May 22nd, 2009


So, dat's your story, comrade?

Ah, the mysterious joys of digging into my "to be read" cases of books ... this one could very well have been sitting around for over a quarter century, as it's a "book club edition" (that was likely a throw-in with another order) with a publication date of 1983!

The Russian Version of the Second World War: The History of the War As Taught to Soviet Schoolchildren, edited by Graham Lyons, is a window into (as one would gather from the subtitle) how the Soviets defined the war to their youth. The material in this book is taken from two standard Soviet text books, aimed at highschool-aged students, one which focuses on the military history, and one that focuses on the political history. These materials were developed in 1956, following the death and official denouncement of Joseph Stalin. Prior to that, what few Soviet military histories there were, were "all about Stalin" and he only gets mentioned in passing a few times in these texts.

This was very much like reading an "alternative reality" book ... where the general outlines of events were familiar, but all the detail and framing had changed. There were multiple points that just seemed strange. The one that most stood out to me was the constant inclusion of political operatives in various military operations ... as though nothing could happen unless a Communist Party functionary was on hand and making sure that everybody was in a "revolutionary fervor" ... sort of like a union foreman on a job site or something! It was also odd seeing the term "Hitlerites" when referring to the Germans ... of course, when these texts were written, half of Germany was a Soviet puppet state, so I guess they didn't want to smear the German people with the Nazi acts, but also didn't want to use "Nazi" as that would besmirch Socialism!

The other notable aspect is the flip-flop of how we tend to view things ... the Allies are seen as collaborators with the Nazis in the case of Finland, the Soviet annexation of much of Poland is framed as just "neighbors moving through to fight the Germans". The book constantly harps on how "easy" the Allies had it, how the Germans hardly fought at all on the Western front, and how there was a Big Huge Conspiracy to have the Nazis and the Communists pretty much destroy each other (OK, so that's not so far-fetched). The Japanese (and Pacific theater) are scarcely mentioned unless in context of their being a threat on the far eastern edges of the Soviet empire, and the Allied campaigns around the Mediterranean are pretty much just dismissed. Now, admittedly, the Soviets did fend off the Germans, and broke the power of the "Nazi war machine", but the book plays it out like they did it unassisted, or even with one hand tied behind their back.

And, as one would expect, none of the Soviet atrocities are even alluded to ... while the "Hitlerites" were painted with that brush at every opportunity. Frankly, reading this was a little bit like watching The Sopranos ... it's a look inside a system where brutality, suppression, and the like are just part of the furnishings, and only get brought up when one of your guys gets whacked; a look into a world where totalitarian communist dictatorships are needed to be installed in every corner of the planet, and anything that goes against that is somehow criminal. Hmmm ... sounds like a faculty lounge at most universities!

Anyway, The Russian Version of the Second World War is, understandably (after so many years) out of print, but "very good" copies can be had from the Amazon new/used vendors for under three bucks (plus shipping), and there are even some "like new" copies kicking around out there for a bit more. Again, this is sort of a trip down the rabbit-hole, so will appeal to a wider range of readers than one might think, if any of the above sounds like it's for you, it'll be a fascinating read!

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A different angle on Gurdjieff ...

I've read a lot of Gurdjieff/Ouspensky/Bennett/etc. books over the years, and I'm frankly amazed at how many "angles" there are from which one can come at the Work. Admittedly, as the years roll on, there's less authenticity in the material (as it seems that none of their students ever got to the point of having something systematic, beyond the core books themselves, to pass on to the next generation), but it is interesting to see where it goes (like the "corporate enneagram" crap that totally has lost the concept of "outside shocks" essential to the model's functioning!).

This book, Views from the Real World: Early Talks Moscow, Essentuki, Tiflis, Berlin, London, Paris, New York, and Chicago as Recollected by His Pupils, attributed to Gurdjieff (but, obviously at one remove) is fascinating as it's the first step away from the his direct teachings (in that these were produced by memory by their transcribers, as Gurdjieff would not allow note-taking), but are also one of the clearest views into his teachings.

I really need to get over my hesitancy to mark up my books ... I had a half a dozen slips of paper stuck in this marking places that, as I was reading, seemed to hold particularly apt bits to quote in a review, however, out of context of the book, these are frequently hard to discover ... perhaps I need to move to sticky notes where I could "bracket" the section in question on the note! In this case, these appear to have been particularly lucid expositions of such things as Gurdjieff's concept of "octaves", of bodily postures (the area that his famous "stop" exercise was intended to highlight), the above-mentioned "shocks", the production of intentional non-subjective art, the various "centers" and "foods" of the being (and how the phrase "I wish to remember myself" triggers various of these in sequence), and subjects such as morality, suffering and consciousness, etc. I guess if you're interested, you'll have to get the book!

This is structured oddly, with sections based on the opening phrases of a talk, or just on their subject, with some being long (the whole of Section I is "Glimpses of Truth" which was in circulation early enough to have been mentioned in Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous) and some being just a few paragraphs. In all cases (as I recall) they are anonymous, leading me to wonder who collected them for publication, as these are from far-flung sources (as noted in the lengthy sub-title) and over a fairly wide span of years. After all, if Gurdjieff did not want his students taking notes, these would very likely have been "kept in secret" until after his death, or shared in very limited groups which were more interested in the literal exposition of the teachings than the Teacher's wishes about the teachings. It is also odd that, as far as I've been able to research it, this was published in 1973, while the materials in it range from 1917 to 1930, with Gurdjieff dying in 1949. Was this collected before his death, soon after his death, or much later?

Anyway, the material here is of specific interest as it's first-hand reports of Gurdjieff's teachings, even if those reports had to depend on the student's memory. Each is a moment in time with Gurdjieff, and most provide fascinating glimpses at nuances not necessarily present in the "canon" of what he wrote.

Views from the Real World is still in print, so would be available at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, although Amazon has it at just over ten bucks, which is a pretty good deal (the new/used copies start at $2.50, so with shipping that's almost there anyway). Some have suggested that this is a "good introduction" to Gurdjieff, but I disagree, as this is something that opens up parts of the teachings to students of Gurdjieff's written material, and it would be better to start with that (perhaps Meetings with Remarkable Men) and then pick this up after absorbing some of the materials that he intended to convey to a general audience. However, if you're interested, this should not hold you back from getting a copy of the book.

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