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Sketches of Russian Life

Once something has been left behind–be it a thing, relationship, or country–there is no way to walk back along the the trail of crumbs, by which you can find intact whatever you seek to find again. As in Grimm’s fairytale, the crumbs are still there, and easily recognizable, but the place you left and, most of all, yourself, have been irretrievably transformed in the course of time and social molding. A recent trip to Russia made me reflect on the nature of an exilic experience and, in the same time, observe Russian life and its peculiarities from the point of view of a former denizen who, basically, became a foreigner in the country of her own origin. In her book, The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov & Milan Kundera, Hana Pichova compares an émigré with a “rickety bridge between two shores, where the new, unknown territory has to be appropriated and familiarized while the old, known territory becomes the realm of imaginary.” Nevertheless, this metaphor requires one minor correction. There is definitely a bridge between two shores. However, an émigré lives mostly only on one shore–that of the newly acquired homeland, with a mental bridge connecting it with the country of origin. The shore of the motherland seems so far away, its outlines shrouded in fog, and sometimes it is even hard to believe that there was a time when you actually lived there.

Imagine yourself as such an émigré, one well adjusted to the new nation state and occasionally revisiting that former shore of motherland by crossing this hypothetical bridge. The more the years separating these two shores, or two dimensions, the more alienated you will find yourself, not only from past memories but also from the present that is transpiring in the country of your origin, right before your eyes, but without you comprehending its true meaning. We are constantly changing under the influence of the moment and life circumstances, and it is one of the reasons why we cannot go back to the exact same stage we were before. Try to go back and suddenly you find yourself on the familiar stage but with an unknown backdrop and scenery, surrounded by actors from a different–and unfamiliar –plot. The experience becomes a surrealistic adventure through space and time, with its dimensional and temporal leap: comprehension of the present occurs in the light of a past–once familiar but not anymore–which has nothing to do with what’s going on in your former country at this moment, and, furthermore, with its subsequent interpretation being directed by a person already re-socialized on a new shore. A few years of living in a different country and of continuous adjustment to the new environment inflicts changes on the way one’s brain works. And you realize that even speaking one’s native language doesn’t necessarily entail, to use Pichova’s expression, “the intense, innate understanding of a native.”

With this warning in mind, it might dawn on you that the word “disjointed,” so disturbingly present in the title, is one of the few apt words that can be used to describe a trip to the land of one’s origin–after relocating oneself to the other shore–without the “innate understanding of a native.”

 

“Each society produces the men it needs”

This quote by Peter L. Berger, an American sociologist and once native of Vienna, is the perfect one to justify the thought that what Russia was needed was a strong president such as Vladimir Putin. After the economic and political confusion following the fall of the Soviet Union, his rule has brought a lot of stability and–for some–even economic prosperity, especially in the political heart of Russia, Moscow. In fact, my experience of living in the state of Washington and observing its people and their living habits tells me that people in Moscow are more interested in luxury living than the majority of the people in Washington will ever be. Capitalization and over-materialization of Moscow life has resulted in the slew of millionaires, or at least those who strive and pretend to be ones, who live in a grand style, buy luxury cars and have a personal chauffeur, not to mention a private residence in a gated community, where one can enter only after scrutiny by a heavily armed guard. Nowadays, Russia is a steady market for super expensive cars. According to Russian news sources, for the first six months of 2007, Russians bought 130 Bentley Continentals (average price – 229,000 euros), 43 Ferraris (starting from 215,000 euros), 9 Lamborghini (207,000 euros), and 20 Rolls-Royces (495,000 euros and more). In October, wealthy Russians will compete with one another to buy the most expensive car on the planet–Bugatti Veyron 16.4, with its starting price of 1.6 millions euros. Not surprisingly, there will be quite a few competitors vying for the honor of owning this beauty.

If Russians are rich, they don’t want to be modest and hide their financial luck behind the walls; instead, they like to flaunt their riches–the best possible car or yacht, the most beautiful woman hanging on one’s arm, the biggest diamond sparkling on one’s ring, and so on. For their amusement, there is a Millionaire Fair in the fall–November 2007 will mark its third season in Moscow–with its display of beyond-imagination goods and services for voracious consumers. Not surprisingly, this exhibition of luxury is the largest in the world–after all, it is Moscow and Muscovites that we are talking about–and it will be spiced with something that those millionaires, or just rich and powerful specimens, had never heard of or seen before. If you are curious to glimpse or even acquire all the best luxury goods in one place and at one time, I would suggest you reserve your airplane ticket to Moscow, leave your “fashionable” flip-flops at home–otherwise the label of the worst taste will crown you at the moment of your arrival–and find the best fur coat possible, for November frost can be merciless and, moreover, your look is the first step for success among the Moscow rich. Also, in preparation for the trip, it would be useful to hone your intellectual skills, for–according to the Russian proverb, awkwardly translated–even if, at the moment of first meeting, people are greeted in proportion to their looks, at the good-bye moment they are judged in accordance with their intellect.

In 1979, the renowned Bulgarian foreseer Vanga predicted, “Everything will melt away like ice yet the glory of Vladimir, the glory of Russia are the only things that will remain.” Being cloudy for majority of us, this prediction is something that is to be–or not to be–seen, but the name Vladimir brings forward the name of Vladimir Putin, during whose rule Russia became–on a global monetary level–even more economically successful than the U.S.A., whose “foreign debt is without precedent in world history.” According to Giovanni Arrighi (New Left Review, No. 32, Mar/Apr 2005), “The decisive advantage of the U.S. during the Cold War was financial. But in the new confrontation, financial power is stacked not in favor but against the United States.” While the U.S.A. continues to be the world’s biggest debtor and–financially–at the mercy of its debt-holders, mostly East Asian central banks, Russia’s financial course is its independence from international debts. Thanks to the increased revenues from its natural resources such as oil and gas, the Russian government has managed to pay off the last of the Soviet Union’s foreign debts. In August 2006, London’s The Daily Telegraph reported that Russia’s foreign currency reserves stand as the third largest in the world, after China and Japan. One might wonder, at this news, who actually won the Cold War after all?

At the same time, during Putin’s rule Russia has started to show off its political muscle as the recent confrontation with the U.S.A. with regard to the issue of the missile shield and the taking of BBC’s FM broadcasts off the air in Russia attest. One may wince at the undemocratic Russian course and lament its government’s tendency to control Russian political life, but at the same time it is advisable to remember the parable about seeing the mote in your neighbor’s eye while not being aware of the beam in one’s own. The defenders of American democracy should look more closely at the consequences of, so to say, democratically imposed rule in their own country as well as at the U.S. intervention in numerous countries abroad. To any loud bragger of democracy and freedom in the U.S.A., I would like to recall a sobering comment offered by a remarkable French philosopher, sociologist and Christian anarchist, Jacques Ellul, in his 1967 book The Political Illusion: “To say that freedom simply means that the individual can escape the power of the state and decide for himself on the sense of his life and his works seems in our day a simplistic, ridiculous, and adolescent reaction.” But political illusions are what we are addicted to. People in the U.S.A. may lull themselves with the illusion of living in a democracy, but they have to remember that, after all, it is the private power of numerous corporations that makes decisions for the public.

In addition, it is useful to remember that U.S. politicians are often quick to endorse certain dictators provided that the latter serve their business and political interests. Examples of such connivance are abound, but recently I was surprised to find out, while reading The Orientalist, a book written by Tom Reiss, that once upon a time “Mussolini was widely compared to Theodore Roosevelt” Moreover, “Will Rogers took a much publicized trip to Italy to interview Mussolini and declared, ‘Dictator government is the greatest form of governments that is, if you have the right Dictator.’ The relationship between Mussolini and the Republicans was so embarrassingly close that President Coolidge’s ambassador to Italy, Richard Washburn Child, helped ghostwrite Il Duce’s ‘autobiography,’ surely one of the odder and more (deliberately) forgotten moments in U.S. diplomatic history.” Using the same logic, it can be said that Putin is the right “dictator” for Russian global prestige, if the word “dictator” is even appropriate to describe him at all. On a lighter note, I am delighted to add that after being in charge of the display of Russia’s political muscle on the international stage, the Russian president is not shy of showing off his bare torso as well as his muscles. Criticize him as you may for the ensuing political controversy, but this ruler doesn’t look so cheesy after all. I wonder if Bush could ever dare to show off in such fashion, be it his physique or even any hint of some cerebral muscle.

 

Ordinary tribulations

However, one may ask–and justifiably so–about the life of the majority of Russian people who cannot possibly be among the ranks of their rich compatriots. If people do not have their own business, Russian life today mostly favors the young. From what I heard, those who are 35 year old or younger are faring well. For them, it’s easier to find a relatively well-paid job in private sector, which is thriving in big cities and especially in Moscow. My young relatives in Moscow lead a relatively comfortable life: each one has a decent job and a foreign-made car, and makes enough money to travel abroad and to dress in a fashionable manner. Maturity of age and the simultaneous lack of proprietorship skills, however, is not a good phase to be at. The majority of employment ads are excruciatingly clear: those older than 35 need not apply. And the reason for this–beside the age discrimination–is simple: young people have a different mentality; they are more capitalist-oriented and self-reliant–that is, not relying on the governmental cushions that existed during Soviet times, when people had more security in terms of having jobs and even, very often, sinecures, and retirement benefits that–in those days–could ensure a more or less comfortable life. Older people are not as flexible as the younger ones, and it is not so easy to change one’s mentality once it is formed and inveterately rooted by a specific social conditioning. The Soviet mentality of over-reliance on own government is, definitely, not in vogue anymore.

Also, it should be emphasized that if people are not rich, the age scale is something that defines one’s right to live, literally. If people are over 60 year old and they cannot have their own doctor, they had better to be healthy! I heard that emergency services in Moscow–with their lack of personnel and necessary medications–are not available for the elders. People can dial 03–the equivalent of 911–and get no medical help if they disclose their venerable age. Given this neglect, it is no wonder that after the Soviet Union’s fall, the Russian population fell by 6 million people and people’s life expectancy fell dramatically to 66 for women and a catastrophic 58 for men. While Russian men move toward near-extinction, U.S. life expectancy is on a rise and its average is up to almost 79.

However, I wouldn’t worry much about the low birth rate in Russia and its dwindling population, at least not yet. Russians are an inventive bunch, and they will come up with some fun solutions, as the following example demonstrates. The Guardian (September 12, 2007) reported that “a Russian region of Ulyanovsk (sic., known as the birth place for Vladimir Lenin) has found a novel way to fight the nation’s birth-rate crisis: it has declared September 12 the Day of Conception and for the third year running is giving couples time off from work to procreate.” Throughout the country, the dismal demographic situation is addressed with material incentives: “Under the federal program, women who give birth to a second or subsequent child are to receive certificates worth $10,000, which can be used to pay for education or to improve the family’s living conditions.”

Corruption

Corruption is an ever-humming leitmotif in Russian life. The simple definition of corruption is that it is the misuse of public power for personal gain. The first and last moments of my Russian visit were marked by relatively innocent cases of corruption, which didn’t visibly harm anybody, but only amused me and delivered some food on ordinary people’s dining table, so to speak. The moment we arrived to Sheremetyevo, Moscow’s international airport, we had a chance either to use luggage carts for free or pay $30 to the airport porter, who took our heavy bags directly to our friend’s car. We chose the latter and were awarded by incredibly speedy passage through the customs. The customs officials didn’t even bother to look at us; one nod by our porter and we were spared of any suspicious looks or even thorough examination of our bags. That was definitely a win-win situation for everyone involved.

On the way out the country, in Sheremetyevo airport I was informed that my luggage weight exceeded the limit, which is significantly lower compared with U.S. or European regulations. I was ready to step aside and pay the fee–just the meager sum of $8–through the appropriate window, when I was told I needed to go a few meters back, wait a few minutes, put money inside my passport, and then come back to the counter. At first, I was left in confusion and could not even understand why I needed to wait and then go back. Did I need to wait for a sign? For a special permission to proceed? I waited longer than I needed. Nothing happened, and then I decided to move on. Only at the counter did I grasp the whole meaning of those dance steps–forward, back and forward again. The airport official grabbed money inserted in my passport, handed the document back to me, and waved me through. Pardon my ineptitude, I whispered to myself. A few years of living outside of Russia which, after the fall of Soviet Union, strode to capitalism with incredible speed, and I am being lost in such a simple occurrence of corruption that has just happened before my eyes!

Not that corruption was something foreign to the former Soviet Union. By no means. But its occurrences were not so egregiously obvious and, moreover, my skills at official bribery were never good even back then. Moreover, the scale of Soviet corruption didn’t reach such an overwhelming presence as it does now, in the “new” Russia. My sister, who is a head of the educational department of the computer faculty at Moscow State University, told me that her younger daughter, who went to the first grade of elementary school this year, was initially enrolled in the class with other children whose parents, without exception, were either directors of plants, or professors, or some other kinds of bosses. All parents already knew what their child’s enrollment in this class involved–heavier monetary fees compared to other classes. Even before the school year began, my sister had been informed she needed to bring the suggested sum of 10,000–15,000 rubles (approximately $400-600), for special educational needs. Despite the fact that my sister’s position is a prestigious one and in the top state university, it doesn’t bring her enough money to live on–just a meager $400 per month. Terrified by the perspective of permanent extortion, my sister went to the school administration with the request to transfer her daughter to another class, where parents are not so illustrious and wealthy. She had to bribe, of course, but the money did its work and her request was fulfilled. Ugh, what a relief!

These examples of corruption are just trivial occurrences that I came upon during my Russian trip. However, it seems that nowadays corruption became an indispensable aspect of Russian life. Being a very useful tool for many, it became a some sort of a minor deity before whom one bows down.

 

Cynicism

The topic of cynicism is so potentially vast that my intention here is not to explore it in details but just to blow dust off of the miniscule portions of this redoubtable sphere. In his book Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk–a German philosopher who describes himself as a “hyperbolic thinker”–defined cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness.” So, it is “enlightened” but, at the same time, “false,” with all the illusions peculiar to the spirit of time, Zeitgeist, or any socially conditioned worldview, for that matter.

My particular example of this cynical point of view, or rather its fast transmogrification according to the changing political milieu of Russian life, is about Dmitriy Yurasov, who is–nowadays–an employee of the Russian Public Fund of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. To be clear, Dmitriy is not the one who has the cynical point of view in this case, but rather it is the other way around–the cynicism is around and toward his opus magnum, so to say. Dmitriy is a unique person–with vast erudition, courageous and non-conforming. In Soviet times, he was persecuted by the government for trying to know “too much” about people who were doomed as “enemies of people” in Stalin’s time, who perished in gulags, and who were sometimes posthumously rehabilitated. When Dmitriy worked in the Central State Archive of the October Revolution and the Superior Court of U.S.S.R., he surreptitiously–until being caught by the administration of those governmental organs–copied out information about all the victims of Stalin’s regime that he could find. All in all, he created a card index, with 1.5 millions cards for all the names that he managed to find information about. This card index occupies two entire walls of the living room in his apartment in Moscow.

The question of how many people fell victims to the brutality of Stalin’s regime is still not answered in all details. Even now, when Russian archives are more open then they ever were before, the numbers of those sacrificed for the sake of the “world revolution” is arguable, to say the least. Wikipedia website reports this information: “While some archival researchers have estimated the number of victims of Stalin’s repressions to be no more than about 4 million in total, others believe the number to be considerably higher. Russian writer Vadim Erlikman, for example, makes the following estimates: executions, 1.5 million; gulags, 5 million; deportations, 1.7 million (out of 7.5 million deported); and POWs and German civilians, 1 million–a total of about 9 million victims of repression.” Even if to take the lowest estimate, 4 million victims, as the correct number, Dmitriy’s card index offers a plethora of information to clarify, add, or just compare to the official data. One may think that if only one person was able to accumulate 1.5 million names for a few decades timespan, a team of qualified researchers would surely be able to compile the full story either through the Russian archives, surviving family members’ accounts, or through the efforts of such people as Dmitriy, even if he is one of a kind.

The cynicism of the Soviet era–even if it was prompted by the need to survive at that time–is evident in the question that people asked Dmitriy back then, “Why do you do this? It is dangerous!” Indeed, even in 1987–when Janus of freedom turned its benevolent face toward the U.S.S.R.–after Dmitriy published his article about the Soviet archives and their existing practice of burning thousands of the Supreme Court cases that the authorities didn’t consider important enough, a gang of militia­ by order from above–searched and literally turned Dmitriy’s apartment upside down. All his notebooks were taken away, but, ironically, cards were not the target because nobody even bothered to read what they were about. Dmitriy published his article in the magazine Glasnost, and during Gorbachev’s glasnost time, which was lauded for disclosing the facts for all to know; however, the practical reaction on his article was sufficient to show what actual brand of “glasnost” was being offered back then.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the cynicism of the situation with Dmitriy’s card index is twisted, but not surprising, given the penetration of capitalism in Russian political life and the subsequent axiological revolution. Nowadays, people ask Dmitriy, “Why do you do this? Nobody needs this information!” Ironic, is it not? Who needs the names of all those people–who once lived but long since became political ghosts sacrificed on the altar of the schizoid Soviet ideology? Who needs to know how many millions of them were sacrificed–4, 6 or 9 millions? After all, it is not a Holocaust that can be–and still is being–used for some political gains. All in all, there were some changes brought to Russia by the “wind of freedom” such as change of political milieu and change of values–and all these changes resulted in an inverted form of cynicism.

As to the cynicism of state, there is never a lack of its proof of existence. In regard to the cynicism of power, Sloterdijk said, “To an extent, hegemonic power legitimates itself through a good exercise of power Where hegemonic power really legitimates itself, it subjects itself to a higher and more universal interest, to the support and continuance of life. For this reason, peace, justice and protection of the weak are the holy words of politics. Where a hegemonic power can justifiably say of itself that it has furthered peace, brought forth justice, and made the protection of the most fragile life its noblest cause, there it begins to overcome its own core of violence and to earn a higher legitimacy.” To use these words as a guide, one will immediately say that Russian state is far from earning “a higher legitimacy.” If it were, the Russian government would care about and guarantee the well-being of its own people–before caring about own political prestige and power abroad. With a dwindling population in general and a decimated elderly population in particular, the state power and its money are dedicated to militarization and showing off abroad. As the recent invention of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear air-delivered bomb attests, money is spent much more on military goals and implied violence than on Russian citizens. While Russian people older than 60 may or may not be lucky enough for the emergency service to arrive and save them, the Russian government is gloating at the fact that they posses the most powerful of all bombs, “dad of all bombs,” as it is so lightheartedly named.

Even if Putin, in his presumptively final days as a president–according to Russian news–instructs the government to protect Russian people from the surge in living costs, all these caring words are just words, no more no less. Moreover, as Sloterdijk reminds us, we need to be wiser about political rhetoric, for “the language of power changes the meaning of expression.” As we should know by now, a state can invade another country and hail it as the bestowing of democracy and freedom. In the case of Russia, it creates the most powerful means to kill and says–according to AP news–that the new bomb would allow the military to “protect the nation’s security and confront international terrorism.” Indeed, Sloterdijk continues,” In its own country, [the state] boasts about its social mindedness when it has handed out alms that are mere window dressing; and it says ‘justice’ when it administers law. The dubious justice of power is reflected in Anatole France’s great sarcastic remark: ‘The law, in its elevated equality, forbids beggars and millionaires alike to sleep under bridges.'” In short, the cynicism of state will prevail until we banish the ever-present self-deception and hypocrisy, into whose eyes we do not dare and do not want to look.

 

Coda

A splinter is often
difficult to get out.
How much more difficult a thorn
in the heart! If everyone could find that thorn
in themselves, things would be
much more peaceful here!

–Rumi (1207-1273)

However incomplete, my disjointed notes about the Russian trip are about to wind up. I realize that there are so many worthy topics that I never touched, such as the great and healthy food that is available in almost every Russian grocery store. Here, in the U.S.A., I go to local market places and see that they will never reach the richness of the Russian ones. I wish to have one of those Russian markets next to where I live, in Olympia. However, this wishful thinking is beyond my reach and, therefore, I will leave it in the world of wishes. Moreover, physical nourishment can and needs to be complemented by intellectual nourishment. There is a plethora of such and other topics to ruminate on. Nevertheless, using the Russian witty saying, “it is impossible to embrace the unembraceable,” and it is the time to turn off the lights, even if for the moment. If you find yourself perplexed, try to lose your grip on what may be considered your personal reality. After all, the complexity of intellect is such that it manages to juggle seemingly unfit concepts and, furthermore, to ascribe your own personal meaning to things that were intended–by the messenger–to be understood otherwise. As with a musical coda, let me offer a satisfactory close and conclude with a note on intellect by Baudrillard: “Indeed, this is the only genuine function of intellect: to embrace contradictions, to exercise irony, to take the opposite tack, to exploit rifts and reversibility–even to fly in the face of the lawful and the factual.” Let us fly.

ALEVTINA REA lives on Olympia, Washington and can be reached at sailcool@comcast.net.

 

 

 

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