Book Notes: Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days

Ivan Bunin was a great Russian modernist writer and the first Russian author to get the Nobel Prize. In 1918-1919 he wrote a secret diary where he recorded his impressions about the October Revolution and many years later published it under the title Cursed Days.

This is a devastating read at any time but today it reads in a particularly poignant way. There’s something very recognizable in the destruction of the cultural legacy by a mob that’s screaming ridiculous slogans, the sincere efforts of the revolutionaries to create a completely clean slate and wipe away the entire civilization they perceive as evil, the smart careerists who encourage the mob, the contempt of the crowds towards anything that isn’t about satisfying the most primitive appetites, and the horror of an artist, an intellectual who doesn’t know how to exist in the midst of this brutishness.

Of course, it’s not “just like” what we are experiencing. Nothing is ever “just like.” Bunin was keenly aware of the limits of historical analogies as he thought about the parallels between the tragedy of 1917 and the French revolution. Still, there are enough similarities to make us think about what we are allowing to happen.

As the horror around him deepens, Bunin finally manages to get rid of the enormous sense of guilt that every Russian intellectual carried towards the narod, the former serfs or their descendants.

The people who manipulated the angry mobs “kept giving them handouts, trying to butter them up.” But that’s not what Bunin finds hard to stomach. “Three quarters of people easily relinquish their conscience, their soul, and their humanity in exchange for handouts, for a permission to rob and loot.” Like most people, Bunin never realized how thin the veneer of civilization was and how easily the seemingly normal people around him would turn into animals that rape and murder for fun. It wasn’t exceptional for a regular person to turn into a rabid animal. It was exceptional not to.

And mind you, Bunin isn’t describing a totalitarian regime. These are the first several months of the revolution. There was no regime. An enormous number of people chose to do horrific things not because somebody made them or terrorized them or brainwashed them. No, they did it because they could. It was fun.

“The worst part,” writes Bunin, “isn’t even the horrors that we see every day. It’s constantly having to explain why they are wrong.” A point comes where a human imagination can’t feel any more outrage, anger, or shock. You are plunged into a mute, confused stupor. And this is where the real horror begins.

“Our optimism is what destroyed us. We have to remember this,” Bunin says. The very human need to believe that the terror was temporary, that it only happened sporadically and in exceptional cases, that things were bound to get better paralyzed people until it was too late.

Bunin managed to get on the very last boat leaving Odessa for Istanbul. He escaped, lived for many more years, and even survived Nazism. But the horrid regime whose birth the writer witnessed survived much longer.

The book is available in an English translation. I said that Bunin was a modernist but please understand that he’s a Russian modernist. This means highly readable, extremely clear, every word is to the point. So please don’t worry that it’s going to be a James-Joycian type of thing. It’s anything but.

The main point that Bunin brings across in the book is how easy it is to destroy one of the most sophisticated state apparatuses of its time and in a matter of weeks turn a society into a zoo. It never hurts to learn this lesson from someone who experienced it.

18 thoughts on “Book Notes: Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days”

          1. Holy (expletive deleted)! I heard this story last night, but had not seen the pictures. And now I am crying. THE WINDOW WAS UP. The WINDOW was effing ROLLED UP. How do you shoot from a vehicle when THE WINDOWS ARE ROLLED UP!!??

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              1. And all the Twitter turds have to say is “Beautiful shot placement”. They should put that on a freaking billboard with a photo of the idiot who said it.

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              2. Sorry, don’t mean to hijack the comments 😦 But just read the news updates this morning and they are both dead now. You can tell by where the gunshots went through the windows from the outside, that they were both in the front seat of that vehicle. The passenger window was rolled up, so nobody was shooting from that side. Can’t tell about the driver’s window from the pics I’ve seen, but how much shooting can you do while driving? It’s not impossible, but… I want to see the other side of the car.

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              3. The 14-yo died, too??

                That’s horrible. I hope this gets investigated, at least. And I hope this puts an end to this whole CHAZ insanity. What are we trying to figure out? Whether mobs can self-regulate? No, they can’t.

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      1. It’s not totally clear what happened. CHAZ claims the teens were firing shots, but this is not necessarily true. These tweets also claim CHAZ security did it and I’m inclined to believe this, but articles on the shooting do not mention anything about this. The story is still developing and more details may emerge. Regardless, this woman is a total sociopath to be cheering this on.

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        1. Look at that passenger window. It was rolled up. Now check the pics in this Daily Mail article:
          https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8471219/One-man-dead-wounded-Seattle-CHOP-zone-shooting.html

          There is one pic that shows the drivers side window, from the inside. See those three little pieces of glass still stuck in the frame, over by the side mirror? That window was also rolled up. The shape of the window means that if it was rolled down even a couple inches, that uppermost bit of glass wouldn’t have been in the “groove” at that point.

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          1. And still, “protesters, demonstrators.” This is organized crime. These are heavily armed violent goons controlling public property. And we are still hearing these lies about protesters. Do they look like they are protesting?

            Incredible hypocrisy, especially when you compare this with the treatment of the St Louis couple that hurt absolutely nobody and never even left its own front lawn.

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      2. The really ripe part about that is that the initial report I read last night had the ages of both kids: 16 and 14. They then referred to the one who died as “a man”. As in “A man was killed and a 14 year old is in critical condition”. They promoted a sixteen year old to an adult so the shooters wouldn’t look so bad for killing him. Barf.

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