“Neo-Eurasianism utilizes the methodology of Vilfredo Pareto’s school, moves within the logic of the rehabilitation of the notion of organic hierarchy, picks up some Nietzschean motives, and develops the doctrine of the ontology of power, or of the Christian Orthodox concept of power as katechon. The idea of an elite leads us to the themes of the European traditionalists, who authored studies of the caste system in ancient society and of their ontology and sociology, including Guernon, Julius Evola, Georges Dumezil, and Louis Dumont. Gumilev’s theory of ‘passionarity’ also lies at the roots of the concept of the ‘new Eurasian elite.”
Lots to unpack in that description, from “Eurasian Mission” by Aleksandr Dugin who has become famous since Russia pulled the trigger on ‘new Eurasianism’ with its invasion of Ukraine. Dugin is a self-described National Bolshevik. He, among others, is the intellectual architect of Putin’s imperialism.
Pareto’s school is one of the study of inequality and specifically elites. Dugin emphasizes the importance of elites in his work, although differentiates between the caste elites he is advocating for in his Eurasia and the income elites in the West; with the basic difference being caste elites are cultural elites – nobles. There is much of feudalism in Dugin’s thinking. His work bleeds with the yearning for the days of peasants, nobles and the clergy. Even suggesting cities should be emptied and the fields repopulated.
Dugin has been described as a Fascist, but this is probably in the Italian sense not the German. At least not in the German racial sense – instead in the sense of the communal taking preference over the individual. He rejects all ideas of individual rights, instead bestowing rights upon collectivities as do other socialists – whether national or international.
The roots of his philosophy, however, do smell of the ancient forests of Siberia and the old legends and myths of prehistory. There is a neo-paganism in Dugin’s work; Julius Evola was an Italian student of paganism and the occult who permeated Hitler’s Germany as well with their occultic beliefs in Kali-Yuga and all that. Dugin believes that the katechon – orthodox theologians believe the katechon from Thessolonians is the Holy Spirit but Dugin presents the idea as a physical being who is both good and bad – restraining the Antichrist but at the same time preventing the end of days, which all good Christians yearn for – that the katechon these days is Russia, having been Rome before, and the Holy Roman Empire as well.
Passionarity is a term from Lev Gumilev, son of Anna Akhmatova the famous poet. It is, literally, the Russian ability to endure suffering and hardship and how that ennobles and glorifies the Russians as their special, unique contribution to the preservation of world order. Eurasianism seeks a multi-polar world, which is not a new idea. Four poles, one in Eurasia supervised by Russia; one in the Western hemisphere supervised by the US; one in Europe and Africa supervised by EU and one in Asia supervised by Japan. With no universalities of any kind to link them.
This was a fascinating read, except the end which was basically an Anti-American rant which is tiresome and without nuance. It shines a light into the mind of Putin and his group of Eurasianists and what they are up to. And that is helpful.
This is the novel that Vasily Grossman saw “arrested”. After he submitted it to the censors, and they realized the parallels in the novel between Nazi Germany and the USSR, they seized the copy. Having learned their mistake from Pasternak, they also sent NKVD to Grossman’s house to find every last scrap of notes and carbon paper related to the work, not wanting to risk the document seeing the light of day. They did however let Grossman go, he had performed service to the Soviet and was shuttled off to Armenia where he wrote an extraordinary book which is his best.
Life and Fate is like Dostoevsky, or perhaps like Solzhenitsyn. Epic and sweeping – the plot pace of a tortoise, it moves like molasses on a winter’s Russian day. Russian novelists insistence upon writing 800 page novels is something to also be thought about. It’s almost as if it should be as hard to read them as the experiences portrayed on the pages are to live through.
Lev Gumilev, Ana Akhmatova’s son, wrote about the concept of ‘passionarity‘ – which summed up is the idea of Russian people’s ability to withstand great tribulation; that this tribulation is not failure but instead a demonstration of their tremendous stoicism and if they hold out long enough they will win out in the end. Gold, purified by fire. These novels all resonate, reverberate with passionarity. Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life? This has been an American idea. I think maybe its the wrong question – perhaps… Does art reinforce that which people understand as the meaning of life? If so, Putin’s war seen through the lens of Grossman and Turgenev and Sholokhov should not surprise us.
This should have been marketed and sold as a booklet. Essay selections rarely work in book form, few writers can pull this off and Bernard Henri Levy is no exception. I would have been disappointed, except Levy began the book with a 50 page “introduction” of French intellectualism from the Dreyfus affair until the fall of the Soviet Union.
That booklet was worth the purchase of the book. It should have been marketed alone, pulled from the following articles and one-page reflections on this or that intellectual and sold cheaply to those who care about liberal intellectualism (liberal in its correct form – I always have to say that, alas). Beginning from the Dreyfus affair, which is when Levy suggests French liberal intellectuals first organized to defend an innocent man, it then walks the reader through the following 100 years of flirtations with both Communism (and the USSR) and Fascism. Sarte and Camus and so many others who couldn’t resist the alure of socialism, and how they realized their mistakes – usually too late – and why the left has such a soft spot for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and Karl Marx.
French, Parisian intellectualism is something we writers love to think about. We walk down the Seine on our way to Shakespeare and Company and marvel at the grandeur of Paris in Spring. If Berlin is Europe’s engine, London is its pocketbook, Paris is its brain and its soul. There’s no place (that I know of) in the US that rivals the feeling of being somewhere that Paris has; especially for an intellectual. The United States doesn’t give place to intellectuals like France does; if you say you are a writer to your fellow passenger on the Metro they will look at you with a yawn and pull their Iphone closer to their nose.
But not in Paris.
The only other places I’ve felt similar in the world are Buenos Aires, for the Spanish speaking world and Yerevan for Eurasia. Places where I, somehow, have felt free.
‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said: I deeply sympathize.’ With sobs and tears he sorted out Those of the largest size
I read a lot of Russian literature, I have for many years. Writers who care naturally gravitate to Pushkin and Grossman and Mandelstam and Pasternak. You eventually get to an age when reading Clive Cussler or Dan Brown does to your brain what a frozen burrito does to your gut. I arrived there sometime during my season in Nigeria.
Which is why I was surprised that I was surprised by Putin’s war. Russia is still, even in 2022, like “A Road to Calvary” by Aleksey Tolstoy. We think things change, we believe our own “end of history” hype, we like to find comfort in our weird, anti-natural post-civilizational malaise that has settled around us; a world where great struggles never really occur and we can recline into our plastic animal-less environments and complain about perceived slights until somebody presents us a utopia of somebody else’s making.
Russians define themselves by their great privations, if their novels are to be believed. The tremendous suffering of people resisting the Tsar; the terrible ordeals of the Gulag and Siberia; bread lines and famine and war. The Black Sea basin is haunted by these privations; the wreckage of ships pile up one upon the other in the depths of the darkness while above rages a freak summer storm, an Ivan Aivazovsky painting come to life but this time its not the Black Sea Flower but the Moskva headed to its oxygenless grave.
I have never been to Russia, but I did live in the former Soviet Union for several years. One thing that I have cherished since are the wellsprings of reserve; the joy found in simple things like a barbeque with good meat on a Sunday afternoon beside a high-mountain lake or the walk down a leafy Eurasian city in the fall. The quiet, though not through a lack of bustle; something like a historical quiet, a civilizational silence of the spirit that somehow doesn’t chafe like we do in the west at missed opportunity of advancement or significance or a perfect utopia of prosperity always just over the horizon. Russian literature captures this well. “And Quiet Flows the Don”, “Resurrection” – village literature like Grant Matevosyan’s “Orange Herd”: stories about war and hard work and sacrifice that ennoble.
We have this idea of government in America. That government“…is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community” as George Mason wrote in his own “Declaration of Independence” and from which Jefferson cribbed. Government for the people; the mighty power of the state wielded to improve the lives of citizens; the tremendous imperial armies at the service of the protection of butchers and bakers. These are not historic ideas of power. Power, imperial power, has never been concerned with the lives of citizens and peoples. Conquest, that has always been the main task of an emperor. Seizing pieces of land from others, subjugating them and placing them at one’s service. Feats of construction that tell tales of greatness: Peter the Great building the city that still bears his name through the toil of 500,000 serfs (read slaves) over 18 years – 100,000 of them buried under the walls of the “City of Bones”.
And “public administration” over which we judge our own emperors? Keeping the power running; making sure the supermarkets don’t want for milk; that there are no holes in the roads? The role of book-keepers and bean-counters; of modern “administrators”, our new managerial bureaucracy seeking to justify their place as new aristocracy not through obeisance to the Tsar but through the anonymous organization of a life become increasingly complicated. But more than ever I think that this is only for us, here in the Empire Wilderness.
Because there’s something ancient and timeless in Putin’s war – a reminder that America’s re-definition of what government means was never really accepted by Moscow or Constantinople or Karakorum. Of imperial wars; peasant suffering; and the ennobling work of the novelists. I have no doubt great novels will come from Putin’s tragic war, after the dust and horror settle. The dissidents who dare write about the new mad emperor will soon join the ghosts of Solzhenitsyn and Akhmatova; their long tomes gracing the next generation of bookshelves as a permanent reminder that things really don’t change very much, and we must look to art and literature to understand them. Lest future generations too forget, and are again caught unawares.
Nihilism took center stage in a debate between Aleksandr Dugin and Bernard-Henri Levy. “For me, the embodiment of nihilism today is you (Dugin), and your friends, and the Eurasian current and this morbid atmosphere which fills your books and the way in which you dissolve the very idea of human rights, of personal freedoms, of singularities in some big blocks of community, big faith, sacred origins and so on… In Moscow there is a morbid atmosphere of nihilism, (…) for this great Russian civilization today there is a bad, dark wind of nihilism in its proper sense, which is the Nazi and Fascist sense which is blowing on this great Russia.”
The answer to this came not from Dugin to Levy, who is a tremendous thinker and probably committed to the ideas of liberty he champions, but instead during a debate between Dugin and Frances Fukuyama – Fukuyama of course being a stalwart defender of American nihilism.
After listening to Dugin’s exposition of the importance of culture, Fukuyama in is normal facile way – hiding a simplicity of mind, but not well – responded, “It seems the thing you’re opposed to is gay marriage” and followed up with “don’t worry, Russia will get there too.”
Get where? And to channel Dugin (God forbid) – “Well, yes.” Fukuyama’s liberalism is the pseudo-intellectual defense of nihilistic ‘progress’ for its own sake and against any arguments to the contrary. It’s the defense of the Godlessness we see in the west that so many Americans also protest; the destruction of the family; the cheapening of that sacred holy bond between a man and a woman that is a reflection of the natural order into which we as humans were placed by our creator. The ‘Hunger Games’ world of the capital where bent people exist at the expense of thirteen enslaved districts – districts where they don’t have time for aesthetic operations and bizarre benders because they have to work and save and collect and try to build a place for themselves against starvation. And who doesn’t love Katniss?
And what about Russia? Russia, today, is suffering from a profound nihilism. “The problem that must be faced is that Russia’s ambitions for the geopolitical carcass of the former USSR without socialist ideas have turned the malign imperialist aspects of the Soviet Union into the most toxic variant of nationalist imperialism.” That carcass has been breathed to life by resuscitating ancient mythologies lost in unknowing by small groups of men weaned on Heidegger. They are mourning the humiliating loss of empire by reaching back into the mists of time; the mystical role of the Orthodox Church, the ancient spirituality, suffering and hardship that for Russians ennobles and purifies. But beneath the pens of Dugin and Mamleev this mythology smells too much of blood and hair. An earthy naturalism has become a rank nationalism.
The problem too is none of these nihilisms are real. Mamleev and Dugin argue for Slavic a-morality where the only thing that matters is the great Eurasian project out of which will emerge mother Russia the matron of nations; but only after rivers of blood. Fukuyama eschews morality altogether, effectively denying natural law in favor of positive law and a society of miserable people who know no hardship, living as they do at the expense of the future and upon the borrowed resources of their children (who they are no longer having). Out of this desperation, they have endeavored to satisfy any deranged desire in their search for fulfillment. Or in other words “Everybody did what was right in their own eyes”. Yes, I believe I read that somewhere (Judges 21:25 – for the progressives, that’s in the Bible).
But which is right? To extinguish myself under the tank treads at the service of Novorossiya or scamper around in a vapid search for meaning beyond the next fad or craze or aberration?
A fool’s choice. But a scary one. What happens when two nihilistic societies try and cancel each other out? That’s how a black hole is formed.
I once did a book review of Patrick Deneen’s book “Why Liberalism Failed”. “Liberalism in its original intent was about freedom, freedom from outward constraint to be sure but also freedom from our own ungovernable human urges. Self-control, restraint, discipline.” Liberalism, as it has been re-interpreted by progressive America (and the West, plenty of cocaine-sniffing liberals in Frankfurt too) is about removal of all restraints. To do what you want, when you want. “You do you” is the mantra.
“Deneen’s main contention is that our liberal project, at least how we have recently come to define it, has been taking us down a very dark, self-destructive path. We have focused the efforts of our civilizational struggles on the need to free us from each other, from any bonds that might be interpreted by anybody as restrictive – oppressive. An entirely external locus of attention – ignoring the important role of ‘liberty’ in self-governance as we cast our nets ever-further afield, searching vigilantly for oppression in all its forms and fables.”
But culture does matter. Our ties to each other and the land upon which we have grown up is important. Our desire to build in community a society where all of our children want to live. Our willingness to give up our most base desires and predilections because we know that they are not conducive to a life more abundant. That actions have consequences; and that ideas do indeed matter.
These two nihilisms are now facing off, and they both have the bomb.
The way it was – last time we faced off against the Russians it was the lovers of liberty against the evil empire. But this time it’s murkier. Because so much of what Russia says it objects to is not wrong – a plastic world where family, propriety, dignity, anatomy, environment, faith – all these are simply tools of oppression to be overcome by means of the totalitarianism of a powerful state and then glossed over by the market – through consumption. No, you can’t have your statue of Robert E. Lee, but here’s a fast-food burger with a plastic toy. And so much of what the ‘liberals’ object to is not wrong either – because Vlad does not represent all of the Russian people; tyranny is violent mostly against the poor; and the tremendous corruption of the Russian regime has led to an unjust war in Ukraine in which Russia is committing war crimes.
But it’s not too late. Deneen offers us the way it could have been. A reminder. That we arrived here from our culture. Not culture that demands I lie down in front of a tank at the service of a corrupted despot in a bunker. But also not “pop-culture”; instead that idea of culture that comes from the word cultivate – to carefully prepare the earth for the seed, to fertilize it, protect the plant as we watch it grow and mature; prune it and keep the predators away and nurture it, for we need it to produce a bountiful harvest of golden fruit not only once, eschewing a tomorrow as we satiate our immediate pangs of hunger but also again and again and yet again. For ourselves and our children and our children’s children.
That is a world that both God-fearing Russians and freedom-loving Americans I think can agree upon.
Aleksandr Dugin has been called Putin’s Rasputin. He is a philosopher who cut his teeth in the underground Iuzhinskii Circles in Moscow during the days of the USSR. His ideas were not mainstream Soviet ideas; full of nationalism and metaphysics and the occult. The Kali Yuga. None of this was kosher in the Communist party, consumed by atheistic international revolution.
Dugin’s main thesis upon which he finally arrived is Eurasianism. The idea of the Eurasian continent as the antithesis of the West; of the seat of illiberalism. Of a civilizational response to the West’s monoculture that comes from the land and the Orthodox Church and the historic ancient struggles of the Slavic people against the demonic forces of the west. The idea of communal rights juxtaposed against individual rights; that the Eurasian continent with a savior will finally balance a world through blood and assume its rightful place to lead the community of nations.
I will write about this more, but for now, I found an extraordinary debate between Aleksandr Dugin and Bernard Henri Levi which for me revealed so much about the Ukraine war. It, however, did not leave me more at ease, but less so. Because it would seem that Putin sees it as his role to bring about Dugin’s Eurasian empire through blood and violence. And this means we are at the start of a long and dangerous conflict; because a utopia is impossible to achieve.
I highly recommend you watch this debate.
Bernard Henri Levi:“For me, the embodiment of nihilism today is you (Dugin), and your friends, and the Eurasian current and this morbid atmosphere which fills your books and the way in which you dissolve the very idea of human rights, of personal freedoms, of singularities in some big blocks of community, big faith, sacred origins and so on… In Moscow there is a morbid atmosphere of nihilism, (…) for this great Russian civilization today there is a bad, dark wind of nihilism in its proper sense, which is the Nazi and Fascist sense which is blowing on this great Russia.”
Vasily Grossman understood Armenia. And thusly, Armenia saved his live; as it did for Osip Mandelstam. As it did for me. Armenia saved his life, though he was to die only two years after visiting Armenia. Despite that “An Armenian Sketchbook” would only be released posthumously. And even though he only spent two short months in that ancient stoic land of stone.
Maybe it’s the stone itself which has made Armenia endure. Gevorg Emin wrote in “Song of Stones”: “Popular legend has it that the Lord, while creating the world, stood on the top of one of our mountains. The mess that he originally created he sifted through a huge sieve pouring the soft soil to one side and dumping the remaining stones on the site of present day Armenia.” And there he put the Armenians; climbing down from Noah’s mountain first to live in caves and harvest their sweet grapes and nectarines and peaches from patches of earth stolen from the stones.
Vasily Grossman fell in love with Armenia during his two month sojourn that saved his life. Grossman was a Soviet Russian Jew born in Ukraine and sent to Armenia as a consolation prize after the greatest work of his mind – “Life and Fate” had been taken prisoner by Soviet censors (and itself would only be published after Grossman had died). So he was sent to Armenia to translate a book by an Armenian novelist. There, following the tradition of Russian writers who also found inspiration in the Caucasus – Pushkin and Tolstoy among the greatest – he walked in the footsteps of Osip Mandelstam. Lake Sevan, that jewel-blue lake at the top of the world, from which even Prometheus might have drunk. Tsaghkadzor, that little Alpine skiing village nestled in the mountains. Yerevan, older than Rome, ancient sophistication. Aragats, little brother to the great mountain of Ararat just over the border in Turkey from whence Noah had descended.
Grossman discovered the food: shashlik, khash soup (its basically boiled cow bones), meat and fruit. The fruits are what I remember most, coming in waves as they ripen as all good fruits do reminding us of the season of things and how while things change, they also stay the same. Cherries then apricots then peaches then apples then watermelons and finally pomegranates.
The people. Good men and women, conservative not necessarily in the political sense but in the understanding that there has been so much good and bad over the ages, so many hard fights won at great cost and so many terrible tragedies that have repeated and repeated again. So much pride in the churches tucked away in the mountains or the music composed after genocide. Grossman made common cause, as a Jew, with the Armenians who too have had such a difficult time of it on this planet. The most natural of sympathies, sister peoples who should see in each other’s life experiences a reflection of their own – though sometimes they do not, which is odd.
Grossman understood Armenia. There are lots of people who don’t; but it is them I don’t understand. Because I too understood Armenia and even now, my sojourn also over (though thankfully mine was not two months but two years), I find myself yearning for the high mountains and the fresh pile of cherries bought along the side of Ashtarak highway.
Some people have asked what my opinions are about Ukraine. Despair, outrage, impotence. Probably the same as you. I was in Kyiv once, though only the airport. I was planning to go back to visit friends, during a summer which became the summer of COVID. Because Ukraine was making it: coffee shops and tourists and rehabilitated public spaces. Cleaning up some messes from the soviet times. It is a tumultuous democracy, a corrupt democracy – but aren’t they all? Didn’t Winston Churchill once say “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others!”
Same can be said for corruption. “Democracy is the most corrupt form of government, except for all the others.”
I am enthusiastically cheering on little Ukraine in the face of an unjust war. We Americans do that – we love an underdog, we hate a bully. We rally behind what we know is right, and rage against what we think is wrong. People all over the world call us ‘simple’ or ‘black and white’ because of this; but it is one of our great strengths. For the past months I’ve seen the United States more united than we have been in a long time, and that is nice. So sad it comes at the expense of a nation being pulverized to dust.
There is an epic shift going on. The short version is that Anne Applebaum’s old “The Bad Guys Are Winning” narrative; the 21st century story about a resurgence of authoritarianism as a challenge to Edmund Fawcett’s ‘Liberalism’ is at its end. Liberalism won. Authoritarianism is suffering a spectacular, neigh on irrecoverable setback. The assumption behind the surge of nouveau authoritarianism was that liberalism could no longer solve the hard issues. Our democracies had become bloated and soft. Swift action was only possible in dictatorship. COVID China seemed even to prove that. “Who cares about the misery of the people? We have to stop a disease.” The assumption too was that nouveau authoritarianism was rational and even benevolent not in an individual way but benevolent to important causes of history.
Putin ended all that (as did our rapid and concerted response, more on that in another essay). The invasion of Ukraine is irrational – it emerges from the nostalgia of an old man, from a movie or a novel of how things supposedly were. As I get older I start to understand better this nostalgia, this conservatism which seeks for a glorious past. “Mythology is something that always is but never was,” Osip Mandelstam once said. Same can be said about nostalgia. “Nostalgia is the yearning for something that always is but never really was.” But Putin’s irrational nostalgia is a lose-lose-lose. Let’s say by some miracle he actually wins, what does he get? A country in ruins with no money to rebuild it; 40,000,000 Ukrainians who hate him and a burning insurgency to prove it; a Russian economy that has tanked by 50% – hunger and 3rd world status. How is this ‘win’ a win? And he very well might not win. What then? WWIII that starts nuclear – because if Putin can’t beat tiny Ukraine he certainly cannot stand against the might of NATO…? Perish the thought, except we’re all thinking it – including him.
Putin also ruined China’s chances for a generation. Xi was planning to annex Taiwan and march into his Communist Party Congress the great new Mao. But can he do it now? No. China’s economy is far more dependent upon the West than Russia’s is. Russia has stoic poverty and oil; China has greed, digital totalitarianism and cheap plastic exports. China would not long endure the sanctions we have proved we are willing to unleash.
One quick point, because this is something that deserves mentioning. Liberalism’s victory is not a victory of the culture warriors. They might try to say that, at the end of the day to return from their own hiding places (how much have we heard from the leftist totalitarian culture warriors lately? This is not a fight they are comfortable with. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’? ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’? Smacks too much of ‘him’ and ‘her’. Of God and the Bible…) to re-exert that it was the fringe elements of American society that defeated Russia. Putin’s only derived sympathy in all of this comes from his ability to portray himself as a defender of Christendom or a warrior willingly fighting the aberrations allowed by liberalisms great prosperity. An argument that holds no sway with me, a Christian from a Christian family united behind our understanding that the greatest underdog fight in history was that of Jesus against the multitude. Yes, also against Rome decadent and bent and perverted. This is a victory of right against wrong; and of the goodness that we have in our spirits product of our Judeo/Christian national philosophy against an evil that destroys theaters with children in them and massacres people standing in bread lines.
Which perhaps brings me to my final point, at least right now. Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? That’s the age old question. I read a lot of Russian literature. I still have trouble understanding Russians. They are such a strange mix of ‘east’ and ‘west’. They are such an extraordinary civilization with such an inferiority complex. They are such a part of European history that is always lashing out because they feel like they are not considered enough by Europe. They are able to suffer great tribulation. Their leaders, like the Butcher of Mariupol who destroyed Aleppo six years ago and is now reducing Mariupol to rubble (a character out of Dr. Zhivago), are so often wicked. Putin with some demonic Rasputin whispering in his year – there is so much of “War and Peace” in all this. But Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (Leo and Alexei) and Aivazovsky and Tchaikovsky – Ayn Rand: Poets and novelists and painters and scientists capable of extraordinary acts of creation. Much of which comes from their ability to endure, and then to channel their desperation into their work. How to understand this paradox?
I have no doubt that the war in Ukraine will spark another cascade of Russian art. The world order is changing, I’ll write about how next. It is epic, and sudden. And nothing will ever be the same. Because history has returned to Europe.
Osip Mandelstam led a tragic life. He was a poet, a writer of tremendous talent cursed to have lived in the days of Stalin’s totalitarianism. He wrote a poem about Stalin, reading it to perhaps six friends at a dinner. One of them was an informer. It was unlucky, and perhaps they were not to be blamed. They likely had some sort of prior record, and were afraid that somebody else would report about the poem and that they were there and they would die tortured in the gulag, so they did the reporting first.
That’s how totalitarianism works. Turns people into that which they say they will never become; and in normal circumstances would never even consider. Fear does that to people – and until you fear being tortured for no good reason, you cannot judge them. But I digress, Osip was betrayed. Stalin decided he should be “isolated but preserved” so he ended up being exiled. With only a few courageous friends willing to try and find him work. Unable to feed himself and his wife. Afraid to write.
Until he was picked up again, randomly, for whatever reason that Stalin decided. And he died, nobody really knew where and when but it was likely December 26th in 1938.
Mandelstam was a Russian writer. Russian writing is so complicated – and it cannot be adequately understood in a foreign language. We don’t understand the Russians – that at least is obvious, especially in these days of war. They are western, but are they? They are sophisticated painters and writers and they love dance music and to drink at parties. They are like us, right? Then out of nowhere, levels of wickedness and brutality that are beyond comprehension. Cue Ukraine right now.
The Black Sea basin is my heartland, somehow. Russia is fascinating, I can’t wait until it is free to get to know it. I will visit the places that Mandelstam wandered. I’ll visit the Hermitage and the Kremlin and commune with Russians and try and understand the sorrow of their ancient story. A story of which Mandelstam was a tiny part – but emblematic.
Yesterday I watched “Sound of Music” with my little boy. We are going systematically through the classics of American civilization, books and movies and ideas that made us who we are and more importantly keep us who we are. Some things may change, but most are passing fads and what really matters comes back around with each new generation.
Like “Sound of Music”.
Things do not change. Progress is an illusion. Perhaps the widget in your pocket might be able to access pictures of Mariupol more quickly than you would have in the past. But human nature doesn’t change; the human condition doesn’t change. War in Europe. That is what “Sound of Music” is about; the invasion by one country of another, and those who choose to flee rather than be subjected to the indignity, to the tyranny. War in Europe is back. In 1965 Rogers and Hammerstein and MGM portrayed for posterity a war already 30 years old. About a 1939 family forced to flee Austria from the Nazis.
World War II. The Soviet invasion of Czechslovakia. Their suppression of the Hungarian revolution. The Balkan wars of the 1990s. Wars in Europe are the norm.
Today Mariupol is being pounded to dust. It reminds us of the Siege of Leningrad.
“Who won the war?” my boy asks of “Sound of Music”. “We did,” I answer him. “With our allies in France and England and Canada. Now we’re trying to stop a war, so we don’t have to go back and fight again.”
And I’m struck by the last three years with my little boy. We’ve had to have conversations about pandemic, harkening to 1918. We’ve had to talk about war, first a small war in Armenia and now a bigger one in Ukraine. Pandemic and war in Europe, reminding us that while history does not necessarily repeat itself, it does rhyme.
On the war, which I will write about more later, and probably often, I am struck mostly these early days by my own incomprehension. To be sure, I didn’t believe that this war would start. I thought it was posturing. Because it doesn’t make any sense. By any objective standard the aggressor – Russia and more specifically Putin – not only will not get what he wants, he is almost guaranteed the opposite. Should he in fact win, which is in serious doubt, what will he get? Occupation of a country in rubble – 40,000,000 people who hate him. A burning insurgency that saps away soldiers and equipment. A Russia having lost 30% of its GDP through sanctions and having to pay alone for a brutal counter-insurgency. And a lesson to all his foes that his great Novorussia can’t even subdue a foe 20% of his population and 10% of his economic strength. How is any of this a “win”?
I believe in peace. The Lord said “Blessed are the peacemakers” and those have been the words that have guided my life for 25 years of adulthood, through many wars near and far. Not only because peace is more moral – it is more practical. Peace is cheap, war is expensive – by any metric or measure. Change wrought in peacetime is usually lasting, change wrought by war and violence is easily and often reversed. And any “greatness” achieved through war creates a blowback that will last the test of time.
Today the Siege of Mariupol goes on. More atrocities, images from a hundred years ago tweeted in technicolor, and we sorrow. Because war has returned to Europe; and it is not a Rogers and Hammerstein movie full of nostalgia and the comforting lacquer of time. War does not smell like an Edelweiss, it smells instead of blood and hair. And is the greatest affliction of the human condition.