Tag Archives: communism

The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward: Reviews of Red Scarf Girl and Mao’s Great Famine

culturalrevolutionhistory.com

 

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Mao’s Communist experiments, the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62) and the so-called “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1972) created a disaster of unprecedented proportions in China. In Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, Frank Dikotter documents that between 30-32 million people starved to death as a result of the Great Leap Forward. (New York: Walker and Company, 2011)

In an ill-hatched attempt to catch up quickly with the economy of the Soviet Union and the West in industrial production (particularly in the manufacture of steel), Mao Zedong launched China into a series of agricultural experiments with no basis in science that devastated the country. He mandated forced collectivization of private farms. At the same time, he encouraged the peasants to plant significantly less, allowing about a third of the farms to remain uncultivated. Despite the imposition of internal passports branding Chinese citizens as “farmers” or “city dwellers,” millions of peasants migrated to the cities, hoping to escape working for the Communist farm collectives and their often abusive and corrupt officials.

These disastrous measures, Dikotter elaborates, were compounded by the fact the grains were poorly stored and often diluted with water, to increase their weight and give the appearance of meeting the quotas. Out of a severely diminished agricultural supply, tons of grains rotted, were infested by vermin or caught on fire as a result of poor storage. To give the impression of prosperity, Mao earmarked for export most of China’s meager agricultural production. Domestically, the only stores that were well-stocked–the so-called “Friendship Stores”–were reserved for government officials and foreign visitors. Tens of millions of Chinese people suffered as a result of being deprived of adequate food, clothes and consumer goods.

The situation became so dire, Dikotter documents, that some desperate individuals sold their children to have fewer mouths to feed. Others went so far as to eat corpses or even kill the living to survive a few more weeks, or days. Some became so unscrupulous that they disinterred the corpses of family members or neighbors and used them as fertilizer: “Inside the house were four large cauldrons in which corpses were being simmered into fertilizer, the extract to be evenly distributed over the fields” (173).

Obsessed with silencing any opposition, however feeble and adulatory, Mao penalized any individual who reported even glimmers of the truth about the massive disaster consuming his country. Dikotter makes it clear that Mao became aware of the truth, but couldn’t accept any critique, much less the massive failure of his grand designs for setting China on an industrial fast track:

“Mao received numerous reports about hunger, disease and abuse from every corner of the country, whether personal letters mailed by courageous individuals, unsolicited complaints from local cadres or investigations undertaken on his behalf by security personnel or private secretaries” (69).

When the extent of destruction could no longer be hidden from view even by the heaviest oppression and propaganda, Mao, much like Stalin had before him, deflected any responsibility for the program’s failure on his underlings and colleagues. (84) At the same time, he purged from the government precisely the officials who had been critical of the Great Leap Forward and warned him about its disastrous effects. Only once the famine had already claimed tens of millions of victims, in November 1960, did Mao finally begin to reverse the fatal course of forced collectivization by restoring some local markets and allowing the starving peasants to cultivate some private plots. It took two more years for the country to emerge from the crisis.

While Dikotter’s book paints the big picture of the Maoist disaster, Ji-li Jiang’s memoir, Red Scarf Girl, (New York, HarperCollins, 2004), gives readers a glimpse of the same period through a personalized optic. A good student living in a normal, loving family, Ji-li Jiang’s life turns upside down with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Most of the values she had been previously taught become subverted by the new Communist indoctrination sessions: the value of education; respect for parents, grandparents and teachers; even feelings of loyalty and friendship. Private ownership, academic achievement, family love become discarded values: “Four Olds,” a highly pejorative term indicating something outdated, anti-Communist and old-fashioned, according to the Orwellian “Newspeak”.

Not surprisingly, the most mendacious and power-hungry students thrive in the new system, victimizing and bullying the rest. Jiang’s father, whose Communist dossier is suspect because he’s the son of a landlord, is sent to slave labor in the fields. Her mother falls victim to harrowing interrogation sessions, where she’s asked to turn against husband. With tremendous courage, she refuses. Her grandmother is humiliated by being forced to sweep the streets. Setting children against parents and grandparents, the Communist officials pressure the young girl to denounce her family.

Wavering between feelings of compassion for her downtrodden family members and a sense of shame for being associated with them, at one point Jiang decides to change her name. But she’s not ready to abandon her loved ones, as the Communist official suggests. For her, loyalty and empathy prove stronger than the ideological indoctrination. Long before her family immigrates to the United States, this important choice signifies Ji-li Jiang’s first step towards freedom.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

Comments Off on The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward: Reviews of Red Scarf Girl and Mao’s Great Famine

Filed under Claudia Moscovici Holocaust Memory, Communist China, Frank Dikotter Mao's Great Famine, Holocaust Memory, Ji-li Jiang Red Scarf Girl, Mao, the Cultural Revolution, The Great Leap Forward

Interview with BookMag about my novels Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici

Below is the interview with Virginia Costeschi, published in Romanian on BookMag, on the link below:

Virginia Costeschi: You are a complex writer; you have nonfiction books, a poem volume, and novels. You teach, you started the postromanticism movement. How do you manage this creative diversity?

Claudia Moscovici: If judged by scholarly standards of specialization, I’m seen as having wide-ranging  and diverse interests: in art, poetry, philosophy and literature, exactly as you state. My daughter, however, who plans to study chemistry in college, tells me my interests are very narrow. All of them fall under “arts and humanities” (as opposed to mathematics, science, or business for example, fields about which I know very little). I think both perspectives are correct. My daughter is right because the arts and humanities are separated only artificially. Art, history and literature have so much to do with one another and are actually very close. Yet it’s also true that the domains became very specialized during the 20th century, so my interests are diverse, from this perspective. Personally, I much prefer the Enlightenment model, of the philosophes and the salonnieres, where the various branches of arts and letters are seen as inseparable. Because in my eyes, they still are.

V.C.: What is postromanticism about and why did you initiate it?

C.M.: Postromanticism is, as we call it, “the art of passion.” It’s the aesthetic movement that values sensuality, beauty and passion in contemporary art, which I started in 2002 with the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto. Since then, dozens of very well-regarded international artists have joined this art movement. We hope to bring it to my native Romania, when my book about it, Romanticism and Postromanticism, which has been translated by the writer and critic D. R. Popa, will be launched by Editura Curtea Veche. My main motivation for launching this art movement was a positive one. I wanted to highlight what I saw as very positive aesthetic values in contemporary art. However, I was also motivated by a critical spirit. I thought that art today that is inspired by the Romantic and Realist movements was systematically excluded from museums of contemporary art and insufficiently reviewed by reputable art critics. I wanted to put my training in philosophy (aesthetics) and art to use in correcting, as much as I could, this glaring omission.

V.C.: Which internal resorts determined you to choose literature and writing?

C.M.: My main motivation in becoming a writer was the fact that I adored reading literature. My favorites were the great nineteenth century French writers, such as Tolstoy and Flaubert. I also admired the marvels an immigrant writer—Nabokov—could do with the English language. I think their tradition of writing, more or less realist in style and with incredibly rich characterizations, continues today in writers of mainstream “literary fiction” such as Jeffrey Eugenides, Wally Lamb and Jonathan Franzen. I couldn’t resist the internal drive to turn my love of reading into a love of writing, particularly about the historical and psychological themes that obsess me most.

V.C.: Why did you write Velvet Totalitarianism?

C.M.: Jeffrey Eugenides wrote a comic epic about Greek immigrants in Middlesex. I wanted to write such an epic about Romania and Romanian immigrants in Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi. Communism was, of course, a very dark period in Romanian history. Yet even during this very difficult period people loved, laughed and smiled. I wanted to capture both the darkness and oppression and the lighter aspects of the communist era. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi shows several facets of the totalitarian experience: the love of family and romantic entanglements; the secret police (Securitate), spying and political oppression, as well as the sometimes comical challenges of being an immigrant. Besides, comedy is not always lighter than tragedy. It can be, as it is for Caragiale or Shalom Aleichem, “laughter through tears.”

V.C.: How did you choose the characters in Velvet Totalitarianism?

C.M.: In a sense they chose me by being on my mind for a long time. Leaving my country and family was something we needed to do for political reasons. But it was very difficult emotionally. I loved my country and my family and was well-integrated with my friends and teachers at school. Fundamentally, I felt Romanian in upbringing and culture, which I still consider myself today despite the fact I have some difficulty speaking and writing the language.  When I left Romania at the age of 11, I told myself that even if I couldn’t see most of my family and my country—for who knows how many years–I would one day write about them. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi represents my effort to preserve the past and keep it alive, through fiction, for both myself and others.

V.C.: Irina, the girl that leaves Romania for United States seems an alter ego of the author in Velvet Totalitarianism. Is it right?

C.M.: Yes, many aspects of Irina are autobiographical. However, many are not. To write about some of the historical and political aspects of Romanian communism, as well as the spy plot, I had to read a lot of books on the subject, and create fictional characters that brought those aspects to life. So a lot of Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi is based on real life, yet at the same time everything is altered and fictionalized, to fit harmoniously into the novel (as fiction).

V.C.: How was your meeting with a totally different society, customs, social rules, life style?

C.M.: It was a culture shock. Because I’m an emotional person and a nostalgic by nature, immigrating to the United States and leaving most of my family and all of my friends in Romania was very difficult. I also didn’t speak English, so I had to learn it very quickly if my goal was to get good grades and go to a good university (which I definitely wanted to). But ultimately my adaptation was a survival mode, and in a way, superficial. I still feel mostly Romanian culturally. If you look at my Facebook friends, about 90 percent or so are of Romanian origin. And even though I hadn’t seen my native country for 30 years, when I came for the launch of Intre Doua Lumi in the fall of 2011, I felt completely at home (only Bucharest was so much more modernized and beautiful, of course, than it was when I left the country). I think that human beings adapt to new cultures to survive and accomplish their goals in life. But it doesn’t change much who we really are, on the inside. Inside, I’m Romanian more so than American.

V.C.: Velvet Totalitarianism seems a very difficult book to write, I guess. You have alternate temporal planes, many characters (some of them very complex and profound), love stories, traitors, a dictatorship and a very vivid description of the communist Romania.

C.M.: Yes, you’re right, Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi was difficult to write for several reasons. First of all, I didn’t have enough time. It took me ten years to finally finish this novel because I was a full-time academic and a mom, which left me very little free time for writing fiction. Second, I had to integrate a lot of historical and political information about the Ceausescu era, the Securitate, the CIA, the Romanian orphanages and the revolution of 1989, but in a way that reads like fiction rather than like a political science or history textbook. The fictional characters couldn’t be illustrations or mouth-pieces of history, they had to come to life in their own right. The biggest challenge was tying the two parts of the plot—the spy thriller/love story between Radu and Ioana and the Irina and Paul love story—together. The novel includes two separate plot-lines in it. In  a movie, the director would probably need to choose one or the other. But in the novel they were tied together.

V.C.: The characters in the book have any correspondent in reality? Did you use real life stories to describe the so-called procedure of leaving the country, a dissident’s life or Romanian Security Service?

C.M. Almost every aspect of the novel is inspired either by my family’s experiences in communist Romania or by historical research. However, I fictionalized all of it. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi  is not really historical fiction. It’s more a family epic, a love story, a thriller, all rolled into one novel.

V. C.: How did you see the last two decades of Romania? Before 1989, there was a cultural résistance, how does it look now?

C. M.: Some cultural resistance existed in Romania before 1989, but it was little compared to countries like Poland. I think the internal dissidents gained a lot of momentum from the other anti-communist revolutions which preceded the one in Romania. This doesn’t take anything away from their courage. The time was ripe, politically, for the revolution.

V.C.: You also have a prolific online activity. Please give us some details about all your blogs – Literaturesalon, Postromanticism, and Psychopathyawareness.

C.M.: Blogs offer one of the best and most immediate ways for an author to communicate with readers. If you want the communication to be both ways, you have a comments section. If that turns out to be too time-consuming, you just post articles. There’s so much flexibility in blogs. It’s also a system of writing which is very democratic, in that it isn’t based on what professional connections you have. Anyone can write and can build a readership based on the relevance and effectiveness of his or her writing. I love this democratic nature of blogging and the freedom it gives writers.

V. C.: How do you see the Romanian national book market?

C. M.: Although I’m Romanian culturally, I’m also Americanized. So I see the Romanian book market through American eyes. I love the fact that there are so many thriving book review blogs, such as BookMag. To me, that’s the direction of books, internationally. I love the fact the major Romanian publishers are also publishing ebooks, which is going to happen more and more, also internationally. I was very impressed by the fact that the publisher of Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche, was extremely progressive in terms of a multimedia campaign, with a book trailer by Claudiu Ciprian Popa and a music video trailer by Andy Platon. For the next book launch, of postromanticism, I’d love to integrate dance. Book launches, to my mind, should be celebrations: a form of artistic entertainment that doesn’t take away from intellectual content, but enhances it. On the negative side, I was disappointed to find out that The New York Review of Books left Romania after only a few years. Culture is international, no matter how much you respect the individuality and traditions of your own country. Reputable international collaborations, such as with Hachette Publishing Group, Conde Nast (and others) are very valuable in Romania. They’re a big asset to the country. Once lost, it’s more difficult to bring them back. I’d love to see more, rather than less, of such cultural collaborations: something like The Huffington Post Romania (as there already is Le Huffington Post in France) and Oprah’s Book Club in Romania. If there’s any way I can help make such cultural collaborations possible, you can count me in.

V.C.: Please tell us about The Seducer, your latest literary work and when it will be translated in Romania.

C.M.: The Seducer takes the structure and plot line of one of my favorite classic novels, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and makes it contemporary by changing Vronsky’s psychological profile to that of a psychopathic seducer: a social and sexual predator, in other words. I think in reality very often serial seducers are extremely dangerous men (usually men, but they can be female, as in the case of “black widows”). For such individuals seduction isn’t about love, or even about sex in itself. It’s a hunt; a game. The women they seduce, trap and hurt are their prey. Such dangerous seducers initially disguise themselves as madly in love; as caring, wonderful people. They wear “a mask of sanity,” as it’s called in psychology. Psychopaths are not insane, just calculated, cold and evil. They lack empathy and a conscience.  Research shows that this deficiency is mostly neurological, not based on their upbringing. What they want from their prey differs, but the common denominator is power. Psychopaths are driven by a desire to possess and control others: be it an entire nation as for Stalin, or a few women, as in my new novel, The Seducer. I just gave a copy of The Seducer to Editura Curtea Veche this week. I don’t know when or if it will be translated into Romanian, but hope that it will be, since I believe this theme will resonate a lot with Romanian readers. I don’t think there are many women who haven’t been burned by psychopaths at some point in their lives. Usually they don’t know what burned them, however. This novel will reveal aspects of their own lives in a classic literary structure, inspired by Tolstoy. This theme and novel are all the more relevant now that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is being made into a movie, starring Keira Knightley.

V.C.: We have a national reading campaign, and we would like to have your message for Romanian students about reading, literature and their contribution to one’s success in life.

C.M.: I’d like to say to Romanian students that reading—literature and the arts in general—stimulates their imagination in a way that few other activities ever will. All of the media that entertains them–youtube, TV, movies, videogames—will never rival books in engaging their imagination. The more realist the media—such as movies—the less work our own minds do to process the information; to interpret it. In reading books we not only learn about the subjects they depict, we help create them. We imagine them with our mind’s eyes. In being readers, we are therefore also co-writers in some way. And that experience is unique, valuable and timeless, no matter how much the future of publishing will change.

Comments Off on Interview with BookMag about my novels Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer

Filed under Andy Platon, Andy Platon Velvet Love, book review, BookMag, Claudia Moscovici, Claudiu Ciprian Popa, contemporary fiction, Editura Curtea Veche, fiction, Interview with BookMag about my novels Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer, Intre Doua Lumi, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, The Seducer, The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici, The Seducer: A Novel, Velvet Totalitarianism

My fresh impressions about Romania, thirty years later

Velvet Love by Andy Platon

This is an essay about my fresh impressions about my native country, Romania, thirty years later, published in Litkicks.com and translated into Romanian on Catchy.ro.

http://www.litkicks.com/ReturnToRomania 
http://www.catchy.ro/un-scriitor-care-s-a-intors-in-romania/19370
Claudia Moscovici, Literatureasalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1


			

Comments Off on My fresh impressions about Romania, thirty years later

Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi by Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Love, Velvet Love by Andy Platon, Velvet Totalitarianism

The Multimedia Launch of Velvet Totalitarianism (Intre Doua Lumi) in Romania

I’m happy to report that my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, was launched in Romanian translation (by Mihnea Gafita) under the title Intre Doua Lumi (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011). The presentation will include my talk about the book as well as a book trailer produced by Claudiu Ciprian Popa and a music video produced by Andy (Soundland) Platon (see the below). This was the first multimedia launch, in which a book trailer and music video accompanied the presentations of the novel.

The political commentator Adrian Cioroianu, the literary critic Alex Stefanescu and the film producer Stere Gulea introduced my novel in light of their respective fields. The book launch took place at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest (ICR Bucuresti) on September 21, 2011 at 18:00 p.m. (Aleea Alexandru nr. 38, sector 1, 011824, Bucuresti, România).  

This novel is being made into a movie by the Romanian-American cinematographer Bernard Salzman (http://bernardsalzman.com/)

I’m pasting below the Advance Praise for my novel as well as Diana Evantia Barca‘s article about it in Catchy.ro and Anca Lapusneanu‘s article about it (and intellectual freedom) in Revista VIP.

Advance Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi

A deeply felt, deftly rendered novel of the utmost importance to any reader interested in understanding totalitarianism and its terrible human cost. Urgent, evocative, and utterly convincing, Velvet Totalitarianism is a book to treasure, and Claudia Moscovici is indeed a writer to watch, now and into the future.

–Travis Holland, author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

Claudia Moscovici’s first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, triumphs on several levels: as a taut political thriller, as a meditation on totalitarianism, as an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and as a moving fictionalized memoir of one family’s quest for freedom.

–Ken Kalfus, author of the novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

 (2006 National Book Award nominee), of The Commissariat of Enlightenment (2003) and of PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies (1999).

Western intellectuals have often blurred the fundamental differences between the imperfect free world they have been fortunate to enjoy and the totalitarian world of communism they never had the misfortune to endure.  Claudia Moscovici’s Velvet Totalitarianism is a powerful corrective to that ivory tower distortion of reality.  Moscovici makes her readers viscerally feel the corrosive psychological demoralization and numbing fear totalitarian regimes impose on those who live under them.  At the same time, with style and wit, and informed by her experiences as a child in communist Romania and then as an immigrant in the United States, she tells a story of resilience and hope.  Velvet Totalitarianism is a novel well worth reading, both for its compelling narrative and for its important message.

–Michael Kort, Professor of Social Science at Boston University and author of the best-selling textbook, The Soviet ColossusHistory and Aftermath

This vivid novel by Claudia Moscovici, historian of ideas and wide-ranging literary critic, traces a family of Jewish-Romanian refugees from the stifling communist dictatorship of their homeland through their settling in the United States during the 1980’s. This fascinating and compelling story is at once historically accurate, exciting, sexy and a real page-turner. Ms. Moscovici is as sensitive to the emotions of her characters as to their political entanglements.

–Edward K. Kaplan, Kevy and Hortense Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities at Brandeis University and author of Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972, winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Moving between extraordinary and ordinary lives, between Romania and the United States, velvet totalitarianism and relative freedom, dire need and consumerism, evoking her Romanian experience in the seventies, the emigration to the U.S. of her family in the eighties, and the 1989 uprising in Timisoara and Bucharest that marked the end of Ceausescu’s regime, Claudia Moscovici offers her readers a multifaceted book—Velvet Totalitarianism—that is at once a love story, a political novel and a mystery. Love is the last resort left to people in order to counter totalitarianism under Ceausescu’s rule. It keeps families united, allowing them to resist indoctrination and hardship and to make sure their children enjoy the carefree beautiful years that are their due. Love gives the protagonist of the novel the strength to overcome cultural differences between Romania and the U.S. and to invent in turn a form of personal happiness in a context that, while far from being as harsh as her initial one, does not lack its own problems.

– Sanda Golopentia, Professor of French, Brown University

Cold historical facts and figures tend to leave us emotionally indifferent. The impact of a nation’s tragic events on one single person or family is much better understood and more profoundly felt. This is what makes Claudia Moscovici’s book, Velvet Totalitarianism, so very special. Her novel is prefaced by a well-researched history of Romania under communism. Depending on one’s point of view, Moscovici’s work could be considered as the fictionalized story of a real Jewish-Romanian family under communism, based on her own recollections and that of her family and supported by true historical facts; or a brief history supported by the fictionalized story of a real family. It’s a book well worth reading. The novel is a page-turner, witty and well written.

–Nicolae Klepper, author of the best-selling book, Romania: An Illustrated History.


http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1

 

3 Comments

Filed under Adrian Cioroianu, Advance Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism, Alex Stefanescu, Anca Lapusneanu, Andy Soundland Platon, Bernard Salzman, Bernard Salzman Intre Doua Lumi, Bernard Salzman Velvet Totalitarianism, book launch of Intre Doua Lumi, book review, catchy.ro, Claudia Moscovici, Claudia Moscovici si Libertatea Intelectuala, Claudiu Ciprian Popa, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Curtea Veche Publishing, curteaveche.ro, Diana Evantia Barca, Editura Curtea Veche, fiction, ICR Bucharest, ICR Bucuresti, Intre Doua Lumi, Intre Doua Lumi by Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Mihaela Carlan, Mihnea Gafita, Revista VIP Velvet Totalitarianism, Romanian Cultural Institute, Stere Gulea, Velvet Love, Velvet Love by Andy Platon, Velvet Totalitarianism

Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini mandated that all Iranian women must observe an Islamic dress code, which included wearing the veil, under the threat of death for those who refused to abide by these laws. This happened at about the same time that the totalitarian leader of my own country, Nicolae Ceausescu, was starting to impose draconian measures on Romanian women. Between the years 1979 and 1989, Ceausescu instituted a series of laws that controlled women’s sexuality and reproduction by banning birth control and abortion. This was part of his narcissistic fantasy of doubling the population of the country, so that he could have more power. Eventually, as I described in my novel Velvet Totalitarianism, such measures lead to tens of thousands of unwanted children, many of which were placed in unimaginably bad conditions in the infamous Romanian orphanages. To my mind, both measures—in Iran and in Romania–represented a way of establishing power over women rather than being a reflection of religious or ideological (communist) values.

Having been sensitized early in life to these displays of totalitarian power, many years later, when I read Azar Nafisi‘s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), I was especially moved by the author’s critique of the uses of the veil to control Iranian women’s bodies. I was also very impressed by her creative allusions to Anglo-American literary history—the book is divided into four sections–Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen–to launch her compelling cultural critiques. Many of you have probably already read this book, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, about a sociopathic sexual predator whose fetish is prepubescent girls functions as Nafisi’s main metaphor for Iranian laws, which, she states, imposed “a dream upon our reality, turning us into figments of imagination.” These female figments are objects of simultaneous control and temptation: temptation through prohibition by hiding the female body.

Recently, I ran across the images of an artist who, I believe, launches an equally powerful and creative critique of the veil by unveiling women. Majeed Benteeha is an Iranian-born photographer, poet and aspiring film producer. Moving back and forth between Tehran and New York City, he simultaneously combines and clashes both worlds, in a spectacular mix that challenges cultural assumptions on both fronts. His images often feature veiled women posing nude in an iconic fashion that seems more sacred than profane. Benteenha’s strikingly original photography violates religious orthodoxies–about feminine modesty, about the religious and social connotations of the veil–only to show us another way to respect women and all that they represent: love, maternity, sensuality, desire, intelligence.

His images are simple, beautiful, erotic and dramatic. They include symbols associated with the Muslim faith, but also seem very European in many respects. Perhaps unwittingly, Beenteha’s photography alludes to works like L’Erotisme, by the French anthropologist and philosopher Georges Bataille, which presents the sacred as inextricably related to the profane: not just for Muslim societies, but for all cultures in general. Bataille famously states: “The essence of morality is a questioning about morality and the decisive move of human life is to use ceaselessly all light to look for the origin of the opposition between good and evil.” It seems that is precisely what Beenteha’s artistic short film below underscores, in its mirroring and contrast between a universal modernity and Muslim tradition; between light and dark; between masculine and feminine; between tenderness and predation; between desire and contempt. You can view his photography and artistic films on the links below.

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici#p/a/f/0/Mv3P-3kPfzo

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1


Comments Off on Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

Filed under Ayatollah Khomeini, Azar Nafisi, book review, book reviews, books, Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's sexuality, critiques of the veil, Iran, Islamic dress code, literary criticism, literature, Lolita, Majeed Benteeha, Majeed Benteeha photography, Nicolae Ceausescu, Photographer Majeed Beenteeha, photography, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Romania, Romanian orphanages, sensual photography, sociopath, sociopathy, Surrealism, the veil, Velvet Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism: A Modern Curse

Totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon. It is stronger and more intrusive than dictatorship or autocracy. Totalitarian regimes control not only the state, the military, the judicial system and the press, but also reach into people’s minds, to dictate what they should say, think and feel. Hannah Arendt has argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism that one of the key features of the totalitarian state is its system of indoctrination, propaganda, isolation, intimidation and brainwashing—instigated and supervised by the Secret Police—which transforms classes, or thoughtful individuals able to make relatively sound political decisions, into masses, or people who have been so beaten down that they become apathetic and give their unconditional loyalty to the totalitarian regime. Although scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Robert Conquest and Vladimir Tismaneanu have elegantly explained the rise (and fall) of communist governments in Eastern Europe, it’s the vivid descriptions we find in the fiction and memoirs of the epoch–George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind and Lena Constante’s The Silent Escape—that take readers into the daily horrors, the dramatic Kafkaesque show trials, the physical and psychological torture and the general sense of hopelessness that characterizes life under totalitarian regimes. The writers I have just mentioned tend to focus mostly on the Stalinist period, during which the state governed through arbitrary displays of power and terror, sending millions of people to their deaths in labor and concentration camps. Yet as many who lived under totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe during the post-Stalinist era would claim, the milder, “velvet” form of totalitarianism was depressing and depleting in its own way, killing people’s hope and humanity even though it did not physically claim as many lives.

My own novel, Velvet Totalitarianism,  introduces students and the general public to the post-Stalinist phase of totalitarianism, focusing on Romania under the Ceausescu dictatorship, through the dual optic of scholarship and fiction. First I provide information about the Ceausescu regime: its feared Securitate (or Secret Police); the human rights abuses and outrageous domestic policies which left the Romanian people hungry and demoralized; the dictator’s narcissistic personality cult; the infamous orphanages, which were a direct result of the regime’s inhumane and irrational birth control policies, and the events that led to the Romanian revolution, first in the Timisoara uprising and then in Bucharest, where the dictator and his wife were deposed, put on their own show trial and executed in December, 1989. To do so, I synthesize information presented by other scholarly works, memoirs and textbooks on the subject, including Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Stalinism for all Seasons (2003), Peter Cipokowski’s Revolution in Eastern Europe (1991), Andrei Codrescu’s A Hole in the Flag (1991) and Ion Pacepa’s Red Horizons (1987).

Then I translate these events into fiction, to give readers a more palpable sense of what it felt like to live in Romania under the Ceausescu regime. I also attempt to capture the mixture of cynicism and hope that characterized one of the most bloody anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. My novel depicts the experiences of a family living under the Ceausescu regime whose son gets entangled in a web set up by the Securitate. The story then traces the family’s difficult process of immigrating to the United States as well as the sometimes comical cultural challenges of adapting to America. The main characters arrive in Eastern Europe on vacation during the period of revolutionary upheavals in both Czechoslovakia and Romania, whose events they witness first-hand.

The parts of the novel that focus specifically on Romania constitute more of a fictionalized autobiography or a memoir in that they’re partly based on my family’s personal experience of communism. I say “fictionalized” since having left Romania at the age of eleven, my memories are undoubtedly skewed by a childlike perspective as well as by the passage of time. The factual information about the Securitate, Ceausescu’s policies and the Romanian revolution I depict here, however, is also based on research rather than just on memories and anecdotal accounts. The fiction inspired by real life helps individuate a mass phenomenon. In a post-Cold War era where totalitarian communism has become just another page in history books, fact and fiction are complimentary rather than opposites. Fiction can make what may now seem like a long-gone, dead epoch, and the anonymous suffering of millions of people, seem vivid, significant and real again.

Yet whichever perspective one chooses, fact or fiction, what is being described here is essentially the same reality: conditions in Romania during the so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods. There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically—not many were actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.”

Although this book focuses mostly on Romania, hundreds of millions of Eastern Europeans led similar lives to the ones I describe, struggling daily against poverty, hunger, state indoctrination, surveillance, censorship and oppression in post-Stalinist communist regimes. In actuality, “velvet” totalitarianism was insidious rather than soft and gentle, killing your spirit even when it spared your life.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1


Comments Off on Totalitarianism: A Modern Curse

Filed under Alan Bullock, Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Hannah Arendt, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Romania, spies, spy fiction, spy thriller, Stalin, Stalinism, Stalinist purges, The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarianism, Velvet Totalitarianism

Book Review of Stalinism for all Seasons

For anyone interested in Romania’s political history during the twentieth-century, Professor Vladimir Tismaneanu’s “Stalinism for All Seasons” is the seminal work on the subject.  Clearly written, solidly researched, informative and engaging, “Stalinism for all Seasons” can be included among the best works of political history, alongside  Pipes’ works on Lenin, Conquest’s books on Stalin and Bullock’s studies of Hitler. If you’re interested in finding out about the evolution and demise of Romanian  communism, there is no better source than “Stalinism for all Seasons”. I highly recommend this book for all readers interested in Romanian political history and in the history of totalitarianism.

Claudia Moscovici, Notablewriters.com

Comments Off on Book Review of Stalinism for all Seasons

Filed under Alan Bullock, book reviews, Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, political history, Romanian Embassy, Stalinism, Stalinism for all Seasons, Stalinist purges, totalitarianism, Velvet Totalitarianism, Vladimir Tismaneanu