“Russia’s Strategy”

Hi, everyone.

This is a bit of a tangential post, but I thought that you all might find this interesting given our recent class discussions regarding Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War. I came across this article – part of Mauldin Economics This Week in Geopolitics series – while doing research for a political science class last year. The author, George Friedman, is a Hungarian-born geopolitical strategist specializing in international affairs.

Friedman’s thesis, simply put, is that Russia’s involvement in Syria is motivated by a desire to distract both the Western powers, and the Russian populace, from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. He also posits that, in addition to wanting to reassert their nation’s status as a Great Power, the current Russian government seeks to retain a buffer zone or sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. He argues that said desire is informed by both historical events (Russia has faced invasions from the West on several occasions, most recently in 1941), and recent political phenomena such as the Baltic States joining NATO in the early 2000’s, and the United States’ public support for the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

According to Friedman, Vladimir Putin’s tendency to blame the West is born of both political pragmatism and geopolitical paranoia. While the tactic of implicating external enemies in Russia’s troubles is useful to Putin at the domestic level, this behavior is underscored by a, perhaps somewhat understandable, belief that the West has maligned Russia in the recent past (as evidenced by the corruption and economic hardships that ensued in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse), and continues to express ill will towards Russia by attempting to erode the latter’s traditional sphere of influence. Friedman states that regardless of whether this conviction is rational, it is impossible to understand Russia’s geopolitical maneuvers without acknowledging said belief’s role in determining policy.

Again, this is not required reading by any stretch, but I felt that it provided a useful historical perspective and nicely supplemented the material we have addressed in class.

You can find the article here: http://www.mauldineconomics.com/this-week-in-geopolitics/russias-strategy#

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Dogmatic Aesthetics

Alexandr raises an interesting point on page 234, saying “If she does not understand this she is not a teacher of live, developing aesthetics, but a preacher of dogmatic aesthetics – which is no better than religion.”  I think Alexandr touches on something important here by comparing officially approved aesthetics to religious dogma. The state encourages “light” and “melodic” music (185), but both of these are subjective to at least a certain degree, because even atonal music like Schoenberg’s work in the early 20th century could be described by both of these terms. It seems that attempting to classify subjective descriptions as objective goes even beyond what most religions do in terms of creating a dogma. How could the Soviet Union reconcile the encouragement of critical thinking with aesthetic dogmatism? And did the USSR consider that “light” and “melodic” music might still be bourgeois music even if its roots are older?

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I am interested in analyzing this passage from Kataev’s “Time Forward”:

Nalbandov was deaf. He refused to hear. Amortization and quality, he thought to himself. His glance glided carelessly over the room. Everywhere-newspapers, newspapers, newspapers … Newspapers spotted with portraits of heroes. Ribbons of heads. Columns of heads. Stairways of heads. Heads, heads, heads.

Loaders, concrete mixers, armature men, muckers, scaffolding men, carpenters, rigging men, chemists, draftsmen … Old, young, middle-aged. Caps, Mankas, hats, visored caps, tiubeteikas … Names, names, names.

Fame! Was this fame?

Yes, this was fame! This was real fame. It was precisely thus that fame was made. Fame was made “here,” but it might be cashed in on-“there.”

In her article, Clark argues that Socialist Realism relied on a notion of “Great Time,” which upheld the legends of 1917, the Civil War, and “critical moments in Stalin’s life” (40) as a kind of platonic form. The present, was merely a particular manifestation of this form, this “great time.” How does this theory figure into the above passage? Is the fame and newspapers which the protagonist discusses merely a record of achievements which reflect the epic heroes of the revolution, the Civil War, and the Stalinist era? What is the significance of this reduction of Soviet heroes to “heads” and “names”?

He glanced sideways at Shura Soldatova. Crouched on all fours and moving her tongue in a childish way, she was pasting a photograph of Margulies on the page of the wall newspaper.

According to the committe’s “Resolution on Zvezda and Leningrad” good Socialist Realist literature is supposed to be devoid of the erotic. I cannot help but feel that the above passage shows the protagonist looking at Soldatova with a lusty male gaze.

Yes, this is fame, he thought, and 1 am foolishly letting it go by me. One must make a name for himself, a name, a name.

The name must be printed in newspapers. It must be mentioned in reports. It must be argued about, repeated in meetings and disputes.

It was so simple! All that was necessary to attain it was the technical level of the time. Suppose that level was low, elementary? Suppose it was a thousand times lower than the level of Europe and America, although it seemed higher?

The epoch demanded adventurism. And so, one must be an adventurist. The epoch did not spare those who fell behind or disagreed.

Yes, this was fame.

And to-day he let an opportune occasion slip past him.

What could be simpler?

One must be on the level of his time, take the business of record-setting in his own hands, organize it, move it, advertise it, be the first …

He had committed a tactical error, but it was not yet too late. There would be a thousand such opportunities ahead of him.

This whole idea of record-setting and the elevation of the individual seems to represent a contradiction in the ideal of “good Socialist Realist literature.” Though there are certainly tones of heroic “collective labor” in this passage, it nonetheless expresses an overwhelming desire for personal success. How can Socialist Realist literature then reconcile these conflicting objects of praise (the collective and the individual)? Perhaps the protagonist only wants praise in that he would be entering the canon of Soviet record-setters. By breaking industrial records his name would be recorded in the great time of 1917, the Civil War, and Stalin.

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How did Lenin’s “city” decorations differ from Peter’s “lawn” decorations, if at all?

We learned from Stites (1989, 88-89) that Lenin insisted on decorating cities with monuments, inscriptions, and inscriptions on monuments. Stites writes, “Between 1918 and 1921 about 50-60 such monuments were erected, mostly in Moscow, as well as dozens of inscriptions.” We also remember that Peter the Great, too, was fond of decorations. He displayed many (foreign) statues in his gardens, for example.

Both seem to be instances of leaders using monuments to influence culture. Did both leaders share the same goals? Did they target the same audiences?

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The Historical Implications of Symbolism

For class on Monday, we read Irina Paperno’s succinct summary of Symbolist aesthetics during the beginning of the 20th century in Russia. While focusing primarily on the literary methods and theories of the symbolists, Paperno also contextualizes the historical views of the Symbolists as part and parcel of those of modernism in general:

Summing up an array of intellectual and artistic trends that developed in Western European cultures, and in Russia, at the turn of the century and lasted into the 193o’s, the concept of “modernism” suggests a certain generalized new “consciousness,” or “mentality,” holding that the accepted model of reality, or the world itself, is up for rearrangement. This mentality drew its strength from a characteristic feeling: the apocalyptic sense that humankind was living at the “breaking point” of history, destined for totally novel times and a new world. (3)

This dichotomy between the new and old world is at the forefront of Blok’s poem “The Scythians” written in 1918 after the revolutions of 1917. The historical nature of this poem is evident from the beginning, which starts with an an epigraph quoting Vladimir Solovyev (a “founding father” of Symbolist ideology) which reads “Panmongolism! Though a strange name, the sound of it pleases our ears.” The poem is narrated from the perspective of a “We” who serves as the shield between Europe and the Mongols. Blok himself seems to be included in this group. The poem calls for the “ancient world” to come to “…the summons of the barbarian lyre” and for the “We” to drop the shield and observe the “conflict raging on the field.” These calls parallel Blok’s arguments in his 1918 essay “The Intelligentsia and the Revolution” in which he calls on the intelligentsia to abandon their conflict with the people and listen closely to the “orchestral din” of the Russian Revolution. In light of the excerpt from Paperno cited above, it would seem that Blok’s poem is thus a post-apocalyptic work which embraces the “metamorphic” power of art which Paperno outlines on page 7 of her text.

“The Scythians” is rife with historical, ancient, and mythical symbols. If, as Andrei Bely asserts, Symbolism involves the embodiment or physical manifestation of the image, what implications does this have when Symbolists use historical images? Are these historical images “reembodied” or resurrected in the present? If so, what is the use of even calling these images historical at all?



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Femininity and Radicalism

Vera Figner presented an interesting rendering of gender stereotypes in relation to ideals of radicalism. We touched on this a bit in class, but it would be useful to think further about the gendered implications of the split of Land and Liberty into The People’s Will and Black Repartition. I noticed that characteristically “feminine” traits were deployed by Figner when she was describing her actions in the village in which she worked and in her description of Parovskaya’s relationship with workers, “Tender, tender as a mother with the working people, she was exacting and severe towards her comrades and fellow workers, while towards her political enemies, the government, she could be merciless”(Figner 1991,108). The by-laws of the Executive Committee espoused ideals such as the renunciation of desires, sympathies, and kinship ties, which can be described as more rational and “masculine” traits (Figner 1991,76). “Feminine” traits are thus seemingly incompatible with The People’s Will and when such split from Land and Liberty, and Figner and Parovskaya moved to the city to support the revolutionary cause, their maternalistic relationship to the working people was replaced by a more “paternalistic” one.

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Force and The People’s Will

On page 337, Saunders uses a citation to summarize The Peoples Will’s philosophy on force and violence:

Their prime concern was the acquisition of force. ‘Is terror necessary? Are newspapers necessary? Is a change of programme necessary? Is activity among young people, workers, soldiers, the peasantry, in zemstva, in the intelligentsia and so on necessary? To all these and all similar questions we reply: how much force will this or that tactic deliver?’

Saunders seems to use this as evidence of the revolutionary group’s ultimately statist aims. His claim is that force is an essentially statist tool and therefore The People’s Will represented a kind of “populism” concerned more with taking control of state structures than with replacing those structures with something like the peasant commune.

Saunders’ analysis thus raises an important question. If the state maintains its legitimacy by preserving a monopoly on force, and revolutionary groups such as The People’s Will sought to undermine this legitimacy, how could they possibly do so without force?

Despite noting the morally corrupting influence of violence on society, Vera Figner seems to view violence of the kind The People’s Will participated in as necessary and even inevitable given the political climate of Russia in 1877. According to Figner: “The assignation of the Emperor took place at a time when there was a general conviction that the attempt was going to be made” (116). Perhaps then the problem Saunders poses is relevant to our discussion of Figner’s text: Does the picture Figner paints of The People’s Will suggest that they were essentially statist in nature?

We have already conducted a similar discussion about terror and revolution in Lenin’s “What is to be done?” In that pamphlet, Lenin expressed a far more reluctant view on terror which he viewed as a source of disorganization in revolutionary movements. How might this view factor into our discussion?

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Pushkin and Pugachev

Hi, all.

I wanted to follow up on our discussion on Wednesday regarding Alexander Pushkin’s representation of Pugachev’s Rebellion in “The Captain’s Daughter”. While we were all struck by Pushkin’s seemingly positive characterization of Pugachev, as well as his deleterious portrayal of the Russian military, something I feel we failed to discuss was the author’s depiction of Pugachev’s followers.

Several weeks ago, when we discussed the phenomenon of peasant revolts in Russian history, we noted that Pugachev’s Rebellion has been alternatively characterized as either a true peasant rebellion, or as a Cossack uprising. While the likes of Alexander Radishchev, in his “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow”, contended that Pugachev’s Rebellion constituted a grim portent of what was to come should the institution of serfdom persist, contemporary appraisals of the conflict seem to disagree. In “Catherine the Great: A Short History”, Isabel de Madariaga argues:

“one must conclude that it was not primarily a peasant war, but a Cossack revolt, initiated by a specific Host, the Yaik Cossacks, the furthest from the central government and the most primitive and backward-looking. Its aims were to secure the Cossacks’ traditional freedoms and to ‘turn everyone into a Cossack’. The Cossacks did not think of launching a widespread peasant rising, they thought in terms of their own aims and at first waged the war in their own territory, Orenburg, and that of their allies the Bashkirs” (de Madariaga, 65).

Pushkin’s narrative would appear to corroborate this conclusion. At the beginning of the sixth chapter of his text, he pauses to remark on the origins of the uprising, stating:

“[Orenburg] was inhabited by a multitude of half-savage peoples, who had only recently recognized the sovereignty of the Russian emperors. Their constant insurrections, unfamiliarity with law and civic life, light-mindedness and cruelty, demanded constant surveillance on the part of the government to keep them in obedience…. the Yaik Cossacks themselves, whose duty it was to safeguard the peace and security of the region, had for some time been troublesome and dangerous subjects for the government” (Pushkin, 286).

This interpretation of the nature of the rebellion is continually reasserted throughout Pushkin’s writing. Pugachev’s forces are described as made up of a combination of Cossacks and other ethnic groups (Pushkin identifies Bashkir individuals on several occasions), and even those individuals who do not belong to these groups – such as the novel’s antagonist, Shvabrin, a nobleman – are said to reinvent themselves accordingly; “I saw Shvabrin among the rebel chiefs, his hair in a bowl cut and wearing a Cossack kaftan” (299). Although Pushkin does acknowledge the participation of peasants in the revolt in the omitted chapter, the speed with which they repent for their actions (“‘We were wrong, master,’ they replied with one voice” [355] ) serves to diminish their role in the events. By contrast, the only serf to play a major role in the story, Pyotr’s companion, Savelyich, is shown to be utterly devoted to his master.

Obviously, Pushkin’s narrative is a work of fiction (albeit, one based on real events and individuals), meaning that it cannot be taken as a reliable account of Pugachev’s Rebellion. Indeed, though Pushkin briefly mentions the barbarous nature of the conflict, his depiction of Pugachev as something akin to a larger-than-life folk hero, makes it difficult to regard the text as anything other than an inventive fantasy. However, while Pushkin’s portrayal of events may not be historically accurate, his text may yet be indicative of popular perceptions of Pugachev and his uprising after the fact. For our purposes, “The Captain’s Daughter” serves to further complicate our understanding and conceptions of the phenomenon of peasant rebellions.

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Why did the cultural innovations reviewed by Cracraft “have to be adopted?”

Reading Cracraft left me wondering about one specific phrase in the following passage.

“New ways of dress, deportment, communication, navigation, building, gardening, gunnery, drawing, computing, measuring, sculpting, writing, visualizing, indeed of thinking had to be adopted along with new vocabularies needed for naming these activities and all the new weapons, tools and devices associated with them. A cultural revolution thus underlay and ultimately linked up all of Peter’s revolutionary projects, “culture” being our common word for the innumerable ways of human beings have of making and doing things, and of thinking and talking about them.” (2003, 75-76, my emphasis)

I am wondering about the meaning of the phrase “had to be adopted,” marked in the above passage by my italics. In what sense did all the cultural innovations reviewed by Cracraft have to be adopted? Does he mean that the cultural revolution itself in some way forced the adoption of the various innovations? This latter question doesn’t make much sense to me. It seems that cultural change just consists in the adoption of new ideas, tools, and practices. Peter’s cultural revolution, then, didn’t cause, or necessitate, the adoption of innovations, rather, the cultural revolution just was the adoption of innovations.

Does he mean their adoption was coerced, or at least instigated, by Peter, e.g. the shaving of the beards? This interpretation fits with the idea of Peter as the Prime Mover of the cultural revolution, and Cracraft’s remark (2003, 77) that cultural revolutions are “consciously intended.”

In some cases of cultural innovation, however, it seems that the specific changes were dictated, or at least enabled,  (in part) by the nature of the technologies involved. For example, the printing revolution required a new, simplified alphabet. The adoption of new painting technologies enabled the revolution in painting techniques. I also invite us to review the back and forth process of military innovations in attack and defense, each innovation prompting the next in the dynastic aggrandizement game of Capture the Fortress. Does the nature of technology (here meant to include practices and techniques as well as devices and tools) challenge the view that the cultural revolution was all up to Peter, that Petrine revolutionary change proceeded mainly from him and by him? Perhaps he was merely reacting to technological innovations that had already swept across western Europe.



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The Stylehunters of Soviet Russia



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