Coming to America

I’ve been looking for my own copy of Gia-fu Feng and Jane English’s edition of Chuang Tsu for at least five years.  I found one the other night at the Brookline Booksmith.  My parents have one; almost as soon as I moved I was able to find a copy of the matching Tao Te Ching.  I mentioned it here.  I was surprised to find the Chuang Tsu at all.  Although it seems a reissue is available on Amazon, the copy I found is dated 1974, and I’m sure it’s less common than the Tao Te Ching.  Chuang Tsu is described as the Plato to Lao Tsu’s Socrates, his Inner Chapters the “perfect expression” of Taoism.  He is the source of the image of the man who dreams he is a butterfly wondering if he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man.  I’ve actually read the poetic and epigrammatic Tao Te Ching, but I have to admit it may be some time before I do more than look at the gorgeous pictures in this one.

Gia-fu Feng came to the United States after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.  The period comprising the fall of the emperor, the Japanese invasion, World War II, and the communist takeover was obviously a time of great chaos and destruction.  I know almost nothing about it, and, what’s maybe worse, I don’t even know a book I should read.  The 25th anniversary edition of Feng’s Tao Te Ching contains a tiny snippet of autobiography; here and elsewhere there are tantalizing hints of a longer memoir.

This post was precipitated by a thought that struck me suddenly while poking around after information about Gi-fu Feng: After the fall of the old order in China, there must have been an exodus on the same order as that following the Russian revolution, and yet it doesn’t seem to be given nearly the same credit, so to speak.  I would say that in my mental map of the twentieth century American intellect, the influence of the Russian diaspora far outweighs that of China’s.

This is truly shocking to me, after a fashion, not least because one of my best friends growing up was a recent Chinese immigrant.  But I am really not thinking in such personal terms.  I know almost nothing about it, so perhaps I’m wrong, or merely repeating western prejudice.  It may even be a matter of East Coast versus West Coast, of New York and Boston versus California.  Unlike my father, I never went to school in the western U.S.  It also occurs to me that the Russian influence is closely related to the colossal impact of the Holocaust.  Indeed, it appears that Vladimir Nabokov, the only figure that immediately jumps to mind as a Russian emigre of great importance for American culture (perhaps quite sufficient on his own), lived in Berlin after leaving Russia, and it’s easy to guess why he left.  The cultural effect of the revolution was not immediate, and, similarly, Einstein had his annus mirabilis of 1905 long before he removed to the United States.  Perhaps the impact of the Cultural Revolution is yet to be appreciated here.

Here’s what I want to know: does the cultural impact of the Russian Revolution on America really outweigh that of China’s, despite the obvious parallels?  How far does the effect extend, and are there vast intellectual movements, a hundred and more years old now, whose stories have yet to be told?  Is the translation empire of Pevear and Volokhonsky rooted in the upheavals at the beginning of the twentieth century?  Who, besides Nabokov, am I missing?  Leafing through the Inner Chapters, I found a discussion between Confucius and one Yen Hui.  What is Confucius doing in the Taoist text?  Is there any parallel in the Platonic dialogues of philosophers and demagogues, and the efforts of later and lesser writers like Philostratus to untangle them?  Who can tell?  Without greater cognizance of these matters, do we in our political moment risk throwing away something of inestimable value?

Tolstoy’s Cossacks

When I think of Tolstoy, I think of War and Peace. There’s a lot to it, of course; for some reason my take has become colored by the notion of Tolstoy, born in 1828, writing in the 1850s and ’60s, attempting to understand the colossal struggle of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations against Napoleon. I was a little awestruck when it occurred to me that, if only chronologically, I stood in a similar position relative to World War II. What I tend to forget is that Tolstoy lived a very long life of his own. He served his own time in military, and there is a lot of writing dealing with his very different experiences in the Caucasus and elsewhere. I just read The Cossacks, and I’m looking forward to reading more.


Tolstoy lived long enough to be photographed in color, in 1908, by the incredible Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).  You have to check out this photographer.

The Cossacks begins in Moscow, where the young nobleman Dmitry Andreich Olenin takes leave of a couple of friends and sets out in the wee hours of the morning for the Caucasus, having obtained a post as a cadet officer. This initial scene has so little to do with the main part of the story that you might forget it entirely. Olenin, who has gambled, been introduced at court, and toyed with women’s affections while never falling in love, reflects constantly on the triviality of his life up until this point. Heightening the effect of dislocation, before Olenin reaches his destination, the scene changes abruptly to the frontier outpost where we are introduced to the other protagonist, the young Cossack brave Lukashka.

“Cossack” is a challenging term in Russian literature, at least for the dilettante. It falls somewhere between an ethnicity and a job description. For many purposes one probably just needs to imagine a taciturn cavalryman of lower class than the usual aristocratic protagonist. What I gather is that Russian authorities permitted frontier settlements under special law, essentially exchanging land for military service. The Cossacks in the novel speak Russian; this seems to be the general rule, if one allows that the demarcation between Russian and other East Slavic languages like Ukrainian is fluid, and that a Cossack could be expected to pick up a local lingua franca like Tatar. Tatar is a Turkic language, and thus quite unrelated, not only to Russian, but to the Indo-European languages generally. For a final twist, consider that the word Cossack, in Russian, is nearly the same as Kazakh, as in Kazakhstan. It appears to be the same root, but the Kazakh language is Turkic. As usual, the linguistic classification seems to give a secure handhold in a difficult case, while also casting doubt on the notion of ethnicity generally.*

At any rate, the Cossacks were instrumental in a long drawn out conflict known to Wikipedia as the Caucasian War. Between this war and the Cossacks, one could speculate endlessly on comparisons between the Russian Empire, the American, and what we think of as quintessentially imperial Britain or Spain. That Russia seems so bad to us now must have something to do with our unacknowledged similarities. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 until the latter part of the century, the Russians pushed into the mountainous land between the Black Sea and the Caspian. (The Cossacks takes place in 1852).  The territory of the U.S.S.R. extended well southwards of the highest range of the Caucasus, when it included the Republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Today the border of the Russian Federation appears to follow that highest range along a nearly straight line from sea to sea; among the southernmost federal subjects are North Ossetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Russia has been at war in the Caucasus since Tolstoy was a kid.


The Caucasus (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Cossacks were famed for horsemanship, but Lukashka, in the beginning, hasn’t got a horse. He serves in an outpost on the banks of the Terek river, between the steppe and the mountainous heart of Chechnya. He’s never very far from the village where his mother, sisters, and sweetheart live. It’s depicted as a bucolic, sleepy place, and Lukashka’s fellow soldiers are mostly interested in drinking and hunting. Shortly before Olenin is billeted in the village, Lukashka wins glory by shooting a Chechen who swam across the river at night. Olenin, who seems to have little real military work to do, is shocked by the Cossacks’ bluff indifference to the killing. Overall, though, it fits with Olenin’s idea of the Cossacks as an uncomplicated people living a life as pure and natural as the stags he hunts with the garrulous old Cossack Eroshka and even the mosquitoes that plague them.


Another of Prokudin-Gorsky’s portraits, from Dagestan (between 1905 and 1915?)

So Olenin experiences a spiritual conversion. He rhapsodizes about the landscape and the people, rails against Moscow society, and tries to keep himself apart from the other officers. He is generous towards Lukashka and Eroshka, who drop in at all hours to sponge his liquor, food, and weapons. This might come off as ironic, but Tolstoy has a very gentle touch. What’s more, one of the people Olenin idealizes is Maryanka, his landlady’s daughter and Lukashka’s betrothed. The love triangle is so obvious that I don’t know how I could stand it. But again, Tolstoy handles it skillfully. I guess the reason is that it’s hard to tell what Olenin really likes more: his new philosophy or the lusty Maryanka.

* I was reading the Maude translation that is free for Kindle. Somewhat unusually, I encountered three words that sorely tried my immediate lexicographical resources, including the OED and a small Russian dictionary. Presumably the Maudes left these untranslated because they are not standard Russian: abrek, chikhir, and kunak. Searching online can be tricky too. An abrek is a mountain man or rustler, the connotation depending on whose side you are on. Chikhir was obviously a drink, often served by the bucket, probably from grapes, but it’s still not clear to me whether it might be distilled and whether it is interchangeable with vodka. Finally, kunak refers to a friendship with serious obligations, perhaps guest friendship, as for example, “This abrek invited me to his house for chikhir and said I could take anything I wanted, so I took this great sword; we’re kunaks.”

Magnitogorsk, or the Romance of Soviet Industry


Behind the Urals was published in the United States in 1942.  The author was John Scott, an American who spent about ten years working and studying in the Soviet Union.  Scott says that when he left college in 1931, he was pessimistic about his opportunities in America and interested in socialism.  He seems to have liked what he found in the USSR, but it was not propaganda work, which he was offered when his Russian was up to speed, or membership in the Communist Party.  It was building.  Scott arrived in Moscow equipped with a certificate in basic welding; ten days later he was on a train to the new city of Magnitogorsk, Chelyabinsk Oblast, on the western edge of Siberia. 

Magnitogorsk was named for a geological anomaly: a mountain of iron ore so concentrated that it attracted the compass needles of early prospectors.  It had been worked before, but Scott arrived at the same time as an unprecedented push to exploit the region’s resources.  He was put to work in subzero temperatures welding structural iron and piping for one of four enormous new blast furnaces.  At the same time, in addition to blast furnaces to extract iron from ore, the Magnitogorsk combinat was developing coking facilities to feed the furnaces, open hearths to convert iron into steel, and rolling mills to shape it.  With the assistance of German and American engineers, the Soviets intended to build a copy of the giant steel mills of Gary, Indiana.  The only things lacking were coal and anything above the barest means to feed and support the thousands of workers. 


The Ural River basin, by SaphronovAB (?) and Materialscientist, CC attribution share alike, via Wikimedia Commons

When Scott began, he shared a room in a barracks with his supervisor.  They burned stolen railroad ties to keep warm and their meals were rationed.  Scott saw a rigger fall off the scaffolding and helped to take him to the unheated hospital.  He saw another worker frozen to death, and mentions many burns and cases of frostbite.  He himself was burned severely enough to require two weeks of convalescence.  Scott emphasizes that one of the reasons that people worked so hard despite atrocious conditions and frightening politics was that certain things really were getting better.  Scott, at least, had a choice as to whether to stay or leave.  From the very beginning, he attended school at night, along with most of his fellow workers.  His first course of study covered Russian, mathematics, and a lot of history and dialectical materialism.  They were serious about political indoctrination.  Later he was able to enroll in a metallurgy program.

Scott married a woman he met at school.  Masha was one of fourteen children born to an illiterate peasant couple back west.  A passage concerning the couple’s trip to see her parents and the warm welcome Scott received despite his broken Russian and strange life choices is, to use a cliche, humanizing.  In Magnitogorsk, Masha was working as a secretary and studying math; eventually she became a high school teacher.  Phrases like “expanded opportunities” don’t seem to do it justice.  In an astonishing passage, Scott describes meeting the operator of a blooming mill: “She sat in a white cabin with large double glass windows directly over the rolls of the mill, and operated a score of control buttons and a dozen foot pedals.  One set in motion the rolls which brought the ingots to the mill; another regulated their speed; several more controlled the large mechanical fingers which turned the ingot over…”  She was another peasant, who took the course in operation because she was sick.  Her nervous concentration is jealously guarded by the other workers, who are hoping to set a record by rolling out one of the eight ton ingots in under a minute. 

By the time his child is born Scott has gone from practically camping in the freezing construction site to living in his own apartment in a city with street cars, theaters, and stores that are almost passable.  He and Masha even have a maid.  In the summer of 1933, Scott took a trip around the Urals.  The Soviets were scrupulous about things like vacation and overtime pay.  (Scott connects the purge of the late thirties with administration in a general sense, suggesting that they were too advanced in it for their own good.)  On his way, he witnessed the aftermath of a train wreck in which the rails were rerouted around the fallen engine, which was too heavy to move.  In Sverdlovsk, he saw the basement where the Romanovs were killed, and in Chelyabinsk he saw the giant tractor works that was presumably a major customer of Magnitogorsk steel. 

In a short time the tractor factory would be redubbed “Tankograd”.  Heavy industry is never so romantic as when it stands as the great bastion of a battered empire, as it did by 1942.  By then the Nazis had taken Kiev and Kharkov, they were within sight of the Kremlin in Moscow, and Leningrad was heavily besieged.  That the Soviets were able to keep fighting must be partly down to the efforts of Scott and his comrades, and the country’s ability to relocate workers, machines, and whole industries to the railroad and power grids behind the Urals. 


T-34s roll off the assembly line, image from RIA Novosti, CC attribution share alike via Wikimedia Commons

Scott published his book at a time when attitudes towards the Soviet Union had not yet hardened in this country, because of our alliance against fascism and our own struggle with the Great Depression.  Now, for equally obvious reasons, they have hardened, though I don’t know if this is a good thing.  I doubt most Americans keep in mind the scale of the fighting that the Soviets endured in what we think of as our good war, not to mention the catastrophe of WWI and the ignorance under the Tsardom that left some of Scott’s coworkers studying their letters and numbers into their forties. 

It’s a bad problem and this book is a one sided look at it.  Scott knew about the starvation of millions in Ukraine, but doesn’t ask whether the food that supported him and his comrades in the Urals in the winter of 1932 and 1933 might actually have been stolen from those starving millions.  He instead refers to them as casualties in some vague kind of economic warfare.  Similarly, it’s a shock to find out that by some accounts, thousands of American workers just like Scott were unable to escape the great purge of 1938. 

Scott was actually able to take a vacation in the United States around 1937, and he writes compellingly of the disorientation of returning to an economy suffering from a surplus of production and the comparatively trivial concerns of well off people facing unemployment.  When he returned to Magnitogorsk he found he was out of a job, but he continued to live there for some time, before moving to Moscow to work in translation and journalism.  He was separated from his wife and children for some time, but all of them got to the United States before the war.  He seems to attribute this and the marked deterioration in conditions for Magnitogorsk workers entirely to the exigencies of war.  Background information on Scott is spotty, but I have to wonder if he got out only because he was a spy (not that I’d venture to guess for which side), and accordingly, how much of this gripping story is just made up.

To follow: Where I found Behind the Urals, and how do we know what we are reading?