Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Stalinist Siege Of Moscow (1937)

The Great Rusian Terror

Karl Schlögel's Moscow, 1937: Stalin's popularity has increased, notes an opinion survey commissioned by the Carnegie Endowment, and reported, by Vladimir Isachenkov, in the Huffington Post. "One of the report's authors, Lev Gudkov, a Russian sociologist whose polling agency conducted the survey, noted that in 1989, the peak of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to liberalize the country and expose Stalinist crimes, only 12 percent of Russians polled described Stalin as one of the most prominent historical figures. In the Carnegie poll last year, 42 percent of Russian respondents named Stalin as the most influential historical figure."

In a book review, by Benjamin Schwarz  in The Atlantic of Karl Schlögel's Moscow, 1937,  the writer notes that the historian not only gives a historical background to this horribe period in Russia's history, but also important details on what people felt.

Schwarz writes:
Schlögel’s book is a fragmentary yet meticulous social history of Moscow in the grip of the Great Terror—the period from the summer of 1936 to the end of 1938, when the already sanguinary Bolshevik regime let loose on itself its apparatus of suppression, purging, in waves, all Soviet institutions and at all levels of society, from the nomenklatura, the highest echelons of administrative, cultural, and scientific life, through the high command of the Red Army, to the engineers and apparatchiks, down to the factory workers and peasants. It is an almost impossibly rich masterpiece.
In Moscow 1937, Schlögel uses as a leitmotif the themes and settings of Mikhail Bulgakov’s great allegorical 1937 novel of the city under the Terror, The Master and Margarita. He opens with an exegesis of Margarita’s fantastical flight over the city in the 1930s, which allows him to establish the scene and dissect Moscow’s cultural and social geography. For the remainder of the book, he continues to take the reader on a tour of the urban center—the late-19th-century townhouses built by the nobility and later appropriated by the party; the hundreds of theaters that littered the still-drama-mad city; the communal apartments crammed with recent migrants from the countryside; the fancy shops selling sturgeon and czarist antiques to the Soviet elite and the endless flow of visiting progressives from the West; the just-completed marvel of Soviet engineering that brought the five seas to Moscow, the Moscow-Volga Canal (whose opening celebration coincided with the arrest, persecution, and execution of the overseers of its construction); Spaso House, the American ambassador’s residence, site of incongruously clinquant balls and receptions; the spacious, refined apartments where the new Soviet upper class held glittering salons, at which the likes of Shostakovich and Isaac Babel mixed with the high officials of the NKVD, the secret police (a group that deeply prized its literary and artistic connections); the NKVD’s immense network of offices, garages, shooting ranges, isolation cells, interrogation chambers, and execution cellars, metastasizing from the citadel-like headquarters at the Lubyanka and devoted to the investigation, arrest, incarceration, deportation, and slaughter of enemies of the people.
Isaac Babel [1894-1940]

Mikhail Bulgakov [1891-1940]

Bulgalkov's fantastical novel ought to be read as an "enjoyable" intellectual exercise to increase one's understanding, through fiction, of this period;  and I am again reminded about Isaac Babel and his fascination with the sensations of death and destruction. In The Complete Works of Isaac Babel (2001: Norton), edited by Nathalie Babel (Isaac Babel's first daughter) and translated by Peter Constantine), an article in The Independent, by Robert Chandler, points out a side of Babel not completely understood, even today:
It is uncertain whether Babel witnessed pogroms in his youth, but he was clearly fascinated by sadism and violence. Once he boasted to a friend: "I've now learned to watch calmly as people are shot." He was on friendly terms with Yezhov, head of the secret police during the height of the Purges. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, her husband Osip once asked Babel why he was drawn to such people. Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death? Did he want to touch it with his fingers? No, Babel replied. "I just like to have a sniff and see what it smells like."
However perverted this seems, there is nothing voyeuristic about Babel's art. The greatness of Red Cavalry stems from the depth and clarity of Babel's understanding of the human capacity for violence. Sadism and vengefulness, in Babel's world, come in a variety of guises, and victims and executioners absorb one another's identity.
Schlögel in some way follows both Babel and Bulgakov (and, of course, Grossman's Life and Fate; 1980), pointing out that this is not another book about the period of Stalinism, which he affirms in the Introduction, "but an attempt to capture, as in a prism, the moment, the constellation, that contemporary witnesses to the events of time always deemed 'historically significant.' For this purpose it was necessary to research and reconstruct events as and where they happened" (2).

As a final note, Stalin's popularity in Russia has increased since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.


You can read the rest of the article at [The Atlantic].