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Monthly Archives: May 2015

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

I’ve read many biographies of Stalin (maybe more than anyone else) but this seemed to be very insightful.

One key point it made was avoiding unwarranted insights into Stalin’s childhood based on his later behaviour. For example, many biographer’s talk about how violence or rejection in his childhood made him behave in certain ways when he gained supreme power.

I found the descriptions of Tsarist Russia useful, showing how the Tsarist regime centralized power and political authority in the personal institution of the Tsar. This led to a great weakness of the regime because there was no constituency to hold up the state. In fact, it is notable that the success of the Russian revolution is in contrast to many other left-wing movements across Europe in the early 20th century. In these the forces of reaction were uniformly successful.

The descriptions of Stalin’s rise to authority and the ways he dealt with the opposition were interesting. He points out that his rise was not unquestioned and was not preordained. However, he was helped by the naivety and disunion of all his potential opponents including Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Bukharin.

The origins of collectivisation were consistent with other accounts I’ve read. One key reason was that it was a way for the Soviet state to exert authority over large parts of the country (ie the rural world) which it did not control. Another point, I’d not realized was from an political and economic point of view. The soviet economy needed agriculture goods to feed workers in cities, it also needed agriculture exports to finance imports to boost large scale industry. The problem with this was that one way to achieve this was by building up successful individual peasants, but this was not appealing from an ideological point of view, ie rural capitalism was unacceptable. The solution was the creation of collective farms.

I did not really gain much insight into the Shakhty Trial, which still confuses me. I can see ideological reasons with accusations against class enemies in general and in particular the use of specialists. The latter being a theme from the civil war onwards. However, it brought the Soviet Union into conflict with other countries including Germany with whom they had some common interests. This at a time when the country was very weak, both economically and militarily. What I don’t really understand is whether this is all there is, or if there were deeper reasons. Ie the equivalent to the avoidance of peasant capitalism in the case of collectivisation. The Shakhty Trial seems to start a trend in actions against ‘wreckers’ which continued in the early 30s. However, I am unclear if it connects to the great purges, or is just a sequence on its own.

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The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity by Alexandra Wilson

This is an analysis of Puccini’s music from a musical, cultural, and political point of view.

Cultural forms can be important as national expressions. This was very true for end of 19th century Italy, which was creating a national identity. Opera was a particularly important cultural form, particularly because it was an Italian creation and other forms such as literature were less important due to educational and linguistic reasons. Verdi was very much the composer of the Risorgimento and Puccini had been taken up as his successor.

Puccini had his critics from both a traditionalist and modernist perspective. The latter were Futurist-inspired and attacked him for weakness, femininity, and Jewishness, using arguments that are hard to comprehend from a modern perspective. Often it seemed that each time Puccini came out with a new Opera it was criticized for not being similar enough to his previous one.

More modern critiques of Puccini often treat him as unsubstantial, despite (or because of?) the fact that he is one of the most popular composers in the modern era. There is a question as to whether his music fits into 19th or 20th century norms. There seems a definite progression ending with Turandot, where the Princess Turandot almost seems a female automaton similar to Lang’s robot Maria from Metropolis. However, even Turandot compared with work such as Wozzeck seems less modern. Another criticism is that Puccini’s music is derided as similar to cinema music as directly manipulating the listener’s emotions, which is undoubtedly true.