Marina Tsvetayeva Is Robbed

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

I have just finished reading Marina Tsvetayeva’s Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Virtually unknown in the United States, Tsvetayeva was one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th Century. Here is one of her poems:

I Know the Truth (1915)

I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

The above translation is by Elaine Feinstein.

In her Moscow diary, she recounts the experience of being robbed as she leaves a friend’s house late at night:

“Who goes there?”

A young guy about eighteen years old, in uniform, a jaunty forelock peeking out from under his cap. Light brown hair. Freckles.

“Any weapons?”

“What kind of weapons do women have?”

“What is that there?”

”Please, take a look.”

I take out of my purse and hand him, one after the other: my new, favorite cigarette case with lions (yellow, English: Dieu et mon droit), a coin purse, matches.

“And there’s also a comb, a key … If you have any doubts, we can go see the yardkeeper; I’ve lived here for four years.”

“Any documents?”

At this point, remembering the parting words of my cautious friends, I conscientiously and meaninglessly parry:

“And do you have any documents?”

“Right here!”

The steel of a revolver, white in the moonlight. (“So it’s white, and for some reason I always thought it was black.I saw it as black. A revolver—is death. Blackness.”)

At the same instant, the chain from my lorgnette flies over my head, strangling me and catching on my hat. Only then do I realize what’s going on.

“Put down that revolver and take it off with both hands, you’re strangling me.”

“Don’t scream.”

“You can hear how I’m speaking.”

He lowers it, and, no longer strangling me, swiftly and deftly removes the doubled chain. The action with the chain is the last one. I hear “Comrades!” behind my back as my other foot steps through the gate.

(I forgot to say that the whole time we were talking (a minute plus) there were people walking back and forth on the other side of the street.)

The soldier left me: all my rings, the lion brooch, the purse itself, both bracelets, my watch, book, comb, key.

He took: the coin purse with an invalid check for 1000 rubles, the new wonderful cigarette case (there you have it, droit without Dieu!), the chain and lorgnette, the cigarettes.

All in all, if not a fair price—a fraternal one.

The next day, Marina hears the young robber was killed by a church custodian:

They offered to let me go pick out my things. I refused with a shudder. How could I—one of the living (that is—happy, that is—wealthy), go and take from him, the dead, his last loot?! I quake at the very thought of it. One way or the other, I was his last (maybe next to the last!) joy, which he took to the grave with him. You don’t rob the dead.

I will have more to say about Tsvetaeva in a future post.

Cold War Nostalgia

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad magazine

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad Magazine

Looking back, the Communists were a worthy enemy. There were no suicide vests or improvised explosive devices aimed at innocent civilians. (Religious wars are always the most brutal.) Mind you, the Russians weren’t Boy Scouts, either. But after the ugliness and indiscriminate savagery of the current Sunni Muslim jihad against the West, I grow downright nostalgic about the 1960s.

Lately, I have been reading the three great spy novelists of that time—with great pleasure. I just finished Funeral in Berlin by one of them, the great Len Deighton. The other two were Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, and John Le Carré, author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Funeral in Berlin is typical of the period. The hero, who is called Harry Palmer in the movies but is unnamed in the books, arranges to transfer a Russian scientist to West Berlin by means of a coffin. No one seems to be trustworthy. In fact, the character one would think would be the most villainous, Colonel Stok of the KGB, is actually the most sympathetic character that “Harry” encounters. The people who are supposedly his allies are an untrustworthy lot: two of them try to kill him, others just want to sell him down river.

In comparison, James Bond is almost never surprised by villains who are supposed to be on the same side as him. There are all those lovely girls, and Felix Leiter of the CIA appears as a supporting hero in several of the novels.

Only Le Carré comes close to Deighton in creating a murky world of spies and supposed friends. My favorite of his books is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been made into an excellent film and a great British TV series starring Sir Alez Guinness as George Smiley.

 

Fifth Graders Against Communism

Back in Fifth Grade, We Knew All About the Red Menace

Back in Fifth Grade, We Knew All About the Red Menace

When I was a grade school student at St. Henry’s in Cleveland, we received a weekly newsletter reporting on the news of the world. Most particularly, we learned how the Communists who had recently taken over Eastern Europe were persecuting Catholics and suppressing the God-given rights of the people. At no time were we ever told that Hungary and several other of the Russian satellites fought on the German side in World War Two. And now the communists were threatening us! Several times a year, we had to do drills instructing us what to do in case of a nuclear attack. If you don’t already know, this 1951 video will explain it all to you:
 

(Those school desks were marvelous at protecting students from radiation and falling debris.)

At home, several times a year my mother put together bundles of used clothing she got from church sales to send to our friends and relatives in Hungary. After she’d accumulated about twenty or thirty pounds, she would wrap them in sturdy white cloth and write the address directly on the cloth with indelible ink. Then off it would go. With luck, the jackbooted thugs that worked for the Budapest Post Office would let selected items be delivered to the addressees. The rest, of course, was a perquisite for Communist Party apparatchiks.

Things came to a head during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. When, after a few days of freedom, the Russian tanks rolled into Hungary and re-established Soviet rule, our family was appalled. Naturally we did what we could to help some of the refugees that made it across the line before the axe fell. (As it turned out, they were not nice people. How could that be? After all, they were Hungarians.)

And Now America Was Threatened, Too

And Now America Was Threatened, Too


Somehow, we made it through those dangerous years. We listened to the Civil Defense alarms that sounded a test on Fridays at noon. And we tuned in to Conelrad at 640 and 1240 on our radio dial. There was so much else, too, bad we licked Communism in the end. Or did we?

Red Sunset Mother

It All Goes Back to Aesop

It All Goes Back to Aesop

The three words of the title of this post were separately suppressed by Myanmar’s ruling junta: “red” because of its association with Communism; “sunset” because General Ne Win’s name meant “sunrise”; and “mother” because that was the nickname of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

That brings back to mind another draconian instance of censorship. In Costa-Gavras’s film (1969), the rightist Greek colonels in charge forbid the use of the letter Z (Zeta) in the Greek alphabet because of the protestors’ use of the Greek phrase “Ζει,” meaning “He lives.” The pronoun refers to the democratic politician Grigoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated in 1963.

What does one do when the powers that be forbid the use of certain words? Russian and Eastern European writers under Communist rule came up with the solution: use other words in their place. This is referred to as the use of Aesopian, or Aesopic, language. Just as the ancient Greek teller of fables used stories to mask political realities, writers would use metaphorical language to stand in for the proscribed language. In an article entitled “The Rhetoric of Subversion: Strategies of ‘Aesopian Language’ in Romanian Literary Criticism Under Late Communism,” Andrei Terian describes the procedure used:

Since organized dissent was absent, the ‘resistance through culture’ represented in Romania the main form of assertion of the writers’ independence from the Communist regime. Civically, it materialized through the refusal to enroll in the party’s propaganda machine, while artistically, it took place through the defense of the priority of the ‘aesthetic’ criterion in the production and reception of literary works, which generated a literature relatively autonomous from the political sphere. Nevertheless, from the perspective of maximalist ethics, the ‘resistance through culture’ is a deeply duplicitous phenomenon, which fits perfectly in the Ketman paradigm described by Czeslaw Milosz. In the Polish writer’s opinion, ‘Ketman means self-realization against something’ (The Captive Mind ….), which, in the case of totalitarian societies, is translated in a profound divergence between an individual’s private thoughts and their public expression.

I thought Milosz expressed it better in The Captive Mind—a book I urge everyone to read—but I can’t quote it because, alas, I can’t lay my hand on it at the moment.

Terian is a bit abstruse, so let me think of an example. Let us say that the Tea Party rules America as a rightist junta and bans the use of the word “abortion.” A hated Liberal writer can use another term, such as “ablution” in such a way that a censor would let it pass, despite the fact that its meaning would be clear from its context, as in “they were able to limit the size of their family with the discreet use of ablution.” Writers can and did develop an entire language of such circumlocutions under the noses of the Communist censors.

Even words as basic as “red,” “sunset,” and “mother” can find Aesopian equivalents, such as, perhaps, “rubicund,” “gloaming,” or “progenitrix” respectively—though a poet can play with the concept much as Viking poets used kennings such as “wave’s steed” for “ship” or “Freyja’s tears” for “gold.” And the Viking’s did this not because of censorship, but to help the meter of their compositions.

The Man in the High Castle

Prague Castle, Seat of the Czech Government

Prague Castle, Seat of the Czech Government

No, this isn’t about the Philip K. Dick novel of that name, but about a nation’s president who came to the world’s notice after many years as a jailed dissident and as a playwright of international renown. I am referring to Václav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and (after Slovakia decided to go its own way) the first president of the Czech Republic.

I have just finished reading his informal memoir, To the Castle and Back: Reflections on My Strange Life as a Fairy Tale Hero. Written after he left office in 2003, this book consists of three interleaved sequences:

  1. Reflections written mostly in 2005 during a protracted visit to the United States
  2. A series of memos to his staff dating from 1993-2003 that he found on his computer
  3. An ongoing interview with Czech writer Karel Hvizd’ala about his experiences running a country that had suddenly cast off the yoke of Communism

It also shows some of the small issues that endlessly plagued him, such as the following:

In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The lightbulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it.

At other times, Havel had to complain to his staff about the ugliest old telephones being in the most prominent places, about the length of the watering hose used in the gardens, and why the good silverware was not being used for state dinners.

I was curious to discover that Havel, despite being a well-known writer, was petrified whenever he had to begin writing anything. And he appears to have written all his own speeches! (And well, too.)

Czech President Václav Havel

Czech President Václav Havel

Particularly impressive was Havel’s answer as to Hvizd’ala as to what his credo was as the President of the Republic:

I think that the moral order stands above the legal, political, and economic orders, and that these latter orders should derive from the former, and not be techniques for getting around its imperatives. And I believe this moral order has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and the eternal.

Can you imagine any of our own leaders being so candid, to the point, and right at the same time?

Despite the book’s informality, I find it that To the Castle and Back gives probably the best picture of what the transition from Communism to Capitalism was like in one country, and the perils of what Havel calls “postcommunism,” in which the former Communist leaders, being still in a position of power and with all the right connections, loot the country.

 

An Embarrassment to the Russians

Cardinal Jószef Mindszenty

Cardinal Jószef Mindszenty

I have just finished reading Victor Sebestyen’s excellent Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. As a Hungarian-American I was acutely conscious of the events of that Fall. I never forgave President Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, or Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld of the United Nations for what I felt was their craven refusal to confront a very sticky issue. Did I say confront? They essentially ignored it—even while Radio Free Europe was broadcasting military advice and promises of American and U.S. military aid. Aid that never came. All that came was a mass invasion of Russian troops and armor that crushed the rebellion definitively.

As a kid in Cleveland in 1956, and as a student at St. Henry’s Catholic School, I had always thought that one of the heroes of the Revolution was Jószef Cardinal Mindszenty, Prince Primate, Archbishop of Esztergom, and leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary from the last year of World War II to his death in the 1970s. Poor Mindszenty had been imprisoned by the Hungarian Communist leadership until the beginning of the Revolution, in which he actually played no real part. Just days after he was released from prison, he sought asylum of the American legation in Budapest, where he stayed for the next fifteen years.

As a Catholic school kid, we were urged to sell the Diocese of Cleveland’s Catholic Universe Bulletin from door to door in our neighborhoods. According to the Universe Bulletin, Mindszenty was the hero of the Hungarian Revolution, whereas actually he played pretty much a walk-on, walk-off role. But I was just a kid and I believed all that pap.

In the end, Mindszenty proved an embarrassment to the Russians because it kept the memory of the uprising alive in peoples’ minds, even if he himself was a non-player. In the end, Pope Paul VI ordered Mindszenty to leave Hungary, and the Kádár government allowed him to go. His continued existence in the American legation made it difficult for the Catholic Church to come to any accommodation with the Kádár régime.

Mindszenty was just a minor embarrassment to the Russians. It was the Hungarian Revolution itself that proved to be a much greater embarrassment. After 1956, the Communist parties of Western Europe felt that Russia had behaved brutally. Never again were the Communist parties of France, Italy, Britain, and other countries bring any serious political influence to bear. From 1956, it was a mere 31 years before Soviet Communism itself crumbled.

 

Imaginative Infamy

Soviet-era postage stamps honoring Sergei Kirov

No one could say that Josef Stalin was unimaginative when it came to being one of the greatest tyrants in living memory. You may have heard of the old saying “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer.” In the 1920s and 1930s, Sergei Kirov was a rising star in the Communist party, and reputed to be one of the dictator’s best and closest friends. They even took working vacations together on the Black Sea.

But there was this nagging problem: Kirov was getting much too popular. At the Seventeenth Party Congress early in 1934, both positive and negative votes for various leaders were cast; and it appeared that a large number of negative votes were cast against The Man of Steel (Stalin). In fact, some party leaders approached Kirov and suggested that he take over the reins of power. As a loyal party member, Kirov reported this to Stalin, who thereupon rigged the vote count so that he himself won.

On December 1, Kirov was shot in the back of the head just outside his second-floor office at the Smolny Institute in Leningrad. When Stalin was contacted in Moscow, he rushed at once to Leningrad and took over the investigation in person. The gunman was, in all probability, Leonid Nikolaev.

But it didn’t stop there. Stalin saw Kirov’s death (which he may or may not have engineered himself) as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of some enemies from the earliest days of the party. Hurled into prison were Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, two of the early Bolsheviks whom Stalin accused of masterminding a massive conspiracy leading to his friend’s death. Before it was all over, upwards of several thousand enemies and families and friends of enemies of Stalin were fingered by the NKVD and either imprisoned, exiled, or shot outright.

In the meantime, Stalin make a big show of grieving for Kirov, being one of his pallbearers, and retrospectively naming him as one of the Heroes of the Revolution. Also he authorized some postage stamps honoring his memory (see illustration above), renamed streets around the Soviet Union to honor him, and even changed the name of the Maryinsky Ballet in Leningrad to the Kirov Ballet.

This was only the beginning of what came to be known as Stalin’s Purges, which reached their peak in 1937-1938. In the end, untold millions of lives were affected, and the literature of the era has given birth to many great novels in which these events were mirrored, books such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tularev, and Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat and Fear. And these in turn gave birth to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s many works about the Gulag Archipelago.

I have just finished reading Amy Knight’s excellent Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery, in which she concludes:

The story of Kirov’s murder did not end with the trials of January 1935. On the contrary, the murder and its aftermath marked the beginning of a nightmare that would consume the Soviet Union for the next four years. Some historians insist that the police terror that unfolded after Kirov’s assassination was not the product of any grand strategy of Stalin’s, but rather a haphazard, frenzied process that fed on itself. But when one considers how Stalin meticulously pored over transcripts of interrogations and indictments and how he systematically meted out retribution to his real or perceived enemies, a picture of a carefully planned vendetta emerges.

Friendship with those who are too powerful and too paranoiac has its price.