Sunday, November 19, 2017

Equality Beats Inequality

"Viking Economics - How the Scandinavians Got it Right - and How We Can Too," by George Lakey, 2016

If any book will make you a militant social-democrat, this is it.  The comparison between Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland to the shabby, reactionary state of the U.S. is extreme, to the detriment of the latter.   Lakey, using both his political understanding and his long residency in Norway, hammers on how U.S. capitalism is cruel and bloodthirsty - primitive under a modern veneer, while the "Nordics" are on the right track in almost every area which concerns ordinary people.  However, his somewhat starry view of bringing this social democracy to the U.S. is basically flawed.  That later.

Norwegian Labour Party Poster 1930s
Lakey makes many arguments against U.S. capital that Marxists also make.  It is an enjoyable and easy read, with statistics and clear comparison's that leave little doubt about 'who' is right in this battle of social economics.  Because economics is not a 'science' - it is a social question that boils down to:  "Who benefits?"  Lakey clearly sees that a society that is more equal, where labor has a significant amount of power, where co-ops and cooperation exist on a mass scale, where significant Labor Parties hold political power, is better in every way than the model of dog-eat-dog competition.  There is less crime, less suicide and mental problems, less unemployment, less despoliation of the environment, less ignorance and fear, less racism and nationalism, less poverty, less sickness, less stress and frankly, regular people are far happier.

Lakey points out that the early Viking pagan culture actually provided a different and more equal template for social life than the later Christian medieval culture - and this still plays out in present day Scandinavia.

One of the most significant points he makes is that these countries are not 'welfare states.'  That is a misnomer based on reactionary political confusion.  Unlike the U.S., where 'special' programs are targeted at the 'poor' - the social-democratic economies are 'universal service states,' as he calls them.  Since nearly everyone benefits, those at the bottom of the economic class structure are not stigmatized and penalized and turned into a pariah class or ethnicity, as in the U.S.  U.S. liberals love the U.S. 'welfare' state because it pretends to solve the problem.  It does not and it has not - it only continues the problem and exacerbates racism and classicism.  It is the government version of religiously-motivated charity.  When I was on welfare years ago, I sold a communist paper in the welfare offices with the line, "Get rid of the welfare system."  Sold tons of papers to those trapped in it.

Here are some points made by Lakey:

1. Like many other capitalist countries in the 1880s, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Demark had terrible economies which forced many to flee to the U.S. in search of a better life.  Sort of the Mexico's and Latin Americas of their time.  So it was not always so...
2. The Nordics support 'flexicurity' which means that specific jobs are not guaranteed, but free job retraining and 90% unemployment insurance is guaranteed.
3. Government housing banks exist to help people buy or build homes inexpensively.
4. The Nordics believe that everyone has to work to contribute to society.  Work is both a social and a personal necessity.  This echoes Marx, who understood that labor is at the center of society.
5.  3 of these 5 nations are in the EU, with Iceland and Norway not members.  But only Finland uses the Euro as currency, reflecting the other's fears of the imperial bankers of Frankfurt, Paris and still, London.
6.  The neo-liberal banking and securities crises of the 1980s and 2008 affirmed Nordic social-democracy, and turned back attempts to derail those systems.  Iceland, by letting its over-leveraged capitalist banks fail in 2008, actually has recovered more quickly than countries who propped them up like the U.S.
7.  Norway became social-democratic in the early 1920s because of a very strong Communist and Socialist labor movement which led the unions.  They started a Labor Party in 1899.
8. This strain of socialist laborism was the dominant force among the populations of every one of these countries, and the reason the capitalists had to make a 'social compact.'  The Left sought dialectical polarization, not accommodation.  Class struggle and fear of revolution created social-democracy, not liberalism.   
9.  As a result, these societies have free health care, free education, full employment, inexpensive or free daycare, powerful trade unions and efficient transport systems.
10.  Lakey points out that there are more successful entrepreneurs in these countries than in the U.S., where the U.S. 'Small' Business Administration is a misnomer.
11.  There is a massive non-capitalist cooperative sector in these economies, in retail, insurance, farming, banking, housing and production.
12.  Small farming is the agriculture model, not massive large farms. Farmers have unions and negotiate prices with the government.  Crop prices are protected. Family farming has been preserved.
13.  The 'universal service state' has reduced poverty to low levels not seen in almost any other country.
14.  Crime is so low that it has to be remembered through Nordic crime novels.
15.  Gender and ethnic rights are far stronger than in the U.S.  Life-long learning is part of the free education system.  There is no student debt.
16.  The Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the biggest in the world (!), recently announced it is divesting from oil and gas.  On windy days, Denmark gets all of its power from wind turbines, sometimes exporting that power to Germany.  These are indications that global warming is not a 'theory' in the Nordic countries.
17.  Taxes are the main bugaboo in the U.S.  Nordic countries use taxes to actually get something for the vast majority of people.  In the U.S. the rich and the corporations avoid them and get corporate welfare instead.  U.S. taxes are moving to sales taxes and property taxes, which directly impact working people and housing, letting the rich off the hook.

Is this rosy story exportable to the main imperial power of world capitalism?  Just asking the question answers it.  Lakey's main problem is that he does not treat capitalism as a world system.  Instead he wants to carve out a capitalism with a human face, sort of a counter-culture niche living within the war-making, IMF controlled, transnational beast.   It can certainly be done for awhile, but even he admits that class struggle still exists in the Nordics due to the presence of the internal capitalist class and their upper-class allies.  And world capital, though that he does not mention. 

The other problem is that Lakey thinks just presenting these 'great examples' will suddenly prompt the sad political culture of the U.S. to change.  While Bernie Sanders, who Lakey pointed out is to the right of the Nordics, brought up some of these issues, Sanders collapsed back into the neo-liberal Democratic Party at the crucial moment.  Lakey makes no mention of the role of the U.S. ruling class, military and propaganda network in maintaining world-wide exploitation.  Lakey makes no mention of the need for a Labor Party in the U.S.  He makes no mention of the need for a strong socialist and communist movement in the U.S.  He makes no mention of the rotten state of the AFL-CIO or "Change to Win" labor federation leaderships. Yet correcting this was essential to the founding of these social-democratic societies.  You can't get to the social-democratic moon with a tricycle.  And Lakey offers a tricycle. 

Actual socialism and class struggle is still verboten in the U.S. on the ground level, though it is gaining ideological strength.  DSA and Socialist Alternative are gaining members, as is the IWW, but their sizes are still small.  In a recent city council election in Minneapolis' 3rd Ward, a female socialist from Socialist Alternative won the majority of first round votes but due to IRV, lost to a bureaucratic white male Democrat.  So voters still don't get it.  Certainly no one but the heavily deluded believes the Republican Party can do anything for the working class.  But the Democratic Party is the main roadblock to social-democracy, not the avenue through which it will be attained!  Lakey mentions none of this.  His U.S. citations - familiar people like Stiglitz, Galbraith, Sachs, Alperovitz, Krugman, Piven, Perlstein, Nichols - are all basically Democrats.  

Lakey is a pacifist and a Quaker and is certainly aware of the problems of the Democratic Party and perhaps U.S. imperialism.  His Nordic examples show that a mixed economy capitalism with a human face is possible somewhere.   But he fails to bring a wider understanding to bear on the U.S. and thus undermines his whole argument. 

Prior review of "The Vikings" TV series, as well as a history of Viking societies, below. Travel notes on Helsinki and a novel about Iceland, below.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
November 19, 2017

Friday, November 10, 2017

Goodbye Lenin!

On the Streets
A Russian sociologist could do research about where the St. Petersburg proletariat lives now.  They have moved to the outer districts ringing St. Petersburg, past Vyborg, Kirovsky and Petrograd which were so important in 1917.  As such, they are more dispersed geographically, and this means something in any city from the political angle. There are still large factories visible from the train, as well as complexes of apartment housing as you come into the city, and some still within it.  One apartment complex was massive and modern, but kilometers from the old town.  The port is still huge down the Neva west towards the Baltic and Kronstadt.  Factory chimneys and power plants can be seen ringing the older parts of the city.  In spite of the conspicuous layer of upscale shoppers and car owners, the city still feels proletarian.  One woman driving her Mercedes with a cross dangling from the rear-view mirror, busy on her cell phone, almost ran into a group of pedestrians.  But here, pedestrians still have power given their numbers.  Or as Jim Morrison said, they have the guns and the money, but 'we have the numbers.'

Actors and Reality...St. Petersburg

Being in St. Petersburg is much like being in any other European city - millenials with their cell phones and nice clothes, trendy coffee shops and bars, shopping etc.  People in this city, like nearly everywhere else, dote on coffee, tea, sweets and food while sitting in endless cafes, and I'm beginning to wonder if coffee is not the opium of the people now.  The prices for U.S. citizens are actually low, especially at this time of year when the skys are grey, the days short and it seems it wants to rain but never does.  Food can be had cheaply, especially if you understand what you are looking at.  Although Cyrillic lettering is everywhere, streets signs are also in Greek letters... our letters.  Stores play western pop and some have English names.  A good number of young people know bits of English.  Some menus have English translations, as English is unfortunately the language of world tourism.  You can walk the central city easily if you know how to read a map or invested in a Euro-card for a cell phone and GPS.  I found cheap internet and museums to be very inexpensive - except the Hermitage.  

The worst part is the traffic noise, the exhaust fumes and the tobacco smoke on the sidewalks. People cannot smoke inside anymore.  The other negative is that museums are closed on Wednesday mornings, sometimes all Tuesdays, and the entrances are sometimes not marked. If I had not had a map with it marked, I would have missed the Russian Literary Museum unless I decided to push through a mysterious door.   I pushed through some unknown heavy doors several times and discovered quite remarkable things by mistake.  Once it was the Steiglitz art school, where young girls with Parisian accents study painting surrounded by massive bas reliefs from ancient Rome and Greece.  Their easels, stools and still lifes were set up in a massive courtyard again covered by glass, surrounded by this statuary.  Inspirational?

Police were shaking down young men on the Nevsky, asking for papers.  There are guards everywhere in buildings, but they seem to be bored to tears and don't give a damn.  There is a sense that you are to be intimidated, but then you realize that they are human and know you are not a Chechen terrorist or a thief.  Strict instructions are ignored in practice.  I got a few hard stares, as I wore a hat with a worn red star on it, but no one seems to care.  They liked the beret better, as France has a rep in Russia.  Russian pastries are exotic, much like French petit-fours and the Russian beer is good.  The food is nothing to write home about, especially for vegetarians, though I did have some potatoes and mushrooms wrapped in pastry, which was great.  Sort of like the Iron Range pasty.  If you are vegan, very difficult, as cheese is the default. But then my Russian dictionary's type was so small and list of words limited that I could not decipher what food was what very well anyway, so you can blame 'user error.'

I went into a few women's toilets by accident and got away with it.  Leave it to the 'Amerikanski' to bring uni-sex bathrooms to Russia through misreading the letters on doors.

Goodbye Lenin.  Not really frozen in time...

I took a last picture of Lenin at the Finland Station as I left, frozen in time, but actually not...  There is a reason why the Russian government spends so much time undermining the Revolution, Lenin, Trotsky and affirming Kerensky.  As do most other governments for that matter, including our own, where anti-Marxism is a staple across the U.S. political spectrum.  But as Karl mentioned long ago, 'a spectre' still haunts the world.  As long as capitalism exists and the proletariat exists, it will not be going away.

Red Frog
November 10, 2017 Helsinki

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Travel Notes 7 - The Hermitage

The Hermitage and Winter Palace

What is unusal about this art museum is that it is not only a musuem but a place of history and architectural interest in its own right, unlike the Louvre or the Uffizi or the NY Museum of Modern Art.  Here the Czar lived until he abdicated and where the Provisional Government had their meetings.  Kerensky even lived here after July 1917 as the leader of the government.  Unaware of what this looked like to the people of Petrograd or the Petrograd Soviet, Kerensky bedded down in a former Czar's bed chamber and had his office in another Czar's study.  His 'cabinet' met in the Malachite room - an ornate room of valuable green stone also favored by the 300 year old Romanov dynasty.

The Malachite Room - Winter Palace/Hermitage

The Provisional Government was later arrested in the Winter Palace in the early morning of November 7 by Soviet soldiers led by Anton-Ovseenko.  Perhaps for being just plain clueless, starting with the symbolism.  A 'failure of optics' and more...

The Russian government created a very large and powerful display in the Hermitage for the 100th Anniversary of the revolution.  It basically creates sympathy for the poor Romanovs and later, poor poor Kerensky and his government of suit and ties.  Pictures throughout the museum show the damage and looting of the royal suites, even in the bedroom of the Czarina.  But it did include some revolutionary posters, pictures of Lenin and Trotsky, satirical pamphlets of the day like Mockba and other revolutionary material, including an early draft of the 'Monument to the 3rd International.'  Also a funny magazine cover of Rasputin saying: "I overthrew him first!" and pointing at a little Nicolaus II. Lunacharsky took over the Winter Palace for the Soviet in order to preserve what was left after Nov. 7.  His cultural group took pictures of the damage.  He was the same person who started a 'Museum of Atheism and Religion' in the former Kazan Cathedral and had been part of Trotsky's organization prior to them joining the Bolsheviks.

HERMITAGE - Old Section

If you have seen the excellent film "Russian Ark", walking through the Hermitage is a little like being in that film again, as you recognize staircases, corridors and rooms.  That film featured a single tracking shot through the whole Winter Palace, lasting about an hour and half with hundreds of extras and just one very tired cameraman.  It was a bit surreal to say the least to walk these corridors after seeing that film  Deja vu induced by a film.  Where are the cameras!?

Rasputin and Little Nicky II

The Hermitage collection includes vast amounts of portraits of rich people and royalty from different countries - even in the Middle East.  It also contains much Christian religous painting and classical art.  Not my 'cup of tea' as they say, and perhaps not many other people's cut of tea, no matter how well painted. There are also large sections of archaic antiquities from Turkey, Egypt and other non-Western countries. None of these areas were well-populated by visitors. I did find some great paintings by Bruegel the Younger and Hieronymus Bosch and their followers Mandyn and Cleve, who described both a bloody hell and the forbidden Garden of Earthly Delights, which evidently includes lots of nudity and intimations of hetero-sexual sex .  There was a hilarious Rubens' painting of a vast, overweight nude Bacchus and his drunk cherubs.  Stalin actually told the staff of the Hermitage to return artistic material from Ukraine to the Ukrainian museums and they refused.  They were steeped in royalism at the time, so they were not going to listen to anyone.  The former director emigrated in 1918.

HERMITAGE - New Section

Across Palace Square is now another part of the Hermitage Museum, in the General Staff Building that lines the other side.  It has been refurbished so the open courtyards that are found in many buildings in St. Petersburg are covered over by glass, thus creating two vast open spaces - which seem to be for a museum still in the making.  Along the edges are what has been transferred from the Moscow Museum of Western Art and private collections, either bought by the Russian government during the 1920s and later, or collectivized or donated.  So yes, Communists actually care about art.   Many come from the |Morozov and Shchukin private collections.  Here are all the figures of Impressionism and some of post-impressionism - Gaugin, Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and the usual suspects - and then people like Picasso, Rouault, Kandinsky, religious bible stories sketched by Chagall - basically another huge collection. A painting by Besson of miners is especially outstanding, opposite a fantastic shimmering picture by Hoffbauer of a high-society woman in a London nightclub.

The New Hermitage

One picture of Socialist realistic art was included and nothing by Russian Constructivists, but the point of this part of the collection is not Russian art.  However, I looked for the Museum of Avant-garde Art while in the Petrograd District and could not locate it, except in the remains of a damaged building.  So I don't even know if there is a collection of Socialist Realist or Constructivist art anywhere in Russia.  Certainly the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis has some of the latter.

Red Frog
November 9, 2017

Trave Notes 6 - Literary St. Petersburg

I Saw a Woman on a Horse Riding Down Nevsky's Sidewalk at 11:00 PM

Dostoevsky Apartment - I visited the last one of the Dostoevsky family apartments, the one he was in when he wrote "The Brothers Karamazov" and where he died.  He moved every 3 years or so, even living in hospitals and churches.  This was a modest apartment, recreated from pictures and descriptions of his daughter.  It is not far from some of the scenes in 'Crime & Punishment.'

Dostoevsky's Last Apartment - Upstairs

Russian fiction was one of the 4 great traditions of 19th century European fiction, along with French, English & U.S. fiction.  If you were interested in existentialism, you had to start with Dostoevsky's "Note from the Underground" and go from there.  He was the darkest writer, even darker than Gogol.  He moved from socialism in his youth to Russian Orthodox Christianity, culminating in the book "The Idiot" - the name of a Russian Christlike figure who people made fun of.

Dostoevsky worked at night, loved very hot tea, sweets and cigarettes, even though he had emphysema.  His wife took care of him - running his literary business, taking dictation and editing, so that in the morning he would have a final draft to look at.  Without her, there might have been no Dostoevsky.  I have been in the houses or apartments of Hemingway, Dickens, Twain, Hugo, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Alice Walker and being here was a powerful feeling.  A tobacco box still stood on one table, with his daughter's notes saying: "Papa died today" with the date.  Fitting for his apartment, I think.

Russian Literature Museum - This is located on Vasilevsky Island, just across from the Winter Palace.  It is best seen with an audio translation, but there are some English explanations in each room.  It has a full room of Tolstoy photos, objects and paintings.  The old man, dressed in his muzhik's blouse and boots and his flowing white beard is endearing.  There is also a Lermontov room, a young poet who died in a dual with Martynov - like his hero Pushkin, as I understand.  Lermontov was deported for revolutionary lines in his poem "A Poet's Death" which was declared seditious.  He served in the army serveral times and lived in the southern Caucasus Mountains after being sent from St. Petersburg. There is also a room of 20th century writers - Gorky, Mayakovsky, Bely & Block, some symbolists, Yesenin and Mandelstam, the best stuff being on Gorky.  Pictures of members of writers unions and various intense intellectual 'salon's are also included - something that has been absent in the U.S. for a long time.  After all, few in the U.S. take ideas seriously anymore.

Pushkin's sumptuous apartment is located within eyesight of Palace square along the Moyka river.  Pushkin allowed Nicolas I to review his draft / final of "The Bronze Horseman" about Peter the Great - a draft included here with Nicolas' notes on it.  Pushkin was very close to the aristocracy evidently.

I walked by the Nabokov Museum and did not go in, as his writing has never interested me.  His most famous work, "Lolita" about an older man's sexual relationship with a young girl, seems to be such a sad and chauvinist angle, even if true, that I can't stomach it.  Nabokov was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in St. Petersburg in 1899 which later supported the Provisional Government of Kerensky, then fled after the seizure of power by the Soviets.  Perhaps the history of diddling the servants by aristocrats played some role in 'Lolita,' but we'll never know.

Leningrad Siege Museum

Leningrad Siege Museum - This is a moving but small museum not far from the Field of Mars.  It contains incredible water color/paint pictures of civilian scenes from the 900 day Siege of Leningrad in World War II, showing Leningraders pulling water from the frozen canals to drink, cooking cats, cannibalism, hauling the dead and surviving, just using black paint on a white background, giving the feel of a wood-cut.  I have to look up the artist.

The museum explains how the Nazis cut off Leningrad by land, so that the only supplies had to be hauled across northern Lake Ladoga's ice or water and trucked into the city through the snowy countryside under German bombing.   The small museum contains paintings, military hardware, a few explanations in English, photos, recreations of scenes. The section below, from the Museum's site, explains why the museum is only one floor:

A memorial museum was established around the current site immediately after the end of the blockade, and covered an area over thirty times the size of the present exhibition. A number of 'trophy' Nazi tanks and aircraft were among the 37,000 exhibits, many of which were donated by citizens. Fearing the unifying power of such a monument, Stalin ordered its destruction during his purge of the Leningrad Party in 1948. The museum's director was shot, the larger exhibits were disbursed and destroyed in secret, and the rest were burnt until there was nothing left. It was not until the late eighties that it became possible to re-establish the museum. Once again, Blockade survivors and their families provided most of the exhibits, and the museum reopened on 8 September 1989.

I asked some Maoists from ICOR who were attending at the same time why the museum was so small for such an incredible event.  They did not know, evidently not knowing the history.  I commented to them that it was too bad the Russian Army was 'surprised,' which allowed the Germans to get to Leningrad in the first place.  They moved away from me at that point.

What was clear is that the Nazi command said they would not feed the civilians of Leningrad if they took the city.  So Leningraders never surrendered, though 700,000 died.  Better to die on your feet than your knees, as Zapata so succinctly put it.  That, unfortunately, is what happened.

Reviews of Russian novels by Chernyshevsky, Biely, below:

Red Frog
November 9, 2017

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Travel Notes 5 - Nov. 7 Evening Updated

Tovarishchi -  November 7 Evening

The 'manifestation' to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 1917 Revolution in St. Petersburg was held around 5:30 PM in the Vyborg.  About 2,500-3,000 people attended.  Part of it started at the Lenin statue in Finland Station Park, then moved to "Finland Lane" where the Russian Communist Party (CPRF) was already in place.  This was an area where Finnish workers who built the railroad lived.  They were later deported in the 1950s. After about half an hour of singing and chanting by various groups, behind a van of the CPRF decorated with hammers and sickles, the column began to march.  The march led through the streets, over the Samsonieksviy bridge, to the Aurora battleship on the Petrograd side.  There a stage had been set up by the CPRF, along with a video screen.  The police escorted the march through traffic.  It was very impressive as it marched, filling about 4-5 American blocks with red flags and people as it came up to the Aurora.  The majority were supporters or members of the CPRF, and given that, the demonstration seemed somewhat small if this is any reflection of their base.  However, for the CPRF this was a sideshow, as their main demonstration was in Moscow.

Comrade of the CPRF at the Manifestation

The City Government had granted the permit at 5:30 PM after the sun went down and the cold came up, so as Sergei, one local Russian said, they city probably knew this would be a crimp in the 'manifestation.'

The march was full of various Left groups.  I have to tell you, on this somewhat momentous occasion, it was a bit like that Monty Python sketch.  You know, "Who are you?"  "We are the League to Free Galilee!"  "And you are you?"  "We are the Workers Association of the Dead Sea!"  "And who are you?"  "We are the Socialist Federation of the Sheep Herders!"

But in this case, Maoists from the ICOR, young Trotskyists from 2 Russian groups - the Russian Socialist Movement and the Revoultionary Workers Party, the mainline CPRF, which was the largest and another group, the United Workers Party of Russia.  Also cadre from the Swedish, German and other Communist Parties, people from the Australian Labor Party, from China, one member of Socialist Action from the U.S., a supporter of Enver Hoxha, a few anarchists and some I missed or didn't run into.  Yeah, the U.S. left granted 2 people.  There were also plenty of ordinary Russians, who no longer believe in the promises of Russian capitalism.

What was interesting was that there seemed to be no attempt to coordinate chants, songs, movement or anything between organizations. The ICOR sang the Internationale, then the CP sound system kicked it out at a different time.  As if no one there actually knew the words in their many languages.  At the Lenin statute, the a group of CPers walked by the ICOR and disappeared towards Finland Lane and it's pretty clear they did not invite anyone.  It was as if all these various Marxists and anti-capitalists were there by accident, busily ignoring each other.  It certainly shows the fatal organizational isolation of the Marxist left.  Does anyone really consider themselves the leader of an actual revolutionary movement, committed to overthrowing capital on a world scale?  Everyone there was a supporter or sympathizer of the Bolshevik revolution, but the leaders did not use that fact to build a larger more significant event, or even make an attempt to recruit by acting like it actually mattered. The CPRF certainly had bigger fish to fry, as their larger demonstration in Moscow was covered on Russian news.

Comrades of the Revolutionary Workers Party

So I felt like I was at an ordinary left demonstration, if more colorful and more architecturally appealing.  People selling or swapping their party papers, a stage on which the first 'act' was a group of youngsters singing a tepid song, and I'm sure not one speaker from anyone but the CPRF.  Typical organizationally protective behaviour, in which your own parties' calculations are paramount.  Yet there were people from all over the world in attendance.  The most impressive group was the Maoist electoral party from Nepal, who brought a large contingent.  They won the election there after years of guerilla warfare and the collapse of the royal family and royal rule.  Were they invited to the podium?  I doubt it.  I left because I know the answer.

I later went to the Hendrix blues bar to celebrate the day.  A Russian three-piece played stride, boogie-woogie, rockabilly and some blues.  The real world calls...

Red Frog
November 7, 2017

Travel Notes 5 - Nov. 7 Morning

Tovarishchi!

Noon, Nov.7 - I walked to the Smolny institute this morning.  This was the center of the Petrograd Soviet and the Military Revolutionary Committee in 1917.  I arrived at the same time as a large group of comrades (tovarischi) from the International Coordination of Revolutionary Parties & Organizations (ICOR), who also showed up.  They had come in a bus.  They were about about 65 comrades from various countries - Germany, Nepal, India, Russia and others.  They will be attending the manifestation later today in St. Petersburg.  The Smolny was closed today of all days, by order of the Russian government.  Two comrades from ICOR unfurled their banner showing Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin & Mao, and Russian police inside the Smolny immediately came out and told them to take it down.  Their passports were taken for a time. After some smooth talk by a Russian comrade and a phone call, the passports were returned.  Looking around me, black cars with well-dressed drivers seem to have immediately congregated around our group.

Comrades of the ICOR in front of the Smolny

A famous statute of Lenin still stands outside of it and Marx and Engels line the walk.

One comrade from Germany was a die maker who had recently worked for Tesla in Michigan and California, so he and other comrades from Germany spoke English.  Many Europeans are multi-linqual, while one of the many weaknesses of the U.S. education system is its failure to teach languages well.  They told me about the anti-fascist organizations in Germany and I told them we were just building ours.  But the same situation seems to hold in both places, were there are 10-1 odds against the fascists when they do show up.

So far I'm the only person from the U.S. in this city, at least based on my movements around town and having big ears.  How sad is that?  So it is comforting to meet people here for the same reason that I am.  No matter what you feel about what happened after the revolution, there is no doubt that it was inevitable given the political and economic conditions of Russia, as well as the terminal political situation and the highly developed class consciousness of the Russian peasants and workers.  This point unites all Marxists and people with sympathy for the working class.

The Manifestation

The 'manifestation' by various Marxist groups and Russian citizens, organized by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, will be held today at around 5:30 PM St. Petersburg time, 8 hours ahead of the U.S.  The actual location will probably be held near the Leninsky metro station.  The permit for the manifestation was just granted by St. Petersburg city authorities I have been told.

The Museum of the Seige of Leningrad was closed today, as it is always on Tuesdays.  The Museum of Russian Literature/Pushkin Apartment was also closed, but for the holiday.  So much walking without result.  A "Jimi Hendrix" blues club was located on Liteyny Prospect.  If citizens of the U.S. can be proud of anything at this point in history, it is our music - rock, blues, country and jazz.

The Aurora, with guns still pointed at Winter Palace

The Revolution on Russian TV

I watched an endless 3+ hour documentary on the 1917 revolution last night on Russian TV, POCCNR1.  Much archival footage.  Being only able to decipher certain obvious names and words, it seemed to dwell on the poor Czar and photos of his generals, the rich and then various capitalists with ties and bowler or top hats for most of the documentary.  Then the pictures of mostly soldiers are shown as their replacement.  Kerensky, Kornilov, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin are shown, but the only pictures of Stalin are in propaganda paintings made long after the event and his one 'mug' shot as a young man.  Trotsky was frequently mentioned and shown.  The invisibility of Trotsky in Russia is over, so at least one 'commissar' is returning instead of vanishing.  This allusion is based on the book "The Commissar Vanishes" - a great picture book showing Russian revolutionary photo images of various Bolsheviks over time being edited selectively to cut out various people, until only two faces remain at the end.

Celebrate today.

Red Frog
Nov 7, 2017

Monday, November 6, 2017

Travel Notes 4

Petrograd District - Monday

I took the long walk across the Dvortsoy & Birzhevoy bridges over the Neva and Little Neva to the Petrograd District of St. Petersburg.  Here the squat brick battlements of the Peter & Paul Fortress guard the Neva, with the large Peter & Paul Cathedral within the fort.  The perfect marriage of church and state, of the 'red and the black' as Stendahl put it, of Czar and Orthodox.  It guards the Neva, a river that is somewhat more muscular than any I've ever seen in a city.  The Mississippi, the Hudson, the Thames, the Siene, the Danube, the Tiber - all seemed somewhat dwarfed by the cities around them.  However in St. Petersburg there are no cliffs, no skyscrapers, the bridges are low, the river wide and it comes high up on the stone - as if it threatens to overwhelm the city at any minute.  In February/March 1917 workers crossed the frozen river to get into the central city when the police blocked the bridges.

Kirov's Desk at Home

KIROV

My first stop was at the Kirov apartment.  Sergei Kirov was head of the Leningrad district up to Murmansk until he was assasinated in the Smolny in 1934 by an unknown assailant.  The most startling fact is that the security for Kirov was withdrawn that day, and the NKVD guards who were missing were never punished, which indicates this might have not been the act of a lone killer but something else.  Kirov's 5th floor apartment is that of a well-off intellectual.  Kirov was a workaholic and avid hunter.  It contains a huge library and a large work room with more books, where his desk still sits. There is a large dining room where he hosted comrades like Bukarin, Stalin and Voroshilov - those in the dominant faction of the party.  The books he was reviewing the day he was shot are still on the dining table.  Friends stayed on a camp bed in his gun room, and there is also a maid's room.  He had a cook assigned to him, but liked simple food, which the higher-end cooks found irritating.  The apartment is decorated with animal heads, pictures of his friend Stalin and others.

Kirov's office at the Smolny is also re-created as one of the 12 rooms in the museum. His assassination was the pretext for the Great Purge by Stalin, as the killing was blamed on any oppositionist to the leading faction - like Kamenev, Zinoview, Trotsky, etc.  The purge ultimately decimated the former leadership of the Bolshevik Party, the Red Army and even Stalin's allies like Bukharin.

SUKHANOV

Another long walk took me to the apartment building on Karpovka Embankment, along a canal in the Petrograd, where the November insurrection was decided upon by the Bolsheviks.  This was the apartment of Nicolai Sukhanov, a leading Menshevik. The joke is that Sukhanov's wife told him to leave for the evening and concocted some false reason.  The Bolshevik central committee met in his dining room until late, some sitting on the floor, smoking and eating.  They decided on the date of the insurrection to coincide with the convening of the All Russian Soviet in St. Petersburg, which now had an elected Bolshevik/Left majority.  Trotsky was named the leader of the St. Petersburg Soviet because of it.

Sukhanov too was shot in 1940 as a 'fascist agent.'

KSCHESSINSKA Mansion

This is now the Russian museum of political history, but in 1917 until July it was the headquarters of the Bolshevik Party, as the St. Petersburg Soviet gave it some rooms to work in.  The present history is one determined by what could only be called a "Kerenskyist" interpretation. Praise by the museum for Kerensky's program ignores his support of the war, landlords, capitalists and military hierarchy, or his temporary block with the monarchist Kornilov. It centers on some of the democratic rights granted by the Provisional government - which only shows that formal democratic rights are not enough in every situation, particularly one as grave as 1917.  Lev Trotsky is not invisible in the displays, and this is one more fact showing that the invisibility of Trotsky in Russia is over.  However, not a word is said about the invasions by 21 capitalist powers of Russia or the depredations of the Whites. Everything is blamed on the reds, even the actions of the Germans, and this understanding continues in presentations of the gulag, the purge, the deportations of minorities, the forced collectivization.  Indeed, one wing of 'reds' was responsibile for the latter, but in this interpretation there are no differences.

The Lenin Balcony from the outside

Nevertheless a significant place.  The reason is that it is similar to the Civil Rights museum in Memphis located at the Lorraine Motel.  Why? The Civil Rights museum's upward walk ends at the motel room and balcony where Martin Luther King was assassinated - a real place.  Here the museum's upward walk ends in the Lenin Balcony and Bolshevik Party's actual work room. Krupskya's large desk is in one corner. The balcony off the room fronts onto a park in front of the mansion where Lenin addressed crowds of workers and soldiers until the July days, when he had to leave town.



Red Frog
November 7, 2017

Travel Notes 3 - updated

Leninsburg 

On the train from Finland, a group of babushkas - old women dressed in ornate peasant clothing - boarded the train, discomfiting the middle-class Russian women who had just gone on a shopping trip.  However, they were a  folk singing group, and sang and danced the whole way - until we got to the border.  The middle-class women found it amusing.  One babushka made fun of the "Soviet" woman soldier who martially walked down the aisle.  You can tell there is a fear of the authorities.  Young women in black fur hats with red symbols greeted us at the border.

Lenin, Finland Station and the comrades of the KKE

I arrived at the Finland station with no crowd to greet me, so I sang the Marseillaise alone.  However, as I walked to the Lenin monument in the park in front of the station, a crowd of 50 comrades from the Greek Communist Party (KKE) also arrived.  If you have followed the socialist movement for so many years as I have, this is a somewhat emotional moment to be at this specific place, to say the least...  I talked to the comrades, who were going to Moscow for the main celebrations of the centenary.  The KKE, as you might remember, refused to critically give a vote to Syriza.  When Syriza later betrayed their anti-EU banks base, the KKE's hostility looked a bit justified.

I walked down the Liteyny Prospect, by the "Big House" KGB building was once located, and later where the fascists shot down demonstrators in the 1917 July days (prior picture), then over to the Field of Mars.  Here a regiment, the Pavloskiy, is still barracked right in the city.  They were having a ceremony of some kind around the 'eternal flame of the unknown soldier.'  Here Leningraders grew vegetables during the WWII seige by the Nazi army and the dead of February 1917 are buried, most in a mass grave.  Graves were added later from the Civil War and later.

On the street I met young people carrying red flags with hammer and sickle around town, and others with communist symbols on their hats.  Not sure if this is something trendy (Soviet kitsch is still selling well...), but the Sovak Cafe at 20 Nevsky was very hot and packed with Russians, not tourists.  In Winter Palace square the city has set up some large structures for their attempt to note or downplay the Nov. 7 revolution. People dressed in wealthy costumes were strolling around, like actors.  Saw no one in costume from the 'dark people' though, though the city still has them.

Czar/Caesar Peter the Great as the 'Bronze Horseman'
The CITY

What can I say about the central part of St. Petersburg?  It was designed to be 'grand' - and from what I can tell inspired, not just by Paris, but really by Rome.  Wide streets, views that go for long stretches, parks, canals that remind one of Venice, monuments, many palaces, blocks with just one building, Russian Orthodox basilicas - in many places you look there is something 'big' about your view.  It instills, psychologically, a feeling in the humble pedestrian, that he or she too is somehow part of this.  Quite interesting to be in 'Peters dream."  However, as my girlfriend has said about the Winter Palace, once you see it, you know why there was a revolution. The Winter Palace square where the Cossacks shot down Father Gapon in the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre is immense. What is telling is the statues and monuments have more of a classic 'Roman' feel.  Even the Bronze Horseman, featured in Chernyshevsky's story, "What is To Be Done," (reviewed below), Peter the Great, wears a wreath over his head.  One empire aping another dead one.

ECONOMICS

You can also tell why the west wanted a counter-revolution in the USSR.  St. Petersburg has been conquered by western products - especially cars, where you can barely find a Lada or Skoda on the streets - just BWM, Mercedes, Ford, Peugot, Land Rover, Fiat, Nissan, Toyota, Kia, Volvo etc.  Cultural programming is also western - Russian copies of "The Voice," Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars dubbed in Russian.  One Russian comedy featured a scene were a big, drunken Kronstadt sailor with a hammer and sickle on his sailor hat and a 'wife beater' T-shirt destroys the interior of a house.  (!?)  The funniest show was of two Russian women traveling overseas - one spending massive amounts, the other on a budget.  They list what they spend as the show progresses and the difference is astounding.  High-end department stores on Nevsky feature many European products, as well as McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks and Subway.  On the high end, I saw a Lamborghini shoot down Nevsky, while a Rolls stretch limo trolled the back streets.  The failure of the Soviet bureaucracy to produce consumer goods was met by a capitalist west eager to provide them.

Nevsky Prospekt, the Champs Elysees of St. Petersburg

CULTURE

Russians still smoke too much.  Vegetarian food is hard to find, as meat is even included in dishes that are ostensibly meatless.  Bicycles are few in the heavy traffic, but you are never alone if you walk in St. Petersburg, as many people walk.  Young male drunks bang on cars or kick anything they can on the streets. Poverty is around the edges of this grand central district.  Down Sadovaya Ulitsa (street,) in the area where "Crime & Punishment" was set, the street sellers come out and the garbage appears.  There is a complex of run-down small streets where street business is done.  These streets don't even have names on maps.   Television is cheesy, but so is American TV.  But not as cheesy as Italian TV, which has no English language stations, while the Russians have BBC, Japanese NHK, French 24 and another English  headline news station.  It is almost as if Russia tried to appease the west - and failed.

A biography of  Trotsky is playing on Russian TV. Of course it is not complimentary, focusing on sexual or personality issues, depicting him as tough and cruel.  Local analysts think this is because it is a sly commentary on Alexei Novalny, the anti-corruption crusader imprisoned once again.  After all, Putin was once a bureaucrat in the nomenklatura, along with Yeltsin, so being anti-Trotsky is a reflex.  Lenin and Stalin are harder to take on for this government.

Police swat teams in body armour are stationed around town, similar to what was seen in Paris after the 1968 rebellion, when the flics occupied key intersections jn the Left Bank.  Not sure if they are waiting for a rising of irritated shoppers or what.  There will be no real reenactment of the Bolshevik seizure of power tomorrow, only a celebration.

Stay tuned.

Red Frog
November 6
St. Petersburg

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Travel Notes 2 / Updated

Lenin in Helsinki, Finland

I got to Helsinki on a 'sealed' airplane (sorry for attempts at humor) on Norwegian Air, landing in Helsinki yesterday.  Norwegian Air, from what I can tell, is a bit of a social-democratic airline.  There is no odious first-class cabin, as in most other airlines.  Passengers board the plane by back to front (the first shall be last, as the Bible says.)  The gate attendant had to inform irritated rich Italians that they had to wait to board, as they compulsively lined up at a mythical 'premier' boarding line to jump on first.  A small pleasure to see that.

Sornaisten Rantatie 1 - 1917
Lenin came here in a 'sealed train' in April 1917, leaving on the 16th of April for St. Petersburg and his return to Russia.  He was in Finland several times, during 1905 and again in 1917, usually hiding as it was always controlled by the Tsar.  Helsinki has working class districts across from the central peninsula it was first built on, and in one there is a placque to his stay during the July days. Helsinki's outlying districts were heavily leftwing in this period.  The rich, with their top hats and furs, were afraid to enter them, especially across the Long Bridge.

There is a statue to Lenin still in Tampere, north of Helsinki. There is also a park in Helsinki named after him, north of the main part of the city.  He wrote "State & Revolution" here as well.  In a way, Finland was the 'rear' of the Russian Revolution, much as Canada has been a refuge for U.S. radicals.

The Finish Civil War of 1918, in which the Finnish Whites and the German Army together defeated and slaughtered the Finnish working class in 4 large battles, was another example of a failed attempt at revolution after the success in Russia.  The Germans and the capitalists took control after the overthrow of the Romanovs, killing  many even after the conflict was over.

Red Casualties in Finish Class War, 1918
5,700 killed in action,10,000 executed,1,150 missing,12,500 POWs deceased,700 acute deaths after release.

World revolution was put off.  Now the middle-class/left Green Party is the main party in Helsinki.  The people are multi-lingual and participate in the Nordic model of economy, though since the collapse of Nokia, things have not gone as well as before.

On two personal notes, one grandfather left Finland in the 1880s to escape the Czarist draft, or so the family story goes.  He settled in Ely, Minnesota, became a miner, then a bar owner after he was injured, and then produced Kist pop.  Helsinki reminds one of Minnesota and I'm sure the land around here is much like the Iron Range.  Remember the Red Finns who also moved to Minnesota, especially after the 1918 slaughter.

During WWII, my mother broadcast into pro-Nazi Finland from Britain in the Finnish language, doing cultural shows but also anti-Nazi propaganda.  Sisu!

P.S. / I cannot upload photos from my real camera, so actual shots of anything I see will have to be loaded when I get back to the U.S.  I do have a good internet connection in English in St. Petersburg/Leninsburg/Leningrad/Petrograd/St. Petersgrad/Leninvilla...in my hotel.

Read prior review of Brecht's "Puntila and His Hired Man, Matti" about Finland, below.

Red Frog
November 4, 2017, Helsinki, Finland


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Travel Notes 1 - updated


To the Finlyandskiy Station…

I’ll be coming from Helsinki Finland, via train, to the Finland rail station in St. Petersburg, Vyborg district, on Sunday, November 5.  A rainy cool November forecast has just changed to mostly cool in St. Petersburg, Russia, with one day of rain, after rain was predicted for 5 straight days.  But that could change again…

This is the centenary of the Russian revolution in St. Petersburg/Leningrad/Petrograd, when the Tsar and the bourgeois Provisional governments were deposed one by one.  Stepping out of the Finland Station there is still a statue of Lenin. Upon arriving in April 1917 he spoke atop an armoured car to the tune of the Marseillaise for a huge crowd of soldiers and workers and announced the beginning of the world socialist revolution. 
   
'July Days' - Russian Black Hundreds open fire on Left Demonstration
This uprising from February to November was the most significant event of the 20th Century, setting the course for the rest of the decade.  The global class war between capital and the working class - which continues to this day - found its expression through this revolution. 

Events in St. Petersburg for the commemoration include a mass re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace (which is now the Hermitage art museum) and Lenin’s speech.  At the Russian History Museum there is a show of vintage revolutionary posters.  At the Ross Photo gallery, a display of historic revolutionary photos.  There are ‘Communist” walking tours, though not so sure how ‘Communist’ they really are.   

The sites of the revolution still exist – The Tauride Palace and the Smolny, where the St. Petersburg Soviet convened;  the Suhhanov apartment where the Bolshevik Party decided on an uprising; the Aurora battleship and Peter and Paul fortress in the Vyborg district, which shelled the Winter Palace where the bourgeois government huddled in desperation; the Field of Mars and the Tikhvin Cemetery, where the revolutionary dead of the February uprising and some from the Civil war are buried; the Kschessinksa Mansion, headquarters of the Bolshevik Party during the uprising; the Kresty Prison, where Trotsky and many others were jailed.  It is still in use.

I have contacted the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), which is hosting events around Russia and delegates from many Communist Parties around the world.  The Russian CP has asked ‘other left tendencies’ to contact them as well.  I would assume representatives from the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese Communist Partys will attend their events.  Of most importance, of course, is a large public gathering of ALL supporters of the November Revolution (Gregorian Style).  The CPRF has a planned public 'manifestation' on November 7th in St. Petersburg and I will attend.  There are various Marxist political groups in Russia besides the CPRF, like the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party, which has a branch in St. Petersburg.  It is hoped that other organizations will come out in public, given strict demonstration permits in the Russian Federation.

But as is said so many times, “We shall see.”

Red Frog
November 1, 2017