Hold It All

Category: Russia

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 »

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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 »

A Late Night Raid on Victor Terras’s A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoevsky’s Novel/1

for Cami

 

“I love Russia, Aliosha, I love the Russian God, though I am a scoundrel myself.”
–Dmitry Karamazov

So, maybe you’ve already taken the plunge back in Wisconsin, and are now immersed in “A Nice Little Family.” I salute you, I envy you, and I may even give in to temptation—once again—to rereading it myself. I read Terras’s book back in 2005 (the 5th or 6th time), and I now scrounge around in my notes to indulge in the joy of landing on this and that, my mischief for mishmash, all for your amusement and excitation——-

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Swann said in v. 1 of Marcel that there are really only 4 or so books that matter in one’s life; better to spend one’s reading time with these than ephemera like journalism.

FD is like Dmitri: Worst of all is that my nature is base and too passionate: everywhere and in everything I go to the limit, all my life I have been crossing the line.” 40

Levinas: Zosima: “no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime.” Book 6, chapter iii, h.

Treat all students like Aliosha would, or Buddha.

Mona = volshebnitsa = enchantress 293

Bodhisattva: “everyone is really responsible to all men and for all men and for everything” 369

Details of an imitatio Christi are projected upon all positive characters, while the negative characters are inevitably enemies of Christ. A belief in personal immortality via resurrection in Christ resolves the question of suffering and injustice in the world. [Thanks, a nice theodicy…] Read the rest of this entry »

What Can You Tell the School Kids?

Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, introduction by Larry Heinemann

 

Afgantsi (singular Afganets): Soviet veterans of the war

Even as Ken Burns’ new documentary on the Vietnam War airs, U.S. military forces have been in Afghanistan for almost sixteen years.  While Burns will likely have some focus on the antiwar movement in the U.S during the 1960s, it’s sobering that there has been nothing like an antiwar movement for this war.

Svetlana Alexievich wanted to hear the bitter truths, so she went around asking listening, recording, and creating Zinky Boys, first published in the Soviet Union in 1990. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, Alexievich produced this work on the USSR’s Afghanistan War that even today can serve as  a mirror to U.S. citizens or, in Kafka’s apt phrase,” an axe for the sea frozen inside us.”

What follows is a very small sample of the testimonies she evoked.

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The author: I ask myself, and  others too, this single question: how has the courage in each of us been extinguished? How have ‘they’ managed to turn our ordinary boys into killers, and do whatever they  want with the rest of us? But I’m not here to judge what I’ve seen and heard. My aim is simply to reflect the world as it really is. Getting to grips with this war today means facing much wider issues, issues of life and death of humanity. Man has finally achieved the ambition of being able to kill us all at a stroke.  10

A Private: One time, our column was going through a kishlak when the leading vehicle broke down. The driver got out and lifted the bonnet—and a boy, about ten years old, rushed out and stabbed him in the back, just where the heart is. The soldier fell over the motor. We turned that boy into a sieve. If we’d been ordered to, we’d have turned the whole village to dust. 16-17

A Soldier: They killed my friend. Later I saw some of them laughing and having a good time. Whenever I see a lot of them together, now, I start shooting. I shot up an Afghan wedding, I got the happy couple, the bride and groom. I’m not sorry for them—I’ve lost my friend.  6

A Private, Gunlayer:  We didn’t want to know anything about anything. We were soldiers in a war. We were completely cut off from Afghan life—the locals weren’t allowed to set foot in our army compound. All we knew about them was that they wanted to kill or injure us, and we were keen to stay alive. 118 Read the rest of this entry »

Another Ukraine Khurbn

Dear Bella

I just finished my second Svetlana Alexievich book, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.  You are one of the very few people with whom I could share this text about another Ukraine khurbn.* (Some of your people, like mine, as well as Feldenkrais, came from this region long ago. {And yes, I should also share this with Rob Renaud}).  The book is much shorter than Secondhand Time, but riveting still. As can be felt in the following excerpts from some of the  people she listened to.

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I didn’t talk about it for ten years.

“You felt sorry for everyone there. Even the flies, even the pigeons. Everyone should be able to live. The flies should be able to fly, and the wasps, and the cockroaches should be able to crawl. You don’t even want to hurt a cockroach.”

“It’s impossible for us to give you the bodies of your husbands, your sons, they are very radioactive and will be buried in a Moscow cemetery in a special way.” Read the rest of this entry »

Books

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 years, 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 »