Posts Tagged 'soviet union'

Rye and weeds: Solzhenitsyn and Jordan Peterson.

One afternoon not long ago, as I walked through a quiet residential neighbourhood near my home, I heard a vehicle coming up the hill behind me. It was a pickup truck which, just as I arrived at an uncontrolled intersection, made a left turn across my path.

Seeing that the pickup had plenty of room to pass in front of me, I stepped off the curb without breaking stride. Instead of continuing his turn, the driver stamped on the brakes, coming to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Maybe he hadn’t noticed me until then, or maybe he misjudged my walking speed.

No harm done. It happens to every driver – you start a maneuver, second-guess yourself, hit the brakes, and wind up in a more awkward position than if you’d just carried through. Continuing past the front of his truck, I glanced at the man behind the wheel, prepared to exchange a good-humoured shrug. He was a young blue-collar guy with a short-trimmed beard, one elbow propped in his open window.

“You ever hear of lookin’ both ways before crossing the street?” he said.

This was very vexing, as I not only had the right of way but had seen him clearly. “Nope, that’s a new one on me,” I muttered, keeping my face blank.

“It’s called situational awareness. Look into it,” he yelled, as I reached the opposite curb. I ignored him and kept walking.

A trivial encounter. What amazed me was how agitated I became immediately afterward. I gulped for air, my heart beat faster, my throat seized up. Regretting the clumsiness of my retort, I realized to my shame that even if I’d been able to think of some withering comment to put the pickup driver in his place, I would’ve been too tongue-tied to articulate it.

I lead a very stress-free life. I’m rarely forced to interact with people who challenge me. When I am confronted with an unexpected rebuke – even a trivial one, like this – I find it emotionally overwhelming.

By ducking confrontation I’ve saved myself some pain over the years. But it appears that I’ve lost the protective crust that should allow me to shrug off the gibes of random strangers.

Shuffling home I found myself sympathizing with the coddled college students of right-wing lore who, when confronted with an opinion that challenges their progressive beliefs, can do nothing but curl up in their safe spaces and weep.

***

I have a friend who, measured against the extremely woke crowd she pals around with, is something of a dangerous free-thinker. When she gets tired of watching her friends polish their halos she’ll come to me to vent; and when she’s had a snootful of my melancholy detachment she goes back to her friends and, I suppose, vents about me.

Although broad-minded by 2019 standards, my friend is still pretty credulous about the narratives she imbibes via social media. For instance, on several occasions she’s brought up Jordan Peterson as an exemplar of right-wing demagoguery. In her mind, Peterson is a hate preacher who endangers the mental health of trans people by rejecting the government’s authority to legislate which pronouns we use when discussing them.

When my friend brings up stuff like this, I purse my lips in an ambiguous way, and say nothing.

I don’t know much about Peterson. I’ve read a handful of reviews and an excerpt from his book, and I’ve seen his ideas discussed in various forums, most recently in Rod Dreher’s blog. Based on this limited information, I suspect I sympathize broadly with Peterson’s views, but I’m not interested enough to buy his book or download his podcasts.

Suppose I attempted to convince my friend that Peterson is not the dangerous avatar of unreason that she seems to think he is. As I see it this argument could have two possible outcomes:

I could fail to convince her, sparking a quarrel to no useful purpose; or,

I could succeed, making my life slightly easier (I would no longer have to bite my tongue when she slandered Peterson) but making her life slightly harder (she would now have to bite her tongue whenever her progressive friends slandered Peterson).

Since my friend is at least as sharp-witted as I am, I don’t have much confidence that I would win the argument anyway; and since I place more importance on our friendship than I do on making sure she holds what I deem to be the correct opinions, I’ve opted to evade the issue.

That’s what I tell myself. But you may conclude, having just read about my encounter with the rude pickup driver, that the above rationalizations are pure eyewash, and that the real reason I keep mum whenever my friend brings up Peterson is that I’m scared of conflict.

In any case, I’m probably not doing my friend any favours. If she ever runs into someone who takes issue with one of her snide comments about Peterson, or some other belief she holds because it is accepted unquestioningly among her progressive crowd, she’ll be unequipped to defend herself.

***

I know from Slate Star Codex‘s review of his book that Jordan Peterson, like me, is prone to quoting from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A big part of Peterson’s schtick is the importance of recognizing our own capacity for error; without checking, I can assert confidently that somewhere in Twelve Rules For Life is the famous line from The Gulag Archipelago about how the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart. Peterson emphasizes the need to earn wisdom through adversity; Solzhenitsyn, realizing that his capacity for good had been awakened by the hardships of his time in the Gulag, said, “Bless you, prison!”

Solzhenitsyn’s semi-autobiographical 1968 novel The First Circle is set in the waning years of Stalin’s USSR, in a “special” prison where political prisoners with technical skills work on projects useful to state security – devising a scrambler for Stalin’s personal phone, for instance, or analyzing voice prints to identify a suspect from a wiretapped phone call.

By the brutal standards of the Gulag these prisoners are in clover. Instead of starving and swinging pickaxes in the far north, they pass their days indoors tinkering with vacuum tubes, and for supper it’s all the black bread they can eat. The book’s title derives from the not-so-bad First Circle of Hell, where Dante placed the pagan philosophers whose only sin was being ignorant of Christianity.

The First Circle doesn’t have a whole lot of plot; it’s mostly a series of interconnected vignettes set over a week or so in the prison and in nearby Moscow. The nearest thing to a central character is Gleb Nerzhin, whose philosophy and experiences roughly mirror those of the author, who was in just such a special prison after World War II, before doing harder time in a Kazakhstani mining camp.

Early in the book, Gleb chats with his young friend Ruska, who has absorbed the older prisoner’s cynical attitude. Gleb regrets the death of his friend’s idealism:

“This kind of scepticism, agnosticism, pessimism – whatever you call it – it all sounds very clever and ruthless, but you must understand that by its very nature it dooms us to futility. It’s not a guide to action, and people can’t just stand off, so they must have a set of positive beliefs to show them the way.”

“Even if they land in a swamp? Anything just to keep going, you mean?” Ruska asked angrily.

“Well, yes…damn it all!” said Gleb, a little unsure of himself. “Look, I think scepticism is very important – it’s a way of getting at people with one-track minds. But it can never give a man the feeling that he’s got firm ground under his feet. And perhaps it’s what we need – firm ground under our feet.”

In a recent essay about George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan I wondered,

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

Likewise, if I run into someone who enjoys “firm ground under his feet” thanks to his simple and annoying faith in the words of Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx, or Jordan Peterson, should I hold my tongue lest I accidentally lure him, by my cynicism, into the mire of uncertainty and self-doubt?

If I were a happy person I might say, “Pick away at your convictions one by one, until you’re left with nothing solid but an awareness of your own ignorance – and you’ll be happy like me!”

But I’m pretty miserable. I suspect my misery is unrelated to what I believe – that I was simply wired for anhedonia – but nevertheless I can’t with any credibility recommend myself as a positive example to anyone.

So perhaps I ought instead to tell the believers, “Try not to think too deeply about your convictions, in case they fall apart under close examination, leaving you with nothing but your unbearable self.”

But even that might draw the believers’ attention to the possibility that their convictions are shakier than they suspect. Maybe it would be best to keep my mouth shut altogether.

***

In Twelve Rules For Living (which, to repeat, I haven’t read) Peterson identifies one incontestable, unbanishable fact, “the reality of suffering”, from which he derives his whole moral code:

Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposite to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening. . . . Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.

The “reality of suffering” – I guess that’s something solid to build on. But it doesn’t take long, piling your philosophy up brick by brick, before you find the structure sprawling onto unstable ground. The various functionaries of the Canadian justice and higher education systems against whom Peterson has waged rhetorical battle are convinced that by shutting down dissidents like him, they can protect trans people from unnecessary pain and suffering.

Solzhenitsyn’s stand-in Nerzhin struggles with such uncertainties. Later in The First Circle he befriends a fellow prisoner, a simple peasant named Spiridon, and listens in awe to his life story, an astounding sequence of misjudgements and reversals guided by no coherent principles besides his untutored sense of right and wrong. Nerzhin wonders whether Spiridon’s seemingly random choices belie “some universal system of philosophical scepticism”. He enquires gently:

“All these years you’ve been thrashing around trying to work things out, haven’t you? What I mean is, what’s your…” – he almost said “criterion” – “what’s your judgment of life in general? For instance, do you think there are people who do wicked things on purpose? Is there anybody who says to himself: ‘I’ll show everybody what for’? Do you think that’s likely? Perhaps everybody wants to do good – or they think they want to do good, but since none of us are blameless and we all make mistakes – and some of us are just crazy, anyway – we do all these bad things to each other. We tell ourselves we are doing good, but in fact it all comes out the other way. It’s all a bit like that saying of yours – you sow rye and weeds come up.”

Spiridon was looking hard at him, as though suspecting a trap. Nerzhin felt he was not expressing himself very well, but he went on:

“Now, suppose I think you’re making a mistake and I want to put you right, and I tell you what I think, but you don’t listen and even tell me to shut up? What should I do? Hit you over the head with a stick? That wouldn’t be so bad if I really were right, but suppose I only think I’m right? After all, things are always changing, aren’t they? What I mean is: if you can’t always be sure that you’re right, should you stick your nose into other people’s business? Is there any way for a man to know who is right and who is wrong?”

Later we will meet the prison’s Security Officer, Major Shikin, who demonstrates Nerzhin’s point about putting people right by hitting them with a stick:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

The canny old peasant Spiridon is untroubled by the paradox of well-meaning torturers like Major Shikin. To Nerzhin he cryptically sums up his philosophy:

“I can tell you,” Spiridon said, brightening up, and as readily as if he had been asked which of the warders had come on duty that morning. “I can tell you: wolf-hounds are right and cannibals are wrong.”

“What’s that again?” Nerzhin said, taken aback by the simplicity and force of Spiridon’s judgment.

“What I said was,” Spiridon repeated with stark conviction, turning his head towards Nerzhin and breathing hotly into his face from under his moustache: “the wolf-hounds are right and the cannibals wrong.” [1]

M.

1. The chapter ends on Spiridon’s words. My edition of The First Circle is haphazardly footnoted, and there’s nothing to explain whether the wolf-hounds and cannibals are common symbols in Russian culture, or whether Nerzhin is as bemused as we are by this nugget of homespun wisdom.

Tukhta.

A while back I met up for coffee with an electrician friend who happened to be in my neighbourhood for work. Half an hour after we sat down, his work iPad beeped with a message from HQ. He apologized and gave the gadget his attention.

A minute later he chuckled. He noticed that he’d neglected to click “Save” in the program that logs his working hours, and as far as his iPad was aware he was still on the clock for that morning’s job. My friend didn’t correct his error. He seemed to think a little looseness about his hours was fair recompense for the various indignities his employers subject him to. Maybe he’s right.

There’s a useful word I picked up from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago – “tukhta”, Soviet-era slang meaning something like “padding”. This was a necessary adaptation for prisoners expected to meet quotas set by officials who had only the dimmest awareness of conditions in the Gulag:

[A]ll state work norms are the same: they are calculated not for real life on this earth, but for some kind of unearthly ideal on the moon. A human being dedicated, self-sacrificing, healthy, well nourished, and energetic is incapable of fulfilling these norms! And so what are you going to get out of a fagged-out, weak, hungry, and downtrodden convict?

To meet these impossible quotas, prison work foremen would claim fictitious output – ten percent more lumber than their teams had actually cut, say. Camp administrators were subject to the same quotas, so they’d go along with the fiction. Their higher-ups would pass along the tukhta, and so on, up to the top levels of government, who’d trumpet the unprecedented lumber yield as a triumph of socialist planning.

How were the gaps papered over? Solzhenitsyn tells the story of an educated prisoner named Vlasov, in charge of a logging camp in Siberia, who signed off on paperwork showing that during a particularly harsh winter his team had surpassed the quota by 25%, when in fact they’d fallen far short. When the missing timber was noticed, Vlasov pointed out to his supervisor that their fates were now bound together: if the discrepancy were exposed, Vlasov’s sentence could only be extended, while the supervisor, for his negligence, would be liable for a five-year term. Vlasov proposed a plan, to which the supervisor could only agree:

And the time came when the winter roads had all dissolved completely, and the summer logging trails were still impassable too. And at this point Vlasov brought the chief a detailed and watertight report for his signature, to be sent on to the administration higher-up. In it he proved that because of the highly successful timber-felling operations of the past winter it had been quite impossible to move 10,500 cubic yards out of the forests on the sledge trails. Neither could this timber be hauled out through the swampy forests. Next he gave estimates for the cost of a corduroy road to get the timber out, and he proved that the haulage would cost more than the timber was worth. So that in a year’s time, because the logs were going to be lying there in the swamp for a whole summer and autumn, they would be unsuitable for lumber and acceptable to any possible customer only for firewood. And the administration agreed with these literate conclusions, which they were not ashamed to show any other commission – and therefore the whole 10,500 cubic yards of timber were written off.

Eventually the whole Soviet economy was built on a shaky edifice of tukhta – but in the meantime, the prisoners met their quotas and received their scanty rations:

And so it was that the trees were felled, and eaten up, and written off – and stood once again erect and proud in their green coniferous garb. And in fact the state paid very reasonably for these dead cubic yards: a few hundred extra loaves of black, gluey, watery bread. The thousands of trees and the hundreds of lives which were saved were of no account on the profit-and-loss sheet.

It strikes me how the proponents of our artificially intelligent future are a bit like old-school communists in their mania for efficiency. For instance, my electrician friend is often called out to jobs in the furthest reaches of the Lower Mainland, more than an hour’s drive from his home base in Vancouver. Meanwhile competing companies are sending electricians in from Maple Ridge or Aldergrove to visit customers in Vancouver. A communist or a software engineer would say: how wasteful, all this driving to and fro! – as of course it is – and propose a central dispatching system, or a mobile app, that would match up customers with the nearest electrician, saving man-hours, reducing waiting time, conserving fuel, easing congestion, and so on.

The difference is that there’s a risk the software engineer can actually deliver on that promised efficiency – and then we discover that all the electrical work the city requires can be delivered by half as many electricians. In that case I’m not sure my friend, with his cavalier approach to timekeeping, would be among the ones to make the cut.

But I suspect humans will figure out ways to steal back a fair amount of the time the software manages to save. I hope so, because without a little tukhta there probably won’t be room in the workforce for slackers like my electrician friend – or me.

M.

In 2016 I poked fun at pundit Andrew Coyne’s optimistic belief that workers displaced by robots would find new and better jobs. Earlier this year the descriptions of Russian peasant villages in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 made me think of modern suburban sprawl. And in 2010 I read The Gulag Archipelago and discovered that Solzhenitsyn was, surprisingly, pretty funny.

The old, illogical morality: The Kindly Ones and Darkness at Noon.

Note: This is the third in a cache of old abandoned blog posts I recently recovered from a rarely-used laptop. The “project” I allude to below is the novel I’m currently wrapping up, about which more soon.

In preparation for a project I’m thinking of attempting, I’ve been doing some research on life behind the Iron Curtain. To this end I was recently reading Anne McElvoy’s The Saddled Cow: East Germany’s Life and Legacy, in which she interviews Wolfgang Leonhard, a “former comrade” of longtime East German ruler Erich Honecker. Leonhard recalls of the leader-to-be:

He had the main characteristic I would consider essential for success as a young functionary: absolutely average intelligence. In a communist party on the Stalinist model, you have to have a good memory and an ability to absorb reams of resolutions and turn them into directives, so you need a certain basic intelligence. You can’t be plain dumb, as was required under the Nazis, because the ideology is much more complicated. But you can’t be too intelligent, because people of above-average intellect have a tendency to challenge the arcana, to spot its flaws, which makes them disobedient.

Did the Nazis require their members to be “plain dumb”? To some degree we must defer to the old comrade’s experience. As a youth in the Third Reich, Leonhard must have met many Nazis, and maybe they were on the whole dumber than his Communist acquaintances – although one doubts his impartiality. Certainly Nazism and its Fascist sister-governments had their share of intelligent sympathizers, from Martin Heidegger to Robert Brasillach to Ezra Pound; and I suspect if those governments had remained on the scene longer, they would eventually have accumulated a body of Western intellectual fellow-travellers like those that forgave and justified all Communism’s “mistakes” and “excesses”. But it’s hard to say.

Leonhard’s comment brought to mind a scene in The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s disturbing novel of World War II. Our narrator and “hero”, the intelligent and cultured SS officer Dr. Maximilian Aue, as punishment for having displeased his superior, is transferred to Stalingrad just as the Germans are losing control of that city to the Soviet counterattack. There, amid the rubble and sickness and squalor, he interviews a captured enemy politruk – a Communist Party member assigned to a Soviet army unit to build morale and ensure obedience to the party line. Their conversation runs for several pages and makes a useful crib sheet on the differences and similarities between the two totalitarianisms. Here’s how the politruk sums it up:

“[O]ur ideologies have this basic thing in common, which is that they are both essentially deterministic; racial determinism for you, economic determinism for us, but determinism all the same. We both believe that man doesn’t freely choose his fate, but that it is imposed on him by nature or history. And we both draw the conclusion that objective enemies exist, that certain categories of human beings can and must legitimately be eliminated not for what they’ve done or even thought, but for what they are. In that, we differ only in the definition of the categories: for you, the Jews, the Gypsies, the Poles, and even, I believe, the mentally ill; for us, the Kulaks, the bourgeois, the Party deviationists. At bottom, it’s the same thing; we both reject the homo economicus of the capitalists, the egotistical, individualistic man trapped in his illusion of freedom, in favor of a homo faber: Not a self-made man but a made man, you might say in English, or a man yet to be made, since communist man must still be constructed, educated, just like your perfect National Socialist. And this man-to-be-made justifies the pitiless liquidation of everything that is uneducable, and thus justifies the NKVD and the Gestapo, gardeners of the social body, who tear out the weeds and force the good plants to follow their stakes.”

This politruk, like Aue, has been sent to the front after falling out of favour with his superiors. He bears a passing resemblance to Rubashov, the main character in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a high-ranking commissar and veteran of the Revolution who is imprisoned on trumped-up charges and tried as a “Party deviationist”. In his diary Rubashov writes:

We [Communists] have learnt history more thoroughly than the others. We differ from all others in our logical consistency. We know that virtue does not matter to history, and that crimes remain unpunished; but that every error has its consequences and venges itself unto the seventh generation. Therefore we concentrated all our efforts on preventing error and destroying the very seeds of it. Never in history has so much power over the future of humanity been concentrated in so few hands as in our case. Each wrong idea we follow is a crime committed against future generations. Therefore we have to punish wrong ideas as others punish crimes: with death.

History put me where I stood; I have exhausted the credit which she accorded me; if I was right I have nothing to repent of, if wrong, I will pay.

Following this logic, Rubashov convinces himself of the historical necessity of his own annihilation. He willingly confesses to the absurd charges against him and abases himself at his show trial.

Just as Darkness at Noon illustrates the thought processes by which an intelligent man can arrive at the conclusion that his own life must be sacrificed to the vaunted triumph of the Classless Society, The Kindly Ones shows how an intelligent man can convince himself of the necessity of exterminating whole ethnicities deemed inconvenient to the security of the state. At one point Dr. Aue accepts an invitation to dinner at Adolf Eichmann’s apartment and finds himself instructing his host on the finer points of their shared ideology – specifically, how it can be reconciled with Kant’s categorical imperative. (At his 1961 trial in Israel, Eichmann would arouse indignation by proclaiming, as Hannah Arendt recounts in Eichmann in Jerusalem,

that he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty.

Arendt expresses surprise that Eichmann, questioned by a judge on this point, is able to supply “an approximately correct definition of the categorical imperative”.)

At his dinner party, Eichmann listens eagerly as his educated guest explains how Kant’s philosophy of individual will can be reconciled with the Führerprinzip, the principle that in the Third Reich “the Führer’s words have the force of law”:

“You have to live out your National Socialism by living your own will as if it were the Führer’s … Whoever only obeys orders like an automaton, without examining them critically to penetrate their inner necessity, does not work closer to the Führer; most of the time, he distances himself from him. … All law must rest on a foundation. Historically, this has always been a fiction or an abstraction – God, the King, or the People. Our great advance has been to base the legal concept of the Nation on something concrete and inalienable: the Volk, whose collective will is expressed by the Führer who represents it. When you say Frei sein ist Knecht sein [To be free is to be a vassal], you have to understand that the foremost vassal of all is precisely the Führer, since he is nothing but pure service. We are not serving the Führer as such, but as the representative of the Volk, we serve the Volk and must serve it as the Führer serves it, with total abnegation. That’s why, confronted with painful tasks, we have to bow down, master our feelings, and carry them out with firmness.”

It’s possible that the mental convolutions necessary to overcoming the evident contradictions of Communism and National Socialism make those ideologies more appealing to intelligent people; it is precisely their affront to common sense that makes them attractive to those, like Rubashov and Dr. Aue, who justly perceive themselves as uncommon. No particular genius is necessary to observe that mass murder is wrong. It takes a nimble mind to argue that the grand march of history dictates the necessity of submitting to this distasteful duty.

Rubashov, on the eve of his execution, begins to doubt the result to which his reasoning has led him:

For forty years he had lived strictly in accordance with the vows of his order, the Party. He had held to the rules of logical calculation. He had burnt the remains of the old, illogical morality from his consciousness with the acid of reason. … And where had it landed him? Premises of unimpeachable truth had led to a result which was completely absurd … Perhaps it was not suitable for a man to think every thought to its logical conclusion.

Perhaps not, but how are we to know when to abandon logic except by logically analyzing the problem? Some like to imagine there’s an invisible thread wound around our hearts that will, if we let it, guide us back to the light when logic leads us astray. Call this thread God, or conscience, or common humanity. But the history of the last century demonstrates that the thread, if it exists, is easy to sever, and that far from feeling lost without it, we gloat over our freedom.

M.

Solzhenitsyn, funnyman.

Here’s the funny thing about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: he’s funny. You’d expect Gulag Archipelago to be a slog, but the very first lines of the preface, where the author describes some starving prisoners “flouting the higher claims of ichthyology” to wolf down a prehistoric fish they’d discovered frozen in the Siberian ice, made me laugh. Knowing that he survived the slave-camps himself, one would expect Solzhenitsyn to be embittered, indignant, aflame with righteous rage – and he is. But above all he’s a great writer with a keen ear for absurdity and a Siberia-sized index-card file full of astounding stories about life under the Soviets. *

Here’s one. A new prisoner arrives in camp and the guard raises an eyebrow at his long sentence. “Twenty-five years! What did you do?”

“Nothing at all,” comes the sullen reply.

“You’re lying!” says the guard. “The sentence for nothing at all is ten years.”

I laughed because it has the structure of a joke – and in fact, its tidiness and rim-shot pacing suggest to me that it is a joke. But whether or not the actual words were spoken by an actual guard, the joke is true. Consider (I open Volume One randomly, to page 82) the “traitors of the Motherland”, tens of thousands of ex-soldiers slapped with prison terms at the conclusion of World War II; their crime was to have spent time in German prisoner-of-war camps. (Their real offense, Solzhenitsyn points out, was to have been “witnesses to humiliating [Soviet] defeats.”) Their sentence? Ten years.

Here’s another one. The Solovki camp, on an island near the Arctic Circle, was getting some unwelcome publicity in the West. To put a stop to rumours that Solovki was something other than a socialist paradise in the making, in 1929 Moscow sent the famous proletarian writer Maxim Gorky on a fact-finding mission to the camp. The administrators scurried about preparing for Gorky’s visit, “hid the monstrosities and polished things up for show”, but…

Only in Kem was there an oversight. On Popov Island the ship Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, when Gorky’s retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! You inventors and thinkers! Here is a worthy problem for you … a barren island, not one bush, no possible cover – and right there, at a distance of three hundred yards, Gorky’s retinue has shown up. Your solution? Where can this disgraceful spectacle – these men dressed in sacks – be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! … The work assigner ordered: “Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!” And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. “Anyone who moves will be shot!” And the former stevedore Maxim Gorky ascended the ship’s ladder and admired the landscape for a full hour till sailing time – and he didn’t notice!

Gorky stands in for all those farsighted intellectuals who praised the Soviet experiment, eyes locked on the horizon while the victims of the regime huddled half-naked under their tarps. It’s a metaphor, and it’s funny, too!

M.

* Even Solzhenitsyn’s footnotes are funny. Consider the unlucky peasant given a ten-year sentence for stealing a spool of thread – or as the authorities grandiosely described it in their indictment, “200 meters of sewing material.”

So did the Red Army really singlehandedly defeat the Third Reich?

This bugs me. It’s Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing in The National Interest:

The idea that the United States was the savior of Europe in World Wars I and II is popular in some circles on both sides of the Atlantic, but is demonstrably false. Between the formal entry of the United States into the Great War in April 1917 and the last German offensive in March 1918, hundreds of thousands of Entente soldiers were killed, mainly British in the summer and autumn of 1917 after the frightful slaughter of the French army in the spring; and in that period of nearly a year, fewer than two hundred Americans died. In the course of that war, the Frenchmen killed defending their country were twice as numerous as all the Americans who have died in every foreign war taken together from 1776 until today. As a matter of historical fact, the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army and not by the Western democracies. Even though over one hundred thirty-five thousand American GIs died – a startling figure today – between D day and V-E day, more than half a million Russians were killed.

If Wheatcroft had expressed his point less categorically – if he’d written that the Third Reich was defeated primarily by the Red Army – I wouldn’t have blinked. I’ve read this before; I thought it was the conventional wisdom. But seeing it described as “a matter of historical fact” made me pause. How do we measure the “historical fact” of the Allies’ relative contributions to the victory over Nazism? [1]

According to Wheatcroft, it’s measured by counting the number of casualties each country suffered. The Soviets lost more soldiers than the Americans; therefore the Soviets deserve the larger share of the victory.

Strange, I would’ve thought the measure of military success was the number of enemy soldiers you killed.

It’s true that the Soviet Union sacrificed more to defeat Hitler than any other country. But much of that sacrifice was wasted. Millions of Soviets died through the incompetence and brutality of their own political masters. It was Stalin’s blindness to Hitler’s pre-invasion manoeuvres that allowed the Germans to occupy Russia’s industrial heartland at a stroke. Only then, with reluctance, did Stalin shift his attention from killing his own citizens to killing Germans. His tactics, if they can be dignified with that name, involved throwing masses of underequipped men virtually under the treads of invading panzers. To retreat was a crime against the motherland: in 1941 and ’42, according to the historian Dmitri Volkogonov, 157,593 men were executed for “cowardice”. [2]

(How many Americans were executed for desertion in World War II? One: Eddie Slovik. Were the Americans that much braver than their Soviet allies? Of course not – thousands in fact deserted – but the US Army was more prudent in its valuation of a soldier’s life.)

This doesn’t diminish the Soviets’ contribution to the war effort, which was vast and decisive. In fact it’s even more marvelous what they accomplished, given the handicaps imposed by their leaders. Without the Soviet contribution, the western democracies probably couldn’t have defeated Hitler’s armies on their own. But could the Soviets, fighting on their own, have defeated Hitler – say, if the democracies had capitulated after the fall of France?

***

Perhaps a better way to compare the effectiveness of the western and eastern armies is not to compare Allied deaths but to compare German deaths. Estimates vary widely, but since I’m looking for a ratio rather than a total, one source will do as well as another. For military deaths only:

Killed by Soviet Union Killed by other Allies [3]
2,742,909 534,683

This limited comparison (which excludes casualties among Italian and other Axis forces, as well as Germans killed in the Balkans, Scandinavia, and Germany itself [4]) suggests that the Red Army was roughly 5.5 times as lethal as the other Allied forces combined. This is a somewhat more convincing argument for Wheatcroft’s claim that “the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army and not by the Western democracies”.

However. At the end of the war, the Allied democracies held over twice as many German prisoners of war as the Soviets – 7.7 millions versus 3.1 million, according to this chart.  This makes sense, because the war in the east was far more brutal. Soviet soldiers were likelier to execute prisoners, and German soldiers were likelier to fight to the bitter end, knowing their chance of surviving Soviet captivity was slim. At the close of the war, as defeat became inevitable, German strategy was based partly on the recognition that their countrymen would be better off surrendering to the Americans or Brits.

Still, conceding that a POW has been removed from combat just as effectively as a KIA, let’s reevaluate those figures:

Killed or captured by Soviet Union Killed or captured by other Allies
5,870,289 8,201,683

By this calculation, the Allied democracies were almost one and a half times as effective at neutralizing German soldiers as their Red Army counterparts.

But those POW figures are distorted by the fact that at the end of the war, most German military units surrendered to whichever occupying power they happened to find themselves facing. Maybe a still better way to compare Soviet and Anglo-American military effectiveness would be to add up casualties and POWs taken in action.

This page offers some insight. I’ve combined the data from Tables 5 and 6:

Killed in action Missing KIA + missing
Eastern front: 1,105,987 1,018,365 2,124,352
West + southwest: 157,523 603,695 761,488

(These data omit the final months of the war, and also exclude Navy and Air Force deaths.) Note that on Germany’s eastern front the number of confirmed deaths slightly exceeds the number of missing, while in the west and southwest (i.e. western Europe, Italy, and Africa) the number of missing is almost four times the number of confirmed deaths. I interpret this to mean that the bulk of the missing in the west and southwest were taken prisoner. [5]

If that’s true, then about 26% of German ground troops were removed from action, one way or another, by the democratic Allies. Throw in naval and air casualties, most of which were sustained in western Europe and the Mediterranean, and you’ve got the western democracies responsible for perhaps 30% of German manpower losses through the end of January, 1945 – which doesn’t include the final push into Germany.

***

Of course, this is only one way to compare the wartime contributions of the Soviet Union and western Europe, and I recognize that it’s incomplete. Another way of looking at it would be to say, “Regardless of how many German soldiers the Soviets killed or captured, they tied up the bulk of the Third Reich’s military capacity.” It’s no great achievement to take a German bullet, but that’s one less bullet the Germans have to fire elsewhere. The Red Army held off the Germans at the critical point in the war, allowing the Americans and Brits to get organized and open up a second front.

To admit that the Nazis were defeated by the efforts of all the Allies doesn’t take anything away from the sacrifices of the Soviet Union in its Great Patriotic War. Millions of Russians died so that millions of Americans didn’t have to. But the suggestion that the United States was somehow an idle bystander in the conflict is nonsensical and offensive. [6]

Am I being too hard on Geoffrey Wheatcroft? He’s only trying to debunk the myth that American GIs dealt Nazism its greatest blow on the cliffs of Omaha Beach. The specific comment that he’s responding to comes from Pascal Bruckner in his book The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. Bruckner writes (as quoted by Wheatcroft) that

without American help in 1917, and especially in 1944, [Europe] would have been purely and simply wiped off the map […]

Obviously Bruckner is being hyperbolical here – even a Nazi-dominated Europe would still have been Europe, “purely and simply” in the geographical sense. But Bruckner doesn’t attribute the entire victory to the Americans, he only says their help staved off certain defeat. I think this is a less disputable position than the one Wheatcroft is advancing as “a matter of historical fact”.

What’s more, a peek at the original text (courtesy of Google Books) reveals that Wheatcroft is leaving a crucial clause out of Bruckner’s argument. Here’s the sentence in full (emphasis is mine):

Europe suffers, with respect to its American cousin, from the debtor’s complex. It is clearly understood, at least in Western Europe, that without American help in 1917, and especially in 1944, it would have been purely and simply wiped off the map or permanently colonized by Soviet troops.

Bruckner’s untruncated point is that a western Europe left to shift for itself in the 1940s would have been screwed either way – if not screwed by Hitler, then screwed by Stalin, like Poland and Czechoslovakia and all the other countries “liberated” by the Red Army. The presence of three and a half million American servicemen and women (and billions of dollars of aid) helped assure the survival of European freedom, in its western half at least.

It bugs me that this truth bugs Geoffrey Wheatcroft so much.

M.

1. I’m not going to analyze Wheatcroft’s comments about World War I, because I know less about that conflict, but I suspect he’s on firmer ground there.

2 This and other details of Stalin’s ghastly war leadership can be found in Martin Amis’ Koba The Dread (pp. 195-212). See also Part I, Chapter 6 of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

3. “Killed by other Allies” includes all German deaths in France, the Low Countries, Italy, and Africa, plus those killed in the Battle of the Atlantic. “Killed by Soviets” includes figures from the eastern front only. I’ve excluded deaths in the Balkans and Scandinavia as they don’t fall neatly into either column, and anyway the numbers aren’t big enough to significantly skew the totals.

4. This is a big caveat. According to the same chart, 1,230,045 German soldiers died in the defense of their homeland in 1945. Assuming they died in the same ratio as those killed in the wider war – about 5.5 killed by Soviets for every 1 killed by the other Allies – then the totals look something like this:

Killed by Soviet Union Killed by other Allies
3,772,297 735,340
Killed or captured by Soviet Union Killed or captured by other Allies
6,899,677 8,402,340

5. It’s possible I’m misinterpreting these figures. If you can think of another explanation for the far higher rate of “missing” troops in the western and southwestern theatres, please let me know.

6. I’ve left out of this discussion the armaments, food, and other assistance supplied to the Allies by the United States under the lend-lease program. I can’t find a webpage that discusses in any but the vaguest terms what percentage of Soviet, British, and other Allied war materiel was provided by the USA. This page – the third chapter of a pamphlet called How Shall Lend-Lease Accounts Be Settled? published by the US Army in 1945 – provides an overview of lend-lease, then adds:

This does not mean that our major allies – except for the revived French army which was almost completely equipped under lend-lease – were mainly dependent on American supplies. It has been estimated that lend-lease provided only 10 percent of British war equipment, and certainly a lesser proportion of Soviet materiel.

But in 1945, for domestic political reasons, the US government had reason to downplay how much the Soviet Union’s military capabilities had been augmented by its support. According to this page, the United States provided $11 billion worth of supplies to the Soviet war effort, in the form of locomotives, tanks, aircraft, trucks, and artillery, amounting to “almost 10% of all Russian war materiel.”

The Master and Margarita – the best translation?

In a mostly adoring essay entitled “You Don’t Know Dick”, Jonathan Lethem admits what’s obvious to anyone who’s ever cracked one of Philip K. Dick’s novels:

[Dick is] that species of great writer, the uneven-prose species: Dickens, Dreiser, and Highsmith are others. Russians will tell you Dostoyevsky is too, and that we don’t know this because translators have been covering his ass.

I don’t know which Russians Lethem has been consulting, and I can’t tell whether he’s implying that Dostoyevsky’s writing is as clumsy as Dickens’ (no great shame in that) or as clumsy as Philip K. Dick’s (yikes). But now I wonder, have English readers been ill-served by these deceptively elegant translations? Are we missing something of the original homely flavour of Dostoyevsky’s sentences? Do we not deserve access to a version of The Idiot that is as badly-written as the one Russians cherish?

I was reminded of Lethem’s comment while reading The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov’s most famous novel, written in the 1930s but unpublished until 1966, has been translated into English at least six times. The best-known versions are by Mirra Ginsburg (1967), Michael Glenny (1967), Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor (1995), and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1997).

So my first task, when my book club settled on The Master and Margarita for its next meeting, was to determine which translation I wanted to read. Based on the excerpts provided on the About Last Night blog, I decided I would seek out Glenny’s. But I live in a small town, and there aren’t many copies of The Master and Margarita available in the half-dozen or so good used bookstores hereabouts. To be precise, I found one*: the Penguin Classics Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. It was in good shape and it cost ten bucks, and it seemed easier to just grab it rather than wait for the Glenny edition to arrive, more expensively, via Abebooks.

After our meeting, I borrowed the Glenny and Burgin-O’Connor translations from fellow book-clubbers. As a service to the reading community, here are two more versions of the opening paragraph, for comparison with the Ginsburg and Glenny versions excerpted on About Last Night:

At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers. [Pevear-Volokhonsky]

One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them – fortyish, wearing a gray summer suit – was short, dark-haired, bald on top, paunchy, and held his proper fedora in his hand; black horn-rimmed glasses of supernatural proportions adorned his well-shaven face. The other one – a broad-shouldered, reddish-haired, shaggy young man with a checked cap cocked on the back of his head – was wearing a cowboy shirt, crumpled white trousers, and black sneakers. [Burgin-O’Connor]

There doesn’t seem to be much to choose from in these samples, so let’s dig a little deeper into the book. Here’s an awkward paragraph: the demons Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth (a talking cat) have just escorted the eponymous couple downstairs and are loading them into a car chauffeured by a magical rook (“crow”, in the Glenny version). Pevear and Volokohnsky offer:

Having returned Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her and asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella exchanged smacking kisses with Margarita, the cat kissed her hand, everyone waved to the master, who collapsed lifelessly and motionlessly in the corner of the seat, waved to the rook, and at once melted into air, considering it unnecessary to take the trouble of climbing the stairs.

Granted it was late and I was sleepy, but I had to read this paragraph four or five times before I figured out that it was not the master who “waved to the rook, and at once melted into air”, but rather “everyone” – Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth. From the context this makes sense – it’s the demons, and not the master, who have demonstrated magical powers. Still, there’s no reason to muddle the reader this way, when the muddle can be avoided through taking a little more care with pronouns. Burgin and O’Connor resolve the pronoun issue but the paragraph still feels cluttered:

After returning Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said good-bye to her, asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella enthusiastically smothered Margarita with kisses, the cat kissed her hand, the group waved to the Master, who, lifeless and inert, had sunk into the corner of his seat, then they waved to the rook and immediately melted into thin air, not considering it worth the trouble to climb back up the stairs.

(Incidentally, this is the only one of the three translations that chooses to capitalize “Master”; which seems appropriate, since the character is given no other name.)

What Burgin-O’Connor and Pevear-Volokhonsky have in common is that they labour to express a complicated series of actions in one sprawling but faithful sentence. (From Burgin and O’Connor’s Translator’s Note: “[W]e have tried, as far as possible without sacrificing clarity, not to break up Bulgakov’s long sentences and to adhere to his word order.”) Glenny’s version reads more easily because he has been freer in his punctuation:

Having returned Woland’s present to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her, enquiring if she was comfortably seated; Hella gave her a smacking kiss and the cat pressed itself affectionately to her hand. With a wave to the master as he lowered himself awkwardly into his seat and a wave to the crow, the party vanished into thin air, without bothering to return indoors and walk up the staircase.

…But then, Glenny omits the information that the Master is “lifeless and inert” – for what it’s worth. Obviously he has made the editorial decision that the Master’s exhausted state is communicated well enough in surrounding paragraphs that it can be economically left out of this one.

My impression from browsing is that there’s very little to decide between the Pevear-Volokhonsky and Burgin-O’Connor versions; they say pretty much the same thing in slightly different ways. Glenny’s is the outlier. His translation seems easier to read, but the ease may come at the expense of exactitude. Personally I’m not sure how much that matters; I can live with a translation that loses a few details like “lifeless and inert”, even if Bulgakov himself might grumble. (But then, what if I’m missing something more important? – see below.)

But it’s really more a philosophical question than it is an aesthetic one: which should take priority in translation, precision or readability? Consider Shakespeare. Do his foreign-language translators deploy archaic and obsolete words to replicate the (often wearying) experience of reading Shakespeare in English? Or do they use modern words, saving foreign readers the difficulty of  following the involutions of the thought?

What is “difficulty”, anyway? Our language has an unusually large vocabulary, which makes it easier to be difficult when writing in English than in, say, French. What if you need a replacement for an obscure English word and there is no equally obscure French word available? Do you dig out your old Latin textbook and invent an entirely new but authentic-sounding word? (That’s what Shakespeare would have done.)

***

According to this extract from a book called The Translator in the Text by Rachel May, Michael Glenny’s translation was done from an incomplete manuscript. How incomplete?

When Bulgakov’s novel was first published in the Soviet Union in 1966, the text was heavily censored. Mirra Ginsburg’s translation was based on this censored edition. Glenny’s version came out in 1967, by which time the suppressed material was available in the West. Yet Burgin and O’Connor, in their Translator’s Note, claim that their 1995 effort is the first translation of the complete text. What was still missing from the version Glenny used? Was it just a few disputed lines here and there, of the kind that only purists and scholars quibble over? Or was it whole scenes of politically-sensitive material? Input from knowledgeable readers would be welcomed here.

Having read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “complete” translation, I’m not sure how important those politically sensitive scenes are. Even in the uncensored text, criticism of the Soviet authorities is extremely circumspect and easy to overlook. When the Master, after offending the literary world with a novel on religious themes, is taken away by the secret police, he describes the scene like this:

“[T]here came a knock at my window…”

The Master doesn’t say who knocked. Instead he leans close to his interlocutor and whispers something into his ear, which “agitate[s] him very much.” Then he resumes:

“Yes, and so in mid-January, at night, in the same coat but with the buttons torn off, I was huddled with cold in my little yard.”

The knock at the window came in October: apart from the agitating whisper, no account is given of the missing three months. From the footnotes we learn that “It was customary to remove belts, shoelaces and buttons from the apparel of those ‘held for questioning’.”

Having seen The Master and Margarita in the number two position on the Wall Street Journal‘s list of  Cold War novels, I was expecting a more sensational exposé of Stalinism than that. Does the quietness of Bulgakov’s rebellion make the inclusion of that political material more or less crucial?

***

If you’re wondering: though I’m not entirely sure I liked The Master and Margarita (but that might just be the fault of the translation), I think you should read it anyway.

M.

* I found it at Westgate Books on 8th Street, easily the best bookstore in Saskatoon.

Update, July 19 2009: I was recently alerted to a wonderfully detailed discussion of The Master and Margarita on the literary website The Valve. I’m going to point you directly to a comment by a Russian speaker named Anatoly, who describes the Pevear-Volokhonsky version as an “awful travesty” – and seems to know what he’s talking about.

Update, June 4 2016: And for further swipes at Pevear and Volokhonsky’s methods, along with a broad-ranging discussion of what constitutes a good translation anyway, check out Janet Malcolm in the New York Review of Books.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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