Sunday, January 20, 2008

Maps as psychology, the history of the Kremlin, and the plague of fundamentalism (Books - Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski)

(This post along with three others here, here, and here constitute my review).
Global maps in the Imperium and in the U.S. are an expression of national psychology. Ryszard Kapuscinski's wide traveling, observant eye and wry tongue make the tone of his analysis unique:
One type is disseminated by the National Geographic Society in America, and on it, in the middle, in the central spot, lies the American continent, surrounded by two oceans - the Atlantic and the Pacific. The former Soviet Union is cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends of the map so that it won't frighten American children with its immense bulk. The Institute of Geography in Moscow prints an entirely different map. On it, in the middle, in the central port, lies the former Soviet Union, which is so big that it overwhelms us with its expanse; America, on the other hand, is cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends so that the Russian child will not think: My God! How large this America is!

These two maps have been shaping two different visions of the world for generations.

In the course of my wanderings over the territories of the Imperium my attention was caught by, among other things, the fact that even in forsaken and tumbledown little towns, even in practically empty bookshops, there was for sale, as a rule, a large map of this country on which the rest of the world appeared to be almost in the background, in the margins, in shadow.

This map is for Russians a kind of visual recompense, a peculiar emotional sublimation, and also an object of unconcealed pride.

It also serves to explain and justify all shortages, mistakes, poverty, and marasmus. It is too big a country to be reformed! explain the opponents of reforms. It is too big a country to be cleaned up! janitors from Brest to Vladivostock throw up their hands. It is too big a country for goods to be delivered everywhere, grumble saleswomen in empty shops.

A great size, which explain and absolves everything. Sure, if we were a small country like Switzerland, everything here would run like clockwork, too!

Kapuscinski's bleak chapter on Kolyma - one of Russia's arctic death camps - sees the camps as a metaphor for the entire country:
The half-naked deportees stood motionless in a blizzard, lashed by the gales. Finally, the escorts delivered their routine admotion: A step to the left or a step to the right is considered an escape attempt - we shoot without warning! This identical formula was uniformly applied throughout the entire territory of the USSR. The whole nation, two hundred million strong, had to march in tight formation in a dictated direction. Any deviation to the left of to the right meant death.

Quite a different story from the romantic one of a utopia whose only price is allegiance to the state above the individual so that no one will live in want.

One of my favorite sections of the book is the one on the Kremlin. Kapuscinski sneaks his way into the Kremlin, normally closed to visitors, under false pretenses. His only motive is the search for a story, to see something few others have seen. For this he might be shot or imprisoned if he is caught. But that is what Kapuscinski seems to live for. His story of being smuggled into Armenia in 1990 reads like a spy novel - he takes terrifying risks.
To walk into the Kremlin just like that, simply to walk in, without a reason or a goal, is impossible. One can gain access for only three reasons: a) to visit the museum as part of a group excursion from one's place of work (it is a form of distinction and reward), b) to attend one of a variety of important congresses that from time to time take place here (delegates and accredited journalists can enter then), c) at the summons of one of the dignitaries who officiate here. In each of these cases, one is required, after having passed the gate, to move by the shortest route possible to the preordained destination - there and back.

Kapuscinski offers as series of other writers' views of the Kremlin - H. G. Wells from 1920, Roy Mevedev's memoir of Stalin's reign, with stories of the build up of of security in the Kremlin as Stalin's paranoia grows, and the horrifying story of Stalin's wife's suicide, Kilovan Kjilas' book Conversations with Stalin, and Nikita Krushchev's Memoirs are also quoted.

The story of his trip to Nagorno-Karabakh in 1990 had me on pins and needles. I'm not going to ruin the suspense of his journey there, it is worth reading of-a-piece. In fact, this whole book views the world from a vantage point which, even with awareness of Russian history, is difficult to imagine in this kind of experiential detail if you have grown up with the western abundance we have grown so used to. That fresh viewpoint, delivered as experience not merely as explanation, is the value of reading Imperium. In fact, to my mind, a new experience of worlds we think we know is one of my chief reasons for reading at all.

This is my last entry on the splendid, wild ride - a mixture of history, psychology, world politics, geography - that was Imperium. It has convinced me, as Sheila said it would, to want to read other works by Kapuscinski. I'll leave with two more of his wonderful this-is-the-way-the- world-works observations from his 1990 trip.

For Armenians, an ally is one who believes that Nagorno-Karabakh is a problem. The rest are enemies.

For Azerbaijanis, an ally is one who believes that Nagorno-Karabakh is not a problem. The rest are enemies.

The extremism and finality of these positions is remarkable. It isn't merely that among Armenians one cannot say, "I believe that the Azerbaijanis are right," or the among Azerbaijanis one cannot maintain, "I believe that the Armenians are right." No such stance even enters the realm of possibility - either group would instantly hate you then kill you!

Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world.
The first is the plague of nationalism.
The second is the plague of racism.
The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism.

All three share one train, a common denominator - an agressive, all powerful, total irrationality. Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only it sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail. He doesn't want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit that he is right, join the cause. Otherwise you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist...a mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only - its enemy.

That's why politics and religion must remain separate. I am horrified whenever religious belief enters the political fray. It is no less heinous when it happens in my country than it is in the middle east. 'A government of laws and not of men' is supposed to sidestep some of the influences of irrationality in the application of the law. Not to say that people do not have the right to the comfort of their beliefs - of course they do- but for personal beliefs, whether shared by many others or few, to be legislated for everyone, for 'god' to enter every political address is a crass commercialization of something meant to be sacred. I can't understand why it doesn't revolt the devout. I'd love to hear Kapuscinski on this - too bad we won't get that chance.


Sheila O'Malley said...

I think the utopia idea was a smokescreen for what it was really about all along: a power-grab. All power concentrated in the hands of the state. I remember reading 1984 and there's that whole "secret book" where all is revealed - that it was NEVER about happy la-la land where everyone is hand in hand ... it was always about the creation of a monstrous bureaucracy where only a couple of people were in power.

I'm too cynical to believe in utopias anyway. I don't think it was just Stalin who messed up a good idea. I think it was a bad idea in the first place. You read the original texts of Lenin and Trotsky, and I think - these guys can't really believe this, can they??

That's one of my questions, one of the reasons why I'm so fascinated by it all: how much was true belief, and how much was a smokescreen of "enthusiasm" to shield the real drive, which was for personal power ... Stalin is the ultimate mystery in that regard, and Kruschev and Breshnev just overlaid the whole lie with cynicism and ritual - so everything became distinctly unreal. I think Kapuscinski mentions in his book the joke about the train? How in the Breshnev era, the train was completely broken - but the conductor pulled all the shades down, and jostled the train around - so the passengers would still think they were moving. Does that ring a bell?

I just finished reading Stalin: Breaker of Nations - an important psychological portrait of Stalin which came out right in the wake of the fall of communism, when information was finally available. It's truly an incredible journey. And still - it is hard to know what drove the man.

Resentment, insecurity, paranoia ... and also a phenomenal memory. He never forgot a slight - and he always got even, even if it was 10 years, 15 years past the insult.

Sorry to babble on like that - but this is all fresh in my mind because I just finished the Stalin book.

I am SO happy to hear you enjoyed the book. I personally love The Soccer War (a collection of essays) - and Shah of Shahs, about the last Shah of Iran.

And yeah - I had forgotten about the whole Nagorno-Karabakh thing and how he gets in and out. I broke out into a sweat reading it!!

I owe you an email. Lots of craziness on my end. Miss you!!

Ted said...

S - Damn, my whole response was just erased. Let's try this again. I think that some people really did buy it - take Rosa Luxembourg - without the devout like her, Lenin would never have succeeded with converting the "workers." In a way I think Lenin could only see his ideals and stopped seeing what was right in front of him. All the justifications that ended up being made - as though the ideals should justify the present outrage, whatever it was, because it was only temporary. Even Marx writes about the whole, well maybe the workers will have to be forceably subdued, but just for a while, just until they see reason. That's when I stopped seeing any value in his writings. But Stalin - I so agree with you - what on earth drove that man? It's so fascinating to wonder.

Ted said...

S - to add to that thought. I'm just looking at Kapuschinski on the Ukranian declaration of independence. When asked about the future of the Ukraine one of its leaders said "We want Ukraine to be an enlightened, good, democratic, and humane state." And isn't that how it always starts out? With ideals? I think that's what Luxembourg and Lenin and many others believed in. But when those ideals have to meet real people whether they are starving and greedy or well intentioned the mechanisms that then must follow as the steps to living in that state, those are a mess. They always are whether that state is democratic or socialist. Except that so far most socialist states have insisted on a period of despotism to get past the rocky part - which is never gotten past - and most democratic ones push through the chaos, accepting the mess as part of the process not only for the beginning but for always. I think Lenin did not have the skills for the part that came after the ideals. Stalin had a certain kind of answer for getting it to work - only not one that can be admired or accepted.
It's like acting (isn't it always?) most actors start by admiring great performances by other artists and aspire toward that same feeling. But doing it is nothing like watching it. And the skills that help one appreciate acting as an audience member are not the ones that help one create a character in the context of a play night after night. Some actors (and some acting teachers) never get beyond wanting their work to be "enlightened and good..." and good acting in practice calls for a lot more than that. Sermon over. That book you're reading on Stalin now sounds pretty amazing - worth reading? Yes, miss you too!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Oh yes - all of Robert Conquest's stuff (he's the author) is great. His masterwork is The Great Terror - about Stalin's regime. He also wrote a book called Harvest of Sorrow - about the famine engineered in Ukraine.

His story is interesting - because his books came out before perestroika and glasnost - so he was only estimating the amount of people killed, since the USSR was closed, basically. After the archives opened - he (of course) realized he had WAY under-estimated the millions killed.

He was so criticized by those who had a vested interest in the success of the Soviet "experiment" - you know, the folks in the West who fawned over Stalin and bought all of his lies. Whats his name from the NY Times - who wrote that the famine was greatly exaggerated - there was no famine, etc. Beatrice and Stanley Webb ... all those folks whom Stalin referred to as "useful idiots". He loved lying to those people, telling them about the happy workers and the happy farms and how there was no famine at all in the Ukraine - and then seeing all of that appear as fact on the front page of the NY Times. He got a great kick out of that. So Conquest - by pulling back the veil -and telling the truth - was pilloried. He has been more than vindicated now.

My issue with all of this, Ted, is that it was a revolution of ideas - created by the intellectual elite - who decided what "the people" should want. Yeah, let's put all the peasants on collectivized farms - they don't KNOW they want that ... but they do. And, of course, millions perished, a famine raged, and the country still has not recovered - not economically, or emotionally.

The American revolution (while certainly not unanimous - many had great loyalty to Britain) was based on very practical concerns that affected everyone: taxes.

God help us if John Adams had written the Declaration of Independence - it would have been a boring document, legalistic, and dry. Jefferson was the high-flung idea guy ... but thank God there were those around him like Washington and Franklin and Adams - to temper those tendencies of his. Or at least counter them.

You know, he thought the French Revolution was awesome. He had a total blindspot about the Terror and refused to admit (almost to the end of his life - until John Adams finally beat him into submission in their correspondence) that the Revolution over there was a freakin' murderous disaster. because he was an idea man -he loved the idea of freedom,and so he stuck with the IDEA, ignoring what was right in front of him. He INSISTED that the French Revolution was just a continuation of ours. When obviously it was not. The "Loyalists" in America who stayed loyal to Britain thru the war - were not lined up against the wall once the war was over and shot dead when their "side" lost. Some moved back to England, but most of them stayed. They got over it. There were no repercussions (at least not on a grand state-sponsored scale).

Anyway, I am very suspicious of those with great "ideas" - especially if it involves the rest of us. You know, we've talked about that before. I get suspicious whenever anyone says, with confidence, the word "we". "We feel that ..." Oh really? All of us? Hmmmm ....

Our revolution was quite prosaic (Dennis Miller jokes, "Those guys were ready to blow your head off because you taxed their breakfast drink!!"). It was mainly economical in nature. And yes, you are right - mess was built into the system. The ONLY thing our Constitution really guarantees is that the dialogue itself will continue.

But I truly think that Lenin and those theorists - believed a new KIND of person would emerge. The "Soviet man", etc. And I don't know if he was "fine" with the fact that millions would be killed in that process ... Stalin sure was, but then he didn't believe in the Soviet man thing anyway. He wasn't even Russian!

People are people. Times change, people do not. Obviously people who work in factories now in the US have a better time at it than, say, in the mid 1800s. Progress has occurred. But a new KIND of person? How do you stamp out greed forever? You can't! I mean, within 10 years of the Russian Revolution, all the top brass were careening around in motorcades, living in private palatial dachas ... exactly like the tsars they despised! And I'm not surprised by that at all - because WANTING things, and wanting MORE is human.

I know there were serious socialists - Luxembourg is a great example - people who feared capitalism was crumbling (and rightly so, in the 30s) ... and wanting to resist fascism, etc.

But the Russian revolution was top-down. Those Bolsheviks were despised by the very "people" they claimed to be speaking for.

All of Conquest's books are awesome. Great Terror is his masterpiece. He's unforgiving, though - just know that. He's PISSED. Wonderful writer, exhaustive researcher ... I've read all his stuff.

I find it VERY interesting that at the end of Lenin's life, as he lay dying in bed ... realized (way too late) how dangerous Stalin was ... and how he had let him get way too much power in his hands. He wrote a letter to the Politburo (or whatever the name of that body was at that time) saying, "I cannot recommend that he hold that much power - he is rude, coarse, ignorant ...etc." He sent it on - and then died - and the letter was hidden (by Stalin's minions) for DECADES. The Politburo never read it (although by that time it was probably too late).

But Lenin knew. The realization came too late - but he did have that "Uh oh" realization moment ... which really gives me a chill. He did his best to warn people. Again, I don't think it would have done much good anyway.

Okay, this is the longest comment ever!!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Sorry, one last thing!! I love it that now when I think of Rosa Luxemburg I cannot help but think of Hopeful Monsters - and her crucial role in that unbelievable first chapter. How she is like a sorceress drawing snakes up out of a basket ... and the devastation of Eleanor's mother when Rosa is murdered.

I need to learn more about Rosa ... can you recommend a biography??

Ted said...

Long comment, but a good one. I agree - the Soviet revolution was top down - and those calling the shots relied on bullying and some of them kidded themselves that it was a temporary step. I think others, like Stalin, never bothered to question themselves. I love how much you love the correspondence between some of our founders. Think of it, communism was founded on a book length manifesto, US democracy on a sheet of papers accompanied in many ways by correspondence like those letters you mention. Some of what makes us work is - as you say - that our country was founded on dialogue.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Oh God, one last thing:

For me, the ideal revolution was the Velvet Revolution - led by Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. It was organic. It was about ideas, but it was also about the people just saying, one day (it almost was that sudden): "Nope. We're not playing along anymore."

And it wasn't just one class (most revolutions start in the intellectual class - and it was the bane of the socialists existence that they could not get the REAL workers behind them!) - but in Czechoslovakia it was the intellectuals, the students, the workers ...

Without one shot being fired. Of course by that point the structure was so rotted out from within - that the Politburo in that country basically threw their hands up and were like, "You know what? We don't believe this shit either."

Totally extraordinary. One of my favorite stories of the 20th century.

Ted said...

What a remarkable guy Havel was. I was interested but ultimately disappointed with Tom Stoppard's latest play about that revolution. Do you know of a good bio of Havel?

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ted - I think you're right. I think they looked to the future - that eventually the worker would rise up if they put enough stress on him. The civil war following the Revolution was, in Marxist terms, probably just what they thought would happen - and necessary.

But man can never be trusted. Especially not with power.

Alexander Hamilton said that government must somehow be created with enough checks and balances to save man from himself. He is NEVER to be trusted.

The founding fathers were intensely pessimistic about human nature - and I think that's why I find them trustworthy (although, of course, fallible, with egos, and all that). They understood power to the degree that folks like Machiavelli did. They agonized over the chief executive - should we even have one? Because MAN alone is a dangerous animal. Even Washington could not be trusted indefinitely - and he knew that himself - which is why he stepped down.

George III said that if Washington walked away from power - he would be the greatest man who ever lived.

And he did. Pretty amazing!

Ted said...

There are two sources I know of about Rosa L - by no means necessarily the best - one is that movie "Rosa," directed by Margarethe von Trotte. Made her into a bit of a saint but interesting nonetheless. One of the big thrills at the time was that my great great grand grandfather - Ignatz Auer - featured as a character in it as well. I've read a biog called "Rosa Luxemburg, a life" by Elzbieta Ettinger which I remember as being very readable - but it was ages ago. How funny, you're on line asking me for a biog of Luxemburg as I'm asking you for one of Havel!

Sheila O'Malley said...

God, Ted - now I'm REALLY bummed I didn't see Stoppard's play ... it's not still running, is it?

I haven't read a biography of Havel, so I can't guide you there - but there are numerous collections of his essays and letters which you might (I am sure you will) find fascinating. Also, his speeches!!!! I have a couple of collections of "greatest speeches of the 20th century", or just "most important speeches of the 20th century" (and that one is even better - because it includes speeches of Hitler and Stalin and Mao ... really important stuff) - but Havel's speeches (especially the one he gave when he assumed the presidency - the "contaminated moral environment" speech it's known as) are enough to bring tears to my eyes.

He's a real idol of mine.

He was the "as if" guy. He decided to live under dictatorship AS IF he were free. Spoken like a true man of the theatre!!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ted - I did not know that about your ancestor being in the film, etc! What was his involvement with Luxemburg?

Ted said...

S - yes, I totally remember having a similar conversation with you before about Havel as a man able to make the ultimate imagination prompt - "what if?" What an amazing way to incite revolution. Rock 'n' Roll is still playing, in fact I've seen it on TDF, and I found it worth seeing despite any reservations I had about the production.

Ted said...

Auer was one of the founders of the social democrats in Germany in the 1880 - 1910s. The movie is good in talking about the two factions of the party at the time - one more bullying and the other more organic, shall we say, in continuing our conversation's vocabulary.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Wow - very cool!

I'm also interested in the relationship between Germany and Russia in the 20s and 30s ... how Hitler coming to power (and crushing the Communists) affected the USSR ... and then their non-aggression pact which knocked the entire world on its ass - like: how does THAT happen? And then, of course, Hitler not honoring that pact - and getting to the gates of Moscow! Stalin, apparently, refused to believe it was happening. He could not get his mind around the betrayal. He stayed in Moscow, even though he was supposed to be evacuated - and he apparently became completely immobilized and apathetic. Everyone was running around like chickens with their heads cut off because the Germans were coming, and Stalin basically sat at his desk, apathetic, like, "whatever. Do whatever. I don't care. I don't care anymore."

!!!! Fascinating. The pscyhology of that moment.

Ted said...

That's incredible about Stalin. But he wasn't the only one in denial! So much of the world was about the pact, and about Hitler, and about Stalin! It seems that fantasy bred fantasy. I'm so interested to read that huge book on the siege of Stalingrad one day - I believe you've read it, right?

Sheila O'Malley said...

I haven't read it - I'm almost scared of it. But I really must, some day ... seeing as my passions run in that direction. What a battle. My God.

Conquest, in his book about Stalin - describes the conference in Teheran between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin ... and it appears that Churchill was not at all fooled by Stalin and Roosevelt was. He mistook the charm and jollity for a reasonable man ... someone he could "understand".

Denial, indeed! An amazing time in world history, man. Unbelievable.