The death last year of Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded westerners of the ideological disturbances that wracked the just completed century, the greatest of which Solzhenitsyn himself had documented in The Gulag Archipelago and in his novelistic cycle The Red Wheel. The literature of the Communist tyranny in Russia, of its internal and exported violence, bulks large, even when one considers it only in terms of English translations. In addition to Solzhenitsyn, we have Gulag memoirs by Yevgeniya Ginsburg and Lev Rozgan, biographies of victims by their survivors such as Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two books about the persecution and imprisonment of her husband Ossip, and generically difficult-to-assign items like Testimony, the conversations of composer Dmitri Shostakovich with Solomon Volkov. One might easily count hundreds of titles crying out to be read.
One such book, Letters from Russia (1921) by Peter Damian Ouspensky (1878-1947), while almost unknown nevertheless boasts the twin virtues of its brevity (less than sixty pages) and its moment of composition, the year 1919, during the fantastic and homicidal tumult of Russia’s Civil War. Ouspensky – a mathematician, journalist, philosopher, and mystic, who for a short time in the 1920s associated himself with the eccentric guru George Gurdjieff – fled St. Petersburg when the Communist coup d’état erupted but could not find his way free of embattled territories until 1920, when he transited through Novorossiysk, a refugee corridor under British control, to Turkey. Ouspensky wrote the five letters in Ekaterinodar and contrived to smuggle them past the frontiers to a British reporter, C. E. Bechhofer, who arranged for their publication in London once their author was safely out of danger.
In his role as mathematician and philosopher, Ouspensky had written about the fourth dimension, so he had some experience in trying to come to terms rhetorically with odd notions and fantastic, counterintuitive theses. The first of the five installments of Letters from Russia establishes the book’s pervasive, nightmarish tone as Ouspensky describes upheavals of ordinary life so gross and brutal that he must search out a new language of indirection by which to convey them to the blissfully uninitiated. “During this period,” the first letter begins ironically, “we here [in Russia] have lived through so many marvels that I honestly pity everybody who has not been here, everybody who is living in the old way, everybody who is ignorant of what we now know.” “Marvels,” he says, in a quaint, almost Biblical locution! In a subsequent sentence Ouspensky feels compelled to put the phrase living in the old way in quotation marks and supply for it a gloss, but the attempt fails. “You do not even know the significance of the words… you have not the necessary perspective; you cannot get away from yourselves and look at yourselves from another point of view.”
The St.-Petersburg-born musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky once told me of undertaking a similar desperate itinerary at the same moment. Slonimsky also described the complete dislocation of ordinary life within days of the Communist Party coup and he stressed the difficulty of describing the conditions of a society in a state of ideologically driven civil war in ordinary terms to people who have known nothing but a steady daily routine all their lives. When a horse pulling a cart in a Black Sea coastal town died from exhaustions, dozens of people leapt on the carcass immediately with knives to carve away a morsel of hunger-alleviating flesh. Bodies lay everywhere, victims of starvation, or gangs, or political executions. Slonimsky too exited through Novorossiysk.
In his Letters, Ouspensky writes that no one should believe that the war between the Reds and the Whites concerns “the re-establishment of the old regime or the oppression of the working classes,” Ouspensky says. It concerns simple questions on the level of “when shall we be able to buy shoe-leather again, or shaving-soap, or a box of matches?”
Ideological conflict concerns “a fight” taking place “on the level of zoophytes” that pits against one another “blind, struggling forces” among which, as Ouspensky puts it, the survivors “are somehow able to steer [a] course.”
As much as Ouspensky despises the Whites, whose rapacity generally matches that of their opponents, he insists that the genesis of Russia’s misery lies in Bolshevism. He devises what he calls his “Law of Opposite Ends” to encompass, as much as can be done in an abstraction, the social and existential chaos of the Lenin-Trotsky scheme to impose socialism by main force and beat all dissent from the project into a bloody pulp. “The people who are now struggling to bring about the re-creation of a great, united, indivisible and so on Russia are gathering results very little resembling what they are striving for.” Or what they claim to be striving for. The abolition of profit has resulted in rampant “speculation” so that “prices of all products have risen by twenty, fifty, a hundred, or six hundred times.” Using the railway system by which one formerly and conveniently traveled wherever one wanted to go now means waiting endlessly at the station and again at innumerable, inexplicable sidings and checkpoints and paying a bribe to every porter and conductor.
While “Russia was once famous for its literature and art… all that disappeared long ago” and now “literature, art and science have all been abolished by the Bolsheviks, and they remain abolished.” They stand abolished because to survive people must concentrate their whole vital power on tasks like locating a pair of boot-soles or a book of matches; as well as because ideological regimes find the freedom in art intimidating and move to quash esthetic expression.
Ouspensky reminds his readers that they cannot comprehend his language; and that they therefore, in respect of the term Bolshevism, “do not know what this word means.” In the second letter, he tries to render the meaning. Bolshevism, says Ouspensky, is not, as most people mistakenly think, “a political system that can be discussed.” Bolshevism is rather “something old” that the Russian people have known under many names, most poignantly as “pougachevchina,” a reference to Pougachev, “a Ural Cossack who pretended to be the deceased Emperor Peter III… and for a time succeeded in seizing half of Russia.” Pougachev’s men, like the Mongol Horde, plundered, burned, and lynched. He was a barbarian, not a civilized man. In the third letter, Ouspensky adds that, “Bolshevism is the cause of everything that happens now in Russia.” It “begins with loud and fierce denunciations,” it “promises the people all they ever dreamt of,” and its officialdom “consists in its greater part in neurasthenics.”
At the Tiflis railway terminal, where Ouspensky stopped (or rather was halted) on his way from St. Petersburg, Bolshevism manifested itself as “terrifying cries and shouts… heard on the platform, quickly followed by several shots.” A soldier told passengers that he and his comrades had executed a “thief.” By morning they had executed three more thieves. The abuse of language is characteristic. In any case, shooting summed up Bolshevism, which, having “no constructive program,” could only destroy and did so prodigiously and gleefully. Ouspensky anticipates Solzhenitsyn in identifying Bolshevism (Marxism) as a pernicious German invention seized on by Lenin and his followers to justify their orgy of violence against a world they hated because it had the temerity to exist apart from their desires and wishes. “As a general rule,” writes Ouspensky in the fourth letter, “Bolshevism based itself on the worst forces underlying Russian life.”
Ouspensky repeats a refrain in all five letters that Bolshevism, being barbarism with a fancy vocabulary, constitutes a threat not only in Russia, but anywhere, hence also everywhere, because it is a destabilizing condition of ordered life, so arduously achieved, always to carry with it “barbarian forces existing inside [the] society, hostile to culture and civilization.” I could not help connecting a recent remark made by Sean Gabb in a Brussels Journal entry with the foregoing words by Ouspensky.
In a discussion of “hate speech” laws and their selective enforcement, Gabb notes that, “the soviet socialists and the national socialists kept control by the arbitrary arrest and torture or murder of suspected opponents,” but that these methods are currently “not… acceptable in England or in the English world.” Nevertheless, writes Gabb, censorious speech-legislation involving intimidating criminalization of certain words or verbal attitudes “has nothing really to do with politeness,” but is, rather, “about power.” So it is as well in the United States and Canada. Wherever governments and elites seek to control expression, whether or not as Gabb observes it has to do ostensibly with “diversity and inclusiveness,” the real agenda is to achieve “the unlimited power to plunder and enslave us, while scaring us into the appearance of gratitude for our dispossession.”
I would say that “hate crime” and “hate speech” laws represent a trial balloon of totalitarian methods. Such methods are barbarous. They betray the basic decency of the Western achievement. They take root in “the worst forces,” as Ouspensky says, “underlying our life.” Now “ought” is a counterfactual word. But it strikes me that if history taught only one lesson to the civilized it would be that as soon as any visibly power-hungry group succeeds in an agenda of intimidation, no matter how minor, sensible people dedicated to their own freedom ought to respond with all necessary resistance until the aggressors have themselves been intimidated into a retreat. Better indeed to quash such attempts before their first success, but that is a more difficult proposition. Ouspensky’s book explains what happens when timidity rather than vigor is the keynote of response to internal barbarism. So does a great library of other books, all of which came later, however, than Ouspensky’s.
Ouspensky’s invocation of “The Law of Opposite Ends” also has relevance to our condition and invites meditation. The economic crisis in the United States and elsewhere has an ideological taproot – the same one that gives rise to laws that punish conscience. Whatever President Obama and Speaker of the House Pelosi think their so-called stimulus plan is going to do, it is a certainty that its measures will deepen the misery and destroy even more wealth. Ominously, the promulgation of the plan requires, to borrow Ouspensky’s phrase, “loud and fierce denunciations” of those who oppose it, after due analysis, on reasoned arguments and positive principles.
Letters from Russia gives us a snapshot of what turned out after all to be but the beginning of Russia’s long woes – and Eastern Europe’s and to this day China’s and North Korea’s and Cuba’s. Letters from Russia stands not only among the objective documents of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War; it also stands among the library of books that discuss the nature of ideology – and the practice of propaganda as the verbal aspect of terrorist coercion. One can detect certain phrases in Orwell – in his essays and in 1984 – that suggest he might have read Letters from Russia. Of direct references to the Letters, except in a biography of Ouspensky, I have seen, as best I recollect, precisely none. It is a pity.
Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.