Svetlana Alexievich: Anthropology of Homo Sovieticus through compassionate eyes

Svetlana Alexievich: Anthropology of Homo Sovieticus through compassionate eyes

“No one had taught us how to be free. We had only ever been taught how to die for freedom.”

Svetlana Aleksievich, Secondhand Time: An Oral History of the Fall of the Soviet Union

Belarusian author, journalist, oral historian, and now also a political dissident Svetlana Alexievich, to use that chilling Stalinist phrase about writers, is a certified “engineer of human souls” and has a Nobel prize to prove it. Four decades ago she acquired a tape recorder (500 rubles, an astronomic number for your run-of-the-mill 100 rubles desk job salary) and set out to catalogue a multitude of voices, old and young, surging in a cacophonic symphony of victimhood and heroism from every far and near corner of the Land of the Soviets. Six books were born out of this labour, each one a raw manifesto of truth, suturing a particular apocalyptic wound (Second World War, Afghanistan War, and Chernobyl, among them).

This is not the kind of literary product one can savour with a glass of flinty Chablis, half-listening to the analog grit of some fresh lo-fi chillop. This is work both for the intellectual and the emotional aspects of readership, often punctured by tears, but always ending in a classic cleaning catharsis. I am fortunate to be able to read Alexievich in the original Russian, but even the English translations retain the thunderbolt strength of her laconicism. Truly, if the story (in this case, hundreds of stories) is enthralling, it requires no embellishment (sorry, Tolkien). Today, as the pandemic world convulses in the corrosive slops of populism, and in Alexievich’s native Belarus the emboldened dictator releases smug videos of himself with an automated gun (and his own underage son grotesquely clad in a spetznaz uniform), I revisit her Secondhand Time in search of answers, clues, and prophesies. What is the essence of a Soviet (and post-Soviet) person? What knowledge (if any) has been retained after decades with so much happening within them and yet with so little to show? What hope is there for hundreds of millions of identities stumbling, half-conscious, from ideology into ideology?

Alexievich the chronicler, Alexievich the therapist, Alexievich the compassionate anthropologist… It is precisely this nurse-like compassion that makes Secondhand Time such a precious jewel among numerous other attempts to understand the “Soviet mystique.” Solzhenitsyn did this in Gulag Archipelago and in pretty much everything else he’s said or written, and also Aleksandr Zinovyev did this with his sarcastic buzzword Homo Sovieticus. This archetypal “Soviet man” is, in the words of Leszek Kolakowski, an “ideological schizophrenic, honest liar, a person always ready for constant and voluntary mental self-mutilations.” Bingo. That’s exactly it. Alexievich treads the very same conceptual path that Zinovyev and Solzhenitsyn stepped on before her, capturing the essence of homo sovieticuses from Belarus to Kazakhstan. What is this essence? Emanating from a breadth of ethnically and religiously diverse voices, the Homo Sovieticus is a brittle jelly held together by one thing and one thing only – a terrifying ability to consciously gobble up lies and to rationalize brain-frying contradictions. Homo Sovieticus reconciles the irreconcilable within the humble square footage of his grey matter. Homo Sovieticus is at once pitiable, admirable, loathsome, pathetic, heroic, insightful, ignorant, passionate, and inert. Homo Sovieticus, coming out of Alexievich’s pages, can start a sentence opening up about his parents being butchered by the Soviet regime, and finish off with emotional nostalgia over the golden years of Soviet bounty and the vitriolic indictment of democracy. There is no logic, no cause-and-effect relationship. There is only Stockholm syndrome and a severe, pan-national, untreated PTSD.

Many Westerners and ex-Soviets (the ones younger or simply fortunate to be better oriented in matters of history and truth) scoff at the Homo Sovieticus for possessing the naivete of a blind kitten. Not Alexievich. There isn’t an ounce of ridicule in her approach. Instead, there is a profoundly humanist understanding of immeasurable loss and confusion, of deracinated personhood, and of a perpetually shifting system of ideological coordinates that only amplifies this disorientation. At work you say one thing, at home another, you pretend to do your job, your employer pretends to pay you, in public you pretend to be atheist while at home you teach your kids to say the namaz, and on and on it goes, this neverending umbilical cord of duplicity, chaining a person to the regime of lies.

Why is this Homo Sovieticus anthropology important today? Well, for one it helps explain Transdnistria, Abkhasia, Crimea, Donbas, and other scenarios as something more than just bona fide putinist imperialism. This is a war for the last remaining grey matter square footage of the last remaining Homo Sovieticus generation.  More globally, Alexievich’s catalogue of Soviet souls, read against the backdrop of today’s fake news pandemic, clearly demonstrates just what kind of dire consequences befall the people who are brainwashed into kissing the cold portraits of their family’s murderers. Every and all evil can be excused if we cannot even agree whether the sky is blue…

Image: Vasily Kolotevy, Queue.

Deja vu from the New East: a few lines on the pandemic

Deja vu from the New East: a few lines on the pandemic

‘Unprecedented times’ a chilling déjà vu from the New East

Unwilling crusaders, we gaze into the tenebrous middle of this pandemic, our global anxiety convulsed into a spasm of momentary respite from the max-level self-isolation, somewhere before the second wave of infections floods the unstable dikes of our innately human hubris and the bubble-gum optimism of #wereallinthistogether. This is the eye of the storm. Not quite the grand apotheosis of Edvard Munch’s The Scream – more like the hold-your-breath foreboding of Francisco Goya’s diabolic donkeys in The Devil’s Lamp. The maddening allegretto is passing the baton to a reluctant entr’acte. Time to collect our thoughts before they flee, like beads of mercury flee a broken thermometer, into the dim corners of Netflix and doomscrolling. What the hell is going on? How ‘unprecedented’ is this ‘new normal,’ really?

To this chip off the old block (the Eastern Bloc, that is), much of this eschatology feels nauseatingly familiar. We have been here before, us, post-Soviets, perestroika survivors (and escapees), the periscopes of our experience hoisting themselves above the sea of daily COVID-19 litanies. In the surreal world of today, personas as respected as the CEO of Ford take up earnings calls to wax philosophical about how “there is no future if we don’t have an economic system that is always on” and how immense is the surprise that “there was an off switch.” But the citizenry of the New East has lived through the flipping of this primordial switch, the syncopated aftershocks of this civilizational crack reverberating through the hollowness of our bones. Through immigration, we packed our proletariat blues and galloped away from those anarchic late-eighties-early-nineties… only to find ourselves strangely back in time, a historic joke courtesy of some RNA and a bit of protein.

The Language of Apocalypse

“The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.” Strange for a godless society, these words from the Book of Revelations were whispered in many kitchen tete-a-tetes after Chornobyl explosion which was a monumental push in the avalanche of revelations (pardon the pun) that brought about USSR’s swan song. Wormwood was not just for making absinthe. Wormwood was also for recognizing the Apocalypse because Chornobyl means ‘wormwood’ in Ukrainian. How’s that for fate. The symbolism of fear and doom was a bizarre life jacket for people trapped in an order where truth was not on the government menu. Today, similarly, many flee from the discomfort of uncertainty toward horoscopes, prophecies, and the good old Nostradamus, while others hang their self-righteous halos on the nail of a theological idea that coronavirus is divine punishment for humanity’s incalculable catalogue of sins. The moral lens of a pandemic is a well-worn-out sleeve  – from the Elizabethan fervor of John Donne and his peers, elegantly resting their metaphysical heft on skulls, candlelight, and other paraphernalia of memento mori, the disease is sin, and suffering is its cure. My grandparents, in those shrouded kitchen conversations of late eighties, talked about how Chornobyl was punishment for the crimes of communism. Today, we talk of how this virus is indictment of environmental destruction, neoliberalism, Pax Americana, and several other sins yet to be codified.

Magical Thinking

Cocaine in France, saltwater in China, cow dung and urine in India, volcanic ash in the Philippines – magic accompanies this pandemic much like it did the Black Death, and to think oneself intellectually above folk remedies and loopy superstitions is, at best, an arrogant habit of one who strayed a bit too far toward the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and its loquacious serpentine tenant. During perestroika, the nation of multicultural atheist engineers who sent the first human into space would congregate by the televisions every evening, holding jars of water next to their TV sets in hopes that a nerdy ‘spiritual healer’ Alan Chumak would ‘charge’ them for ‘positive energy.’ The longest game of chess between Reason and Superstition, locked in a white-knuckled stalemate, culminated with the cracking of the very chessboard it was played on, and not even the 1991 coup d’etat and the tank armada aimed at the clinical whiteness of the Russian White House could glue back the rebellious pieces.

The Invisible Enemy

Svetlana Aleksiyevich, in her magnum opus that so inspired the Chornobyl miniseries,  tells of a cognitive dissonance experienced when facing the invisible enemy, radiation: “They didn’t understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their garlic and cabbage when it looked like ordinary garlic and ordinary cabbage. The old women would cross themselves and say, “Boys, what is this – is it the end of the world?”  In those early days after the explosion, when cherry trees were adorning themselves in milky blossom, when young pioneers were ironing their red ties in anticipation of May Day parade, when it was still possible to lie to your exploited citizenry even though Swedish experts were already sounding the alarm, the ghost of danger aptly evaded the sketch artist’s gaze. Sure, we taped the window frame gaps to prevent this plutonium poltergeist from seeping through the pores of our apartment bloc monotony, but most of this was atavistic, like crossing yourself when you wake up in the middle of the night, sweaty and shattered from an instantly forgotten nightmare. Today, many refuse to wear face masks to shield against the coronavirus, still others don them more out of courtesy or civic duty, or for psychological solace. The invisible enemy has a new name but operates according to the same principle: to obfuscate, to confuse, to evade, to deny. Nihil novi sub sole.

Green Thumb

Divine geometry of the perfect English garden, with a layover on the perfect English lawn (not without the aid of a certain textile engineer who adapted a carpet cutter into world’s first lawn mower), has embraced the pandemic with enthusiasm for growing food from scraps and even foraging, peppering Western publications with advice such as “flowers you can eat, fiddleheads you can fry, weeds you can sautee.”  This conjures up a déjà vu of a typically Darwinian spring of the early-mid-nineties in the New East. No year-round greens. Hyperinflation. Sauerkraut preserves are running thin as we stare into capricious April that mercifully bestows upon our decidedly un-English parks a wild harvest of young nettles, so young they barely sting. Pick them, chop them up, throw them in a salad, boil them in a soup, add a solitary egg, boiled so hard the yolk is blue. A humble meal for the new beginnings. We watch as our new compatriots in the Sated West (or so we thought) excitedly dip their toes into the practice we thought was relegated to our embarrassing past. We feel equally smug (aha, gotcha!) and terrified (this wasn’t supposed to happen, not twice in one lifetime!), but nobody has yet outsmarted history. From food shortages to the panicked pantry padding, this is the work of a narrator who is running out of new stories, so much so that once-in-a-lifetime plot twists are ditching their bathroom breaks, and the seismograph needle of time dances ever faster.

The Isolation of Borders

For us post-Soviets, wielding a Western passport was arguably the pinnacle of success, for it symbolized Freedom in its greatest manifestation. A Soviet subject was, by nature, a prisoner. Going abroad was uncommonly rare and always accompanied by a series of humiliating bureaucratic dances, reference letters, and other proofs of moral fortitude. Homo Sovieticus had to be incorruptible, especially if headed beyond the womb of Warsaw Pact satellites and into the lair of alluring capitalist sirens. Even after the Empire fell, few of us second-rate Europeans could obtain a travel visa to explore the manicured cities of our Western brethren. Instead of euro-trips, we had staycations. A summer in granny’s village, a summer on hot city pavement or, for the lucky few, a summer in some seaside sanatorium with Charcot showers, gruel, and awkward discotheques. Over the last few years things have decidedly improved, as New Europeans, armed with Ryanair (and Schengen Zone membership for the lucky ones), have completed the coveted trips to most notable tourist shrines. With the pandemic shutting of the borders, the feeling is eerily familiar to the stifling claustrophobia of the Soviet era. There’s nowhere to run except toward the greenhouse on your dacha, if you have one. Time, untampered by discount flights and all-inclusive vacations, moves slovenly, like rising dough, and the nauseating feeling, somewhere in the innards of your reptilian brain, is whispering the scariest ‘what if’ for a post-Soviet survivor to face: what if they never reopen the borders?

The End?

We’ve been here before. “But that’s good,” some say, “that’s an advantage.” “Experience builds resilience,” echo others. Experience also births immeasurable fatigue. Fatigue at the thought of bread lines, rationing and coupons, contraband, barter trade, nepotism and backdoor deals, forced minimalism and economizing, isolation, superstition, fear, suspicion and, just an arm’s stretch away, savagery. “Hold up,” post-Soviets groan, “this wasn’t part of the deal, we have already fulfilled our quota of apocalyptic events per lifetime.” Somewhere, in the increasingly legitimized corners of the Internet, a fellow putinist troll will type, with palpable Schadenfreude, “this is your punishment for betraying the Motherland, a traitor always gets what he deserves.” Other politicos will nurse cultural tropes about the moral virtues of Confucianism fertilizing the antivirus exceptionalism of the New New East – this idea of a heavy-handed paternalistic state is also, quite obviously, something us post-Soviets are well-versed in.

At some point, perhaps after a second or a third wave, the hand wielding this pandemic’s scythe will tire and maybe, just maybe we will learn some sort of a global lesson with a modicum of coherence. For now, the mowing is deafening and the déjà vu’s appear like clockwork. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Image: a mural on a residential building in Kyiv. 

Simon Winder’s Germania: a scrumptious read for the Wanderlust-afflicted

Simon Winder’s Germania: a scrumptious read for the Wanderlust-afflicted

Sometime between traipsing along the Harz Mountains’ Grimm-like forest trails and tucking into a frothy beer at yet another charmingly nondescript rathskeller, Simon Winder casually mentions to his undoubtedly nerdy reader: “There could be an argument that this entire book should be understood to be in brackets.” Indeed, it takes a special sort of enthusiasm (for such a complicated country as Germany, no less!) and a special skill-set of hunting for precious trivia of insight in the crevasses of pompous historical brass to produce such a bursting beehive of architecture, history, folklore, Prussian militarism, Viennese nostalgia, cuisine, music, cabinets of curiosity, chocolate with ostriches, turrets, suspenders, and oompah.

Winder takes us across Germany, from the Roman times and until the morbid 1933 (although I do wish he’d continue until Goodbye Lenin! era or, if he’s feeling particularly ambitious, all the way to the Age of Merkel, arguably the other great leading female German since little Sophie Zerbst aka Catherine the Great). Much like his other fantastic book Danubia, Germania is a historical narrative knitted out of love and compassion, with generous attention paid to stuff from the arcane margins, from weirdo backwaters, from the cornucopia of Germany’s “doll’s handkerchief states,” ancient homes of Wagnerian heroes in bearskin, now reduced to comfy second-rate magnets for the middle-aged tourist whose poorly disguised modus operandi involves “sitting in groups around tables, eating astonishing amounts of sausage and cake, drinking massive glasses of lager and smoking furiously.” Stumbling in this gluttonous stupor one will inevitably walk into yet another painfully picturesque Schloss, at which point Winder will lovingly guide his reader up the winding staircase and into:

“… an attic room filled with wigs, pictures of basilisks, a giant model of the solar system, pickled geckoes, a little dog made out of seashells, wax heads, a dried cow-fish, a speculative engraving of the Ark of the Covenant, an opium pipe, shoes from around the world and, hanging from the rafters, the best and biggest stuffed crocodile ever, an ancient, gnarled Behemoth which, if it fell to the ground, would detonate in a great cloud of evil-smelling dust.”

From his ridiculously adorable glee over a nautilus-shaped drinking cup, to vivacious awe at the sight of a four hundred year old King of Sweden’s horse in an Ingolstadt museum, to a poetic moment on a Freising trek to the oldest brewery in the world where Winder feels like he’s walking through Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow, one can only feel pure envy at his unbridled passion. May we all feel as strongly about our hobbies, interests, and fancies, for it would truly be the most delicious sort of life to live – a joyous wanderer with a massive heart, a contemplative mind, and a stomach tough enough for this:

“I once went with some friends to a traditional Frankfurt restaurant which turned out to be a sort of a temple to German hard-core, with undrinkable apple-wine and guests greedily tucking into blocks of lard on black bread. On the disturbingly narrow menu, the only choices seemed to be between cuts of hot fatty  ham served with the notorious Frankfurt ‘green sauce’ (an old enemy – vinegared chopped herbs), yet another bratwurst of a kind that even I was getting bored with, or something described as a ‘slaughterhouse platter.’ In a spirit of fatalism I went for the platter. This turned out to be a central ridge of sauerkraut flanked by two skin canisters, sealed with metal surgical clips – the one filled with blendered liver, fat, and water, the other with blood and a kind of mealy material. Sticking a fork in one cause the canister to detumesce, jetting its content over the sauerkraut.” 

The man should do restaurant reviews.

Image: Nose Dance, by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550).

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

This was supposed to be a bit of light-as-Devonshire-cream reading, a fun refresher for a lazy weekend. Instead, it turned out to be a captivating page-turner about depression. On the surface, it’s a well worn out trope, standing on the shoulders of giants like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Bronte’s Madwoman in the Attic, all the way down to Sylvia Plath and her “domestic surreal.” A woefully unfulfilled housewife Anna Benz is tumbling down the nauseating rabbit hole of tepid, monotonous, safe, sated, comfortable middle-class life and all of its requisite trappings. There’s a picture-perfect house tucked in a village near Zurich. There’s the Swiss banker husband, reasonably kind, reasonably good-looking. There’s the kids, suitably sweet, and a statuesque mother-in-law hovering ever so diligently somewhere on the horizon peppered with school runs, play dates, and zoo excursions. Kinder, Küche, Kirche, living strong and proud in the land of scrupulous financiers, punctual trains, and premium chocolate.

The reader is never explained what is the poison festering under such picturesque a facade (there are some scant nods to childhood trauma, but not much to go on). We are only led to accept the facts – Anna Benz is a serial cheater, engaging in infidelity with a mechanical rigour of an athlete. She finds little comfort or solace in this walking on a razor’s edge. Instead, there’s only desperately delicious darkness, thick and viscous like licorice.

Leafing through these litanies of busy nothings, the reader just knows something is coming. A jolt. A bolt of lightning. A catharsis. The only thing left to unveil is whether this is going to be the kind of seminal event that gifts redemption, or the final plunge into the abyss.

“Grief is not simple sadness. Sadness is a feeling that wants nothing than to be sat with, held, and heard. Grief is a journey. It must be moved through. With a rucksack full of rocks, you hike through a black, pathless forest, brambles about your legs and wolf packs at your heels. 

The grief that never moves is called complicated grief. It doesn’t subside, you do not accept it, and it never – it never – goes to sleep. This is possessive grief. This is delusional grief. This is hysterical grief. Run if you will, this grief is faster. This is the grief that will chase you and beat you. 

This is the grief that will eat you.”

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Two themes run in powerful streams through the heart of this book – psychotherapy and German grammar. Outside home, her therapist and her German classes are just about the only nodes on an otherwise barren network of Anna’s activities. Rolling off the tongue of Anna’s therapist are nods to Jungian mono-myths and origins of pragmatic Swiss mentality, and to Freudian dream interpretation. Dawdling over her German homework, Anna feels the clinical solitude of these complicated language rules: “The disconnect between ‘general’ and ‘specific.’ The vast, vapid chasm that divides ‘this particular one’ from ‘some of them.'” This language evades Anna, contributing massively to her alienation in this picture-perfect country:

“She thought about Switzerland. Where a smile will give you away as an American. Where what isn’t taboo is de rigueur. Cold, efficient Switzerland. Where the women are comely and the men are well groomed and everyone wears a determined face. Switzerland. The roof of Europe. Glacier carved. Most beautiful where it is most uninhabitable.” 

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Anna, she says, “was a good wife, mostly.” Alas, depression doesn’t care much. And even in punctual Switzerland there are days when all trains run late well into the night…

Image: Nonchaloir, by John Singer Sargent.