Nick Hayes on: Brezhnev’s Winter

This year my preoccupation with finishing a book, “Looking for Leningrad,” has consumed my energy and time for writing.  Thus, I have held back from posting on my usual topics and themes. To take your mind off the “banality” of politics in the Trump era I am sending out this short excerpt from my “Looking for Leningrad.” Take it as a seasonal story set in Moscow’s coldest winter on record.  I apologize in advance that the excerpt contain some Soviet jargon that would not be familiar to you.  MGU, for example, refers to Moscow State University.  Ostankino refers to the State Committee on Radio and Television.    Both figure prominently in “Looking for Leningrad” from its first to last chapter

Here are a few reminiscences on Moscow in the winter 1978-1979 . . .

Statue of Brezhnev; photo by author

 

Winter came early that year.  A cold front arrived in Moscow in mid-October about the same time historians remember it had arrived in 1812 to welcome Napoleon to Moscow. The unexpectedly cold temperatures prompted me to lower the ear flaps on my Russian fur cap, a shlapa.  A nosey babushka on the street focused a disapproving eye on me.  “Young man,” she chided, “it’s too early for that.   If you pull down your ear flaps now, what will you do in December and January.” By mid-December, I conceded she had a point. I had committed my defense against winter too early.

Temperatures plummeted that December.  The weather reporting on Ostankino television became increasingly vague and incomplete. The tongue-tied weather reporting on state television untethered tongues on the street.  Rumors spoke of an unprecedented cold wave sweeping westward from Siberia to Moscow cold enough to make even Siberians shiver.  New Year’s Day confirmed the rumors.  The temperature reached minus-40, a record low for the city of Moscow and the point where Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures converge.

My immediate impulse was to embrace the coming of a legendary Russian winter’s cold wave.  I would play a latter day Zhivago at Varykino in his Siberian drama.   Besides, I had already taken cover.   The AP correspondent, Bart Reppert had graciously invited my family to apartment sit at his place. He and his wife were leaving Moscow for a holiday vacation at cross country ski resort in Finland. The setting was perfect.   Reppert lived in one of the “German” or “foreigner’s suburbs” in Moscow where the Kremlin quarantined western diplomats, businessmen, and journalists. His apartment was in a complex on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the indekc svyazi or zip code of Moscow’s elite.

Indoor playtime had exhausted its ability to entertain my sons.   The Soviet toys made of a hard and easily breakable plastic had never captured their fancy.   The hand-carved wooden folk toys appealed only to their father’s fantasies about re-creating the things of traditional Russia.  The wooden bear on a small handheld paddle had moving arms that a child could flap up and down but never received the call to play and joined a few matryoshka dolls on a shelf where they formed a sad colony of unwanted Christmas toys. My sons, a toddler and a three-year-old, did not suffer boredom lightly. I could not convert them into accepting my idea of a perfect Russian day reading Chekhov or jotting fragments of wisdom in a notebook. In years to come, I imagined there would be Ph.D. students who would rescue my notebook from the archives and weave its fragments into dissertations or monographs.

Stalin had left Moscow with a unique heating system.  From a central heating plant, the system pumped hot water through a vast subterranean matrix of generators, boilers, massive pipes and relay stations that pumped steam heat into the city’s buildings. Inefficiency plagued the system. Occasionally, the pipelines showed themselves.  Like a whale coming up for air, the pipelines would rise from the ground for a short stretch and then dive back to their underground world.  Even in the coldest winter months you could easily track the routes of the pipelines.  Heat lost from the cause of heating Moscow warmed the ground above the pipeline and enabled grass to grow.  A meter or two wide, linear green zones marked the trail of the heating pipes throughout the city.

Stalin’s system dated from the 1930s and had avoided any major breakdowns until this winter.  As temperatures descended and stayed at record lows pipes burst and left large sections of Moscow without heat.   A chaotic internal migration within the city ensued as Muscovites fled frozen apartment complexes in search of a friend’s warm couch in an as yet unaffected district of the city.  Our temporary quarters on Kutuzovskii Prospekt held out. However, Reppert’s return from Finland forced us to take shelter elsewhere.  MGU and its environs had succumbed to the collapse of the heating system throughout its section of the city.  Finally, the U.S. Embassy’s resident Lutheran minister showed some pity and invited us to stay at his apartment in another of Moscow’s “foreigner’s suburbs.”

The celebration for that New Year’s Eve might have led you to believe that the new year, 1979 would be the year of Brezhnev.  Anticipation was building.  In the fall, Brezhnev published a three-volume set of memoirs.  Known as the Brezhnev Trilogy, the memoirs consisted of three volumes – The Little Land, Resurrection, and The Virgin Lands.  The three books chronicle the life of Brezhnev from a humble childhood in Ukraine, to his alleged military leadership in “The Great Patriotic War,” and the Soviet development agriculture in Central Asia.

Of all the attempts at creating leader cults in Russian history, the promotion of Brezhnev stands out as the most ludicrous and cruel. By 1978, Russians knew that the Soviet leader showed signs of senility. His slurred speech struggled to deliver the simplest public pronouncements. On his best days, he still looked like an old guy with a hangover.

None of this dissuaded the Kremlin.  The press proclaimed Brezhnev a literary genius.  Within a week of the publication of his memoirs, he received the Soviet Union’s highest award for literature, the Lenin Prize.  On New Year’s Eve, the media could not contain itself.   Soviet Television devoted the entirety of its popular music and variety show, The Little Blue Light, to a homage to Leonid Ilych.  Celebrities from popular culture gushed with praise for the leader.  Representing Moscow’s American comrades, the American singer, Dean Reed, the “Red Elvis,” appeared in a TV message from East Berlin.   Brezhnev’s favorite actor, Vyacheslav Tikhonov put in a cameo appearance and made a special announcement. There would be an adaptation of the trilogy for the stage, Tikhonov announced, and he would play the lead.  The hosts interviewed literary critics and professors who elucidated the finer points of Brezhnev’s masterpiece. The program built up to its highlight moments before midnight. Brezhnev appeared in a televised message giving his best wishes to the Soviet people for the year ahead.

Soviet TV did not have to worry about anything like the Nielson’s Ratings.  Just in case, Ostankino tried a trick to guarantee something of an audience.   Soviet TV preceded the broadcast of the Brezhnev special with the broadcast of what truly is a Soviet era masterpiece – the film by Eldar Ryazonnov, The Irony of Fate (1976).  Its popularity survived the Soviet Union and remains a classic of Russian cinema.

As it turned out, 1979 was not the year of Brezhnev. Soviet troops had launched their invasion of Afghanistan at the end of December 1978.  Rumors and leaks from within the Kremlin inner circle describe an inebriated Brezhnev at the time of the decision to invade Afghanistan.

An overstock of unsold copies of the Brezhnev Trilogy remained unsold and untouched in Moscow’s shops for another decade.  In 1988, the Soviet authorities rounded up all the remaining copies and turned the winner of the Lenin Prize – The Little Land, Resurrection, and The Virgin Lands – into waste pulp. An irony of fate, the Russians would say.

Black Friday to Cyber Monday: On Climate Change, Computers, and Our Embodied Selves

noreen-herzfeldOn Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, the Trump administration issued a massive new report on climate change, the National Climate Assessment, compiled by thirteen federal agencies.  The report clearly states that climate change is an intensifying danger, not just to the landscape of the US, as evinced by the recent Camp Fire in California, but also to our overall economy and infrastructure.  Donald Trump’s assessment of the report was blunt: “I don’t believe it.”

While Trump might be an outlier, I fear he is not.  My reasoning is connected to another post-Thanksgiving tradition, Cyber Monday.  Cyber Monday represents the trend away from physically shopping at “brick and mortar” stores toward shopping on-line.  With computer technology many activities that once took place in real space now take place in the bodiless world of cyberspace:  we communicate via messenger and text, we shop, bank and do research on the internet, we amuse ourselves with video games and streamed videos.  We project our minds across vast distances or into fictional realms and have experiences in those places that form us as persons.  In cyberspace we don’t need bodies; we conceive of ourselves as pure mind.  Silicon Valley types speculate that computers could bring us the ultimate “biohack”—to live without any “wetware” at all by uploading our minds to the computer.

Noreen article

Camp Fire burning in California.

Of course, this last option is still only a dream, despite predictions by futurists such as Ray Kurzweil that we will be able to upload our minds into computers by 2045.  Kurzweil writes:

“Up until now, our mortality was tied to the longevity of our hardware.  When the hardware crashed, that was it.  For many of our forebears, the hardware gradually deteriorated before it disintegrated . . . As we cross the divide to instantiate ourselves into our computational technology, our identity will be based on our evolving mind file.  We will be software, not hardware . . . As software, our mortality will no longer be dependent on the survival of the computing circuitry . . . [as] we periodically port ourselves to the latest, evermore capable “personal” computer . . . Our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups.”

Well, not quite yet.  We are embodied creatures.  In a recent interview with Christianity Today editor Douglas Estes, I make a case for our remaining embodied creatures, at least so long as we wish to remain human.  Yet, as Estes notes, while “movement toward cyborg (cybernetic organism) applications sounds like a leap into dystopian science fiction, Businessman Elon Musk aims to connect the brain to computers, and one neurologist was even willing to hack his own brain to further research on human speech, hoping to one day attain life extension itself.”

I doubt that we need fear such a future, for several reasons.  Here is a part of my response:

technology-784046_1920

One reason it’s not going to work is due to the complexity of the brain and the entire human being. There are projects to map the connectome of the brain. The idea is that if we can do the human genome, then why can’t we do the connectome? But the connectome of the brain is much more complex than the human genome. We have billions of neurons, and each of those neurons can possibly be connected to thousands of other neurons. Plus, these connections are plastic; they change. We kill neurons off, we grow new neurons, we reconnect, we end connections that are not being used, and we build new connections in other places. Plus, we’re now finding out that we’ve got an awful lot of neurons in our gut as well. There’s a strong connection between the brain and the gut, and it’s not one way—brain to gut; gut to brain is connected as well.

You can find the entire interview, “Your Brain in Not a Computer,” at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/november-web-only/cybernetics.html

What I do fear is that our movement toward the on-line world, epitomized by the move from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, deadens us to our surroundings by making the natural world less salient to our everyday lives.  As Richard Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods, “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”  I hope the National Climate Assessment will help us all to recognize our embeddedness in both our body and the nature that surrounds us and awake to such a passion.  I fear, however, that, like our president, too few of us will look away from our screens to do so.

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.