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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sunday Literary Supplement: Annals of the Gulag Legacy: Russia and the Moderates

More and more these days, La Russophobe begins to understand what Martin Luther King meant when he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that "white moderates" were more dangerous to the cause of racial justice for blacks than members of the KKK. The same can be said for the cause of political and social justice in Russia. Writing Professor Michael Scammell of Columbia University is a classic example. He's published a review of Martin Amis' brilliant new book about the gulags, namely House of Meetings, in the Moscow Times.

Suppose you came across the following paragraph in a book review in your local newspaper:

Not long ago, the London-based Nazi novelist Zeger Zink speculated in the quarterly journal Kriticheskindumf Masshof on Western writers' fascination with "wicked Naziism," concluding that it rested ultimately on envy: "For holding the wrong views in Nazi Germany you could be exiled to a concentration camp or executed, but the poet's status as a superior being who conversed with tsars (and accordingly possessed real political power) was never in question." In other words, the writer in Germany seems to count for something, whereas Western writers feel superfluous and marginalized.
If you read that in a newspaper today, you'd probably be put off, wouldn't you? Maybe even offended? If you were someone who'd been brutalized by the Nazis, you might even consider doing vomiting, might you not? Well, that did actually appear as the lead paragraph to Scammell's review of Amis (with Russian references instead of German ones), and seems to imply that Amis may have an overly negative view of the Gulags, which murdered more Russians than Hitler, because he's jealous of Russian writers having it so good. The suggestions that (a) Western writers are fascinated with Russia (b) because they are jealous of it are totally false.

The vast majority of Western writers, and in fact Western people, couldn't care less about Russia and haven't got the vaguest clue what Russian writers are writing about or why. This, you can be sure, is the cause of very considerable bitterness on the part of folks like Professor Scammell who've made the mistake of giving their lives over to trying to convince people how great Russian writers are. Like the man sang: "The glitter rubs right off and you're nowhere."

And the idea that Russia, as presently constituted, isn't in fact evil, that it is all just a giant misconception in the tiny little ape-like minds of those not clever enough to be anointed by Professor Scammell is such blatant B.S. that it cries out for screaming. What we see in Russia today is a country embracing not only the horrific disparity of wealth that brought the Tsarist regime to its knees, but simultaneously the horrific legacy of totalitarian oppression that brought the USSR to its knees. We see Russians blithely turning their backs on the abolition of local elections, the destruction of television media, and the murder of dissidents like Anna Politkovskaya, to say nothing of the hoarding of vast quantities of wealth by a clan of elites while the nation loses 1 million people every year to disease and pestilence of every description. In other words, we see the face of evil.

And we hear Russophile propagandists rationalizing that evil by saying it doesn't exist, but rather is a figment of the jealous imagination of Westerners who just wish they could be as cool as Russia is. Propagandists who just might be enabled by this writing professor we have right here before us, even though he's not actually one of them. Remember about the "white moderates"?

Scammell (pictured, right), though, is a Russian translator and biographer of Solzhenitsyn, so he obviously cannot be a crazed Russophile maniac, and indeed makes two important points in his review. First, he admits that the current body of literature on the Gulag is inaccessible to modern readers both because of its obscurity and its self-censorship, and that Amis is performing an important service by rectifying this problem. And he concludes his review by, to his credit, praising the accuracy of Amis' documentation of the crude barbarity of Gulag life, covered up by cowardly Russians for so long. Yet his last paragraph returns to his opening theme and reads:
The only place where I would fault Amis in this regard is in his blanket condemnation of Russia during and since the Soviet era. His inclusion of the Beslan school massacre purports to show that Vladimir Putin's Russia is barely better than its Soviet predecessor, while the narrator's nihilistic bloodlust and sexual sadism are made to appear those of a Russian everyman. It's as bleak a picture of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia as one is likely to find in print today. Yet fascination and imitation suggest admiration. Amis' is a frustrated love of Russia. His bitter arraignment of Russia's tragic past and chaotic present suggests not hopelessness, but a desire for an awakening of Russia's moral conscience, and a search for a way back to contrition and redemption.
So, to his credit, Scammell is able to recognize that Amis, like La Russophobe, is writing so much harsh stuff about Russia because he wants to induce it to change. But Scammell apparently feels (though he won't say it in so many words) that if there's any hope for Russia then we should speak some whispers of love into Russia's ear together with our criticism, which should be phrased in only the most gentle and respectful of verbiages, or else the poor helpless little Russian turtles will just pull themselves into their shell and destroy themselves. If so, LR dares to wonder: Is there anyone on Earth who has more pure patronizing contempt for Russians than Professor Scammell, and isn't it clear that it's Amis who is showing real respect for them (Amis and, of course, La Russophobe)?

Would Scammell adopt the same patronizing, flower-child-like attitude towards his students as he does towards Russia? If so, he must be quite popular with them: "Oh dear, did you feel depressed yesterday and couldn't take the midterm? What a pity. You know, you're a very valuable human being and I love you. Naturally you don't have to take the midterm, you just spend a few hours meditating about how terrible world hunger is, and you'll be sure to get at least a B+." It's the students of folks like this that end up on water towers holding rifles, and it's the politicians rationalized by folks like this who end up destroying nations. Of course, all poor little misunderstood Russia needs is some love and deep psychological understanding from enlightened fellows like Professor Scammell, and they'd be sure to walk the straight and narrow.

Scammell, the writing teacher and translator, doesn't reflect sufficiently on history. Gandhi had some success with a philosophy vaguely like this in India, but Scammell seems to overlook the fact that there isn't the slightest evidence of any such success in Russia. There's no evidence that anything, other than Amis-like unflinching confrontation, has ever moved Russians one iota off their path to self-destruction.

And Scammell overlooks the influence of psychology too -- his own. It's so much more pleasant and comforting to think that Russia just needs a little tweaking and things will be OK, that there's plenty of rosy hope just around the corner, rather than to think massive effort and unpleasant confrontation is needed. That's what Chamberlain thought about Hitler, hence Munich. It's what appeasers always think. It's the need of the brain to protect itself from shocks, to put it nicely. To put it truly, it's cowardice.

F.Y.I., Christopher Hitchens attempted a hatchet job on Amis' last book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, and was dismantled in Slate by Anne Applebaum. For another review of House of Meetings, check out Thomas Mallon in the Washington Post or John Banville in the New York Review of Books.

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