The Cynical Gaze

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

This week: Mea Culpa, Stalin's Library, John Aubrey.

The author last week

MY THANKS to the many readers who wrote to me last week pointing out that, within hours of my asserting that dictators' chefs led charmed lives, we learned of the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had been Vladimir Putin's chef before he formed a private army, invaded Ukraine, and mutinied against Putin.

Not only did the private plane carrying Prigozhin and senior Wagner colleagues crash between Moscow and St Peterburg killing everyone on board, but an eyewitness was conveniently located nearby to recognise the significance of the smoke trail in the sky and to film it on a mobile phone so that broadcasters and bloggers would have a record of Prigozhin's final moments. If the brute fact of Prigozhin's death was shocking but not surprising, the video was a masterstroke. Once seen, never forgotten. Thus fare all traitors!

The following day, I added a note to my letter as it appeared on the Browser website, saying:

This letter was published before news broke yesterday that Yevgeny Prigozhin was believed to have died in a plane crash along with other Wagner leaders. My contention that "chefs always survive" has not aged well, obviously, but I will leave the letter unchanged, though I have added a new picture at the end. I will affect to think that some sixth sense for topicality actually worked rather well for me on this occasion, even if I totally misread the message which it was trying to convey.

I was less dismayed by the course of events than perhaps I ought to have been because I found my personal embarrassment to be a trivial thing when set against the prospect of a world without Prigozhin.

Prigozhin was a monster and a murderer who looked as though he ate live bats for breakfast and human flesh for dinner — and that, in a way, was the point of him. Apologists for Vladimir Putin would sometimes say that Putin was not all that bad by the standards of Russian hardliners. You ought to see the next guy! When this claim started wearing thin, the next guy was produced for our inspection, and it was Prigozhin.  

The only data-point I ever counted in Prigozhin's favour was that, when he started his first restaurant, the Old Customs House in Petersburg, he took as his partner a waiter formerly employed at the Savoy Hotel in London and resembling a moustachioed Benny Hill:

Tony Gear

Anyone who wanted such a business partner, even Prigozhin, could not have been entirely devoid of a sense of humour.

I have been trying hard of late to write this letter on Wednesdays, the day fixed in the Browser's publishing schedule, after a summer of missed deadlines and moveable feasts.

I duly completed last week's letter on Wednesday and felt rather pleased with myself when I hit "send" — only to discover that, had I procrastinated one more day, I could have been explaining with the wisdom of hindsight why Prigozhin's death was something that any fule could have seen coming.

Once bitten, twice shy. What if tomorrow we learn that the plane crash was faked and that Prigozhin is even now tanning himself somewhere in Africa? After all, we only have the Kremlin's word for it that Prigozhin was on the plane at all; and it is hard to believe that Prigozhin, in the circumstances, would not have thought to post guards around his planes for fear of strangers bearing bags of sugar, much as he must have taken to cooking his own food, turning off his GPS, and wiping his doorknobs with anti-bacterial cloths.

But no, I cannot believe the crash was faked, if only because that would have left Prigozhin at such a tactical advantage, with an option to reappear at any moment and claim his moral victory. So, no, it woz Putin wot dun it, and in truth rather elegantly. It is what it is, as they say in Mafia films.

When I imagined Putin receiving confirmation of Prigozhin's death last week, these few lines came to mind:

Cynical knowledge betrays itself through the cloudiness and coldness of the gaze. In such eyes there is an expression that can be compared with the crooked smile. The cynical gaze lets things know that they do not exist as real objects for it, but only as phenomena and information. It looks at them as if they already belonged to the past. It takes them in, registers them, and ponders its self-preservation.

The lines are from Peter Sloterdijk, whose thoughts are often so abstract as to be incomprehensible, but whose turns of phrase can be lethal.

Enough of dictators and their chefs. Time for dictators and their books. I have been reading Stalin's Library (2022), by Geoffrey Roberts, which I cannot recommend in its entirety but which raises a number of interesting points.

To say that Stalin was a highly cultured man is a troubling proposition. When an evil man takes pleasure in great art, is that an indication that he has detected in the art some capacity for evil? So it was in the case of Hitler and Wagner: Wagner's art was morally contestable before Hitler got to it, but by the very act of admiring it, by revealing previously unimaginable uses for it, Hitler dragged it down to his own infernal level.

I cannot bring myself to say that Stalin had good taste, but he did have remarkable judgement when engaging with literature and the performing arts. He could evaluate a poem or a symphony not only on its technical merits but also on its political merits. He could distinguish good propaganda from good art, and he could strike a balance between the two (as he did when encouraging socialist realist painting). His occasional public forays into criticism — abasing and then restoring Shostakovich, choosing the winners of the Stalin Prize — were primarily political signals, but they were never artistically uninteresting, and he took the work seriously:    

Stalin looked at any significant manuscript that was to be published. He could and did wipe out theater projects with a stroke of his pen. He also saw every new Soviet film and ordered changes to parts he didn’t like (he appointed his personal projectionist as Minister of Cinematography). Through his KGB, Stalin got up-to-the-minute appraisals of the attitudes of all these artists.

Stalin possessed some 25,000 books and pamphlets at his death in 1953, and was said to read 500 pages per day — which must have been an exaggeration, perhaps it would have been truer to say that he paged briskly through a book or two each day, but in any case his marginalia and underlinings provide ample evidence that he read widely and busily and critically. Among the expressions which recur in his annotations are ha ha, gibberish, nonsense, rubbish, fool, scumbag, scoundrel, and piss off. His highest praise was an m-da written in the margin, glossed by Roberts as "a difficult-to-translate expression which indicates a combination of puzzlement and pondering what is being said".

Stalin's non-fiction reading was devoted almost exclusively to Marxist-Leninist works by his Soviet contemporaries, which I imagine he was scouring for actionable deviations. His fiction shelves were filled with classics from Russian, Soviet and world literature: Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hugo, Shakespeare, France etc. He lionised Gorky in public while preferring Chekhov in private. When Milovan Djilas asked his opinion of Dostoevsky, Stalin replied: "A great writer and a great reactionary. We are not publishing him because he is a bad influence on the youth. But a great writer".

In most societies books are considered intrinsically good things. Possessing them is a sign of virtue, reading them is a habit to be encouraged. Did a taste for Shakespeare make Stalin any less of a demon? Perhaps, for it is possible that reading books actually did improve Stalin and that he would have been an even worse person without his culture. But if his books did improve him, they did not improve him nearly enough.

On a very different note, I cannot recommend highly enough Ruth Scurr's book, John Aubrey, My Own Life (2015), a lightly fictionalised version of the diary which Aubrey, a 17th-century English antiquarian, might have kept, and which Scurr has confected from material in Aubrey's letters and essays. There are at least five worthwhile thoughts on every page, all of them refracted through Aubrey's and Scurr's sensibilities. We can be interested in Aubrey's ideas as they appear to us now, and interested in how they appeared to Aubrey four hundred years ago.

Scurr's Aubrey makes me think of Pierre Menard, Author Of The Quixote, the short story by Jorge Luis Borges in which an eccentric 20th-century French writer copies out Don Quixote word for word, believing that he is producing a quite different book by reimagining each word in the light of all that has changed since the time of Cervantes. In similar fashion, Scurr passes Aubrey's words through her modern invention and the result is, as Borges foretold, a book which both is, and is not, Aubrey's own.

Finally, and just for the record, I have been reading for esoteric reasons of my own an academic book called The Soviet Economic System: A Legal Analysis (1987) by Olympiad Joffe. Three paragraphs in the opening pages pulled me up sharply:

The entire [Soviet] population lives under the fully unrestricted weight of the elite's political might, and the Soviet regime would cease to exist if the relationship between the ruling pinnacle and the subordinate masses were to be destroyed or even shaken.
Only the combination of unlimited political power with economic monopoly gives rise to and assures the continuance of the Soviet system, and, conversely, were the Soviet system to be deprived of either of these two components, it would as such cease to exist.
Soviet rulers know that at the very moment when a liberalised economy is permanently introduced, their political power will be doomed.

Let nobody say now that the collapse of the Soviet Union was unforeseen and unpredictable.

I am also indebted to Joffe for this aside:

A Soviet governmental decree of May 7, 1985, initiated by Gorbachev and directed primarily against drunkenness during working hours, prohibits the sale before 2 p.m. on any work day not only of liquor, as is stated in the published text, but also of Eau de Cologne, as is provided in the unpublished text.

To readers whose interest in Russia is less all-consuming than my own, I apologise for two successive letters of almost unrelieved Russianness. I shall adventure in a different direction next week. — Robert

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