May 19, 2005
As I started to gather my thoughts for this entry, an email from my friend Eamon arrived with a link that put me in a reflective mood. As some people may know, when I finally returned to Chicago, I spent a bit of time bored and depressed and obsessed with getting the entire Bolshevik Party across the Oregon Trail successfully without any fatal "accidents" along the way. (I believe that my use of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin was a reasonable distillation of the original Politburo. Some will criticize the omission of Kamenev, but I feel that he is given fair representation as an implicit member of the Zinoviev - Kamenev power axis. Granted, I would rather not travel across the country in a wagon with a whiny shit like Zinoviev, but this is a matter of the historical record, not my own personal comfort.) I wanted to test whether the Bolshevik Revolution was an elitist, murderous sham from the start (the Richard Pipes view) or whether, given more careful stewardship, the substitution of a party vanguard for the proletarian masses could have developed into a true dictatorship of the proletariat (Isaac Deutscher, et al) and successfully led the workers of the world to Oregon.
Because I am fucking amazing at science, I set up the trials very carefully. I hadn't played Oregon Trail in several years before setting out. (Contrary to the assumptions of many who downloaded my copy of Oregon Trail and looked at the high scores, it was my younger brother who obsessively tried to shepherd the 1992-93 Charlotte Hornets across the country, not me.) My feeling was that they had to start out as farmers from Illinois ($400 start-up cash) if they were to have any credibility as friends of the laborer, and if the only way to get them all across was to allow them to be bankers from Boston ($800 start-up cash), then they were basically kulaks and the whole thing was bullshit by definition. (You could argue that was the case anyway because I wasn't about to set out on the trail in October anyway, but I felt that if I could land them in the Willamette Valley by then, that was a suitable corrollary.)
So I spent a while working on that. I am a big believer in blowing a ton of money on oxen and just eating whatever you can shoot along the way. I tried to be fair to all members of the party, regardless of their historical deeds. For example, there were a few incidents on the trail when Stalin got the measles and I was disinclined to rest so he could recuperate - when Trotsky's dysentery was treated with much greater care - but ultimately I did not overstep the bounds of fairness. The other ground rule I had - and this is based on the fact that Lenin only ever wore a suit and Stalin only ever wore a trench coat - was what brought this entire story to mind when I read the link from Eamon, an interview with the creators of the original Oregon Trail, with questions from grade school children:
Mindy Pontzon, age 10, writes:
"What happens when you start the game with zero sets of clothes? Do you become an Indian?"
Bill: We weren’t allowed to use the word Indian. But when we first wrote it we were reprimanded because we were in Minneapolis which has a high Indian population and we were told that you don’t want to put the kids in the position where the Indians are enemies. That was one thing I remember because we kind of made up things that would happen to you on the trail before Don did some research, and helpful Indians would show you how to find food. We could use Indian in that context.
intern jeff: They also helped you cross the river. For a price.
Don: That was actually true, though the historical records show that Indians were often helpful, even moreso than hostile but anyway if you go on the train with zero clothes, you will die fairly soon. You’ll probably get pneumonia or something.
Paul: Not to mention the stares you would get too.
So, yeah, as far as I was concerned, no Bolsheviks were allowed to buy any clothes, either at Matt's General Store or any of the trading outposts along the way. That seemed like a very important rule to me at the time. You have to remember that I was kind of depressed and wasn't wearing any pants myself. I never got around to posting my findings on this webpage. I should probably hold out for a prestigious journal, but it's embarassing when they fight over me, so I will settle for this, instead.
1. It was extraordinarily difficult to get Trotsky and Stalin across the country together. I shit you not. One or the other was almost always dead by the end. (Usually Trotsky.)
2. Sorry, socialists, but nude Bolsheviks on a farmer's salary don't get very far. Believe me, I tried, but I only managed to get them all safely across once, and Bukharin had the shits right before they arrived. Zinoviev was on death's door with a fever, too.
3. The Politburo was remarkably good at caulking their wagons, but they tended to freak out and drown when they tried to ford the river. Many oxen were lost. Also, and I am not pointing any fingers here, but nobody in the Politburo could repair a fucking wagon tongue.
4. Although the game allows you to "Talk to Indians" or "Talk to other travelers", it does not allow you to "Talk to Stalin about why Trotsky has a broken arm all of a sudden".
5. Whatever its merits as a strategy toward overthrowing the government, Lenin's theory of revolutionary defeatism will not get you across the rapids at the end, where you have to paddle the raft back and forth so it doesn't crash into the boulders.
The fact is, the Bolsheviks had a pretty easy time on the trail as bankers, and they couldn't hack it as farmers. Does that prove Pipes' thesis once and for all, or does it merely presage the antagonism that developed with the peasantry post-NEP? I'm not going to pretend that my findings are conclusive. If someone will give me a grant and a copy of the Great Maine to California Race, I could probably get some definitive answers.
(news) A Russian village was left baffled Thursday after its lake disappeared overnight. NTV television showed pictures of a giant muddy hole bathed in summer sun, while fishermen from the village of Bolotnikovo looked on disconsolately. "It is very dangerous. If a person had been in this disaster, he would have had almost no chance of survival. The trees flew downwards, under the ground," said Dmitry Zaitsev, a local Emergencies Ministry official interviewed by the channel. Officials in Nizhegorodskaya region, on the Volga river east of Moscow, said water in the lake might have been sucked down into an underground water-course or cave system.
You'd think they'd be used to things disappearing in the middle of the night by now in Russia. That's always how it works. First they come for the dissidents, and then they come for the lakes. And if you tolerate this, then your porches will be next.