Hold It All

Category: Russia

I Remember by Yael

I remember crazy-scary days before.

I remember Minsk, summer 1979. The first Hebrew class. My parents were covering the windows of our apartment with blankets. They told me “not a squeak.” People were sneaking in, one by one like thieves. It was all very hush-hush, and I was wondering if my parents were criminals.

I remember the exodus, December 1979. After a long wait by the rails, a Polish man in uniform yelled in Russian “Kikes, your train is leaving in 2 minutes.”

I remember everyone running in panic at first. Then, I remember being pushed and carried through a bucket brigade, along with other children, and packages, and grandparents.

I remember the adventure in my body.

I remember the snow looked magical under the train station’s light, while I was passed like a package from one person to another.

I remember the train was frozen inside, but we made friends and warmed up quickly.

I remember watching the news. Israel, 1982-1985. Clinging to my mama, our bodies trembling in unison while taking in the names of the fallen. Maybe it was just one such moment, maybe it was night after night.

I remember that we still spent every Saturday at the beach and ate juicy watermelon as if there was nobody dying anywhere. Ever.

I remember the whole state of Israel putting kerosene in their hair on the same Tuesday at exactly 8 pm, but most likely it was 6 pm or 7. I can smell kerosene as I think about it.

I remember that the next day we were done with the national lice pandemic, but it felt unsafe to light a match for a while

I remember that 1984 was the year that spelled תשמ”ד (“Tashmad” – “destruction.”)

I remember there were rumors we were all going to die.

I remember the prophesies that said it was going to be the year of annihilation.

I remember when the clock hit midnight, we partied Russian style –which basically means, like there was no tomorrow.

I remember reading 1984 and thinking that it was the world my parents came from.

I remember never finishing 1984, because I thought I knew how it was going to end – everyone will suffer and die, but love will prevail.

I remember Israel 1991, Saddam Hussein declared “The great showdown has begun! The mother of all battles is under way.”

I remember, he gave us some time to prepare before the Scud missiles began to hit. Everyone was sealing their windows, and there was shortage in duct-tape.

I remember 36 of us living in the hermetically sealed bomb shelter. Read the rest of this entry »

A Meditation on History by Vasily Grossman

Can we call someone a great man if he has not brought into people’s lives a single atom of good, a single atom of freedom and intelligence?

Can we call someone a great man if he has left behind him only ashes, ruins and congealed blood, only poverty and the stench of racism, only the graves of the countless children and old people he has killed?

Can we call someone a great man because his unusual intelligence, able to detect and co-opt every dark and reactionary force, proved as virulent and destructive as the bacteria of bubonic plague?

The twentieth century is a critical and dangerous time for humanity. It is time for intelligent people to renounce, once and for all, the thoughtless and sentimental habit of admiring a criminal if the scope of his criminality is vast enough, of admiring an arsonist if he sets fire not to a village hut but to capital cities, of tolerating a demagogue if he deceives not just an uneducated lad from a village but entire nations, of pardoning a murderer because he has killed not one individual but millions. Read the rest of this entry »

Real Butchers

Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murat
Translators, Pevear and Volokhonsky

I should read this short novel every year, in January. This time I read it thinking of Vietnam, the American occupiers (Russians), the indigenous resistance (Chechens), and the rivalries among the Vietnamese (Shamil v. Hadji Murat). Then there’s destroying the forests with herbicides (and the Russians cutting down the forest trees [441]). And the mutilation of corpses as in “beers for ears” (Hadji Murat’s head carried around in a sack). And these passages for meditation…

But deep in her heart Aksinya was glad of Pyotr’s death. She was pregnant again by the salesclerk she lived with, and now no one could reproach her anymore, and the salesclerk could marry her, as he had said he would when he was persuading her to love him. 410

HM: “Fear came over me and I ran away…Never afterwards. Since then I always remembered that shame, and when I remembered it, I was no longer afraid of anything.” 422

To disagree with Nicholas’s orders meant to lose all that brilliant position which he now enjoyed, and which he had spent forty years acquiring. And therefore he humbly bowed his dark, graying head in a sign of submission and readiness to carry out the cruel, insane, and dishonest supreme will. 443-4 Read the rest of this entry »

The Russians

It should come as no surprise that black folks would immerse themselves in this Russian literary tradition that is so profound in its willingness to raise unsettling questions. They say when you go into James Baldwin’s house, the first thing you see is Chekhov. You go into Ralph Ellison’s house, the first thing you see is Dostoevsky. You go into Richard Wright’s house, the first thing you see is also Dostoevsky. So I can imagine [Alice]Walker reading these Russian texts, like Notes from the Underground, in Zinn’s class and saying, “Oh my God, this sounds like Letitia down here. Sounds like Shaniqua down here.” With all the brilliance that a Shaniqua—which means “God is gracious”—and a Letitia—which means “Joy”—can have, trying to make sense of the world given the absurdities of predatory capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy and U.S. empire

–Cornel West, on Missing Howard Zinn Ten Years after His Death

Back to the Brothers?

A friend with whom six years ago I did a reading group of  Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, is serious about returning to it sometime soon. Ah, to be re-acquainted with Mitya, Grushenka, Kolya, Markel, Rakitin, Grygory, Snegiriov, Madame Khokhlakov, Ivan, Zhuchka, Katerina, yes, even Smerdyakov!

The Human Spectrum

It was never my goal to put together a collection of horror stories, to overwhelm the reader. I was collecting the human. Dostoevsky asked the question: “How much of the human is there in a human being?” How can the human in this human being be protected? That’s the question I’m looking to answer. I collect the human spirit. You may say: it’s an ephemeral thing, too elusive. But art attempts to capture it. And every era has its own answers.

–Svetlana Alexievich, In Search of the Free Individual: The History of the Russian-Soviet Soul

Surplus You Can Count on in the Soviet Union

“We’ll run out of potatoes before spring. Same with bread. Same with firewood. The only thing we won’t be short of is grief.” — Marya, in Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad

Beautiful and Toxic Multitudes

Jewish because reading Dostoyevsky at 13  I write poems at restaurant tables Lower East Side, perfect delicatessen intellectual
–Allen Ginsberg, Yiddishe Kopf

Prompted by a recent tragedy, I turned again to the conclusion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I cried as I reread the exchanges between Kolya and Alyosha, thinking all the while of what dear friends have lost. I remembered how, many years ago in mid-May, as a treat to myself after the academic year, I’d reread Dostoevsky’s last novel. Just this morning I began perusing volume five of Jospeh Frank’s acclaimed biography of the Russian novelist. Imagine: An assiduous Jewish academic spending decades of his life writing about the times and life of, yes, a magnificent writer as well as an anti-Semite. This led me to return to Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden, which shifts quickly back and forth from the narrator going to Leningrad to check out the sites of Dostoevsky’s fans to the Dostoevskys as a married couple going to Dresden (Baden-Baden) where we see the extremes of the Russian writer with his gambling, self-loathing, and self-abasement before his bride-secretary, before the narrator ends up visiting an older friend, Gilda Yakovlevna, after which is how the novel ends, with “Tsypkin,” a Russian Jew reflecting on how and why it is that so many Jews like himself are Fyodorophiles, even though Dostoevsky despised Jews. Frank and Tsypkin forego the “all or none” mentality. Rather, they somehow hold it all, recognizing but not freaking out at the “both/and” of the beautiful and toxic in Dostoevsky the person. Of course, so many of Dostoevsky’s riveting characters—Dmitri Karamazov being an obvious example—are charged with just this gripping interbeing of the noble and ignoble. “I loved depravity, I also loved the shame of depravity. I loved cruelty: am I not a bedbug, an evil insect? In short – a Karamazov!” “I understand now that for men such as I a blow is needed, a blow of fate, to catch them as with a noose and bind them by an external force. Never, never would I have risen by myself! But the thunder has struck. I accept the torment of accusation and of my disgrace before all, I want to suffer and be purified by suffering. And perhaps I will be purified, eh, gentlemen? But hear me, all the same, for the last time: I am not guilty of my father’s blood!” I remember Susan Sontag (another Jew obsessed with Russian literature) on Tsypkin’s novel: “If you want from one book an experience of the depth and authority of Russian literature, read this book. If you want a novel that can fortify your soul and give you a larger idea of feeling, and of breathing, read this book.” But don’t stop there. Solzhenitsyn had his manias; is that a reason to avoid One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Is the moral crankiness and dreary dogmatism of the later Tolstoy grounds for passing up Hadji Murad?

Is Murdered Journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s “A Russian Diary” Only Relevant to Russians?

Anna Politkovskaya, A Russian Diary:
A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin’s Russia

Random House, 2007

… the Russian people gave its consent. Nobody stood up. There were no demonstrations, mass protests, acts of civil disobedience. The electorate took it lying down and agreed to live, not only without Yavlinsky, but without democracy. 16

Our society is sick. Most people are suffering from the disease of paternalism, which is why Putin gets away with everything, why he is possible in Russia. 71

The Russia tradition is one of an inability to plan and see through the sheer hard work of systematic opposition. If we are going to do anything, it has to be something we can do on the spot, here and now, after which life will be sorted. As that isn’t the way things work, life doesn’t get sorted. 121-122

This whole system of thieving judges, rigged elections, presidents who have only contempt for the needs of their people, can operate only if nobody protests. That is the Kremlin’s secret weapon and the most striking feature of life in Russia today. … We have emerged from socialism, as thoroughly self-centered people. 124-125 Read the rest of this entry »

Share the Wealth with Mary Bast: The Magic of Self-Gift, Or, Why You Should Ask Yourself the Big Questions in Life, With Some Russian Literature Sprinkled In Along the Way

Mary Bast came back from a whirlwind year-long working holiday in Ireland in 2014, wondering why she was so unhappy over what she thought was going to be the journey of a lifetime with her one true love. Turns out, the love wasn’t so true, and the journey had only begun when she got back to the States. She spent the next few years trying to figure out what the purpose of life was, where she fit in it all, and, at turns, contemplating and careening her way through finding the courage to love again (spoiler alert: it’s a work in progress). This talk is an amalgam of what she’s learned along the way about God, life, love, being yourself, and never giving up on your dreams, and she very much looks forward to sharing her story with you and hearing all the machinations of yours afterwards.

Mary Bast is a writer, reader, learner, lover, Catholic, and insatiable curiosity junkie. She lives in St. Louis, is the oldest of six children, and can at turns be found nerding out or making new friends. She loves to devour large books and will probably try to find out your life story within the first five minutes of meeting you. She looks forward to speaking with you soon.

Join us
Sunday 28 October
Potluck dinner begins at 6:00 a.m.
Mary begins sharing at 6:45
At the home of Gregory A. Pass and Jennifer J. Lowe
2358 Tennessee
Saint Louis 63104