Menshevikism Revised

John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World can be unkindly described as a panegyric to the glories of the October Revolution and the "great dynamo" Lenin. The text ends with the Bolsheviks and Peasants reaching an ecstatic accord that would lead anyone to think that the best part of the next decade was not to be consumed with a particularly bloody civil war followed by the horrors of farm collectivisation. Nonetheless, although an avowed communist Reed’s journalism is sufficiently objective to tell more than one story. Having been minded against Lenin and the Bolsheviks beforehand, Reed’s book emphatically reinforced this, leaving an impression of the Petrograd provisional government as analogous to the Weimar Republic. Karensky’s government had sought to establish a coalition of all parties, with socialists in the majority and to advance a new tolerance, exemplified by permitting Lenin to return to Petrograd from Zurich. The action of the Bolsheviks on coming to power was to curtail press freedoms ("Three weeks ago the Bolsheviki were the most ardent defenders of press freedoms") and to suppress rival socialist parties for instance by placing their leaders under house arrest ("you sit here and talk about gibing land to the peasants , and you commit an act of tyrants and usurpers against the peasant’s chosen representatives"). Other parties repeatedly called for a coalition ("Our party has refused to enter the Council of People’s Commissars because we do not wish for ever to separate ourselves from the part of the revolutionary army which left the congress…we do not recognise the legality of this congress since the departure of the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries there is not a legal quorum") only for Lenin to demand they support the Bolshevik programme. Strikes resulted, with transport and communications shutting down. Since no-one would serve in the Ministries after the coup d’etat, the public administration shut down.

The same territory is covered in literary terms by Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. The novel is in many ways an archetypal account of the individual against society, of Eros against civilisation, with the caveat that its acceptance of sin is rather reminiscent of Greene. Zhivago’s tastes are catholic running from Darwin to Schelling and the novel similarly contains multitudes in the manner of his compatriot Bakhtin (although the novel is weighted against the Bolsheviks characters like Strelnikov ("You couldn’t understand it. You grew up quite differently… dirt, hunger, overcrowding, the degradation of the worker") or Liberius’s aunt voice opposed opinions; "they are on the side of the common people, that’s their strength"). Much of the opposing discourse in the novel is essentially derived from a mystical worldview; "This freedom came from the feeling that all human lives were interrelated, a certainty that they flowed into each other — a happy feeling that all events took place not only on the earth, in which the dead are buried, but also in some other region which some called the kingdom of God, others history, and still others by some other name… man is made up of two parts, God and work. Each succeeding stage in the development of the human spirit [such as] the theology of the Old Testament" As such, the novel’s discussion of the stages of history is theological but uses Marxist terminology to express it, even to the extent of describing Bolshevik discourse as religious; "Yury could not bear the political mysticism of the Soviet intelligentsia" Zhivago’s Uncle Kolya, a kind of fellow traveller of Christianity, enunciates one of the book’s major themes: "What you don’t understand is that . . . history as we know it now began with Christ, and that Christ’s Gospel is its foundation. Now what is history? It is the centuries of systematic explorations of the riddle of death, with a view to overcoming death. That’s why people discover mathematical infinity and electromagnetic waves, that’s why they write symphonies . . . The two basic ideals of modern man – without them he is unthinkable -[are] the idea of free personality and the idea of life as sacrifice." The early sections of the novel are accordingly often expressed in Tolstoyan terms. For Nikolai, Christ is at the font of truly human history precisely because he emphatically underscores its requisite principles: love of one’s neighbour, the supreme form of vital energy (the "immortal communion between mortals"), the idea of free personality (only individuals seek and are persuaded by the truth), and the idea of life as sacrifice, ultimately to life itself. Art, speculates Yury, is not a category, but a vital principle, a force, a truth realized in its concrete instances. Art is not so much form as a hidden, secret part of content which is always essentially the same. It is "a statement about life so all-embracing that it can’t be split up into separate words." Further, "Art always serves beauty, and beauty is delight in form, and form is the key to organic life, since no living thing can exist without it, so that every work of art, including tragedy, expresses the joy of existence." Art has its ultimate root in organic life. We are back at our fundamental theme of life, "one, immense, ever-changing, ever the same, concretely renewing itself. Art is a mode of life’s vital resurrection." The great object lesson is Pushkin, who opened the windows and let concrete reality, with its life and motion, storm into the lines of his poetry, "driving out the vaguer parts of speech." This was more than aesthetic service. Pushkin reaffirmed the sanctity of everyday, ‘bourgeois’ existence — housewives, quiet lives, and big bowls of cabbage soup. With form and content indissoluble, the works of Pushkin (and later Chekhov) become irresistible powers of unarmed truth, "like apples picked green, ripening of themselves, mellowing gradually and growing richer in meaning." They concretely realize the unchanging aim of art: "homecoming, return to one’s family, to oneself, to true existence."

Pushkin performs the same function as Christ. They have the same office and duty: to express the highest native talent, the talent for life, thereby resurrecting a truly human way of life. In some form or other, Christ’s passion must be authentically re-enacted again and again. We repeatedly must be called back to everyday life and its requisite forms. There will always be a Pushkin, a Yury, or a Hamlet, whom chance has allotted "the role of judge of his own time and servant of the future," the high destiny of "a life devoted and pre-ordained to a heroic task." In Pasternak’s cosmos, Christ and man are equals, each serving the same master, life itself. This brings us to a final ingredient of Pasternak’s cosmic harmony, without which we cannot fully understand the interrelations of life, death, form, and art. This is eros, love. With love, Pasternak’s women emphatically enter the cosmic picture. The theme of eros and women is explicitly sounded in the eccentric Sima’s conversations with Lara, with her original reformation of Nikolai’s speculative theses on religion and history. Mary replaces Christ as the inaugurator of modern, truly human history. Hence the role of Mary Magdalene; "what equal terms between God and life, God and the individual, God and a woman!" Yury’s sacrifice is accordingly allegorised as the crucifixion of Christ with Lara as Mary Magdalene.

Above all else, Pasternak is deeply repelled by social and political ‘blueprintism,’ the wilful foisting of rigid, unyielding forms on humanly communal life, and by individuals denying their original, native personalities in favour of imitating someone or something else. He is repelled by all those who are unwilling to attend to life’s aboriginal ways and who give up on their individually unique lives in favour of grand poses, public or private. He is repelled by those who treat life as a substance to be moulded (an attitude which only reveals their profound misunderstanding of life), and by all who delight in marching to deadly, ‘world-important’ causes, the abstract issues of ironfisted, uncreative wills. Life cannot be treated with such impunity without disastrous consequences and without sinning against the very goodness of existence.

I follow Pasternak with reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection (on balance, I prefer Pasternak). Tolstoy is in a way defeated by his own artistry; the novel is in many respects an attempt to evangelise in favour of a certain set of moral viewpoints. The novel, not unreasonably, sees the political and judicial system of Russia as being essentially repressive but Tolstoy is still careful to represent the views of those lawyers and politicians and to explain them in dialogic terms, as with the hurt of his brother in law at Nekhlyadov’s accusations. Equally, the peasantry are depicted as having become callous, with one especially chilling statement of how the peasantry would do unto the aristocracy as had been done unto them foretelling the fate of Russia in the next century. The novel invokes many criticisms of institutions but as Tolstoy sees man as corrupt he discounts them altogether (and the prospect of their reformation with it) as being incapable of reforming others. Tolstoy’s theological predelictions sit alongside his political ones rather uneasily, perhaps because the peasants are seen by Nekhlyadov as a means to his redemption rather than an end in their own right (hence the novel aborts the logical course of his reformation by having Maslova marry another peasant instead). In other words, the novel both offers a moral fable and critiques it simultaneously.

Reading Custine’s Journey for Our Time affords some insight into the Russian novel; Custine depicts a society dominated by what Milosz termed Ketman, in which the art of feigning was of paramount importance in a society where both spiritual and temporal power remained absolute. Attempts to open Russia to the West, as with the building of Saint Petersburg, had simply generated an alienating environment distant from Russian traditions. As such, the arrival of a middle class in an increasingly wealthy country meant the creation of the superfluous men endemic throughout Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy; figures with the same material comforts as their European counterparts but whose existence remained feudal in other respects. Gogol’s work is full of the sense of a world upturned, where the impressions of the senses prove deceiving and the individual is powerless to discern the true way ("how strangely, how insrutably fate plays with us… oh, do not trust this Nevsky Prospekt… all is deception, all is a dream, all is not what it seems"). A story like Nevsky Prospekt or a play like The Government Inspector sees differing characters taking very different routes, only to arrive at the same destination and undermine any sense of a possible moral fable; in some sense Diary of a Madman is a satire on the inability of the superfluous man to find any place or position in reward for their strivings. The sense of the indeterminate even extends to the inanimate acquiring being; stories like The Nose remind me of Kafka and Metamorphosis; in both stories characters are transfigured for reasons that are not withheld from the reader so as to disorient. As a final note, I suspect in all this that our modern society is increasingly like that of nineteenth century Russia (Generation X being our modern account of the superfluous man) but it is worth citing an opposing view from Nikita Khrushchev:

" This belief in the greatness of the Russian soul, Khrushcheva argues, is simply smoke and mirrors used to excuse the country’s backwardness. Russians prefer to fall back on this dreamy myth rather than take responsibility for their own lives. Rational individualism has never taken hold with Russians, and it is instead external forces such as fate and the state that provide meaning to their lives. Living in an idealized, poetic world — "a childish Russian paradise" – they are unable and unwilling to engage in practical activity.

The Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, Khrushcheva writes, offers a way out of this backward state through the example of his own life and his characters. As a member of a wealthy family, he went into exile after the Revolution. His past and country destroyed, Nabokov was forced to rely on himself and create his own meaning for his life. For Khrushcheva, Nabokov represents "the next step after Chekhov in Russian literature, its Westernization and rationalization." Wallowing in a dreamy, poetic world, blaming fate for their problems, the characters of Russian literature, from Dostoevsky to Chekhov, are defined by their pensiveness and suffering. Nabokov, however, placed his heroes in "normal" life. "[He] forced them to live as people live from day to day … refusing to perceive suffering as a sign of great spiritual depth." Khrushcheva contrasts Western and Russian attitudes to happiness. "In the West, happiness … is not the passive patience of Russian literature, but Western perseverance. Happiness in an evolutionary striving forward, and you have to gain it and create it yourself."

I tend to think Khrushcheva’s ignores the scores of superluous figures washed up on the shores of history in Nabokov’s work (and certainly the distorting mirrors of Pale Fire have more than a little in common with Gogol) (or, failing that, characters like those depicted by Stendhal that can find no purchase on history).

Alexander Rodchenko’s work was recently on display at the Southbank. The grimly puritannical concrete setting is ideal for Rodchenko. In one instance, his photos of the Shukov tower and the Narkomfin building are vertiginous, showing them towering up overhead. In the other, his photos of people show them as pullulating masses, typically shot looking down on them above, like a beekeeper opening a hive. Rodchenko seems reluctant to recognise individuals, only the revolutionary masses. This is taken to its worst extreme in his photos of the building of the White Sea Baltic Canal, showing political prisoners being worked to death in its construction; Rodchenko’s response to this was to adjust the photographs to show the workers smiling. Much of the photos have a disturbing resemblance to Nazi images; Leni Von Riefenstahl (another photographer who only saw masses not people) could have taken the propaganda photos of the Red Army. The images of children might as well be of the Hitler Youth (even the communists complained that one picture looking up at a youth’s face dehumanised him, although they also complained that the youth should be looking forward not upwards to symbolise revolutionary progress). At the Dynamo Water Stadium, Rodchenko twisted the camera so that divers leaping from the board appeared to be soaring upwards rather than plummeting down. Riefenstahl employed the same technique in her film of the Berlin Olympics. Stalin and Hitler found common ground in exhibitions of what we now call ‘body fascism’ (Tom of Finland without the erotics) and Rodchenko’s work is also at one with Arno Breker and Riefenstahl here. More generally, his works seems torn between competing ideas; the idea of philosophy as part of everyday life, the quotidian, instead of the bourgeois nature of painting, as opposed to his idea of ostranenie, of making things strange (which might have been unconcerned with ideology in Shklovsky’s original formulation but which seems mostly manipulative here). Rodchenko here used many of the same techniques Eisenstein used in film, with a photo like The Stairs clearly recalling The Battleship Potemkin. Some of his more interesting photos effect that very well, superimposing images through double exposure to create effects that could have come from Man Ray. Similarly, his later photos of circuses suggest a fascination with the exotic rather than with the previous hordes of picture of collectivised farms and lightbulb factories.

Following the Russian theme, I’ve also been to see Matthew Bourne’s version of The Nutcracker. The ballet opens in the Dickensian setting of an orphanage, albeit one apparently designed by a cubist with tangential angles on all the walls and furniture, presumably to denote how their height would seem to a child. The second half rather resembles a Pierre et Gi’les photograph, with everything in saturated technicolor. Also interesting to note that it’s as homoerotic as Pierre et Gilles, with the Nutcracker and soldiers dancing stripped to the waist and much of the dancing unabashedly sexual. I’m especially taken by a scene in the orphanage of one of the boys wanting a toy doll instead of the football he gets…

I follow this with a visit to a Cranach exhibition. Much of the earlier work is rather predictably devotional, but like Holbein his work represents a point where the christian vocabulary of medieval art is broken. Much of work shifts from religious subjects to portraiture, such as his painting of the Holy Kinship which shows religious figures but is actually painting Saxon aristocrats or the inclusion of the Bishop of Olomouc in a painting of the beheading of John the Baptist (with the shift from allegory to realism figured in the dog lapping up John’s blood). Religious figures like St Helena are also depicted as Saxon nobles. Many of his paintings come to leave out the background altogether, leaving the individual in isolation against a void of blackness. Rather than visions of the beatific, Cranach is preoccupied with the grotesque; for example one of the more interesting details are drawings of The Temptation of Saint Anthony with a Boschian horde of demons. He also paints pictures showing elderly women with young men and vice versa; a carnivalesque form of laughter and grotesquerie. Equally, many of his religious subjects emerge as opportunities for the prurient and licentious; Lot being seduced by his daughters, David and Bathsheba and so on. A painting of Bocca della Verite shows an adultress getting away with her sin. Classical subjects often allow Cranach to show such scenes without any edifying pretext, such as the Judgement of Paris with its three nude goddesses or Venus and Cupid. As I mentioned before, Cranach treats Adam and Eve in exactly the same manner as Apollo and Diana, Adam and Eve in the same manner as the Golden Age. Much of his work can also be described as proto-romantic, with its forest scenes and gothic castles; Saint Jerome is a common subject (as with his painting of Cardinal Albrecht as Jerome).

With the arrival of Easter, I travel up to the Midlands, calling in at Upton House. The building itself is rather nondescript, with the usual interminable Meissen cermaics and Stubbs paintings. However, it does happen to possess an excellent painting collection. The Long Gallery contains a striking Saenredam painting of Utrecht cathedral, showing it as largely empty, a bleached vision of Protestant purity that I find surprisingly striking, possibly because of the ghostly addition of figures by a less skilled painter who subsequently tried to erase them. This work stands alongside Dutch winter and harbour scenes in the style of Brueghel and an early Canaletto. A later picture room is given up to two Hogarth paintings of times of the day; both are badly in need of cleaning which rather inhibits their appeal. This room is also home to Romney’s Romantic painting of a rather ephebian William Beckford against a set of ruined tombs in a forest. Finally, there is a picture gallery proper, featuring Ruisdael landscapes, Steen’s allegorical paintings, a Holbein miniature of a young man, a Jan Lievens painting mistaken in the past for a Rembrandt. A biblical scene by Tintoretto rather resembles one of Canaletto’s later architectural capriccios while an El Greco’s painting of christ contrasts with the Saenredam painting for its use of a bold but restricted palette of the primary colours. The faces in it are long and drawn, resembling Byzantine icons. The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly a Bosch triptych of the nativity. The ruined stable is an archetype in painting of this period but the bizarre gifts brought by the kings are far more characteristic of Bosch, as are the grisaille demons clustered on the inverse panels around a circle of light. Grisaille is also used strikingly in a Brueghel painting of the death of the virgin. As ones eyes grow accustomed to the darkness one gradually sees more and more figures in a room that had previously looked empty; an interesting trompe l’oeil that inverts the normal role of light in Western art. The rest of the works are medieval paintings and alterpieces, often by anonymous masters. I am quite struck by a Memling painting of a young man though. The only other things of interest in the house are a silver art deco bathroom that looks disturbingly like the set of a nineteen seventies BBC science fiction programme and a painting on the stairs of the adventurer William Augustus Bowles as an Indian chief, who had sought refuge with the Creek Indians and fought with them to attempt to expel the Spanish from Florida. It’s still too early in the year to appreciate the gardens, but a long lawn drops down through a set of terraces to a long pond. I also visit the church at Ewelme, an astonishing place with medieval stone corbels and Victorian wooden angels lining the roof (one of the corbels depicts Edward the Third, of whom there is more anon), high wooden rood screens and an equally high gothic font cover, a gold altar by Ninian Comper featuring Sebastian, George and Michael, a floor covered in medieval tiles, walls decorated with a medieval IHS monogram in gothic black and red letters, as well as several alabaster tombs decorated with brasses, painted shields and angels.

In the Midlands itself, I visit the church of St Peter’s at Wootton Wawen. The building’s tower dates back to the Saxon period and the structure is a rather chaotic accretion of all that has passed since. Corbels of Edward and Philippa flank a window of Victorian stained glass, dating from Gilbert Scott’s restoration. Alabaster tombs sit alongside Victorian hatchments and Baroque monuments, including an exceptional monument with a winged skull. The roof remains wooden, like that of a tithe barn. Nearby is the house of Coughton Court, a building owned by the Throckmorton family. Having been implicated in plots against Elizabeth and the gunpowder plot, the family were displaced from English life and the building seems to reflect it. The exterior remains Tudor, with an ornate gatehouse with half timbered buildings behind and parterre gardens. The interior reflects a family with social pretensions but little finance, with each room being decorated in an anodyne style that could have existed at any point from the 17th to 19th centuries. Some wooden sixteenth century panelling and furniture remains and I am struck by the family mascot, an elephant, appearing above the dining room doors, as well as by a good collection of tapestries. However, the majority of the painting are mediocre portraits of little merit (save one arresting 16th century English memento mori portrait) and the family seem to have been more interested in seditious Catholic relics like the Pretender’s gloves than in anything else. The building is warrened with priest holes (recusancy seems to have been endemic in this part of Warwickshire, with a similar story applying at Baddesley Clinton and most of the village at Wootton Wawen remaining Catholic), while the nineteenth century saw the construction of an especially grim Catholic chapel alongside the Anglican church adjacent to the house.

Finally, I also travel to Kilpeck in Herefordshire, which more than lives up to its promise. The pinkish red Romanesque church rather reminds me of the Watts chapel in Surrey, which was presumably based on it. Like the Watts chapel, Kilpeck’s door is decorated with a tympanum showing the green man, the tree of life., basilisks and manticores. The roof is lined with corbels of bears, sheela-na-gigs, musicians, dancers and fish. In such a deserted setting, which was especially windswept at the time of my visit, it seems a little like coming across Angkor Wat. Walking through the graveyard, I look at the Castle ruins. The Norman moat has begun to fill again with the rain, while there is the incongruous setting of flowering primrose in snow. The few remaining castle walls seem to have little time left, with a large crack splitting one of them and ivy growing over the other. Both have been fenced off. Behind the ruins and past the bare tree branches and their burden of mistletoe, like the black mountains. As I return, I look at the harvest moon, its red hue shrouded by the night clouds.