Too scientific too early?

One thing that has struck me as unique about Russian history is the people’s dedication to a scientific manner of thinking even in inappropriate contexts. Somehow, even artistic venues for thought were broken down systematically with a direct objective and means of achieving said goal. To me, this is a very scientific way of thinking. Socialist Realism, for example, could be seen as something of an equation. Russians always had an end goal in mind, but the means of achieving these goals were often unfinished, sloppy or simply flawed.

In some ways, Russia appears to be very ahead of it’s time. A want to understand cause and effect or system and function is a sign of an intellectually developed country. However, science was still at an extremely limited state even in the 1930’s (by comparison  of course, to science since the 1990’s). I think Russian societal culture is a perfect allegory for human scientific progress in the early 20th century. We had ideas, concepts that were understood but yet so much was left in a void. Russia was influenced so intensely by the push in science (such as Darwinism) that they themselves became a perfect representation of it’s faults within that era.

Perhaps every single aspect of life can be broken down into a system with rules (“recommendations”) for success. But there is still a level of humanity that science and Russia in the early 20th century failed to address, or rather work around. Even now there are many doors closed, but I will be curious to see how science effects the progress of Russia in the upcoming decades during our class.

Power or Authority?

Something that I have been musing on since our discussion of Stalin’s cult of personality last week is the difference between power and authority and how these concepts were manifested in the beginnings of the Soviet Union.

I would define power as en essence that is projected outwards, implying a control given over the people that often results in their fear.  Authority is an essence more given from the outside, as in a ruler’s influence and their people’s subsequent respect.  After talking about the cult of personality, it became clear to me that Stalin was a manifestation of the latter idea, the essence of power, than that of authority.  The fact that he had to rely on propaganda to grant him legitimacy as the father of the nation is evidence of this.  His creation of an image that is all-knowing and infallible, and his reliance on the threat of the gulag and secret police to inspire correct action all stem from a need to control and manipulate the people through fear instead of aiming to gain their respect.  He never gives the people an opportunity to question him or rethink their loyalty to him, and he would punish them if they did.  It is this fear that kept him in control.

At the same time that Stalin was being feared by Russia, he also established a balance between power and authority in dealing with the national groups.  He “directed” them back to their old nationalities without providing much choice, but then Stalin allowed for those groups to maintain their traditions until they joined the Soviet Union.  This probably gave him authority among those people, since he was not imposing the Soviet ideal on them from the start, however he never would have held as much authority as the local rulers he set up to enforce the Soviet ideology.

The thing about ruling through power instead of authority is that it is short-lived and unstable.  Just as was the reasoning behind the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in the first place, people will only live so long under oppression and fear.  Despite Stalin’s claim to be liberating the worker, he was just intimidating them into another hierarchal scheme, like his predecessors the Tsars, that would ultimately begin to be questioned and undermined.  I do not think he ever established and garnered true respect from the Soviet people in practice, though ideology would disagree.


On Saturday night I went to see Professor Ben Shute’s faculty recital of four works by Tchaikovsky, including the violin concerto in D major, considered to be one of the most important in this category of violin literature. During intermission, I remembered that the last time I heard Tchaikovsky played by a live orchestra was at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow. A performance in Rubendall, despite its amazing transformation last year, does not quite achieve the same effect as one in the Russian state concert hall. The inside is old-fashioned – completely white with columns framing a giant organ above the stage surrounding hundreds of white painted wooden seats, resembling none of the concert halls I have seen in the United States.

This is where the International Tchaikovsky Competition is held, and the musicians receive considerable press. First prize of the competition is so prestigious that sometimes it is not even awarded, and the top two contestants instead share the second prize, particularly in the violin category. The competition was established at the height of the Cold War in 1958 to showcase the sophistication of Culture. When American pianist Van Cliburn won first prize that year in an upset, he earned an eight-minute standing ovation at the finale. The nervous judges felt the need to ask Premier Khrushchev permission to present the award to an American. Cliburn became an overnight celebrity, and would later perform for future Premiers and American presidents.

The second half of the concert was the concerto, and despite the fact that Professor Shute is an expert in Bach, his style of playing was very well suited to this type of extremely technical piece. He and his accompanist were extremely connected and suited each other very well. As the third movement built to the end, the excitement was building in the room and with the final chord the audience quickly stood. This was one of the best concerts on campus this year, and earned he ovation that was appropriate, but after the two curtain calls that are requisite for a Dickinson concert, the clapping was over in just a few minutes. I wondered what the response would have been in Tchaikovsky Hall. No doubt the clapping would have lasted twice as long, and likely would have settled into an even rhythm as Russians are prone to do. I mentioned this to my friend with whom I was sitting, but perhaps I should have started clapping in time.

Saturday at the Cumberland County Historical Society

Yesterday I visited the Cumberland County Historical Society on Pitt Street, across from Alibi’s. I wanted to take a look at their materials and get a general feel of the place. It’s a really neat center; the staff are amiable and accommodating and the library is clean, spacious, and full of light.

I went in with only a very vague idea of what I was looking for – sources that might tell me something about the history of the African American population in early twentieth century Carlisle. One of the library personnel pointed in a few directions.

First, I did some basic keyword searches in the library catalogue, which incorporates all of the center’s materials, including those from the archive. Although the catalog is not available online, it’s fairly user friendly. Each item has a paragraph-long description that can give you a good idea of its content and save you time. I learned the names of people and places that might be important to my project just in this preliminary search. Another great feature of the catalogue is that all photographs searchable and visible through the searches.

From there I delved into the one-box “African American Collection.” The contents dealt mostly with slavery and the Underground Railroad, and touched on the civil rights movement. There were a couple folders on African American churches and schools in Carlisle. While the contents in itself didn’t get me much closer to what I was looking for, I noticed that many of the materials had been catalogued by our very own Malinda Triller, so I’ve made mental note to talk to her about what she remembers of the materials.

I was a bit discouraged by the results of my first search. As Professor Qualls wrote in his most recent email, though, I might be going about it “the hard way.” Especially when it comes to an obscure aspect of the local history of a small town like Carlisle, trying to find enough sources to answer a set of questions (much less form a thesis) is a difficult task. We are necessarily limited by the number and content of primary sources available. There is no doubt that I’ll be reorienting or completely changing my initial topic.

Entrance to the Cumberland County Historical Society.

For those who are interested, the CCHS Library hours are:

Monday                                   4:00 – 8:00 p.m.

Tuesday through Friday          10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Saturday                                  10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.

On a separate note, for those of you who are interested in Carlisle history, here’s the website of a 2007 American Studies fieldwork class: Carlisle History: A living history of Carlisle, PA.

I also came across this book in an internet search. Looks like a fun read!: Wicked Carlisle by Joseph David Cress.

Racism: A Permanent Structure?

One key thing that I drew from watching the movie Circus was that no matter what society is represented, racial stereotypes seem to prevail. Going along with the racial oppression of the time, Circus was about an American woman who became pregnant with an African-American’s child. She flees to the Soviet Union in order to escape the persecution in the United States, yet she still fears to reveal her child.

Throughout the movie, the child is referred to in terms that are unfitting of an animal, let alone a human being. For instance, at one point Marion tries to escape her abuser and get her child out of the circus and while her friend is running away with the child, he stops and says “oh look at how black you are, I must have gotten you dirty.” This blatantly racist comment shows that despite the communist views that every race is equal, the society is still incredibly racist.

I was particularly surprised by the content of this film as I was under the impression that in a communist system, racism would be almost nonexistent. However, Circus proved me to be completely wrong as most of the dialogue towards the African-American child was laced with racial comments. Having been proven wrong, I got to thinking that maybe racism is something that cannot be completely eliminated from a society no matter what the governmental or societal policies are. For instance, in the United States there are plenty of laws prohibiting the subjugation of people over race, yet does our own culture not promote it? How many racist jokes have you heard just in the past few days? How many racial slurs have you heard in popular music?

I came to the conclusion that while racism is a terrible, completely ridiculous idea, it will never be completely solved as long as society continues to promote it. Many people have embraced the idea that race is completely irrelevant in the quality of a person; yet there are still holdouts and as comedian Ron White boldly states “you can’t fix stupid.”

The Anti-American Russia

Today I read an article assigned by my Russian 100 professor about the recent legislation pushes against the United States by Russia.  To the Kremlin, being free of American influence is essential for the free will and sovereignty of the country. Russia now no longer wants to part of the west and no longer wants to be recognized as a prominent country in the west.  Instead it wishes to become its own entity.

In a way I see this as a relapse of the not-quiet-dead-yet Soviet ideals of the last century.  The government wishes Russia to become a super power of all things and in part, its own world.  It almost sounds as if the ideas of the government are taking a turn towards a cyclical pattern.  They have even suggested banning foreign films and words to further cut the population off.  Can we consider this to be attempt to isolate Russia into another utopia or is it simply a phase that is going to wear off? I believe that this could be a slippery slope for the Russian government and any future actions taken in the same direction may be severely frowned upon by the world scene as a whole.

Russia Revamped

Yesterday, I was reading a copy of the New York Times when a “Special Advertising Supplement” fell out from behind the dining section. A disclaimer says that the supplement was written and sponsored by the Rossiyskaya Gazette and did not contain any reporting or editing from the staff of the Times. The supplement took the form of a short newspaper issue, but looking at the collection of articles included in this supplement, I think it is clear that its form was deceptive of its function. Though it looked and read like a newspaper, the eight pages combined to create a well-crafted and well-disguised advertisement. Just like any advertisement it has a target audience; in this case, that target audience is quite narrow. This supplement was intended to reach high-powered financial investors, and it carried a strong message for them: we’re stable, we’re on our way up, and you can be part of the ride if you take the plunge of investment.

To be fair, none of what I’m calling ‘advertising’ was untrue or exaggerated. The tone of the issue was simultaneously realistically self-aware and shamelessly self-promoting. The articles didn’t gloss over weaknesses in the nation’s economy or try to exaggerate its true extent of foreign investors, but for every story of struggle there was a story of expansion and improvement. A front-page article detailed the Russian Government’s hiring of Goldman Sachs to attract capital from abroad, and an interview feature with the chairman of the Russian Union of Gold Production had a prominent pull-quote: “we need to create the right conditions to attract investors.” Stories on the back page were concerned with the Russian tourism industry: one was about a Russian booth at a New York City tourism fair, and another assesses reviews of Russian travel destinations on the website TripAdvisor. Another front page blurb declared Russia as the world’s second-largest arms dealer, an article next to it reviews a new line of mobile devices from a Russian firm, and an entire page of the issue was devoted to the increased gold mining in Siberia and the far east. One headline is particularly amusing given our past few class discussions: “Quality rather than quantity of capital a concern in 2013”.

Since my mind has been stuck in the Stalin era and the disasters of the Five Year Plans, I’ve almost forgotten that Russia has moved beyond those years and is in the process of rebranding its once unstable economy. Though I lack a strong economics education that would help me comprehend some of the jargon and come to my own independent conclusions about the current Russian economy, it will be interesting to see what direction it will take in the coming years.

The Power of the Rumor

In Timothy Johnson’s introduction to Being Soviet, he talks about successful rumors. The author states, “Successful rumors… survive on the basis of ‘natural selection’. Those rumors which are credible to those who transmit them are passed on and become successful; rumors which are not credible do not survive” (Johnson, 27). When I hear the word “rumor,” I’m instantly skeptical- of the validity of the statement, and of the trustworthiness of the person relaying said rumor. In truth, I often associate the word “rumor” with “gossip.”

However, what intrigued me and incited me to write a blog was how powerful rumors were within the Soviet Union, noted specifically in the introduction of Timothy Johnson’s Being Soviet. In this reading, Johnson talked about how Soviets were able to acquire news on a daily basis. Discussions soon revealed that while newspapers were generally looked to for news, the rumors spread through familial ties and friends held just as much legitimacy in the minds of the Soviets. Johnson wrote specifically that “Rumors supplemented, rather than replaced, the contents of the official press…However, they did not regard the two [the press versus rumors] as intrinsically in competition with one another. Indeed, they often spoke of cross referencing material from one source against information from another: ‘Even the members of the party among themselves don’t believe everything that they read in the Soviet newspapers . . . Conversations with members of my family or with friends were very important.’” (Johnson, 21).

Upon reading this, I was mildly surprised. I found this to be very similar to American news culture. It’s arguably true that within American society, the population as a whole focuses on the news and newspapers for our daily intake of information. Ironically there is reliability placed in rumors spread throughout the country as well, very similar to the Soviets. Indeed, while at times rumors possess a negative connotation, that doesn’t stop the general population from researching the validity of a rumor, or acknowledging it as partly true, thereby lending integrity to the rumor. Despite how rumors are viewed by society in general, that doesn’t stop the general population from using them to their advantage. For instance, in the political realm, “rumor bombs” are used in various contexts. They’re especially used by political campaigns via smear campaigns to slander one’s opponent, or to revamp or reframe a situation in a way that is politically beneficial to one side of a campaign and utterly destructive to the opposing side. In thinking about rumors in those contexts, it was clear that rumors can’t just be brushed aside as mere gossip, irrelevant to society.

This section of reading truly made me think about rumors and made me realize just how important they are for the population in general. They were essential not only in the Soviet Union where they were a source of news, but also in the modern era. Rumors in a way offer a kind of freedom that press does not. What a newspaper chooses to publish, or a news station chooses to broadcast is beyond the power of the common individual. Rumors offer people a choice- to listen or to dismiss, to share or to not. It’s no wonder that rumors were so powerful and a common way of gaining information within the Soviet Union and in America today. In short, despite possibly negative associations, rumors are commonplace and play an integral and at times even valuable part in society.


Confronting the Past

In my class on Russian politics, we recently watched a documentary called “My Perestroika”, which documented the experiences of Russians who came of age during the era of Gorbachev, focusing on both their past and their present. Two of the people profiled are high school history teachers in Moscow. In one of the scenes, one of them teaches high school students the exact topic we were discussing; the forced collectivization of peasants. You can see the incredulous looks on the students’ faces, as he compares it to the government coming into their apartments today, taking everything, and telling them that it will become a communal dormitory. The contrast is striking, as when the teacher was his students’ age, he was not taught the same things that he is now teaching.

Both history teachers talk about how hard it is for Russian students to understand how the Soviet Union could have happened. One of the teachers, Lyuba, says that even explaining it as a fairytale, of good verses evil, does not work, as the situation was so confusing and complicated. She believes that even understanding the history of the formation of the Soviet Union is not enough, and that much of it remains incomprehensible

Every country has challenges confronting their own history. For Russians, this challenge is especially difficult. Russia has a history of re-writing its own past and using past events to justify the current reality, even if that means falsifying its history. I hope that later on in the semester, we might touch upon how the Soviet Union re-wrote the history of Russia to give meaning to its own existence, exploring how Soviet textbooks portrayed various tsars.

Anna Karenina film review

I tried to post this soon after seeing the film back in January, but because the wifi on the first floor Adams is useless I didn’t realize until recently that the post hadn’t gone through.

This weekend, I went with my roommate to see the most recent adaptation of Anna Karenina at the Carlisle Theater. I’ll make the disclaimer now that I’ve never read the book – I knew the plot line and general ending already, but I’ve never made good on my perennial pledge to read the novel over my summer break (the same can be said for The Illiad and Infinite Jest.). I think it goes without saying that literary adaptations are almost always disappointing, but I figured I could still enjoy the film as a stand-alone piece of cinema.

                Twenty minutes in, I knew I was wrong. Even just as a film, Anna Karenina was awful. The storyline was unclear, and character development was completely secondary to the film’s art direction. Granted, the film was visually rich, with impressive costuming and scenery. A review from the New York Times described it as a “visual kaleidoscope,” which is an apt metaphor. Even so, conceptual aspects of the art direction were unnecessary and confusing, such as the motif of performing on a stage. There were multiple instances when the camera would zoom out from a shot and the Russian countryside would appear on a stage in a theater, replete with Peter Karenin and his frolicking children. To me, this motif was an unsubtle way of commenting on the superficiality of Russian high society and the way that Anna was forced to act the part of a wife to a man she did not love. However, this, along with the repeated foreshadowing of the following scene, seemed to insult the intelligence of the audience and deny them the opportunity to determine themes or anticipate the climactic ending. I use the word “climactic” because I assume that was how it was supposed to be in the novel, not because the ending was this way in the film. In fact, the character development was so poor that it was hard for me to sympathize with Anna or even care about what happened to her in the final scene.  

                I left the theater with the feeling that the past two hours would have been better spend reading the first few chapters of Tolstoy’s novel. With no thanks to this adaptation, maybe this summer I’ll finally cross it off my to-do list.