell

Scammell concludes: “After his death Solzhenitsyn was given a sumptuous funeral and buried at the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. In 2010 “The Gulag Archipelago” was made required reading in Russian high schools. Moscow’s Great Communist Street has been renamed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Street, his centennial is being celebrated with great pomp this week in Russia, and a statue of him in Moscow is planned for the near future.

“All this would give the writer great satisfaction. But though feted and exploited by questionable allies, Solzhenitsyn should be remembered for his role as a truth-teller. He risked his all to drive a stake through the heart of Soviet communism and did more than any other single human being to undermine its credibility and bring the Soviet state to its knees.”

The New York Times piece is here. The long ago New Yorker piece here.

R.I.P. Russia’s Arseny Roginsky: “one of the great warriors against forgetting.”

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017
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Arseny Roginsky, 1946-2017: “what decency itself sounds like.” (Photo: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

Every year I have waited for the Nobel Peace Prize, wondering if at last Russia’s Memorial will be honored for its formidable work of retrieving memory of what Russia chooses to forget: the massacres and persecutions of the Soviet era. Memorial has fostered research on the arrests, imprisonments, murders and exiles, and commemorated them, while campaigning for human rights in modern Russia.

If it happens, whenever it happens, the Swedish honor will come too late for its founder, the historian and dissident Arseny Roginsky, who died on Monday at the age of 71. I was preparing to write something on this death for a man whose name too few in the West will recognize, but David Remnick, who knew Roginsky personally, beat me to it. He wrote an excellent tribute in the New Yorker yesterday, and I can do no better than to cite it:

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The line comes from one of Milan Kundera’s novels about the totalitarian experience in the twentieth century, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Now, in the twenty-first century, as the forces allied against democratic institutions employ historical falsehoods once more as a kind of distorting mirror, it is especially painful to lose Arseny Roginsky, one of the great warriors against forgetting.

Roginsky, who died on Monday, at the age of seventy-one, was a Soviet and Russian dissident in the tradition of Andrei Sakharov, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Nadezhda Mandelstam. He was pure of heart but hardly sanctimonious. And his achievement was immense. In the late eighties, Roginsky helped found Memorial, an organization determined to uncover the truths of Soviet history in defiance of the forces of censorship and repression. He was as brave as any human-rights campaigner I’ve known, but he was also funny, ironic, eternally bemused even in the face of what he had endured and, more, his country’s dark history and forbidding present. When I lived in Moscow, and for years after, I looked forward to our frequent meetings and his expansive monologues; as a blue-gray nimbus of cigarette smoke accumulated around him, he gave seminars not only in matters of historical fact but in what decency itself sounds like.

For that, this unassuming warrior – whose father died in a gulag when Roginsky was nine years old – was harassed, bugged, arrested, and eventually incarcerated, moving from camp to camp for years to keep him from “infecting” other inmates:

In younger, colder days…

When Roginsky finally returned home, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was coming to power with reform in mind. Sensing opportunity on an unprecedented scale, Roginsky joined forces, in 1988 and 1989, with a range of urban intellectuals and pro-democracy forces to start Memorial, one of the most important “informal” organizations in a nascent civil-society movement. Memorial put historical truth-telling at the top of its agenda, but it also served as a free-floating forum for discussion about the future of the intelligentsia and the country itself. On weekend mornings, I often went to meetings of Memorial to listen to speeches, meet with its leaders and younger followers, and, generally, to get a sense of where the movement was headed. Because where Memorial went, Gorbachev was often apt to follow. One of Gorbachev’s most important achievements was to insist that the future depended on an honest assessment of the past; this was the guiding principle of Memorial and Arseny Roginsky.

Here’s what he was working against, in an article, “The Gulag: Lest We Forget,” written by Anne Applebaum a dozen years ago, which illustrates the enormous importance of his work:

And yet in Russia, a country accustomed to grandiose war memorials and vast, solemn state funerals, these local efforts and private initiatives seem meager, scattered, and incomplete. The majority of Russians are probably not even aware of them. And no wonder: Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia—the country that has inherited the Soviet Union’s diplomatic and foreign policies, its embassies, its debts, and its seat at the United Nations—continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union’s history. Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression. Neither does Russia have a national place of mourning, a monument officially recognizing the suffering of victims and their families.
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More notable than the missing monuments, however, is the missing public awareness. Sometimes it seems as if the enormous emotions and passions raised by the wide-ranging discussions of the Gorbachev era simply vanished, along with the Soviet Union itself. The bitter debate about justice for the victims disappeared just as abruptly. Although there was much talk about it at the end of the 1980s, the Russian government never did examine or try the perpetrators of torture or mass murder, even those who were identifiable.

Why should it have gotten the Nobel? One reason: the future of Memorial is up for grabs in Putin’s Russia, and it work desperately needs the international recognition that will protect its work:

Under the Putin regime, Memorial has done invaluable research and advocacy work on abuses in the North Caucasus and other troubled regions of Russia. It remains a human-rights organization, despite heavy pressure from the Kremlin, which has little interest in human rights and regards Memorial as a “foreign agent.” Periodically, Russian politicians have threatened to close Memorial entirely. As Memorial’s chairman, Roginsky was always preternaturally calm yet unyielding.

Read the whole Remnick piece here.

“Thank you, Arseny Borisovich, you will always be with us,” Memorial said in the statement on its website.

New poems, old stories: Robert Conquest balances “the inhuman reign of the lie” with naughty verse

Monday, December 26th, 2011
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.

No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts.  But there’s plenty else that is public.

Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May.  You can read them here.

Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me.  I’ve never, really, seen the point.  But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, the Daily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.

The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.”  It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:

Honored in 2009

After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.

When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:

Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)

Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.

So what’s changed in 2011?  As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:

Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.

Read it all here.

 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn revisited: “I welcome your snowballs”

Thursday, November 25th, 2010
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At the Hoover Institution archives in 1976: "silent, aghast, a simply endless witnessing"

Russia watcher and New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in 2001: “In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the 20th century. Who else compares? Orwell? Koestler? And yet when his name comes up now, it is more often than not as a freak, a monarchist, an anti-Semite, a crank, a has been.”

I remember reading my silver-covered Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1, in the backrooms of the Pontiac Press where, as a brand-new intern in the hard, gritty little burg, I was supposed to be compiling the results of a reader survey.  I kept snatching a few minutes here and there to read more, and more.  It was, as author Richard Wirick wrote, “300,000 words of stupefying revelations — silent, aghast, a simply endless witnessing. Its didacticism, the repetitious parade of exclamations … we have to be reminded that quantity sometimes becomes quality, that the sheer numbers murdered — and of a country’s own people — requires a special category of inimitable evil.”

Somehow, the last few days of research in various and sundry brought me to Wirick’s excellent Bookslut piece on the author’s 2008 death, “Solzhenitsyn: The Last Giant.” Afterward I revisited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s much-criticized (“scolding,” “hectoring”) 1978 Harvard address.

On the contrary, I find it provocative, often prescient, and at the very least worth another look.

On a legalistic society…

“I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”

On human freedom…

“The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. …

Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected. Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society.”

On the press…

“Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.

Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it.”

On intellectual fashions…

“Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. … This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.”

I could go on:  “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die.”

One can’t help thinking that Solzhenitsyn’s remarks about Western cowardice, its colossal failure of nerve, were pretty much spot-on.  For example, in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger warned President Gerald Ford against a visit from the Nobel laureate, saying the visit would cause controversy, and that fellow dissidents found his positions an embarrassment.  Guess who didn’t get an invite.  One thinks more recently of the Dalai Lama leaving the White House by the back door, near the garbage.  Or the unseemly waffling of nations deciding whether to boycott the Nobels this year, in support of China against the imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo.  Or the modern inability to understand much more beyond branding, positioning, marketing, and public relations values — Jon Stewart‘s apparent inability to discern why inviting Cat Stevens to celebrate peace and sanity might not be such a red-hot idea.  Or… or … or…

Writing after Solzhenitsyn’s 2008 death, Wirick comments that the writer seems to have outscaled the criticism:

“And yet there he was. After Borges and Beckett, Calvino and Bellow, the man pretty much stood by himself out on the landscape: a chipped, fierce, creaking monument, taunting the wind for its shuddering fall. On the night it came, and a friend called with the news, I closed my eyes and saw my favorite photograph of him, I believe by Harry Benson. It’s the one where he is deeply breathing, hands on chest, the nearly Russian air of his whitened Vermont pastures. It’s a picture that shows a lot more wisdom and self-deprecation than most people see. The superficial view takes the smile on his face and closed eyes to be saying how ‘happy’ he is to finally be in a ‘free’ country. I see him saying something at once richer and lighter, playful and more complex: ‘I’m a writer. I’m a ham. I make mistakes. I just happen to straddle the age like Abi Yoyo. But it is always only a step, as Mr. Nabokov said, from the hallelujah to the hoot. I welcome your snowballs.'”