Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Russia -- The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same

Today’s Wall Street Journal (here) carries an instructive review of a new book by Jonathan Brent about his experiences in digging up and publishing Soviet state documents since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Brent is an editor at the Yale University Press and a professor of Russian literature at Bard College, and his book is titled Inside the Stalin Archives. Joseph Tartakovsky in his review notes that “the result of Mr. Brent's efforts, so far, is the 20 volumes of Yale's ‘Annals of Communism’ series, many of which offer archival documents alongside the commentary and analysis of scholars.”

Of particularly interest to me are the author’s reflections on the Russian people. Tartakovsky writes of Brent and his experiences:
Mr. Brent intersperses his archival quest with reflections on modern Russia. His argument … is that the Soviet mentality is reasserting itself aggressively in Russia today…. [I]n Brent's view, Russia feels the same: drab,careworn, suffocating. He describes the unrelieved crumminess of all Russian manufactures that are not weapons or space stations. Empty restaurants run out of menus, their strange meats unpierceable by the average fork…. But perhaps a touch of existential despair may be excused when, for locals, it is tradition itself. No country that staggers within a century from Third Rome to Third International to Third World looks confidently to its future. When Mr. Brent asks a woman what she thinks about the years ahead, she answers: "I don't."
Whatever the nature of their politics or the name of their state, the Russian people seem never to change. Ira Gershwin’s insight and humor come to mind: “I've found more clouds of gray, than any Russian play - can guarantee” (from But Not For Me). Winston Churchill too had Russia’s number: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Update December 4, 2007:Two days after posting this I read Roger L. Simon’s unrelated short piece at Pajamas Media on his reflections about Russia. I then commented about that in a post of my own titled More Thoughts of Russia (here), and left an excerpt of the above post in the commentary at Mr. Simon’s site. Mr. Simon replied:

Thank you … for reminding me of Ira Gershwin’s brilliant lyric. “I’ve found more clouds of gray, than any Russian play - can guarantee”. Who ever said it better? But then the Gershwins were really Russians too, weren’t they?
Update 2: See follow-up post here -- More Thoughts of Russia.
R. Balsamo

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