Reading the Play – by Roger Underwood

The ability to “read the play” is a quality often ascribed to successful politicians, businessmen and sportsmen. The term refers to the ability to predict events and then to take an advantageous position in expectation of the prediction coming to fruition. In the sporting arena it is best seen in champion tennis players like Lew Hoad whose anticipation allowed him simply to “materialise behind an opponent’s ball” (Underwood, 2007), and modern Aboriginal footballers with their uncanny foreknowledge of the way an oblong ball is about to bounce.

I was thinking about prescience recently when reading a wonderful Russian memoir Last Boat to Astrakhan (Haupt, 1998). Robert Haupt was an Australian writer and traveller (he died just before this book was published) who spent five years in Russia between 1990 and 1996. Towards the end of this time he took a boat trip down the Volga River from Moscow to the ancient trading city of Astrakhan, where the Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. The boat trip provides the backdrop to the book’s observations on Russia and Russians.

I found it especially interesting because I have always been fascinated by Russian history, especially the history of the 20th century. The years covered by Haupt’s book coincided with the demise of the Soviet empire and the start of Russia’s troubled journey towards democracy. ‘The barriers to progress,’ Haupt observed, ‘were as they were when Gogol named them: roads and idiots’. Nikolai Gogol, the 19th century Russian novelist had asked “why does a people so blessed with intelligence remain in thrall to fools? Why has a country that spans one-sixth of the world’s land surface remained so short of roads? Do the idiots rule because the roads aren’t there, or is it the want of roads that put idiots in charge?”

Russian history (not unlike history elsewhere) is replete with examples of fools in charge, but in Russia the fools very often seemed to be notably dangerous and ruthless. Haupt touches on the failures of the Romanovs (who for almost 300 years presided over a country in which the bulk of the population were either serfs or Counts), but provides his best insights into the Bolshevik and Communist eras, as well as the tragic consequences for ordinary Russians of the collapse of the USSR.

Haupt is also wryly humorous. For example he notes that the ugliness of Stalinist architecture is fortuitously counterbalanced by the inferiority of Stalinist concrete.

There is also a superb example of “reading the play”. Haupt recounts a conversation between the writer Andrei Sinyavski and a colleague at the Institute for World Literature in Moscow, some time in the early 1960s. Sinyavski believed his colleague was something of a liberal, and this encouraged him to speak freely. In Sinyavski’s words:

…one day I told him how hard I found it to live without freedom, and what a bad effect the lack of freedom had on Russia and Soviet culture. I argued that the Soviet State would not necessarily collapse if it lifted certain restrictions in the cultural sphere. If it allowed abstract art, if it published Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, and so on. If anything a slight thaw would benefit Russian culture and the Soviet State!

‘Of course the State won’t founder because of such trifles’ said my colleague. ‘But you are forgetting the effect all this would have on Poland’.

‘What does Poland have to do with it,’ I asked, perplexed, ‘when the point is they should publish Pasternak in Moscow’.

‘If we ourselves, at the centre, allow a relaxation in the cultural sphere, then in Poland, where it’s freer than here, there will be an even greater drift towards freedom. If a thaw starts in Moscow, Poland will secede from the Eastern Bloc, from the Soviet Union.’

“So let Poland secede!” I said flippantly, “Let it live the way it wants!”

‘But after Poland, Czechoslovakia would secede, and after Czechoslovakia, the entire east bloc would break up.’

“So let it break up,” I said “Russia would be only better off”.

But my interlocutor saw further. “After the East Bloc, the Baltics would go – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia!”

‘So let them, what do we need these forcible annexations for anyway?’

“But after the Baltics, the Caucasus and the Ukraine would go! What do you want? An end to Russian power? For your Pasternak you would let all of Russia crumble, Russia which is now the greatest empire on earth?”

Thirty years before it occurred, Sinyavski’s colleague had read the fall of the dominos (the play) with uncanny accuracy, and he foretold the way in which the ultimate play (the collapse of the USSR) would unfold.

Haupt refers to the Soviet philosophy of cultural and intellectual repression as “the iron logic of empire”, and recounts how Sinyavski himself suffered from it, being sentenced in 1966 to seven years hard labour for publishing anti-Soviet writings abroad. Times had changed however. In the 1930s, the Communists would have got away with this, and no-one would have heard of Sinyavski ever again. In the 1970s Sinyavski became an international emblem of Breshnevian repression following the Krushchevian relaxation. To acute observers this reinforced the famous line of de Tocqueville that ‘there is no more dangerous moment for a repressive regime than the one at which it begins to reform itself’.

In Haupt’s view, and looking at it from the Soviet perspective, the most significant “error” made by the USSR was in not sending armoured divisions storming into Poland and crushing Solidarity as once they had stormed into Hungary and Czechoslovakia and crushed the embryo nationalist and socialist movements in those countries. Once Poland had been “allowed to get away with it” the house of cards started its inevitable collapse.

To me, one of the saddest stories in the book is about the Volga River itself. Once one of the world’s greatest and busiest commercial and domestic waterways, its management was progressively abandoned during the last years of the USSR. It has now become so silted up that ferries like the one on which Haupt travelled can no longer navigate its shallows, and the system of lights and markers has been allowed to decay beyond the point at which they are fixable.

Returning from Astrakhan on the voyage described in this book, the ferry finds itself on a stretch of river at night and with the navigation lights turned off. It takes the wrong channel and runs aground. The next day a tug is called to tow it off, but fails and the passengers are offloaded. Haupt sees this as a parable for the new Russian State: freed from communism, Russia has taken a dark stream, and has run aground. Tugs struggle to redress the calamity, while the Volga flows on……

Haupt is more of a historian and an observer than a “reader of the play” and he does not go on to predict the advent of the new Russia, with the ex-KGB Chief Vladimir Putin firmly in control of the government, the Mafia in control of commerce and the Chechins in revolt. But he does foreshadow the problems with environmental degradation, and the failure of the environmental managers, which may well turn out to be one of the greatest legacies of the Soviet era.


Haupt, R (1998). Last Boat to Astakhan. Random House

Underwood P (2007) The Pros. (Manuscript)

4 Responses to Reading the Play – by Roger Underwood

  1. Ann Novek December 9, 2007 at 3:26 pm #

    ” with the ex-KGB Chief Vladimir Putin firmly in control of the government” – Roger

    A little clarification here. Putin was a lieutnant in the KGB ( a low grade). That was why Boris Yeltsin choose him as a successor as he thought he was easy to manipulate. He did have wrong , Putin is now ruling with an iron hand.

  2. Paul Biggs December 10, 2007 at 10:54 pm #

    We thought the cold war was over, but then along came Putin, and things are getting decidedly chilly again.

    Some of those in the west who saw Soviet Communism an idealogy, swapped the red flag for a green flag following its collapse.

  3. Schiller Thurkettle December 11, 2007 at 8:13 am #

    With the resurgence of the “cold war,” perhaps the green zealots will leave us alone and flock once again under the red banner.

    After all, most of them are watermelons: green-skinned, but red throughout the rest.

  4. Green Davey Gam Esq. December 11, 2007 at 12:37 pm #

    Dear Ann,
    Thanks for the information on your Uncle Vladimir. Foolishly believing the news media, I thought he was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the KGB. But failure in the military is no barrier to political success. My own Uncle Adolph only rose to corporal in the infantry, but did rather well (for a while) in politics. I believe Luke’s Uncle Saddam actually failed the entrance exams for the Baghdad Military Academy. Possibly Schiller had an Uncle Idi who was a sergeant in the King’s African Rifles?
    So how does this link to Roger’s post, which I find rather abstruse? Well, Shakespeare said that ‘all the world’s a stage’, so maybe ‘reading the play’ has another meaning, in Russia and elsewhere.
    Reading the prolix climate drivel bandied back and forth on other threads makes me think of theatre. Scene – a luxury hotel in Bali. Enter, stage left, various officials. ‘When shall we 10,000 meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the climate change is done, when the battle’s lost and won … Fair is foul, and foul is fair; hover through the fog and filthy air…’ (backdrop of steam arising from power station cooling towers).

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