Looking for Leningrad My Russian Life

nick-hayesFor the past eight years, the task of turning a lifetime of memories, boxes of notebooks, and recollected conversations into a memoir of my life and times in the onetime Soviet Union and Russia has preoccupied my thoughts and writing.  This fall this labor of the mind and heart will finally see publication under the title “Looking for Leningrad My Russian Life (Nodin Press).

Here’s a sample.  The unseemly relationship of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump has aroused considerable interest in the operations of the Russian intelligence services.  Americans have added a Russian word to their vocabulary, “kompromat’.  You might enjoy this story of my first encounter with “kompromat’.”  The excerpt comes from chapter three of “Looking for Leningrad.”  The story takes place in Moscow in the fall 1978. . .

“Spooks”

Architecture plays politics.  On the campus grounds of Moscow State University, the architecture was still fighting the 1950s and 1960s battles between Stalinism and reform.  Stalin’s proxy in this war was the jewel in the crown of his seven “wedding cake” sky-scrapers, Moscow State University.

Moscow State University grey

Moscow State University in its Glory Days

It towered over the grounds dwarfing and intimidating the new buildings that had rolled out in the 1960s and 1970s.

The “Humanitarian Faculty Building No. 1,” or, as it was known by its acronym, “GUMFAK,” embodied in glass and concrete the glum modernism of the Soviet 1960s in architecture.

Gumfak

Humanitarian Faculty Building No. 1 or GUMFAK

 

It rose sluggishly in a rectangular twelve stories with an extension on its mezzanine, a horizontal counter-point to the singularly vertical design of the main building. The critics and savants of Soviet architecture ignored GUMFAK until quite recently when two scholars of Soviet modernism saw in the building   “the spirit of the period during which the first human spaceflight and the 1980 Olympics took place.” They saw GUMFAK as “a modern building whose appearance and atmosphere were deigned to fight cultural and pedagogical inertia.” Stalinist architecture delighted in a certain socialist baroque and overly indulged in ornamentation.  GUMFAK made a virtue out of its barren interior or so its scholars claimed: “Bare interiors allowed students to appreciate the thoughts of their generation’s intellectual idols more clearly, while recreation areas facilitated productive discussions with teachers.”   During my year there, an under-stocked “buffet” with an expresso machine that never worked passed for GUMFAK’s recreational space.  I never saw a student in a discussion there with anyone.

My program for the year began with an intensive course in Russian in GUMFAK. The lessons succeeded in moving my Russian from the unintelligible to the merely ungrammatical. There I also picked up my monthly stipend.  The first time a generous apparatchik over-paid me.  I had a day or two to enjoy the self-esteem of a stipend of twice that distributed to my American colleagues.  However, a very nervous Russian clerk accosted me after my Russian class and somewhat frantically explained the error.  He seemed both relieved and surprised when I pulled out my wallet and handed him the rubles. Of course, the resolution of the problem would not be that easy.  I spent another hour or two filling out forms.

My first professional contact came in a telephone call to my dormitory blok.  My advisor and host, Dr. Sergei Kokushkin, requested that I meet with him the following day at his office in GUMFAK.  I arrived early. The waiting room featured a cheerless hospitality. A few unwelcoming chairs, like gloomy waiters in a Soviet restaurant, hinted that I should look elsewhere if I wanted to be comfortable.  A blonde, attractive receptionist had not raised her head and eyes from her desk when I entered the office. She reluctantly acknowledged my presence and tersely asked, “Chto Vy?” or “What’s with you?”  “Dr. Kokushkin is expecting you,” she said in reply to my awkward introduction.  Gesturing toward a chair, she continued, “Please sit down.  Sergei Sergeivich will see you in a minute.”  She had exhausted her interest in me. The promised minute turned into five, ten and more.  I had not even rated the customary offer of tea.

The entrance door opened.  A young man, about my age, entered, politely greeted the receptionist by her name and patronymic and turned toward me. “Are you American?” he asked.   He spoke a seamless American English. My reply, “Da, ya Amerikanits” brought out a touch of excitement to him.  “Ah, that is good,” he said, “Perhaps, you could help me.”  He continued, “I am writing a dissertation on the Puritans in American history.”  My reply was disingenuous.  “Unfortunately, you have met the wrong type of American,” I injected.  “I am a Catholic and know very little about the Puritans.”  “Catholic!” he said. His eyes widened.  “I, too, am Catholic.”  His name was Andrei.  He joked that my name, Nick would make me popular in Russia.

Russian Catholics are a rarity. I showed off a bit of my knowledge of nationalities in the Soviet Union.  I asked if he was Polish, Lithuanian or one of those Uniate Ukrainians for whom we prayed in my parochial school during Captive Nations Week.  No, he was very much a Russian.   There was a small community of Russian Catholics in Moscow. Perhaps I would like to meet them?

I took the bait like a crappie on the Minnesota fishing opener.  My imagination was already showing images of my Moscow bylines on the front page of the New York Times.  We agreed to meet again.  Only a week or two into my year in Russia, I made what would be the first of a long line of meetings with Russians at an agreed upon time on the platform of a metro station.  Metro Universitet.

He added one last request. He complained about the difficulty of obtaining any books in Russia on the Puritans.  Would it be possible, he wondered, that I could obtain for him some of the writings of Cotton Mather?  It didn’t cross my mind to wonder why my new Russian friend would be interested in the man behind the Salem Witch Trials.  A bit too eager to play my new role as the American voice of the Soviet underground, I assured him that I would be able to easily pick up a book or two of Mather’s writing.  I dismissed a pesky warning in my head that reminded me of my orientation meeting with the U.S. Consulate staff.  Soviet law strictly forbade the distribution of foreign religious materials.

The receptionist interrupted this fraternization between Catholics:  “Dr. Kokushkin will meet you now.” She opened the door and ceremoniously waved her hand in the direction of a well-dressed and rather handsome Kokushkin.  He rose from his chair at the apex of an apparatchik’s typical “T” shaped table.  The motion of his hand said that I should pick my place at the table.  A new protocol faced me.  Do I sit directly across from my distinguished host or somewhere more appropriate to my status at the lower end of the “T?” I split the difference and sat at a chair a place or two removed from Kokushkin.  His welcome included a few references to my family, my work and home in Texas and so liberated me from the always awkward task of explaining myself to a stranger.  Kokushkin then pointed toward a colleague who was joining us for our meeting.  The colleague politely said hello.  This would be his only contribution to the conversation.  It was my first encounter with this Soviet custom.  Any professional appointment or conversation usually included an extraneous colleague who offered a perfunctory greeting and thereafter tended to smile inanely and volunteered nothing to the conversation.

I side-stepped through a few sentences on my research project.  The blank expression on Kokushkin’s face remained unmoved as I dropped the banned names of the philosophers of “national bolshevism” from the 1920s and nervously said the name, “Stalin” once.  Sergei Sergeivich may have been honestly ignorant of my topic or wanted to conceal his discomfort. Our silent colleague at the meeting jotted down something in a pocket notebook.

Our meeting was brief, courteous and unproductive.   I had better things to do.  I pulled my diary out of my pocket.  Years later, when I learned that Kokushkin specialized in the history of the Constitution of the USSR, I wondered why would anyone actually study that?

A few days later, Andrei was waiting for me on the metro station platform at the appointed time. The station lacked the heroic murals of the older metro stations that that decorated the walls with scenes from the glorious history of the USSR. The walls of Kiev station, for example glistened with mosaics offering images of the bonds of friendship between the Russians and Ukrainians.  By contrast, Metro Universitet offered a refreshing lack of hyperbole and embellishment. The pink granite walls kept their silence and left you alone as you bustled through the station.

In Moscow, you do not start up a conversation just anywhere. At Andrei’s suggestion, we left the metro station for one of Moscow’s “ice cream cafes.”  This one stood on nearby Lomonosovskii Prospect.  The eighteenth century scientist, Lomonosov was the namesake of Moscow State University. His name on the street offered the only evidence that this was a university neighborhood. If you were looking for a bookstore, forget this neighborhood and go to “Dom Knigi” (The House of Books) in the center of Moscow.  On a good day, the cafe offered ice cream, cookies, tea, and brandy.  Andrei and I had happened upon on a not-so-good day.  This was a tea only conversation.  Andrei had a “vocation.”  He was determined to become a Catholic priest.   He dreamed of enrolling in the newly re-opened Catholic seminary in Lithuania. After ordination, he would return to Moscow and minister to Russian Catholics. He belonged to a “secret circle” of Catholics who met on Sunday evenings at the Catholic Cathedral.

The next Sunday evening, I followed his directions to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin Mary.  Erected in 1911, the neo-Gothic Cathedral occupied a piece of prime real estate in Moscow on the Garden Ring Road. The neo-gothic Cathedral was collapsing due to a near century of neglect, vandalism, and structural collapse.  This island of Catholicism in Orthodox Russia had enjoyed only a few years of peace until the 1917 Revolution unleashed two decades of harassment and persecution. Stalin’s regime closed the church in 1938, stripped it of its sacred art, and converted into a warehouse and offices. The church’s altar and organ had not too mysteriously disappeared in 1938.  During the war, Soviet authorities viewed the Cathedral as a collaborator with the Germans.   They demolished two of the church’s four towers on the grounds that the spires served as markers directing the Luftwaffe to targets in Moscow’s center.  The main tower collapsed in the 1950s.  A fire scorched the walls and brought down a few of its buttresses. The official re-opening and re-consecration of the church would have to wait until Gorbachev’s time.  In the 1970s, an unofficial re-opening had proceeded in discretely defiant increments.  By the time Andrei drew me to the scene in 1978, survivors and descendants of the parish had reclaimed a corner of the church with a few pews, a make-shift altar and a crucifix rescued from the rubble.  The metaphor of the resurrection of the crucifix was not lost on the congregation.

The Cathedral had never made it into the age of electricity. Soviet era campaigns for “electrification” had passed it by. A few candles now provided a bit of light.   Andrei’s group comprised a handful of elderly women, a few dislocated Poles and Lithuanians, some lost exiles from France and a small flock of unbaptized crows perched on a pile of rubble. The priest, a Lithuanian did not risk a confrontation with the Soviet authorities by saying a Mass. He began with an obvious and somewhat theatrical Sign of the Cross using two fingers in the Catholic style. The priest kept his homily to a whisper mentioning the woeful state of the Cathedral, a few references to the New Testament, and an abbreviated selection of prayers from the Ordinary of the Mass. Playing on a metaphor from John 10:1-21, the priest described the Catholic Church as the Good Shepherd that had come back to Russia in search of its lost sheep.  The Church risked great peril as it sought its lost sheep not only in Russia but in the Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania.  The priest called on his Faithful to pray for Russian vocations to the priesthood and for the restoration of the Cathedral. He then led this humble gathering of the Faithful in reciting the Nicene Creed with stress added to its profession of belief in “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The priest gave the congregation his blessing and sent us off to go in peace.

The parishioners approached the altar, crossed themselves before the crucifix and hastily disappeared into the darkness beyond the candles’ light.   Andrei, however, approached the priest, pointed to me and led the priest over to meet me.  He spoke English.  He had relatives in Chicago.  We exchanged pleasantries. I accepted his invitation to come again next Sunday evening.

I remembered that I had heard something about the Cathedral before. In the late 1970s, the Cathedral gained some recognition by association.  The poet, actor and singer, Vladimir Vysotsky lived across the street from the Cathedral and had lent his name to the cause of its restoration.  His sympathy for the humbled Catholic Cathedral was his wife’s cause, the French actress, Marina Vlady.  Vysotsky was not the type of guy to venerate the purity of the Blessed Virgin.  Besides, the Russian Orthodox Church did not subscribe to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  A healthy skepticism and irreverence for the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” in one of his poems circulated in samizdat and magnitizat at the time.  Under the title “A Poem about the Carpenter Joseph, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, and the Immaculate Conception,” Vysotsky wrote . . .

I came home from work,

Put my awl on the wall,

Suddenly someone flits out the window

From my wife, from the bed!

I, of course, ask, “Who is it?”

And she answered, “It is the Holy Spirit!”

. . .

He will be born, but I know

That he ain’t no Jesus Christ.”

Vysotsky’s cynicism is infectious.  As I left the cathedral, Muscovites sped in their Ladas along the Garden Ring Road, busily pursuing the promised wonder of a Soviet future and disinterested in the old story on the side of the road of a violated and abused cathedral.  I looked back. Now empty, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception receded into the shadows of the Moscow night like an apparition from a distinctively Soviet form of hell.  The Soviet gulag took on many forms and shapes.  The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was a prisoner in the one reserved for suspect churches, monasteries, and sacred architecture.  My new friend, Andrei, was far, far closer to the Kremlin, than to Rome.

Tony Cunningham on “All Will & No Reason”

prof-photoAs a boy growing up in New York City, I loved baseball debates.  I was a Red Sox fan, and all my friends liked the Yankees.  There were some unspoken rules to our debates.  We had our vested interests.  I certainly wanted Jim Rice to top Reggie Jackson, just as my friends wanted Thurman Munson to prevail over Carlton Fisk.  We were anything but disinterested.  However, we understood that there was no sense debating unless we considered reasonable arguments.  I loved Carl Yastrzemski, but by the 70s, I couldn’t depict him as the baseball god he was in 1967.  If you were going to engage in baseball debates, you had to consider evidence seriously.  You couldn’t just make silly stuff up.

Every so often, somebody would break the rules.  Usually, it was some boy beyond my circle of friends, someone new to the debate routine.  Sometimes an adversary so loved a player that it was psychologically impossible for him to give an inch in a debate.  No matter what statistics you brought to bear, he was not going to admit that his favorite player was the lesser.  In such a case, the debate was really a test of loyalty, akin to arguing about whose mother was better.  You could say whatever you pleased, but this boy wasn’t going to throw his favorite player (or his mother) under the bus.  End of story.  Such love could be understood, tiresome as it surely was for debate purposes.

On rare occasions, I’d run across a different adversary, a far more exasperating one, someone who made a complete mockery of debate.  This opponent was determined to concede nothing about anything.  The point wasn’t just to stand up for a beloved player, but rather, to “win” at all costs.  Such a boy could take two and two to make five without blinking an eye.  His player might hit four homers to my player’s forty, but in his eyes, this fact wouldn’t make any difference whatsoever.  Such boys transformed the exercise into a test of pure will, one where reason had no place.  The real point—the only point—was victory.  It didn’t matter how it was won.  Good evidence and sound arguments?  Any willful boy determined to win at all costs had to be careful not to let appeals to evidence and reason find a way inside the walls of his indomitable will.  After all, give an inch, and you might find yourself giving a foot.  And then you might lose, nightmare of nightmares.

Effectively, Donald Trump is this willful boy, so I feel like I’ve known him all my life.  His stubborn refusal to accept the revised death toll from Hurricane Maria and his claim that Democrats cooked up false numbers to make him “look as bad as possible” are nothing other than childish attempts to shout the loudest and bang his fist boldly on the table.  The man is all will, and no reason.  Concessions, retractions, apologies, and admissions of mistakes are all indisputable signs of constitutional weakness in Donald Trump’s book.  Why would a winner ever admit to being wrong?  When people ask you to put two and two together, give them five if it suits your interests, and once given, never take it back.  If tomorrow you feel like six instead of five, just change your answer.  An iron will rules.

In my childhood, I never knew what to do with such boys.  But having learned my “lesson,” one of the first things I impress upon my students these days is that any good inquiry aims at figuring out what is the case, not at corroborating what you’d like to be so.  As I tell them, if you are to be a serious inquirer—the only kind worth being—you must be willing to accept bad news.  The world, for all your fervent desires, may not turn out as you’d like, and if not, you must beware of fudging things to produce the answer you desire.  For instance, anyone familiar with the empirical evidence of climate change knows that humanity’s prospects look bleak, especially if we continue with our current path.  Responsible scientists and citizens hate this answer, but their preferences are beside the point.  After all, I didn’t like it when I finally came around as a child to the judgment that I would never fly under my own power, but my disappointment didn’t make the conclusion any less true.

Another thing I impress upon my students is that I no longer care much for debates.  Of course, the adversarial system can serve a useful purpose in collecting support for conflicting points of view.  In the ideal, the best evidence and arguments rise to the top, just like cream.  However, debates suffer for the truth when willful people want to win more than they wish to see the truth rise.  There are many ways of “winning” a debate.  You can lie.  You can entertain.  You can appeal to prejudices.  You can intimidate.  You can confuse people.  You can change the subject.  Basically, you can alter the enterprise from an honest attempt to figure out what is the case by making it into a winner-take-all contest of sheer will.  This is the embodiment of Trump, and his triumph of will over reason is a terminal cancer for any democracy worth its salt.

One last thing I like to tell my students is that we are all wrong, most of the time.  Try as we may, we’re destined to get all sorts of things wrong, even if just a little bit wrong.  So long as we pursue complex questions, our reach will always exceed our grasp.  But if we come to the task with the requisite humility, duly cognizant that we might just be wrong, we are far likelier to get things right in the end.  On the other hand, if we substitute sheer will for reason, like Donald Trump, then we’re just making silly stuff up.

Derek Larson on “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”

If I were assigned the classic “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” topic for a back-to-school essay this fall the focus would be on an eight-day road trip my family took from Atlanta to Dallas in July. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to mark my 50th birthday and to see to the last of the fifty states I had never visited, but the real motive was to experience a bit of the rural South and to explore some of the iconic sites associated with the Civil Rights movement and the history of Black liberation in America.

Along the way we visited dozens of historic sites and museums, ate barbeque and okra, avoided sweet tea whenever possible, and talked endlessly about history. At most stops we were met with diverse crowds of other visitors eager to learn more about the historic roots of racial oppression in our society and the generations of resistance required to improve the lives of people of color in America.  Among the places we visited were numerous locations along the recently-established U.S. National Civil Rights Trail, managed by the National Park Service and spanning 14 states with over 100 sites, many of them justifiably famous—or infamous –for their roles in the battle for racial justice and equality in the 20th century. All were familiar to us from textbooks and movies, but experiencing these places in person—and in the context of a broader conversation about civil rights and justice –made each day a memorable experience.

Rosa Parks/Montgomery Bus Boycott Marker, Montgomery, AL

In Montgomery, Alabama, we visited the bus stop where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the most effective large-scale acts of resistance against segregation in the Jim Crow South. In Little Rock Arkansas, we walked the steps of the public high school pro-segregation whites tried to prevent Black students from attending 1957.

Little Rock Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas

In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court decision schools were ordered to desegregate but white opposition was strong in many locations. Little Rock Central High School, still operating as a public school today, was named a National Historic Site due in part to the response to the Little Rock Nine, a group of Black teenagers who arrived for the first day of classes in September of 1959 but were turned back at the doors by armed members of the Arkansas National Guard acting under orders from the Governor. Ultimately the children were admitted, three weeks later, under the protection of the 101st Airborne unit of the U.S. Army, who were ordered by President Eisenhower to enforce the law over the opposition of Governor Orval Faubus.

The Ebenezer Baptist Church and Pulpit, Atlanta along with the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King tomb, King Center, Atlanta

In Atlanta, we sat quietly in the pews of at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached and across the street from his tomb at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. As recordings of MLK’s sermons played, the spirit of the church—now managed by the National Park Service –came alive. The entire neighborhood surrounding the church, a hub of the historic Black community in Atlanta, has been designated the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park by the National Park Service, and is maintained now as it appeared when King lived there.

Medgar Evers home, Jackson, Mississippi

In Jackson, Mississippi we drove through residential neighborhoods to find the modest 1950s ranch home where NAACP leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in June of 1963. A WWII veteran and father, as Field Secretary for the NAACP Evers challenged illegal segregation at the University of Mississippi and worked across the state in campaigns for voting rights and equal access. His murderer was tried three times; all-white juries failed to convict twice in the 1960s but a retrial in 1994 finally led to conviction. Evers was widely viewed as a martyr for the cause of racial justice and his murder helped raise awareness of the struggle outside the segregated South.

16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama and Statue recognizing the bombing victims, Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham

In Birmingham, Alabama, we saw the 16th Street Baptist Church where terrorist bombers detonated 15 sticks of dynamite in September 1963, killing four little girls as the children were preparing for services. The adjacent museum, operated by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, places the attack in the broader context of Birmingham’s long history of racial discrimination and violence. The city-owned Kelly Ingram Park across the street uses art and opportunities for reflection to promote healing and justice.

In Selma, Alabama, we walked across the notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge, where peaceful civil rights protesters were attacked by armed police on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, as they attempted to march to the capital in Montgomery to advocate for voting rights. The 2014 movie Selma told the story in remarkable detail, but walking across the bridge on a hot July day took on an ominous feel soon after cresting the arc, where the marchers would have first seen the armed, angry white mob awaiting them on the opposite side.

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

The most informative and emotionally taxing of all the places we visited, however, was not part of the formal Civil Rights history trail: it was the newly-constructed National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Exterior of memorial pavilion, National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama

Sculpture representing enslaved people, National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Dedicated earlier this year, the site colloquially known as “the National Lynching Memorial” gives voice to the nearly 4,400 Americans murdered in acts of racially-motivated terrorism between 1877-1950. The accompanying museum documents the history of racial oppression and violence from the Colonial period to the present, placing the lynchings in the broader context of racial violence that remains part of American culture to this day.

Markers listing victims of racial murder by U.S. county, National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Markers listing lynching victims, suspended overhead, National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The memorial presents a haunting multi-acre pavilion though which visitors walk by hundreds of hanging steel boxes marked with the names of victims and the counties in which lynchings have been documented.The sloped design of the memorial is such that these markers are at face level initially, and as one walks through they are eventually suspended far overhead, symbolically raised and hung from above as lynching victims themselves were.

Memorial to lynching victims in St. Louis County, Minnesota; it is hoped this steel marker will eventually be relocated to a site near Duluth where the murders took place in 1920

Outside, a matching set of steel boxes—now clearly representing coffins –lay on the ground in rows, waiting to be removed and placed on display in the counties where the victims they mark were murdered. Though none have yet been removed, advocates are already working to establish related memorials in every U.S. county where a lynching has been documented. Eventually, it is hoped, the outdoor portion of the memorial will be emptied as these markers “go home” to the counties where the victims were killed to serve as reminders of the local role in this violent history.

The final element of the memorial is a quiet reflection space with a series of benches across from a wall-sized fountain on which the following is inscribed: “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documented, many whose names will never be known. They are honored here.” The scale and scope of the monument gives these victims voice, and present a deeply moving memorial to this very dark chapter in our history.

At these and other sites along the Civil Rights Trail we were struck by the sheer courage of those who risked their lives to stand up for freedom and justice, not just leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, but the thousands of Americans who spoke out, alone or in crowds, against injustice, violence, and hatred. While the cumulative impact of visiting these many places in a relative short time was emotionally overwhelming, it was also deeply inspiring. At The Legacy Museum—the companion to the Memorial established by the Equal Justice Initiative –exhibits made the connections between the history of slavery, racial terror and murder, and our contemporary struggles with justice abundantly clear. The final exhibits in the gallery there are not about the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the Civil War, but rather are reflections on the violence, both direct and indirect, done to Americans of color every day in our unequal and unjust society. The choice of the word “legacy” in naming the museum was indeed apt.


Toward the end of our journey we visited two somber places that weren’t directly linked to the Civil Rights movement but prompted more reflection on peace and justice: the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. The first of course reminded us of the long history of violence aimed at the innocent by cowards seeking to impose their will on others; the children killed in the Murrah Building in 1995 were part of a tragic legacy that spans centuries, just like the four little girls killed in Birmingham in 1963. In Dallas we visited the former Texas School Book Depository, now a museum, the site from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired upon President Kennedy’s motorcade just two months after the Birmingham bombing. There we saw a temporary exhibit of photographs illustrating the lives and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, both assassinated in the late spring of 1968, and featuring many of the sites we had visited on the way from Georgia to Texas.

Our summer road trip was sparked by my desire to visit the last few states I had not seen before, as a way to mark my 50th birthday and to continue the family tradition of exploring history together that started with my parents in the 1960s. A half-century is a long time in human terms, more than half a lifespan. Double it and you’re talking about a different world, a century of progress stripped away. Halve it and it’s still more than a generation’s span; time enough to experience great change. What remains constant on any scale are two things this summer vacation brought to the fore: the horrific impacts of hatred and violence between Americans and the enduring and inspiring power of hope to overcome them both.

So “what I did on my summer vacation” was take a 1,800 mile family road trip across nine states to visit a bunch of museums. But it was so much more than that: humbling, enraging, tearful, electrifying, and inspiring. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a modern civil rights organization based in Montgomery, asks visitors to its museum what they will do to promote justice after their visit. It’s a very good question. What I did on my summer vacation was to try to learn more about the struggle for justice in America, to help my teenage children better understand our history, and to spend some time thinking about just that: what can I—can we –do to create a more just society?

Summer Reading Reviews

The contributors to the Avon Hills salon decided to make this issue a variant on an old theme – the summer reading list. Like so many liberal arts alumni/ae, your summer reading list of years ago probably included at least one Russian classic. Our list gives the old reading list a contemporary twist. No, we are not asking that you finally finish reading Lev Tolstoi’s War and Peace or disrupt the tranquility of a day at the beach by returning to Fyodor Dosteovesky’s The Brothers Karamozov. We are suggesting instead that you take your pick from our list of five Russia themed books.

Noreen Herzfeld’s review of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow takes the reader back in time to Moscow’s Hotel Metropol and its involuntary guest, Count Alexander Rostov. Sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, Count Rostov is a metaphor for the passing of the old Tsarist Russia and a reflection on the ways Soviet citizens found to carry on despite the capricious brutality of life in the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Louis Johnston also invites the reader to take a Russian journey, the quintessential Russia journey – the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Former NPR Moscow bureau chief, David Greene’s Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia is a book for all of us who have fantasized about taking the legendary train trip across Siberia and playing the role of a latter day John Reed covering the unfolding drama of the end of the old Soviet regime and the troubled rise of a new Russia. Piano playing was political in the Soviet Union. That is one lesson you can draw from Louis’ second recommendation, Nigel Cliff’s The Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War. Cliff tells the story of Van Cliburn’s famous performance in Moscow in 1958 and how in effect Van Cliburn broke through the ice of the Cold War and in his mastery of the Russian classical style provided a cultural bridge between Russia and the U.S. Louis’ third pick, Marvin Kalb’s The Year I Was Peter the Great: 1956 – Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost and a Young America in Russia is the stuff of envy.

Who could not feel at least a tinge of jealousy as Kalb tells his story from Russian language training in Fort Meade, Maryland, to graduate studies in Russian history at Harvard, and finally to an assignment in Moscow in the pivotal year of 1956? Kalb offers you his front row seat to watch the rise and failure of Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms. Kalb’s book is well worth the read if only to learn about the origins of his “Peter the Great” joke.

Finally, I offer my recommendation with a bit of caution. Timothy Synder’s The Road to Unfreedom might dampen your curiosity or enthusiasm for taking any trip to Russia. Snyder provides a well-researched, alarming, and devastating study of the rise of the Putin regime in the very recent years from 2010 to the present and a convincing argument that the Trump-Putin axis is even far more threatening to democracy than we have feared.

* Nick Hayes


Noreen Herzfeld on A Gentleman in Moscow
Amor Towles
Viking, 2016
$27.00

 

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles is a charming elegy to a lost civilization.  The novel takes place entirely in the Soviet era, beginning in 1922 with the sentencing of Count Alexander Rostov to house arrest in the Metropol hotel and ending in 1954, the year Khrushchev unveiled the world’s first nuclear power plant.  A Gentleman in Moscow, however, celebrates the manners and mores not of the Soviets but of the Tsars.  The four confining walls (and sometimes roof) of the Metropol turn out to contain a world of people, events, objects, and ideas.  And while these are described by an outside narrator, we view life in the Metropol almost completely through Rostov’s eyes.  Thus, luxury hotel and aristocratic interpreter combine to form a lush portrait of the privileged life in Russia, both before and after the revolution.

This underlies both the novel’s strengths and its weaknesses.  The Metropol becomes for the reader a charming and cozy set, with a quirky cast of characters that begin to feel like family:  nine year old Nina, who somehow possesses a master key with which she takes Rostov into the hotel’s inner workings; Mishka, a poet friend from Rostov’s youth who struggles with the new order; friendly maître d’ Andre and temperamental French chef Emil; Anna, an actress and love interest; various government officials and foreign diplomats; Nina’s daughter Sophia; and even a one-eyed cat.  Both Rostov and the narrator exhibit a wry sense of humor and a fondness for historical and literary digressions.  The text is light, witty, and amusing, reminiscent of the chatter at a fin de siècle ball.

Which is also the novel’s weakness.  The digressions pile up at times.  Several characters seem too pat, and  while some characters run afoul of the new ruling caste, anything too serious or painful takes place outside the hotel.  When a typical obstacle is nothing more than the unavailability of saffron to make bouillabaisse, life in the Metropol, and by extension in Stalin’s Russia, looks pretty damn good.  Maybe a little too good.

If A Gentleman in Moscow has a message, it would be, in Rostov’s words, “A man must master his circumstances or be mastered by them.”  Against the Soviet will toward collectivization and the common good, Towles has written a supremely American ode to the intrepid individual.  He suggests that this individualism is not just part of the American psyche, but the Russian as well:

Towles, in describing his book, writes: “Kazan Cathedral is a perfect symbol of Russia’s mystique for me during the Soviet era. Built in 1636 on Red Square . . . Kazan was among Russia’s oldest and most revered cathedrals. In 1936, the Bolsheviks celebrated the 300th anniversary of its consecration by razing it to the ground. In part, they leveled the cathedral to clear Red Square for military parades, but also to punctuate the end of Christianity in Russia. But Peter Baranovsky, the architect who was directed to oversee the dismantling, secretly drafted detailed drawings of the cathedral and hid them away. More than fifty years later, when Communist rule came to its end, the Russians used Baranovsky’s drawings to rebuild the church stone for stone. . . . At the heart of this history is a lone individual who at great personal risk carefully documented what he was destroying in the unlikely chance that it might some day be rebuilt. The Soviet era abounds with sweeping cultural changes and with stoic heroes who worked in isolation at odds with the momentum of history towards some brighter future.”

A Gentleman in Moscow is a good summer read that mixes historical accuracy with flights of fancy.  It may start slowly, but it picks up momentum in the second half and by the end leaves the reader wishing that her reservation at the Metrapol would last just a few days longer.


Louis Johnston on Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into the Heart of Russia
David Greene
Norton, 2015
$16.95

Three years in Russia: Marvin Kalb in 1956, Van Cliburn in 1958, David Greene in 2013

I often stumble onto themes in my reading. Over the past few months I’ve read three books about Russia and the Soviet Union.

I first read David Greene’s, Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia this past winter. Greene, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, served as NPR’s Moscow bureau chief from 2009 to 2012. In 2011 he took the Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok; the trip affected Greene so much that he decided to do it again in 2013 and use the route as a framework for a memoir about his time in Russia, Ukraine, and other former republics of the Soviet Union.

I love trains and riding the Trans-Siberian is on my bucket list, so that was what attracted me to the book as well as hearting Greene regularly on NPR. However, I soon found myself immersed in a book that wove together history, memoir, and travelogue to tell a story about Russia today. Here’s a taste:

The Russia I saw was very much as Gogol described it more than 150 years ago: careening down an uncertain path. On the Trans-Siberian Railway I began to see a thin line of constancy, connecting Russia’s cities and its steppes, its problems and its potential, its past and its future. Cultural heritage seems to pervade a nation that stretches from Europe to Pyongyang and Alaska, making some customs and ways of thinking feel the same through all of Russia’s extremities. And across this vast country the emotion that remained constant was an uneasy frustration: Here are millions of people across different landscapes, climates, and communities, all with families they love and ideas to offer, but almost universally unable to answer some simple questions: Where is your country going? And what do you want for its future?

Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War
Nigel Cliff
HarperCollins, 2016
$28.99

I love trains, but running close second is music, in general, and especially the piano and pianists. This drew me during the spring to Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War. Van Cliburn’s Beethoven sonatas inspired my own playing during the 1970s and I’ve always been fascinated by his victory in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 and its connection to the Cold War.

The title exaggerates Cliburn’s role in the Cold War but it’s still a great story.

In particular, Cliff uses recently opened archival material to show how oblivious to politics, and indeed to everyday life, was Cliburn. His mother, a fine pianist herself, determined to form Van into a great pianist in the classical, Russian style. This approach fell out of fashion in the US from the 1940s until Cliburn’s arrival, according to Cliff, and was one reason why no one thought that an American could win the Tchaikovsky Competition.

Another reason was that most observers assumed the competition was rigged so that a Soviet citizen, or perhaps a pianist from China or a Warsaw Pact country, would certainly win first prize. Cliff documents the role played by Nikita Khrushchev in ensuring that the competition remained clean. When his minister of culture came to Khrushchev with the news that the American would probably win first prize, and wondered if there is anything he should do, Khrushchev replied, “What do others think of him? Is he the best?” The minister responded, “Yes, he is the best.” Cliff writes, “In that case, ‘the premier grunted, ‘give him the first prize.’”

The Year I was Peter the Great
1956 Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia
Marvin Kalb
Brookings Institution Press, 2017
$24.99

Finally, over the past few weeks I read and re-read Marvin Kalb’s The Year I Was Peter the Great: 1956 – Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia. If ever there was a story of the right person, in the right place, at the right time, this is it.

Kalb grew up in the Bronx and graduated from City College of New York. He volunteered for military service in 1953, and served from mid-1953 through mid-1955 at Army Security Center in Fort Meade, Maryland, “where I found myself in an elite unit of Russian-speaking soldiers who had studied Soviet communism.”

In December 1955, Kalb was a 25-year-old Ph.D. student at Harvard, working on a dissertation in Russian history. I’ll let him tell you what happened next:

One day in late December, Marshall Shulman, once Dean Acheson’s speechwriter at the State Department and now associate director of the Russian Research Center, asked a question that took me totally by surprise: Would I accept a Moscow assignment as a State Department translator, and would I be prepared to leave in a week or two? It was helpful, he said, that I had recently held a top-secret clearance at the Army Security Center. And, by the way, he added, he needed an answer by tomorrow. I gulped.

Kalb arrived in Moscow in late January and witnessed an extraordinary year in Soviet and world history. Specifically, Khrushchev delivered his Secret Speech to the 20th Party Congress in February and denounced Stalin along with the system he (and many, including Khrushchev) had built over the past 30 years. In the months that followed, Kalb observed its effects on US-Soviet relations along with the whirlwind it created throughout Soviet society. With hope, he watched as the openness encouraged by the Secret Speech and other changes made by Khrushchev spread from the USSR to Eastern Europe.

Sadly, by late summer and early fall he saw the Soviets crush the opposition engendered by the Khrushchev reforms, first in Poland, then more violently in Hungary. By the end of 1956, Kalb heard Khrushchev offer a toast: “God grant that every communist be able to fight as Stalin fought!”

Kalb tells wonderful stories, including how Khrushchev came to call him Peter the Great every time they met. The best tale is in the book’s postscript. I won’t spoil it, but imagine that you were working in an archive, gathering material for your dissertation, when someone taps you on the shoulder and says, “You have a call, uh, from a man who says he is, uh, Edward R. Murrow.”

Perhaps I should book that trip on the Trans-Siberian sooner rather than later…


Nick Hayes on The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America
Tim Snyder
Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House, 2018
$27.00

 

In this past year, did you find yourself drawn, like an involuntary tropism, to stories of the rise of an autocratic president, his administration by corruption and cronyism, and his pandering to far right nationalism, then Timothy Snyder’s history of the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, The Road to Unfreedom, is for you.  If you feared for your own descent into paranoia as you followed the news of how Putin’s hand stretched into Ukraine and Crimea, Syria, assassinations by poisoning in the U.K., and into the inner circle of the Trump White House, Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom offers some consolation. At least your fears are real and not paranoiac delusions.

The reviews and critics of Snyder’s new book agree on one thing.  The Road to Unfreedom is “unignorable.” He is a bit intimidating. His resume would humble even the most arrogant of scholars.  The footnotes in The Road to Unfreedom lend credibility to the line in his resume that claims a command of seven languages. Any discussion of WWII today must include Snyder’s Blood Lands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.  It is a blood-chilling account of the genocidal collusion of Hitler and Stalin.  In 2017, Snyder stepped into the public arena with the publication of On Tyranny.    In this case, Snyder drew upon the tragic history of twentieth century Europe on how to survive in an age of dictatorship and totalitarianism.  He predicted, moreover, the inevitability that Trump will take a script from the Nazis and fake a military crisis, declare martial law, and impose a dictatorship.

The Road to Unfreedom weaves together three distinct genres.   There is Snyder’s personal voice that turns many sections of the book into a memoir.  He recounts how the birth of his children coincided with the crisis in Ukraine or his presence and voice at numerous gatherings as the conflict unfolded.

He provides a convincing narrative of Putin’s orchestration of the crisis in Europe since 2010 and the complicity of the Trump organization.

Lastly, he adds the perspective of a philosopher of history.  Snyder frames his narrative as a conflict of two competing views of history: “inevitability” and “eternity.” The former derives from the Enlightenment and underscores the tradition of liberalism and the rule of law.  The latter grew out of late nineteenth century nationalism and feeds fascism and the ultra-right.

To be honest, Snyder lost me in his digressions into “inevitability” and “eternity.”  Had he asked for my advice, I would have told him to take his cue from Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Develop your story.  If you want to philosophize about history, add it as a separate section at the end.

His observations on today’s politics, however, are clear, unmistakable, and a cause for alarm.

Take the issue of “fake news.”  It was not the invention of Trump.  Snyder documents Putin’s reliance on “fake news” as a key weapon in his political arsenal.  Snyder makes a convincing case that Putin had invested heavily in cyberwarfare and had personally approved a strategy to target the U.S. 2016 elections.  Snyder leaves the reader with little doubt that the Kremlin favored Trump and interfered in the U.S. election.  Snyder makes an even stronger case.  The Kremlin’s most outrageous act of “fake news” was, in fact, the invention of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.  He was, Snyder concludes, the “Russian candidate.”

Noreen Herzfeld on “The Sorcery of Artificial Intelligence (AI)”

When I think of Artificial Intelligence (AI) the image that first comes to mind is is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.  Mickey, left with the task of filling the workshop water tank, pages through a book of magic and casts a spell on a broom, giving it the task of toting the water from well to tank.  Relieved of his chore, Mickey goes to sleep dreaming of power and glory, while the broom dutifully brings in bucket after bucket of water.  The broom, having but one instruction, brings in more and more water, flooding the workshop and waking a hapless Mickey, who does not know how to stop it from its single-minded devotion to its task.

In an article entitled “The End of the Enlightenment,” published in the June edition of The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger fears that AI might bring a similar tragic result.  Kissinger begins by noting the basic flaws we already experience in the Internet age—how computers lead us to treat people as data, overwhelm us with too much information, separate us by catering to our preferences, and provide an all too tempting diversion from deep thought and reflection.  “The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection.”  Kissinger then turns his lens more specifically on AI.  Here, he makes three key observations.  He also makes one key mistake.

First, what Kissinger gets right.  After nodding to the possibilities for “extraordinary benefits” in medical science (AI is already better at detecting cancer than many clinicians), clean-energy provision, and other environmental issues, Kissinger warns of AI’s potential for unintended consequences, especially those that may arise from the inability of an AI to contextualize.  Like Mickey’s broom, which was told nothing about the size of the water tank or the undesirability of a flooded workshop, AI may not be able to “comprehend the context that informs its instructions.”  He asks, “Can we, at an early stage, detect and correct an AI program that is acting outside our framework of expectation? Or will AI, left to its own devices, inevitably develop slight deviations that could, over time, cascade into catastrophic departures?”  The latter is, perhaps, what should worry us most.  As Sir Nigel Shadbolt, professor of computer science at Oxford, recently noted, “The danger is clearly not that robots will decide to put us away and have a robot revolution. . .  If there [are] killer robots, it will be because we’ve been stupid enough to give it the instructions or software for it to do that without having a human in the loop deciding.”

Second, Kissinger worries that AI is likely to change our own thought processes and values.  He notes that the recent champion Go-playing program, AlphaGo, does not play the way humans do and suggests that AI has changed the nature of the game in that “winning” no longer seems tethered to strategies we humans have thought of, strategies that seem also to apply to other parts of life.  Though he does not say it outright, it seems easy to surmise that AI could easily change the way we think about a number of human endeavors.  My fear is that, just as Go might be reduced to “winning”, so in other areas the single-mindedness of AI, like the single-mindedness of Mickey’s broom, might narrow the way we think of our tasks, and our world.  Mickey never thought about the exercise he was losing or the joy he might have found in going out to the well and looking at the sky.

Third, Kissinger rightly notes that machine learning programs have a certain opacity.  We start them up and evaluate them on their results, but we do not in the end know exactly how they reach the conclusions they do nor what they have learned.  The classic story from the early days of machine learning is of a program devised by the Department of Defense that was given the task of learning to locate hidden tanks.  The machine got quite proficient at identifying all the pictures with tanks in its initial set, but when given a new set of pictures, totally failed.  It turned out that the photos in the training set harboring hidden tanks were all taken on cloudy days.  The machine had learned nothing about tanks, but knew how to distinguish a cloudy from a sunny day.  Whether true or apocryphal, this story illustrates how machine learning programs may reach conclusions that we do not understand.  Explaining those conclusions is often a more challenging task than reaching them, one we may not choose to bother with.  Kissinger writes, “[AI] algorithms, being mathematical interpretations of observed data, do not explain the underlying reality that produces them. Paradoxically, as the world becomes more transparent, it will also become increasingly mysterious.”

Will all this bring an end to Enlightenment thinking?  Kissinger sees the last 200 years as a time when humans moved from reliance on faith and authority to reliance on reason.  However, in a world that has seen fascism and communism rise and fall, one busily producing leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and groups like ISIS, I suspect reason’s supremacy over faith and authority has been tenuous at best.  AI’s effect on this has, so far, been minimal.

Kissinger goes one step too far.  He ascribes computers with agency: “[AI] goes far beyond automation as we have known it. Automation deals with means; it achieves prescribed objectives by rationalizing or mechanizing instruments for reaching them. AI, by contrast, deals with ends; it establishes its own objectives.”  Really?  Not any AI I know of.  We tell AI what to do.  Without significant breakthroughs in our understanding of both consciousness and emotion, AI will not and indeed cannot have volition, for volition depends on both knowing what we are doing and wanting to do it.  AI can do neither.

To many, AI is likely to be as inscrutable as the spells in the sorcerer’s magic book.  We know it works, but we don’t know how—thus we may find it as hard to control as Mickey’s industrious broom.  The broom had no intention of causing trouble.  It did what it was told.  AI will do the same.  The problem is that we, like Mickey, are filled with dreams of power and glory while being mere beginners in casting our spells over our mechanical servants.  There will be unintended consequences, challenges to our way of thinking, and an element of mystery.  We had better stay awake.

Tony Cunningham on “College & Success”

The cost of college in America has risen significantly for many years.  Pinpointing the sticker price of an education at any given college is easy, but getting a fix on the actual costs for any given student isn’t.  Lots of colleges heavily discount their tuition to enroll students who can’t enroll without financial help.  A big sticker price maximizes tuition revenue from those who can afford it.  The strategy here should be familiar to anyone who has stayed in a hotel lately.  The Marriott may collect $300 a night for Room 213 from someone who books directly, but the people in Room 214 may only pay $100 on Expedia or $80 on Hotwire.  The Marriott has no interest in letting rooms go empty just because it can’t get $300 for each one—better $100 than nothing.  Whether you pay the rack rate or a discounted one for an American four-year college, it’s not likely to be inexpensive.  Here are the average published prices for tuition, fees, and room and board for 2017-18, along with the average net price for four-year colleges.

Private Colleges

Average published price: $46,950

Average net price: $26,740 

Public Colleges

Average published price for in-state students: $20,770

Average net price for in-state students: $14,940

Keep in mind that these are average prices, so some schools exceed them by a wide margin.  The published prices for tuition and fees (not including room and board) at the ten most expensive colleges for 2017-18 ranged from the high of $57,208 (Columbia University) to the low of $54,010 (Sarah Lawrence College).  Someone paying the full price for tuition, fees, and room and board at these most expensive colleges would easily eclipse $70,000 for the year with books and incidentals.

Some students pay relatively little for college, even at schools with big sticker prices (just like the guests in Room 214 or 215).  They may enjoy academic or athletic scholarships.  They may be poor enough to warrant large amounts of financial aid.  When it comes to aid, it helps if a college has a large endowment, and some do.  Harvard tops the list with an endowment of over $35 billion dollars.  Three other schools (Yale, Stanford, Princeton) have endowments north of $20 billion.  With such endowments, schools can afford to lend a big helping hand.  Arguably, Harvard could stop charging tuition and depend entirely on its endowment.

Most private colleges have modest endowments compared to the wealthiest schools.  My own college, St. John’s University, reported a $159 million endowment for 2018.  Thus, Harvard’s endowment is roughly 220 times larger than my school’s endowment.  St. John’s is a “tuition-driven” school, meaning that it depends on filling its seats to keep the doors open.  Like all colleges, it offers financial aid to students.  The published price for tuition, fees, room and board for 2017-18 was $53,472, and the average need-based scholarship or grant award was $28,255, a difference of $25,000.  Thus, even for students getting a helping hand, the price tag is still likely to be significant.  A few years ago, two student workers in my Philosophy Department told me that they would both be graduating with a debt of $60,000 to $70,000.  The average student loan debt for the class of 2017 in the United States was $39,400.

Given these numbers, one can understand some degree of anxiety when it comes to what a college education can do for you or your child.  For many parents, the idea that their child might take a philosophy class with someone like me and (egads!) like it is enough to strike fear and trembling in their hearts.  The last thing they want is a son or daughter with a philosophy degree and a job after college working part-time as a barista at the local Starbucks for minimum wage.  Yes, indeed.  Try chipping away at those big-time college loans when you’re making minimum wage.  No offense, Professor Cunningham, but might you please point us toward the departments that offer a safe and secure path to a decent job, and preferably, a lucrative one?  But hey, keep up the good work, my man.  To give parents their due, even a philosophy professor must admit that David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche aren’t likely to put bread directly on a graduate’s table immediately after college.  Of course, philosophy puts bread on my table and a roof over my head.  But there are only about 10,000 people like me in the United States, people who went on for a Ph.D. in philosophy and found a job.  We tend to hang onto our positions for a long time—35 years or so in most cases.  In other words, there isn’t a whole lot of turnover in the philosophy business from year to year.  You probably don’t want your son or daughter waiting on that line.

Much the same can be said for the humanities in general.  Literature, history, art, music, religion, languages—these disciplines don’t offer any obvious fast track to a job after college, much less a high-paying one.  On the other hand, some practical majors are safe bets—accounting, nursing, computer science, engineering, finance, pre-medicine.  Shouldn’t any responsible parent look at college as an investment, and if so, aren’t the humanities a poor investment when it comes to prospects for success?  Some colleges apparently believe so.  This spring, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point proposed dropping thirteen majors—including English, philosophy, history, sociology, and Spanish—in favor of programs that “have demonstrated value and demand in the region,” such as marketing, management, graphic design, fire science, and computer information systems.

Well now, not so fast, parents (and administrators).  Studies suggest that humanities majors do well with their careers, that they are highly satisfied with them and carry no more debt than graduates with other majors.  The numbers suggest that they usually start their careers earning less than graduates with science and technical degrees, but they tend to close the gap over time.  Moreover, studies suggest that humanities majors tend to have the kind of critical thinking and communication skills that many employers value, the sorts of skills that are hard to teach on the job.  It’s worth noting that philosophy majors often have the highest acceptance rates to medical schools.

With all this said, let me come to my real point here, one about how we think of the notion of success.  There can be no doubt that the problem of massive student debt in the United States is a very serious one.  Parents and students alike worry quite sensibly about it.  However, the proper response to this genuine problem isn’t to conceive (or re-conceive) of college as some form of straightforward vocational training, where time and tuition dollars purchase an income level.  For one thing, as I am suggesting, the connection between a college major and a career isn’t perfectly straightforward.  But even if it were, defining success purely in terms of a career and an income is unwise.  Of course, money matters.  We need food on the table and a place to put our head at night, and we need the same for our loved ones.  I get it.  You can’t eat Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare.  However, aside from the means to care for ourselves and loved ones, we also need meaningful work, the kind that offers something more than a paycheck.  People who pursue their college studies with an eye purely on the bottom line of a potential paycheck are far more likely to wake up someday feeling like that Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is?  People who pursue Dickens or Dante or Darwin because they love what they are studying—not just to punch a meal ticket—are much likelier to cultivate a path in life where they are immersed in what they do for its own sake, not simply as a means to other goods.

Of course, life often has a way of working out where people don’t get to make a living doing what they love most.  Maybe you’d like to roam the outfield for the Boston Red Sox or captivate audiences in Carnegie Hall, and maybe your reach exceeds your grasp.  If so, then a college education that cultivates a capacity to appreciate the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences may be even more important.  In that case, you need to find some joy and meaning in your pursuits beyond your job, and a good college education can be invaluable for coming to the world in a way that identifies and develops complex, interesting pursuits that make for a better life.  That’s true success, as good as it gets.

Tony Cunningham on “Pride and Peril – America in the Polish Mirror”

Nations understandably wish to think well of themselves, just like individual citizens.  Yet the natural emotions of pride and shame are invariably more complicated when it comes to nations because their histories and doings extend beyond any individual’s life.

If I fail to live up to my responsibilities as a son, brother, friend, husband, father, or philosophy professor, the flaws and failures are on me in a fundamental way.  My shame expresses a sense of personal diminishment—I deem myself less than I should be.  Of course, circumstances beyond my control can influence my success in all things, so there can be mitigating factors with respect to feeling proud or ashamed.  Perhaps the deck was stacked against me, or then again, maybe it was stacked in my favor.  If so, then sheer happenstance may temper my personal responsibility to some degree, for good or ill.  If I have done shameful things, perhaps I should be pitied more than reviled in some cases.  Without a doubt, the proper grounds for pride and shame can be complex, but when it comes to nations, the details are even more complicated.  For instance, if I consider the extermination of native peoples in American history, I can’t sensibly say that I bear any personal responsibility, and yet, the idea that I might still feel ashamed as an American makes perfect sense to me.

In this light, consider a bill recently signed by Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda.  The law imposes prison sentences of up to three years for claiming “publicly and contrary to the facts” that “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich” in Poland.  The Nazis murdered at least 3 million Jewish Poles during World War II, so there can be no denying that horrific, shameful deeds were perpetrated in Poland.  Though death camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor operated on Polish soil, they were undeniably Nazi camps, not “Polish concentration camps.”

Given these facts, one way to interpret this law, legislation advanced by the Polish nationalist populist party, Law and Justice, is to see it as an honest attempt to discourage and punish slander that paints Poles as complicit perpetrators, rather than victims of Nazi crimes against humanity.  Thus, President Duda insists that the law means to protect the “dignity” of Poland against defamation, and if you take him at his word, why shouldn’t Poles wish to preserve their good name?

Some critics of the law have just one thing to say in response: Jedwabne.  On July 10th, 1941, many (maybe most) of the Jewish residents in the town of Jedwabne were executed.  Historian Jan Gross chronicled the event in his Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.

The slaughter of Jedwabne Jews lasted an entire day, and it was confined to a space no bigger than a sports stadium.  Sleszytlski’s barn, where the majority of the pogrom victims were burned in the afternoon, was but a stone’s throw from the square in the center of town.  The Jewish cemetery, where many of the victims were knifed, clubbed, and stoned to death, is just across the road.

Though the town was occupied by Nazis, the executions were carried out by
non-Jewish residents of the town, basically a case of one part of the populace killing the other.  Germans were present, but Gross details a situation where these Nazi occupiers were merely observers, not the perpetrators of the pogrom.  As he concludes, “And so everybody who was in town on this day and in possession of a sense of sight, smell, or hearing either participated in or witnessed the tormented deaths of the Jews of Jedwabne.”

Poland suffered horribly in World War II, and the Poles have innumerable stories of profound humanity, heroism, and incredible endurance under Nazi oppression, stories that should rightly inspire national pride.  For instance, Witold Pilecki, a Polish Army officer, voluntarily made his way into Auschwitz to gather intelligence and to organize a resistance movement.  Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, and after seeing what was happening, he worked tirelessly to let the Allies know about the evils being visited on Jewish victims.

Yet as Jedwabne poignantly demonstrates, Polish hands were not entirely clean, and quite frankly, no nation could ever likely claim complete innocence in the face of anything like the Nazi occupation.  Under such conditions, some degree of complicity, however begrudging, is likely to be the price of survival.  For some people, a noble death can be preferable to being any part of evil, but especially for those responsible for vulnerable loved ones, the choice is seldom so simple and unequivocal.  Indeed, one has only to heed the poignant words of an Auschwitz survivor like Primo Levi to appreciate the fact that survival in the death camps compelled the moral compromise of dwelling in a “gray zone” where one had to look away and remain silent about the inhumanity foisted on victims.  Poland’s story is a fully human one—a story of loss, heroism, humanity, and inhumanity.

The Polish legislation championed by the party of Law and Justice isn’t truly about a sensible shield against shameless slander.  The law is meant to prop up a mythical image of Polish innocence and glory, where the moral lines between maggots and angels are clear and absolute: Over here are the pure saints, and over there are the abject sinners.  Ironically, this illusion tends to have a special power where national pride and shame are concerned.  It is one thing to confess my own flaws and misdeeds, and quite another to implicate my people by drawing attention to such things, whether they be things of the past or something right here before my eyes.  The powerful yearning to see one’s country as all-good is both childish and completely understandable.

The Polish lie that is this law at heart is a variation on an urge we see all around us in everyday America.  We rush to deem all sorts of things and people sacred in the sense of admitting of no criticism or dissent.  Flags, servicemen, law enforcement officers, clergy, and other souls are revered in ways that mythologize them, effectively denying their humanity in a foolish rush for some version of inhuman purity.  This is folly and worse because by nature, the human condition is imperfection.  At our very best and most beautiful, we have much to be proud about, but we should also keep in mind that Lucifer was undone by pride, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins.

We do ourselves no favors with make-believe tales that lionize us as nothing but heroes, whether we are Poles or Americans.