In The First Circle Bookclub!
“Russia in fact no longer existed – Only the Soviet Union…”
Thanks to Living Colour, we’re all familiar with the phrase “Cult Of Personality“. I found myself wondering at the etymology of the phrase. Well, when it started, it was not a political but a Romantic (note the capital ‘R’) concept related to “Cult of Genius”. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly?), it looks like the first political usage of the phrase dates back to Karl Marx. (He used the word “Personenkultus” and he used it disapprovingly in reference to what people were doing to him.)
Well, other than the song, I had also heard of a speech (a secret speech, even) given by Khrushchev in 1956 (Stalin died in 1953) called “On the Cult of Personality“. I admit, I hadn’t read it until today.
Note: in Russian, the phrase translates as “Cult of the Individual”. They’re not talking about “the individual” as an ideal, of course. They’re talking about The Very Specific Individual.
Reading the transcript, I’m struck by the sheer number of notes such as “[Animation in the ball(sic).]” or “[Tumult in the hall.]” This is the first time that such things had been said semi-officially, in public (though, ironically, in a *SECRET* speech). They come out and say the things that they had only been thinking for years and years and years… and mention things that kept happening: The 17th Congress. The Trotsky purge(s). Comrade Eikhe. [Commotion in the hall.]
You almost begin to think that, maybe, they might have realized that they were part of something awful and, dangit, they were going to do it right this time… until, of course, you reach the conclusion:
Long live the victorious banner of our party-Leninism. [Tumultuous, prolonged applause ending in ovation. All rise.]
Anyway, after the cut, we’ll have our list of chapters for the uncensored version (and the chapter names from the censored version, if different, in parenthesis after. It looks like Chapter 77, The Decision Taken was not included in the expurgated version.).
You, yes you! What did you think? What scenes, phrases, thoughts stuck out for you?
66.Going to the People (Chapter 61, in the Red Version)
68.Spiridon’s Criterion (Spiridon’s Standards)
69.Behind a Closed Visor (Clenched Fists)
71.Let’s Agree That This Didn’t Happen (The Damascene Sword)
73.A Circle of Wrongs (The Rootless Cosmopolite)
75.Four Nails (The Barrel in the Yard)
76.Favorite Profession (His Favorite Profession)
77.The Decision Taken (this chapter wasn’t included in the expurgated version)
78.The Professional Party Secretary
79.The Decision Explained (Two Engineers)
80.One Hundred Forty-Seven Rubles (Chapter 74, in the Red Version)
The discussion of “The People” (as versus the elite as versus the people around as versus who Gleb finally found himself to be) was entrancing. Chapter 66 is one of those stand-alone chapters that you can point to people and say “read this chapter… now read the book”. (Use Chapter 18 if you want to focus on how funny it is… 66 if you want to get people something to chew on while they wait for the book to show up.)
The story of Spiridon and Gleb becoming friends despite Spiridon’s certainty that Gleb was an informant is a terribly sad bright spot. You’ve got a country full of people who cannot become friends because they cannot trust each other. How funny that the stories Spiridon told to mask his true self were the stories that kept Gleb coming back!
Fate had played one of its favorite tricks, and their misfortune proved to be a blessing.
Spiridon’s story, his TRUE story, was one of the most engrossing parts of the book, so far. The ups, the downs, the mistakes that turned out wonderfully, the reasonable decisions that turned out horribly, the story about going blind, and almost regaining his sight, and then… going back to Russia. And at the end of the day, the lesson he learned? “Killing wolves is right; eating people is wrong.”
The argument between The Revolution and The Old Order turning bitter and bilious was, perhaps, inevitable… but it’s ironic that the result was to inspire Rubin to make the telephony device work… and give the Atomic Bomb to the Revolution.
Rubin’s story was one of the saddest, it seems to me. A good socialist. A good party member. Sadly, he was a good cousin and when the GPU found out that Rubin didn’t inform on his Trotskyite cousin? Prison. How many good, solid socialists were thrown in the clink for similarly insignificant “infractions”? Of course, he had to keep believing in the system… because, if he didn’t, his own sins would have been for nothing at all. Watching himself tell himself this, though, was excruciating. No wonder he spent time writing about civic temples.
The little aside about how the Ford Conveyor Belt turns man into a machine… but 15 years later, the Russians adopt a “Continuous Production Line” as the best and most modern means of production was a good one (and then evolving into who is and who is not an ally of The State on reasons as capricious). I am always taken aback by how much of the society was devoted to making moral judgments in every area.
Reading the New And Improved Rules for correspondence with (and visits from) immediate relatives (AS DEFINED BY) was shocking. To what end was this rule imposed? Worse, the fact that they had to list their relatives was to come out and rat out their immediate relatives to the police. Want to write your wife? Write her name here for the policemen first. “The more they talked like this, the less they felt like work.”
Major Shikin perfectly exemplifies much of the problem of the system. He doesn’t do much of anything. He’s a smug guy who sits and dozes at his desk. He sees himself as a good guy. And he is responsible for overseeing the prison. He might even be able to say “hey, if not me, someone else who would be worse!” and, yeah, he might even have a point. He’s one of the millstones grinding his fellow men into dust. While napping. The fact that he carries around an empty briefcase (or one that contains little more than popular magazines) makes the picture absolutely perfect.
Sologdin deciding to destroy his work was a moment that reminded me of Bridge on the River Kwai. And then telling the Colonel: That thing you wanted? I burned it.
There is a fierce joy to see these prisoners rebel against authority. The system deliberately created hundreds of thousands of criminals and then sent them to slave labor. To see the slaves engage in as much caprice as the system? It does the heart good.
The scene with the stoolies being found out was also too delicious. The stoolies were only successful because they were kept hidden. When the light of day is shone on them, suddenly they are held in contempt by everyone and thus their most effective tool, the trust of others, is taken from them. Ruska Doronin was proud of what he had done… and it’s hard to not also be proud of him.
Wow. The story is finally coming to a head.
So, next week, we get to finish it off. We’re going to be reading from Chapter 81 The Scientific Elite (Looks like this chapter isn’t included in the expurgated version, if you’re reading that, start with Chapter 75 Indoctrination in Optimism) to Chapter 96 Meat (Chapter 87). It looks like Chapters 81, The Scientific Elite and 90, On the Back Stairway were not included in the expurgated version.
What do you think?