September 24, 2004

Random Musings

Posted by Ed

If there's one thing I should have learned from a year and a half of blogging, it's this: when you quit blogging regularly for a while, you shouldn't casually announce that you'll soon be posting more frequently, even if you think you will. After all, if you do start posting more regularly, you won't need to have warned your readers about your return beforehand, and if you don't, you'll just look silly.

Luckily, I don't exactly have legions of loyal readers, so it's not as if the lonely post that prematurely announced my "return to active blogging" has left very many people feeling disappointed. Even so, I've felt a bit silly every time I've seen that post and realized that I never followed up on it. I've just been really busy lately.

Why have I been so busy ? For the last few weeks, I've been holed up in Harvard's Lamont Library, reading microfilms that discuss misconduct cases against members of the Soviet Communist party. This is the first stage of my dissertation research, which will continue in January when I begin nine months of archival work in the former Soviet Union. I'm studying the process by which the Communist party censured and expelled its members, for infractions including drinking, womanizing, religious observance, workplace offenses, and war-time collaboration with the Germans.

Part of the reason for my recent near-silence is that I don't plan to discuss my dissertation research here in much detail. (I have plenty of other people I can talk to about my work, and I'd rather publish my thoughts on Soviet history in a forum that can someday help me get a job; moreover, I suffer from the paranoia that afflicts most graduate students, and I'd rather not alert other researchers to some of the cooler sources I'm looking at.) Just as importantly, though, it's really tiring to spend 8 or more hours a day looking at microfilm. When I return from a day spent at Harvard with my laptop and a microfilm reader, I don't always want to sit down and blog when I get home. Maybe I'm beginning to understand why Nicholson Baker hates the medium so much!

I hope that my blogging habits are about to change. I have about six different blog posts mapped out in my head, including a book review, a rant about the declining quality of Cambridge's bookstores, a couple movie reviews, and the beginning of a nifty recurring feature that may enable me to write about my research in a way that makes me feel comfortable. We'll just have to wait and see if these proto-bloggings ever appear on the site...

For now, though, I'll end with some rambling thoughts about my recent research. When I tell people that I'm studying the everyday misconduct of Russian Communists, one of the most common responses I get is this: "Wow! You must have to read a lot about drinking and alcoholism!" That's true, though the sentiment behind it rubs me the wrong way, and yesterday I came across a case that beautifully encapsulates a lot of the issues that appear in the Communist party's expulsion of alcoholics from its membership. Why did the party want to crack down on drinking, after all? Because it's immoral? That's definitely true in part--plenty of cases I've come across discuss the issue in moral terms, but there's more to the issue. On one level, it's a great example of what economists call the principal-agent problem: the Soviet regime was trying to rein in its representatives in the workplace and the state apparatus and to crack down on those whose behavior it couldn't control. At the same time, the party was trying to push up economic productivity, to stamp out cultural backwardness, and to produce an elite class of prominent citizens whose behavior would be a model to their peers.

The case I found yesterday tied together all of these threads. It dealt with a poorly educated man guilty of "systematic drinking," who beat his wife and brought down the work level of his colleagues. The man was the chairman of an industrial artel', but when he was supposed to report to the provincial party committee on his artel's work, he showed up drunk and made fun of the local party leaders; he was incapable of providing his workers with leadership, and his artel' had only met 50.5% of its production quota at the end of the year. (He often spent the night drinking with his co-workers, sometimes even at their workplace.) Just as importantly, the man's public drinking "discredited him as a Communist" in the eyes of the population, hurting the reputation of the Soviet state.

The document was loaded with fun details that are hard to sum up quickly, and its conclusion left me stopped in my tracks. The report closed by noting that its subject had left work one day to go to the market, but was so drunk that he ended up falling asleep in public and making a complete fool of himself. He was robbed of 3509 rubles (the property of the artel'), his watch, and his trousers.

When I reached that point in the document, I'd been looking at microfilm for nearly nine hours, and I was sure that I was forgetting the Russian for "pants." (My everyday Russian vocabulary is rather poor, and I'd probably be more successful discussing the nuances of 19th-century tariff policy than describing the inventory of a clothing store, I'm afraid.) My initial translation was exactly right, however, which was enough to make my day. I've read a lot of documents that were much more analytically interesting this week, but few that were quite so amusing--or that did quite as good a job encapsulating as many key issues in the space of less than two pages.

Posted by Ed at September 24, 2004 08:36 PM

Hey, no pressure or anything, but we're out here watching and waiting, really.

I know nothing about Russian/Soviet history, but recently, I've heard the word "moralistic" used in connection to the Soviet government much more than when I was young. Now it seems to me that the government implemented more moralistic laws than the US government did during the same period. Is this fair to say? All we got drilled into our heads as kids was that the government was an atheistic arm of Satan or something.

I suppose there's the problem, too, of being taught by people who believe that the only true morals come from a God.

Posted by: taleswapper at September 25, 2004 06:02 PM
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