An Unnatural Return to Roots

Governing policies in the Soviet Union consistently blended new ideas with standing tradition. As such, the conflict between the role of the modern ‘nation’ and the primordial ethnicities  is very similar to other conflicts: the role of the government and the church, emphasis on peasantry and the quest to modernize, and Western culture and Soviet traditions.

While the idea of a ‘nation’ was a modern construct, the Soviets hoped to supersede that with the identity of class. From the piece by Fitzpatrick, the origin of the ‘nation’ was developed from the villages uniting under feudal systems and then, eventually, identifying as a singular nation. The role of the clergy was the uniting fashion for these early villages and feudal city-states where religion was a large facet of identity,  but some of this was lost in becoming a nation, when nationality became the strongest identification. In the Soviet Union, both class and nationality were prioritized as identifying factors. But, like many of the Soviet programs, this was a top-down forcing of a process that should have been natural, if it was to happen at all.


As Nationalism and Class-ism was standardized, they became stratified and eliminated mobility. This had a special impact given that in the USSR class and nationality came with certain privileges, along with obligations and restrictions. Stratifying the population to such an extent actually damaged the ability for demographics to identify with each other, getting in the way of the Soviet dream of a unified class-consciousness. By trying to influence class and ethnic development toward a homogeneous culture, the Soviets created a number of dissatisfied and unique nations.  This collection of independent mentalities would slowly fracture the Soviet Union.

Orwell Readings

In George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and chapter four of The Road to Wigan Pier he writes about groups of destitute people in Britain who live on the fringes of society under hideous circumstances. Down and Out in Paris and London focusses on the homeless epidemic that has afflicted the country. Orwell depicts how these so called “tramps” live a mundane existence that does not contribute in any way to the good of society. He seeks to inform the public of the difficulties that these people face in order to combat some of the prejudices that exist towards them. In The Road to Wigan Peer Orwell describes the horrendous housing conditions that the impoverished class of industrial workers are forced to inhabit. The shortage of adequate housing forces these inhabitants to cram into overcrowded, dilapidated, and oftentimes condemned houses because they are the only available housing options of any sort. Many of these people would have gladly moved into different housing situations had the opportunity existed.

It was interesting how Orwell addressed the the much higher proportion of homeless men compared to homeless women. Many of Orwell’s contemporaries had failed to take this discrepancy into consideration when evaluating the homeless problem. It was nearly impossible for men to meet women because there were very few women who lived amongst them and it would be quite rare that a women of a higher economic class would desire a male from the lower class. Orwell writes “the evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him spiritually and physically… And there can be no doubt that sexual starvation contributes with this rotting process,” in order to empathize with their predicament. I found this quote fascinating because it states how although sexual pursuit is not as important to human wellbeing as food, water, and shelter, it is still an important aspect of a person’s health.

Orwell proposed a solution to lower the expense that homeless individuals had placed on the state by putting them to work. He argued that they would be able to settle down and live a decent and structured life. Although they would be working and contributing to the good of the whole of society, aren’t the conditions experienced by the working class as described in The Road to Wigan Pier nearly as impoverished and grief stricken as those suffered by the tramps. Does this housing situation really constitute a decent and settled life in your opinion?

Orwell’s Description of Poverty in Britain

In the excerpts from The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes the daily struggle of living in poverty in England—particularly for men.  In Down and Out in Paris and London, he strives to depict “tramps,” or vagabonds in a more positive way, and offer the reader an opportunity to overlook former prejudices. He describes tramps as Englishmen with broken spirits; they are not dangerous or manic.  In his later book, The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell describes his findings when visiting houses in lower-class neighborhoods in England, and provides examples of the filthy residences that thousands of English families are forced to call home. He argues how difficult it is to support a family on such a low income, and describes the loss of hope that many people feel after living in such disgusting homes for so long. Generally, Orwell’s aim in these excerpts is to humanize the lower classes of England who have often been swept aside to the margins of society.

Something that I thought was interesting in Orwell’s excerpts was that he mentioned the lack of productivity of people who were down and out, and incapable of giving back to the state. While Orwell’s aim was to make the reader feel sympathetic toward members of society living in poverty, it seems contradictory to his argument to go on to describe them as a loss to the community. His book was released in 1933, the same year that eugenics in Germany took off, so it is interesting to compare and contrast Nazi Germany to Orwell’s eugenics at the time.

I also thought that Orwell brought up a fascinating point about the very different roles of males and females when discussing tramps.  Orwell stated that being a tramp as a man was mentally debilitating, because there was little or no access to women.  Women were not tramping, because during that time, they relied on men to support them. Because male tramps were unable to engage in sexual activity with women, they turned to other men to satisfy their desires.  Ultimately, the number of men who were out of work and living as vagabonds had an impact on the traditional gender roles of that time.

Orwell often describes the “broken spirits” of homeless men, and aims to inform the audience that people who are living in poverty are not dangerous. His two pieces were written in 1933 and 1937, times that weaker members of society were frowned upon, and often corrected.  How much do you think his work impacted the people of Britain and France? Do you think their perceptions of the lower classes change? Or did they remain loyal to the eugenics movements at that time?

Narod and Narodnost: A Transformation of Russia

The piece for class on Monday is on the subject of modernity, nationality, and ethnicity. The etymology of words such as narod and narodnost are used as a basis for discussion throughout the piece. The piece explores the transformation of Russian society and nationalism throughout centuries through the use of narod and narodnost to illustrate this societal transformation.

The piece begins by an explanation of the word narod in different contexts. The piece states that narod was a term to denote ethnicity. The piece insinuates that the term is much deeper than just ethnicity-it also refers to culture. The piece then talks about narod is different aspects of culture such as political and cultural. The piece explores how narod evolves into the term of narodnost. Narodnost is illustrated through examples of literary figures in Russia and philosophers. The effects of Narod and narodnost are explained through cultural and political movements in Russia, leading to a new definition of nationalism.

Orwell on Britain

In both Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London the writer Orwell focuses on a portion of society that has been unfairly treated by both the government and the upper classes. In the excerpt we read from Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell paints a rather bleak picture of the culture and society of the English industrial towns at the time. These cities over crowded and unsanitary are prime examples of the squalid living conditions members of the working classes were required to live in. Orwell’s narrative seems more Dickensian then what we would expect of a civilized western country like Britain during the 1930’s. The other piece written by Orwell is an examination of the tramps who populated Britain at the time. These men were constant nomads traveling where ever they could find a hot meal. There lives were of no substance, they could not plant there roots anywhere and they were unused as labor in any capacity.

The aspect of Orwell’s two pieces that struck me were his descriptions of two government laws in particular. The first was the means test, which was a draconian dictate enforced on Britain’s that regulated there ability to receive any sort of meaning full welfare and governmental aid. Men who would assist neighbors where reported and stripped of there aid for this act, and the elderly were disregarded because of the money they took away from the family. The second law was the government decision to not allow tramps to stay at any one casual ward for more then one night. Repeated stays would result in pseudo-imprisonment. This law was hurtful to both the tramps and Britain. Instead of men having one place where they could stay a while and become a helpful part of the community these men had to move from place to place wasting there lives away in pointless travel. Both of these laws were in no way advantageous to British society and if anything they breed discontent.

Do the laws in place in Britain at the time this piece was written, the 1930’s seem out of date and behind the times for the way societies in all countries were growing?



Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter IV of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier made many interesting points about poverty and housing conditions in Interwar England. Orwell developed a very in depth study of the living conditions and how this may have affected the psyche of the inhabitants.

The Interwar Period was very concerned with behavior and order, especially in the wake of the Great War’s chaos. Psychology was one way in which many scholars began to try to understand the actions of both society and the individual. This type of study also began to influence other academic areas, like History, Anthropology and Literature. Orwell demonstrates, in questioning the behavior of this group, how various areas of study had become more interwoven.

Orwell at one point in Chapter IV discusses how some impoverished families portrayed themselves as more economically comfortable. Many Corporation houses seem to have been filled with well-maintained furniture; these items seemed to belong in a more financially stable house—a family that is not living at or below the poverty line. Orwell argues “it is in the rooms upstairs that the gauntness of poverty really discloses itself.” (60) He believes that it is a matter of pride to protect the nicer, more valuable pieces of furniture so that the family can appear to be less impoverished. These had most likely been passed down within the family throughout generations. It is the items that need to be bought every few years or months that were more difficult for these families to afford (i.e. bedclothes), and therefore, fewer families in more desperate financial situations had access to many basic items, like bedclothes.

This excerpt shares some similarities with Leora Auslanders’s article “’National Taste?’ Citizenship Law, State Form, and Everyday Aesthetics in Modern France and Germany, 1920-1940.” Both pieces referred to the tendency to “keep up with the Joneses.” How did this idea, needing to present a better image to the public or society, reflect larger themes from this period? Was this a reaction to the chaos of the war? Or a reaction to the uncertainty of the period? Or would this type of behavior have occurred regardless of wars, death and economic troubles?

Annotated Bibliography

This my initial annotated bibliography for a blog on the tuberculosis epidemic in Russian prisons.

Connor, Walter D.,  ed., Anthony Jones, and David E. Powell. Soviet Social     Problems. Colorado: Westview Press, 1991.

This book is a compilation of articles focused on the denial of social problems in the USSR. Esteemed professors of Russian history and politics wrote all the articles.

Filtzer, Donald. The Hazards of Urban Life in Late Stalinist Russia: Health, Hygiene,        and Living Standards, 1943-1953. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press,        2010. URL Russia/dp/0521113733

This book examines the health care and hygiene conditions in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia. This book will help in my discussion of how tuberculosis spreads. The author is an authority of the subject of Russian history and teaches at the University of East London.

Micheals, Paula A. Curative Powers: Medicine and Empire In Stalin’s Central             Asia. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003.

Soviet officials attempted to improve hygienic practices in Kazakhstan. Dr. Michaels is a European history of medicine professor at Monash University.

Jeremy D. Goldhaber-Fiebert, et al. “Screening And Rapid Molecular Diagnosis Of      Tuberculosis In Prisons In Russia And Eastern Europe: A Cost-Effective    Analysis. (Report).” Plos Medicine 11 (2012).

This article develops a cost-effective method of treatment for tuberculosis and multidrug resistant tuberculosis in Russian prisons. All of the contributors work for various health care institutions in the U.S. and Europe.

Lobacheva, T, T Asikainen, and J Giesecke. “Risk Factors for developing         tuberculosis in remand prisons in St. Petersburg, Russia- a case-control study.”      European Journal Of Epidemiology 22, no. 2 (n.d.): 121-127.         

This study attempts to find all risk factors for developing tuberculosis in remand prisons and spreading of the disease upon release. This article will help in my explanation of what can be done to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in prisons. This study was done by professors at Stockholm University in Sweden.

M McKee, et al. “Prison Health In Russia: The Larger Picture.” Journal Of Public       Health Policy 26.1 (2005): 30-59.

This article focuses on the health issues in Russian prisons and how they can be cured. This will explain what prisons can do to help their inmates stop spreading diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV.



The USSR as a Communal Apartment

Author Yuri Slezkine poses an interesting view of the USSR in the late 1920’s and early 30’s in his chapter “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism” in the book Stalinism: New Directions. The chapter details the “Great Transformation” of 1928-1932, during which ethnic diversity was highlighted and celebrated; it then explains the “Great Retreat” during the 1930’s, when nationalism as a whole was discouraged except those select nationalities that reinforced socialist ideas and contributed to the overall success of the USSR.

The promotion of ethnic distinctions seemed strange to me at first, considering the Communist goal of eliminating classes and the inequalities that came with them. I assumed that defining and strengthening different ethnic identities would only lead to more inequality and struggle. It seems that at first, ethnic particularism was a way to accept the inevitable differences that arise between people but in a manner that avoids classes. Towards the end of the chapter, however, the author alludes to the fact that certain nationalities were seen as more worthy, therefore superior to others. It may not be along class lines, but the people of the Soviet Union were still divided. This promotion of nationalism most likely created more problems for the Soviet government in the long-term as nationalism grew stronger and threatened the Soviet’s unity and control. These struggles would also plague the Russian government after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Russia and Religion

Today in class, we had a very interesting discussion about Russia and religion.  Basically, throughout its entire history, Russia’s relationship to religion has been extreme, almost bipolar.  In tsarist Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church was the only acceptable religion, due to its strong link with the tsar. During this time, Jewish people were heavily persecuted in the pogroms.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Communist Party made atheism the official belief system of the Soviet Union.  This was based off Marxism, which taught that religion was “the opiate of the masses.”  At this time, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) was forced to go underground.  Churches could only be open if a KGB officer was present at Mass. People of all faiths were persecuted during the USSR.

Then, in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church made a comeback, this time in an even more conservative form.  Only religions with official historical significance to Russia were considered legitimate:  Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Islam.  Protestant Christianity has one of the worst receptions in Russia, as the ROC believes Protestants are seeking to convert their parishioners.  It is common for Protestant churches to be shut down.  According to the Forum 18 News Service, a Norwegian organization that reports nation’s violations of religion freedoms, Jehovah’s Witnesses are frequently targeted in Russia.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are often denied freedom of worship, and there is a movement to ban their texts.   Another symptom of Russia’s religious extremism is the rights of LBGT Russians being taken away.

Basically, Russia has existed in a pattern of a religion dominating and then persecuting the other religions. This can be seen as a symptom of the religious trauma Russia has faced.  To suddenly turn from a Russian Orthodox, to an atheist, back to an Orthodox state again in less than 100 years must be traumatic for Russian citizens.  The government needs to realize religious freedom should be extended to all.  Once religious freedom is given, gay rights will hopefully follow. Sadly, ideas such as tolerance and equality cannot be taught.

Surrealism and the movie Un Chein Andalou

Written in 1925 by André Breton, the first Surrealist manifesto consists of 9 points which tells us that the purpose of surrealism is to repudiate all existing norms of thinking and of perceiving the world; to “make a Revolution”. And clearly the purpose of the whole movement is to promote the idea that the subconscious mind is more important than the rational, conscious mind.

Created by the Spanish director Luis Bunuel and the artist Salvador Dali, the movie Un Chein Andalou embodies the ideas of the Surrealist movement, and clearly is something revolutionary. The movie is product of the unconscious mind of Bunuel and Dali, and the world depicted in it is abstract, illogical, and confusing. It makes a revolution, as the Surrealist manifesto mentions, by refuting everything rational and logical, everything that we are used to perceive as important for our world. For example, what struck me were the disrupted time and the illogically changing space in the movie. The presence of images such as the dead donkeys without eyes or the half bodies on the beach makes the movie disturbing and confusing. They are products of the unconscious mind, and cannot be perceived by the rational mind.

The movie Un Chien Andalou, follows the ideas of the manifesto and rejects the rational thinking in our world. It presents a reality dictated by the unconscious mind. By watching it I ask myself: How was this movie accepted by people back in the 1930’s? How did surrealists influence people of their time?