observations and opinion
Boris was from Siberia. He was old when I knew him, he is dead now. He would tell stories of his boyhood under Stalin, of joining the air force, of navigating their planes over enemy Germany, of getting shot down. He never told stories about his time in the concentration camp, though. And then he escaped – escaped the Germans and escaped the Russians, escaping a fate apparently worse than the concentration camp. Boris told stories and he told me one, long ago, that explained Russia, then and maybe, still does.
* * *
This February all eyes have fallen upon Putin’s Russia and his Potemkin village, Sochi. The phony paradise, slapped down like asphalt over a garden, soon to crack and open. Blades of grass will push through, and eventually trees sprout out of trash cans (look at Chernobyl, it’s a garden now. A toxic one.)
There is a terrible streak of tragedy running through the Russian saga. Their ruling class, which has always existed (with variations in membership) are for the most part and always, kleptocrats. The anoint a strongman to wield the force necessary to maintain tyranny: a Czar, a Party Chairman, a Prime Minister, a President. Liberal urges flow under the surface and occasionally break through in literature and even journalism, but the iron hand hovers overhead. We are coming up on a century since the last royals were deposed and devoured by the Revolution. The Romanovs and their ruling class were essentially corrupt, savagely milking the land for their enjoyment, wearing a badge of divine authority too. Today’s gang is not really so different.
One of the great (and certainly most popular) depictions of the Russian Revolution occurs in Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” – in print and cinema, an epic achievement that weaves the personal and political into a uniquely Russian tapestry. Although people know there was a revolution at the end of the First World War, they sometimes forget how that war morphed into a civil war back home for the Russians: the Reds (the Bolsheviks) trying to stop the Whites (the old guard) from taking the country back. The Reds won, by the way.
Of the thousand great moments in Zhivago a favourite remains when Dr. Zhivago, stealing across country with his family to escape the worst of the civil war, is arrested and hauled onto the passing train of the great, fearsome Red General, Strelnikov. The moment is key, in my view, to understanding the novel and, truly, the land and people. Zhivago and Strelnikov represent the conflict in the Russian soul: the liquid, blazing heart and the rigid, freezing mind. The wrestless urge to live, love and satisfy appetites, countermanded by the fear of disorder that gives rise to relentless suppression and control. On another level, they represent the difficulty of reconciling personal interests with political necessity.
The two men are almost cartoons of these sensibilities in the life of Russia, Zhivago the hopeless romantic whose gaze is so fixedly inward and precious that he cannot see reality, while Strelnikov is so rapacious in his will to correct social ills that he is prepared to amputate a great deal of the patient. Strelnikov is intense and clearly dangerous (the scar down his face tells us he has survived close-order combat). But Yuri sees Pasha, the intense student of pre-revolutionary times who bravely carried Lara out of the ballroom after she shot the man who raped her. Yuri’s romantic instincts ignite his admiration for Pasha, but make him dangerously contemptuous of the new incarnation Strelnikov.
The General is reminded of his youth, of his former girl and then wife, all of which he has left behind to cross country by rail, raining death and mayhem down on White armies and sympathizers. And he dismisses it all, in a strained attempt at superiority, with these words:
“The private life is dead in Russia. History killed it.”
Strelnikov – Pasha, call him what you will – says this but likely knows it isn’t true. It cannot be when human beings are in the mix. The Soviets tried to wipe out personal life because “the personal” was so inherently selfish, self-absorbed and self-indulgent. People loved their kids; kids loved their parents; grandmothers planted radishes and wanted to chop them up in salads; farmers happily toiled in their own fields but felt enslaved and alienated tilling “the peoples’ fields.” Absolutely nobody really believed in equality but everyone had to pretend they did, even as they erected a vast new hierarchy. In the end, Sovietism made everyone a liar and a hustler.
Pasternak, careful as he had to be writing a novel in 1950s Soviet Russia, is nonetheless totally onside with the sensibility embodied by Zhivago. He knows that the personal is, for each of us, the more real; whatever our politics may be, our hearts are moved by what our senses engage. The great Soviet mistake was pretending that the personal could ever be killed. They became much more successful tyrants when they converted the murderous Stalin into “Uncle Joe” and made World War Two about the Motherland, not Bolshevism. There was no turning back then for the U.S.S.R., which became essentially a Russian empire stretched out across neighbouring lands. Emotionally connected, the Russians were strong enough to beat Hitler and enslave a good part of the world. But the incoherence of their economic life and the impossible burden of their military eventually brought the Soviet empire down – it fell apart in pieces of course, from within, not without.
What sprang out of that broken U.S.S.R. – fragile democracies, an attempted coup, a burst of capitalism and now apparently, kleptocracy again – happened fast. And it happened fast because the intense burning flame of feeling, passion, talent and magic that swirls inside Russia, was finally unleashed. The personal is very much alive in Russia. And Putin, unlike the Soviets for whom he was such a talented KGB agent, seems to understand that “the personal” – and in particular the exploitation of it – is the key to seducing, mesmerizing really, the country. In this, Putin is little different from politicians elsewhere who will squeeze the human heart, hard, to gain control.
* * *
My dear old Russian friend’s story, apocryphal or not, decoded Russia for me.
When the Reds won, they began a process of systematically trying to kill or bury not just the White soldiers and sympathizers, but also their symbols. The Soviets obliterated thousands of churches across the country and in Novosibirsk, at least one church cemetery. This was both symbolic and practical as it destroyed the only alternative organization which attracted loyalty and therefore, had power.
The local Committee, or whoever was in charge in the 1920s, had workers lay sod and plant seed to convert the church land into a soccer pitch. It must have delighted their non-existent souls to see beautiful Soviet youth kicking a ball around, getting rosy as the new flag, atop what had been the most hallowed ground of the old, despised religious Russia.
But then one year it rained. And rained. And rained. And the inadequacies of Soviet workmanship were literally laid bare in the most gruesome of ways, as the new turf washed away and the coffins bobbed to the surface. The soccer field, the playground of the new youth, was a horror show. The way Boris told the story, you believed he saw it.
This was a moment of poetic symbolism that Dr. Zhivago would have appreciated. It was impossible to keep the old Russia down. Today, Mr. Putin seems to know that and has decided to exalt the dead, to milk the sensibilities of the people for his own ends. Sochi is the product of the sentimental inside the Russian soul, married to tyranny and organized theft. Reporters and visitors laugh at the brown tap water and the terrible hotel rooms, but they should remember what is buried underneath.
So long as they were stuck with a phony ideology they could hardly believe and which starved them (communism) the Russians were hobbled. When they were fumbling about in a democratic haze, the afterglow of the 1990s, they seemed charming and harmless. But ignited by sentiment, bound together by nationalism and organized by a fierce tyrant, there is almost nothing the Russians cannot do. They spent $51 billion dollars on a Potemkin village, more to delude themselves than the rest of the world about Putin’s Russia. Imagine what they might spend on something that really matters.