Saturday, September 22, 2012

Noted Stalin Biographer Runs Down Historical Parallels To Journalist Masha Gessen’s Phone Call From President Putin

Under The New York Times headline, Please Hold for Mr. Putin,SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE adds some historical perspective to a recent firing over editorial integrity.

First, what’s funny on initial glance is Ms. Gessen’s phone is tapped and intermittently shut off, and President Putin dials her up through a secretary as if shooting the breeze with a critic is routine. Keep this cool. After all America spent decades fighting corruption and, in the end, it’s the legal varieties that stab our best intentions in the back anyway. And yes, I hardly believe myself either. But certainly centuries of experience have proven the only solution is the evolution of the criminal class, when it no longer pays to deceive.
So the American/Russian journalist, MASHA GESSEN, fairly-objectively recounts in Flying Putin, Fired Editor her recent firing for refusing to send a reporter to cover President Vladimir V. Putin’s hang-glider flight. Then Mr. Montefiore writes – Last week she received an unexpected phone call. She said, “My phone rang. … I listened to silence for two minutes.” Finally: “Don’t hang up. I will connect you.” Frustrated, Ms. Gessen shouted: “Do you want to introduce yourself?” A famous voice replied: “Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovich. I heard you were fired and that I unwittingly served as the reason for it.” He invited her to meet.
Ms. Gessen was flummoxed: “But how do I know this is not a prank?”
Mr. Montefiore speculates – Educated Russians would have spotted similarities between this call and earlier Olympian interventions into the lives of writers by Romanov and Communist autocrats, illuminating rituals of Russian leadership and the relationship between power and art. This tradition flatters the writer in a culture where literature has special prestige. But the surprise also promotes the cult of the unpredictable czar who moves, like God, in mysterious ways.
And Mr. Montefiore continues – Eighty-two years ago, Mikhail Bulgakov, novelist and playwright, had been fired from Soviet theaters, his works banned, when his phone rang: “Comrade Bulgakov? … Please hold. Comrade Stalinwill speak to you.” Then the famous voice began, “I apologize … we shall try to do something for you.” Afterward Bulgakov phoned the Kremlin: was it a prank? It was Stalin. Soon, the theater employed Bulgakov again. Unpublished nor produced but allowed to live.
In May 1934, the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested for a poem mocking Stalin. His fellow poetBoris Pasternak tried to help. His phone rang. Stalin: “Mandelstam’s case is being reviewed. Everything will be all right. … He’s a genius, isn’t he?” Pasternak: “But that’s not the point.” He said he wanted to talk “about life and death.” Stalin rang off. Pasternak phoned the Kremlin, asking Stalin’s secretary if he could tell others about the conversation. Yes, he could.
Tidbits in lieu of the freedom to tell Stalin to ____ himself. Come on President Putin, don’t let your legacy be a part of his.
Mr. Montefiore is not done despite a newspaper’s limited space. – March 1949:the composer Dmitri Shostakovich refused to represent the U.S.S.R. abroad. Stalin rang: Shostakovich said he wouldn’t join a Soviet delegation when no Soviet orchestra performed his work. Stalin: “Why don’t they play it?” It was banned by censors. Stalin: “We didn’t give such an order. I’ll have to correct the comrades.”
Always someone else responsible for the mistakes, right Vladimir, sir?
Mr. Montefiore goes – Even further back, 1826: Nicholas I, after crushing theDecembrist rebels, invited their exiled supporter, the poet Aleksander Pushkin, in for a chat. The czar appointed himself Pushkin’s censor and declared, “Today I had a conversation with the cleverest man in Russia.” Pushkin told everyone about Nicholas’s charm.
Stalin was channeling Nicholas; Putin channeled both. Nicholas I has been called “Genghis Khan with a telegraph.” Stalin was “Genghis Khan with a telephone.” But Mr. Putin is not Genghis Khan with a BlackBerry. Those Russias were dominated by the missions of Orthodox czardom and homicidal totalitarian Marxist-Leninism; today’s Russia is authoritarian but still freer.
Mr. Montefiore, now is that freer when government indiscriminately leaves you alone? Or free from government on your back? Freer than years past, no doubt, but the deterioration of something that wasn’t quite established is obviously frustrating to people who’ve been treated asproles for too long.
Mr. Montefiore describes Stalin – Physically awkward, with one shorter arm, once a published poet, was half murderous tyrant, half intellectual, always reading. He was fascinated by literary genius: half of his huge library is said to sit in the president’s Kremlin office. Mr. Putin’s interest seems more utilitarian. He prefers Tarzanian displays of bare-chested, tiger-whispering environmentalism. But he still may have learned something from those books.
And evidently Mr. Montefiore is trying encourage President Putin. – Russian writers enjoy almost sacred status. Mandelstam reflected that poetry was so respected in Russia, “people are killed for it.” He perished in the gulag. Under Stalin, artists weren’t dissidents; all they hoped was to survive and write. Today’s Russia is still worryingly unsafe: journalists have been assassinated, oppositionists beaten, the punk protesters Pussy Riotimprisoned. So Ms. Gessen showed courage at her presidential encounter: when offered her job back, she refused to be a “Kremlin appointee.” Ms. Gessen gave a full accounting of the call and meeting in a blog post forThe International Herald Tribune, The Times global edition.
So Mr. Montefiore asks – why, really, do these czars make the call? The outcome of the conversation is irrelevant. (In Ms. Gessen’s telling, faced with an issue, Putin blew her off in person.) The point isn’t the call itself but the myth of the call, spreading like ripples in the pond of the intelligentsia. (That’s why Stalin’s secretary told Pasternak he could recount the story.) It showed the president had heard of Ms. Gessen’s plight and reached down, with imperial magnanimity, to a hostile writer to correct an injustice. He was also able to prove that though he may have been mocked for his adventures — when it emerged that a tiger he “captured” was from a zoo and that ancient amphorae he “discovered” on a dive were planted — he was not deceived. “There are excesses,” he admitted jovially, but only in the cause of saving nature. His candor, thus reported by Ms. Gessen, disarmed ridicule. The good czar showed he despised the preposterous sycophancy of his pettifogging officials just like ordinary Russians did. He saw all. He knew.
Today’s oppositionists are bloggers, not poets, but an autocrat of the Internet age still paid a compliment to the old-fashioned written word. As Bulgakov wrote, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”
Words alone can shine, that can’t be decreed.
SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE is the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Jerusalem: The Biography.
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