Posted January 29, 2007on:
Michael Specter’s New Yorker articles on Russia are ever informative and compelling. His latest on why Putin’s enemies are dying is no different. A necessary read for anyone who wants an overview of the political changes in Russia over the last decade.
Putin…has called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,”…Sick of the lines, the empty shops, and the false promises of Soviet life, Russians looked first to the West—and particularly to the United States—to provide an economic model. What followed was an epic disaster: the sell-off of the state’s most valuable assets made a few dozen people obscenely rich, but the lives of millions of others became far worse. The health-care system fell apart, and so did many of the social-service networks. Russia became the first industrial country ever to experience a sustained fall in life expectancy. Russian males born today can, on average, expect to live to the age of fifty-nine, dying younger than if they were born in Pakistan or Bangladesh. It is not surprising, then, that by the time Putin became President most Russians were only too happy to exchange the metaphysical ideas of free speech and intellectual freedom for the concrete desires of owning a home and a car and possessing a bank account. They also wanted to feel that somebody was in control of their country.
In today’s Russia, as Politkovskaya wrote, stability is everything and damn the cost. Gorbachev and Yeltsin are seen by an overwhelming majority as historical disasters who provoked decline, collapse, chaos, and humiliation before the triumphal West. The opportunities created in those years, the liberation from totalitarianism, have been forgotten. “Yes, stability has come to Russia,” Politkovskaya wrote. “It is a monstrous stability under which nobody seeks justice in courts that flaunt their subservience and partisanship. Nobody in his or her right mind seeks protection from the institutions entrusted with maintaining law and order, because they are totally corrupt. Lynch law is the order of the day, both in people’s minds and in their actions. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’’
Here’s an amusing piece on what it’s like to work in a used book shop by George Orwell. (via Booksquare)
In a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones, and one thing that strikes you is how completely the ‘classical’ English novelists have dropped out of favour. It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc. into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say, ‘Oh, but that’s old!’ and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are ‘always meaning to’ read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand. People know by hearsay that Bill Sikes was a burglar and that Mr Micawber had a bald head, just as they know by hearsay that Moses was found in a basket of bulrushes and saw the ‘back parts’ of the Lord. Another thing that is very noticeable is the growing unpopularity of American books. And another – the publishers get into a stew about this every two or three years – is the unpopularity of short stories. The kind of person who asks the librarian to choose a book for him nearly always starts by saying ‘I don’t want short stories’, or ‘I do not desire little stories’, as a German customer of ours used to put it. If you ask them why, they sometimes explain that it is too much fag to get used to a new set of characters with every story; they like to ‘get into’ a novel which demands no further thought after the first chapter. I believe, though, that the writers are more to blame here than the readers. Most modern short stories, English and American, are utterly lifeless and worthless, far more so than most novels. The short stories which are stories are popular enough, vide D. H. Lawrence, whose short stories are as popular as his novels.
Chris Abani has a new novel out!! The Virgin of Flames, published by Penguin, is already out in Canada and will be released on January 30th in the USA. Laila Lalami points to two recent reviews printed in the L.A. Times and the New York Times Book Review. I’ll read neither until I savour the book myself. (Yippee! This is a wonderful surprise as I had no idea he had a new one in the offing.)