Mildly Malevolent

"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

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

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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:

  • The lack of clean public restrooms. Russian washrooms are a wonder to behold: they're filthy, smell bad, usually don't have toilet paper, often don't have working doors or toilet seats, and are generally extremely unpleasant. Other grad students have been known to plan their archive time based on which buildings have the best restrooms; I've been known to go to McDonald's, just to use the washroom, since the fast-food chain is famous for having the cleanest public restrooms in Moscow. (A word to the wise: try to avoid the scraps of newspaper that are sometimes left in Russian restrooms as toilet paper. Using it is as unpleasant as you'd think.)
  • The lack of screens in windows. Until recently, the weather in Moscow has been too warm for me to keep my windows closed, which means (given the windows' lack of screens) that my apartment is always full of insects. I'd just recovered from my first attack of insect bites when I arrived in Ivanovo, where I came into close contact with the local fauna in an unfortunate way. Then, when I returned to Moscow, my apartment's blood-sucking residents were feeling thirsty again. Note to self: bring mosquito netting when you move to Moscow for a year.
  • The occasional lack of hot water. Luckily, my neighborhood of Moscow has had hot water during my whole visit. Ivanovo, however, did not.

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.


Randomness:

  • Silvio Berlusconi, like many Italians, seems unable to come to terms with his country's Fascist past.
  • Doris Lessing has some cool stuff to say about Mikhail Bulgakov:

    A very odd life Stalin did lead with his writers. I have believed for a long time that Stalin wanted to write but had no talent. It would account for his obsession with literature. He personally oversaw everything published in the Soviet Union. He instructed songwriters how to write patriotic songs. Perhaps that famous little black book, such an enigma, really had in it synopses of plots, rhymes for an epic poem, for each stanza would have to end with some rousing thought: destroyed, killing, death sentence, obliterate, confess, assassinate...

    Interestingly enough, though, I know of several historians who have read documents on which Stalin wrote notes and comments who've come to a somewhat different conclusion: Stalin was a pretty good editor. When he told someone to tone down their revolutionary rhetoric and write something more concrete, he was usually right; when he made minor comments on style, he was usually quite sensible. (Both people I know who've made this comment have also said that they felt kind of disturbed realizing that Stalin was a good editor, since they felt--in an odd way--like they were praising one of the century's most evil people. They made these comments on Stalin and his commentary completely independently of each other, by the way.) Of course, Stalin could be a lousy writer and a good editor, but I'm intrigued by all these ideas.
  • The Dalai Lama: a cuddly projection of our hopes and dreams? Donald Lopez has written a book with a similar argument, from which I learned one of my favorite factoids: the language of the Ewoks was apparently based in part on speeded-up Tibetan.

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:

  • My original goal in going to a bookstore was to buy another English-language book for the plane. (Such books were exempt from my moratorium.) I needed to do this because I read one of the books I bought yesterday--The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse--when I was feeling bored last night. This got me to thinking: what's the critical opinion on Wodehouse these days? I get the impression that he's considered a master of comic fiction, but I always have mixed feelings about his writing. Every few years, I buy one of his books, start reading it, and think "Wow! This is better than I remembered!" Then the book starts to feel repetitive and formulaic. I still enjoy it--it's pleasant reading--but I get increasingly bored and find the writing kind of tiresome in the end. You can only read so many lines like "Jeeves was mad at me for that ripping cummerbund, but a man's got to stand up for himself!" before you to start to yawn, after all. (Then again, I kind of enjoy lines like "Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad," though I don't understand why vegetarians should be more annoyed than other people about finding bugs in their food.) In a year or two, I'm sure that I'll read yet another Wodehouse book and have exactly the same reaction: perhaps he's just a fantastic writer in small doses, a decent writer in medium doses, and a slightly tiresome writer of novels.
  • Sometimes I wonder how history will view the current administration. I'm not talking about the sweeping judgments historians will make about whether George W. Bush blew a historic opportunity or helped reshape the world and eliminate terrorism--I'm talking about the smaller observations they'll make. Is Karl Rove as powerful as he's made out to be? Is Dubya as dumb as he sometimes looks? Is Colin Powell really a moderate dove in an administration full of hawks? My hunch is that the answer to each of these questions will be a highly qualified no, but it's impossible to say, of course.

    The best example of how a historian has completely changed our perception of a past president is Fred Greenstein's ground-breaking work on Eisenhower. We can't know what insights future historians might give us on the Bush administration--if we did, then why have historians at all?--but it's a fun kind of parlor game to speculate on what they'll discover about the inner workings of the White House. Here are my two predictions. The president's born-again faith will turn out to have played an enormous role in shaping his attitude to foreign policy and his opinions on presidential leadership in general. Dick Cheney will turn out not to have been the experienced, steady hand that the president needed, but a political bumbler who led the administration into some of its biggest mistakes.

    I may be completely wrong, of course, but by the time we know what was really going on in the White House, no one will remember that I wrote this. :)



I've really enjoyed the recent proliferation of articles on James Thurber. Here's another one. An excerpt:

Presumably, the plan had been simply to plug the magazine into the Broadway-Algonquin nexus and let the famous wits of those worlds do the talking, but the distinctive voice that finally emerged from the magazine came instead from the Buckeye code clerk James Thurber, writing an eccentric small-town-type gossip column called "The Talk of the Town," and also from the reclusive E.B. White, who always seemed to be hiding behind two front initials and a colorless last name. (Ross could scarcely believe these guys himself. "Look at them," he is alleged to have said, "My two best writers, One can't see to cross the street and the other one is afraid to.")

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.


More randomness:

  • Madeleine Albright's memoirs sound interesting.
  • Madonna's children's book sounds fun to read about, but painful to read.
  • Bugs are cool. Predatory bugs are cooler. Predatory bugs that fight pests are cooler still. So this guy's research sounds pretty cool too. (For that matter, so does this research on monkeys' sense of fairness, though such articles always seem slightly dubious to me.)
  • Chief Justice Fred Vinson: more important than you think? (via The History News Network)
  • I enjoyed this review of Virginia Postrel's new book. An excerpt:

    The danger in refuting anti-materialism is in swinging to the other extreme, embracing consumerism and fabulist contrivance with a mindless Tom Wolfean "Yippee!" (Of course, when Wolfe does it, it's not mindless; it's calculated, though no one has ever figured out to what end.) Postrel is too intelligent not to preserve--or affect--a sense of proportion, but she's still a cheerleader. Like most writers who praise dawn, she makes the night before too dark. As conformist as she thinks the fifties were, all those bullfight posters and Scandinavian coffee tables surely expressed "the desire to be different but not too different," her modest appraisal of current consumer goals.

    I always enjoy reading Postrel's work, but I never find it entirely convincing. Her greatest strength (beyond a keen eye for detail and a nice writing style) is her ability to say stuff that a lot of people would like to believe in a common-sense, unpretentious, appealling way. But there's usually something missing in her writing, and I love this review's characterization of her as a cheerleader. In one sense, she strikes me as the sort of student you have in every class, who never makes a startling or original contribution, but who can follow up someone else's original idea with a nice example. But perhaps that's not giving her enough credit...
  • Will Frankenfood save the planet? Jonathan Rauch wants to know.



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:

Party Justice: Investigations into the Personal Behavior of Communist Party Members by the Soviet Communist Party, 1947-1961


During the 1940s and 1950s, the personal behavior of Soviet Communist party members was often under the strict scrutiny of the party: many infraction--like drunkenness, moral trouble in the family, rudeness to subordinates at work, expressions of political dissent or religious belief, and inappropriate behavior during the war--could lead to a party member's censure or expulsion. My dissertation will examine the party's treatment of its members' behavior from 1947 until the publication of the party’s first written code of conduct in 1961. My study, though largely a work of cultural history, will also involve Soviet social history: I will attempt to elucidate Communist concepts of acceptable behavior while explaining the impact of those concepts on the Soviet people. My tentative conclusion is that the party was interested not only in the specific infractions committed by its members, but in the attitudes and states of mind that this behavior represented, and that over the course of the 1940s and 1950s, questions of morality and patriotism became increasingly important while issues of social identity were given new meanings for a new era. I will investigate this topic through archival and library research in Moscow, Riga, and one or two Russian regional archives.

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.

This afternoon I spent about five hours at RGASPI on some very productive archival work. RGASPI has a more reasonable privacy policy than some of the other archives I've visited: I was told not to take notes on certain documents, but can request to use them in my dissertation if I can make the cases completely anonymous or if the family agrees. The case that interested me most would lose nothing if I removed the names of the people involved, so I'm feeling good about my work in the archives. I also found some fascinating documents that don't involve privacy issues, like a letter that a Communist sent to all the party members in his town to explain why it was important not to become involved with organized religion (through baptisms, church weddings, and Orthodox burial rites) and criticizing local Communists who'd been married in church. The letter will make a great introduction to my chapter on religious misconduct--unless, of course, I find an even better way to introduce the chapter over the next two or three years!

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'...


Randomness:

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:

The distinctive quality of Modern Ireland among best-selling histories lies in the way it answers almost every question by suggesting all the answers are incomplete, and there is more to learn on almost every subject. The writer Selina Hastings met [Foster] when he was busy with it. She asked what he was doing - she was working on a biography of Nancy Mitford at the time - and when he answered "Irish history", her heart sank and it showed. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm doing it all about food and the private lives of curates."

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.