Sunday, March 8, 2020

Dying of Natural Causes in Stalin's Russia

Cancer Ward, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

It was, by any measure, a remarkable life, a struggle most of us cannot comprehend. 

Solzhenitsyn's great novels--from Ivan Denisovich through Cancer Ward and First Circle--tell the story: four years of fighting the Nazis, witnessing atrocities committed both by German troops and his own comrades; eight years in the Gulag for referring to Stalin as "the man with mustache" in a private letter to a friend, the result was "perpetual exile." He was moved, in 1947, to "Special Prison 16," a sharashka, a prison for those with skills in science and mathematics. Three years among those in a kind of limbo that became the basis of his greatest novel The First Circle.

Another slip of the tongue--he couldn't help himself from speaking up, nor could he contain his impatience with the cruelty of the Stalinist system--as a result he was exiled to Ekibastuz where he "wrote" One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by memorizing it, line by line.  (I remember reading this unsurprising fact in Michael Scammell's biography).

In 1953 Stalin died and Solzhenitsyn was sent to Kok-Terek, in the Far East, sent to "perpetual exile." There he was a schoolteacher, divorced from a wife who had no prospect of ever seeing him again, with a constant pain in his abdomen. Almost too late, on the point of death, he was admitted to the cancer clinic at Tashkent where doctors removed a large tumor from his abdomen.  But recovery was hardly cheering for a man in exile--

“I was like the sick people all around me, and yet I was different,” he wrote. “I had fewer rights than they had and was forced to be more silent. People came to visit them, and their one concern, their one aim in life, was to get well again. But if I recovered, it would be almost pointless: I was 35 years of age, and yet in that spring I had no one I could call my own in the whole world. I did not even own a passport, and if I were to recover, I should have to leave this green, abundant land and go back to my desert, where I had been exiled ‘in perpetuity. ‘ There I was under open surveillance, reported on every fortnight, and for a long time the local police had not even allowed me, a dying man, to go away for treatment.”

In 1956 Solzhenitsyn's sentence was lifted and he was permitted to return to the agricultural college at  Ryazan where he remarried his wife, taught mathematics, and wrote out, at last, One Day. Between 1957 and 1963 three of his short novels were published in the Soviet Union, but in May 1967 the climate of relative tolerance shifted under Leonid Brezhnev.  He was expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union in 1969 and later detained and sent into exile, first to Germany, and then, accepting an invitation from Stanford University's Hoover Institute, to the United States.  He lived in Vermont, in Cavendish, where, in 1977, I sought him out hoping for, I have no idea what, but, in any case, he was no where to be found in that tiny hill town in the center of the Green Mountain State.  


Cancer Ward is to Stalinism what Mann's Magic Mountain was to the nationalism and militarism that plunged Europe into the Great War, though Solzhenitsyn avoids the intellectual high ground of Mann's great study of world-weariness for a story more deeply steeped in cultural despair.  Mann wrote within a modernist framework committed to lamenting the passing of what he thought to have been the pinnacle of European civilization (though Mann's irony makes it difficult to know precisely what he thought of the world that had committed suicide).  Solzhenitsyn had nothing to lament. For him, Stalinism was nothing less than the murderous continuation of a political history that dated back to the Tsars.  There was nothing in Russian history worthy of lament apart from the courage and suffering of ordinary Russians--in this respect, and in others, Solzhenitsyn is much closer in spirit to Tolstoy than to Dostoevsky, with whom he is most often compared. 

There are countries whose history can only be read as the history of the lives of ordinary people. In those countries, and Russia is one of them, politics has not offered solace from the rigors of the human condition.  Thus Cancer Ward, like the First Circle, consists of a collection of small stories of "ordinary" people who were, for Solzhenitsyn, the soul of Mother Russia. 

As in his monumental histories of the Gulag and of the First World War, these earlier novels delve with loving attention into the psychological condition of the victims of history.  Kostoglotov, who is Solzhenitsyn's alter ego in the novel, yearns for a plot of land, a wife and family, peace and security--for ordinary life.  Yet everything--war and famine, the oppressive state and, a final indignity, his own body--conspire against his enjoying any of the solace of a normal human life.  Kostoglotov's yearning for these things in the face of his own disease, and his compassion for those who partake of the same dreams, are what gives the novel its beauty and profundity. 

There is, to be sure, a current of cynicism and considerable anger in the book--the Stalinist toady Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, for example, represents for Kostoglotov all that is rotten within the Soviet system, and Solzhenitsyn is unsparing in his criticism of the hypocrisy and cruelty of the politics that has condemned so many innocents to death.  But the novel as a whole is remarkably free of bitterness.  The final chapters, in particular, are memorable for their depiction of yearning for a better life.  When Kostoglotove is released from the Cancer Ward--in remission, but, we understand, not cured, he reacts as a child might to the ordinary pleasures of life.  An ice cream, a treat not experienced in the War or the Gulag or the Ward, evokes in Kostoglotov an almost mystical sense of the beauty of life.  This was Solzhenitsyn himself speaking: his own life must have led him to conclude that nothing was sweeter than simply living. 

In Vermont, hiding out, writing furiously, he became cantankerous.  The West, he felt, was decadent--who could disagree--self-indulgent, naive.  He "warned" us repeatedly of the dangers of totalitarian states.  He said that our immersion in materialism and shallow culture would be our undoing. The wise men who tell us what to think accused him of being a "crank" and "out of touch." We knew better than he did, even though none of us had survived the horrors that for him were the ordinary stuff of memory. 


As the life around me deteriorates--as politics becomes folly, as indignities multiply--I can't help but think of how fortunate I have been, how my life has been blessed from beginning to (near) ending with peace and relative prosperity.  If I compare my own circumstances to those of Solzhenitsyn, I can hardly believe that we resided, for some time, in the same world.  His angry outbursts at the West during his exile seemed to many, and, I must confess, to me as well, as overwrought, the product of a view of the world I couldn't understand, let alone share.

What did I know?

George Ovitt (March 7, 2020)

Friday, February 14, 2020

The "Judgment of History"


 Tribunal, a novel

  When we roll out clichés like ‘time will tell’ and ‘the judgment of history,’ we are of course playing with language.  Time does not speak, nor does history judge.”

John W. Dower, Cultures of War


That's Pol Pot, Saloth Sâr, a happy peasant soldier, smiling in the jungle, during the period in which he and his associates and followers in the Khmer Rouge were murdering three million of their countrymen in the name of the revolutionary transformation of Democratic Kampuchea into a Maoist utopia.  The photographs of their atrocities--I thought of putting one or two into this short post, but for me they are simply too graphic--feel impossible to reproduce, like pictures of Auschwitz that one suspects appeal to those who are titillated by the sight of corpses, the evidence of unspeakable torture.  The perpetrators of Cambodia's self-immolation left us plenty of records, and in this case I prefer to read the story rather than look at images that are beyond comprehension.

I have obsessed over Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge ever since 1970, the year when, with hundreds of thousands of other Americans, I protested the widening of the Vietnam war into a naive and politically neutral country. I marched and sat and wept and was arrested over the invasion and bombing of a country whose history had about it an almost mythic aura, a country dragged with my country's help into madness, into hell.  Over the years I have read every book I could acquire, in English and in French, on these events, beginning with William Shawcross's Sideshow and extending to Philip Short's biography of Pol Pot and Elizabeth Becker's When the War Was Over. I have tried to understand what happened in Democratic Kampuchea, without success.

Over the past five years I wrote a novel about Cambodia, a novel that struggles with issues surrounding genocide, long-delayed and imperfect justice, the fragility of memory, the limits of language, and the comfort of forgetting.  It was published last week, and I hope you will forgive my small act of self promotion on this site.  I have no idea if the book in any way achieves the goal I set for myself, which was to create a fictional narrative that examined the matter of historical judgement, that asked, in essence, if it is better for us to look at the pictures or to look away.

A memorial isn't a memory but a space where we are induced to remember.  My novel was written as a memorial, but in the end I couldn't find a way to answer the question I wanted to answer because, as it turns out, there is no language in which to frame it.  Perhaps there isn't even a question.

Here's a short passage in which the novel's narrator, in the course of attempting to construct a coherent explanation of his own past (which intersected with the genocide in Cambodia), ruminates on a famous image from another war. I am not able to reproduce the picture by Erich Andres, but it can be viewed on line and is reproduced in Tribunal:

“In today’s world, personal truth is the only reality. To stand by that truth—to declare it—is revolutionary.” The writer Hans Erich Nossack, who died just a few years ago, nearly unknown in America, wrote in Untergang, his eye-witness account of the firebombing of Hamburg, his city, “Now time sits down sadly in a corner and feels useless.”  It was in Guernica, in 1939, that airplanes first dropped bombs on civilians with the purpose of terrorizing—and, of course, killing them.  In Hamburg, between visits to libraries, I went to a gallery to look at the photographs of Erich Andres. One photo shows twisted corpses turned to charcoal by the fires ignited by incendiary bombs—an image that is difficult to look at, pornographic in its depiction of violated human bodies. Another shows the skeleton of a building that reminds me each time I see it of Ground Zero in Hiroshima.  The one I now remember as I browse among the hopeful words of theologians and philosophers (the faint gray light barely penetrates these ranges; I leave the overhead lights off) show living men and women making their way through a rubble-strewn street amid dusty, diffused light. Two men carry bicycles on their backs—there is no question of their being able to ride through the chunks of stone and mortar—while an old woman, whose stripped dress looks like the forlorn clothing of the condemned at Birkenau, carefully negotiates the broken street.  The line of people stretches into the vanishing point  at the center of the photograph, which was then hanging on a wall on a side street of Hamburg, a street similar to the one in the photo, narrow, rebuilt of course, packed with shops and cafés and pedestrians.  I asked the owner of the gallery, a thick, florid man whose beard was a shade of white I had never seen before, as white as a cooked egg, if his shop were on the street captured by Andres’s photograph, the one that had riveted me for a quarter of an hour, whose texture was as flat and bland as those haunting photographs of the dead that had just begun to arrive from Cambodia, from the “killing fields” as they are being called.  I spoke German poorly, though it was a language I had heard growing up, German filling the rooms of our apartments as aunts and uncles newly arrived from the old country, the old disgraced country, passed through on their way to new lives, lives, perhaps, of equal disgrace.  German is a language I love to read but despair of speaking—back then, not cogent in any case, I choked on the words as I addressed the egg-faced man, and he looked at me with amusement, perhaps disdain, and said that no, we were standing in an entirely new and rebuilt part of the city, one that had not been in the quarters that were destroyed, and that if I wished to visit the older parts of town I could take the tram or a cab—he pointed to the door to indicate the direction in which one might find the remainder of the world.  I took the hint and left, but I had no real interest in locating the scene of the photograph that had so arrested me in the gallery; the effect was felt and registered, the truth of the image burned, as it turned out, forever into my memory.  Now in whatever city I find myself, as I walk the streets, it is easy to imagine the graceful brick apartments and shops lying cracked in the dusty air, the hurrying pedestrians moving like ghosts through the streets they grew up in, wondering how they would eat or where they might sleep."
Tribunal is available from Amazon beginning on February 17th, and from my publisher, Fomite Press, internet link below. If you read it, I would very much like to receive your responses here, on this site.

Thank you for your continuing support of our blog and our fiction.

George Ovitt (2/15/2020)

[All royalties from the sale of this book will be donated to Doctors Without Borders]



Thursday, January 16, 2020

One Radical Son

Unhappy Warrior: The Life and Death of Robert S. Starobin

by Linda Rennie Forcey

     It was roughly eight years ago that I read my mother’s Ph.D. dissertation for the first time, a manuscript completed some thirty-five years earlier, in 1978, then tucked away in a drawer. Entitled Personality in Politics: The Commitment of a Suicide, it tells the story of a radical young historian named Robert Starobin, a man who struggled mightily to reconcile the different, often oppositional demands of his life as a scholar and professor and as an activist committed to radical change. For Bob it was a struggle, coupled with years of depression and self-doubt, that finally overwhelmed him: in 1971, at the age of thirty-one, he put a bullet in his head.

      I was struck at once by his story, inspired—as well as troubled—by his brilliance, his passion, his weakness, his rage. For the story of Robert Starobin is not only the story of a flawed if remarkable man, a promising historian, teacher, and activist haunted by injustice in every form, but also, and significantly, a compelling depiction of life in the U.S. in the years during and immediately following the Vietnam War—a violent, bewildering, still largely unresolved chapter in the history of this nation.

     From as early as his student days, Bob Starobin was drawn to the throbbing heart of the times, often taking a leading role in the political affairs of his day. Born and raised in Greenwich Village, New York City, he was exposed early on to the more progressive strains of American life, attending political meetings and participating in the crowded rallies, marches, folk music gatherings, and May Day festivities in Washington Square Park.

                                    (Photo by Weegee, featuring Bob Starobin just behind fiddler)
       The son of Joseph Starobin, a professional communist and Foreign Editor for the Daily Worker, Bob, like most “Red Diaper Babies” raised in New York, attended the Little Red School House, Elisabeth Irwin High School, and The Bronx High School of Science, before heading upstate to Cornell, only to complete his graduate work at Berkeley, what was then the epicenter of student unrest. While there, he was active in both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Free Speech Movement (FSM). He protested everything from university policies and curricula to racial discrimination, nuclear testing, and the war in Vietnam. And that was just the beginning.

In his first teaching job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught seminars in Reconstruction and pioneered the university’s first black studies course, he proved an ardent and outspoken advocate for the black students there, as well as vociferous critic of the administration itself, which, in an editorial called “Let It Bleed,” he accused the University of having been co-opted by corporate and military interests. Called a “Jew-commie-nigger-lover” by an anonymous caller one night, he was also openly criticized for his radical politics, in particular for his participation in the Free Speech Movement and for his support of the Black Panthers. Yet he was unwilling to compromise his principles, to back down, to temper his politics for the sake of securing tenure there. He ultimately resigned his position in 1968.

     From there he moved east to Ithaca, New York, where, as a university fellow, he taught briefly at Cornell, his alma mater, before accepting a tenured position in the history department at the State University of New York at Binghamton. It was there in 1969 in Binghamton that he met and befriended my stepfather, Charles Forcey, a fellow historian and professor, and my mother, Linda Rennie Forcey, then a political science student in the doctoral program there. It was through her friendship with Bob that my mother developed an interest in his radical politics, in his often-zealous idealism, an interest that was brought to a head by Bob’s suicide in the winter of 1971. What had happened, she grieved. What—for all his good intentions—had gone wrong?

            Months passed, then years, when, still shaken by his death, my mother decided to tell his story for her dissertation. Over the coming years she travelled throughout the country, interviewing everyone she could find who had known or worked with Bob. Critical to her research, to finding answers to her own hard questions, was the time, the many days, spent interviewing Bob’s parents, Joseph and Norma Starobin, in their home in Hancock, Massachusetts. Her interest in their son proved a consolation to them. As attested to in their lengthy correspondence with my mother, they believed in her.

            So why was her dissertation never published? The answer is both simple and complex. After years of enjoying the confidence and encouragement of Bob’s parents, following his suicide and throughout her completion of the dissertation, she received the following typewritten letter from Bob’s then-widowed mother, Norma Starobin, dated September 20, 1978, shortly after her dissertation had been approved:

Dear Linda:
In relation to your Ph.D. Thesis entitled Personality in Politics: The Commitment of a  Suicide, submitted to The State University of New York at Binghamton 1978, I must tell you that I will not permit any publisher to publish this Thesis in its present form, using real names of persons living and dead.  

When you told me about your desire to write on political commitment, using my late son, Robert S. Starobin’s experiences as part of your research material, I kept emphasizing  social workers, psychologists, etc. use a case study, changing names and hiding true identities. This you have not done and real names are constantly used.

I find the contents of your thesis an invasion of my right to privacy. You give details of the life of members of my family that can be an invasion of their lives too, and some of these members are among the living.

As the Court appointed Guardian of the Property of Robert S. Starobin’s minor child, my granddaughter, Rachael, I also object to the publication, should publication take place of the Thesis in its present form as being against her interests, and liable to affect her future growth and development adversely and unnecessarily.

I regret having to inform you that I will sue in Court any publisher of the above-named manuscript, unless many changes in the present text are made and legally approved of by me. These changes would have to protect me, my relatives, and particularly Rachael S. Starobin-Thompson from invasion of privacy.

Needless to say, my mother was surprised by Norma’s reaction, clear, candid, as she felt she’d been with her in writing the story of her son. Indeed, my mother had and still has no recollection of Norma ever mentioning the matter of anonymity to her. Yet what could she do? Saddened and wounded, she put the dissertation away. 

            Then one day in 2001, after my mother and stepfather had retired to Florida, she received a letter from Oakland, California, from Bob’s daughter, Rachael Starobin MacKay. The letter begins:

I am Rachael Starobin, daughter of the late Robert Starobin, who you wrote your Ph.D. dissertation about. My Grandmother, Norma Starobin, passed away in 1998. I was recently back east in Hancock, dreading the task of weeding through piles of letters and files (my grandmother saved everything from shopping lists to phone bills from 1952) and found, what has proved to be the greatest gift of my life—your dissertation about my Father.

            Spurred by Rachael Starobin’s response, my mother reread her dissertation and thought again of trying to find a publisher for it. She, however, was unable to do so at the time, preoccupied as she was with the mental and physical care of her late husband, Charles B. Forcey. It was only after his death in 2008 that she returned to the dissertation. The question was: how much should she change? What, if anything, should be updated? After a great deal of discussion with Rachael, her mom, and me she decided that, but for some editing to make it more appealing to a wider audience, to leave the dissertation as it was when she completed it in 1978.

As a boy I myself knew Bob Starobin. I often accompanied my mother when she visited him at his little farmhouse in the hills above Owego, New York. I remember his daughter, Rachael. I remember his goats, Huey Newton and Ho Chi Minh. And I remember the day he died. I remember my mother crying.

                               (Bob Starobin with daughter Rachael, roughly one month before his suicide)
Here is a link to the book: Unhappy Warrior.
 Peter Nash