Moscow-based American writer and critic John Freedman has penned a tremendously powerful piece on his blog, Russian Culture in Landmarks. Writing a response to an article by Russian-born writer Martha Gessen in the New York Times, Freedman has encapsulated, in so many ways, the experience of those of us who, in this grim and ugly century, have “lost” both our countries — the America that gave us birth, and the Russia which, as with Rilke, became our “spiritual homeland” — to bizarre, brutal, murderous, belligerent, xenophobic, mean-spirited, wilfully ignorant perversions of themselves. In America, in Russia, and in so many other places around the world, what is best in human nature has indeed been “captured by aliens and stuffed into a trunk” — to borrow Freedman’s chillingly apt evocation of the poem by Alexander Timofeevsky.
Russia has been my intellectual, emotional and aesthetic raison d’etre for many, many decades. I have lived in Moscow for many decades. I’ve published a lot of books about Russian culture. I have been followed by the KGB and the FSB. I have been, essentially, kidnapped and interrogated. My phones and my apartments have been tapped. My car has been stolen (probably by the authorities), I have been recruited openly and otherwise to be a snitch. I have lost most of what little money I had in various defaults, financial crashes and monetary reforms. I have been the victim of vandalism and slur campaigns. And through it all I didn’t give a damn. Because my love for Russia and its culture was that strong. It was that strong. All that other crap was just that, crap. All I cared about, figuratively speaking, was Pushkin. Erdman. Dostoevsky. Tolstoy. Gogol. Kurochkin. Korkia. Klavdiev. Mukhina. Ginkas. Bakshi. Krymov. Yukhananov. It’s unfair to begin a list because the list must stop somewhere and the riches of Russian culture, the riches that have fed me for most of my adult life are such that the list could damn near be endless.
So when Masha Gessen writes about love, I know what she means. I have lived that love. And that love has held me strong through trying times. And then “the present” came. I’m going to say “the present” came in late 2010. It’s an arbitrary choice, but it’s more or less when Vladimir Putin truly began pushing his people over the edge and some of them began pushing back. What we have witnessed since then is something akin to the mayhem of a slaughterhouse gone mad. The arrests, the harassment of peaceful citizens, the murders of journalists and lawyers attempting to do their job, the bizarre machine of lawmaking that seeks to ban the human being from thinking at all (outlawing curse words, outlawing the questioning of official history, outlawing “propaganda of a gay lifestyle”), the use of hatred to inspire love of country, the vilification of anyone daring to have his or her own opinion, the use of lies, lies, lies, bold, brazen lies as an excuse for anything the state wishes to do …
But the bigger point is this – as this tsunami of insanity has inundated those of us living in Russia, the worst, the most horrible, the most untenable, the most inexcusable aspect of it all has been the way the vast majority of Russians have either turned a blind eye – “Oh, I don’t know anything about it!” – or embraced it …
I have been accused – by former friends and by utter strangers – of being a spy, of being here to undermine Russia, of being one of those from the West who has destroyed Russian values.
As this cacophony of nonsense and words built up, I found myself drifting farther and farther from my love until we lost touch with one another. This was followed by despair and utter confusion fueled by outrage and deep, gnawing sorrow. One cannot live like that. One either loves or one dies.
Reading Freedman’s words, I was thinking, Yes, the same thing has happened in America too: the wilful, bellicose blindness, and the widespread embracing of horrors that in my own lifetime would have once been considered monstrously “un-American,” not to mention evil and inhumane by any moral standard. And of course, I’d spent the last 13 years — since my first columns questioning and denouncing the militarist American empire in the aftermath of 9/11 — being called a traitor, a subverter out to destroy America and its sacred values. etc. Then, reading further, I saw that Freedman also recognized the similarities:
I am not setting myself up in opposition to [Gessen] at all … On the contrary, I share with her that love and loss of it. It’s traumatic, believe me. Moreover, Gessen is talking about losing her own native culture and a feeling for it. … I also want to say that I, as an American, can fully share Gessen’s disillusionment with her own native culture. I mean, let’s be honest, I am writing this as streets in many U.S. cities are burning once again, because … yes, again, a young black man or boy has been shot by a white policeman who gets off scot-free. This is to say nothing of my disgust over the complete collapse of the American political system, which now has been simplified to this: He with the most dollars wins (notice I don’t bother to add “she” because it’s always a “he”). I, too, like Masha Gessen gazing upon a home culture that nurtured her and then scorned her, know that horrible feeling of realizing that my home is no longer my home. The shock of realizing that your home has been lost while you were making tea, flirting with the neighbor, or scrubbing the toilet, has never been described better than by the great poet Alexander Timofeevsky, who wrote in his long, narrative poem Tram Car No. 37:
Russia was pilfered by aliens.
In five minutes they beamed her up,
Squashed her down, and stuck her in a trunk.
Meanwhile, as you and I were busy dreaming,
Somebody replaced her with a counterfeit.
These are grim times. Monstrous, ugly, implacable — and seemingly immovable — systems of power hold increasingly brutal sway over vast areas of the earth`; a monstrous weight crushing hope and light out of the future. But as Freedman writes, you either love, or die. One way Freedman combats our age’s despair and soul-death is through his blog, which focuses on the deepest currents of Russian culture, on what remains eternally true — worthy of love, expressing the always-provisional, eternally-failing but ever-striving desire to find and hold and nurture and enhance “the better angels of our nature.”
Although Freedman’s post is very personal, and deals mainly with Russia, it has an insight that reaches beyond the particulars of person and place and geopolitics. It calls us back from the pit of our despair, calls us back to the fight, the only fight that matters: the struggle to deepen the meaning of what it means to be human, in ourselves and in our relation to all others.