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  • Ric Crossman

4.1.14 Russian Toll

Progress

Mullibok ignores Kira as he builds his kiln.
Comrade Kira fails to persuade a farmer to express solidarity.

The revolutionary struggle doesn’t end the day the palace falls.


Major Dilemma


“Progress” is another episode that’s hard to discuss outside of its political context. Actually, that’s underselling things. It’s basically impossible. The politically vacuous discussion of “Progress” goes like this: Nana Visitor is brilliant and Brian Keith is brilliant. That’s it. Publish post.


So let’s not do that. Let’s recognise this episode is almost completely disinterested in anything other than exploring its central concern: can it ever be justifiable for the authorities to force people off their land? Given this focus, there’s really no option but to consider how it goes about tackling the question.


Note that tackling is not necessarily answering. There are plenty of questions that don’t have an actual answer. There’s a whole lot more with have answers you couldn’t expect a forty-five minute slice of family-friendly TV science-fiction to deliver. Which is fine. There is virtue in exploring the dimensions of a problem, even if it doesn’t lead to a proposed solution.


To its credit, though, “Progress” seems determined to get as close to advocating a position on the subject as it realistically can do. Certainly, it avoids taking the easy way out. Several opportunities arise during the episode to extricate Kira from her dilemma, but each time, Kira is left on the hook. The Federation doesn’t offer Bajor an alternative energy source at the eleventh hour. The fracas at the farm which hands the Provisional Government with an excuse to empty the farm by force – at the cost of creating a comparatively obvious bad guy – results in nothing of the kind. Even Mullibok getting shot, which on first viewing seems an obvious cop-out which will let him die with dignity whilst saving Kira from having to make a decision, ultimately refuses to offer an escape chute.


In short, the episode has Kira fail every dodge roll she’s called upon to make. This is a show smart enough to realise that, when you’ve based an entire story around a character facing an incredibly difficult choice, they actually have to retain the agency necessary to make that choice.


(This commitment to avoiding the easy way out extended to rewriting the script to make Mullibok more sympathetic. In Fields’ original version, Mullibok was a con-man deliberately playing Kira to get what he wanted. Most of this was stripped or reframed for the final version, however, presumably because it was obvious that revealing Mullibok as a petty villain would be just as cheap a resolution as those I listed above.)


The need to play fair like this is particularly important when the franchise is paralleling history to the extent it is here. I’ve already outlined above the general question being asked, but we can be more specific. Demanding farmers sacrifice in order to keep others alive in the aftermath of a bloody revolution? The analogy is obvious (to a Westerner like me, at least). This is about the days immediately after the October Revolution. This is about the cost of keeping Communism alive.


Well, sort of. It’s complicated.


Bitter Harvest


(Note: this section is heavily indebted to Marcel Liebman’s excellent and well-sourced book Leninism Under Lenin, which does a commendable and clear-eyed job of detailing the man’s life, politics, triumphs, and mistakes.)


Overthrowing regimes is not an easy business. Neither is building a new order, once the previous one has been torn down. To my knowledge there was no-one, even during the most heady moments of revolutionary triumph, who came out of 1917 insisting a post-Tsarist Russia was going to be a doddle to get off the ground. Show me the Bolshevik of note who crowed “Welp, that’s the aristocracy smashed. We might as well knock off down the pub”.


The crises facing the new-born Soviet Russia were as varied as they were terrifying. Any attempt to summarise them – or worse, to pick a mere handful of examples to consider, as I’m about to – cannot avoid feeding the beast of reductionism. That’s just the nature of this particular monster, though. I’m not a historian, and I'm not writing a textbook. And even this, arguably the most blatant instance yet of me using Trek to push my own politics, has to bear some relevance to the story nominally being covered.


Keeping it simple and brief, then: the people’s representatives in the newly-Communist Russia faced two urgent and colossal problems. First, an incredibly dispersed population and general lack of technology or infrastructure was going to make it hard to get sufficient food to everybody in the country. Second, pretty much everybody in the world wanted to kill them.


In the dying days of 1917 the revolutionary leaders found themselves fighting two wars: one within, one without. The Germans were still advancing into Russian territory -the fact that the government they’d declared war on no longer existed didn’t actually seem to make any difference. Meanwhile, the White Army – the remnants of the Tsarist Regime, backed by various world powers (including the UK) who wanted Communism dead before not being able to get rich by exploiting others had a chance to catch on – were setting Russia ablaze in a new civil war.


And all through this, huge numbers of people were going hungry. This had been true under the Tsars as well, of course, but the disruptions caused by the revolution had exacerbated things – without the landlords to steal grain from the peasant farmers, the population centres which relied on that grain were now in real trouble. That’s not an argument in favour of landlords, any more than the quality of The Godfather is an argument in favour of the Mafia. But it certainly represented a problem. Particularly when the Bolsheviks, unlike their predecessors, actually thought letting people starve to death was something to put effort into avoiding.


And particularly when they needed to make sure their troops were well-fed enough to fight off the Germans to the west, and the White Army fighters who could show up anywhere. The end of the war with Germany in early 1918 briefly suggested an easing of the former problem, until the peace terms drawn up – the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was so ruinous to Russia, it made the Treaty of Versailles look like a free-hug coupon – cost Russia the Ukraine, an area it had heavily relied upon for food.


The All-Russian Congress of Soviets knew the following three things. First, they needed grain. A lot of grain, and fast, to make sure there was enough food to keep the soldiers defending Communism fed (as well as, you know, everybody else). Second, one thing slowing down their acquisition of grain was the fact that rural Russian peasants were stockpiling it. Understandably so, of course, they’d gotten pretty sick of handing over almost everything they grew to grasping landowners, and were enjoying actually getting to keep the product of their labour for a change – in particular, they’d offered to exchange the grain for machinery that had never arrived from the revolutionary government. They had no intention of giving away its only bargaining chip to the latest government to fail to keep its promises.


However reasonable this position was in theory, however, the effect was that the Bolsheviks were running a newly-forged land of equality and community that the world was racing to murder, and they were doing it without food. The grain had to start flowing again. And fast.


And the thing was, doing so would be in the farmers’ own interests. If the new government collapsed, the same heavy-handed fat-cats (or equivalent replacements) would return. The farmers would end up losing their stockpiles anyway. That’s how the Bolsheviks saw it, anyway. An alternate position would be that using a war to justify ever-greater sacrifices from the citizenry was a classic imperialist move – indeed the exact imperialist move the tsars had been using over the last three years of ruinous war. The Soviets could insist all they wanted that this time it really was necessary, but you can understand there being more than a little scepticism on the part of the farmers. This was the third thing the Bolsheviks knew - they were inevitably struggle to win the grain they needed from people they'd already let down, and had spent their whole lives having what was theirs taken from them by people insisting it was for the greater good.


In short, then, a huge number of understandably suspicious people had to be convinced into making massive sacrifices in an extraordinary short amount of time, otherwise the entire revolution was screwed. That’s a pretty tall order, no doubt.


And the Bolsheviks didn’t spend overlong making the attempt. Faced with subterfuge, sabotage and even armed resistance to their attempts to requisition grain, they quickly moved away from a model of persuasion. Instead, they simply took what they needed at the point of a gun.


Moonflap


The situation on Jeraddo isn’t precisely equivalent to the one I’ve summarised above (though fuel shortages caused problems in the Russian winters just as they’re doing on Bajor). Nor would it be good writing if it were. Analogies that try to be isomorphic to the reality they’re exploring tend to be pretty limited, and also terribly boring. That doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of parallels between 1917 Russia and 2369 Bajor. The Bajorans have just fought and won a revolution of their own, after all, one in which the class concerns underpinning the Russian Revolution are heightened by making the ruling class a literal other species. The Bajorans, like the Russians following the first revolution, have installed a provisional government, one tremendously unpopular with the revolutions hardliners (Tahna Los, Kira herself) – and indeed, this unpopularity will lead to an attempt at a second revolution in the start of season two. [1]


(This would seem to cast Kira’s bosses as both the Bolsheviks and those the Bolsheviks replaced. That’s fine, though. Like I say, you don’t need a one-to-one correspondence to make an analogy work. Indeed, doing it this way nicely underlines the fact that whatever route was taken following the overthrow of the aristocracy, there were certain undeniable realities which would have to be faced.)


That covers the more general similarities. Kira’s moon trip allows us to get specific. The Bajorans, it turns out, need power like the revolution needed grain. They need it to save lives (statistics repeatedly demonstrate the correlation between the (financial) availability of heating and the number of deaths). More than just that though, they have to prepare for/dissuade a new Cardassian attack, now that the wormhole has been found. It's situation that maps pretty well to Russia in the winter of 1917. Yes, the Bajorans are preparing for a war, rather than actively fighting it, but they're fully aware their former oppressors just found a compelling reason to restart the occupation. It’s not difficult to understand their push for a set-up that removes their reliance on Federation largesse as soon as is possible.


There's just one problem. Achieving this upgrade in power supply means displacing fifty people. So what do you do?


It’s very much to the episode’s credit that it doesn’t try to suggest this is anything but a difficult choice. Given the parallels to the early days of Communist Russia, and the time and place that shaped this story, it’s genuinely surprising that the moral message presented is far more subtle than “Communism was obviously a stupid idea because it led to situations like this”. Partially this is built into the logic of the series – for some reason it’s much harder to argue the Bajorans shouldn’t have overthrown the Cardassians until they had an absolutely perfect plan for implementing self-rule than it is to level the same accusation at the Russian proletariat.


But the episode itself adds to this, by using the B-plot to offer a brief but surprisingly thorough takedown of capitalism. Nog ends up in possession of something he did absolutely nothing to help create, and that he didn’t compensate the creators themselves for, and uses it to gain control of capital. He then demonstrates he’s completely ignorant of even the very basics of the system he claims to venerate – what kind of capitalist doesn’t recognise how central the owning of land is to the whole system? – and yet still lucks out into some money, simply because of what he acquired for free due to someone else’s misfortune.


It surely can’t be coincidence that Nog’s ascension to greedy landowner starts with a product inseparable from the Cardassian occupiers – he’s trying to do things the old way, the way the Bajorans fought a revolution to put behind them. All told, there can’t be many other episodes of American television in 1993 (or any time) that are so primed to consider a dilemma like Kira’s from an honest viewpoint. Simply put, this episode recognises that every solution here is horribly problematic. There is no best course of action. There’s only the hope that Kira might be able to identify, then achieve, the absolute least worst.


We Did Start The Fire


It’s for this reason that the episode makes the conscious decision to not focus on whether or not Kira made the right choice. There isn’t a right choice, not if we’re considering this situation as being a historical metaphor [2]. That doesn’t mean no choices are wrong, though. The wrong choice is to believe the decision should be easy. A situation as complicated as this one has no obvious villain, but the closest we get here is Minister Toran. Not because of what he wants – I’ve no doubt that if Kira spent a few days in the company of those Bajorans who would freeze come winter without the power from Jeraddo, her sympathies and the audiences would end up looking pretty different. No, what makes him villain-adjacent is his refusal to see the inhabitants of Jeraddo as people. As far as he’s concerned, they’re just a problem to be solved. If they’ve gone, that’s all that matters.


So Kira calls him on it. She’s absolutely right to, as well, no matter how much it irritates Sisko. While the whole episode is constructed around the idea that it’s too simplistic to argue forced relocation is morally equivalent irrespective of circumstances, Kira’s accusation that her government is behaving like Cardassians hits home because Toran clearly hasn’t thought any more about the “human” consequences of his decisions than, say, Gul Dukat.


Without being able to change the shape of the larger problem, then, Kira’s solution is to make sure the cost of what needs doing is clear to everyone, including herself. That’s why she joins Mullibok on his farm. She listens to his stories, works with him to finish his kiln, helps him make meals for themselves and for Baltrim and Keena. Two people who have been literally robbed of their voices, let’s not forget, a reminder not just of how scarred the Cardassians left Bajor (and hence how difficult the process of rebuilding it will be), but that Toran’s failing lies in his refusal to listen to the voices of those who’ve built their lives on Jeraddo.


The kiln in particular becomes of critical importance at episode’s end. Kira uses it both as a building project through which she gives Mullibok the only gift she can – the completion of something he had struggled with for years – and as the source of the fire with which she burns Mullibok’s farmhouse down. In doing so, she demonstrates to Mullibok and audience both that this is a decision she has come to herself. The flame which ends Mullibok’s life on Jeraddo only exists because she helped create it. By using it to set his house on fire, Kira does him the courtesy of letting him know she isn’t hiding behind the excuse of simply following her orders.


Tying in the destruction of the farm with the completion of the kiln also strengthens links with the historical context. One could construct a vulgar socialist interpretation of the situation that says Mullibok never owned the land he’d built on in the first place, and so has no claim to anything there – if the elected representatives of the people (and it’s interesting we never really learn anything about how the Provisional Government was created or maintained) have determined that land is now to be used for power generation, that’s the end of the discussion.


This though would be a misreading of how Marx and Engels conceived of Communism. Yes, you can’t just seize a piece of land and announce you own it now. You do however have ownership of everything your labour creates, up until you voluntarily give up that ownership, say if you’re bartering with someone else whose own labour has produced something you want/need (including, of course, grain). This should include Mullibok’s house – he built it himself, after all. It’s not worth getting into a long conversation about how one can own a house but not the land it’s built on and what the implications of that are, however, so the kiln here works as a useful short-circuit of the idea Kira is simply helping to redirect the designated purpose of communal land. By taking a phaser to the kiln, she is unambiguously destroying what belongs almost exclusively to Mullibok, and she’s again making him aware that she recognises the fact.


Perhaps the most important point here, though, is the fact Kira is destroying her own work, too. She’s following a path which allows the Provisional Government to negate her own labour, right alongside that of Mullibok. The two can’t compare directly, of course, and they’re not meant to. What Mullibok is losing here is vastly greater than what it is costing Kira. What Kira is offering here is a symbolic gesture (the only kind she can offer); an utterly unsatisfactory but still necessary sacrifice on her part. It’s a demonstration that she recognises a part of herself in her unwilling host, and that she’s willing to hurt herself in the name of doing what she believes to be necessary.


It’s all part of Kira’s conscious refusal to allow this to be a quick or easy decision. And that’s important, in the long term. One way to tell if a politician should be cast out forever from the sphere of leadership at minimum, and probably society in its entirety, is if they smile smugly as they tell you about how they’ve had to make a hard decision. Because what they’re actually saying is that they make decisions that are damaging to other people, but they themselves find the process perfectly simple. A similar acid test can be performed by asking a politician which voices they listened to from a given group before they made a decision which harmed them, and watch to see if their face goes blank/registers disgust/starts turning in the direction of the nearest publicly-subsidised bar.


Kira clearly has no desire to end up as someone like that, hence why she does everything she can to make the decision hard on herself. Does that make it alright? Does that absolve Kira of guilt? Of course it doesn’t, any more than the desperate need for grain to feed those fighting the White Army absolves those who stole food from the Russian farmers who grew it, and who just wanted a break from giving away most of their harvest. The fact Kira insists on torturing herself over her decision doesn’t actually do Mullibok any good. That’s why the fact Mullibok refuses to forgive her is absolutely perfect. We’re not entitled to the forgiveness of those we hurt, even when we do it for what we hope are the best of reasons.


Sisko, at least, I think would agree. This certainly seems to be his point when he beams down to Jeraddo [3] to offer some advice on the realities of compassionate command. The Cardassians were a difficult enemy to defeat, but an easy one to feel good in fighting. That comforting certainty doesn’t exist any more, and there’s no way to get it back. Kira has no good play here. Whatever choice she makes will be a terrible one.


All she can hope for is that her ultimate choice is plausibly less awful than the alternative. That’s all she can say for her decision, if indeed she can say that at all.


And somehow, that has to be enough.


Ordering

2. Progress


[1] The Circle fails where the Bolsheviks succeeded, of course, in large part because they were guilty of the collusion with the enemy that Lenin was falsely accused of.


[2] I actually think that if someone announces they’re prepared to die rather than leave their farm, then that’s their right. The end of “Progress” can be criticised accordingly. The episode is careful to point out there were forty-nine other people removed from Jeraddo (including Baltrim and Keena), though. Whether people should be free to commit suicide by moon-crack isn’t really the episode’s focus.


[3] I note with delight, by the way, that the very first thing Sisko does upon meeting Mullibok is make it clear he’s absolutely there for whatever story the old farmer wants to tell.

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