Monday, March 02, 2009

The Invisible Majority


In her excellent review of the National Theatre's new production, 'Burnt By the Sun', Madam Miaow (aka Anna Chen) writes:

Appealing to middle-classes everywhere, BBTS shares a nostalgia for the good old days ven ve danced and played music and sang and the house was alive with culture and Chekovian loveliness before the philistines came and took it all away, pass the vodka. You’d think this would be a chance to have a look at the contrary needs of two contending classes, especially as we may be entering our own pre-revolutionary period if Britain suffers a depression, but no. The workers and their case are nowhere to be seen. You don’t have to agree with the Russian revolution, but at least give us an idea that you understand the dynamics of it.


When it comes to portraying life under communism, workers and their case are sadly nowhere to be seen.


The everyday experiences of life of the majority under communism- are it seems not of interest to theatre producers and film makers. The perspective is always that of the rich and those who lost out from the political changes.

We are always supposed to sympathise with wealthy émigrés from communist countries - like ‘The White Countess’ and not with the majority of ordinary, working class people whose lives were undoubtedly improved by communism.

As my wife Zsuzsanna wrote in her First Post piece on ‘The White Countess’
"No one will deny that crimes were committed under Communism. But ordinary people got rather more back from the "Reds", than they ever did when the film industry's beloved "Whites" ran the show".

In the dominant narrative there is no attempt to explain how communist regimes were all different- no, they were all as totalitarian as each other- all were unspeakably evil and repressive. It’s not allowed to point out that some communist regimes eg Kadar’s Hungary and Tito's Yugoslavia, were actually more liberal than many of the regimes the west was bankrolling in the Cold War in the name of ‘freedom‘.

The fact (not that we're allowed to say it too loudly in the 'free democratic' world we live in), is that many millions of people lived perfectly happy lives under communism, as Zsuzsanna pointed out in her Guardian article on growing up in Hungary in the 1970s and 80s.

Trouble is though, they were the ‘wrong’ kind of people.

26 comments:

jock mctrousers said...

O Zhuzhanna,
don't you cry for me,
I'm off to Alma Mata,
balalaika on my knee...
Oy!

jock mctrousers said...

Seriously though, Z's Guardian article is excellent, but I have a problem with the conclusion:

" Put simply, the communist regimes educated their people to such an extent that they developed the critical faculty to challenge, and eventually overthrew the system."

DID the people overthrow communism, or did the apparatchiks sell out? Perhaps if their critical faculty had been better developed, the people might have just opted to make the system more responsive - or was it just that when Russia faltered, the dam broke and the people had little say in it?
I wonder if many people in a well-educated society like Hungary could really believe that the 'Western lifestyle' which the propagandists portrayed was actually lived by many of the people? Look at these American movies and tv series where all the high school kids have their own cars, and phones, and ipods - did communist education not make clear that this is a deception?
Michael Parenti concludes his indispensable book 'Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism' with a rather downbeat ' aye well, ye ken noo!' style message' - they though they were going to have their choice of jobs and consumer services etc, but now the reality has hit home, and all their accumulated capital has been ripped off, and it's too late to go back... Maybe the Russian people could have believed this of Western capitalism ( and we know THEY didn't have any say in the changes), but could the Hungarians really have believed this?

The problem, I feel, is something else, something still with us today, and one that is faced by every small nation going against the international capitalist agenda, and every opposition movement, socialist party, trade union or whatever, within the capitalist world: to prevent the capitalists infiltrating their agents to divert, subvert, split etc it is necessary to have tight control from the top, but then if the top sells out the mass base can't easily replace them. It shouldn't be beyond human ingenuity to design an organisational approach to overcome this, but it's never discussed - all we get is dogmatic assertions of the value of previous models like 'democratic centralism', or vague near-meaningless greenisms like 'horizontalism'.

Anyway, I read M. Miaow's bit on 'Burnt by the Sun' and I definitely won't be going to see it, but I don't go to theatre much anyway. I liked MM's bit about it ' being 1936 and the memory of being invaded by 22 foreign armies not so long off' (roughly)- we need more of this kind of talk. Emigre Russian aristocrats are basically just a fashion shoot - louche in fur coats and cigarette holders. and it appeals to the deeply ingrained, forelock-tapping, 'lifestyle of the rich and famous' watching, servility in our culture. Imagine the White Potato Farmer' - wouldn't sell, would it?

Anonymous said...

I'd be like to read your wife's book about growing up under communism. Where is it available?

Zsuzsanna said...

Dear Jock,

Thank you very much!

Neil told me about your comments and I wanted to reply to you.

I quoted Gorbachev's line about education as I think he was right to mention education as being one of the greatest of the communist achievements.

There is no doubt that there was more serious debate about politics and society in Hungary than there was/is in more consumerist societies where the general educational level was/is not so high.

To that extent, educating the people to such a level could be seen as 'dangerous'. That's the point that Gorbachev wanted to make, contrasting the situation with the west, where people are deliberately not 'overeducated' in order for the elite to maintain their hold of power.

In answer to your question, I can only talk about Hungary.

There was no widespread feeling among ordinary people in 1989 that the regime had to be overthrown.

I can remember no one saying during that summer and autumn 'we have to go to Budapest to demonstrate against the government'. I personally know of no one who took part in these anti-government demonstrations.

We were very surprised with what happened.

Yes, some of the careerist apparatchiks (eg Horn Gyula) sold out. There was also external pressure and the work of foreign NGOs (Mr Soros in particular). In many ways it was very similar to the colour-coded 'revolutions' we saw in Yugoslavia in 2000 and Ukraine and so on later on.

What we know for sure now is that the political and economic changes of 1989 have proved disastrous for the majority of ordinary Hungarians. I am absolutely sure that if most people would turn the clock back to 1989, if they could.

There is tremendous nostalgia in Hungary today for the Kadar years.

Best wishes,

Zsuzsanna.

anonymous: Thank you for your interest. Neil will keep readers posted about the book when it comes out.

jock mctrousers said...

Zsuzsanna - thanks for the reply. I look forward to your book. I remember seeing something on the tv (can't remember if it was a news feature or a whole programme)a few years ago about the growth of a shanty town in a forest outside Budapest; all these people could no longer afford rent, and were building shacks out of scrap wood etc - it showed them in Winter when it was 10 below zero - educated, once middle-class people, not junkies. The miracle of the market! And you'll still find leftists (especially the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party) who celebrate the end of communism and call it freedom.

olching said...

Is there not an issue that BBTS isn't meant to be about workers during communism, but precisely about the purges? I have no doubt that the theatre adaptation is disastrous, but the film by Nikita Mikhalkov is marvellous; and moreover one can hardly accuse him of not being interested in the everyday lives of ordinary Russians.

Neil Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Clark said...

anonymous' enquiry re Zsuzsanna's book, was not genuine btw, he's our obsessive neo-con cyber stalker
who tried to send in a further two comments sneering at the fact that the book is not out yet.

aspetta said...

There was no widespread feeling among ordinary people in 1989 that the regime had to be overthrown.

But there certainly was in many other East European countries. Just to give one example, the Polish government had been a moral basket case ever since the its response to a genuine popular mass movement was to declare martial law. And without a moral compass, its collapse was inevitable.

It was arguably equally inevitable because the Poles never wanted socialism, at least not in any electorally significant numbers. It was imposed on them by the USSR at the end of World War II, and although Stalin and his successors were savvy enough to grant them a fair degree of autonomy (especially with regard to the Catholic Church), that in many ways emphasised just how much of an oxymoron "Polish socialism" was.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. Zsuzsanna could also have mentioned that in pre-Revolutionary Russia the Kulaks had this awful habit of hoarding grain and other produce to drive up prices, which caused famines as bad as anything experienced under the collectivisation programmes.

I grew up working class, and when I moved into academia I found out that what I had always suspected was true: the middle classes hate us, probably even more than the upper classes do. Even the 'history from the bottom up' movement preferred their own romanticised Warwick-School image of the working class as noble freedom-fighters dying to partake of the delights of middle-class culture and liberty. They like us only when they think we would like to be like them.

We could never be accepted for what we were because they were frightened of our potential strength in numbers and the ability of many of us to sacrifice our time and effort on behalf of one another. Sadly, those values are dying out as we become absorbed by the values of competitive individualism and economic liberalism. If there's one thing I hate about middle-class culture it's that they organise each damned thing into a game, a rule-bound competition between individuals, which nine times out of ten produces the wrong results.

- questionnaire

aspetta said...

Is there not an issue that BBTS isn't meant to be about workers during communism, but precisely about the purges? I have no doubt that the theatre adaptation is disastrous, but the film by Nikita Mikhalkov is marvellous; and moreover one can hardly accuse him of not being interested in the everyday lives of ordinary Russians.

It's ages since I last saw it, but I remember the film being specifically about how eminence achieved through loyalty to the regime offered no protection when the purges started.

And I also recall what I presumed was the deliberate irony of people who'd achieved considerable status under Stalin choosing to live lifestyles more suited to louche aristocrats than champions of the masses.

olching said...

Aspetta, yes, I think you're right, but in so doing the film avoids much reference to ordinary Russians or citizens of the Soviet Union. You should rewatch it; it's an excellent film.

Charlie Marks said...

It truly is a great taboo. Even people from former Communist countries are afraid to say it - but it is not an exculpation of crimes and abuses say that living standards were better than under capitalism.

No one voted for the restoration of capitalism: there were no referenda on handing public property over to multinational companies and a minority of party officials. In the same way that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, workers do not vote for their living conditions to get worse.

A terror exists in the minds of the new elites created in the past twenty years - that the economic crisis will wipe out their gains, that there will be uprisings against their rule.

jolies-couleurs said...

There is a perculiar historical sleight of hand at play here: the assumption that because aspects of material & cultural life for people improved under communisim: we need a revolution (with all the attendant violence, repression, curtailment of personal liberty). Yet material & cultural life for the working class improved substantially in many countries without a revolution, and by significantly greater margins, on a sustainable basis.

In 1905, being an agricultural labourer in Sweden and in Russia would have exposed you to a similar burden of poverty but who would you rather be in, say, 1975 (and with whose history)?

Reform (and economic development) was underway prior to the revolution and who is to say it would not have continued if the First World War had not intervened? Or, alternatively, would Russia have enjoyed a social democratic future and personal liberty had the February revolution not been derailed by the Bolshevik coup?

I do not know why we find ourselves admiring countries with such compromised political legacies when their are admirable alternatives (though none without difficulties). In other words, on the whole, I would prefer to be Swedish or Costa Rican.

Irina said...

Here is just a taste of how we, people who grew up in a socialist society, feel in this primitive capitalist world. I am not afraid to tell it. I am too fed up to listen to lies about our daily lives. I think that Zhuzhanna shouldn't be so apologetic for the fact that we were happy. Does the West ever apologies to anybody for its crimes? And, by the way, what is being committed for the last 20 years against our peoples, is a far more horrendous crime than any communist regime ever did to its population! I hope to live long enough to see the end of it, but if not, I will pass memories of that genuine, humane, meaningful life the vast majority of us lived in socialist times, to my children.


Refugee of perestroika


"I will go look around the world for a place where there are no injured feelings"

(A. Griboedov, "Woe from wit")


+ Morning sun speckles are pushing themselves through the shutters and curtains. On the grass plot in front of our house these speckles are jumping all over the first dandelions, bouncing from their golden plates. The grass is bright green. There is a strong smell of soil just recently dried up after the spring floods and of the apple tree blossoms. All around our little house it is raging/storming with blossoms: apple trees, pear trees, cherry trees, lilacs+

The most wonderful mornings are in the beginning of the summer when you don't have to go to school anymore. When you are waking up slowly and can allow yourself to lie in bed and to watch those sun speckles on the curtains, foretasting a long, seemingly endless day, hot and full of interesting events. But, unfortunately, for this you'll have to wait another few weeks. And in June there will be no apple and lilac blossoms anymore, the nightingales will stop singing and the dust will appear on the roads+

I always have a strange, wrenching feeling in May: it is so beautiful around that my heart begins to ache from it. On such days you really believe in miracles (and in a very different way than on New Year's eve!) - and you feel that it is not far away. It is such a waste to spend these marvellous days in fear of the school year's final tests or preparing for exams, but there is nothing you can do about that+ "A little bit more, just a little, the last battle is the most difficult one+"

May begins with May Day. On the eve of May Day they put new asphalt everywhere, closing up pot-holes in the roads, and it smells like hot tar. People also lime the tree trunks on the streets, and the very view of it makes your soul feel like celebrating.
(continues)

Irina said...

(continuation)
For some reason on the first of May it's usually good weather, but the next day is rainy and cold. May Day marks a sharp border between not yet fully real spring as in April (when the paths are dry one day, so that you can almost wear your summer shoes already, and the next day they again become one impassable mire, and you have to get out your demi-season boots again that you are already so fed up wearing) and the time when "the green noise walks and buzzes." It seems like in just one day the young leaves come out (how nice they smell!), along with the dandelions on the sides of the roads and, if you're lucky, you will be able to go to the parade wearing just a jumper, with no mackintosh.

The parade was a big event, full of joy - not just for the children, but for the adults as well. Whole families were going there, dressed up in their best clothes. I wasn't always taking part in the October parade, because of the weather, but if I stayed at home there was no bigger pleasure for me than to watch the celebrations and the parade on TV! But I have never missed one single May Day manifestation. From early morning on cheerful music, full of the ejoy of life, was playing in the streets through loud speakers. The streets were swept clean, the trees were whitewashed, and my grandfather and all our neighbours were hanging out red flags above our houses early in the morning. Nobody forced us to do that - even such a thought would make us laugh. Public transportation in town wasn't working in the morning, and people walked from all directions to their gathering places, accompanied by the sound of music, cheerful and lively.

We, the children, were impatiently waiting for when the adults would blow up holiday balloons for us that we would tie up to the spring tree branches on which new leaves had just opened.

The balloons and lemonade were both strongly connected to May Day and October Revolution day just as the New Year tree and mandarins were connected with New Year, the sweet cherries and the strawberries with June and the water melons with August. And it was so great!

Those who gobble in January those beautiful strawberries that taste like plastic from a Dutch greenhouse or grapes brought up from another hemisphere - in December, those who drink all year around Coca Cola by the litres every day and get their balloons as an addition to "Happy Meals" in McDonald's, will never understand that. We, children of the Soviet times, had what we needed to look forward to and what was needed to happy about when the time was right.

It was not about things, you see: things didn't have such an absolute and all-absorbing, all-consuming value for us. If somebody had a bicycle and somebody else didn't, we were all sharing it in the street, taking turns. If somebody was going to a theatre and somebody wasn't', you'd just buy an extra ticket and offer him or her to come with you. We wanted to share our joy - not to monopolize it, arrogantly boasting about it and pushing it under other people's noses, in order for them to become jealous.

Irina said...

(continuation)
Our parents could well afford to buy us plenty of lemonade and balloons at any time, but nobody did that, because they were meant to be for celebrating. Perhaps, the generation that "has chosen Pepsi" won't be able to understand this already. We were able to do what they are not able to - both to wait and to fully enjoy!
We were able to enjoy the waiting. The commercial "I want it all and I want it now" was not just completely alien to us, as something extraterrastrial. It was repulsive to us, it brought strong associations with the Bad Boy from Gaidar's "Malchish Kibalchish", sitting on a barrel with jam+. "Wait till New Year's night will come - and there will be the New Year's tree (not a month in advance and thrown up the very next day after holidays), "Blue Little Light" and "Melodies and rhythms of the foreign light music" . "Wait till the summer will come - and we'll have our own apples in the garden" (fresh and organic!) "Wait till October will come, we'll start stoking the stove and baking potatoes in it" (not in the microwave any moment of the year where, by the way, it just doesn't taste like it should!) "Wait till March will come, the snow begin to melt, and you can play with your paper boats in the streams" (not in
a bath or in a pool the whole year around).

Do you understand what I am taking about? Or maybe you already don't understand either?

But let's go back to our May the First. The brass bands were playing in the streets. People cheerfully greeted their acquaintances on the way to the gathering place of their column, congratulating them on the big day. Then waited impatiently until we would finally begin to walk in the procession. If we, the children, would get tired, they'd put us up at the back of the huge trolleys with the portraits of Politburo members. On the way we looked with great interest at the holiday posters and read what was written on the banners. People who had only moved to the city from villages recently were coming to the parade with their own accordions and dashingly danced and sang chastooshkas. Naturally, nobody forced them to do this either. The feeling of celebration was sincere and universal. Just as October Revolution day (my grandfather called it "Oktyabrskaya"), this was our holiday - neither Yeltsin's "day of independence" (from Gorbachev?) nor Putin's day of
"Life for the Tsar". It wasn't just "the day of spring and labour" either. We knew very well that it was international solidarity of the working people!
(continues)

Irina said...

(continues)
The closer we approached to the central platform next to the monument of Lenin, the louder the music and the holiday's slogans was getting. Those slogans were shouted by solemn voices through loud speakers. This solemnity was passed onto us. Our "hurray!" was expressing our joy - the joy of life, joy springing from this beautiful warm day, from the approaching summer, from knowing that we are here all together! And when finally we heard from the loudspeakers "Long live the workers of (such-and such) factory!", the above named workers who were passing the tribune were answering to that with such a loud "hurray!" that the road trembled from this sound+

After the parade people dispersed slowly back to their houses. The transport still did not work, and we walked without hurry directly on the rails.

At home my granny had pastry and other tasty stuff already prepared, from the previous evening. Granddad was getting ready to drink his little glass of vodka together with Uncle Tolik. (Two times per year, on May the 1st and on November the 7th, my granddad's niece would always visit us with her husband and son. He was older than me by 8 years and was my big idol and an example for imitation for me at that time. It was flattering for me that he always spoke and played with me on an equal basis, not as with a silly young child).

We always awaited them very much! My granddad was a war veteran, but he was not a Communist, had never been a Communist and was sufficiently cynical about life. Yet, he was the one who always pronounced communist holiday toasts and was the first shout "hurray!". We echoed him cheerfully.

And then+ then there were the fireworks in the evening! The sky was decorated by multiple coloured fires, and all of us, from the youngest ones to the oldest ones, poured out onto the street to watch it. There were cries of "hurray!" with each new volley - also completely sincere.

Those who do not understand this, they simply do not have any understanding of what it is to enjoy life, and "what this joy can be eaten with+." And please do not come up with any "you were happy with this because you didn't know anything else"!

What is it that we did not know that is worth knowing? Strip bars, bordellos, narcotics? Such periodicals as "Playboy"? Stock exchange speculations? "One-armed bandits"? Security guards in each store and each school? Such words as "racket" and "gang-war"? The way the shots and the explosions sound in real life? Some 64 positions from the "Kama Sutra"? Or the feeling of being unemployed? Or what homeless people - and street children! - look like? Or how it is possible to die only because you have no money to pay for an operation? Or perhaps holidays in the Maldives - while your former neighbour is digging for food in rubbish bins? Or what the job description for the position of sales manager for Herbalife is? Or some Western junk? Oh yeah, it is such great happiness, isn't it?!
(continues)

Irina said...

After the 1st of May the 9th came very quickly. It was my granddad's day. He never told us much about the war. Only when he was drinking on May the 9th, he'd say that god forbid for us to find out what kind of meat grinder it is + "

"It was a meat grinder. The human being is the most vicious animal on Earth." Grand-dad miraculously survived in combat in the environs of Leningrad. He was heavily wounded in the leg, and they carried him out from the battlefield. Splinters remained in his leg for the rest of his life. Granddad said that in bad weather he feels how the splinters in his leg move, and I looked at his foot, attempting to imagine this picture to myself. My imagination sketched something gray, alive - and evil.

We (my granddad included) did not feel any personal hatred towards the Germans as such. A German and a "Fritz" - these were two completely different things. True, for many years I still involuntary shrank with the sounds of the German language: it was automatically associated with the cries "halt!", "hende hoch" ,"Russische schwein" and with the sound of machine guns. But today I have exactly the same associations with the sounds of American English, with its loathsome "R" that sounds like the croaking of a frog. And any negative feelings towards the German language are completely gone. There is no time for them: today humanity has another main enemy+

+ They began to show films about the war on TV several days before Victory Day. When I was 5, the film "The Dawns Here Are Quiet +" came out.

I remember well how this film shocked me when we watched it for the first time. True, back then I did not cry after it: it's nowadays that I cry my heart out each time when I see this film. I am crying both over the fates of girl antiaircraft gunners and over the fate of my country+.But back then I simply woke up the next morning and constructed in our backyard, under the rowan tree, a memorial in honor of Rita, Zhenya, Lisa, Sonia and Galya. Complete with the wreath-laying ceremony. Then I went to my granddad and said: "Granddad, buy me a machine gun, please!"

My granddad was not surprised, but they were surprised in the toy store where we arrived - a small, shoebox-like house next to the drugstore, where they sold toys and office supplies: "A toy machine gun? To a girl?"

But they did not begin to argue. And already that afternoon I and my best friend Marussia who also, apparently, had seen the film, along with her brother Andryushka played the war in the thick brushwood of burdocks behind their vegetable plot. Burdocks were well above our heads. In their shadow it was semi-dark even during the sunniest summer day, and we imagined ourselves to be partisans in the forest. We laid out our paths there, arranged our "dugout". My new machine gun rattled exactly like a real one. Marussia was the sprightly Zhenka Komelkova, and one could hear along with the crack of the gun from the burdocks her loud singing of "He was telling me+". I was the lyrical Lisa Brichkina, but I did not drown in the swamp as she did - I managed to bring some help.

Probably from that very time I never wanted to be a weak romantic heroine, rescued by a noble hero: I myself wanted to rescue others and to be a hero!

In my dreams I was the courageous captain of a spaceship and saved the members of my crew from different dangers. The crew received as additional members those whom I liked among both real people and invented heroes.
(continues)

Irina said...

(continues)
There were Janosik, Zorro and the Black Tulip in it, and also the courageous Latvians, who were fighting for their independence from the Swedes (in the Latvian film "Servants of the Devil") and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya in my crew.

I imagined myself to be Zorro's companion-in-arms full-fledged, not like Hortensia from the French film with Alain Delon. When one of my mother's colleagues attempted to teach me an old everyday Jewish proverb that "when they give you something - take it, and when they beat you - run!" I was sincerely angered and tried to convince this man, whose head was already grey from age, that when they beat you it is necessary not to run away, but to beat them back in return! That's what my own granddad was like - not to run away from your enemies, but to beat them back in retaliation! Himself, he would not run even when there were no chances whatsoever for victory. It's about a man like him our women dream nowadays - "so that he would not run away"+.

+ At 6 PM on May the 9th there was always a minute of silence, and this solemn silence really grabbed your heart.

At 9 PM there were fireworks again....After the fireworks I climbed up to the roof of our house and sat there squatted, for a long time, looking into the infinite, endless expanse of the blossoming gardens.

An enormous spider, that spun a web on the pipe of our house, was my only companion on the roof. It was so enormous that I called it "spider-weaver-troglodyte" as in the famous book of Kir Bulychev about Alisa. The spider hung silently in his web casting a glance at me. And even though usually I am horribly afraid of spiders, for some reason I was not even a little bit afraid of this one. Probably, because it never attempted to crawl up to me. It sat by itself in its web and was occupied by its own direct business.

When the twilight descended, nightingales and frogs began their evening concert at once. There were considerably more frogs than nightingales, and they shamelessly muffled the latter. But there was even something especially, elusively attractive in that unlikely choir.

In the roof space under the roof granddad's sleepy pigeons cooed hushfully. They were his love and pride. I knew all their races (for some reason it always caused an immense embarrassment to my mom if I mentioned this knowledge at school). My favourite ones were those that my granddad called "lenistyi": the white ones with a brown tail and a little brown "hat" across their heads.

My real pet was one such pigeon nicknamed Wood Grouse. He got this nickname because of the large tumors that appeared on both of its eyes due to ageing and that made him look like a wood grouse.

Wood Grouse was not only a veteran among the pigeons, he was also unusually clever: when he already couldn't fly well, he was caught and carried off by another pigeon fancier. But within a week Wood Grouse+ came running back home to us up the fences! The pigeon fancier ran after Wood Grouse along the fences and was cursing, but there was nothing he could do. When Wood Grouse died, I buried him at the very same spot where I once erected my obelisk for the girls from "The Dawns Here Are Quiet+", and I made an epitaph for it with the words "Wood Grouse. 1960-1977"+
(continues)

Irina said...

(continues)
Pigeon thefts were the only sort of crimes which took place from time to time in our neighbourhood, and even they already began to decline: in my time, it only happened once to us, and that attempt was unsuccessful.

One night when I went out into the inner porch "for the night matters", I saw a thin hand stretched through the garret window. I returned to the house very quietly, woke granddad up, but, instead of gripping the thief by the hand (then it would have been impossible for him to escape, he'd be solidly caught on the roof, with his hand inside the house!), granddad yelled at him with full voice: "What the hell are you doing, you little sugar?!"

And the intruder ran away+."Sugar" and "flip" were the strongest words in my granddad's lexicon. Grandmother never cursed at all, so much so that instead of "devil" she would simply say "the black word".

And up to 15 years of age not only had I never heard obscene language, I did not even know that such words existed, and even less so what they meant. From my desk neighbour at school I caught the word "flip" - completely innocent, as it seemed me. But my mom explained to me that it is better not to use this word frequently. It didn't make any sense to me. "Why?" - I was puzzled.

"Because when people say this word, in reality they have in mind another word, a very bad one". Naturally, I wanted to learn what word it was. Mom brushed me off for a long time, but finally said that word to me - in a whisper, in the ear. It meant completely nothing to me, I had never and nowhere heard this word before. "And what does it mean? " - I innocently inquired. Mom turned red and tried to explain, but I understood very little. And after that incident I forgot about that word completely. I didn't have any desire to use it.

For all the more than 20 years that I lived in the Soviet Union, in our city with a population of half a million there were only two murders. A murder was something completely exceptional, extraordinary. Something from the movies. Something almost as extraterrestrial as unemployment, homelessness and hunger.

All these things existed somewhere else, on another planet that we could see in TV programs. Nobody had any firearms in their hands, and the very such thought seemed completely wild to us.

In the first murder case in my memory in our town a mentally ill mother of one of Marussia's classmates, Olya, killed her daughter. I was so shaken up by this, although I never knew the girl in question, that I dedicated a poem to her.

In the second case somebody stabbed a man behind the railway line next to our house (our house was the last one, right next to the railroad). It was in winter, and the murder victim was a married man, who was meeting his mistress in the forest. Apparently he was stabbed by someone familiar (her husband?), because the murderer did not touch the woman, he only said to her before running away: "Do not yell, you fool!"

I remember that at home I climbed under the table from fear, while the adults ran out into the street. They placed the injured man (he was still alive at that stage) on the snow under the light of a street lamp, and our men ran straight after the killer: yes, such were the times back then, that people did not remain aloof! But he escaped from them across the icy river to another shore.

But now+ do I have to tell you anything about it?! My classmate Anton, who worked after medical school in the morgue, could not take it anymore: "Each night they bring us 7-10 corpses, and all of them young people!" He finally reverted to religion and buried himself somewhere in a mud hut, away from the world. Well, what a life we have now...
(continues)

Irina said...

(continues)
When I was 6, mom brought me to Moscow; she managed to get tickets for the American ice show "Holiday on Ice". We returned home after that show with the night stop train.

The carriages were empty, I slept almost the entire way in my mom's lap. And then we walked home on foot across the city at 4 A.M.! The summer night was marvellous - warm and quiet. It was so fantastic, and nobody would get it into his head to fear anything or anyone. Sometimes we came across rare passers-by, courting couples or workers returning from the night shift, and no one would get the idea of attacking each other with some infamous purposes. It is only now that those "liberated" democratic apes sincerely do not understand: how is it possible to miss such a chance and not to rape or to rob a woman with a child, if they happened to be in your way alone in the evening? Why such a change? Well, as one film critic said completely seriously, "the transition took place in our society, from the Soviet mentality to the norm"!

Oh God, why can't I still fall asleep? Where does all this filth come from into my head? I have to think about something pleasant....About May the 9th, the Day of Victory, about the nightingales....About my evening sitting on the roof+ and how it gradually is getting cooler with the fall of twilight+ about the first mosquitos+ no, it is better not to think about the mosquitos! About the house+.Yes, our house! A small, wooden house, all in all just one room and a small kitchen, but it was so cozy, so much loved. In the entrance hall it is cool in the summer, the mice sometimes rustle in the store-room. In the summer granny cooks there on the oil stove, and in winter she cooks in the kitchen, in the big, warm, real Russian stove+.How tasty were the baked potatoes made in it, with a bit smoky aftertaste of ashes! It was so nice to warm up your back on granny's stove bench in winter+.

It is the sole place on the planet which I still consider to be my real home. When I was young I shied from the words "love for the native land" and "patriotism".

I thought that this was altogether only an official show-off. What a fool I was then! When I left, our house came to me in my dreams for several years in a row, almost each night. These were agonizing dreams. One of them was repeated especially frequently: how I was converted into a leaf of paper (do not ask me how: it was in a dream!), in order to get home, at least in an envelope, together with the letter+.I was waking up and crying, while nobody saw me..
(continues)

Irina said...

(continuation)
I am turning over to the other side, shutting my eyes and attempting to visualize it. They called me Corner Zhenya on the street - because our house stood at the corner of 2 streets. Two windows from the main street and three from the court, a shed, an apple-tree and pear tree garden, two apple trees in front of the house and a vegetable-plot next to it+.I remember each leaflet of sorrel from this vegetable-plot, by its taste. I remember the resinous smell of the swings, which granddad built for me from railroad sleepers, I remember their shrill squeak, by the sound of which my grandmother knew rightly that I was in the vegetable plot (the rope was attached to the rusted metallic "shoeings" that were suspended to an iron pipe instead of the cross-beam). I remember each little dent on the wooden seat of my swings, that I took away in the evening from the vegetable plot to the house, so that it wouldn't get soaked by the rain or the dew.

I remember how I swang almost higher than the cross-beam and how I jumped from the top point, flying through the air, across the vegetable plot, landing on the potato beds.

I remember how to braid diadems from dandelions. How they soil your clothing with their white juice, for which grandmother reproves you - because it is virtually impossible to wash it off. And how to correctly turn a leaf of burdock around the stem of nettle in order not to burn your hand, when you take part in a stinging nettle battle. The nettle was used in our war games, when we were heading for a bayonet assault+.I remember how on a hot day mom collected Colorado beetles into a jar on the vegetable plot - I even remember when they for the first time appeared in our country. I remember my little oak tree that I planted myself in the far end of the vegetable plot, when I was a first-grader. I planted it from a germinated acorn that I found in the park, when we were there with the class excursions.

Behind the vegetable plot there was a ditch where in spring melting water bubbled, and behind it there was a big mound, and on the mound there was a railroad. In my childhood I was terribly afraid of the steam locomotive whistles; I do not know why. Once I went out for a walk in winter, and a locomotive passing along the line suddenly began to whistle! With a howl and without looking in front of me I dived head first into a pile of snow+.When my relatives came out in response to my cry, they could only see the soles of my woollen boots sticking out from the snow pile! Tamarochka (may she rest in peace!) even made up this verse for me - "Train driver, do not whistle, do not wake our Zhenya up!" and that very much pleased me...
(continues)

Irina said...

(continuation)
But I was still afraid of trains for my entire life - because I could see, well, how enormous they are, if you stand next to them. The wheels alone were higher than you! B-r-r-r+.

When you live next to the railroad, you get accustomed to their noise. You even sleep with it, without noticing. In 1976, when there was a devastating earthquake in Rumania, its echoes reached us too, but in our house we did not even notice it: everything in our house shook regularly with quite the same force!

Once a girlfriend persuaded me to go sit on the railway line: because allegedly a gipsy camp had arrived to park on the other side of it, and we wanted to see it. I was 5, she was 4, and we were not afraid of trains then. I was certain that if a train came, we would have plenty of time to notice it and to get off the rails.

We sat on the rails squatting and we attempted to examine the camp behind the trees. At this time my mom was returning from work and from a distance, from the hill across the street ("the mountain" as we called it) she saw us+.According to her, she does not remember herself how she ran to us from so far! There was no train coming, but still, this was the only occasion in my life when she slapped me. It was very offending: she does actually really think that I would not see the train? But I never in my life again approached the railway line without an adult.

Behind the railway was a dump and a forest, not a normal Russian forest with birch trees and oaks, but an artificially planted one, from the Krushchev times (Nikita Sergeyevich did not like that the people arbitrarily planted potatoes for themselves on the river shores, and between the railway and the river was planted by a horrible tree - the American maple, which multiplies itself rapidly as a jungle).

Sometime in the past I used to walk there with granddad, then I stopped going there, but he went as before: for the firewood. You could buy firewood, of course, no problem. But this was cleaning the forest from that nasty tree as well! Behind the artificial forest there was our river - a slow, middle-broad, calm river, which a long time ago, even before my generation, was clean.

But in my time already only the most desperate ones would swim in it! In spring it flooded powerfully, and we (compulsory with an adult!) walked to the rail line to throw stones into the melting water. One time, when I was about three, the flood was so high that in our house the water was knee-deep. We all left to spend the night with Tamarochka, and therefore I experienced the whole proceeding as one big adventure! To my granddad it was, of course, not a laughing matter
(continues)

Irina said...

(continuation)
In the winter people were skiing behind the railway and going down on sleighs from the dam. In spring people planted potatoes on its slope, and it was very rare (only in barren years) that some stranger would steal some. But on a routine basis - everybody simply knew where his section was, and no other person would touch it. There were not even fences. No security guards, no barbed wire, no dogs. For the very first time in my life I saw security guards in stores 15 years ago, in the Antilles. Finally we now have "developed" enough to reach such "civilization"!

Oh, where I am carried away to again?...Like that I will never fall asleep! And I have to get up early for work+.

To wake up with a feeling of happiness. With the expectation of a miracle. That's what I am deprived of since there is no Soviet Union anymore. Do I really want too much from life? And for whom was it such hinderance that I and millions of other people like me were waking up with this quiet and pacified feeling of happiness?+

I will never wake up with a feeling of happiness again. The last few months were one continuous nightmare from a soap opera. I am only just getting over it now. But how can you get over something like this?

+ Spring, spring+ May+ after May the 9th it was not far already to the annual tests at school which, although I was a good student, always turned my stomach upside down. And at the end May it suddenly gets cold again - at the time when bird-cherry trees begin to flower+.I close my eyes strongly and I can almost feel their cloying and sweet smell. And the sleep, together with the aroma of bird-cherry, drawn by my imagination, finally gets hold of me..
(continues)

Irina said...

(the end)


But then the West comes back to me - in my dream...

I am waking up from my own scream, all in a cold sweat.

For some time I cannot understand, who am I? Where am I? What am I doing here? Where are my lawn and my sunbeam reflections that smell of the apple-tree blossom?

I am a Soviet person. Not simply Russian and definitely not a "citizen of the world" in the capitalist sense of it.

What happened? Where did, not just I, but all of us take the wrong turn? Why did history take "an alternative way"?

This isn't my life, but somebody else's. That's the problem. All of this is happening not with me, but with somebody else. And I soon will awake and will begin a normal, not plastic life.


Bread will smell of bread again and will get hard on the third day, as it is supposed to be, not to become moldy and moist. Roses will smell of roses again, and not of Dutch pesticides. Chocolate will taste like chocolate, not like some strange substsance coloured like a baby's poo. Young girls will dream about first love and about romantic strolls under the moon, not about how to win a contest of "Miss Topless". People will not hide their faces and turn away in fear at the sight of hooliganism and caddishness, pretending that they did not see anything. There will be no homeless children and no perverts hunting for them that are called by this fashionable in the West word "paedophile". A doctor will not ask you, when you call him about a very sick child whose life is hanging on the minutes: "And who will pay for this?"

This feeling is pursuing me here already for all these years. Just to hold on for a little longer and - and I will wake up and everything will return to normal. And I live all these years "on the trunks" - ready to go.

But I am waking up - and everything remains as it was last evening. Alien, not mine, deeply abnormal for me+.

Is it ridiculous or sad - that all the people on our planet are fighting for we already had? But we were so stupid to think that all of this wasn't the achievements of socialism, but some "general human progress", something that was so natural that nobody would ever be able to take it away from us. As with the air. But here people still think that it is all almost unreachable+.

I am turning to the other side and attempting to visualize boundless collective farm fields with blooming buckwheat, that smells like honey: free, not fenced by barbed wire, without boards with inscriptions of "Private property! Do not get in - you will get killed!"+ That very field that is now built up with cottages+.

Perhaps, I could sleep just a little bit longer? It is only just 4 AM, after all...