Sunday, February 28, 2010

Review: The Education of Lev Navrozov

Subtitled A Life in the Closed World Once Called Russia, this book is an autobiographical novel, but it's just as much a political history of the Soviet Union. The Education was published in 1975 by Harper's Magazine Press, and, as far as I can tell, was never reprinted.

The first thing to know is that Lev Navrozov, as he admits, comes from one of the highest "castes" of Soviet society. This caste system, as Navrozov describes it, is first territorial and then based on occupation or usefulness to the regime (ultimately to Lenin or Stalin, whom Navrozov calls "pseudo-tsar-god I" and "pseudo-tsar-god II," respectively).

Navrozov was born and lived in Moscow, the highest of the territorial castes, the center of Soviet government and bureaucracy, out from which the territorial castes successively got lower and lower. The author uses this language of "castes" throughout the book, explicitly rejecting the notion that the Soviet Union is in any way a socially advanced society. He likens it to ancient Eastern despotism, a new barbaric totalitarianism that threw off 1,000 years of development in law, politics, and economy; and called it a "revolution." Such language is strong for one who was paid handsomely by the regime, did not suffer in a labor camp, defect from the KGB or GRU, or personally experience (direct) political repression.

But like many Russian dissident writers, Navrozov dismisses the claim that Lenin's pure revolutionary idealism was corrupted by the power-hungry Stalin. Navrozov writes:
Privileged enough to spend his childhood in the last residual enclave or afterglow of Russian culture, the author found Bolsheviks like Ulyanov-Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky or Lunarcharsky cheap vulgarians of the most unpleasant kind.
He often refers to the Bolsheviks and their Soviet successors as "megacriminals."

The second thing to know is that remarkably, Navrozov seems really to be innocent, an actual freelance writer who survived physically by not being political and survived spiritually by turning down all government positions requiring Communist Party membership, and all positions as a journalist or writer for official publications, which amounts to the same thing. Mostly he translated older Russian works into English.

One of the book's major topics is the inability of the West to comprehend the world's Eastern despots, its naive eagerness to proclaim the Soviet Union and Communism great accomplishments of civilization, its willingness to trade with and sustain totalitarianism-- a form of "government" antithetical to its own-- and its almost total incomprehension of the form and structure of Soviet society.

In this way the author broaches another major topic: the difference between behavior and speech. Navrozov writes of useful idiots in the West verbally praising socialism while behaviorally acting as capitalists, free individuals enjoying free expression in a free society. He implicitly compares these Western leftist fellow travelers with the "revolutionary" activities of the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, social revolutionaries, anarchists and others in the relatively free post-serfdom tsarist Russian government of 1861-1917. He also uses this device to explore the actions of Western diplomats in post-1917 Russia; as well as the mundane lives of Soviet citizens.

All of this is framed within an account of the author's childhood (when he was 6-7 years old), sharing a nice apartment building in Moscow with several families. Navrozov writes somewhat about a collective school he attended, a "creative house" he went to with his father and mother, and several other personal anecdotes.

The book is extremely well-written and very literary. It is also a well-sourced history of "revolutionary" Russia, with many quotes from the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda and biographies of "revolutionary" figures.

It is strange, having read this book, to read Navrozov's current articles. His constant theme is still totalitarian government (now of the Chinese variety) and the inability of the West to comprehend it, but I think that in later years his writing has lost the flair and life of this semi-autobiographical historical novel.

What made Navrozov the author of so brilliant a book seems then to be his natural irritability. The curmudgeon, reflexively dismissive of grand projects and noble-seeming objectives, cannot accept even the Iraq War; nothing less than formal recognition, on the part of the United States, that China is evil and means us harm, will sate him. Not that he is wrong, necessarily, but to say something in opposition: George W. Bush was a duly elected public servant who faithfully tried to execute the duties of his office, not one of the "humorless, pompous, intellectually illiterate megacriminals," as Navrozov characterized Lenin and his cohorts. Sometimes, in Navrozov's current writing, it is hard to tell the difference.

In one column he mentioned that there was a planned second volume to The Education, but that he switched to writing his weekly column instead. Perhaps that was the wrong idea.

No matter. This book is a gem. It deserves to be up there with Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.