"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell
"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde
Friday, September 19, 2003
Last year, the highlight of my last day in Russia was coming across a group of Tolkinisti--Tolkien enthusiasts who dress in the garb of Lord of the Rings characters and roam the streets of Moscow in search of fun. My last day in Russia this year has been less memorable: the most noteworthy thing about my day so far was when I was stopped by the police for a random documentation check. (Luckily, I had my passport with me, though the policeman was slightly irritated that I didn't have my immigration ticket in it.) Russian police can stop anyone they want and ask to see their identification, but this was the first time it had happened to me--probably because I don't look like either a Chechen terrorist or a rich American tourist.
This evening I'll pack up my luggage, do a little bit of cleaning, and get ready to leave for Sheremetevo airport at 10:30 tomorrow morning. (I arrive in Chicago at 7:46 in the evening, and I really don't want to calculate how much time I'll be spending in transit...) I may see a movie to kill some time this afternoon, since I've now finished my work in the archives. (I had another productive day in RGASPI, made more satisfying when I ran into the historian I met two weeks ago and talked some more about my dissertation.)
As I wrote yesterday, I have mixed feelings about leaving Moscow. But there are several things that I won't miss in the slightest:
Unless I have some profound thought over the next half hour, this will be my last blog entry from Russia. When I return home, I'm not sure how much time I'll have to blog, though I'll probably return to my normal routine of frenetically linking to articles that don't interest anyone but me.
My apologies for the semi-illiterate blogging these days. I feel as if I can't construct a competent, well-phrased sentence, and I really hope this problem goes away before I need to finish work on my Fulbright essays!
I'm a liar. I'm not as big a liar as some people, of course, but I'm a liar nonetheless. I recently declared a moratorium on book-buying in Russia, but this afternoon I bought two new books: an essay collection on Siberia under Stalinism and an inexpensive, nicely bound, compact, and well-designed reproduction of V.I. Dal's 1882 dictionary of the Russian language. I hope I can fit all my books into my luggage, since I haven't shipped any home this year.
Two tangential comments:
I've really enjoyed the recent proliferation of articles on James Thurber. Here's another one. An excerpt:
Final thoughts on my Russian trip to come after I finish up my archival work.
Thursday, September 18, 2003
How good were Wesley Clark's memoirs? This 2001 book club exchange from Slate weighs in on the question, with conclusions that won't always make Clark happy. (The series will probably reappear on the Slate front page sometime soon...)
Yet another reason that Russia is cool: when I went to a bookstore today to look for something in English to read on my flight home, I found that the store had more books by Wilkie Collins than Michael Crichton. (Still, I wasn't quite in the mood for The Woman in White, as strongly as someone I know might approve.)
I have mixed feelings about my fast-approaching return home. On the one hand, my trip has been a success. Not an enormous success: it would have been nice to have had more time in RGANI--a really nice archive with a lot of great documents for me--and I wish I'd been able to read local kontrol' documents in Ivanovo. I don't think one-month visits to the archives are ever perfect, however, and my trip in general went well.
One of my strongest feelings at the moment is impatience. I'd really like to skip forward a year in time, so I can get going on my research. I've found that I really like my topic--which is a good thing, since I'll be working on it for at least the next four years--and I really enjoy living in Russia. I just wish I didn't have to wait a year to immerse myself completely in my research.
The last few days have added to this feeling. This morning, for example, I found several letters from expelled Communists asking party organs for help being reinstated in the party--exactly the sort of detail I was looking for. After all, it's fascinating that, in 1955, a party theorist declared "dedication to the motherland" one of the two "most important moral demands of Communism." It's really interesting to trace the way concepts of patriotism developed in practice--to see, for instance, that Russian could be expelled from the party just for having been POWs or for having lived on German-occupied territory in World War II. It's even better, however, to find a letter from an expelled Communist explaining that since his exclusion from the party, he could no longer support his family--and begging for help in winning reinstatement. My dissertation will in large part be a work of cultural history, describing Soviet concepts of values and morals as they played out in party misconduct hearings, but I want it to include the human element that these letters provided. Just thinking about these issues can get me oddly excited.
I'm beginning to feel psychologically ready to come home, though. It will be nice to be back in Chicago: I'm really looking forward to spending time with certain people, after all. It will be nice to start the academic year and to begin teaching. I've even noticed a subtle linguistic change in my frame of mind: I've become conscious, once again, that the people around me are speaking Russian. (Several times today, I've actually been surprised that the other people on the metro weren't conversing in English!) In a sense, my mind has already gone home--and it's just waiting for the rest of me to follow.
One of my Swarthmore professors, Tim Burke, has some rather unkind things to say about Harold Bloom. He's absolutely right, of course. Sometimes I think that Bloom doesn't really exist, but is just an elaborate prank in which someone sensible states silly things as pompously as possible while pretending to be a grouchy, conservative English professor.
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
One of the most satisfying parts of my archival research so far has been having the opportunity to read actual denunciations by Soviet citizens--letters in which average people accused higher-ups of wrong-doing. ("Denunciation" has an unfavorable ring in English, though in this case I'm using the term in a more neutral sense. Much has been written about this issue of wording.) I've read denunciations before in document collections, in which they always appear as neat, typed documents. Yesterday, however, I got to see hand-written letters describing the misconduct of Soviet officials. The experience is completely different. To begin with, some of these letters appear to have been written by people who are border-line illiterate. The letters appear on scraps of paper, and the hand-writing has an awkward look--as if the letters had been printed (not written) by someone clutching a pencil in a very awkward way. (Grammatical mistakes and awkward phrasing appear in the printed denunciations I've seen, but it all seems different--to me, a non-native speaker--to see the denunciations written out by hand.) I find it fascinating that near-illiterates were sufficiently involved with the system to write letters to the powers-that-be. And there's a thrill to archival research in general--to looking at documents that were once marked "top secret," or to examining papers that once played a major role in people's lives--that's difficult to convey to other people.
Like a lot of people, I find the Wesley Clark campaign oddly intriguing. Here's another reason to like Clark: he likes Tolkien! And here's a David Greenberg article about Clark.
As intriguing as a Clark campaign would be, I think the country's second most-famous Rhodes scholar from Arkansas has gotten more favorable press coverage than he deserves. (So far, anyway: maybe his campaign will soon merit all the adulatory coverage.) So it's nice to see one of the more decent, competent, and under-appreciated public figures from recent memory get a little favorable coverage too. This Boston Globe column by Joan Vennochi praises my fellow Swarthmore alum Michael Dukakis--and lowers my opinion of John Kerry.
I like David Brooks more than Todd Gitlin does. Brooks may even become my favorite New York Times columnist (despite his conservative views), though I'm not a big fan of the NYT op-ed page to begin with. Maybe they'll bring Gail Collins back as a columnist sometime...
Yesterday I said that life was good. Today life seems... interesting. Let's just say that I came across an archival issue that could make things dramatically easier for me (and perhaps result in a better dissertation), or that could force me to rethink my dissertation completely. It's hard to say for sure, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
Update: I think I'm okay. My plans will change, and there may be some short-term complications in applying for fellowships, but it looks like I'll be all right. Sorry about the vagueness; since this is a sensitive issue, I'd rather not go into much detail (and probably shouldn't have posted to begin with!) If you know me, talk to me in person sometime and I'll explain everything. :)
Monday, September 15, 2003
Life is good. Around noon, I emailed a draft of my Fulbright essay to my adviser and my other two recommenders. It's too long--3500 words instead of 2500--but I think I can tighten it. (I'm a little irritated, though: in past years, the Fulbright had a limit of 10 pages with one-inch margins and 12-point type. My essay meets that limit.) Since at least one person has asked about my topic in the comments section of my blog, here's the introductory paragraph:
Note that the entire paragraph is subject to change: I'd give myself a 50% chance of narrowing the time-span I'll be studying (probably to 1947-1957), and I may or may not do research in Riga. I also think the title's kind of lame. But I like the topic a lot: I'm especially interested in the party's attitude toward misconduct in World War II (civilian party members were ordered to evacuate from the front lines, and could be punished if they remained on German-occupied territory) and in issues of social identity. I'll have to wait and see what my adviser says about the essay, though.
To top off a successful day, I found some really good books for sale in the RGASPI store. It will be a challenge to bring all my books home, but I brought an extra suitcase along with just that problem in mind. But I'm now declaring a moratorium on book-buying, unless--of course--I can find something really good. Like an inexpensive, portable, and well-designed edition of the multi-volume Russian dictionary by Dal'...
Now back to the Fulbright, and then off to RGASPI (the pre-1953 party archive) for its noon opening.
Sunday, September 14, 2003
The Boston Globe reports that liberal books are popular these days. Unfortunately, it seems that only bad liberal books are popular these days... Maybe someone other than Michael Moore, Al Franken, and the like will write a liberal bestseller sometime.
On a tangential note: is it just me, or has the Globe ideas section gone down in quality since I left the country? There's some interesting stuff in The New York Times, though, like A.O. Scott's article on Bill Murray and--better yet--this article on some Khrushchev transcripts newly released by one of the archives where I'm working this week. In The Washington Post, meanwhile, Stanley Karnow writes about fortune cookies and a CUNY professor reviews a book on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
I've noticed one dramatic change since I was in Moscow a year ago: the number of kittens has increased exponentially. (Well, maybe not exponentially, but you get the idea.) A year ago, I saw a handful of grown cats, but I'm not sure I saw a single kitten. This year, they're all over: I've seen them wandering outside, sleeping in an archive, being held by babushki begging for money, being offered to passers-by on the street, and being sold on an Ivanovo sidewalk. (Then again, you can buy anything from underwear to pumpkins on the streets of Ivanovo, so perhaps that's not surprising.)
I'm really curious what's going on here. Has there been a population explosion among Moscow's feline residents? Has a sudden drop in Russia's standard of living forced Muscovites to sell or abandon their beloved pets? Are fewer people spaying or neutering their cats? Has a pan-European cat craze swept the continent? Or was there just a mysterious cat drought when I was in Moscow last year?
Some fun history articles from The Guardian: a review of a book on the "affair of the poisons" and a profile of Irish historian Roy Foster. An excerpt from the latter:
No, I didn't include this paragraph because of the reference to Nancy Mitford, though she does have an odd way of appearing in this blog.
Here's a New York Times article on the term "fascism" by Alexander Stille. Misuse of the word is a major annoyance of mine; I tend to like the work of Robert Paxton (who's quoted in the article) and to think that Christopher Hitchens and his ilk are mistaken in using terms like "Islamofascism." I may return to this subject sometime, but for now, read the article.
I find Amazon.com rankings and reviews oddly intriguing. A few days ago, Virginia Postrel wrote a New York Times article on the rankings, though the reviews always strike me as more fun. The most fun article on the subject I've seen is this American Prospect piece by Rick Perlstein from a couple years ago.