A room and a half or even less


August 20, 2017 by AK

Going back to Kirsten Ghodsee’s New York Times article, Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism. It was probably a Times editor who came up with the title. As I’ve tried to explain, it’s a complicated subject that cannot be summed up in two words and requires differentiating by country, province and socioeconomic class (which did not disappear under socialism). As for the former USSR, any discussion of people’s private lives, including sex, risks slipping into irrelevance unless the infamously cramped housing is brought into the picture.

I would suggest Joseph Brodsky’s 1986 essay, In a Room and a Half, to get an idea of the communal apartments typical of post-WWII Soviet cities (Leningrad in Brodsky’s case). The essay is still behind a paywall but it’s probably worth paying for. You can read a Russian translation for free. You can also watch Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s 2009 pseudo-biopic, A Room and a Half, or a Sentimental Journey to the Old Country. I haven’t seen it but Alisa Freyndlikh (Freundlich) and Sergei Yursky, who play Joseph’s parents in the film, are both exceptionally gifted and accomplished theater actors. I’m also certain that Khrzhanovsky’s movie depicts the typical communal apartment faithfully.

If you wish to fast forward from the 1950s to Brezhnev years, 1964-82 or more loosely 1964-85, consider Yuri Trifonov’s 1969 novella The Exchange. The protagonist, Victor Dmitriyev, his wife Yelena (Lena), and their 10- or 12-year-old daughter all live in a room in a communal apartment. Pressured by his wife, Dmitriyev sells his soul to the devil, more or less, to move them into a separate flat. The two paragraphs below, from The Exchange, should provide some helpful context to the better sex under socialism debate:

They stopped talking and listened. Everything was quiet. Their daughter was sleeping behind the room divider, in the corner. Also behind the divider stood the daughter’s small desk where she did her homework in the evening. Dmitriyev had made a bookshelf and hung it above the small desk, and had laid the wiring for a desk lamp, setting up a separate roomlet behind the divider – a “solitary” as the family called it. Dmitriyev and Lena slept on a wide sofa bed made in Czechoslovakia, luckily bought three years earlier, an object of their friends’ envy. The sofa stood by the window, separated from the “solitary” by an oakwood cupboard…

In the evenings, reclining themselves on their Czechoslovak bed – which had turned out not so solid, soon going loose and creaking with every movement – Dmitriyev and Lena would listen up to every sound from behind the partition, for a long time, trying to determine if their daughter had fallen asleep or not. Dmitriyev would call in a half-whisper: “Natasha? Hey, Natasha?” Lena would tiptoe up and look in through a slit in the divider.

A side note, a follow-up as it were to Erik McDonald‘s recent posts on Muireann Maguire’s review of new English translations of Tolstoy. The third sentence in the excerpt above – “Their daughter was sleeping…” – refers, no doubt, to the moment when Dmitriyev and his wife stopped arguing to check if they hadn’t just woken up their daughter. The continuous tense is in order. However, one can also read it, in the original Russian, as a general statement: their daughter always slept behind the screen, not only that night. That would require the simple present in English. This seems a special case of the generic difficulty of translating from languages lacking the present progressive tense.

Self-censorship now required of Google Play apps


August 19, 2017 by AK

Google has removed Gab‘s Android application from the Google Play store. This was done “as a policy strike because it [the app] violates the hate speech policy.” Google Play’s hate speech policy is this:

We don’t allow apps that advocate against groups of people based on their race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, nationality, veteran status, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Gab is a social network app. As a platform and a tool, it cannot advocate for anything or against anyone: only its users can, and some have been reported to practice hate speech, as defined by Google. It seems that Google reads “apps that advocate against groups” as shorthand for “apps that are used for such advocacy.”

To some degree, even Twitter is used to these ends, but Twitter practices internal censorship while Gab does not, out of principle. By analogy, it appears that Gab would be allowed back onto Google Play if the app’s creators were committed to minimizing hate speech broadcast via the network.

In other words, Google’s hate speech rule insists on censorship, if still implicitly at this point. Even if a Twitter-like network’s administrator merely asks users to be nice (“or else Google will drop us”), it’s a request for self-censorship. Since it’s not going to work anyway, the admins will either have to censor the content and users via purges and blocks, Twitter-style, or somehow find ideal users that always talk nice. That makes internal censorship a required feature for Twitter-like apps on Google Play.

In effect, Google is telling the world that unmoderated, no-holds-barred exchanges are not welcome in cyberspace. Playing censor, playing government – both made possible by Google’s market power, which, in its turn, makes it susceptible to government regulation.

Susceptible and even vulnerable as they might be, I don’t expect anti-trust proceedings anywhere in the world to put an end to Google’s and Apple’s dominance in certain markets. If I have hope – if never too much – it’s for new technology and know-how both to dislodge the oligopolies and defang government censorship.

How about propaganda-free anthropology? 


August 16, 2017 by AK

This article is not as silly as it may sound. A few suggestions for better credibility: Don’t mix propaganda and anthropology. Forget The Female Body under Socialism and focus on the field studies. Take down that Soviet poster and the hammer and sickle.

Also, don’t claim the Bolsheviks gave Russian women suffrage: the term is meaningless without competitive elections, and it was the provisional government that let women vote – in the Constitutional Assembly elections in 1917. Thankfully, the NYT has fixed this error.

One more thing: don’t heap together societies as different as Bulgaria, East Germany and Russia. Ideally, focus on one country at a time. Bulgaria in particular is an example of a rural, archaic society transformed into an urban, industrial one under Communist rule after WWII. Naturally, the condition of women improved as they left the patriarchal countryside. As the song goes, I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (can’t get no worse). Urbanization means more independence and greater opportunities for women, even under Communism or totalitarian Islam.

Finally, the invisible elephant: housing conditions.

Overcome vs. answer


August 10, 2017 by AK

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s Response to the Controversial Google Anti-Diversity Memo begins:

Yesterday, after reading the news, my daughter asked me a question. “Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?”

And ends:

I thought about all of this, looked at my daughter and answered simply.
“No, it’s not true.”

However, in between the opening and the closing passages, there’s hardly an attempt to actually answer this question beyond a simple “yes” or “no,” by rational argument. According to Wojcicki, it was a question she had “long sought to overcome” in her own life: overcome, not answer. At no point does evidence enter her response.

Pretty sheets of paper


August 6, 2017 by AK

Sir JCass has reminded me that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in all likelihood, suffered from a paranoid disorder. One can pick out distant echoes of mental distress from this episode, as told by Mme de Genlis in her memoirs:

He [JJR] often talked to us of the manner in which he had composed the Nouvelle Héloïse. He told us that he wrote all the letters of Julie on beautiful small-letter paper with vignettes – that he afterward folded them like letters, and read them in his walks with as much transport as if he had received them from an adored mistress.

This reminded me of Dmitry Pisarev (1840-68), the radical Russian literary critic who suffered from an unidentified psychiatric illness labeled dementia melancholica. It was not dementia in the modern sense – Pisarev was a brilliant young man with a gift for languages – but it was undoubtedly a disorder. The protagonist of Nabokov’s last Russian novel, The Gift, wrote in his essay on Chernyshevsky – the (in)famous Chapter Four:

Just as, in his boyhood, he had arrayed all his notebooks in rainbow covers, so, as a grown man, Pisarev would suddenly abandon some urgent work in order to painstakingly color woodcuts in books…

(Translated by Michael Scammell.) LanguageHat has recently pointed out this sentence from Samuil Lurie‘s novel Pisarev, a Man of Letters:

He took down lectures [at St. Petersburg University] in minute handwriting in pretty little notebooks decorated with decalcomania and little sheets of pink blotting paper.

Pisarev was treated at a psychiatric clinic in 1859-60, but his mental health likely deteriorated further during his imprisonment in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul (Petropavlovskaya Krepost’) in 1862-1866. He enjoyed a brief period of great influence over the Russian students and progressive youth, which did not end with his imprisonment as he was allowed to write from his cell. He drowned near Riga in 1868.

Tyutchev and Turgenev in their late 40s


August 3, 2017 by AK

Tyutchev (1803-1873) wrote this poem in July 1850, at 46, possibly still in the grip of depression but already on the brink of a new life (which would end in a series of disasters in 1864-5). I thought of it while translating Potugin’s monologue yesterday:

Don’t reason, don’t bother:
Madness teaches, stupidity judges.
Treat the day’s wounds with sleep,
And whatever is due tomorrow, will be.

As you live, know how to survive all things:
Sorrow, and joy, and worry.
What’s there to wish for? to regret?
The day is over – give thanks to God.

Or, if you wish, “You have survived the day – praise be to God.” Tyutchev and Turgenev belonged to different generations (born in 1803 and 1818) but were on friendly terms and appreciated each other’s work. In 1862, Turgenev conceived a new novella, which would later become Smoke. He only started working on the novel in earnest late in 1865, just before turning 47, about the same age when Tyutchev had written the poem above.

It’s probably worth adding that Tyutchev was a grown-up thinker at 25, but here he moves on, so to say, from generalized pessimism to practical advice.

Subterranean work


August 2, 2017 by AK

In 1877, Nikolai Nekrasov wrote an epigram, To the Author of Anna Karenina:

Tolstoy, you have proven with patience and talent
That a woman should not have affairs
Either with a sub-chamberlain or with an aide-de-camp
When she’s a wife and a mother.

There’s still some bite in this because of Tolstoy’s ineradicable moralizing, and it’s a good enough summary for a literophobic cynic. Fortunately, Tolstoy’s inordinate talent and patience forced readers to accept his novel on its own terms. Turgenev’s late works were denied not only that but even a basic understanding of the plot.

The setting for most of the action in Smoke is Baden-Baden, the famous German resort where Turgenev lived in 1863-71 and Dostoevsky gambled away his young wife’s jewelry in 1867. (Jane Austen lived in Bath and Turgenev in Baden: everything fits.)

The principal protagonist is introduced at the very beginning: Litvinov, a Russian landowner nearing thirty who had been studying agriculture and “technology” for more than four years in Germany, Belgium and Britain, in order to better manage his Russian estate.

The story begins on August 10, 1862, a year and a half after the emancipation of the Russian serfs, on the eve of the other great reforms of the 1860s which would radically change Russia’s military, legal system and local government.

Towards the end of the novel, early in the fall of 1862, Litvinov returns to his manor and works hard to pay off the debts that had piled up while his elderly father was in charge. In the next two and a half years, Litvinov has little use for the practical education he has received in Europe. He rents out most of his land to sharecroppers, “a miserable, primitive arrangement.” On the other hand, he also restarts the factory built on the land by its previous owner and sets up a “tiny” farm on the remaining land with only five hired hands, having gone through forty.

In May 1865, his affairs improved, Litvinov travels to visit the young woman who was once his fiancée. We are given to understand they will marry shortly thereafter.

Almost all the action in the novel occurs in Baden-Baden between August 10 and some point late in the same month or early in September. It also includes flashbacks to Litvinov’s student years in Moscow, about ten years earlier. This inner part can be roughly described as a love story or the tale of a dark temptation that nearly ruined Litvinov. It is On the timeline of his life, up to his early thirties at least, Litvinov’s passions in Baden-Baden are only a painful episode. He completes his studies abroad and returns home to a joyless life of daily management chores.

At the plot level, Turgenev’s sympathies are with Litvinov the stoic. If Turgenev still had a dim hope for Russia, it was that Litvinov’s and his fiancée’s patience and diligence would bear fruit over time. “…I believe it is the only sensible and useful piece I’ve wrote,” Turgenev wrote to Fet in July/August 1867, referring to Smoke. Russian critics wrote dozens of pages refuting Sozont Potugin’s maxims, as if he had been a new Chaadayev, but this one can’t be refuted, only rejected or accepted:

Here’s the thing about it: today’s young people have made an error in their calculation. They imagine the time of old, dark, subterranean work has passed: “it was all right for the old folk to keep burrowing like moles but this part is humiliating for us – we shall act in the open air; we shall act…” My dear fellows! It won’t even be your kids’ turn to act, and you are welcome back to the hole – into the hole, in the steps of the old folk.

With this, I feel we’ve tunneled to the bottom of the story.

Dirty fusion


July 30, 2017 by AK

This post is about William “Bill” Browder’s recent Senate testimony on the enforcement of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. While you don’t have to trust Browder on other issues, his testimony makes it rather likely that Fusion GPS tried to smear him in the media and was paid for that by a firm owned by Russian nationals. That has implications for the provenance and veracity of the so-called Steele dossier, paid for and peddled by Fusion GPS.

When Bill Browder claims that Fusion GPS pitched (unsuccessfully) slanderous stories about him and Sergei Magnitsky to US media, chances are he knows what he’s talking about. Browder was a major factor behind the passage of the Magnitsky Act and was involved, as the principal provider of information to the federal prosecutors and eventually a witness, in US v. Prevezon Holdings Ltd. No doubt he’s been paying close attention to everything related to the Magnitsky case in Russia and the US.

To defend itself from the accusations of pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda, Fusion would probably point out that it was merely reporting the findings of Russian courts and prosecutors. (Still I doubt these dispatches mentioned Magnitsky’s posthumous conviction for tax evasion.) Let them try and see how it goes. Eventually someone will note that the Russian court rulings Fusion cited were manufactured for propaganda purposes in the first place.

This should establish the core of the case against Fusion GPS: spreading information which they knew was most likely false and which was indistinguishable from the official position of a foreign government.

Beyond this core, Browder’s claims depend too much on his grand narrative. He seems to believe that Fusion GPS was paid by the Kremlin to smear him. If true, one would also suspect the Kremlin paid Fusion in 2016 to produce the Steele dossier. I don’t think the evidence in public view at the moment is strong enough for these inferences. It’s probably OK to say that Fusion GPS disseminated dubious claims about Browder and his associates that nearly coincided with the Kremlin’s official narrative. Also, that Fusion was paid by a group of Russians trying to have the Magnitsky Act repealed as a means of protecting themselves from a forfeiture lawsuit under the Act, whose efforts were in line with the Kremlin’s wishes.

It makes no sense, but will it work?


July 28, 2017 by AK

Here’s my superficial reading of the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.” Apart from relatively minor tightenings of the screws (which might nonetheless hurt a good deal), there are three major innovations, as far as I can see:

(a) The bill removes the president’s discretion, making some of the sanctions mandatory (with only a national security exemption), and requires congressional approval to weaken or lift any sanctions, current or future.

(b) The bill gives the president discretionary powers to ban US-based and US-linked companies from taking any part in building new export pipelines from Russia, such as North Stream 2.

(c) The bill opens a procedural path to restricting or blocking US investment in Russian sovereign, sub-sovereign and quasi-sovereign debt.

Part (b) would have fit the logic of Obama’s sanctions: “So you want to keep Ukraine unstable? Go ahead, but bear in mind you won’t be able to build new pipelines to bypass the chaos.” It also assumes a simple incentive structure: leave Ukraine alone and the sanctions will be at least weakened. Obama’s sanctions operated like a boa constrictor, sedate and overly cautious, perhaps, but appropriately rational.

In contrast, the promises and logic of the 2017 bill tend to the surreal; perhaps paranoia is a winning stratagem after all. If Kremlin’s rule of thumb is “retaliate by bombing Voronezh,” “keep the sanctions coming” might be the right principle. However, you cannot count on being able to safely drive your adversary to suicide.

“It was his book that had irritated me”


July 20, 2017 by AK

Himadri C., the Argumentative Old Git, is taking another look at Turgenev’s Smoke, a short novel from 1867. (Old Smoke links: Erik McDonald; yours most humbly.) Back in 1830, Pushkin had Tatiana tell Onegin, at a point when it was too late for anything but regrets: “And happiness was so possible, // So close!” A kindred might-have-been is at the core of some of Turgenev’s fiction, such as Asya and The Torrents of Spring. In Smoke, the central character, Litvinov, gets a second chance at proposing to a young woman who loves him. The other major male character, Potugin, has chosen voluntary servitude to a woman he loves, who is kind and sensible enough to take him in as a loyal domestic.

Readers familiar with Turgenev’s relationship with Pauline Viardot were tempted to assume an affinity between Potugin and his creator. Turgenev did little if anything to disown Potugin’s views. Expressed in poignant diatribes, these views predictably put certain writers and critics into a fighting mode.

Privately, both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky disapproved of Smoke. The former did not bother to explain his reasons clearly. In a letter to Afanasy Fet, he wrote of a lack of love for anything but lightweight promiscuity, and an absence of poetry in Smoke, but admitted a personal dislike for its author. Tolstoy and Turgenev had fallen out in 1861 and did not reconcile until 1878.

Dostoevsky hated Turgenev with all the intensity of a slighted underground man, and Potugin’s outpourings could only rekindle the old animosity. In the summer of 1867, in the midst of a ruinous gambling spell in Baden-Baden, Dostoevsky went to see Turgenev and made an ugly scene fit for a D-novel. Turgenev put it down to his visitor’s illness, but, as Dostoevsky made it clear in a private letter, “mainly it was his book, Smoke, that had irritated me.” Dostoyevsky went on to call Turgenev, literally, a traitor. Four years later, Turgenev claimed that his visitor had declared Smoke worthy of being burned by the executioner’s hand.

Criticism of the novel in the Russian press did not quite reach the same childish intensity but was partisan and schematic. “Is this a love story or social satire? If satire, is it fair or slanderous? Is Potugin talking sense or nonsense? If a love story, is it worth taking seriously at all? Is Litvinov a strong man? Is Irina a quintessence of passionate womanhood or essentially a courtesan?” So went the analysis.

It’s a wonder that ten years later, when Anna Karenina appeared, not all Russian critics started asking the same questions: “Is it a love story or social commentary? Can you forgive Levin for not supporting fellow Slavic nations?” Actually, Dostoevsky was very much displeased with Levin’s contempt for Pan-Slavism but this time around, he made no ugly scenes and limited his dissatisfaction to the pages of A Writer’s Diary.


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