Friday, September 11, 2015

From Russia With Lumps

Love and Death (1975).
Shorter David Brooks (the Isaiah Berlin of the Right), reporting from St. Petersburg, "The Russia I Miss", September 11 2015:
I've been here for literally hours, checking out the bookstalls and cafés, and I haven't met one person like Anna Akhmatova with whom I could stay up into the small hours baring my soul and talking endlessly about everything from Dostoyevsky to death. It's not so bad here, but world culture has lost something important.
I know right. I myself was in Brooklyn last week and couldn't find Walt Whitman. The Dodgers weren't even playing! So looks like today's menu is the room-temperature compôte of ripe stereotypes pickled in a bath of imagining what it might be like if you paid any attention to your surroundings.

People who came of age after the end of the Cold War may not realize how powerfully Russia influenced Western culture for 150 years. For more than a century, intellectuals, writers, artists and activists were partly defined by the stances they took toward certain things Russian...
You can't deny that 150 years is more than a century!

But I wonder if this alarming phenomenon, that the people Brooks hangs out with don't chat about Russia the way they might have done 30 or 50 years ago, doesn't in the end say a little more about the West, since that is in fact where he hangs out, than it does about Russia. Or the English-speaking world in particular—seems to me we used to define ourselves a lot more in terms of how we felt about French culture than we do now as well, for instance—or the US, where it's just possible that people like Brooks know a lot less about what's going on culturally around the world than their similarly educated counterparts did in the 60s and 70s.

Or maybe people just don't spend their time defining themselves as much as we did when I was an undergraduate, or maybe we're just not undergraduates, except of course for those who are, and they're probably too busy defining themselves to talk to us about it.

But I feel sure that in Russia itself there is a lively underground culture, as always in the periods of greatest public repression, and not even that underground, given that the repression is not in fact anywhere near as total as it was in the 1930s, and that the habit of earnest all-night philosophical conversation has not yet died out.

It's always fun when Brooksy comes out with his Oakeshottian critique of capitalism from the right, as excessively progressive, with its concomitant destruction of a nation's spiritual life:
The Russian ethos was not bourgeois, economically minded and pragmatic. There were radicals who believed that everything should be seen in materialistic terms. But this was a reaction to the dominant national tendency, which saw problems as primarily spiritual rather than practical...
They were so spiritual that some of them were materialists! This never happens in other countries.

Of course pro-spiritual President Putin agrees with the need to restore some of that old spiritual magic, and the all-night philosophers don't, as we can glean from a report in the Guardian last June, which also shows that the philosophers remain active, though hopeless, in immemorial Russian fashion:
Beyond the conflict in Ukraine and crumbling economy (both of which dominate the national news agenda), one story that shook Moscow recently was the planned statue of St Vladimir – medieval baptiser of ancient Rus – which the city’s authorities plan to erect atop the spectacular Sparrow Hills. These hills, which are currently home to a precious botanical garden and boast an incredible view of the capital, are set to be bulldozed to make way for the erection of this 82-foot statue: the first of a religious figure in the city.
The decision met with fierce criticism from dozens of thousands of people who signed an online petition against the monument. However, given the current political climate and the powerful standing of the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s unlikely these opposing voices will be taken into account.
The fact that nobody in Russia is writing novels in the wonderful tone that existed from Gogol to Bulgakov is undeniable, but it happened a long time ago—Bulgakov died in 1940 (though he couldn't be published until 1966). It is also likely that Russian universities are fairly mediocre at this time of continual political crackdown and defunding, though it is not strictly accurate to say that
Of the top 100 universities in the world, not a single one is Russian, which is sort of astonishing for a country so famously intellectual.
Not quite, according to the (UK) Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings for 2014, which lists the Lomonosov Moscow State University in the tie at 51st to 60th place (alongside the University of California at Davis, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the National Taiwan University, and Ohio State), or the Shanghai Ranking 2015, which places it at 86th. (It's at 114 in this year's QS World University Rankings this year but was 34th in 2014). Kind of depends on your list.

Honestly, I'm sure this is a difficult time to be a Russian intellectual in Russia, not just because of the Putinian repression but also because of the Putinian economic incompetence in conjunction with the collapse of petroleum prices and Western sanctions, and his contempt for intellectuals making for a bad employment situation, which leaves so many scrambling to feed themselves or desperate to emigrate; but it's likely no worse in principle than it was in the late 1880s under Alexander III, when the authorities fought against radicalism by barring students of non-noble birth from St. Petersburg University, and you can imagine how Russian universities would have fared then in the rankings, and yet it was the age of Chekhov and Tchaikovsky, you know.

According to that very non-fanciful source, Wikipedia, it sounds as if the traditional Russian intellectual style is alive, and lurching as usual from pendulum-point to pendulum-point but continuing to concern itself with the old "what is to be done"—
In the 21st century, a new generation of Russian authors appeared differing greatly from the postmodernist Russian prose of the late 20th century, which lead critics to speak about “new realism”. Having grown up after the fall of the Soviet Union, the "new realists" write about every day life, but without using the mystical and surrealist elements of their predecessors.
The "new realists" are writers who assume there is a place for preaching in journalism, social and political writing and the media, but that “direct action” is the responsibility of civil society.
—and I'm guessing if Brooks wants to know about it he'd get further by staying home and reading than he will with whatever he's doing there this week. I'd be more worried about our insularity than their loss of spirituality.

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