Hold It All

Category: Russia

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

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Beautiful and Toxic Multitudes

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

For Friends in NYC

I think you might appreciate Intractable Woman–a few years ago, I read any book of Anna Politkovskaya I could find translated into English.

“What Am I Living My Life for?” Ivan Ilyich and Ikigai- A Summer 2018 Reading/Writing Class

“I see that all of my work amounts to nothing, that my ten volumes aren’t worth anything!”
—Guy de Maupassant, after reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich

David Barsamian: You had something in mind in a lecture when you mentioned Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich .… What was that?

Historian Howard Zinn: I think what I had in mind was that young people, especially when thinking about their whole future lying ahead of them, should try to imagine what Ivan Ilyich went through when at the end of his life, Tolstoy is giving young people an opportunity to see forty or fifty years ahead and ask, How will I think back upon my life forty or fifty years from now. For them to see that Ivan Ilyich, this successful man, this man who did everything right, looks back on his life and says, This is not the kind life I wanted to lead, is something very instructive for young people, who are being captivated, being pressured on all sides, to get money, to get success, to do the right things, all of them superficial, evanescent, the kinds of things that at the end of one’s life will evaporate immediately. I very often talk about The Death of Ivan Ilyich because I want young people to think about the question of, What am I living my life for? What can I be proud of when I go? What will my grandchildren be proud of when they think of my life?

For the last weeks of summer, I invite you to join a reading and writing class to discuss this jarring work by Tolstoy. But I think this will be relevant not only for undergraduates but people of any age.

Each class session will have activities of discussing a few chapters of Tolstoy, writing and sharing with each other. We will write on themes from Tolstoy’s novella about our own lives, particularly in light of the Japanese concept of Ikigai, or one’s “reason for being.” A class blog will allow further sharing and reflection.

An online class version of the class will be available for people who wish to engage with Tolstoy and other readers and writers. Read the rest of this entry »

Giving No Peace to Those in the Country Who Are Violating All the Laws of Truth  

She represented the honor and conscience of Russia, and probably nobody will ever know the source of her fanatical courage and love of the work she was doing.

— Liza Umarova, Chechen singer

 

Colleagues helped put together the volume, Is Journalist Worth Dying For? about the intrepid Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, assassinated in 2006.  The book contains writings from the last years of her life as well as stirring testimonies by those who knew her and respected her work.

For years she’d written about the horrors in Chechnya, which earned her the denunciation you’d expect from her own government.  From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, such dissidents are ever a thorn in the side of Russian power, which thinks  it is, or should be, worthy only of praise.

Here is a small sample of her voice…

I have never sought my present pariah status and it make me feel like a beached dolphin. I am no political infighter. 

I will not go into the other joys of the path I have chosen: the poisoning, the arrest, the embanking by mail and over the Internet, the telephoned death threats. The main thing is to get on with my job, to describe the life I see, to receive visitors every day in our newspaper’s offices who have nowhere else to bring their troubles, because the Kremlin finds they stories off-message. The only place they can be aired is in our newspaper, Novaya gazeta.

What am I guilty of? I have merely reported what I witnessed, nothing but the truth.    [6]

Believe me, there is nothing more hateful than, in your own country, to feel that you are a target for shooting practice for parasites living it up, eating and drinking at your—a taxpayer’s—expense. And then they have the gall to denigrate you. [17] Read the rest of this entry »

Tolstoy’s List

After coming across this acknowledgement of influence, a goal  for this spring–re-engaging with Tolstoy.

 

Anna

It is we who are responsible for Putin’s policies, we first and foremost, not Putin. The fact that our reactions to him and his cynical manipulation of Russia have been confined to gossiping in the kitchen has enabled him to do all the things he had done in the past four years. Society has shown limitless apathy, and this is what has given Putin the indulgence he requires.
–Anna Politkovskaya, Putin’s Russia

For a profile of the Russian journalist, see Anna Politkovskaya: A double-edged legacy.

Writing for the Future

In winter-spring of 2015 I read every book I could find in English translation of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.  She’s another writer who would be at home in the world of Kafka’s Axe (“But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”)

The following passages from 2001’s A Dirty War: A Russia Reporter in Chechnya deal with the Russian government’s war-making, its victims, the citizenry, the military,, the impunity of the powerful, and the profits for the greedy.  Come to think of it, Politkovskaya’s work may spark recognition in the alert U.S. reader about matters close to home…

These direct and unsophisticated  villagers are infinitely wiser and more principled than all of our Moscow politicians put together, no matter how many advisers crowd round them.  30  The present catastrophe in Daghestan has once again shown that ordinary people are a hundred times better and purer than our authorities. 33

The regime stresses that it has taken a decision to begin the war, but accepts no responsibility for the consequences. They owe us nothing, we owe them everything. 47

I thought how senseless everything happening here was. If you look at it from the State’s point of view, why scatter a vast number of mines around the city and receive in return an astronomic growth in the number of disabled people, who require tons of medicine, artificial limbs, and so on? … the reality is that the inhabitants of Grozny have been sentenced to this fate. Evidently, the ultimate aim is to ensure that as many people in the city as possible are either left without legs—or dead. Perhaps this is a new stage in the “anti-terrorist operation”, an unhurried punitive mission directed against one ethnic community, which now requires hardly any more ammunition, just the patience to wait for the inevitable outcome. 218-291 Read the rest of this entry »