Category: Soviet culture

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. 

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

A long, pained decade of crudely administered austerity medicine after the global financial apocalypse of 2008 has left opulent scars on academia. Fewer students today choose to embark upon the study of humanities and, specifically, literature, than ever before in history of democratized access to education in the West. Countless pearls of our common literary heritage are lingering untasted and untested, all the while the increasingly dwindling number of PhDs, associate profs, fellows, and other knights of assorted regalia continue firing off essays, articles, and books that even fewer leaf through. It’s bleak and it sucks, and while the fine craft of belles lettres is ghosted by policy-makers who robotically herd the young’uns into science, tech, engineering, and maths, we’ve got Elif Batuman, her golden feather pen, and the kind of unwilting love of literature that makes one miss grad school with its all-nighters, caffeinated seminars, ulcers, halitosis, and overdue library books.

Elif Batuman takes us on a journey of her Russian literature studies, with some quintessentially academic self-congratulatory circle-jerking, plenty of beautifully phrased intertextual tapestry of Tolstoy, Babel, and Dostoyevsky, and a curious passeggiata through mythical Uzbekistan (birds, melons, and Timurids galore). In an inadvertent nod to the hilarious father of the campus novel genre David Lodge, much of all this literary analysis with the side of Derrida is steeped in a grad school cocktail of beer-cigarettes-infatuation. Like billiard balls, these academic pilgrims stumble into bits and morsels of knowledge, beautiful and fragile, holding it “like a Christmas ornament without a Christmas tree.” Not in vain:

“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” 

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

In order to find these answers, Batuman’s character first needs to answer the two fundamental Russian problems (“What is To Be Done?” and “Who Is To Blame?” of course). She also has to figure out, after all these linguistic, literary, and logistical acrobatics, What Is Russia? Sadly, she never does, her gaze always already corrupted by the kind of apologist lens Nabokov himself would get pissed about when confronting some Oxbridge Russophiles who waxed poetic over Bolshevism. It’s all fun and games when your character dreams about playing tennis against Tolstoy, but when it comes to truly unpacking the toxic sediment of imperialism, colonialism, and a plethora of other -isms of the Russian Empire/USSR, The Possessed bashfully skirts around the hard stuff, and traipses away. Maybe next time. As such, the original question still stands very much open, even after some very sincere epistemological exercises:

“I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory.”

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

Words and ideas have no memory? The entire field of etymology (along with millions of post-colonial peoples of this planet) beg to differ. One shouldn’t fault Batuman’s character too harshly though. She is, after all, a student (and a bloody good one), passing the flaming torch to the next generation of curious spirits with appetite for learning and love of beauty. And that’s the point.

Image: Portrait of Tolstoy and Wife by Ilya Repin

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine: Soviet woes, immigrant angst, and women of steel

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine: Soviet woes, immigrant angst, and women of steel

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, by the immensely talented and shockingly young Alina Brodsky, is just terrifying. And hilarious. And so outrageously similar to my own Soviet PTSD childhood that if I am ever fortunate enough to meet the author I’ll be sure to give her a suffocating hug and charm her into sharing a steaming hot cauldron of plov (look it up – it’s delicious, all that lamb and raisins and rice, mmm).

So what do we have in these 200-odd pages of tragicomedy… At the center of it all, in the middle of perestroika, the rationing and the bread lines, amid the collapse of cosmopolitan Soviet identity and a still birth of the old-new Tartar ethos, in the very throbbing nucleus of all this apocalyptic soup, there stands a Woman. In fishnet stockings and red lipstick. A narcissist, a stakhanovite, a gold-digger, an abusive mother and a loving grandmother, a shitty wife and a strangely charismatic lover, a master puppeteer and a savoury sex object with special popularity among  pasty-white and sometimes rich Westerners. Her ability to bombshell the lives of everyone around her is phenomenal, just like the depth of her sadomasocistic love for the very people she poisons, like a slowly seeping nuclear reactor. She is the penultimate Cronus, the mythical Greek god who devours his children out of fear and jealousy. A Cannibal-Mother that charges some hefty interest for giving you life, so hefty, in fact, that she chooses to repossess her selfless gift while her offspring writhes in pain and gasps for air. Freud would inevitably roll his eyes and sigh predictably.

She survives through all historical cataclysms that befall her generations (from being a post-war orphan to witnessing the death of the Soviet empire) with the grace of a swan and the evolutionary prowess of a cockroach. There’s a popular saying that characterizes the enduring strength and kamikaze courage of a Russian woman: she can “stop a galloping horse and run into a burning house.” Our main heroine is capable of that and more: bribery and extortion, homemade abortions, making preserves, contraband, forcing men to marry one’s daughter, immigration, Yiddish food, Tartar food, Russian food, breaking up marriages, driving German cars, flirting with ski instructors, and living, always living through it all with clenched fists and snapping teeth, always pushing through obstacles in classically Darwinian fashion.

Nothing is off-limits in this book, because nothing is off-limits in real life. The worst thing that can happen will happen, and no amount of good graces with God, Karl Marx, or Uncle Sam will ward off the corrosive stench of failure. Our characters, oscillating between Tartar and Soviet identities, pilgriming to the better side of the Berlin Wall in search of McDonald’s and bubble gum, all come off of the totalitarian conveyor belt with a potent “tough life” vaccine. Will it be strong enough to preserve them against the infections of the Western kind? Do you get a rationing card for your very own Happily Ever After once you cross that international border? Might as well spit three times over your left shoulder for good luck because, as the Russians say, “free cheese can be found only in mousetraps.”

Now, I may have painted a bleak landscape, but don’t get me wrong, the stuffing is, nevertheless, pure hilarity. We are treated to hours of laugh-out-loud humour, inappropriate, disturbing, awkward, and downright messed up. Don’t laugh too hard though for, as the darling Russians caution, “laughter without reason is a sign of imbecility.” Keep it dignified, keep it on the DL.

Image: Candidate for the beauty contest. Riga, 1988.