Tuesday, September 12, 2017

On George Benard Shaw, Stalin, Russians

There's a good essay at the New York Times:  Why George Bernard Shaw had a crush on Stalin.

Here's a part:

In part, too, Shaw’s insistence on seeing the Soviet Union as the harbinger of the great socialist utopia can be explained by the disappointments of democracy. He had fought for decades to establish universal adult suffrage, especially for women and the working class. Like many radical intellectuals, he was dismayed to find that many of these new voters preferred king-and-country conservatism to the socialism they were supposed to support. Especially as the Great Depression took hold, parliaments and political parties seemed utterly ineffectual. Stalin’s apparent ability to move mountains and transform society with triumphant five-year plans offered an antidote to his impatience with the frustrations of democracy.

But underlying all of this, there was an even stronger impulse: the fantasy of Russia itself. Long before the Bolshevik Revolution gave the dream a very particular political content, Shaw was primed to expect a global spiritual resurrection that would begin in Russia. This hope was not as fanciful as it may now seem: In the late 19th century, when Shaw’s political and artistic consciousness was being formed, Russian music, drama and literature were at the leading edge of modern Western culture. As he later wrote to Maxim Gorky, “I myself am as strongly susceptible as anyone to the fascination of the Russian character as expressed by its art and personally by its artists.”....

Above all, Shaw was caught up in the great wave of enthusiasm for Tolstoy that broke over the English-speaking world in the mid-1880s when “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina” and most of his other works appeared in translation. Shaw called Tolstoy “the master.” His own insistence on the didactic purpose of art and his forging of a sage-like persona are pure Tolstoy.

This was not just a matter of artistic influence. Russia became, for Shaw, a kind of alternate universe, an imaginative field in which grandiosities that he would otherwise have delighted in puncturing were given free rein. He would have made devastating fun of anyone writing about “the Irish soul,” or “the English soul,” but he was happy to write without irony of “the soul of the Russian people.” When Kropotkin’s daughter told him that “the Russians would give the world back its lost soul,” Shaw did not scoff.....
Shaw’s infatuation with Russia became a full-on love affair with a Soviet autocrat, whereas the Trump bromance with President Putin appears unconsummated. But they share a fatal attraction that both preceded and survived the Soviet Union: the allure of a faraway place where the great leader is obeyed because he embodies a people’s soul.
Apart from Right wing conservatives currently having an infatuation with Putin for all of the wrong reasons, I reckon its hard to see anyone in the West recovering a sense of admiration or sympathy for for "the Russian soul."     Maybe we need more exposure to nice Russians, but am I wrong to think they currently have the reputation of being amongst the least humorous or friendly people on the planet?    The Russian Orthodox Church looks equally dour - unlike the sense of enthusiastic engagement with life you get in the some of the Catholic Church's traditions in countries like Italy, Mexico, or (I imagine) the Philippines.   And while some countries have a reputation as happy drinkers (Ireland - I think), you can hardly say the same about the Russians, with their spectacular rate of alcoholism.  Speaking of which, this short history of alcoholism in Russia is pretty interesting.  I don't recall this:
In 1223, when the Russian army suffered a devastating defeat against the invading Mongols and Tartars, it was partly because they had charged onto the battlefield drunk, Brown wrote.

Ivan the Terrible established kabaks (establishments where spirits were produced and sold) in the 1540s, and in the 1640s they had become monopolies. In 1648, tavern revolts broke out across the country, by which time a third of the male population was in debt to the taverns. In the 1700s, Russian rulers began to profit from their subjects’ alcoholism, as Brown, who spent 10 years covering Russia for Forbes magazine, explained. “[Peter the Great] decreed that the wives of peasants should be whipped if they dared attempt to drag their imbibing husbands out of taverns before the men were ready to leave.”

Peter the Great was also, according to Brown, able to form a phalanx of unpaid workers by allowing those who had drunk themselves into debt to stay out of debtors prison by serving 25 years in the army. 

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