“Pervy blin narkomom”

August 14, 2016

This summer I tackled my first real history book – real in the sense of first-class scholarship drawing directly on primary sources. The topic was 1930s Soviet industrialization, and the author is Stephen Kotkin. I chose Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, the second of his books on Magnitogorsk, a large planned Soviet-era industrial and mining town. His first book deals with its more recent history, and I may read that one too, or one of his other titles about Russian history in the transition and post-Communist eras.

His research questions, in studying primary sources, included these: What was Russian about Stalinism, what was inevitable (inherent in the project of governance under communism), and what was idiosyncratic about it? This book is especially interesting in light of Putin’s heavy-handed efforts to rehabilitate Stalin, which can best be understood as reactionary conservatism, an attempt to reverse the demoralizing effects hindsight had on the Russian people during the late Communist era of de-Stalinisation, when so many skeletons were taken out of the closets to be buried.

I was largely unprepared for what I learned from this book, having always associated Russian Communism with American Socialism and the progressive movement. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the movie Reds at face value. Socialists and other progressives were persecuted violently under Stalinism, as were any officials who questioned the official line, not to speak of rank-and-file Party members. And I was completely surprised to learn that Party membership was far from universal in Communist Russia. Apparently the Communist Party itself was made up of a highly selective new ruling elite – membership was tightly restricted, and yet at times during the Party’s history, Party members were the first to feel the brunt of a violent purge.

Kotkin paints a vivid portrait of everyday life for both workers and officials under Stalin, and the picture of a society in turmoil is engrossing. He documents ordinary workers’ adoption of communist values in everyday life as well as their grumblings, some violently suppressed and others blithely noted in passing by the keepers of official records. One witnesses rapidly rising expectations in terms of standard of living, and a glaring gap between these utopian promises and the reality on the ground. The lightning-speed eradication of illiteracy in the early years of Communism is documented alongside the extreme cultural paucity of the radical censorship regime. Promises to meet every citizen’s material needs are juxtaposed with images of famine, sometimes episodic and sometimes prolonged, but never equally distributed across the population.


It becomes difficult to see Stalinism as a civilization when it seems that everything we associate with civilization today was banned under Stalinism, with the notable exception of jazz (which was always considered suspiciously bourgeois, but never quite fell out of favor with the ruling elite). But Kotkin convincingly attributes a sense of ownership of the revolutionary project to the Russian people in this era, and a deep sense of popular commitment to the goals of rapid industrialization, however traumatic the pace.  As a sense-making project, the book is definitely a success.

Perhaps the most valuable lessons to be learned from this book are the lessons of the purges within the Communist Party – while the author barely describes the purges of non-Party members, which were in fact far more extensive. Very likely this bias reflects a bias within the official record, with far more evidence available from which to describe the Party purges vividly. Kotkin recognizes the “housekeeping” rationale of the iterative bloodbaths alongside the vicious cycle of recriminations and careerist incriminations fostered by Stalin’s murderous directive that the Party engage in “self-criticism”, a byword which survived as a tenet of Party ideology even into the Khrushchev thaw.

If there had been any “housekeeping” agenda at work in the purges, it was a desperate and double-dealing project from the outset. Take the example of an official “purged” for engaging in illegal trade with state resources in order to finance his mandated quota of services and goods provided. His motive was simple: he had orders to deliver, and no budget with which to work. And had he not found ways to meet his quota, very likely he would have been “purged” for nonperformance.

The vulnerability of the Communist elite can be explained by the redundancies built into the Russian government under Communism: there were two chains of command, the state pyramid and the Party pyramid. Every organ of the state thus operated under two chains of command, the ordinary one and the Party one, which was to serve as an ideological watchdog and which was liable for the successes and failures of its counterpart. Hence the redundant Party bosses could easily be painted as self-serving leeches on the system, if any flaw could be found in their performance.

The first to be purged were the ideological non-conformists, lumped indiscriminately under the banner of Trotskyists. Later purges associated their victims with the fascist threat from abroad, and accused officials lagging in industrial performance (or guilty of ruining their equipment in an overeager attempt to exceed its production capacity to meet official targets) of sabotage and espionage in one breath. Kotkin illuminates an enduring level of xenophobia and ignorance of the outside world that could explain how some officials were purged simply for having foreign-sounding names.

Yesterday I discovered an anecdote about Shostakovich and his Symphony No. 5 that illuminates the era of the Great Purge nicely. The symphony was written while the composer (living in Russia) had fallen into disfavor, in the late 1930s. His opera Lady Macbeth had been a great success until the day Stalin came to see it, but the composer was “white as a sheet” by the end of the performance. Stalin had laughed during an explicit sex scene and had later walked out. The next day Pravda carried a scathing editorial about the opera, and not until Symphony No. 5 brought the audience to their feet with tears in their eyes was Shostakovich restored in stature. You can judge for yourself what the symphony is about.

The Russian proverb I used as the title of this blog entry appears untranslated as an epigraph to Kotkin’s last chapter, and he says it is untranslatable. But I was able to find the source:

“‘How was that as a first try?’ asked Trotsky. [Vladimir] Mayakovsky answered with a devastating pun: ‘The first pancake falls like a People’s Commissar’ (pervy blin lyog narkomom), a play on the saying ‘the first pancake falls like a lump.’”

This and other gems make Kotkin’s description of the “little tactics of the habitat” under Stalinism a real page-turner, and I am looking forward to checking out more of his work. But for now I am chewing through Khrushchev’s memoirs, the first half of which are profoundly depressing in this context. Over and over again he shares anecdotes about directives from Stalin that he carried out against his own better judgment for fear of the consequences of gainsaying the boss. I’ve made it up to the point of Stalin’s death now, and I’m hoping the second half of the book will show up the author’s engaging personality more fully, out from under the shadow of pervasive sycophancy in an environment of totalitarianism.

Planned obsolescence

August 12, 2016

When it rains, it pours, and this month one household appliance after another has broken down. I’ve spent more money than I normally spend in a year on electronics, replacing products that were only a few years old when they finally stopped working. I didn’t immediately blame planned obsolescence, the decidedly seedy side of capitalist consumerism, but I had to when it came to shopping for a new desk lamp.

It was nearly impossible to find a desktop lamp with a replaceable bulb! The shopping catalogues I browsed offered countless models of LED lamps with bulbs that were built in and could not be replaced – meaning as soon as the bulb dies, you have an expensive and oversized paperweight on your hands. Some of them even looked like paperweights – one had a pencil holder attached to it, and another was designed to look like an artificial plant. The angry and surprised customer reviews all harped on the same theme: the bulb had died, and the lamp was useless.

Looking at my outlays on high tech devices this month set me thinking about my ecological footprint, which has shrunk considerably since I became vegan. I took several quizzes to calculate my carbon footprint and “how many planet earths” it would take to support the world’s population if everyone shared my lifestyle habits. The results were surprising and encouraging.

According to a fairly comprehensive Earth Day quiz, most of my ecological footprint comes from the distance my food is transported, and it would take 3.4 planet earths to support my standard of living sustainably. According to the Islandwood quiz, it would take only 2.9, but most of my footprint in this calculation came from excessive water consumption, which the other quizzes don’t cover. According to Forterra, which sells carbon offsets to individuals and businesses, I produce 7.7 tons of CO2 a year, which is the equivalent of about 1.6 planet earths, and according to the Nature Conservancy’s calculator, the total is 6.3 tons of CO2 or 1.3 planet earths.


Taken together, it’s clear my lifestyle choices aren’t really sustainable. But I’m doing far better than the national average, and these calculators point to concrete ways in which I can improve my score. Shorter showers, purchasing green energy from the grid and buying more locally produced food would make a huge dent in my ecological footprint. The carbon dioxide can be offset with credits that would cost less than I spend on electricity and transportation already, which is very little. By not using heating or air conditioning, by walking to work and taking the bus on errands, and by avoiding meat and dairy, I’ve managed to do about 60% better than the local average.

Where food transportation is concerned, I’m lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest, where many vegan processed foods are locally manufactured. And finding local fresh produce isn’t difficult, although I can’t see myself giving up coconut milk ice cream any time soon. As far as other goods go, I’m not sure how to weigh the trade off between used books, which ship separately from scattered book sellers, and new books, which ship from Amazon’s amazing warehouses together. I buy quite a few of each, either way.

As low-end as my consumption level is relative to the American average though, I wouldn’t give up the luxuries that consumerism has to offer lightly. There’s something liberating about doing your own shopping out of your own income, and that feeling is mediated by the marketplace and the sheer variety of goods and services it has to offer. I have far more respect for markets now, also because I’ve started reading a few history books about life under communism, and the myriad incongruities of anti-capitalist social planning. I’ll probably write reviews of some of those books here later.

Celibate sociability

July 11, 2016

Even as an adolescent, even in the throes of an infatuation, I’ve never been strongly tempted by sex – at most, the act represented, when I was a virgin, something undignified that I was curious about in a distant, skeptical way. Once, the object of my affection pointed out to me that I was in love with the idea of being in love. He was right; I liked him, and found in him a pretext for writing love poetry.  I didn’t want anything else out of him, except perhaps his conversation.

I can’t fully explain the skepticism and indifference I’ve always felt towards sex. Interest in sexuality constantly surprises me in other people; my reaction is to feel bemused that they can take such a keen interest in each other at all. In part, I suppose this is related to my attitude toward family life – I’ve never wanted marriage or children. I tend to see children as a public nuisance rather than a blessing. But in a world with birth control, you wouldn’t expect that consideration to be decisive.

I was never told to associate sex with shame or disgust as a child, and reading a moral philosopher expounding on asceticism only makes me smile, e.g., “It is not for nothing that the immediate feeling of shame is connected precisely with this act. To stifle or pervert its testimony; after many thousands of years of inward and outward development, and from the heights of a refined intelligence to pronounce good that which even the simple feeling of the savage acknowledges to be wrong – this is, indeed, a disgrace to humanity and a clear proof of our demoralisation”!

I would love to have witnessed an exchange between this philosopher and his contemporary, one of my current favorite poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne. In Swinburne’s verses lust is at once cherubic and luxuriant, drawn in a heavenly chariot by a coterie of doves, the dominion of Aphrodite and the Muses, in mortal forms pitifully transient, but still a transcendental mystery and an end unto itself.


But to get around to my point, it turns out that decisions about children are to be decisive for me after all when it comes to the world of sexuality. My doctor, when she learned that I was using birth control, told me in no uncertain terms that if I want to be sexually active, I should go off my meds. They both cause serious birth defects, and she considers birth control an inadequate prevention method – if I am to stay on my meds, I am supposed to be celibate.

That no other doctor had ever warned me about this was my first thought when she told me this. I had been on these meds for more than five years and no one had said anything about birth defects. I had looked up their side effects on-line; still nothing. Lesson learned. If you want to know about a drug’s teratogenic side effects, you have to dig deeper to find out about them.

But as far as relationships go, this news didn’t come as a major blow to me. It just clarified a solitary habit to which I had already grown accustomed. When I was waiting for puberty to strike, I told my friends I didn’t know whether I was gay or not, but these days I feel confident I can rule those alternatives out, from my own experience of my disposition around members of the same sex. This means that in fact I will never marry.

Ironically, it was a student counselor who prompted me to give internet dating a fair shake when I was in my twenties, touting dating as the only sure-fire way I could gain experience of conversation and build up my social skills. I had been asking for advice on developing soft skills for professional networking, and in hindsight I have to question her judgment. But most of the first dates I’ve been on (and they were almost all first dates) were on her account.

Because what I wanted out of the experience and what they were looking for obviously had nothing in common, these dates didn’t amount to much. Maybe, in the long run, they did bolster my confidence when it came to making small talk at conferences. But what I really learned from this experience was that small talk couldn’t hold my attention.  By the end of each date, I was bored to tears and impatient to go home.

And that’s essentially why I never wanted family and kids. Because the little miracles of the everyday hold no real fascination for me, because the companionship of “unburdening at the end of the day” feels oppressive to me, and because I would rather nurse an abstract ambition to leave some concrete idea or body of work behind at the end of my life than take on the organic tasks of child rearing.

But if that counselor was drawing on unspoken social norms that are pervasive in our society, in seeing something abnormal and unhealthy in my lack of interest in sexual sociability, what broader set of challenges does celibacy pose for me going forward, in terms of access to conversation and companionship?

I could socialize with asexuals, a broad category that includes both romantics and aromantics, and one that has its own internet dating sites for those looking for platonic relationships. But socializing with asexuals presupposes wanting to talk about asexuality and finding personal meaning in such an identity. I can relate, but I don’t feel strongly about the fact that while I find some people very visually attractive, I never feel physically attracted to someone.

The question of whether platonic companionship is right for me, and if so, how difficult it would be to come by, just doesn’t feel pressing right now. But I do feel removed somehow from the social life that goes on around me at work, and it may be partly because I can’t relate to the priorities of young people who dream of starting families of their own. It’s as if we don’t entirely speak the same language.

An Aristocracy of Means

July 7, 2016

Earlier this month I finished an engaging modern history book entitled Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War. The author provided abundant context to the contemporary crisis in Ukraine and offered a detailed glimpse into the thinking of Russia’s president, drawing carefully on the way he presents himself to his own government.

Marvin Kalb, the author, has been a diplomatic press officer and once worked under Edward R. Murrow at CBS. His account of Russian imperialism is diplomatically modest, with several disclaimers about his own biases dating from his experience of the cold war era. So when he paraphrases Putin, he inspires curiosity about what was really said, and how the president really meant it.

He cited three books that Putin referred to in a keynote speech as the cornerstones of his own political philosophy, Ilyin’s Our Tasks, Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality, and Solovyov’s The Justification of the Good. Then he went on to sum these up by putting forward the philosophy of a Tsarist advisor that Putin didn’t mention at all – emphasizing “orthodoxy, nationality and autocracy”.

This only made me want to read the books Putin had actually mentioned, two of which are available in English translations. I even found another book by the author of the third available in English. But to be fair, Putin is reportedly lobbying for the reinstatement of the royal Romanov family as an institution with special status in Russia.


This third one I read first, a book of meditations by Ilyin. Then I picked up The Philosophy of Inequality, which begins with the not-very-encouraging remarks: “These letters, in which I want to sum up all my thoughts on social philosophy, I address to my despisers, people hostile to me in spirit, against me in the feel of life, alien in thought to me … these are despisers of my faith, apostates from Christ in their spirit, betraying Him and rising up against Him in the name of earthly idols and gods.”

Naturally, I concluded that the letters were addressed to me.

I read the whole thing with as much suspension of disbelief as I could muster, with all its nostalgia for the Russian aristocracy and all its spite for the vulgar institutions of communism and democracy, only to come to a postscript at the very end in which the author himself, amending a later edition of the book, disowns the whole tirade as a reactionary outburst that failed to recognize, in communist revolution, a moral verdict on the bankruptcy of the authoritarian system of government that had come before.

This, then, is the philosophy Putin wants to be known for? Not some later, more mature work by the same author? Clearly, in Putin’s rise from KGB officer to the practice of statecraft, there has been something of the reactionary, and a deep disaffection with the communist system of government for which he worked before the “end” of the cold war.

In Berdyaev I found remarks that cut to the heart of the problems of neoliberal justice described by Martha Nussbaum as “frontiers” – boundaries defined by fee-for-service justice systems. “Power” he writes “has to be admitted as the source of rights”. He goes on to discuss ontological power, which has deep religious significance in his thinking, but on a more superficial level, this observation rings true in effect, even if it is not the way things ought to be.

Berdyaev, however, would more accurately be described as a patron saint of neoconservative Russia, preaching “tradition” as a bulwark against “savagery” and “chaos”. His philosophy of power acknowledges obligation on the side of the aristocracy, and demands that the aristocracy be preserved as a bulwark against the cynicism of special interest politics that he thinks predominate in any democracy.


In a way, Berdyaev’s thought could be loosely reconciled with the liberalism of a contemporary thinker like Richard Sennett, who likewise disowns anarchist idealism in the name of noblesse oblige. In his book Authority, Sennett writes, “The dream of the Spanish anarchists was of a society without hierarchy of power. This belief was tied to a faith in the possibility of living spontaneously – to work, fight, entertain, procreate as one is moved. Because there would be no hierarchy of power, there would be no need for authority, no need for images of the strong and the weak.”

Sennett sees this vision of utopia as sinister because, in abolishing the notion that there are distinct social roles for “the strong and the weak” respectively, an anarchist society would abdicate any responsibility on the part of the strong toward the weak. He frames authority as an obligation, not just as a privilege. And in the universal aspiration towards power, he sees the meaning of life; for (quoting Giovani Baldelli), “A life appears completely meaningless when nothing is felt to depend on it.”

Having finished his book, I’ve started Solovyov’s, and this one I’m enjoying immensely – I plan to write more about it later. This 19th century author’s vegetarianism and syncretism won me over from the very beginning, and I find much of his logic very persuasive. But I haven’t yet gotten to his discussion of political philosophy, in the second half of the book.

But I should return to my reasons for reading these books. I picked up Imperial Gamble because from what I’d heard about the conflict in the Ukraine, the Russians were fighting neo-Nazi fascists there over the control of natural resources like oil and gas. This was a gross misapprehension of the big picture, however. As it turns out, Ukraine is a net importer of natural gas and oil from Russia, and energy prices are one of the most powerful weapons Russia has been able to leverage against the Kiev government thus far in the conflict over who will control the industrial southeastern region of the country.

If Kalb’s book raises more questions about the Ukraine conflict than it answers, I found two other books on the subject that are full of sweeping statements and incautious assertions. One of these, conveniently enough, paints Russia into a corner as an aggressor, while the other, which I picked for a fair and balanced view of the conflict, makes every effort to rehabilitate Putin from the quagmire he seems to be in.

The second book is absolutely the most unbridled display of sycophancy I’ve ever seen in the independent media. It was edited by the Progressive Radio News Hour’s Stephen Lendman, and features not expertise on Russian foreign policy but rather a smorgasbord of opinion writers on the American far left parroting press releases from Russian-backed think tanks. Every one of them should be embarrassed. I suppose they were well paid.

You could be forgiven for thinking, from the way they tried to build Putin up as a hero locked in a deadly struggle against Western imperialist encroachment, that Russia was still communist. And in a very superficial way, it is. The national newspaper still trumpets propaganda about capitalist encirclement and Western corruption, and through the FSB (which used to be called the KGB), Putin also controls the Communist Party as a puppet opposition party, the main one against which he prefers to run in periodic “elections”.

Their book can’t hold a candle to the scholarship of Andrew Wilson, whose book Ukraine Crisis attributes nearly every atrocity in the history of the Ukraine conflict to Russian false-flag operations. The exceptions are an incident in Mariupol and the Odessa massacre, the latter being (according to all accounts) a Ukrainian fascist false-flag operation.

Wilson explains that the conflict isn’t over whether Russia will annex the Ukraine – Russia annexed part of Ukraine (Crimea),  but with only one casualty (although this was done at gunpoint). The conflict is internal to the Ukraine, over federalization – which would allow certain Russian-leaning regions to secure more favorable trade relations with Russia rather than being drawn, together with the Western-leaning parts of the Ukraine, into the EU’s fold. Wilson names names to link pro-Russian forces to Russian oligarchs and pro-Kiev fighters, in some cases, to Ukrainian oligarchs who control their own private militias.

This is what “hybrid war” amounts to:

On May 2, 2014, a group of thugs belonging to a fascist political party (Right Sector) that currently controls the intelligence and security sector in the Ukraine put on red ribbons to identify themselves as pro-Russian protestors opposed to the Kiev government (i.e., the false flag operation). They attacked anti-Russian protestors outside the trade union building in Odessa to establish their credibility as pro-Russian partisans. Then they proceeded to herd pro-Russian protestors into a trap laid inside the trade union building, where doors had been barricaded with furniture.

The building was then set on fire, but photographs of the murder victims inside indicate that they were not passively consumed by the smoke an flames. Rather, individuals were shot, garroted, beaten, and killed before they were doused with a flammable substance (usually on the head and hands, which may have been bound). Then their bodies were burned, the flames were put out again, and the bodies were rearranged, sometimes with a new change of (unscorched) clothing. One murder victim, a pregnant woman who worked at the trade union building, was garroted and photographed in an image disseminated by the attackers, who compared her to the city’s nickname, “Mommy Odessa”, and under her dead body, published the words “Glory to the Ukraine!”

– Paraphrased from a Russian think tank’s press release, which was published without substantive alteration on NBC’s website.

Hybrid war is information war. Journalists are kidnapped and beaten, some activists simply “disappear”, and the feared Berkut security forces responsible for these human rights abuses under the pro-Russian government before the Ukrainian revolution installed the current Kiev government have now changed sides to work for Ukrainian oligarchs currently in power against the Russians – although the Russians claim that many of the forces that have been sent to stop them have defected to their side.

Indeed, Wilson argues that it was these same Ukrainian Berkut fighters who installed the pro-Russian government in Crimea. Wilson even believes that when the Russian-backed president of the Ukraine was first ousted, at the very beginning of the conflict, it was a Russian false-flag operation that set fire to the outgoing president’s party headquarters, where several staffers were burned alive.

None of these accounts ring true, taken together. What all commentators seem to agree on, though, is that the power of the oligarchy is here to stay, both in Russia and in the Ukraine.


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