Archive for the ‘requiems’ Category

Queer Tolstoy Book Launch at Book Soup!

January 31, 2023

Join me next month at the launch for Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography at Book Soup! It will take place on Thursday, February 23 at 7pm. Book Soup is located at 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA, 90069.

Masks are strongly encouraged. Thank you.

Elena Castro Chicharro: RIP/QEPD

December 2, 2022

My beloved aunt and godmother, Elena Castro Chicharro, passed away last week in Madrid. She showed me a great deal of love and support in life, for which I am so grateful. I lament her untimely passing tremendously. May she RIP. Her funeral mass was held on December 21st.

Mi querida tía y madrina, Elena Castro Chicharro, falleció la semana pasada en Madrid. Ella me brindó mucho apoyo y amor durante su vida, y estoy muy agradecido por ella. Lamento tremendamente su fallecimiento prematuro. QEPD. La misa por el descanso de su alma tuvo lugar el 21 de diciembre.

A continuación, mi elogio a Elena:

Elena fue mi querida tía y madrina. Tenía un carácter fuerte, simpático, gracioso y cariñoso. No toleraba ni las injusticias, ni las mentiras de los demás. Era una rebelde con tendencias libertarias. La quiero y la extraño mucho.

Os comparto uno de mis mejores recuerdos de ella. Una vez, cuando tenía unos cinco o seis años y estaba de visita en Madrid, salimos a la calle ella y yo, y entramos en una tienda. Allí, había juguetes de todo tipo, y también peces. Expresé mi interés tanto por un soldado de G.I. Joe como por un pez dorado, pero Elena me dijo que no había sitio para el pez en la casa. Entonces, me compró el soldado de juguete, pero no el pez, y me quedé un poco desilusionado. No obstante, sigilosamente ella que me compró el pez dorado. Me di cuenta al revisar la bolsa de plástico tras salir de la tienda, y recuerdo bien lo sorprendido, conmovido y feliz que estaba al tener un pez mascota por primera vez en mi vida. Ya que tuve que volver a los Estados Unidos con mi familia en seguida, me contó Elena más tarde que ella le había dado el pez a un amigo que contaba con todo un acuario, así que me imagino que el pez pasó el resto de sus días feliz, rodeado de otros peces.

Compartimos muchos momentos bonitos. Creo que sin duda, fue ella unas de las personas que más me ha querido en esta vida, y por eso estoy muy agradecido por su existencia.

Que descanse en paz, gracias.

English translation

My eulogy for Elena follows:

Elena was my beloved aunt and godmother. She had a strong, friendly, funny, and loving personality. She didn’t tolerate either injustices or lies from other people. She was a rebel with libertarian tendencies. I love and miss her greatly.

Let me share one of my favorite memories of her with you. One day, when I was five or six years old and visiting Madrid, she and I went out for a walk and entered a shop, full of toys of all kinds, as well as fish. I expressed my interest to her in both a G. I. Joe toy soldier and a goldfish, but Elena told me that there wasn’t space for the goldfish at the family home. So she bought me the toy soldier, but not the fish, and I was a bit disappointed. However, she had surreptitiously actually bought the goldfish, too. I realized this when I took a look inside the plastic bag after leaving the store, and I remember well how surprised, moved, and happy I was to have a pet fish for the first time in my life. Given that I had to return to the USA with my family shortly thereafter, Elena told me later on that she had given the fish to a friend who had a whole aquarium, so I imagine that the goldfish spent the rest of its days happy, surrounded by other fish.

We shared many beautiful moments. I believe that, without a doubt, she was one of the people who has loved me the most in this life, and for that reason, I am so grateful for her existence.

May she rest in peace. Thank you.

Bibliophilia & Anarchism in Star Trek: Picard

October 7, 2022

Co-written by my mother and myself. Published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 6 October 2022

Following up on our previous analysis of the political and philosophical affinities between Mikhail Bakunin and Richard Wagner, in which we discussed social ideologies such as feminism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and anarchist revolutionism in the epic opera The Ring (1874), we turn now to an examination of the first two seasons of Star Trek: Picard (2020/2022). We hope our artistic study of this television show might help to elucidate the anti-authoritarian themes present in its first and second seasons, as well as draw attention to the numerous literary allusions and extensive bibliophilia (‘book-love’) present in both. Our purpose here is to illuminate the anarchist values and revolutionary messages conveyed in the show through the presence of literature. Reader be forewarned: this text contains spoilers for both seasons.

Star Trek’s Radical Politics

The brainchild of former Army Air Force officer and ex-LAPD cop Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), Star Trek paradoxically owes debts to the left-wing, counter-cultural, and Civil Rights Movements. As an experiment in psychological and sociological utopianism, set centuries to millennia from now, Star Trek combines “social critique and description[s] of human flourishing in a society […] quite unlike any other.”[1] To begin with, the first two notes of the series’ theme sample “Symphony No. 1” by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), a Jewish Romantic composer and socialist-vegetarian.[2] In addition, the design of the flagship of multiple series, the USS Enterprise, is highly suggestive of a mushroom. As such, it may symbolically allude to the therapeutic and mind-altering functions of the fungus psilocybin, as psychedelic youth had learned during the 1960’s, and as psychiatry is now openly recognizing. Moreover, it was on the Enterprise in The Original Series (TOS, 1966-1969) that Lt. Nyota Uhura (played by Black actor Nichelle Nichols) served as communications officer. In this sense, the positive future envisioned by Roddenberry would involve Black women in positions of relative authority. It was also on this series, in 1968, that television’s first inter-racial kiss took place—this, between Lt. Uhura and Captain James Kirk.

Although the highest-ranking officers of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG, 1987-1994) are (as in TOS) white males—Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Executive Officer William Riker—Lt. Geordi LeForge and Lt. Worf (played by LeVar Burton and Michael Dorn, respectively) are crucial to the Enterprise’s missions. Building on these precedents, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) features the Black male Captain Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks, just as the Black female Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) stars in Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present). In addition, Discovery is unique in comparison to most of the other series, for it centers women and LGBTQ experience.

Not only does Star Trek promote feminist, internationalist, and LGBT-friendly messages, but it also champions anti-capitalism. The United Federation of Planets (UFP) depicted in the series symbolizes a future vision of ‘cosmic communism,’ whereby member planets unite in a cooperative, inter-species, and post-capitalist association, while the peoples of Earth abolish poverty and class in parallel. As José-Antonio Orosco observes, Star Trek’s “vision of the future is one that puts a radical anti-racist, egalitarian, post-colonial, and environmentalist message at its core.”[3]

That being said, if the Federation is progressive, it is not necessarily anarchist. Although its anti-authoritarian rationalism shares much with the anarcho-communist vision, the UFP has not abolished military rank or bureaucracy. Moreover, as we see during flashback sequences in Picard, season 2, patriarchal family structures exist within the Federation. Speculatively, it may be due to Roddenberry’s rumored attraction to Trotskyism and membership in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that the Federation resembles the Fourth International, which was founded in 1938 by former Red Army commander Lev Trotsky himself. Perhaps echoing such politics, in TNG, the Federation’s totalitarian nemesis, the Borg, brings to mind the “dystopian socialism” espoused by Stalinists. Seen this way, the travels of the Enterprise, Discovery, and Picard’s La Sirena can be viewed as visionary explorations in permanent revolution that champion socialist and anarchist values.

Read the rest on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory!

Queer Tolstoy Now Available for Pre-Order!

September 23, 2022

I am very excited to announce that my newest book, Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography, will soon be available from Routledge! Pre-orders will begin on January 26, 2023, and it will come out on February 16, 2023.

Book Description

Queer Tolstoy is a multidimensional work combining psychoanalysis, political history, LGBTQ+ studies, sexology, ethics, and theology to explore the life and art of Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy.

Using a psychobiographical framework, Sethness Castro uncovers profoundly queer dimensions in Tolstoy’s life experiences and art. Deftly contributing to the progressive and radical analysis of gender and sexuality, this book examines how Tolstoy’s erotic dissidence informed his anarchist politics, anti-militarist ideals, and voluminous literary production. Sethness Castro analyzes the influence of Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Cervantes, Rousseau, Kant, Herzen, Proudhon, Chernyshevsky, and his mother Marya Volkonskaya on Tolstoy’s writings. Furthermore, he details the artist’s emblematic linking of LGBTQ+ desire with moral and erotic self-determination and resistance to Tsarist despotism—especially, in War and Peace.

This book is vital reading for those interested in the intersection of literature, psychoanalysis, Queer Studies, and Russian history.

Table of Contents

1. Theoretical Preface on Queer Anarchism

2. Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy: A Queer, Christian-Anarchist Writer

3. The Life and Death of a “Holy Fool”

4. Humanism, Militarism, and Imperialism in The Cossacks

5. War and Peace: An Anarcho-Populist Verbal Icon

6. War and Peace, Book One: “Andrei Bolkonsky”

7. War and Peace, Book Two: “Natasha Rostova”

8. War and Peace, Book Three: “The Year 1812”

9. War and Peace, Book Four: “Pierre Bezukhov”

10. Conclusion: The Psychodynamics of Hierarchy

Praise

‘Sethness’s excellent book is a wide-ranging and erudite examination of Tolstoy through the lenses of queerness and anarchism, and what is remarkable is how many contradictions and mysteries in Tolstoy’s life and work get clarified by this double focus. It is as if he had suddenly popped into three dimensions. The close reading of War and Peace is full of startling new insights, and the study as a whole brings Tolstoy into our time in a new and important way. Wonderful to see!’

  • Kim Stanley Robinson, author of The Ministry for the Future, USA

‘This passionate, ground breaking study of Tolstoy’s bisexuality, politics and art offers fascinating new insights into our understanding of the Russian writer’s life. By detailing Tolstoy’s relationships, experiences and creative process, the author reveals Tolstoy’s far sighted literary support for what we would now call LGBT+ liberation, his resistance to war and oppression, and his support for egalitarian social change. Bravo!’

  • Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner and Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation, UK

Available for pre-order in January 2023 here!

From “Trotsky in Tijuana” to “Chernobyl”: Caution & Reason

July 22, 2022
“Chernobyl,” photographed by Jorge Fraganillo (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Originally published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 21 July 2022

The promise of historical and speculative fiction is the reconstruction of the past in the present, or of the present in the past, and the contemplation of what might have been, or of what might still be. As the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote, creative writers furnish “world[s] of [their] own” by “rearrang[ing] the things of [their] world in a new way which pleases [them].”[1] Between Dan La Botz’s novel Trotsky in Tijuana (2020) and Craig Mazin and Johan Renck’s HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019), we find two fictionalized accounts bookending the tragic history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), from the Bolshevik centralization of power following the anti-Tsarist Revolution of 1917 to what Rohini Hensman terms the “democratic anti-imperialist revolution” of 1991.

Trotsky in Tijuana is an intriguing and well-written book of alternate (or counter-) history, in which La Botz imagines Lev Davidovich Trotsky (1879–1940) surviving his assassination in Mexico City by the Spanish Soviet agent Ramón Mercader. In La Botz’s vision, the famed Ukraine-born Jewish Marxist then continues to organize against social-democratic reformism and Stalin’s Communist International through his organization, the Fourth International. This book combines neo-Trotskyist critique of Stalinism with libertarian-socialist themes as an imaginative “second world” to our own, illuminating divisions on the left among anarchists, Trots, and “tankies” (who support “anti-imperialist” dictators). Yet, as we shall see, despite the novel’s beauty and insights, Trotskyism appears to overpower anarchism in La Botz’s historical retelling.

For its part, the Chernobyl miniseries dramatizes the explosion that took place on April 26, 1986, within the core of the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, located near the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl lays bare the dangers of nuclear energy specifically and technological hubris more broadly, while implicitly critiquing Soviet State capitalism and, perhaps by extension, private forms of capitalism—like those we confront in the United States. Chernobyl shows how the combination of workplace hierarchy, high technology, hyper-masculinity, and the performance principle threatens our collective self-destruction.

On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine as part of a brutal campaign announced by President Vladimir Putin to supposedly “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. However, this “denazification” campaign in reality represents yet another instance of white Russians carrying out genocide. Having penetrated Ukraine’s northern border, the Russian army quickly overran the Chernobyl site, where, for over three weeks, the facility’s workers were forced by the occupiers to work nonstop. The radiation spike seen at Chernobyl at the start of the Russian invasion—a twenty-fold increase—can be explained by the churning of irradiated soils through the movement of military hardware.

On March 3 and 4, 2022, Russian shelling on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine—Europe’s largest nuclear plant—set an administrative building on fire. Fortunately, the site’s six reactors (better protected than their now-deactivated counterparts at Chernobyl) remained undamaged, and as of early March, local levels of radioactivity were normal. Even so, we should bear in mind the warning of Professor Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019), that “any […] nuclear even[t]” cannot be “isolated within sovereign borders,” owing to the physics involved. In this light, although Russian forces withdrew from the Chernobyl region in early April, Putin’s threats of nuclear blackmail following the invasion remain unsettling.

In this article, I will review Trotsky in Tijuana and Chernobyl from an anti-authoritarian perspective by exploring some of the overlap with, and divergences from, anarchism in these artistic works. I will also present an overall critique of nuclear energy, to contrast with the ideological support Chernobyl’s screenwriter, Mazin, provides to the industry—regardless of the scope of the disaster he portrays.

Front-5

Trotsky in Tijuana

In Trotsky in Tijuana, Natalia Ivanovna Sedova, Trotsky’s second wife, fatefully questions the man she knew as Frank Jacson’s choice to wear a heavy raincoat during a visit to their fortress-home in Coyoacán on August 20, 1940. However, in La Botz’s counternarrative, Sedova’s doubts do not go unheard. Historically, Mercader wore this same coat to cover up the ice ax he would use to fatally injure the exiled communist revolutionary, as the latter reviewed an essay with which his counterpart sought to distract him. Yet, in La Botz’s imagination, Ralph Bucek, a fictional US-American guard of the “Old Man,” enters his charge’s office and hits the Spaniard in the head with a baseball at the last moment, saving the day.

Rather than replay Trotsky’s murder—as John P. Davidson’s novel The Obedient Assassin (2014), Antonio Chavarrias’s film El Elegido (The Chosen, 2016), and the Russian TV miniseries on Trotsky (2017) do—La Botz’s book envisions the founder of the Red Army escaping this brush with death through exile to Baja California, where he continues to theorize about current events, especially World War II, and even find time for erotic love.

Not long after Trotsky, Sedova, and their retinue resettle in the so-called Cantú house in Tijuana, Trotsky’s own anarchistic secretary, Jan van Heijenoort, abandons Mexico for Europe, plotting a long-term mission to assassinate Stalin. La Botz imagines that Van’s plan dovetails with the “doctors’ plot” of 1953, when Soviet Jewish physicians had supposedly conspired with Western imperial powers to murder Stalin, his propagandist Andrei Zhdanov, and other party bosses. In retaliation for the discovery of this “plot,” Stalin ordered the arrests of hundreds of Soviet Jews and/or physicians, and planned to expand the Gulag to imprison more Jews, in a final homage to his “frenemy,” Adolf Hitler. Yet, just as a possible second Holocaust and nuclear war between the USSR and the West are threatened, La Botz’s depiction of Van’s assassination plot succeeds. The same day, the Soviet agent “Étienne” (Mark Zborowski)—who had murdered Trotsky and Sedova’s son, Lev Sedov, in Paris, and then boldly posed (in La Botz’s imagination) as Trotsky’s new secretary in Tijuana—kills Lev Davidovich by poisoning.[2]

While La Botz is sympathetic to his martyred subject, he is not uncritical toward the Bolshevik leader’s legacy. He surely does not shy away from depicting Trotsky’s narcissistic, delusional, and dogmatic tendencies. Rather, he insinuates the need for twenty-first-century updates to the brightest ideas of this “polymath,” who was “lost in time.” These ideas include class struggle, the united front, and the permanent revolution. Historically speaking, Trotsky adapted the last of these from the French anarchist Élisée Reclus, who asserted in 1899 that “[a]s long as iniquity endures, we, international anarcho-communists, will remain in a state of permanent revolution.”[3]

This dynamic only reinforces the anarchist hypothesis that Marxists aim to appropriate revolution for themselves and their bureaucratic franchises, rather than the liberation of the working classes and humanity—as Marx’s own expulsion of Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume from the First International in 1872, and Lenin and Trotsky’s crushing in 1921 of the Kronstadt Commune and of the peasant-anarchist Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine, prove. While the mutiny by Red sailors at Kronstadt demanded that the Russian Revolution advance without the dead weight of the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Insurgent Army was cofounded by the Ukrainian peasant guerrilla Nestor Makhno, who also organized with the Nabat (Tocsin) anarchist confederation after the fall of Tsar Nicholas I in 1917. Despite the Makhnovists’ proclamation of free soviets and their actions that arguably saved the Revolution through their fierce resistance to the reactionary White armies during the Civil War (1918–21), just as the Kronstadt sailors had previously served the cause at key points, forces loyal to Red Army commander Trotsky crushed both groups.

Notably, La Botz does not acknowledge that Lev Davidovich Bronstein adopted the surname Trotsky in 1898, after his jailer in Odessa. Psychoanalytically, this choice suggests identification with the aggressor, which is consistent with sociopolitical authoritarianism.[4] Arguably in this sense, there is a direct line from Lev’s adoption of his prison warden’s name to his own atrocities in the Revolution. Indeed, Trotsky in Tijuana’s coverage of the Russian Revolution conveys its author’s neo-Trotskyism. For instance, throughout the novel, the totality of the revolution is reduced to the Bolsheviks’ October 1917 seizure of power, with little to no mention of the “people’s epic” from February 1917, which in fact began the earthquake. This elision amounts to a minimization of the role played, specifically, by the proletarian women who lit the spark in Petrograd that overthrew the Romanov Tsars. La Botz even suggests that “revolution” emanated from Lenin’s persona, as though this were his superpower. Likewise, in a 2015 column in New Politics, the author writes that in both “February and October 1917,” the “Bolshevik[s] led the Russian working class to overthrow the Czarist autocracy.” The only problem with this claim is that all of the Bolshevik leaders were in exile during February 1917.[5]

In reality, the book glosses over its subject’s wickedness, in a move that functions to boost Trotsky’s radical credentials. Although La Botz acknowledges that the Bolsheviks “incorporated […] Tsarist officers” into the Red Army early on, the mass murder of the insurgent Kronstadt sailors—overseen by Trotsky in March 1921—is not mentioned until the second half of the book. At that point, La Botz describes the war commissar as merely “support[ing] the decision” to suppress the mutineers, rather than supervising the ex-Tsarist officer Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s use of overwhelming force toward this end.[6] Neither Makhno nor the Makhnovshchina is mentioned at all.

In short, while La Botz’s historical counternarrative champions direct action and critiques bureaucratic authoritarianism, the author’s affection for the “Old Man” somewhat clouds the novel’s treatment of the period between 1917 and 1921. A more anarchist approach might have portrayed Lev Davidovich as haunted by the counterrevolutionary brutality he oversaw and carried out during that time. Although La Botz’s condemnation of Stalinism is most apt—especially in light of “tankie” support for Putin’s war crimes in Syria and Ukraine—and despite the author’s good-natured satire of the titular character, the story neither adequately questions the role of “revolutionary” authority nor proclaims that it is the workers and peasants, not the party, who drive revolutionary change.

ChNPP_Unit1control

“Control room of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,” Carl A. Willis (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

What Happened at Chernobyl in 1986?

Like Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, Trotsky was an enthusiast of bourgeois principles of management, political centralism, and the domination of nature. When crystallized in high-risk technologies such as nuclear energy, it is unsurprising that such Promethean social ideologies, imaginaries, and institutional structures would result in disasters like the one experienced at the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, featured in Chernobyl.[7]

The basic idea of nuclear fission is this: uranium, after having been mined and enriched, is subjected to neutron bombardment in a nuclear plant’s reactor core. This leads to the fission, or splitting, of the nuclei of uranium, and the resulting production of intense heat, or radiation. This radiation is then combined with coolant to produce high-pressure steam, which in turn moves turbines, thus producing electricity.[8] The RBMK-type reactor used at Chernobyl, as in many other Soviet nuclear power plants, shared this basic function with the Western light-water reactors (LWRs) presently in use. One of the major differences between the two designs, however, is that RBMK reactors lacked the steel-reinforced containment shields surrounding the core found in LWRs.

On April 26, 1986, a safety test was scheduled to be performed within Chernobyl’s reactor number 4 during the day shift. However, to accommodate the needs of Soviet state capitalism, the test was delayed by ten hours, leaving it to the less-experienced night shift. As part of this experiment, the plant’s crew deactivated the automatic safety and warning systems, including the emergency cooling system. They also removed most of the control rods from the reactor core, lowering energy output far below normal. Accordingly, without adequate power to pump water into the reactor to either remove excess heat or produce electricity, the core became unstable.[9]

At this point, Chernobyl depicts several of the plant’s workers, all of whom present as cisgender men, as protesting the idea of proceeding with the safety test. Nevertheless, reflecting toxic masculinity and the phenomenon of abusive supervision, Anatoli Dyatlov, the plant’s chief engineer, orders the experiment to proceed. Linking megalomania and the performance principle (or the compulsion to keep the capitalist machine going) with the masculine derogation of femininity, Dyatlov bullies his subordinates, Aleksandr Akimov and Leonid Toptunov, into obedience. He does so by threatening their jobs, and specifically by associating Toptunov with his mother, due to his youthful and androgynous appearance.[10] Then, when the test goes haywire, Akimov engages the emergency shutdown system known as AZ-5, thus introducing graphite-tipped rods into the reactor core. This unexpectedly increases reactivity, leading to a chain reaction that causes a critical buildup of steam, a partial meltdown, and a core explosion that would irradiate much of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the rest of Europe.

Chernobyl tells the dramatic tale of this experiment gone awry, together with some of the responses taken by the state, individuals, and collectives to this unprecedented catastrophe. Mazin and Renck portray desperate scenes of exploited labor, as firefighters and helicopter pilots struggle to douse the numerous fires set off by the explosion, miners are forced at gunpoint to build a tunnel beneath the reactor to accommodate a heat exchanger, and human “bio-robots” are used to clear radioactive debris from the facility’s roof. Notoriously, the firefighters who initially responded were neither warned of the risks of exposure, nor provided any sort of protective equipment. As a result, many of these working-class heroes died of acute radiation syndrome. Still, this grisly story foregrounds the state capitalist domination of (cis) men: with the exceptions of female nurses attending to irradiated patients and the fictional Soviet physicist Uma Khomyuk, who is an amalgam of the scientists investigating the incident, women are mostly absent from Chernobyl.

Èernobyl - památník požárníkù

“Monument to Those Who Saved the World,” photographed by Martin Cígler (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

Trotsky and Chernobyl’s Critiques of Party-Boss Despotism

In terms of understanding the destruction of the Russian Revolution, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, we might benefit from contemplating the close relationship between Leninism and Stalinism. In Trotsky in Tijuana, La Botz includes Trotsky’s insightful prediction that the Bolshevik Party would come to be dominated by Lenin, simply due to the pyramidal structure he proposed for it. The author portrays Stalin, as Lenin’s successor, being haunted by Trotsky’s accusation from 1927 that he was the “gravedigger of the Revolution!” Still, he entertains the idea that it was only Grigory “Zinoviev’s military Bolshevism,” a “Bolshevism characterized by authoritarianism and intolerance,” that had “created Stalinism”[11]—thus letting Lenin and Trotsky off the hook.

Even so, almost approaching Paul Mattick’s left-communist critique, La Botz explicitly acknowledges how wrong Trotsky was to consider the USSR a “workers’ state” of any kind.[12] As outlined in The Revolution Betrayed (1937) and other writings, the exiled theorist’s self-serving position about Stalin’s USSR being a “degenerated workers’ state” is perhaps understandable, but it is nonetheless delusional. Indeed, Trotsky’s own responsibility for the suppression of the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovist peasant-anarchist movement in Ukraine paved the way for his rival’s takeover. As the Bolshevik autocracy eliminated the most radical elements among workers, peasants, and fighters, it sealed the fate of the Revolution: namely, to give rise to a Communist hell.[13]

Along these lines, Chernobyl can be seen as a visual exploration of the horrors of bureaucracy, state capitalism, and high technology. To protect the reputation and power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the Politburo executives covered up and downplayed the news from Chernobyl from the start. Reflecting the lack of freedom of the press, free speech, or freedom of movement evident in the Soviet Union, authorities forced Western correspondents to remain in Moscow in the aftermath of the accident. Meanwhile, the KGB filtered information flows from the disaster site. In reality, the “two million residents of Kyiv,” located eighty miles from the plant, “were not informed despite the fallout danger, and the world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.” Mikhail Gorbachev, the CPSU’s last general secretary, did not publicly acknowledge the reality of the situation until May 14, well over two weeks after the explosion. In fact, despite Ukrainian appeals to the contrary, Gorbachev ordered the 1986 May Day march to proceed in Kyiv, so as to feign that the explosion posed no health risk to the public—this, despite the fact that the winds were then carrying fallout toward the city.[14]

The injustice of the situation is accentuated by Con O’Neill’s almost mafioso performance as Viktor Bryukhanov, Chernobyl’s manager. Shielded from the risks faced by workers, Bryukhanov keeps a lid on vital information as he sacrifices first responders. Echoing not only tsarist times, when St. Petersburg was constructed on wetlands using the mass conscription of serf labor, but also Stalin’s deportations, forcible collectivization, and the “Great Patriotic War” against the Germans, the CPSU mobilized over six hundred thousand so-called “liquidators” to deal with the fallout from Chernobyl. A 2005 report from the Irish Times finds that since 1986, twenty-five thousand liquidators had died, and that seventy-thousand had been permanently disabled.

While it set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev later admitted, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster caused 350,000 people to be permanently resettled, and its radioactive emissions have coincided with a regional increase in childhood thyroid cancer rates. While Mazin conveys a death toll of between four thousand and ninety-three thousand owing to the accident, Kate Brown estimates that “[b]etween 35,000 and 150,000 people died from cancers, heart problems, [and] autoimmune disorders” resulting from the disaster. Plus, as the recent movements of Russian units have reminded us, the soils surrounding Chernobyl remain highly irradiated. Ominously, less than a month into the all-out war, forest fires began to erupt, sending airborne radiation levels skyrocketing.

Chernobyl, Eros, and Anarchism

Perhaps surprisingly for an HBO series, Chernobyl features themes sympathetic to queerness, anarchism, and their intersections. For instance, as Akimov confronts the moral distress of carrying out Dyatlov’s unreasonable orders to proceed with the safety test, he gently whispers to Toptunov: “I’m with you.” We can draw a parallel here to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), which proposes homoerotic union among the crew of the Pequod against the deranged Captain Ahab, who is leading them toward a watery grave. Tragically, in both cases, the crew do ultimately perish, in an allegory of the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, the domination of nature, and toxic masculinity. In parallel, the miners from the Donbas region who are conscripted to build a tunnel under the stricken plant are shown as especially defiant to the authorities, in a way that may recall the Ukrainian peasant-anarchist movement led by Makhno. Though the miners agree to the CPSU’s terms, Mazin and Renck depict them as doing so proudly, in terms of laboring to save humanity. Furthermore, they are shown performing their communal work in the nude, and this verbal image suggests free love as a means to dissolving hierarchy, or what the late researcher Christopher Chitty refers to as “sexual anarchy.”[15]

On the one hand, Chernobyl celebrates the heroic labor and mutual aid performed during and after the disaster by workers, including engineers, first responders, nurses, miners, and scientists. On the other, it portrays party bosses, from Bryukhanov to Gorbachev, as parasites and autocrats. With this dichotomy in mind, in his review for the New York Times, Mike Hale complains about the miniseries’ “one-dimensional heroes and villains.” Perhaps Mazin and Renck exaggerate a bit, but then again, the bureaucratic authoritarianism exhibited by Dyatlov and his superiors follows from the Soviet context, established by “Red hangmen.”[16] After all, the Soviet political system was based on a combination of the Tsarist “administrative utopia” and the “revolutionary statism” preached by Marx and Lenin.[17] Though he ended up killing Trotsky, Stalin “copied and far surpassed” his rival’s plan for the militarization of labor.[18]

In this sense, despite Chernobyl’s production by HBO, the visual narrative may well be influenced by Mazin’s own apparent solidarity with the struggle against class society. In his review on Red Flag (Australia) of the miniseries as an “anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” Daniel Taylor observes that “the disaster we’re seeing is transpiring in, and largely a product of, a bureaucratic, managerial society divided into rulers and ruled, bosses and workers.”[19] Therefore, “strip away the Stalinist veneer and it is easy to recognise the system we have today: a managerial society run by bosses and bureaucrats who lie and kill to maintain their social dominance, and who threaten the whole world as long as they remain in power.” Taylor is right, but let us radicalize the implications beyond the nostalgia he expresses for Lenin and Trotsky. By focusing on the intersection of the exploitation of labor and ecological disaster, Mazin may be conveying implicit and/or unconscious sympathies with green syndicalism and social ecology, beyond democratic concerns about political dictatorship.

In parallel, we can draw lines from Trotsky and his Stalinist assassin Étienne, in La Botz’s presentation, to Dyatlov. Both Trotsky and Étienne are portrayed as automatons incapable of friendship, who typically view others only as tools, to be treated as either subordinates or superiors within a military hierarchy.[20] Such depictions, when juxtaposed with Mazin and Renck’s illustration of Dyatlov’s megalomania, communicate the continuities between Marxism-Leninism and bourgeois society—thus questioning what progress the Russian Revolution really brought. Indeed, in a chilling echo from the past, the blatant lie perpetrated by Trotsky and Lenin that the Kronstadt revolutionaries were led by tsarist officers—which subsequently inspired Stalin during his show trials—is now being reproduced by Putin’s regime, when it claims absurdly that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis.

Conclusion

Proponents of nuclear energy are often quick to dismiss the Chernobyl disaster as an aberration that reflects the flaws of both the reactor’s design and the Soviet autocracy, rather than any problems with nuclear fission as such. While the reactors in use today may be safer than the earlier Soviet designs, the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, provoked by a tsunami, still tells us that the lessons of Chernobyl have been neither learned nor applied. Moreover, besides the immediate safety issues owing to the risk of core meltdown, most nuclear fission plants in operation today share Chernobyl’s problems of radioactive waste disposal, dependence upon mining, and proliferation of materials usable in a nuclear weapon.[21] Much of this would also be true for the much-hyped hypothetical form of energy production known as nuclear fusion. Like the region surrounding Chernobyl, Diné (Navajo) lands and water-sources in the southwestern United States have been made into sacrifice zones for uranium mining concessions, resulting in radiation sickness and unusually high cancer rates among the Diné. Moreover, it is clear that nuclear energy has no role to play in averting catastrophic climate change.

Such critical thoughts, taken together with reflections on Mazin and Renck’s miniseries, may reveal the systemic nature of our predicament, linking Chernobyl with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Fukushima disaster, global warming, the current war by Russia on Ukraine, and ongoing nuclear brinkmanship. Both Chernobyl and Trotsky in Tijuana are cautionary tales and appeals to reason. While the former highlights “the dangers posed by Stalinism as a uniquely bureaucratic system of social organization,” the latter serves as a call for a united front among “all of us on the left who oppos[e] both Hitler and Stalin,” plus their contemporary followers.[22] While La Botz may not be as critical of Trotsky’s authoritarianism as I might like, his counter-history does recognize the importance of anarchism within revolutionary struggle. Looking to the future, the same mechanisms of social hierarchy, aggressive hyper-masculinity, and adherence to the performance principle that have driven catastrophes like Chernobyl and Russia’s war on Ukraine could be opposed and perhaps overcome by autonomous class struggle; internationalist, anti-militarist, and feminist resistance; and a global transition to wind, water, and solar energy.

Notes

[1] Sigmund Freud, “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Collected Papers, vol. 4, trans. Joan Riviere et al., ed. Ernest Jones (New York: Basic Books, 1953), 421.

[2] Dan La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana (St. Petersburg, FL: Serge Books / BookLocker, 2020), 82–85, 91–92, 185–91, 422–50.

[3] Ibid., 24, 62, 196–69, 242–44, 305, 324, 328–29, 347.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. Ulrike Kistner (London: Verso, 2016), 71–72.

[5] Ibid., 66, 308; Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), 136–37.

[6] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 57, 297.

[7] Irvin Sam Schonfeld and Chu-Hsiang Chang, Occupational Health Psychology: Work, Stress, and Health (New York: Springer, 2017), 9; Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 50–52; John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 3.

[8] G. Tyler Miller, Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions, 12th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth / Thomson Learning, 2002), 345–46.

[9] Ibid., 350.

[10] Schonfeld and Chang, Occupational Health Psychology, 206–7; Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988).

[11] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 20, 289, 311.

[12] Paul Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 259–72.

[13] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 171–72.

[14] Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 310–11.

[15] Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). See the discussion on group marriage in Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

[16] Alexandre Skirda, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), 389.

[17] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 19.

[18] Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” 259–60; Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 242.

[19] Daniel Taylor, “Chernobyl: an anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” RedFlag, June, 9, 2019. Available at: https://redflag.org.au/node/6814.

[20] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 384.

[21] Miller, Living in the Environment, 349.

[22] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 317.

Video Recordings: “Erich Fromm’s Critical Psychology and Left Strategy Today”

May 13, 2022

Please find below audio-visual recordings of last month’s conference on “Erich Fromm’s Critical Psychology and Left Strategy Today,” which took place on April 30, 2022.

This is the recording of the entire conference, save for the first panel. Please find links to moments in the conference that correspond to specific panels and presentations below:

This was the first panel (“Fromm, Sex, and Gender”), which I moderated.

Reading Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches” against Russia’s Wars on Syria and Ukraine

March 21, 2022

“War is such an unjust and evil thing that those who wage it try to stifle the voice of conscience within them.”1

“Art should cause violence to cease.”2

“Anti-Fascist Resistance” logo, targeting the “Z” symbol of the Russian military

Originally published on New Politics, 20 March 2022

Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a globally renowned White-Russian prose poet, journalist, ethicist, and Christian-anarchist critic. Though he fought as a cadet in the Eastern Caucasus and became an artillery officer in the Imperial Russian army as a young man, he would resign as a first lieutenant in 1856, after two years.3 Rather than affirm Tsarist colonialism or jingoist pan-Slavist ideologies, as did the celebrated novelist Fëdor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Lev Nikolaevich from the start of his writing career expressed critical views of imperial violence and dispossession. This can be gleaned from “The Raid” (1853), the “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), The Cossacks (1863), and War and Peace (1869). In its dual rejection of the exaltation of violence and the worship of power, the writer’s humanist war correspondence is motivated by the utopian hope that lending a voice to those who suffer the most in armed conflict might “drastically reduce its incidence” in the future.4

Written as eyewitness accounts of the siege of the Russian naval base by British, French, and Turkish forces during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the “Sevastopol Sketches” portray such scenes of devastation that “shake [one] to the roots of [one’s] being.”5 As such, Count Tolstoy’s purpose in these reports runs parallel to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s teaching from two and a half millennia ago: that awakening begins through acknowledgment of the traumatic reality.6 Establishing himself in these “Sketches” as a “seer of the flesh,” both living and dead, who interweaves poetry and truth, Tolstoy contests those liberal and radical thinkers who focus on the “achievements and ferocious power of the state” while ignoring the “horrific consequences of this power for millions.”7 He repudiates the “galactic” view of existence that would regard Earth from above, and see humanity as a tool to manipulate, manage, and destroy.8 The artist parts company with those who would portray combat as romantic by communicating the straightforward ideas that militarism is based on male sadism and vanity, and that war constitutes murder and ultraviolence.9

No surprise, then, that Tolstoy remains excommunicated within Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Indeed, just last month, the megalomaniacal Russian president ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Employing projection and pretext, Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. In reality, this former KGB spy and director of the post-Soviet FSB, embittered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is overseeing a genocidal assault on the Ukrainian people. Brutal violence has long been Putin’s favored approach: the security analyst Anna Borshchevskaya discusses the possibility that he ordered the FSB to bomb apartment buildings in three Russian cities in September 1999. Whether or not he was responsible, Putin blamed these acts of terror on Chechen rebels, while exploiting them both to launch a Second Chechen War (1999-2009) and to secure the presidency in 2000.10 Since then, the Russian despot has led “anti-humanitarian interventions” in Georgia, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Now, nearly a month into his ill-fated foray into Ukraine, the Russian leader mimics his ally Donald Trump by hosting a self-congratulatory fascist rally.

In this essay, we will examine Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches,” emphasizing its tragic realism, anti-militarism, and anti-authoritarianism. Afterward, in the spirit of the Russian artist, we will meditate on parallel war crimes that have been carried out in Syria over the past decade-plus by forces loyal to Putin and Bashar al-Assad. In this sense, we agree with free Syrians and Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, who alike see in Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria a clear precedent for the current offensive against Ukraine. Ominously, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense has likened the Ukrainian resistance to “international terrorists in Syria.” So far, it is clear that the Russian military is using the same atrocious tactics in Ukraine as in Syria, including the direct targeting of hospitals, journalists, bakeries, and residential areas.11 While millions of Ukrainians flee the country or shelter in basements, just as Syrians do and did, the Assad regime is recruiting thousands of mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, now that Russia’s initial blitzkrieg has failed.

Mural for Ukraine painted by Aziz Al-Asmar in Idlib, Syria, February 2022 (Middle East Eye/Bilal al-Hammoud)

The Sevastopol Sketches

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches” are comprised of three short first-hand reports on the besiegement and fall of the main Russian-occupied port city of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, between October 1854 and September 1855. These “Sketches” constitute unsettlingly realistic dispatches from the front lines that might have their equivalent today in emergency news reports from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Ukraine which depict suffering with compassion, demanding immediate remedial action.12 Written as “anti-war” correspondence, the “Sketches” are the product of Tolstoy’s commission as an artillery officer in 1854, and of his experiences in the embattled port-city following his transfer there as a second lieutenant the following year.13 Regardless of his humanistic bent, though, Tolstoy erases the important role played by Muslim Crimean Tatars in the city’s defense, in keeping with his silence over their colonial dispossession, which began with Tsarina Catherine II’s annexation of Crimea in 1783.14 At present, Crimean Tatars are courageously taking up arms against Putin’s “special military operation.”

Published in the literary journal The Contemporary that had been co-founded by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s national poet, the same “Sketches” which ironically brought the young Tolstoy celebrity were the product of his autonomous mental labor, following the moribund Tsar Nicholas I’s denial of the lieutenant’s proposal to launch a weekly forces newspaper.15 Significantly, the writer employs narrative realism in the “Sevastopol Sketches” not to mystify or endorse inter-state violence, but rather to defamiliarize or ‘estrange’ the suffering and exploitation demanded by war and militarism before his audience, who accordingly become spectators once-removed from the scene of desolation. In the “Sketches” and subsequently in The Cossacks and War and Peace, the artist at once defamiliarizes, reviles, and deprovincializes warmongering and statist ideologies. He does so by repudiating the resigned acceptance of such destructiveness while providing “intimacy at a distance.” In this way, he seeks to restore the humanity of war’s victims, and to encourage cosmopolitan-internationalist sensibilities in his readers.16

In 1853, Nicholas I declared war on the Ottoman Empire, seeking to take control of its European territories in the Balkans and “liberate” its Orthodox Christian subjects. In response, the British and French allied with the Turks to invade the Crimean Peninsula and assault Sevastopol. Their aim was to capture the Russian naval base, the principal port for the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet, toward the end of neutralizing regional Russian expansionism.17 Subjected, then, to a merciless assault by the French and their allies, the soldiers, sailors, and civilian populace of the port-city experience “a total absence of the human and of any prospect of salvation.” Tolstoy observes that, in Sevastopol, “everywhere [one] perceive[s] the unpleasant signs of a military encampment.” Like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno (1320), the writer takes his readers on a tour of a world comprised of the fortress and its eight bastions. The story begins in December 1854 in the Assembly of Nobles, which has been transformed into a makeshift field hospital.18

Showing compassion for the war-wounded in this effective slaughterhouse, the onlooking narrator demonstrates Tolstoy’s commitment to the politics of pity, defined by scholar Lilie Chouliaraki as the “symbolic mechanism[s…] by means of which various media […] construe the spectator-sufferer relationship via emotions of empathy and enunciation or aesthetic contemplation.” Centering the agora—or the realm of reflection and argument—and the theater—or the realm of fellow-feeling, identification, and agency—in these “Sketches,” Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy seeks to convince readers not only of the immorality of warfare, but also of the urgent need to overcome their status as voyeuristic spectators who may just be “sit[ting] back and enjoy[ing] the high-adrenaline spectacle.” Implicitly, he enjoins audiences to channel their emotional reactions into protesting against militarism and social hierarchy.19

Approaching a young wounded warrior, Tolstoy’s guide asks him about his injuries. In response, the youth betrays the self-surrender expected of a soldier (or worker): that “[t]he main thing […] is not to spend too much time thinking about it.” The narrator witnesses a sailor whose chest is “blown away” by a mortar contritely apologizing to his comrades as he perishes. Likewise, surgeons “with pale, gloomy physiognomies” are shown operating effective (dis)assembly lines to amputate the limbs of injured soldiers. One of these surgeons, performing triage, records over five-hundred thirty admissions to the field hospital in a single day in May 1855.20 Besides physicians, 163 Russian female nurses, supervised by the proto-feminist surgeon Nikolai Pirogov (1810-1881), served in front-line field hospitals in Crimea, where they courageously attended to the injured and dying while exposed to artillery barrages and typhus.21 From the other side of the line of control, British nurse Florence Nightingale’s (1820-1910) statistical findings on the causes of death in Allied hospitals showed that “far more men died of disease, infection, and exposure than in battle.”22

Overwhelmed by agony, the factitious Russian Prince Galtsin cannot stand more than a moment in Tolstoy’s bleak Assembly Hall. Seemingly everywhere, intermixed with the mire, can be found “shell splinters, unexploded bombs, cannonballs and camp remains,” and one is assaulted by a ceaseless hail of bullets and shells. For this reason, war is depicted not as “a beautiful, orderly and gleaming foundation,” as the authorities would prefer, but rather, according to the politics of pity, “in its authentic expression—as blood, suffering, and death.”23

Franz A. Rombaud, detail of Sevastopol Panorama (1904)

Estimates suggest that the casualties incurred during the final attack on Sevastopol reached twenty-four thousand on both sides, or about one-tenth of the total from all causes over the course of the siege.24 In contemplating the mass-casualties experienced during this time, Tolstoy’s narrator wonders whether it would not have been more just for two representatives of the warring sides to have dueled, and the conflict’s outcome to have been based on that result. For war as it is practiced is “madness.”25 Through these “quixotic musings” about duels as an alternative to full-blown wars, Tolstoy “dispute[s] the rationality and morality of violence in general.” He does so by implicitly disavowing his landowning class and identifying with anti-militarist values expressed by Russian peasants. In reality, many muzhiki (male peasants) believed that World War I should have been resolved through a village brawl, rather than through mass-slaughter.26 These peasants had an important point: the suffering and death of even one soldier in war “symbolizes [the] ‘universal’ human state of existence” of objectification and brutalization. In other words, to humanize the victims of war, we must treat every casualty as a person.27

In Tolstoy’s Sevastopol, Prince Galtsin and the Polish Lieutenant Nieprzysiecki harass wounded soldiers for retreating, whereas the enthusiastic, newly arrived volunteer Lieutenant Kozeltsov, anticipating “the laurels of immoral glory,” confronts demoralization and horror upon learning the reality of the situation. Alongside soldiers, civilians suffer, too. A sailor’s widow and her ten-year old daughter remark on the sight of a French artillery barrage at night. The girl cries, “Look at the stars, the stars are falling!” while her mother laments the impending destruction of their home, cursing the “devil” for “blazing away” and bringing “horrible things.” The adjutant Kalugin adds that “sometimes [it’s] impossible to tell which are shells and which are stars!”28

Tolstoy further defamiliarizes the scene by focusing on the responses of a ten-year old boy to all this devastation, contrasting his instinctual horror, based on natural goodness (in accordance with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas), against the statist-militarist normalization of such destructiveness. The scholar Liza Knapp hypothesizes that

Tolstoyan pacifism has its seeds here, where Tolstoy makes the boy, and the reader, pay attention to the corpses, to the sight, smell, and feel of them, and where Tolstoy points to the basic contradiction between the brotherly love that the soldiers at Sevastopol profess […] and the killing that they practice.29

Echoing this point, officer Kalugin thinks to himself that he should amount to something more than the “cannon fodder” to which soldiers are reduced in combat. In this moment, he anticipates how Prince Andrei Bolkonsky similarly laments the reduction of young men to pawns in War and Peace.30 At the end of his account from May 1855, Tolstoy juxtaposes the dystopian sight of hundreds of corpses, or “the bodies of men who two hours earlier had been filled with all manner of hopes and desires,” and the thousands injured between the Allied and Russian positions with the beauty of the stars, the “thundering” sea, and the “mighty, resplendent” sun, as though to decry the betrayal and denial of “joy, love and happiness” owing to war. After all, such tense dynamics are not limited to the nineteenth century. As we know from history and the present, when talks among states fail, “cannons start firing, and people, with all their aspirations and potential, begin to die in droves.”31

Franz A. Rombaud, detail of Sevastopol Panorama (1904)

Anti-War Meditations, from Crimea to Syria, Ukraine, and Palestine

Tolstoy’s disturbing albeit realistic presentation of the horrors of warfare in the “Sevastopol Sketches” certainly has its echoes today. Though the “Sketches” were published more than a century and a half ago, the problems of war, imperialism, dehumanization, and ultraviolence continue in our own day, considering that the State and capitalism persist as the dominant global forms of social organization—as in the nineteenth century. At the same time, whereas the “Sketches” illustrate an inter-imperialist conflict involving the British, French, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, Putin’s ongoing assault on Ukraine threatens an independent nation with reconquest by the former imperial power. Seen from an Enlightenment rationalist perspective, the Crimean War, the Syrian counter-revolution, and the Russo-Ukrainian War are senseless, ruthless, and reactionary. They speak to our predicament of being “stuck” within ossified relations of domination. It is indeed telling that so many Russian soldiers who have surrendered to the Ukrainian military since the offensive began should say they don’t know why they had been obeying orders in this fratricidal conflict. Likewise, one of Tolstoy’s alter egos, Prince Andrei, admits in War and Peace not to know why he is fighting, either.32

Furthermore, the gloomy surgeons amputating Russian soldiers en masse in Sevastopol eerily bring to mind the thousands of Palestinian protesters, mostly youth, whom the Israeli military injured and killed during the “Great Return March” demonstrations that began in March 2018. As of late 2019, at least six hundred of these protesters who were shot in the legs had developed osteomyelitis, a bone infection that can threaten the viability of limbs. Over three hundred such protesters have died in Gaza. It is also striking to consider how closely the comments of the sailor’s widow and her ten-year old daughter in the “Sketches” echo the desperate realities confronted by millions of courageous Syrians who have risen up against Bashar al-Assad’s fascist regime—only for this regime and its Russian and Iranian backers to have murdered hundreds of thousands, and possibly over a million, of people in response.

If Terry Eagleton is right that “[t]he traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body,” and if John P. Clark is right that meditation on a corpse is “one of the most ancient and most useful meditative practices,” then perhaps meditation on the vast war casualties from the Syrian counter-revolution can be similarly useful, according to a tragic-humanist framework, toward the end of alleviating future episodes of suffering and exclusion—as the Ukraine invasion has starkly shown.33

As the members of The Lancet-American University of Beirut Commission on Syria note, “[t]he conflict in Syria has caused one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War 2.”34 In reality, in a 2021 report, the UN Commission of Inquiry found evidence of “the most heinous of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law perpetrated against the civilian population” in the country, including genocide. Plus, in an unprecedented March 2021 report on violations of international law perpetrated by the Russian military since its September 2015 intervention in Syria, Russian human-rights groups lament how State-controlled media have blocked out the vast human costs of the war—just as Putin has now prohibited that the war on Ukraine be described as anything other than a “special military operation.” To contest State brutality, these groups seek to “present the perspective of ordinary people who experienced bombing and hunger and who saw their relatives die.”

Along similar lines, journalist Rania Abouzeid reports on how the aunts of the eleven-year old girl Ruha, living in Saraqeb, Idlib province, suffered mass-bombardment in 2013 by the Assad regime’s air force, which resembled seemingly ceaseless “raining fire.” In like manner, scholar Yasser Munif describes the grim panoply of technologies employed by the regime to suppress the Syrian Revolution: “starvation, torture, siege, indiscriminate bombing, chemical attacks, massacres, assassinations, etc…”35 Anthropologist Charlotte al-Khalili highlights the “vast inequality” in the balance of forces:

peaceful and later lightly-armed revolutionaries, on the one hand, versus a heavily-armed regime on the other, supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, using a wide range of weapons up to and including barrel bombs and chemical weapons to exterminate the people living in revolutionary bastions and liberated areas.

The anxiety expressed by the young girl in Sevastopol about the shells resembling stars can be considered to echo the fears of millions of displaced Syrian civilians residing in Idlib, who have been subjected to an indiscriminate campaign of mass-aerial and artillery bombardment by the Assad regime and its allies for years. Equally, they bring to mind the millions of city-dwelling Ukrainians, including children, currently seeking refuge in metro stations, basements, and other bomb shelters targeted by the Russian military. In Idlib, siege tactics have included the use of white phosphorus to set alight crops, destroy agricultural production, worsen malnutrition and starvation, and ultimately force the civilian population into submission. In parallel, Putin’s forces are employing the same cluster munitions and ballistic missiles in Ukraine that they have used in Syria.

Remarkably, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s 2019 documentary film For Sama chronicles the Syrian Revolution and the retaliatory siege of East Aleppo by the Assad-regime axis. Al-Kateab’s documentation of the interplay of joy over the life of her daughter with the plague of war can be seen from the feature’s very first scene, filmed in the Al-Quds Hospital, which was founded in November 2012 by her husband, Dr. Hamza al-Kateab. For Sama begins with a lovely dialogue between the titular infant and her mother which conveys interrelationality—only to be interrupted by an artillery barrage that provokes the flight of al-Kateab with her child through the basement of the hospital. The infernal aspects of this scene, allegorical and real at once, are but the opening salvo in Waad’s illuminating account that bears witness to the devastation perpetrated by Assad and Putin against Syrian revolutionaries. Interviewed on Democracy Now in March 2022 about echoes of Syria in Ukraine, al-Kateab conveyed shock over Putin’s belligerence: “What [is] the world waiting for? What more [do] you need to see? How many hospitals should be more bombed?”

Syrian director Waad al-Kateab interviewed on Democracy Now, March 17, 2022

Assad and Putin’s Counter-Revolutionary Aggression

Over the past decade-plus, the combined forces of the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian States and affiliated paramilitaries have committed heinous crimes in pursuit of their counter-revolutionary goal of suppressing the popular Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011.

Due to their viciousness, both in Syria and Ukraine, Assad and Putin recall the historical figures Generals Sergei Bulgakov (?-1824) and Alexei Yermolov (1777-1861), butchers of the Caucasus, as well as the French General de Ségur (1780-1873). In his function as Napoleon Bonaparte’s underling during the Grand Armée’s invasion of Russia (1812), Comte de Ségur sought to rationalize the extermination of the Muscovites as a necessity for “civilization.”36 Moreover, Putin and Assad’s crimes recall the aggression of the “new high-velocity m[e]n,” Red Army Commander Lev Trotsky (1879-1940) and Soviet Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), who crushed the Kronstadt and Tambov Communes in 1921, using overwhelming and relentless force of rapid maneuver.37 After all, the Assad regime’s prison system—described by the former political prisoner Mustafa Khalifeh as a central aspect of Syria’s topology of violence—builds on the French colonialists’ imposition of their carceral system on the country a century ago, as well as on the Soviet Gulag, which was itself inspired by Tsarist military colonies. In fact, the one-party dictatorship which Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad imposed in 1970 was modeled after the Stalinist regime, and today, ideological and political partisans of Ba’athism openly seek a “USSR 2.0.”

Moreover, Putin and Assad’s employment of mass-aerial bombardment of civilians follows from the Swiss-French imperialist Le Corbusier’s (1887-1965) macabre avowal of air power to “redesign” the Casbah, or citadel, of Algiers, together with the surrounding Old City.38 As well, these autocrats’ use of “vertical power” follows the grim model of the Luftwaffe’s destruction of the Basque town of Guernika in April 1937, within the context of the Spanish Civil War—not to mention US atrocities in World War II, or the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars. If the Russian incendiaries and arsonists who sought to thwart the Grand Armée’s capture of Moscow in 1812 anticipated the pétroleuses of the 1871 Paris Commune, who aimed at burning down buildings symbolizing France’s despotic past and “block[ing] the Versailles invaders with a barrier of flames,” the Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz (1949-2013) was surely right to emphasize that his revolutionary compatriots’ struggle against the Assad regime is “no less than [that of] the workers of the Paris Commune.”39

Conclusion: Justice for Syria and Ukraine

July 2014 banner from Syrian revolutionaries in Kafranbel in solidarity with Ukrainians under attack by Russia

As Munif and al-Kateab morosely chronicle, by all means, the Assad regime-axis has directed special retaliatory violence against autonomous and resistant communities, journalists, and medics in Syria.40 Healthcare workers who render aid to communities outside regime control risk being branded “enemies of the state,” and consequently being detained, tortured, and killed, in accordance with the regime’s strategy of “medical genocide.”41 The annihilatory tactics used by this regime and its allies—mimicking those employed by Western European imperialists, Nazis, and Stalinists alike—reproduce the “unconscious past” of the Soviet Gulag system, which inspired Ba’athist brutalism.42 In the same way, Assad and Putin’s brazen counter-revolution has arguably paved the way for not only the genocidal abuses being carried out by the Chinese Communist Party against millions of Uyghur, Kazakh, and Hui Muslims in Xinjiang, but also the Burmese junta’s coup of February 2021 and subsequent scorched-earth approach to dissent, as well as the ghastly ongoing attack on Ukraine.

Over six years into Russia’s military intervention to stabilize Bashar’s regime as Putin’s only client State in the “far abroad,” Russia has secured bases in the Eastern Mediterranean and destroyed regional Islamist groups by “turn[ing] the liberated areas into death zones.” Still, the pathos of children murdered by Assad and Putin’s bombs and shells in Syria and Ukraine is no less than that of Palestinian children murdered by the Israeli military.43 Echoing Israel’s tactics in Gaza, the Syrian and Russian air forces have targeted markets and up to fifty hospitals, as New York Times reporters have shown. In February 2021, seeking to market the lethality of its weaponry, the Russian military proudly released video of one of its Iskander ballistic missiles hitting Azaz National Hospital, north of Aleppo. On the Ukrainian front, as we have seen, the main enemy is the same.

In the continuities between the Tolstoyan scenes and sequences from the “Sevastopol Sketches” and War and Peace which center wounded and dying soldiers, the mass-displacement of civilians, and the urbicidal devastation of entire cities like Smolensk and Moscow during the Crimean and Napoleonic Wars on the one hand with the destruction of Syrian and Ukrainian cities like East Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Khan Sheikhoun, Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kyiv on the other, we perceive constancy in the fundamentally brutal exercise of State power. We must face these tragedies with Tolstoyan realism and compassion by doing our best to stop Putin, Assad, and their enablers; avoiding an escalation from fratricidal to nuclear war; and supporting revolutionaries, protesters, refugees, and victims of militarism across borders.

“Stop Putin, Stop the War”: street protest in London, March 19, 2022 (Courtesy Paula Erizanu)

Footnotes

1 Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s Diaries, ed. and translated by R. F. Christian (London: Flamingo, 1985), 54.

2 Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy: Later Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 378.

3 Donna Tussing Orwin, “Chronology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4-6.

4 Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy: A Russian Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011), 246-9; Nicolas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom (San Rafael: Semantron Press, 2009), 66; Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 101.

5 Leo Tolstoy, The Cossacks and Other Stories, trans. David McDuff and Paul Foote (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 192 (emphasis added).

6 John P. Clark, Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 194.

7 Алексей и Владимир Туниманов Зверев, Лев Толстой. Вступ. статья. В. Я. Курбатова (Moscow: Youth Guard, 2006), 12; Dmitry Shlapentokh, “Marx, the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production,’ and ‘Oriental Despotism’ as ‘True’ Socialism,” Comparative Sociology 18 (2019), 508; Richard Sokoloski, “Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych: First and Final Chapter,” Tolstoy Studies Journal, vol. 9 (1997), 51; Peter Kropotkin, Russian Literature: Ideals and Realities (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1991), 118.

8 Irvin D. Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 478-80; James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War (New York: Penguin, 2004), 51.

9 Andrei Zorin, Critical Lives: Leo Tolstoy (London: Reaktion Books, 2020), 31; Liza Knapp, “The development of style and theme in Tolstoy,” The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 172; Berdyaev 157; Gunisha Kaur, From torture to ultraviolence: medical and legal implications,” The Lancet, 6 April 2021.

10 Anna Borshchevskaya, Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence (London: I. B. Tauris, 2022), 42.

11 Yasser Munif, The Syrian Revolution: Between the Politics of Life and the Geopolitics of Death (London: Pluto, 2020), 37-40.

12 Lilie Chouliaraki, The Spectatorship of Suffering (London: Sage, 2006), 18, 76, 118.

13 Christopher Bellamy, “Tolstoy, Count Leo,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 914; Orwin 4.

14 Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 348; Catherine Evtuhov et al., A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 399.

15 Zorin 26-7; Bartlett 109-11.

16 Knapp 171; Chouliaraki 21-43, 71 (emphasis in original); Charles Reitz, Ecology and Revolution: Herbert Marcuse and the Challenge of a New World System Today (Routledge: New York, 2019), 84-5.

17 Zorin 29; Evtuhov et al. 367-70; Christopher Bellamy, “Sevastopol, sieges of,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 821.

18 Tolstoy 2006: 304, 187, 192.

19 Chouliaraki 38-9, 44-52, 85-93, 119-121, 124-48.

20 Tolstoy 2006: 190, 192, 200, 228-9 (emphasis in original).

21 Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 30-1.

22 Natasha McEnroe, “Celebrating Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary,” The Lancet, vol. 395, no. 10235, 2020), 1477.

23 Tolstoy 2006: 192, 196, 227-8).

24 Evtuhov et al. 370.

25 Tolstoy 2006: 204.

26 Rick McPeak, “Tolstoy and Clausewitz: The Duel as a Microcosm of War,” eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), 116; Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 148).

27 Chouliaraki 124; Hillman 49.

28 Tolstoy 2006: 221, 223-4, 227, 268-9.

29 Lisa Knapp, “The development of style and theme in Tolstoy,” The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 170.

30 Tolstoy 2006: 236-7; Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 756.

31 Tolstoy 2006: 247-8, 25; McPeak 115.

32 Tolstoy 2010: 27, 677.

33 Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 27, 168; Clark 187.

34 Samer Jabbour et al. “10 years of the Syrian conflict: a time to act and not merely to remember,” The Lancet, vol. 397, issue 10281 (2021), P1245-8.

35 Rania Abouzeid, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2018), 182-3; Munif 9.

36 Alexander M. Martin. “Moscow in 1812: Myths and Realities.” Tolstoy On War, eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), 42-58.

37 Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 161; Christopher Bellamy, “Tukhachevskiy, Marshal Mikhail Nikolaeyich,” The Oxford Companion to Military History, ed. Richard Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 924-5; Neil Croll, “The role of M.N. Tukhachevskii in the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion,” Revolutionary Russia, (17) 2 (2004), 10-14.

38 Munif 43-6, 90.

39 Robert Graham, We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 6-7; David A. Shafer, The Paris Commune: French Politics, Culture, and Society at the Crossroads of the Revolutionary Tradition and Revolutionary Socialism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 95, 159.

40 Munif 33-6.

41 Jabbour et al.

42 Nancy Chodorow, The Power of Feelings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

43 Borshchevskaya 169.

An Anarchist Response to Russian Aggression

February 28, 2022
“We Demand Freedom for Russian Anarchists!” Image credit to Popular Front

The following statement is signed by Samuel Clarke, Søren Hough, and Javier Sethness. It does not represent the opinions of all the editors of The Commoner.


The Commoner, like most historical and modern-day anarchists, reject all imperialist wars. We also reject the status quo of globalised capitalism and imperialism which leads to war.

Even so, the causes of the Ukrainian and Russian militaries in the context of this invasion are not the same. Ukraine was dominated by the Tsarist Empire and Soviet Union for nearly four centuries, before achieving independence in 1991. Now, Vladimir Putin’s forces are carrying out egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity, using the pretext of seeking to ‘demilitarise and de-Nazify’ Ukraine. For the sake of the Ukrainian people’s safety, we hope they fail, leaving vast fields of sunflowers in their wake.

Though greatly outgunned, Ukraine’s armed forces are fighting to defend the Ukrainian people and state. Although we do not support any state, we do support Ukrainians’ right to self-defence against Russian aggression. Putin’s track record in Chechnya and Syria shows the brutality of which the Russian president, whom Anti Rautiainen calls the ‘gendarme of the whole world,’ is capable of. His prerecorded video addresses this week betray madness. Indeed, Russian forces have occupied the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and some reports claim that they are holding workers at the plant hostage. This increases the risk of yet another meltdown.

We denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an affront to humanity waged in the name of territory and resources, as all the major wars of the modern world have been. We reject Putin’s justification of his murderous invasion on flimsy ethnic or historical precedent. Nothing about the relationship between Ukraine’s government and the West excuses Russia’s murder of innocent people and attempted seizure of power.

We also denounce the projects of the US, Europe, and the NATO alliance, which have done nothing but increase militarisation and imperialist aggression around the world. Many are rightfully suspicious of Russian state propaganda, but we also encourage people not to fall for the West’s rhetoric or support their draconian, oppressive sanctions which do more to hurt everyday people than their supposed intended targets.

The answer to violence does not lie with the West, just as it does not lie with the Russian Federation, as their shared history of intervention in places such as Crimea and Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, or Iraq and Georgia tells us. We encourage everyone to shun the voices of state officials and instead to listen to the people whose lives are affected by militaristic and economic oppression.

Taking this position, we might be accused of “both-sidesing” this war or not taking a firm position. But we reject the idea that there are only two options. There is a third which we support wholeheartedly: a borderless internationalism which struggles tirelessly against Russian aggression while also firmly opposing Western hegemony.

Our solidarity and sympathies lie with the people of Ukraine who are being made subject to the whims of politicians and nationalist bourgeoisie, and to Russian dissidents who refuse to support this incursion through direct action and public protest or desertion from the military. Meanwhile, we urge everyone to do what they can to support Ukrainians fleeing war by donating to funds and pressuring their governments to accept refugees.

To read more anarchist statements and articles on the situation in Ukraine, check out statements from Avtonom in Russia, Anarchistisches Netzwerk Dresden, Anarchist Black Cross Dresden (ABCD), Russian anarchists, Pramen (Belarus), KRAS-MAT in Russia, Scissortail Anarchists, and a survey of local Ukrainian anarchist thought assembled by Crimethinc.

You can support Ukrainian anarchist efforts by following this link to Operation Solidarity, or do the same by visiting Rev Dia‘s website. Also check out the recently formed anti-authoritarian resistance committee.

If you are aware of further material ways we can support Ukrainians at this time, please get in touch via social media or contact@thecommoner.org.uk.

Fight back tooth and nail against imperialist aggression. Work together to create a borderless world where petty bureaucrats and feckless ‘leaders’ cannot decide the fates of millions, where the people direct their own lives to their full potential, and where society is built on mutual aid and cooperation rather than capitalism and strife. And please, stay safe.

The Commoner

“We hope all anarchists in the world will support us”: An Interview with Sudanese Anarchists Gathering

January 3, 2022

Please see Crimethinc’s new interview with members of Sudanese Anarchists Gathering about ongoing resistance to the coup regime. Just yesterday, reinstated Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigned out of frustration with the Sudanese military, the same day that its forces killed anti-coup protesters in the city of Omdurman.

An excerpt from the Crimethinc interview:

The revolution has been ongoing since December 2018. When the revolution started, protests were suppressed violently at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Omar Al-Bashir, which we overthrew on April 11, 2019, when we occupied and sat-in at the general headquarters of Sudan’s military. But unfortunately, the occupation was later suppressed: 500 revolutionaries were killed and our revolution was stolen by the military’s commanders and the “soft landing.”1 On August 17, 2019, they (the Transitional Military Council, or TMC, and the Forces of Freedom, or FCC2) agreed to a 39-month transition process to return to democracy. We the revolutionaries, however, didn’t stop—we kept protesting against the military in the hopes of making the transitional government transition to an actual “technocratic” civilian government [i.e., a government composed of civilians, not career politicians].

And then the coup [of October 25, 2021] happened and the military dissolved the civilian government and arrested its members.

But we’re not giving up. The streets are brimming with defiance and opposition to them again, although they’ve murdered 47 revolutionaries and injured 1200 others using tear gas, stun grenades, and live rounds ever since the coup. We’re still protesting and aiming to overthrow them now.

“Erich Fromm’s Critical Psychology and Left Strategy Today”: April 30, 2022

December 19, 2021

The world is in turmoil. Although Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, his aggressive spirit lives on. Global leaders meet at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to watch the planet burn. The U.S. Congress can’t even pass popular, much-needed socio-economic or environmental reforms. Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic rages unchecked, in no small part due to the everyday capitalist exploitation of workers, not to mention resistance to vaccines and masks, as amplified by conspiracist, right-wing mass-media.

Given these dire circumstances, we believe that the Jewish German-American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) can equip us with profound insights for the struggle for a more egalitarian society.

Toward this end, we invite you to a one-day online conference on April 30, 2022, dedicated to reflecting on the importance of Erich Fromm’s critical and humanist social psychology for leftist strategy today.

We plan to use Zoom Webinar to cast the conference. Please visit the conference website, consider registering, and stay tuned for more details.