The Homo Sovieticus is Alive and Kicking

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Masha Gessen: The Future is History. How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia ISBN 978-0-525-53406-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Masha Gessen’s book intends to draw a psychogram of the Russian society, a fascinating endeavour for anyone interested in current political affairs and a must-read for anyone interested in the future of the West’s relationship with Russia. I cannot judge how close Gessen gets to draw an accurate and complete picture of how the Russian society ticks today, but by following the fate of four former Soviet and now Russian citizens from the terminal stage of the USSR until today, she gave me a highly valuable insight into the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, a species that did outlive its natural habitat.

The lives of Zhanna and Masha, both born in 1984, Seryozha, born in 1982, and Lyosha, born in 1985, are the four lenses through which different steps of contemporary Russian history are examined. They represent different social backgrounds, different ways of education and socialization, but they share a common fate: They are crushed by the weight of an ever more oppressive political system and their wishes for a life in a free society did not find fulfillment.

Gessen basic theory is that the Homo Sovieticus had learnt to be ruled by ruthless rulers without complaining too much and that any new ideas – i.e. those imported by the West like democracy, liberalism, the rule of law – will not be met with enthusiasm by the Russian society. Modern Russian society functions both at the level of the rulers and at the level of the ruled according to the norms of the USSR.

Basic pillars of social cohesion in the USSR were the narrative of a glorious Soviet victory in World War II, a certain ideal of presumed Russian traditions (xenophobia), the opposition to the United States and great power status. The Homo Sovieticus thrived on these, and modern Russia looks back with nostalgia according to Gessen. The capacity for “doublethink”, the admission of contradictory experiences in one mindset, a capacity well-developed among Soviet citizen, was of great help to adjust to the situation then and now.

President Vladimir Putin, an old hand in the art of manipulation, exploits this nostalgia by promising Russians the return of the apparently golden times. This, and the Russians’ longing for “stability” after the turmoil that signaled the end of the USSR, made it possible for Putin to turn Russia into an authoritarian state. He succeeded in petting a complacent, silent majority against minorities: students pursuing a liberal society, foreign NGOs, non-ethnic Russians and the LGBT community. And he succeeded in creating the illusion that Russia is under threat from all sides, a situation that requires an active defense which he alone can lead.

Obviously Putin did not succeed simply by coming to power. He needed the backing of the rich elite, that is the oligarchs who managed to gain control over large parts of the Soviet economy when Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin broke up the state monopolies to fill the government’s purse. Putin had them choose between two options: a) accept political control under Putin’s leadership and retain the majority of their wealth b) oppose Putin’s policies and face detention and the loss of all their wealth. For most oligarchs the choice was easy. They backed Putin, had their second residence in Switzerland and were left alone.

Ordinary Russians, who could not choose between two residencies, had another choice. They could rebel openly, demonstrate in Moscow, distribute flyers or stage protest actions like the Punk group Pussy Riot. They would have to face arrests, beatings by the police, psychological harassment and the loss of their job. Or they could tacitly agree with Putin’s policies, participate in pseudo-elections and be left alone too. Many chose the latter option since this was what had guaranteed the Homo Sovieticus a more or less untroubled life. It proved to be a good survival strategy once more.

True, human rights abuses under Putin are minimal compared to the totalitarian rule of Stalin. But Putin does not need Stalinist terror. A little pressure here and there seems sufficient, especially when his policy has elements the Homo Sovieticus can agree wholeheartedly: Yes to Russian grandeur, no to foreign interference. Yes to traditional family values, no to pedophiles (i.e. homosexuals in Putin’s propaganda). Yes to a strong ruler, no to democratic experiments that lead to anarchy.

By exploiting the deep-seated fears of the Homo Sovieticus, Putin has imposed his idea of a “guided democracy” upon Russia. More and more dissidents leave the country, the silent majority stays. Putin benefitted from a booming economy, but even successive political and economic disasters like the sinking of the submarine “Kursk” and the banking crisis have not paved the way for a leadership change and a different, more open society. The few years of relative freedom under Yeltsin were not enough to foster western ideas about a modern, liberal and democracic society in Russia. And by now it is too late as Putin exercises sufficient control over what the Homo Sovieticus reads, hears, sees and thinks to make any revolt a hopeless endeavour.

But let’s turn to our four dramatis personae. Zhanna is the daughter of the longtime politician and activist Boris Nemtsov, murdered in Moscow. As such she is an eye-witness to the gradual worsening of the human rights situation in Russia. Masha for her part grew up with an admiration for the Soviet Union’s strength. She wanted to become a military officer. At the end of day however we find her marching with thousands of protesters in Moscow against the manipulation of elections in Russia.

Seryozha grew up in a privileged part of Soviet society, the nomenklatura. He had his political awakening in 2008 at the presidential elections, which he recognized as what they were: a farce. Finally Lyosha. He knew he was in trouble as soon as he had discovered he was gay. Even before Putin started to blame the LGBT community for making Russia weak in every aspect, be it demography, the field of national defence or the political arena, living homosexuality in the open was problematic in Russia. Under president Putin it became life-threatening.

Gessen paints a depressing picture of today’s Russia, and Western leaders and businessmen should not be trusted when they present Russia as an opportunity and try to persuade us that closer political and economical ties would benefit ordinary Russian in pursuing their dream of a free society. That dream is dead, and the formula “change through interaction” has already failed with China.

Gessen has written a good book, an important book, nevertheless some of the last chapters irritated me. She emphasizes the persecution of the LGBT community as this is a good indicator of the degree of individual diversity the rulers and the vast majority of Russians are willing to tolerate. Needless to say that by now the tolerance is zero. Putin and his propaganda masters have turned the population into enforcers of  discriminating laws, mainly by equating gay men with pedophiles, foreign agitators, spies and Jews. As important as this part of Putin’s policy may be, is it the only indicator of an authoritarian state worth mentioning?

Gessen sees Russia in the fangs of totalitarianism, but she offers not enough elements to substantiate this claim. The take-over of most media outlets would have been an example, the selective access to the internet another. Gessen remains rather silent about this. Putin’s ideas on economical autarky, useful if you want to limit exposure to foreign ideas, is not mentioned at all. The militarization of youth movements like “Nashi” and the growing budgets for defence expenditures are subjects omitted in Gessen’s book.

These elements may have little to do with the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, but a lot with Gessen’s claim that Russia is a totalitarian state. By focusing on the LGBT community, Gessen suggest that their persecution is the biggest problem of Russia. It clearly isn’t. It’s part of what is wrong in Russia, but it’s not the key issue. The key issue is the question whether Putin’s idea that Russia is different from the US and from Europe and thus not suited for democracy and an open society is echoed by a majority of the Russian population. This is crucial for us who live outside Russia.

What does Putin’s vision of Russia mean for Poland and for Hungary whose leaders do not look like they share the fundamental values of the European Union? What does it mean for our dependency on Russian gas? And what does it mean for the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump? Gessen offers no answers except personal indignation. Am I unfair towards the author? She’s an LGBT activist and has a substantial journalistic talent, she is not a political scientist after all. To this I would like to object that totalitarianism in the shape of National Socialism and Stalinism is too serious an issue to serve as selling argument for a book.

The Soviet composer Edison Denisov once complained about “fossilized academicalism” in the Soviet Union. He was a student of Dmitry Shostakovich, one of the greatest Russian composers of all times, and in 1954 he wrote a wonderful Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano:

A Student’s Reverence to Dmitry Shostakovich

Understanding Shostakovich

Rosamunde Bartlett (ed.): Shostakovich in context. ISBN 978-019-816666-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Any reader familiar with my music blog will be aware that I am a great admirer of Dmitry Shostakovich’s music. Both his works and his difficult life as a composer in the Soviet Union have been fascinating me for years. After the deception caused by the fact that “Testimony”, published by Solomon Volkov, is a falsification of Shostakovich’s memoirs, I was glad to read a collection of contemporary scientific essays dealing with Shostakovich’s works and exploring certain aspects of his life so far unknown to me. I will limit this review to those essays that interested me most.

Richard Taruskin shows us that the composer’s works intentionally carry ambiguous messages. Was he an ardent supporter of the Communist Party or a secret opponent? Both aspects shine through in his compositions, and his Soviet audience in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was certainly able (and avid) to decipher the subtext of Shostakovich’s works. One can feel sympathy for, even believe in the Communist idea and still criticize the behaviour of party officials. One can officially acknowledge the all-powerful Soviet state and still write subversive music. There is no black-and-white in Shostakovich’s life, there is none in his works.

Laurel E. Fay, author of an excellent biography, offers new insight in Shostakovich’s relation to the Leningrad Association of Contemporary Music (LASM) and to his fellow composer Boris Asafiev. Asafiev was the éminence grise behind the LASM and initially gave Shostakovich a boost of confidence to have his first symphony performed. However, Shostakovich did not see the LASM as being representative of Soviet contemporary music, he leaned himself towards the less formal Circle for New Music, and when Asafiev failed to attend the premiere of the symphony, “the honeymoon ended”, as Fay writes.

Ludmila Mikheyeva-Sollertinsky illustrates the faithful relation between Shostakovich and his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, professor at the Leningrad Conservatory and the artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Both lived Leningrad and saw each other very often up to World War II, nevertheless Shostakovich wrote no less than 150 letters to Sollertinsky. The analysis of the correspondence sheds a new light on the composer’s character and his sense of humour.

Finally I would like to highlight Manashir Yabukov’s study of the composition “Anti-Formalistic Rayok”, a sarcastic description of the Soviet cultural policy, performed only in Shostakovich’s private circle. I was unaware of this piece, and it is wonderful to discover not only a new piece, but also a real testimony of Shostakovich’s defying attitude towards the USSR. Lyudmila Kovnatskaya’s exploration of parallels in the life and works of Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten was of great relevance to me. Britten is one of those composer’s exerting absolutely no attraction on me. Why? I have no idea. Ignorance? Perhaps. If Shostakovich would lead me to become interested in Britten, now that would be an achievement!

Dmitry Shostakovich wrote revolutionary music, but one of his musical beacons was Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1850/51 he wrote a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, inspired by Bach’s “Well-tempered Klavier”:

A fugue or a prelude every third day

Controversial Notes About an Embattled Composer

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Solomon Volkov (Ed.): Testimony. The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. ISBN 978-0-571-22792 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Such a thrilling book! Brimfull with interesting details and funny anecdotes. Written in a riveting style. My insight into the motives and emotions, my understanding of the brilliant mind of one of my favourite composers grew in leaps. A fascinating life, full of contradictions, marked by sorrow and joy, desperation and optimism, narrated by Dmitry Shostakovich himself. If only I could be sure that these memoirs are authentic.

Since the book was published by Solomon Volkov in 1979, the discussion has been raging. Is the story, as Volkov renders it, true? Volkov claimed it all happened very quickly, since the composer wanted to give his version of the story as he sensed hus own death. He and Shostakovich would have met between 1972 and 1973 for several lengthy interview sessions, and Volkov claimed to have scrupulously noted the composers memories, explanations etc. The manuscript apparently was smuggled into the West, and was to be published after the composer’s death. Volkov has been challenged by musicologists to share the original notes, which he refused to do.

So did Volkov make it all up? He and Shostakovich were well acquainted, and several witnesses confirmed that the two met several times to write Shostakovich’s memoirs. The common project’s goal was to portray composer caught between party loyality and creativity. To shed some light on the ideological constraints that Shostakovich sometimes accepted and sometimes overcame, at great personal risks, at least as long as Stalin lived.

Volkov shows the composer as a clandestine opponent to the Soviet system, his music being full of hidden allusions about Stalin’s tyranny. He casts Shostakovich as an implaccable accuser of Soviet (un)cultural policies, an eyewitness of the destruction of Russia’s artistic heritage in the name of “Socialist Realism”, the official cultural ideology. A riskless endeavour once Shostakovich was dead – he died in 1975 – and Volkov safely lived in the United States.

But is this Shostakovich narrating his life or Volkov narrating Shostakovich’s life? The New York musicologist Laurel Fay identified eight passages in the book which she asserts had been copied by Volkov from articles or speeches previously published by Shostakovich. This casts a shadow over the authenticity of the whole book. Volkov’s refusal to share the original notes, apparently reviewed by the composer, makes it hard to tell where Shostakovich ends and Volkov begins.

In 1990, the biographer Ian MacDonald published “The New Shostakovich” explaining the composer’s life and work within the context of Soviet history. The picture painted by Volkov gains some credibility, but it doesn’t mean Shostakovich said what Volkov wrote. MacDonald pointed out that the composer’s son Maxim, who had repudiated Volkov’s account while he still lived in the Soviet Union, had endorsed “Testimony” after his emigration.

Testimony, pitching the personal memory of an embattled individual against the official memory of an all-powerful state, is contentious to the last full stop”, MacDonald writes. He recommends to approach it with caution. The Soviet Union officially denounced Volkov’s book as a fabrication, MacDonald sees it as a provoking piece of counter-propaganda. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and remains fuzzy. That was the state of play then, and it will remain so for the near future, I guess. It doesn’t matter actually. Reading this book gave me a lot of pleasure, and, as they say in Italy: Se non e vero, e ben trovato.

Since Shostakovich’s memoirs are such a controversial issue, let’s see, here is a controversial piece, Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77:

Shostakovich crosses the desert of solitude

Traveling to the Epicenter of the Revolution

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Catherine Merridale: Lenins Zug. Eine Reise in die Revolution. (English title: Lenin on the Train. Translation by Bernd Rullkötter) ISBN 978-3-10-002274-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Russian history is a fascinating subject and especially modern Russian history, starting with the revolution of 1905, is a subject that keeps fascinating a political scientist like me. Catherine Merridale retraces Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov’s trip from his Swiss exile to St. Petersburg in 1917 in order to reorganize first the Bolshevik party and then Russia itself – with an iron hand and little concern for democratic aspirations. Ulyanov? Well, the man became better known under his nom de guerre, the name he took while being banished by the Russian czar to Siberia: Lenin.

Europe was at war in 1917, and the German government had decided to let Lenin and some of his party friends travel from Switzerland through Germany to Sweden and Russia even though Russia was at war with Germany. The High Command, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and German spy networks supported all kind of opposition forces in Russia to weaken the czar’s government, hoping to negotiate a separate peace with Russia and to liberate army units much-needed on the Western front.

Merridale not only gives a vivid description of the travel conditions but also an extensive overview of the political, diplomatic, economical and military entanglements. She excels once again as a narrator; and should you find this book interesting, I warmly recommend her previous book “Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin”. Sound historic research, an excellent command of language and a good feeling for building tension are Merridale’s hallmarks, and the fact that all kind of intelligence services play a part in this book make it a true page-turner. History lessons can be so enjoyable! Too bad nobody told me at school.

In the final chapters the historian sketches the type of political system Lenin had in mind. By manipulating and intimidating his political opponents – conservatives, liberals, moderate leftists – he established the foundation of a tyranny and did not back away from blackmail, inciting riots or worse imprisonment and murder of his perceived enemies. Lenin had ruled out a democratic, open state. His ideal was the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which in fact was just an euphemism for the dictatorship of the elite of the Bolshevik and later the Communist party. Whether the population of Russia and the occupied territories like the Ukraine wanted such a rule, was of no concern to him. Loyal to Marx he believed in the deterministic model of the historical and dialectical materialism, and aimed to fulfill the historical necessity to bring down the old order and establish a new one.

The trip in the train gave Lenin ample time to write down the principles of this Marxist-Leninist political order. Once he and his fellow travelers had made it to St. Petersburg, the city that would later be named Leningrad in his honour, he engaged in a violent political combat against the established parties and politicians to implement his vision. The price did not matter, even if it meant turning the international conflict into a gruesome, European wide civil war pitting workers and farmers against the middle-class and the aristocracy. Merridale quotes one of Lenin’s allies in 1917, Leo Trotzky: “It is not by chance that ‘unforgiving’ and ‘merciless’ are frequent [words] in Lenin’s vocabulary.”

Just like Stalin, subject of a biography that I have presented in an earlier post, Lenin was more a professional revolutionary than a statesman or a politician. Still, despite his radical political ideas he was a friend of arts and admired Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata “Appassionata”, perhaps because he saw the revolution in music that Beethoven had kicked off. I wonder what he would have thought of the Five Piano Pieces (Op. 23), written by Arnold Schönberg, another musical revolutionary:

Intelligible music – To memorize means to understand

Moscow’s weakness and our own moral corruption

John Le Carré: The Russia House. ISBN 978-0-141-19635 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I remember the day the Soviet Union ceased to exist: December 26, 1991. I was dumbstruck by disbelief. The Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war had been part of my cosmos since I had been able to think for myself. The Catholic priest in our little chapel once had remarked we were lucky to live close to a NATO logistics hub. In case of war we would be vaporized instantly by the nuclear blast. No suffering, no radiation sickness. A fellow student of mine had protested against the fielding of nuclear-tipped SS-20 missiles aimed at NATO countries. The Soviet Union was a fact and I had every reason to perceive it as a threat.

I came to think of that time when I read Le Carré’s spy novel “The Russia House”, his first post-glasnost novel, published in 1989. At the time I wanted to believe in Mikhail Gorbatchev’s new policy: a Soviet Union embracing transparency (glasnost) and setting out to systemic reform (perestroika). My dad called it a lie – the Communists were not to be trusted – and warned me: Don’t come home with one of these t-shirts with “CCCP” written all across it or else…

I greatly enjoyed “The Russia House” for it gives the blurred emotions of hope and misgivings I felt back then precise contours. After Gorbatchev had made public his ideas on glasnost, a Soviet scientist working in the field of nuclear misdiles, wants to pass intelligence about the failing Soviet system to the West, hoping to trigger nuclear disarmement by exposing Moscow’s weaknesses.

Idealism, the hope for peace, the moral responsibility towards the next generation – these factors propel the plot forward. The detailed and cynic narrative of a joint US-UK intelligence operation – running a reluctant agent in Moscow to make contact with the scientist – provides the background for a much more philosophical insight: that the Western societies at the time were no less corrupt and failing than the Soviet Union before its dissolution. The Soviet Union was a convenient scapegoat for many things that went wrong, a wonderful excuse for morally dubious policies. The Soviet Union suited the West fine as a projection of its own dark side.

You may ask of what interest this may be today, some 28 years later. Well, first it is a goid read. Le Carré is a brilliant story-teller and this novel is yet another proof of hos talent. Second, the Soviet Union has been replaced by an autocratic and thoroughly corrupt Russian Federation, the nuclear arsenal remains in place, Moscow pursues an aggressive foreign policy hoping to restore its former Soviet lustre (if it ever had any) and we seem to be again at the threshold of a new confrontation, possibly on European soil. As for our own moral corruption, the examples of the United States and the United Kingdom are not exactly reassuring.

It is certainly no coincidence that Le Carré picked Dmitry Shostakovich’s music to illustrate the only consolation of a secondary character of the plot, a man who had just been released from the Soviet forced labor camps. Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in C minor amounts to a look back at the Soviet Union, times of fear and broken dreams.

Paranoid feelings as the sun sets on the countryside