There and Back Again

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It has been a long haul and I’m slowly crawling out of my hole.

For those who don’t already know, I filed my dissertation, We Shall Refashion Life on Earth! The Political Culture of the Communist Youth League, 1918-1928, on Monday.  The process of filing was a bureaucratic nightmare in and of itself.  Back and forth between UCLA’s Murphy Hall because my middle name, “Christopher” (which I never use, but I somehow put down when I registered at UCLA), was not on the the dissertation. Then two trips to the library to get it checked over by the dissertation lady.  What a thankless job that must be!  A quite unpleasant, though somewhat charming, woman sits in a small office surrounded by dissertations, goes through each and every page to make sure the margins and typeface are correct.  I was told she busts out a ruler but this must be an urban myth.  I made a few slip ups and had to go back to the History Department to repair them, then go back to her to get her signature on the appropriate form.  Then it was back to Murphy to get my “Certificate of Completion.”  It was a journey that started at 10:30, and should have been over by noon at the latest, but ended at 2:30.  The last time I experienced this many bureaucratic entanglements was paying for photocopies from the Komsomol archive and dealing with my health insurance provider.  But what am I really whining about?  After all, at the end of this red-tapist’s wet dream was a PhD. Still, the 1968 slogan “Humanity won’t be happy till the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat” had renewed relevance.

So what now?  Well back to blogging is an immediate goal.  I have a lot of catching up to do in the world of Russia, and sadly, as I peruse the hundreds of news stories I’ve neglected over the past several weeks, I am reminded once again how much of the reporting is a rerun of the shame shit over and over again. Will Putin run for President in 2012? Will Medvedev?  Who’s really in charge of Russia?  Are US-Russia relations hot? Cold? Do they exist?  Does Medvedev really like hobnobbing with Obama?  Was dropping the missile shield a concession or appeasement, or just the US facing reality?  Who really started last year’s war?  Georgia? Russia? A pox on both houses!  Iran? Is Russia an abettor to who my wife’s grandmother calls the “Second Hitler”*? Or are they on the side of the “good guys” i.e. the West?  The specter of Stalin.**  Back in vogue or never left the room?  What to make of Medvedev’s  stinging critique in his manifesto “Forward Russia!”?  Does he mean business or was it just yet another empty gesture?  Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan are looking like more of a mess everyday. Oh, and by the way, it kinda sucks to be a journalist (please feel free to substitute “human rights activist” or “oppositionist”) in Russia.  Um, like, duh?

It is not like these issues aren’t important.  They are.  It’s just that when you’ve read one, you’ve read it all.  There has to be some expectation of new knowledge, or at least a fresh way of looking at it.  Sometimes I wonder if journos have a keyword database of ten topics that are randomly spirited to their Blackberries. A word like “Putin” appears and the article flows accordingly. The names change but the narratives always stay the same.

Now, don’t ask me how this rehashing of narratives can be avoided.  Its ideological hold is so strong that even its most aware, dogged opponents (of which I include myself) can’t help but be pulled into its vortex.  Events in Russia certainly don’t help.  But the news filter is so thick and the categories of thought so rigid, that what’s really going on there is impossible to pinpoint.  At most, we, who watch and write about the place, are only able to dance around the periphery of truth in an everlasting rendition of the hokey-pokey.  Much of our thought about Russia is governed by a silent watchman akin to what Michel Foucault called a “regime of truth.”  This regime is backed by a whole host of apparatuses, economic, cultural and political forces, “scientific” knowledge, categories, and rhetorics that are all deployed by a long list of christened “experts.”  All of this makes anyone’s attempt to think about Russia otherwise a poster child of deviance: Putin apologist, Kremlin shill, FSB agent, etc.   (See the great Anatoly Karlin’s blog for a full list of said deviants.)  It is this power over knowledge, or in Foucault’s terms power-knowledge nexus, that engulfs us.  It is the reason why I think everyone, Russophile and Russophobe (two categories which already delimit thought), are ultimately engaged in an orientalist project.

As I enter into a new era of intellectual exploration, armed with a degree that is equally revered and vilified, perhaps I can add a few new steps to the hokey-pokey.  Perhaps I can inch a bit closer to the truth lurking behind the mystifications that govern the discourse about Russia. It is this modest task that serves as my manifesto.

Lastly, everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read Claudia Verhoeven’s The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism.  I’m about half way through it and it is hands down one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

Oh, and Anna Applebaum has really gone over to the side of lunacy.  Whereas before she was merely an intermittent visitor.


*I wonder who was the first post-Hitler Hitler.  A friend swears that it was Sadat.

**Another friend recently sent me the best Stalin quote ever. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal it all, because, well, it’s an academic thang. Anyway this tidbit should suffice.  Stalin on Party appointments based on personal connections in Transcaucasia in 1931:

“If you pick people that way, then they will fuck you up.  It’s no good.  They will just fuck you up.  It’s a chieftain system, totally without a Bolshevik approach to picking people…. But they do it otherwise: who is their friend, who supports them.  Everybody says, “we have no disagreements; why fight?”  It’s a gang.”

Makes you wonder how different this is from political appointments anywhere.