Blog Post

August Advice

These are the quietest days of August. Even close friends do not respond to emails. What a perfect time for a coup d'état, as in 1991, or a quick trial and execution of one's political opponents, as in 1936, or, if you think that bad things happen only in Russia, diving headlong into a "European War," as in 1914.

Once, reflecting on exile and middle age, my friend and fellow-émigré, Joseph B., came up with an image for history: Clio as a serial killer on a rampage, hunting people down from the blue yonder with its high-power rifle. Mayakovsky saw his "pen an equal to a bayonet," so why not replace Clio's stylus with a sniper rifle? Vermeer, at the dawn of the age of celebrity, thought the trumpet of fame made more sense than Clio's iconic quill for recording history (his "Artist in His Studio"). We, children of the twentieth century, can just as easily take away her trumpet  and place in her hand a rifle with a scope instead. The itinerancy of exile—mused my friend then, as he was trying to make virtue out of necessity—was an efficient way of ducking Clio's fire. I imagined the two of us on a map scurrying for cover...He himself did not live long enough to see the age of static borders go the way of the steam engines and communism.

By this poetic calculus, August should be treated as a month when the Muse of History is at its stealthiest. So, as you lounge by the pool, imaginary or real, with a cold tall drink in hand, mental or otherwise, nodding off over a new novel etched on your iPad or Kindle, watch out for Clio—and take cover! As in August 1991, 1936 or 1914, nobody knows where or when she will strike next.

Gregory Freidin's picture
Professor Emeritus, Stanford University

Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990.

Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.