Fragments: Is there a R*ssian soul?

Fragments written 19 October 2022, musings on books read. You meant to come back to it. You thought on it so often. You wondered. But you couldn’t write it.

So here’s the deal: write it, and don’t read it back.

And one day, maybe at a future border where a stamp hovers above a passport, someone may ask, “Did you write this? Did you call it a war?” And perhaps that moment means a choice between seeing the ones you love and long for. And your pledge to memory.

Write it.

19 October 2022. Notes on books acquired and read in time. Reading to find out if there’s a Russian soul.

Whoever sent the drones down kamikaze onto shoppers, they don’t have one.

Not the ones who kept women in basements.

Not the ones who bombed an apartment block where a pregnant woman and her partner were counted in the dead.

Nadezhda Alexandrovna Teffi, 1872-1952

One woman: Teffi. Short stories of folk religion and Russian orthodoxy. Baba Yaga (here, Teffi calls her a goddess of whirlwinds and snowstorms), and Leshachika (a forest spirit) and domovoi (spirits of the home).

Teffi was re-remembered only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, considered unworthy otherwise. I can’t find the reference but through her there’s reference to that ‘Russian soul’. A condescending term, yet it draws out that discomfort I feel, have always felt.

– an article referenced but unlocatable. A composer murdered when he refused to play for the new regime in Kharkiv. The article called for silent artists to come forward. But screaming means death.

Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977

It’s Nabokov, again. I read him on the train. He fled too. History repeats. Speak, Memory. Delicious to see the imprint where it speaks of him as though he is still living. Printed in Great Britain, 1969, with pages I bend and they flake like the scales on a butterfly wing. Nabokov collected butterflies | Lepidopterist.

– a few days ago, there was a blackout in our suburb in Sydney. Can’t charge phone, can’t work from home. But imagine, imagine a whole city, whole country and there’s no hospitals, no light. For us it was a few hours, and there –

Vasily Grossman, 1905-1964

Later, earlier, a whole year of reading Grossman, whose Life and Fate I buy in Tasmania. Ukrainian/Russian Jewish, he fled the Russians too. And here, in this banned brick of a book of about 850 pages they called the successive War and Peace, he summons up the kolkozh, the collective farms, the camps there called gulags. Political dissent.

Holodomor. The first I ever heard about that artificial famine was from my grandfather… he gave me newspaper articles in a folder when I last saw him alive. Asked me to give them to the diaspora in Sydney, these anniversary clippings. I couldn’t read them. Don’t know what they said. I did it, I never heard back from the organisation here.

I can’t understand where my grandfather stood on the chessboard. He was a scientist, by my understanding, sent to the Ural Mountains in Ukraine after the war. There is a grotesque cuckoo-like quality in this placement. My white-flag naivete is parasitic.

Grossman’s Life and Fate is vignettes and lives annihilated by war. It’s the column of Jewish people marched to the ghetto while Ukrainians in embroidered blouses stand and watch. The author’s own mother sent to a Ukrainian ghetto and murdered. Another section: an old Ukrainian woman takes in an escaped Russian soldier and nurses him back to life (pg. 544). Tells him about Stalin’s famine on the Ukrainian people. How they ate dirt and pine needles and died.

Like water, hunger is part of life. Like water, it has the power to destroy the body, to cripple the soul, to annihilate millions of lives… The State has the power to dam life up… the State can construct a barrier that separates wheat and rye from the people who sowed it

Life and Fate, pg. 540.

There are political arrests. People who never came back. “Stories about the circumstances of these arrests… daily roll-call… ‘they came for him as he was giving his little boy a bath’” (pg. 441).

It’s description of the local population helping preparations for mass murder:

If the local population helps the authorities to convey the infected cattle to the slaughtering points and catch the beasts that have run away, they do not do this out of hatred of cows and calves, but out of an instinct for self-preservation… it was in such an atmosphere that the Germans carried out the extermination of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian Jews. And at an earlier date, Stalin had himself mobilized the fury of the masses… to liquidate the kulaks as a class… Experience shows that such campaigns make the majority of the population obey every order of the authorities as though hypnotized.

Life and Fate, pg. 197.

Is this Russia now? Was this always Russia? Is this just ‘human’?

Russians have seen everything during the last thousand years – grandeur and super-grandeur; but what they have never seen is democracy.

Life and Fate, pg. 267.

Vladimir Sorokin, 1955-

Final book. Vladimir Sorokin. Who I do not quote. Is the book a prophecy – a dystopia set in 2028, Clockwork Orange-eqsue and violent.

The book is Day of the Oprichnik, published in 2006. Russia has reverted to a nationalist Tsarist autocracy.

I read about him. The Putin Youth destroyed his book at a rally. And in 2022 Sorokin spoke out against the war. I am grateful for the bravery of artists.

Now. Today.

Pussy Riot has a new song: Mama, Don’t Watch TV