One of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced as a writer in the Internet age is getting over my fear of just being me. I am honest to a fault (no, really, because I will tell you, “Yes, that dress does make you look fat!), and I have a fairly (read: utterly) demonstrative way of addressing people. But in the age of viral communications, I worry that something will be misunderstood, taken out of context, or simply deemed as offensive without giving me the benefit of the doubt to explain myself.
Those who confront me usually are surprised by the open door of communication that materializes before them when they do so because, despite my tone and opinions, I embrace healthy debate and civil confrontation. This probably stems in part from attending Bryn Mawr College, where “confrontation” was a form of student dialogue. The word itself was horribly off-putting, but the action of confrontation was ingenious in its simplicity: “I confront you for what you are doing because I disagree with what you are doing. Now, please respond to this.” No hate. No name calling. Just a direct path that cuts through the bullshit and opens that door of communication, offering a real dialogue and exchange of ideas.
As I wake up the day after what is being called “an historic election,” I fear that my daily post this morning will piss off more people than it will take in, but I feel that I must confront what is name-calling and spurious accusations about our current and newly reelected President that he represents things that he doesn’t. I’m specifically going to address—in terms of books that have shaped my life—the truly outrageous charge that President Barack Obama is a communist or is leading this country into communism.
I actually know a thing or two about communism, having come of age at the height of the Cold War and choosing to major in Russian in an era when doing so actually prompted the CIA to open a file on anyone who declared Russian as their major. I lived in the Russian House (now demised) at BMC, where we were pretty confident (but not paranoid) that we were under surveillance. Several of my professors were from the Soviet Union. I lived for awhile in the Soviet Union. I even married a guy who was born in the USSR (never a communist, incidentally, which was truly exceptional in a nation that would forbid higher education to non-communists).
Rather than bore you with a lengthy treatise on the writings of Karl Marx (who was not happy that a backwater country like Russia became the de facto leader of the ECONOMIC movement—please note that communism is a form of economics regarding who controls property ownership; it is NOT a political movement—because Marx felt that the Russian peasantry was not going to have the wherewithal to govern the utopian state that he believed communism would bring about; he wanted Germany to embrace communism, but they took the far-right path to fascism instead), I’m going to turn to great literature about Russia, communism and the Soviet Union to illustrate my confrontation of those whose claims I bring into question.
If you want to know what led to the rise of Leninism and the Revolution of 1905 (not the one that brought about Lenin, but it did give birth to him), you really can understand everything there is to know about late 19th Century Russia by reading War and Peace «Война и миръ». This novel is possibly Leo Tolstoy’s most difficult text, but some of that has to do with understanding key themes that Ct. Tolstoy was formulating throughout his early writings. In brief, hard work = good, born into ease = bad; giddy girls = bad, mature women laden with too many kids = good. Yes, Ct. Tolstoy had issues with women. However, he was also a product of his time. As a titled land owner, he felt burdened by the demands on him and his money. He would view his own servants and came to the conclusion that manual labor led to personal happiness and enlightenment. It was only through hard work and genuine sacrifice that the soul could be saved. These themes are rampant in this huge novel, but don’t be afraid to tackle it. And you can ignore pretty much everyone in the first 50 pages with complicated names other than Pierre Buzukhov. He’s important. The rest is pretty much party gossip. (And if you want to buy it, the Pevear and Volokhnosky translation is probably the best one out there right now; click on photo or link above.)
I don’t know if it is possible to pick the greatest work of Russian literature, but you probably won’t go wrong if you cast your vote for Dr. Zhivago «Дoктор Живаaго». I have to admit that the first time I read Boris Pasternak’s seminal work about an M.D.-slash-poet who gets caught up in the machine that is the revolution, I didn’t really get it. Then I spent a few months in Russia in the winter. If you have ever lived in a region of the world that spends much of its year under snow, all the metaphors of this brilliant and heart-wrenching novel will become immediately apparent. This book depicts a world where hope comes to die; where the greater your gifts, the more likely they are to be exploited or ignored; where the only thing to live for is love and you’re pretty much guaranteed you won’t be allowed to do that for very long. It is also a masterful story of how no amount of ignorance or slavery can quell an individual’s spirit; you can break the man, but even death will not end the artist’s impact on life that he left behind.
A personal aside: I remember well a story my favorite professor (a former Soviet national) once told. He was part of a U.S. State Department educational exchange that allowed him into the USSR with diplomatic credentials (and an absence of strict Soviet customs procedures). He had exchanged letters with another professor over the years and was able to meet up with her one night over vodka and zakuski (hors d’oeuvres). While they had been followed most of the evening by the KGB, there was a point late at night when they were pretty much left alone. He opened his satchel and handed over to her a paper-wrapped block. She tucked it away quickly, asking him what it was. He said only one word: Pasternak. She immediate started weeping tears of joy, thanked him, and left him there in the snow to return to his embassy while she returned to her communal apartment.
Read this book that was underground for so long and discover why it would bring tears of joy to those who had the chance to read it.
Finally, go on a flight of fancy into post-revolutionary Soviet Russia, when the stagnation of the Stalin era was paralleled only by the terror of the Stalin era. In one of the most fun books ever written (and I have a novel I’m writing that borrows from this work, which borrows from Goethe’s Faust which borrows the Dr. Faustus tale of Christopher Marlowe), you get to learn the story of Pontius Pilate, his tortured relationship with Jesus Christ, why only the Devil can sort out evil from good, and—of course—the tale of The Master & Margarita «Мaстер и Маргарита».
Mikhail Bulgakov wrote The Master & Margarita as satire of the bureaucratic quagmire that he had seen his world devolve into. The book was written in 1937 but immediately censored. He famously burned the first manuscript, about which he writes in the novel and to which Satan (aka Prof. Woland) even more famously retorts, “Manuscripts don’t burn.” The story’s two tales in one gave me the idea of blending two separate stories in my novel, The Truth (Kindle version here). Of course, I cannot write at the level of Mr. Bulgakov, but I hope one day to do justice to this amazing piece of literature.
If after reading all this amazing Russian literature, you still think this country is on the verge of a communist takeover, I invite you to mull over the President’s words last night in his victory speech:
It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, or Hispanic or Asian, or Native American, or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.
These are the words of inclusion. The kind of inclusion that did not exist in the lives of Tolstoy, Pasternak or Bulgakov. Sometimes literature brings clarity to hyperbole.