Tag Archives: Russia

36. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, by Orlando Figes

12 Oct

Orlando Figes A People's Tragedy

Since Russia is in the news, I thought I’d re-read A People’s Tragedy, a door-stop history book on the Russian Revolution by the English historian Orlando Figes. The book was published in 1997 and took advantage of the sudden ’90s-era political freedom in Russia to unearth previously unavailable archival material.  It’s one of those wonderful history books that goes both macro- and micro-, outlining the wide sweep of the politics and using the stories of ordinary people swept up in extraordinary events to make the material come alive.

Figes starts in 1891 with the tercentenary celebration of the Romanov empire. He argues that Russian society was rapidly modernizing and democratic forces were growing, but unfortunately the last Tsar’s response to these trends was to double down on a 17th-century vision of his own holy, Godlike rule. The more pressure there was for democratic reform, the more autocratic Nicholas became. The whole extremely bizarre Rasputin episode, in which the tsarina became best friends (and allegedly, but probably-not-really lovers) with a peasant holy-man, made sense in this view, as an exemplar of the tsar’s self-imagined close relationship with the common Russian people. Never has there been a more disastrous effect from a person drinking his own Kool-Aid.

Romanov Family

The story of the Revolution, from the popular uprisings against the Tsar, through the establishment of provisional democracy, into civil war and finally the Bolshevik dictatorship has to be one of history’s most terrifying. Figes’ title A People’s Tragedy reveals his take on the events: He believes that both the Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power were, in broad strokes, the will of the Russian people. By his account, the peasantry, the soldiers, and the urban working classes participated en masse, if not in organized political parties, then in the marches, strikes, insubordination, riots and land seizures that tore down the old order and opened the doors for the Bolsheviks. In its second half, the book details what followed Bolshevik seizure of control: famine, pogroms, looting, vandalism, bestial tortures by all sides, police-state brutality and millions dead. The book’s photo-plate sections gave me actual nightmares. Figes concludes that the uprising backfired massively on the very peasants and workers who supported it.

(I am told that there is much to contest in this version of events; Figes book is just one historian’s conclusions. And as an Englishman writing in the ’90s he has a preachy “Russians have a lot to learn about democracy” tone. He also really likes to mock the female revolutionaries and soldiers; a story about a women’s battalion that had seen active duty on the Eastern Front becoming “hysterical” during the relatively non-eventful siege of the Winter Palace seems hard to credit.)

Again and again reading this book I had cause to reflect on how fragile the social order is, and how terrible the results can be when it breaks down. If we’re ever inclined to think “let’s just destroy the system and see what happens next,” let’s please think twice, or read this book first.


33. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

20 Aug


The dateline at the end of Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin, reads “—Moscow, 1992” which is enough to make a person familiar with recent Russian history break out in full-body chills. Moscow, 1992. Russian society was fully in the throes of perestroika, chaos, collapse and regeneration. The story in the West has always been that this was a wonderful flowering of democracy, but for many Russians it was a period of lawlessness, hunger, total uncertainty, and the end of everything they’d been asked to believe. Pelevin is a cult figure, the most important Russian writer to emerge from the era. He was 30 years old at the time he wrote Omon Ra, living at a time and in a city of almost unimaginable upheaval. Chills.

The book—which is a masterpiece, I can’t believe I’d never read it—is about a Russian boy in the Soviet Union who dreams of being a cosmonaut, but in Pelevin’s hands it’s dreams themselves that will be under interrogation. Is there any reality to them? For main character Omon (a strange name, itself chosen because of a dream), things are determined not by the outer reality, but by the inner.

As a little boy, for example, Omon realizes that he can be a pilot because he sees some pilots on television and:

“…was struck with a sudden thought…that if I’d just been able to glance at the screen and see the world from the cabin where the two fliers in fur-lined jackets were sitting, then there was nothing to prevent me from getting into this or any other cabin without the help of the television, because flight is no more than a set of sensations, the most important of which I’d already learned to fake, sitting in the attic of the winged hut with the red stars, staring at the enlistment office wall that was where the sky should be, and making quiet droning noises with my mouth.”

He goes on:

“That means, I thought, I can look out from inside myself like looking out of a plane, it doesn’t really matter at all where you look out from, what matters is what you see…”

Of course, latent in the book is the era in which it was written: The channel, as it were, that Russians had been looking at, had just been changed. Are you staring at the enlistment office wall or at the sky? What skills might you need to survive when the two become interchangeable? Pelevin takes a fatalistic approach to the question. Omon reflects:

There’s obviously some strange correspondence between the general outline of a life and that stream of petty events which a person is constantly involved in and regards as insignificant. I can now see quite clearly that the course of my own life was already set, determined before I had even begun to think seriously about the way I wanted it to turn out. I was even given a glimpse of it in simplified form. Perhaps it was an echo of the future. Or perhaps those things which we take for echoes of the future are actually its seeds, falling into the soil of life at the very moment which in distant retrospect comes to seem like an echo out of the future.

He goes to flight school. Nothing is as it seems, in ways too brilliant for me to spoil in this review. Omon’s journey could be called a blistering indictment of the Soviet Union—or at least a profoundly disturbing one, since this is a world in which men’s legs are broken to fit the planes instead of the planes being built to fit the men. But there’s a strain of dry humor or meditative detachment throughout, that says that the author knows you can’t  blister something which was never really there.

I wish I could comment on the book’s end without giving away its punch. I’ll just say it is now officially my favorite closing strategy since Infinite Jest, and references another Russian classic, Moscow—Petushki.

26. Explosion, by Zarina Zabrisky

28 Jun

Zarina Zabrisky

I lived in Moscow in the 1990s in the heyday of a nightlife newspaper called The eXile, a skinny, obscene paper with a shocking pink X on the cover run by two American frat boys who wrote very good political coverage and spilled the rest of their ink celebrating the economic and cultural moment that, as they said, rendered any man with an American passport able to fuck any Russian girl he wanted to, for money, for gifts, for breakfast at the Starlight Diner in the morning. There was some self-awareness and humor in this stance, “In my country, I’m a total loser, but here I can get pretty chicks!” But it was a callow take on a noxious moment, too.

I always liked the paper for its honesty.

I was young and female and dating in Russia at the time, and the prostitution was a fact I had to deal with. Russian girls who were out at night in bars and restaurants were, mostly, selling sex. If not pro then “semi-pro” as the terminology went. There were prostitution nightclubs where all the other women were hookers. There were many, many bars with young and beautiful women sitting alone on the barstools, silently waiting for male clientele. Routinely, I was assumed to be one of them until I started speaking. (I am American and speak Russian with an accent). For me, it was a strange period of power inversion. I was used to men pursuing me, not an environment in which the women were the pursuers. I was used to being sexually interesting, but most men discovering that I was American and thus not available for the night suddenly found me asexual and pointless. I’d see the brightness leave their eyes, feel the sudden shift as they waited for their moment to get away. I became invisible as they looked over my shoulder for the next girl.

All this to say that it feels like I’ve read 1,000 Perestroika memoirs, but it wasn’t until reading Zarina Zabrisky’s Explosion that I realized I’d never read one from the perspective of one of the Russian girls who were selling sex at that cultural moment. And that now that it’s come, Explosion feels essential and obvious, and I am overjoyed to have discovered it. (Also, thanks to Melanie Page at Grab the Lapels for having recommended it!! See Melanie’s review of the book, and interview with the author.)

(Also, perhaps a note that needs to be added: There were lots of girls in Moscow who were not involved in the prostitution culture, and I knew them too. But they’re mostly not who Zabrisky’s book is about.)

Zabrisky’s stories cover a time span in Russian history from Chernobyl (harrowing story, with the reveal so well done it’s still giving me chills) through Perestroika and the wild ’90s, to eventual emigration to the United States and the present. The heroines (and one hero) inhabit different worlds—some urban intelligentsia, some daughters of alcoholics in the provinces, one successful emigre business guy. In the earlier years they concern mostly the prostitution culture, poverty, drugs. The later American stories reflect more on Russia as a country and a motherland, and ask what it means to lose it. They ask, having lost it, which Russia it is, exactly, that the emigres remember and want to love? They lament the state of the country’s current politics.

The details Zabrisky reveals about being a young woman in Russia at that time are excellent. In a story called “Honey Hued Eyes” the sixteen-year-old girl narrator has been having sex with a female friend with the titular honey-hued eyes, “all boys being away in the army.” (So funny! I knew lots of Russian girls with early teenage lesbian affairs, ostensibly for the same reason.) But then she decides to lose her virginity to a gross old guy who gives her a gypsy cab ride. Here’s how she explains it:

“One winter day, I got a ride from a gypsy cab. Gypsy cabs were illegal cabs. Plenty were available; men would give girls a ride for free “for a talk” and would ask for stuff, but if you said “no,” it was a “no”—usually. It was dangerous at night and girls got raped …but that was their own fault, right?”

On the day the story takes place, the narrator writes, “Then he asked me if I wanted to fuck. And, though normally I said no, I said yes.” They have sex. He offers her money, which she turns down. And then he offers her advice, which is to never give anything away for free. He says he works for the KGB and offers to set her up as a prostitute for foreigners in the fancy hotels. “We will pay you three thousand roubles a month and in five years will find you a nice Finnish or Swedish man and marry you off abroad. Deal?”

The story is only a few pages long. The narrator turns down the offer. We find out that she got pregnant young, moved to Finland and ended up married to a Finnish man anyway. Her honey-hued friend was not so lucky. The two girls’ twinned fates make the story a short, brutal revelation on the casual commodification of young womanhood and concurrent valueless-ness of young womanhood.  Maybe more obvious in Russia at that time, but true everywhere.

In the next story, the narrator’s sister is a prostitute for foreigners working in a fancy hotel.

The book sometimes got too melodramatic for me. I didn’t believe the teenage junkie in “Beast” would kill her boyfriend; the story about nostalgic drunk women lionizing Pussy Riot felt… about as complex as that sounds. But I always found them rescued by the details. (How does a girl manage baby diapers in a village without running water in her house! Awful, fascinating question. The friendship that young mother strikes up with another young mother at the local well feels, in its way, just like Brooklyn.)

I came to this book connecting with the parts about Russia, but left it connecting as a woman, which, oddly, is kind of my story with Russia itself. The magnified Russian femininity—the high heels and hookers and even the mothers and motherland—has always been a distorted mirror to hold up to my own, and to learn from.