Hold It All


Category: Russia


I’m discussing Svetlana’s Alexievich’s Secondhand Time with Lori Hirst and Helen Houlle later today. One of the fascinating threads in this oral history is the emphasis on books in Soviet culture…


My mother wasn’t alone, all of her friends were like this, too–the first generation of Soviet intelligentsia who had grown up on Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, Nekrasov … on Marxism … Could you imagine my mother sitting down and embroidering something or going out of her way to decorate our house with porcelain vases or little elephant figurines … Never! That would be a pointless waste of time. Petit bourgeois nonsense.  The most important thing is spiritual labor… Books… You can wear the same suit for twenty easts, two coats are enough to last a lifetime, but you can’t live without Pushkin or the complete works of Gorky. You’re part of the grand scheme of things, there’s a grand scheme… That’s how they lived…

In tenth grade, I had an affair. He lived in Moscow. I went to see him, we only had three days. In the morning, at the station, we picked up a mimeographed copy of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, which everyone was reading at that time. We had to return the book the next day at four in the morning. Hand it off to someone on a train passing through town. For twenty-four hours, we read without stopping–we only went out once, to get milk and a loaf of bread. We even forgot to make out, we just handed the pages to one another. All of this happened in some kind of fever, a stupor… Read the rest of this entry »

Authors for Reading Alongside Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. 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.
—Franz Kafka, Letters 

Though for us it’s absurd to cut our brother’s head off only because he’s become our brother and grace has descended upon him, still, I repeat, we have our own ways, which are almost as good. We have our historical, direct, and intimate delight in the torture of beating. Nekrasov has a poem describing a peasant flogging a horse on its eyes with a knout, ‘on its meek eyes.’ We’ve all seen that; that is Russianism. He describes a weak nag, harnessed with too heavy a load, that gets stuck in the mud with her cart and is unable to pull it out. The peasant beats her, beats her savagely, beats her finally not knowing what he’s doing; drunk with beating, he flogs her painfully, repeatedly: ‘Pull, though you have no strength, pull, though you die! ‘ The little nag strains, and now he begins flogging her, flogging the defenseless creature on her weeping, her ‘meek eyes.’ Beside herself, she strains and pulls the cart out, trembling all over, not breathing, moving somehow sideways, with a sort of skipping motion, somehow unnaturally and shamefully—it’s horrible in Nekrasov. But that’s only a horse; God gave us horses so that we could flog them.
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

There [Communist bloc] nothing goes and everything matters; here [USA] everything goes and nothing matters.
—Philip Roth, Shop Talk Read the rest of this entry »

Svetlana Alexievich: Fascinated by People

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.  Her oral history, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, appeared this spring in the US. Translated by Bela Shayevich, the book is a compelling portrait of life in and after the Soviet Union.  The author states early in the work, “I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. it’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story. Make some small discovery. It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There is an endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the acts; emotions are outside its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

470 pages long, comprised of interviews with hundreds of people, the following passages were among the many that caught my attention…


The [tank] drivers weren’t murderers, they were just frightened kids with guilty looks on their faces.  24

Down from the throne, straight into the gutter.  30

All of you wanted capitalism.  You dreamt of it! Don’t go crying now that you’ve been lied to… 32

God is the infinite within us … We are created in His likeness and image … 36

His motto was, “Man up—the worst is yet to come.”46

They’re not afraid of anyone. Flying around in their private jets with their gilded toilets and bragging about it to boot. 54

The Russian intelligentsia never used to pander to the rich. Now there’s no one left—no one will speak for the soul except the priests. Where are the former supporters of Perestroika? 54

—- An indescribable passion for newspapers and magazines took hold of us—circulation numbers skyrocketed into the millions. Periodicals became more popular than books. In the morning, in the Metro, day in and day out you’d find  entire subway cars reading. 61

—A mysterious new life awaited us, and everyone was eager to see it. We all believed that the kingdom of freedom as right around the corner…. But life just kept getting worse.  63

—I ran into my neighbor: “I’m embarrassed that I’m so excited because of  German coffee grinder… but I’m just so happy!” It had only been moments ago—just a moment ago—that she’d spent the night waiting in line to get her hands on a volume by Akhmatova. Now she was head over heels for a coffee grinder.  66 Read the rest of this entry »

Share the Wealth with Lori Hirst: Russia through Anna and Sam’s Kind Introduction

In late May this year, my son and daughter-in-law welcomed me to their home in St. Petersburg, Russia. Even though I had taken some steps to prepare for the journey – through language, and literature -I was unprepared for the degree to which I fell in love with this country, its people and its beauty. While I cannot speak to the larger political context, I can share much that is positive. Thanks in advance for the opportunity; I look forward to deepening my understanding through sharing this experience.

Mark and I are colleagues in the Adult Learning Academy at St. Louis Community College. Alongside the teaching that takes place there, our discussions have taught me a great deal on a predictably wide range of topics. I have been with STLCC for over 18 years in several capacities, but none of them matches the current work we do with students preparing for new careers. And my gratitude for the opportunity to do so belongs to Dianne Lee whose courage and dedication continues to put in place programs that change lives.

Join us
Sunday 14 August
Potluck dinner begins at 6:00 p.m.
Lori begins sharing at 6:45
At the home of Celine Shallon
4315A Shaw Boulevard
(On the corner of Tower Grove and Shaw)
Saint Louis


A Little Pushkin Can Go a Long Way

My friend is assiduous in learning Russian
Her son and daughter-in-law reside in Saint Petersburg
She’s headed there in May
She tells me she needs to get a book of Pushkin
Memorize some of his lines for when she’s in the taxis
So she can connect with the taxi-drivers

This leads me to wonder
Are there Russians in Saint Petersburg
Who will soon visit family in New York
Who  are memorizing passages
From Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
So as to hit it off with Manhattan taxi-drivers?


On Book Six of The Brothers Karamazov

For Cab Yau

Perhaps these will speak to you as we reconsider Dostoevsky’s masterpiece…

“where we read truly, where the experience is to be that of meaning, we do so as if the text (the piece of music, the work of art) incarnates (the notion is grounded in the sacramental) a real presence of significant being. This real presence, as in an icon, as in the enacted metaphor of the sacramental bread and wine, is, finally, irreducible to any other formal articulation, to any analytic deconstruction or paraphrase….To be ‘indwelt’ by music, art, literature, to be made responsible, answerable to such habitation as a host is to a guest — perhaps unknown, unexpected — at evening, is to experience the commonplace mystery of a real presence.”

“A canon is the individually internalized cluster of crystallization of remembered, of exegetically re-enacted texts or text fragments which result from (very often) unsought, unwilled encounter with and answerability to ‘real presence.’ The authentic canon is not, or is not in the first place, the product of reasoned intention.”

“A syllabus is taught, a canon is lived.”

“[We are] servants to the text, scrupulous ecstatics, for in reference to the canonic, scruple and ecstasy are one.”

–George Steiner

Share the Wealth with Jane Safina: My City, Saint Petersburg

This week Jane Safina will share what she loves about her city Saint Petersburg and her Russian culture. Jane (Zhenya) has performed professionally in Russian Folk Dance. (She also learned tap, hip-hop, break-dance and more.) She has traveled to Italy, Spain, Denmark, Latvia, Germany, and Ukraine. She moved to Saint Louis to learn English and graduated in 2014 from Maryville University with a major in Organizational Leadership.  She currently works at an  immigration law firm and  an interpreting organization.

Join us
Sunday 21 June
Potluck dinner begins at 6:00 pm
Jane begins sharing at 6:45
At the home of Rose McCarty
730 Leland Avenue
Apartment #3N
University City

Jane Safina

On Ivan Ilyich

ahamkara [aham, “I”; kara, “maker”] Self-will, the ego mask, the principle in people which makes them feel separate from others.
— Diana Morrison, A Glossary of Sanskrit from The Spiritual Tradition of India

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is simply about the way not to live. And which way is that? That way is the hell that is self-absorption, captured succinctly in that late Beatles’ song, I Me Mine. Or, in today’s idiom, “It’s all about me, all the time.” The way that every religion has taught, to our own discomfort (we know they’re right and wish they weren’t), because we want things ourway. Ivan Ilyich became the successful lawyer/judge who played by the rules, followed conventional wisdom and taste, and accumulated the prizes and the goodies of the upwardly mobile of Russian society. But really, he was just a self-absorbed “I-maker,” like everybody else in his crowd. Read the rest of this entry »

A Request from Haiti

A friend in Haiti asked me to send her the following passage from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and now I want to reread the whole novel again!

Later, after getting used to Alyosha, Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov, who was rather ticklish on the subjects of money and bourgeois honesty, once pronounced the following aphorism: “Here, perhaps, is the only man in the world who, were you to leave him alone and without money on the square of some unknown city with a population of a million, would not perish, would not die of cold or hunger, for he would be immediately fed and immediately taken care of, and if no one else took care of him, he would immediately take care of himself, and it would cost him no effort, and no humiliation, and he would be no burden to those who took care of him, who perhaps, on the contrary, would consider it a pleasure.”