Sunday, November 12, 2017

Modern Jewish Literature - Jews Under Soviet Rule - Completeish

I told you in the last class that the next two classes would cover extremely dark topics. How could classes on the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany not? I wasn't kidding. I do not believe that teaching or learning is possible in a safe space, and at this point in my life, I don't have to do either. The human mind has an infinite capacity to disturb itself, and when we clear our minds of things worth disturbing ourselves about, we become disturbed by things that would not otherwise disturb us. There will be lighter moments in this class, but with this in mind, I'd like everybody to just take three more minutes to  do with that information whatever it is we all need to do to keep our heads on straight. Go upstairs and view some of the gorgeous art in the sanctuary, eat some sweets, zip a glezzen tey. If at any point, you need to excuse yourselves, that is of course understandable. This is disturbing material, because reality is disturbing, and as much as we'd like Hashem to apologize for reality, that's a problem to take up with Her. 


I'm going to start by reading to you something that is relatively light in the context of this class. An abridged bit of of a novel by Saul Bellow, who is not just not a Soviet writer, but in many ways the opposite of a Soviet writer. But there is always power in opposites. The tale side of a coin is still the object closest to its head. So here is Saul Bellow at the beginning of The Dean's December, a novel of the early 80's which he began by describing a trip by Albert Corde - like nearly all his protagonists a Bellow surrogate, with his Rumanian wife - who shared her nationality with Bellow's then wife - to her native country to visit her dying mother. We won't get to it when we discuss American-Jewish fiction, but this is a novel that needs to be rediscovered, and it won't be any time soon:

Here everyone was kind--family and friends, warmhearted people--he liked them very much, to him they were "old Europe." But they had their own intense business. This was no ordinary visit. His wife's mother was dying. Corde had come to give support, but there was little he could do for Minna. Language was a problem. People spoke little French, less English. 
Corde's mother-in-law, who had had first a heart attack and then a stroke, was in the hospital. Only the Party hospital had the machines to keep her alive, but the rules were rigid there. She was in intensive care, and visits were forbidden. Corde and Minna had flown a day and a night to be with her but in five days had seen her only twice--the first time by special dispensation, the second without official permission. The hospital superintendent, a colonel in the secret police, was greatly offended because his rules had been broken. He was a tough bureaucrat. The staff lived in terror of him. Minna and her aunt Gigi had decided (Corde took part in their discussions) that it would be polite to ask for an appointment: "Let's try to have a sensible talk with him."
On the telephone the Colonel had said, "Yes, come."
Minna, when she went to see him brought her husband along--perhaps an American, a dean from Chicago, not quite elderly but getting there, would temper the Colonel's anger. No such thing happened. The Colonel was a lean, hollow-templed, tight-wrapped, braided whip sort of man. Clearly, he wasn't going to give any satisfaction. An institution must keep its rules. 
There had been an impropriety. Under no circumstances could the administration tolerate that. Outraged, Minna was silent. What else could she be? Here only the Colonel had the right to be outraged. His high feeling--and he allowed it to go very high--was moderated in expression only by the depth of his voice. The Colonel's sparse hair was slicked straight back, military style; Corde's baldness was more random, a broad bay, a straggling growth of black hair. From this enlarged face, the brown gaze of an intricate mind of an absent, probably dreamy tendency followed their conversation. You could not expect a Communist secret police colonel to take such a person seriously. He was only an America, a dean of students from somewhere in the middle of the country. Of these two visitors, Minna was by far the more distinguished. This beautiful woman, as the Colonel was sure to know, was a professor of astronomy, had an international reputation. A "hard" scientist. It was important for the Colonel to establish that he was not moved by such considerations. He was in as hard a field as she. Harder.Minna spoke emotionally about her mother. She was an only child. The hearing the Colonel gave her was perfectly correct. A daughter who had come such a distance; a mother in intensive care, half paralyzed. Without knowing the language, Corde could understand all this easily enough, and interpreted the Colonel's position: where you had hospitals, you had dying people, naturally. Because of the special circumstances an exception had been made for the doamma and her husband on their arrival. But there had been a second visit (here the incensed emphasis again), without permission.
Minna, in terse asides, translated for her husband. It wasn't really necessary. He loosely sat there in wrinkled woolen trousers and a sports jacket, the image of the inappropriate American--in all circumstances inappropriate, incapable of learning the lessons of the twentieth century; spared, or scorned, by the forces of history or fate or whatever a European might want to call them. Corde was perfectly aware of this.
Valeria, the old woman, was not a Party member now, hadn't been one since, as Minister of Health, she fell in disgrace. That had happened thirty years ago. She was then denounced publicly by press and radio, expelled, threatened with prison, with death too. Before he could come to trial, one of her colleagues who fell in the same shake-up had his head hacked off in his cell. This old militant who had survived Antonescu (the Romanian fascist dictator whose antisemitism in that era was second only to Hitler's - ET) and also the Nazis was butchered with an ax or a meat cleaver. Dr. Valeria somehow came through. Dr. Valeria herself had founded this very hospital, the Party hospital. 
The Colonel, towards the last of the interview, put on a long, judicious look--cunning, twisting the knife--and said that Valeria was removed from the intensive care unit, Minna might come as often as she liked. Unhooked from the machines, the old woman would die in fifteen minutes. This of course he did not spell out. But there was your choice, madam. This was the man's idea of a joke. you delivered it at the point of a knife.
If this scene were written in 2017, it would probably be set in an American hospital. The feeling of well-being and prosperity that we had in the mid-20th century is gone now, because we have nothing to compare it to. No doubt Americans were too blind to the realities of our country's flaws in 1982, but statistically, the economic inequalities that existed then still exist now, just more permanently.

Even today, Rumania is not a particularly prosperous place, but few readers know that. There aren't many American readers of literary fiction today who'd find it plausible that things might be worse in a small European nation than they are here. If the writer of this scene's contemporary update were influenced by Margaret Atwood, we'd get a very stark sense of how the Colonel was using his position as a man to assert his power through gender - but this being by Saul Bellow, the most self-consciously un-woke author in American history, he makes clear that the Colonel is intimidated by Minna's stature, and not by her husband's. If the writer were influenced by David Foster Wallace, we'd probably get lots of digressions about the state of American healthcare, of the exact bureaucratic channels through which Corde and Minna had been thwarted. But even being from my grandparents' generation, Saul Bellow was from a very different, less scientific era than ours when the precise circumstances did not matter as much as the flavor. Bellow is a writer from an era when culture and fiction were still much more dominated by Europe. He was a writer, perhaps the last writer, who was still finding an American voice out of the tools that Europe provided us - and particularly out of the few tools which Russia provided him and his family. Either way, from Atwood or Wallace, we'd get a very different kind of high feeling than this Rumanian Colonel's. The high feeling would not be from  an oppressor in a distant place we don't understand, it would be the high feeling of oppressors whom we know how they oppress us all too well. Bellow was born in 1916, and he still lived in an America defined by the world,  but we all live in a world defined by America.

And yet, even in 2017, when we in America think of the Soviet Union, we are all still Albert Corde. What you've just heard is a portrait of the Soviet bloc from the point of view of an American - from a citizen of the one country truly shielded from the Twentieth Century as most of the world had experienced it. Even in the 20th century we had our share of problems that could have killed us all, problems that show no signs lately of getting anything but more dangerous, but in the 20th century, our problems were unique to us. Our problems were the problems of the one world power that always knew we would have enough to go around, and that the only question that mattered was how to distribute what we have.

Everywhere else in the world, everyone in the country, even the most prosperous, knew what it meant for the country to break. They knew what it meant to be so cold, and so hungry, that their children would cry all day and all night, and at times the only potential relief for their suffering seemed to be to pray for their death. Every other major world power - Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, China - every single one, knew this suffering at some point; from the bottom of society to the very top. It's one thing to live in a societal pyramid where a top still exists: there, at least, there is hope that you can reach prosperity. If that hope is never fulfilled, that can drive a society insane in a completely different way. But then there are the societies for which there is no top at all - that creates a very different different kind of insanity. In a society where the hopes for the prosperity of millions are too long delayed, people can become very soft. In such a society, the biggest faux pas among anybody who even has a small amount of prosperity is a lack of empathy for those who don't. But then there are the societies in which there's no hope at all, and in these societies, people become very hard, because the greatest faux pas among people with a small amount of prosperity is to have any empathy at all. In a society without hope, empathy is synonymous with weakness. And even if a temptation exists in many of us to hate some Americans for not being nearly empathetic enough, it's important to remember that there is still a country on the other side of the world, just as large and consequential as ours, who hates even the least empathetic of us, for having the empathy which they lacked, and using our empathy to defeat them.

It's perfectly legitimate to have any feeling you like about the results of the 2016 election. It is not legitimate, however, to believe at this point that Russia was not involved in the election. People are entitled to their own opinions, not to their own facts, and while we're not going to get into any analysis of news or statistics, to ever say that Russia was not involved in the 2016 election in late 2017 is not just a state of denial, it is a lie.

After the 20th century, America was hated by the Soviet Union not because we were strong but because we were so weak, and the fact that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War to this Empire ruled by spoiled children whom they still think never knew a moment's suffering is to them the ultimate injustice.

What's especially terrifying about this is that they have a point. Roughly 405,000 Americans died in World War II. That's roughly 1 in 395 American citizens of the time. But twenty-seven million Soviet citizens died in World War II, one in six! War is hell, war is murder, and to many people in Russia, still, it's still clear that the USA never fought in World War II, and swooped in to steal all their spoils.

A society like ours, where you can achieve greater strength by displaying your vulnerabilities, is a society where there's still real hope of life getting better. It's brutal enough when such a hard society exists less than a just a few blocks away from where we currently sit; but imagine for a moment that West Baltimore were 8.65 million square miles, one-sixth of the world's landmass, stretched ten time zones, and included nearly 300 million people. Siberia alone is half Europe's size. And this in no way includes the rest of the Soviet bloc satellites and all the billions elsewhere who lived the vast majority of their lives under Communist control.

Some people in here, particularly younger people, might have a nagging voice in your head saying that surely, life in the Soviet Union can't have been quite as bad as that. Nothing so big could have been so monolithic. And surely it wasn't. In ways we can only talk about tonight very briefly, the Soviet Union was an extraordinarily diverse place in ways that dwarfed even America's diversity - particularly linguistically, by the time the Soviet Union had become a country in 1917, America would only keep its borders open for another six years, and afterwards the American pot would melt every nationality of immigrant into English speakers without anything that would be considered coercion by anyone to the right of Soviet fellow travelers. But the Soviet Union, the supposed suppository of international socialism, did everything it could to make the Soviet Union as monolithically Russian as possible - deporting entire populations to the other side of the Empire in circumstances of the most sudden and horrific difficulty to make sure that they had no common language with those around them but Russian. In the cases of the Soviet Union under Lenin and of course, particularly Stalin, the USSR succeeded in making a monolith of suffering - suffering beyond what any American who has ever yet lived can ever yet imagine, and yes, I understand the implications of that statement. So long as there is life, however horrific the degradation, there is still hope for improvement. But as Stalin said, 'Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.'

There is still enormous confusion and disputation about the number of deaths in the Soviet Union, and people who should know better, often the same people who are quick to correctly say that Hitler did not kill as many people as Stalin, tend to severely undercut the death toll of the Soviet Union. They would have a much better argument if they told the truth, which is that Stalin most likely killed more than twice as many people as Hitler. He had twenty-nine years to do it, rather than Hitler's twelve, but whatever the truth, the remains truth that Stalin himself is, as best we can tell, responsible for 43 million murders - and that doesn't cover the 17, perhaps 18, million murders that happened after Stalin either. Some people will perhps say this is cheating because it doesn't just include outright execution, but death by deliberate famine, death while imprisoned, death in refugee camps, military and civilian war deaths caused by Russians in both German and Soviet and other nationalities. But whatever you think of those measurements, think about what that means for a moment. This is not all Communist countries, this is not death caused by the other dictators in the Soviet bloc, this is just the deaths that resulted from Stalin's orders. Don't just think about these deaths in a facile way where you think of one in every seven Americans dying violently. Instead, think for a moment about the singular tragedies we often protest here, and not without justification. Think for a moment about a single unjust death like the many which happen here in Baltimore, which are rightly demonstrated against - now think of all the people who demonstrate the injustice of this first death being put to death, now think of all the people who are family to the protestors, friends of the protestors, family friends of the protestors, and acquaintances of the protestors, and the family, and the friends, and acquaintances of the acquantances of the protestors. And none of this includes people who are merely tortured in ways whose stories our empathy would find much more taxing than thinking about death.

And when even that level of murder can't snuff out the lurking paranoia in a corrupt State that somebody, somewhere, might try to avenge wrongs they perpetrated, because God knows at that point, they'd have a damn good reason; think of the quantum level of intelligence gathering, of racial profiling, of corruption and blackmail and bribes and spying, it takes to make sure that these people ruled against don't rise up and take a revenge that's even a hundredth as cruel and biblical as what's already been perpetrated on them, and when even that can't snuff out the lurking paranoia that maybe these people might one day take a very deserved revenge on their oppressors, the only option left is the murder of entire towns in which no woman or child is spared, the entire population of an ethnic group or a race within a certain area, an entire way of life which was inescapably there just a few years earlier, and is now gone forever. Not just the people, but the entire memory that the people were ever once there.

So just to put this crime in a quick bit of still more perspective - a lot of people will say, not without merit, that the slaughter of Native Americans is a similar level of magnitude. It very well may be, because we don't have proper records. The best guess we can make is from forensic evidence of the genocide in the New World, which can't get us a better total than to say that it was somewhere between 8 million people, and 145 million. The best estimate we can come up with, and it's obviously an obscenely bad one, is to say that somewhere in the area of 55 million were most likely killed. But if it was the murder of 55 million, it was perpetrated over four-hundred years, Stalin killed nearly as many in a single generation, and in less than three generations, the Soviet Union exceeded that total.

And once again, the only philosopher bleak enough to make sense of it is the murderer himself. Stalin is alleged to say that famous line that the death of a one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic. It comes from Averill Harriman, the US Ambassador to the USSR after the war, so I'm inclined to believe he really said it. 

Many people of particular ideologies, both left and right, will say that horror is horror and not only are such comparisons obscene but to quantify horror is to rob horror of its essence, to anesthetize us to it, and to rob us of our empathy against it. 

Two responses:

1. Bullshit.

2. When empathy becomes the guiding principle by how we rid ourselves of horror, then the empathy we feel towards horror can be guided. Without statistics, without the full quantitative measurement of how much horror there is the world, we can say that one type horror is worse than another, for surely there will always be those who say that, because it's absolutely true - some types of horror are still worse than others. But when some people argue that some horrors are worse - for example, the horror perpetrated on whites in the South rather than those perpetrated on African-Americans, we need, desperately, a scientific basis to argue with them. With statistics, reliably sourced, that untold hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people compile in good faith to the memories of those who've suffered things we cannot fathom, we can at least say with proof for the ignorant that 'this happened, we know this happened, you cannot minimize this, you cannot tell us that these results are anything but what they are, now I dare you, try to make this argument in civilized society without making those around you remember what people who made your argument before are capable of doing!

The qualitative measurement of what horror is like is one of the many reasons that art, and the highest of highbrow art at that, is one of the most necessary experiences the world has. 

I do want to think that the point of this class is not sadism, so I'm going to make anybody read more than just a sliver of Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel, but it will have to suffice to say that the brutality in this long collection of stories is so unbelievable that you have to read many sentences twice just to be sure that you're reading what you think you might be reading. The closest American equivalent is probably Cormac McCarthy in books like Blood Meridian or The Road. But whereas Cormac McCarthy wrote his apocalyptic visions about imaginary future dystopias or of a distant historical eras that nobody's alive to dispute, Babel was writing from journalistic research as a war correspondent during the Russian Civil War that followed the Communist takeover of Russia in 1917. It tells of a fictional journalist who embedded himself with Cossacks and earned their trust at great personal risk - not far at all from Babel's reality. This is still the early 20's, when it seemed like the Soviet Union might allow for a certain kind of freedom of the press. The story he tells in Red Cavalry is, ultimately, not the story of one side against another, but a competition between to see which side can more easily impress the other with their ruthlessness. No second guesses for who was their most common victim. 

I'm now going to make you read a story that I have difficulty keeping myself collected when I read, because I realize that this story could have played over literally tens of thousands of times in Jewish history - perhaps millions of times in human history. A Jewish father, knowing that he is doomed, and begging his murderers for one small act of mercy - to not kill him in front of his daughter. In this passage, the author literally awakens from a nightmare, only to find that the reality is so much worse. Let's take a moment, I've brought tissues in case anybody but me needs it. This is one of the most graphic images in the history of literature, and this is how Isaac Babel begins his short stories about the Russian Civil War. 

Late at night we arrive in Novograd. In the quarters to which I am assigned I find a pregnant woman and two red-haired Jews with thin necks, and a third Jew who is sleeping with his face to the wall and a blanket pulled over his head. In my room I find ransacked closets, torn pieces of women's fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and fragments of the holy Seder plate that the Jews use once a year for Passover.

"Clean up this mess!" I tell the woman. "How can you live like this?"

The two Jews get up from their chairs. They hop around on their felt soles and pick up the broken pieces of porcelain from the floor. They hope around in silence, like monkeys, like Japanese acrobats in a circus, their necks swelling and twisting. They spread a ripped eiderdown on the floor for me, and I lie down by the wall, next to the third, sleeping Jew. Timorous poverty descends over my bed.

Everything has been killed by the silence, and only the moon, clasping its round, shining, carefree head in its blue hands, loiters beneath my window.

I rub my numb feet, lie back on the ripped eiderdown, and fall asleep. I dream about the commander of the Sixth Division. He is chasing the brigade commander on his heavy stallion, and shoots two bullets into his eyes. The bullets pierce the brigade commander's head, and his eyes fall to the ground. "Why did you turn back the brigade?" Savitsky, the commander of the Sixth Division, shouts at the wounded man, and I wake up because the pregnant woman is tapping me on the face.

"Pan," she says to me, "you are shouting in your sleep, and tossing and turning. I'll put your bed in another corner, because you are kicking my papa."

She raises her thin legs and round belly from the floor and pulls the blanket off the sleeping man. An old man is lying there on his back, dead. His gullet has been ripped out, his face hacked in two, and dark blood is clinging to his beard like a clump of lead.

"Pan," the Jewess says, shaking out the eiderdown, "the Poles were hacking him to death and he kept begging them, 'Kill me in the backyard so my daughter won't see me die!' But they wouldn't inconvenience themselves. He died in this room, thinking of me . . . . And now I want you to tell me," the woman suddenly said with terrible force, "I want you to tell me where one could find another father like my father in all the world!"
Red Cavalry: Crossing The River Zbrucz - Isaac Babel
This is sadism, it's not just the sadism of war, it's artistic sadism. But if we are going to understand the full brutality which humans are capable of, and of which Jews seem to be the victims over and over again, we need literary sadism exactly like this, and we need more of it. 

Many people dispute that the twentieth century was the most violent century, even scientists are not sure how to measure it. But if the twentieth century was not more violent than any century before it, perhaps it felt that way to many people because it was supposed to be the century when humanity finally transcended our capacity toward the most horrible acts, only to find that we lapsed into barbarism at the moment and in the places where barbarism was supposed to be eradicated forever. So now I'm going to make you answer the question no great thinker has ever answered. How is it even remotely conceivable that countries which gave us Beethoven and Tolstoy also gave us Stalin and Hitler?

So let's read another small excerpt, nothing like as graphic but just as unbelievable. (call on reader)
Berestechko stinks inviolably to this day. The smell of rotten herring emanates from everyone. The shtetl reeks in expectation of a new era, and, instead of people, fading reflections of frontier misfortune wander through it....
...A rally was gathering on the square below. Peasants, Jews, and tanners from the outlying areas had come together. Above them flared Vinogradov's ecstatic voice and the clanking of his spurse. He gave a speech about the Second Congress of the Comintern,...
Below me, the voice of the divisional military commisar is droning on. He is passionately haranguing the bewildered townspeople and the plundered Jews: "You are the power. Everything here belongs to you. There are no masters. I shall now conduct an election for the Revolutionary Committee."
Lest anybody think I've being unfair to the Left so far, let me be just as unfair to the Right. You can find very similar passages in all sorts of books about idealistic wars, including books about the Iraq War - I recommend Assassin's Gate by George Packer. Remember that many of the original neoconservatives started out as disappointed Marxists. You can just as easily imagine a Defense Department worker, droning on to Iraqis whose towns have been reduced to dust and lost whatever little they had and telling them that they have an infinite future. Who the hell is going to believe them? And what evidence did they ever show for such an outlandish case?

We're going to come back to Isaac Babel in a little bit, because he is as much a writer about life as he is about death. First, I want to have small quotes from two expert witness writers. The first was not very fond of Jes, the second was not very fond of Russians. But they both shared a deep hatred of the Soviet Union for a reason that were entirely on the money. The reason was ideology.

First, here's what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has to say about ideology (call on reader):

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.
Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.
Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and other’s eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.
Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. 
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Now, Isaiah Berlin (call on reader):

“If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter.” 
Isaiah Berlin

I'm not going to allow for discussion of anything as potentially heated as whether or not America is in danger of developing these kinds of mass ideologies. I'm instead going to point you in the direction of a Yiddish novel. We didn't get a chance to go over The Brothers Ashkenazi, which is one of the great novels in any language. But one of the most key points in the novel is to document the life of a character named Nachum, a sensitive and intelligent socialist organizer who saw suffering everywhere he went. He simply wanted life to be better, and because he stood up for the rights of workers, his childhood rival who became a corrupt industrialist got the reactionary government throw him into jail. Nachum went in a soft socialist who believed in organized non-violent resistance, and he came out of jail a Communist who'd seen and experienced things so brutal that he believed the only way to cleanse the world of capitalism was mass murder more ruthless than anything capitalism had yet done so that the world could get a fresh start.

So now, with that in mind, let's go to one of the sadly still few women writers we will be talking about. There are certainly eminent Jewish women writers out there, but the further back in history you go, the less there are, the more atypical their circumstances, and the less likely they even are to write about circumstances that affect Jews at large. I eagerly look forward to the day when this balance is tipped, it's a full half of the human experience that literature still doesn't know enough about.

But here is an excerpt from one of the greatest memoir that can ever be set down: Hope Against Hope, and like so many works of Soviet literature, it's a miracle that it wasn't destroyed. This is the mentality that allowed this system to get off the ground to begin with.
Our encounter with the irrational forces that so inescapably and horrifyingly ruled over us radically affected our minds. Many of us had accepted the inevitability--and some the expediency--of what was going on around us. All of us were seized by the feeling that there was no turning back--a feeling dictated by our experience of the past, our forebodings about the future and our hypnotic trance in the present. I maintain that all of us--particularly if we lived in the cities--were in a state close to a hypnotic trance. We had really been persuaded that we had entered a new era, and that we had no choice but to submit to historical inevitability, which in any case was only another name for the dreams of all those who had ever fought for human happiness. Propaganda for historical determinism had deprived us of our will and the power to make our own judgments....
In the middle of the twenties, when the atmospheric pressure began to weigh more heavily on us--at critical periods it was heavier than lead--people all at once started to avoid each other. This could not be explained only by fear of informers and denunciation--we had not yet had time to get really scared of these. It was rather the onset of a kind of numbness, the first symptoms of lethargy. What was there to talk about when everything had already been said, explained, signed and sealed? Only children continued to babble their completely human nonsense, and the grown-ups--everybody from bookkeepers to writers--preferred their company to that of their peers. But mothers prepared their children for life by teaching them the sacred language of their seniors. "My children love Stalin most of all, and me only second," Pasternak's wife, Zinaida Nikolayevna, used to say. Others did not go so far, but nobody confided their doubts to their children: why condemn them to death? And then suppose the child talked in school and brought disaster to the whole family? And why tell it things it didn't need to know. Better it should live like everybody else. . . . So the children grew, swelling the ranks of the hypnotized....
When I used to read about the French Revolution as a child, I often wondered whether it was possible to survive during a reign of terror. I now know beyond doubt that it is impossible. Anybody who breathes the air of terror is doomed, even if nominally he manages to save his life. Everybody is a victim--not only those who die, but also all the killers, ideologists, accomplices and sycophants who close their eyes or wash their hands--even if they are secretly consumed with remorse at night. Every section of the population has been through the terrible sickness caused by terror, and none has so far recovered, or become fit again for normal civic life....
Who was it that dared to say that we have no "lost generation" here? The fact that he could utter such a monstrous untruth is also a consequence of terror. One generation after another was "lost" here, but it was a completely different process from what may have happened in the West. Here people just tried to go on working, struggling to maintain themselves, hoping for salvation, and thinking only about their immediate concerns. In such times your daily round is like a drug. The more you have to do, the better. If you can immerse yourself in your work, the years fly by more quickly, leaving only a gray blur in the memory....
In the period of the Yezhov terror--the mass arrests came in waves of varying intensity--there must sometimes have been no more room in the jails, and to those of us still free it looked as though the highest wave had passed and the terror was abating. After each show trial, people sighed, "Well, it's all over at last." What they meant was: Thank God, it looks as though I've escaped. But then there would be a new wave and the same people would rush to heap abuse on the "enemies of the people." There was nothing people wouldn't say about the victims in order to save themselves. "Stalin doesn't have to cut heads off," said M., "they fly off by themselves like dandelions."...
Hope Against Hope - Nadezhda Mandelstam 
Some of you may have heard of Nadezhda Mandelstam's husband, Osip Mandelstam, who is the 'M.' she writes of in what you just read. Mandelstam was one of the great Russian poets, so, of course, he was sent to Siberia, and died there. It's arguably a better fate than the thirteen Jewish poets who were put on a mass trial in what's now known as the Night of the Murdered Poets. I'll leave details to your imagination...

I'm going to read out loud Mandelstam's famous poem: The Age. If any line of this provokes a thought in you, raise your hand and we'll talk about it.

My beast, my age, who will try
to look you in the eye,
and weld the vertebrae
of century to century,
with blood? Creating blood
pours out of mortal things:
only the parasitic shudder,
when the new world sings.
As long as it still has life,
the creature lifts its bone,
and, along the secret line
of the spine, waves foam.
Once more life’s crown,
like a lamb, is sacrificed,
cartilage under the knife -
the age of the new-born.
To free life from jail,
and begin a new absolute,
the mass of knotted days
must be linked by means of a flute.
With human anguish
the age rocks the wave’s mass,
and the golden measure’s hissed
by a viper in the grass.
And new buds will swell, intact,
the green shoots engage,
but your spine is cracked
my beautiful, pitiful, age.
And grimacing dumbly, you writhe,
look back, feebly, with cruel jaws,
a creature, once supple and lithe,
at the tracks left by your paws.

Osip Mandelstam - The Age

So now, let's talk about this age, and let's go back to Isaac Babel - the great literary hope of the age. Today, lots of readers remember Mikhail Bulgakov because of Master and Margarita, but they don't remmeber Babel as much. They were contemporaries who died in the same year, Babel was executed, Bulgakov simply terrorized into a heart attack; and for anybody here who still reads Bulgakov, you'll find a lot of similarity between them. But Babel, like so many Jews, was much more grounded in realism. He wrote sixty short stories, most of them are either supposedly autobiographical or, like Red Cavalry, based on journalism. He had that very Jewish trait of always connecting any abstract idea to practical applications.

He had two other literary modes, the mode of his autobiographical stories, and the Odessa Stories, which center around the Odessa Mafia. It's not nearly as death obsessed as Red Cavalry, but there was something about Babel that was very different from Russian writers before him. The two most famous Russian writers, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, great as they are, are unquestionably serious to the point of glum. They took life and the dignity of people incredibly seriously, but where did taking life so seriously get their readers if the end result was the Soviet Union?

But Babel was a Yiddish speaker born into a family that had barely begun to assimilate. Along with influences like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky came Sholem Aleichem, and you can almost imagine these other stories narrated by Tevye. He is as obsessed with the triviality of life as older Russian writers are with the dignity of life, but Babel doesn't just portray the horrific side of death, he also portrays the comic side of it, and portrays it just about better than anybody. Here are two examples, let's read together. Here's a story about old beggars at a cemetery who came up with a scam to swindle mourners with a trick coffin (call on reader):
In the days of the famine, no one lived better in all Odessa than the almsfolk of the Second Jewish Cemetery. Kofman the cloth merchant, had built an almshouse for old people by the wall of the cemetery in memory of his wife Isabella, a fact that became the butt of many a joke at Café Fankoni. But Kofman turned out to be right in the end. After the Revolution, the old men and women who found refuge by the cemetery immediately grabbed positions as gravediggers, cantors, and body washers. They got their hands on an oak coffin with a silver-tasseled pall, and rented it out to the poor.
There were no planks to be found anywhere in Odessa in those days. The rental coffin did not stand idle. The dead would lie in the oak coffin at home and at the funeral service--but then they were pitched into their graves wrapped in shroud. This was a forgotten Jewish custom.
Wise men had taught that one is not to hinder the union of worm and carrion--carrion is unclean. "For dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return."
Because of the revival of the forgotten custom, the rations of the old folk grew in ways which in those das no one could even dream of. In the evenings they got drunk in Zalan Krivoruchka's cellar, and threw their leftover scraps to poorer companions.
Their prosperity remained undisturbed until the rebellion in the German settlements. The Germans killed Garrison Commander Gersh Lugovoy.
He was buried with honors. The troops marched to the cemetery with bands, field kitchens, and machine guns on tachankas. Speeches were given and vows made over his open grave.
"Comrade Gersh joined the Revolutionary Social Democratic Workers Party of the Bolsheviks in 1911, where he held the position of propagandist and liason agent!" Lenka Broytman, the division commander, yelled at the top of his lungs. "Comrade Gersh was arrested along with Sonya Yanovskaya, Ivan Sokolov, and Monozon in the town of Nikolayev in 1913. . . ."
Arye-Leib, the elder of the almshouse, lay in waiting with his comrade. Lenka hadn't yet finished his farewell speech over the grave when the old men heaved up the coffin in order to tip it onto its side so that the deceased, covered with a flag, would come tumbling out. Lenka discreetly jabbed Arye-Leib with his boot spur.
"Beat it!" he hissed. "Go on, beat it!" . . . Gersh served the Republic . . ."
Before the eyes of the horrified old folk, Lugovoy was buried along with the oak coffin, the tassels, and the black pall onto which the Star of David and verses from an ancient Hebrew prayer for the dead had been woven in silver.
"We've all just attended our own funeral!" Arye-Leib told his comrades after the burial. "We have fallen into Pharaoh's hands!" And he rushed off to see Broydin, the overseer of the cemetery, with a request that planks for a new coffin and cloth for a pall be issued immediately. Broydin made promises, but did nothing. His plans did not include the enrichment of the old folk.
And here is the legendary Benya Krik, the gangster of Odessa, and the story of exactly how he became the Don of his city. Let's forget the rest of the story, which trust me, is great, and just hear Benya's most famous line:
"'Aunt Pesya!' Benya then said to the disheveled old woman rolling on the floor. 'If you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God! This was a giant mistake, Aunt Pesya! But didn't God Himself make a mistake when he settled the Jews in Russia so they could be tormented as if they were in hell? Wouldn't it have been better to have the Jews living in Switzerland, where they would've been surrounded by first-class lakes, mountain air, and Frenchmen galore? Everyone makes mistakes, even God. 
We are not going to have enough time to talk about Boris Pasternak. So instead I'll simply tell a story that I desperately want to believe is true.

In 1937, the great terror was at its height, virtually every artist of consequence was disappearing. Everywhere, and Pasternak, a writer whose fame was greater than even Babel's or Bulgakov's, was rumored to be next. He was ordered by the Russian commissar to give a speech. Nobody knew how he could possibly get out of this alive.

Pasternak, however, was a translator of Shakespeare. this being Russia, where all literature was taken so seriously. His translation of the sonnetts was so great, that when he was called upon to speak, all he had to do was say "#30", and the entire congregation of writers rose as one and recited Shakespeare Sonnet #30. Let's read it together:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thoughtI summon up remembrance of things past,I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:Then can I drown an eye, unus'd to flow,For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,And moan th' expense of many a vanish'd sight;Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,And heavily from woe to woe tell o'erThe sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,Which I new pay as if not paid before.But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,All losses are restor'd, and sorrows end. 

William Shakespeare: Sonnet #30 

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